The connection between literature and politics is always a difficult one. Treating politics as if it were literature, politicizing literary texts, are strategies that people use to advance agendas that are fundamentally political, and often not progressive/egalitarian, in nature. Especially in connection with what is going on in Iran right now, when people are really dying and when the Iranian government is doing everything it can to isolate the entire nation of Iran so that it (the government) can restore what it believes should be the (clearly repressive) order of things, to talk about life imitating art, to read what is going on in Iran through the lens of Iran’s own literature, has felt to me like a self-indulgent and gratuitous intellectual exercise. Yet literature, and in this case specifically poetry, also helps people give meaning to their lives; it can inspire, and it can connect us to something larger than ourselves in ways that political feelings, not matter how strongly felt and/or acted upon, often cannot. And so, precisely because people are really dying in Iran – because I really do believe, along with William Carlos Williams, that people die every day for lack of what is found in poetry – and precisely because there is so much at stake over there, and because Iran is a culture that loves and reveres its poets, I have decided to write. Perhaps connecting the unrest in Iran not only to the specific history of the Islamic Republic and the revolution out of which that republic was born – which most analysts, reasonably, are focusing on – but also to the Iranian culture that is larger and older than both the Republic and Islam, will make a difference. What that difference might be, and to whom, I have no way of knowing, but I just don’t think it is mere coincidence that the current unrest finds echoes in a story Iran has been telling itself about itself for centuries: the tale of Kaveh and Zahhak from the poem commonly referred to as Iran’s national epic, Shahnameh (Book, or Epic, of the Kings), part of which I am in the process of translating. I will include my translation at the end of this post.
Written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the 10th century, Shahnameh tells the story of the Iranian nation by telling the story of its kings, from the nation’s mythical beginnings right up to the moment of the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE. One of the themes that runs through the poem is the question of how to respond to an unjust ruler. The tale of Zahhak and Kaveh is one of the narratives that explores this theme. First, though, some backstory: Zahhak is Shahnameh’s first evil king. Son of an Arab monarch named Merdas, Zahhak is seduced by Eblis (the devil in these stories) into killing his father to assume the throne, and he is eventually cursed by Eblis with a serpent growing out of each shoulder, to which he must feed one human brain per night. In other words, he must kill two people a day in order to keep the serpents fed. so, as you might imagine, Zahhak does not turn out to be a benevolent ruler, and when he conquers Iran – whose previous king, Jamshid, made himself vulnerable when he declared himself a god and so lost the “real” god’s favor – Zahhak’s cruelty kicks into high gear.
One night, Zahhak has a dream that disturbs him. When he asks his advisors to interpret it, they say that the dream foretells his destruction by a man named Feraydoun, who will kill him and assume the throne. Zahhak goes on a killing rampage trying to hunt Feraydoun down, and though he is unsuccessful, he does manage to kill Feraydoun’s father. Finally, out of a kind of desperation – and here is where, if you have not seen parallels to what is going on in Iran until now, the parallels start to get obvious – Zahhak summons the prince of each province in his kingdom and asks them to sign their names to a proclamation asserting that he, as their leader, has only ever been concerned with justice, righteousness and spoken only the truth. He wants this public acknowledgment so that he can raise an army with which to defeat the nemesis who is coming to challenge him. The heads of the provinces, knowing that their leader will kill them if they refuse to sign the proclamation, sign. It is at this point that Kaveh walks in, and from here I am going to let the poem speak for itself, because I think the parallels to today’s situation – a ruler afraid he will lose power, a rigged statement of approval, a (failed) attempt to appease the citizenry and opposition marches – while not exact, need no further explanation. (The poem will appear in an upcoming issue of The Dirty Goat Magazine.)
No One Knows the Secret Heaven Holds
Fear of Feraydoun fixed itself
firmly in Zahhak’s head, harrowing
his thoughts, bending his back beneath
its weight, wrenching his words from everything
but the fate foretold by Zirak. Zahhak
sat on his ivory throne, his turquoise
crown upon his royal brow,
and he called to his court from throughout his kingdom,
the prince of each province to promise him loyalty.
“You are wise men,” he said to them,
“and you’ve heard the world hides from me
the enemy in whose hands my fate waits.
He may appear unworthy of fearing,
but I won’t assume he’s weak. I want,
therefore, to raise the fiercest army,
my demons marching beside your men,
for me to lead into battle against him.
Approve, therefore, this proclamation. Confirm
that as your commander I’ve sown nothing
but seeds of righteousness and spoken only truth.
Sign here so all can see
pursuit of justice is my sole concern.”
Trembling with fear, the assembled men,
knowing they couldn’t say no and live,
signed their names to Zahhak’s lies,
when a man demanding justice marched
into the palace. The princes made a place
for him to sit. “At whose hands,”
the serpent king asked, “have you suffered
so much that you dare to seek me out?”
Stunned to be hearing the king himself,
hitting his head with his fists, the man
called out, “I am Kaveh! I have come,
your highness, to protest injustice thrust
to the hilt like a knife many times
into my heart. If what I’ve heard here
is true, if you pursue only justice,
grant me relief from this great grief
rooted in my soul. Show the righteousness
you claim as yours, and raise your good name
to the heavens! The hurt blackening
my days, your majesty, comes mostly
from you! You say you will not stand
for the smallest offense committed against me,
but you never hesitate to harm my sons.
Of my eighteen young ones only one
is left. Allow him to live, I beg you.
Keep my soul, my king, from the cruel
and endless torture I would endure
if you feed your serpents his flesh. Tell me,
what have I done to deserve his death?!
“And if I’m innocent, don’t build my guilt
from false accusations. This misfortune fills
my mind with misery, murders the hope
children should be when you reach old age!
Injustice has a middle and a limit,
and so it has logic. Charge me, and judge me,
if you have charges to bring, or don’t butcher my child!
I’m a simple blacksmith, innocent
of any wrong against you, yet you,
breathing fire, burn my life!
A dragon-king is still a king,
obliged to provide justice. Sire,
your kingdom stretches across the seven climes.
Why should this fate fall here to me?
Explain yourself! Plead your case
before us now. Bring some sense
to why my son, from among
all your subjects, must satisfy those serpents
with his brains. Submit your words to the world
and let the world judge your worth!”
Zahhak sat back, gasping,
wordless, eyes wide with wonder,
fearing Kaveh’s furious courage.
Scheming to win the blacksmith’s support,
he ordered the boy restored to his father,
lavished Kaveh with kindness,
and commanded him to commit his name
to the praise the declaration proclaimed.
The blacksmith read from beginning to end
and turned to the elders assembled there:
“You’ve made yourselves this Devil’s minions,
divorced in your hearts from heaven! It’s hell
you look to now, bowing to this beast.”
He rose, enraged, to his full height,
tore the proclamation to pieces
he stomped into the ground, then stormed
with his son out into the street.
The gathered nobles sought to soothe
what they assumed was Zahhak’s wounded
pride, “O great and powerful prince
of princes! King of kings! The cool
breeze dares not blow above you
on the day you muster your men for battle.
Yet this foul-mouthed Kaveh calls you out,
as if his status equaled to yours,
grinding our covenant into the ground,
rejecting your right as ruler
to his obedient submission. Swollen with scorn,
his head and heart fury-filled,
he’s gone to forge with Feraydoun
an alliance against you. We won’t accept this!”
“Listen to this,” Zahhak insisted.
“See how strange things sometimes are:
As soon as Kaveh spoke, there seemed
to rise between us a mountain of iron,
and when he hit his head with his hand,
the apparition shattered, foreshadowing
what only time will tell. No one
knows the secrets Heaven holds.”