Reading Ferdowsi in Tehran

The picture depicts a page from The Book of Kings, known in Farsi as Shahnameh, written by the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi 400 years ago. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The picture depicts a page from The Book of Kings, known in Farsi as Shahnameh, written by the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi 400 years ago. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite numerous changes over the years, classical texts have remained the basis for Persian literature studies in Iranian schools, from the old madrasas to the present day. This has led to endless heated debates over what to include and what to leave out of the school syllabus.

Like other countries, children in Iran do not read as much as they should, and so for many young people school is their first exposure to influential classical works. Consequently, for years Persian literature studies have drawn great interest from government figures, often resulting in political, religious and cultural factors being the dominant force behind any changes made to the school curriculum.

Iran’s greatest and most controversial poet

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, numerous restrictions have been placed on the inclusion of a variety of Persian poets’ and writers’ works in Iranian schoolbooks. Of all these classical poets, the most controversial is perhaps Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi, whose thousand-year-old epic poem, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, recounts the legends of Iran’s mythical early kings before moving into the historical period up to the end of the pre-Islamic era. The poem, which touches on themes such as family values, friendship and love, has sparked debates about nationalism and Iranian identity since the days of the Shah. The epic studies the basis for the rise and fall of individuals and nations, and the outward manifestation of good and evil. Many disagree about Ferdowsi’s presentation in his poem of the role and validity of a king.

Ayatollah Morteza Motahari is one of the most important influences on the Islamic Republic’s ideology, and his view of Ferdowsi’s work is the most indicative of the poet’s position in Iranian society: At times, Motahari seems to feel that because Ferdowsi’s works do not reference Islam, they are therefore incompatible with Islam, while at other times he is able to reconcile the poet’s work with the religion.

But the row over the poet goes beyond Islamic principles to the very nature of Iran, its culture and its language. Mir Jalaludin Kazazi, a preeminent professor of Persian language and literature at Tehran University, commented: “If Ferdowsi had not carried on writing in one of our [nation’s] darkest hours, then today we would not call ourselves Iranian, and we would not be speaking Persian.” In contrast, in his book, Ayatollah Motahari argues that the Persian language does not belong to any one individual and is a language “for all.”

Ferdowsi also manages to stir strong emotions among modern poets. Ahmad Shamlou, one of the greatest Iranian poets of the modern age, remarked that “the propagandists of the last regime held the Shahnameh up as a nationalist epic . . . but the character of our country is not reflected in the word ‘Shah’ [King].”

On occasion, the public feeling against Ferdowsi has made it almost impossible to celebrate his work. Two years ago the largest wall mural in Iran was due to be unveiled in Mashhad, and it depicted scenes from the Shahnameh. On the night before the unveiling, the wall was painted over on the orders of officials. And, while various television series in Iran have depicted Amir Kabir, Mirza Kochakkhan, Ibn Sina and other figures from Iranian history, there has never been a television program about either Ferdowsi or the characters of the Shahnameh.

For more than three decades, arguments have raged over the contents of Iran’s literature curriculum, but one policy that has been constant is the exclusion of all works that oppose the revolution. Mahiddin Behram Mohammadian, chairman of the Research and Educational Planning Organization—the Education Ministry body that sets the national curriculum—has stated that “there is no place in our textbooks for people who do not support the revolution.”

Naturally, there have been complaints about this policy of exclusion. Author and poet Fereydoun Amouzadeh Khalili has argued that “not all Iranian literature is revolutionary. You could get rid all our non-revolutionary literature, but even then you could not get rid of Ferdowsi. His writing is by its very nature revolutionary. What is Iranian–Islamic culture if not for Ferdowsi, Saadi and Hafez [two other important classical Iranian poets]?”

Azizullah Javini, who is an expert on classical Persian literature, goes even further. He suggests that it would be in the Islamic Republic’s best interests to spread Ferdowsi’s work as far and wide as possible, and argues that it should be taught in seminaries and even medical schools.

The Shahnameh in textbooks

Hassan Zolfaghari, a Persian literature professor at the Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran and one writer of Iranian school textbooks, says: “Of course, there are red lines when it comes to education, but we try to be as inclusive as possible.” Like many aspects of Iran’s education system it is not entirely clear what these red lines are, but it certainly seems that the influence of Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith are keenly felt.

This is all more complex and difficult for modern works. Author Davood Ghaffarzadegan says that the rules are more relaxed for the works of certain ancient poets like Hafez and Jalal Al-Din Rumi. He says that if those men were contemporary poets, the authorities would not include their works in school textbooks.

In addition to government-imposed red lines, the lack of consultation with experts when setting the curriculum has led some commentators to express concern that students are becoming detached from their cultural heritage. The writer Mohammad Reza Yousefi complains that “our children are completely unaware of their own culture but recognize Western characters and icons. It is important that students know about world literature, but every country in the world has its own heritage. In our country, our students have no idea who Rostom [a character from the Shahnameh] is, but they all know Zorro. The Shahnameh is one of the world’s great epics, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, and yet there is little mention of it in our curriculum. The result of all this is that we have a generation that is totally ignorant of its own culture.”

He also comments on the way parts of classical works are rewritten to make the language more accessible before they are included in the school curriculum. Having himself rewritten sections of the Shahnameh, he points out there are many issues with the practice—not least of all, the fact that some of these rewrites are carried out by non-professional writers, meaning that the results are often badly structured and generally of poor quality.

A further problem is that the current curriculum does not make classic works interesting for students. The poet Mustafa Mohadesi Khorasani argues that the “link between the new generation and our literary history is being broken. In order for us to instill our artistic and literary treasure trove in the subconscious of the next generation, we have to make it attractive. Just taking a section of the Shahnameh and then leaving it with a teacher who may or may not be able to inspire his class is not a strategy.”

In fact, the writer Javad Jazini went so far as to say that “the people involved in choosing what books to include in the curriculum do not understand children or adolescents. Even the teachers themselves are unable to teach some of the material.”

But people believe the benefits of teaching children the Shahnameh go beyond literature. They say the work deals with issues still relevant today and that children can learn far more from the characters in the epic poem than they can from other works.

Mohammed Husseini, who also used to rewrite Shahnameh stories for children, believes that its characters, such as Sohrab, Rostom and Esfandiyar, demonstrate good qualities, in contrast to the selfish hypocrisy that bombards young people today in other cultural pursuits.

Ultimately, whatever the reasons for cutting literature such as the Shahnameh from textbooks, and cutting the next generation off from their cultural legacy, it is young people, and not the long-gone authors, who will lose out.

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