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Poetics and Projection: Nationalist and Neo-orientalist interpretations of Iran's national epic the Shahnameh

Poetics and Projection: Nationalist and Neo-orientalist interpretations of Iran's national epic the Shahnameh

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Mahmoud Omidsalar, guest speaker for the Hamid & Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies spoke at Stanford on October 17, 2007. Below you will find his talk entitled Poetics and Projection: Nationalist and Neo-orientalist interpretations of Iran's national epic the Shahnameh.

http://www.ferdowsi1000.com
Mahmoud Omidsalar, guest speaker for the Hamid & Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies spoke at Stanford on October 17, 2007. Below you will find his talk entitled Poetics and Projection: Nationalist and Neo-orientalist interpretations of Iran's national epic the Shahnameh.

http://www.ferdowsi1000.com

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Published by: Hooman on Mar 30, 2009
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Omidsalar’s Lecture October 17, 2007
1
Poetics and Projection: Nationalist and Neo-Orientalist Interpretations of Iran’s National Epic, The Shahnameh
 Cultural historians fashion fragments of the past into a coherent narrativeby means of inference and imagination. This narrative, however, is not formed ina vacuum. Consciously or unconsciously, those of us who are engaged in thisenterprise impose something of ourselves upon what we study. This isunderstandable and human but it becomes problematic when we impose toomuch of “who” we are upon “what” we study, and drawing on our experience of the familiar, slip into unjustifiable analogical reasoning by seeing similarities andpatterns where none exist. I intend to make two points in this talk. First, thosewho work with non-western literary traditions should not lose sight of their texts’social and cultural contexts lest they lose control of their data. Second, theyshould avoid free associative and analogical speculation lest they mistake falseanalogies for proof, or lose control of their unconscious impulses.Since I will use Iran’s National epic the Shahnameh in order todemonstrate my points, I will provide a brief history of the text for those of youwho might not be familiar with it. Also, since I criticize the application of the so-called “Oral Formulaic Theory” to the study of Iran’s National Epic, I will brieflydigress and briefly discuss it before continuing with my arguments.Shahnameh means the “Book of Kings.” It is Iran’s most important literarymonument. It is also the legendary history of Iran from her first primordial Kingswho invented culture to the end of the Persian Empire with the Muslim invasionof the country in the 7
th
century AD. With its 50,000 distichs or 100,000 lines of verse, the Shahnama is a long epic by European standards. It is nearly four times the length of the Iliad (15,693 lines) and the Odyssey (12,110 lines)combined.Reports of a written epic tradition in Iran exist in Greek sources of the 4
th
 century BC (Achaemenid period 559 – 330 BC), which speak of Iran’s“BASILIKAI DIFTERAI,” or “books of kings.” Although we don’t know the actualOld Persian title of the book, we may safely assume that the Greek title was atranslation of the Old Persian name of the book, and whatever the book was
 
Omidsalar’s Lecture October 17, 2007
2
called in Old Persian, its title meant something like: “The Book of Kings.” Iran’sNational Epic came to be called Xwad
ā
y N
ā
mag in Middle Persian, which alsomeans “The Book of Kings.” This was during the reign of the Sassanid dynasty(AD 224 – 651). After the advent of Islam the Middle Persian Xwad
ā
y N
ā
magwas translated into Arabic under the title of Siyar al-Mulûk, “Lives of Kings” in the8
th
century AD. In the 9
th
and 10
th
centuries AD, when New Persian languagehad fully matured, many versions of this legendary history existed, which in theNew Persian language were called the “Shahnameh, [The Book of Kings]”.Therefore, a written tradition of the Book of Kings may be assumed for Iran fromat least the 4
th
century BC. In all likelihood, the Iranian aristocracy patronized thecompilation of these Books of Kings in order to connect itself to ancient lines of rulers and heroes for reasons of political expediency.The most famous of all the Shahnamehs in New Persian language, was aprose Shahnameh that was prepared under the patronage of an Iranian nobleman in 957 AD. We know from Ferdowsi’s explicit statements that he put thisprose Shahnameh into verse and dedicated it to King Mahmud (d. 1031/421)when he finished a second redaction of it in 1010 AD. Fortunately, the preface tothis text and a free Arabic translation of it have survived. The Arabic translation,which often agrees with Ferdowsi’s verse word for word, exists in an excellentmanuscript (D
ā
m
ā
d Ibr 
ā
him P
ā
sh
ā
manuscript 916.
[see figures 1 & 2]
.
 
Omidsalar’s Lecture October 17, 2007
3
 (Fig. 1: The opening of the Book)

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