cover image The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature

The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature

Hamid Dabashi. Columbia Univ., $35 (272p) ISBN 978-0-231-18344-4

This enlightening scholarly study will serve, for most Western readers, as their introduction to the Persian Book of Kings, “the longest epic poem in the world composed by one poet.” Written between 977 and 1010 CE by Hakim Abolqasem Ferdowsi Tusi, the poem is a cornerstone of Persian culture, according to Dabashi (Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene), a Columbia professor of comparative literature and Iranian studies. Some 50,000 verses long, it narrates a history of Persia from the beginning of the world to the Arab conquest of the nation’s Sassanid dynasty in 650 CE. Dabashi provides background on Ferdowsi and the pre-Islamic epic tradition that shaped his poem before sharing colorful accounts of its cast of warrior kings, rebellious offspring, and seductive courtesans, among them the tragic tale of Rostam, who unknowingly kills his son Sohrab in battle, and the sinister one of Zahhak, whose shoulders sprout carnivorous snakes after he murders his father, Marda. Part of Dabashi’s goal is to rescue the poem from its current position as an outlier to “world literature,” a concept he crankily dismisses as “the imperial wet dream of European literature.” Whether he succeeds in his ambition “to alter the very notion of world literature,” his book will surely drive readers to seek out the poem for themselves. (Jan.)