by Brian Griffith.
As my wife’s Iranian culture is commonly reputed to be dour and puritanically moralistic, I was glad to learn that this country has long provided perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic audience for fine erotic poetry. And although Muslim clerics typically insist that this vast poetic literature concerns love for God rather than sexual love, it would be a mistake to think that the poets have made any such distinction.
As a teenage girl, the famous author Azar Nafisi found it inspiring that her nation’s greatest literary epic, the Shahnameh (written in the 900s CE), offered a host of brazenly beautiful love stories, with numerous boldly romantic female heroes. For example, we read that “King Ardavan possessed a slave whose face, lit up the palace with bewitching grace.” This slave woman, named Golnar, observed people in the courtyard from the palace roof, watched a young man named Ardeshir, and determined to have his love:
That night toward dawn, she knotted a rope and let it down from the battlements. Boldly invoking God’s grace as she did so, she made her way to the ground. Wearing her jewels and scented with musk, she appeared before Ardeshir; he raised his head from his brocade pillow, emerging from sleep, and took her in his arms. The young man asked, “Where have you come from, to delight my sorrow-stricken heart in this way?” She answered “I am a slave, and I live to see you alone in all the world.”
We might assume that traditional society would condemn this wanton girl. But her boldness is applauded, both within the story, and by generation after generation of readers for over 1,000 years.
In another episode, Princess Rudabeh publicly declares her love for a strange white-haired hero named Zal, who was abandoned in the wilderness as an infant and raised by a giant magical bird. The servants admonish her strange desire: “Have you no shame? … Have you considered what this would mean for your father?” Evidently, she feels it is none of his business. When Zal appears before the castle, Rudabeh greets him from her window and offers to let down her hair for him to climb up. Zal is honored, but relies instead on his rope lasso to climb the walls into her arms. They embrace, kiss, and drink wine.
In the great romantic epic “Vis and Ramin,” which was written by Fakhraddin Gorgani about 1005 CE, the noblewoman Vis is trapped in a passionless arranged marriage, and finds herself drawn to her husband’s younger brother, Ramin. Vis’s nurse discretely counsels her that in some cases, adultery is the wisest course of action. It would be wrong, the nurse advises, for Vis to deny herself this pleasure:
You’ve never truly slept with any man.
You’ve had no joy of men, you’ve never known
a man who you could really call your own.
What use is beauty if it doesn’t bless
your life with pleasure and love’s happiness?
You’re innocent, you’re in the dark about it,
you don’t know how forlorn life is without it.
Women were made for men, dear Vis, and you
are not exempt whatever you might do.
Vis seems not to understand, so the nurse goes on:
God made us so that nothing’s lovelier than
what we women feel when with a man.
And you don’t know how vehemently sweet
the pleasure is when men and women meet;
If you make love just once, I know that then
you won’t hold back from doing so again.
Perhaps the most often-repeated love story in Persian history is the tale of Shirin and Khosrow, which is loosely based on the troubled relationship of Emperor Khosrow Parvez II (590–628 CE) and his concubine Shirin, a Christian Armenian princess. Actually though, the most dramatic part of the legend concerns Shirin’s passion for a rival lover, the army commander Farhad. When the emperor learns of Shirin’s love for this man, he confronts Farhad, and a classic verbal duel ensues, with each man claiming a superior right to Shirin’s heart. Khosrow brandishes his authority as king, insisting on the binding nature of his contract, as if legality of ownership was the issue at hand. Farhad insists that his claim is infinitely greater, as it is based on a love so vast that it annihilates the ego.
As Farhad refuses all appeals to renounce his love, the king lays a trap. He proposes that he will give up his claim to Shirin if Farhad succeeds in a mighty task. He must cut a road through a mountain, tunneling through the rock. The emperor assumes that his rival will never complete this task in a lifetime, but Farhad embarks on it eagerly. So great is his passion that he slices through the stone at an amazing pace. Fearing that Farhad will actually succeed, the emperor concocts another deception, sending word that, unfortunately, Shirin has died. And at this news, the smitten Farhad falls from the cliffs and dies.
Perhaps to console Shirin, the emperor built a church to honor her Christian faith, reportedly the Kuh Sar Church in Urmia. This church is roughly 1,400 years old, and stands as an architectural gem to this day. Then in the 1180s, the great Nezami Ganjavi turned the legend of Shirin and Khosrow into a poetic classic, which has since been known in almost every home. Sufi mystics taught that Shirin’s tale was a revelation of divine love. The Armenian bishop Sebeo claimed Shirin as a Christian saint. The opera star Moluk Zarrabi (1910–1999) performed as Shirin, making one of Iran’s first recording hits from a scene in which Shirin sings glorious praise, not for her lover, but for herself. Film versions of the tale were produced in 1926, 1931, 1945, 1956, and 1975. In 2012, the Bollywood version appeared. In 2008, under the Islamic Republic, the great filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami produced a version showing only the faces of women watching the screen as the story unfolds. And despite the epic’s almost universal appeal, or because of it, in 2011 the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance halted printing on the eighth modern edition of the great poem, due to concern over Shirin’s indecency in showing affection.
This little survey barely skims the surface of such literature. Other enormously popular medieval epics include “Layla and Majnun,” or “Bijan and Manijeh.” In all of these classics, the heroines show a critical, negative attitude toward conventional society, and they value their lovers for being different. As Azar Nafisi puts it, they practice “subversive relationship.”
This canon of high romance is authored partly by pre-modern women. We have princess Rabe’e Ghazdari, of the Abbasid dynasty (ca. 900 CE), who dared to love a slave, was punished for the sake of “honor” by having her wrists slashed, and died writing love poems with her own blood, thereby becoming the first literate female poet in Iranian history. Then we have close to the greatest female literary hero of all time, Shahrzad, a woman who reportedly saves herself from a murderous king through the astoundingly creative feat of making up an enchanting story every day for a “Thousand and One Nights.” Of this legend, Azar Nafisi explains, “The heroine … must rely on ‘woman’s guile’ to survive this madman’s clutches—she turns his nights with her into an unfolding drama, spinning a spell of fantasy that finally restores his sanity.”
Maybe that is the ultimate function of all these legends. Or maybe the chief function is simply for Iranian women to sing their own praise, as was proclaimed in the Letter of Tansar, a sixth-century piece of Persian patriotic propaganda: “Our land [Persia] lies in the midst of other lands, and our people are the most noble and illustrious of beings.”