By Nilofar Shidmehr.
Oolichan books 2008
No man has died more nobly for love than Farhad the stonecutter. And no man should be loathed more than the heartless news bearer who told him the lie that his Shirin had died.
The poet Nezami tells us that Princess Shirin of fable built a mausoleum for Farhad who shredded mountains to deserve her. 1700 years later, author Nilofar Shidmehr found out that mummified remains of a man were discovered near the mountains where Farhad had thrown himself to his death. There was no mausoleum. Fickle Shirin, undreamable as the morning sun, if love cannot rage then what curse burdens your daughters today?
In Shidmehr’s vastly imaginative novella, Shirin and Salt Man, a modern day Iranian woman named Shirin plans to elope with the mummy of an ancient salt miner preserved in brine and discovered in 1993 in Iran. She is not as fortunate as Nezami’s Farhad. Her insanity is not from love, but from neglect. She married the abusive Khosro, and now remorse has driven her to adultery with the pile of salted bones she imagines to be Farhad.
Shidmehr’s Khosro is not a king like Nezami’s Khosro. Though the romantically obsessed heroine married him for his kingly name, he really just works at the ministry of Islamic Guidance. As Shirin says,
“His job was to censor foreign actresses
who spoke their love out loud.
He was good at chopping images
and changing story lines.
My husband turned prostitutes into virgins
all the time”
The modern Khosro would likely censor Shidmehr. Her imagery mixes anger and sex like mud and blood. Here’s how the author describes the virgin Shirin being raped:
“There was Shapoor
shaking and gnashing his teeth
as though my shame were his.
You showed me your legs.
You stole away my virtue;
cover your body, woman.
Pebbles jabbed into my back,
like a mess of my own dislocated vertebrae.
and when he got up my voice ran silent
as the river through me. Darkness covered
my body, the mud was mixed with blood.”
Shirin had tried to get a ride with the man, who accidentally glimpsed her legs through a split chador. Shidmehr perhaps knows that the Nezami fan would compare this to Farhad’s equally pathological but harmless behavior at his first glimpse of Shirin. He faints!
Even in her humorous moments Shidmeh’s imagery is wet. She says,
“Shir has three meanings, as you know: milk, or the animal,
the lion. Never mind the third meaning.”
It was the meaning between the first and the second that got Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us” in trouble with Iranian Khosros. You see, the director had “no idea” women aren’t supposed to milk cows while men read love poems to them.
Yet Nezami has ducked Islamic censors for centuries. Shidmehr constantly borrows from his sensuality in her free translations of him:
“Call me whenever you drink
from that milky brook
I brought you. Every day
when you sweeten your mouth
please say my name aloud,
for I am bitter here without you”
At one point in the novella the repeated milk imagery suggests an odd possibility to the reader.
“As a newborn
to a mother’s breast,
Farhad spoke to Shirin,
I am drawn to you.”
Does Shirin intend to put the stolen mummy to her breast and nurse him back to flesh? Is the second meaning of shir not lion but lioness taking responsibility for suckling a new pride?
Struck by Shidmehr’s display of literary brilliance, I kept wondering why Shirin and Salt Man is a novella and not a full-length novel. A more culturally aware publisher would not have let her stop at women vs. Islam. Like a lover who can’t get enough, the editor would have begged the author to go places where Nezami’s imagination could only point the way.
For example, she could tell us why Farhad had to die. In Nezami’s time, and doubly so in the Sassanian period when Khosro va Shirin takes place, a princess could never marry a stone cutter, regardless of his merits. Nezami is coerced into feeding Farhad and his pure love to the maws of his social order. The hero was condemned to execution by the tragedy of rigid hierarchical societies.
But modernity changes class paradigms in upheavals that dwarf the political revolutions it inspires. The new consciousness of female oppression rides the seismic waves of a historyquake where dynamic landmasses of meritocracy rub against the stolid ways of autocracy. This is how a modern novel about Shirin and Farhad story can have a happy ending.
Sadly, the Western publishing industry (includes distribution, reviews and other publicity) takes only what it is conditioned to want from Iranian women writers, allowing the rest of their talent to lie dormant. It has frustrated the desirous volcano inside Shidmehr to groan threateningly but not erupt.
Yet love compensates for small dissatisfactions. Shidmeh’r mature romance with our own literature cleans up after many of the carefree Lolitas seduced by the lustful Humberts of Western autocracy. While these writers’ crush on the splendid American Khosro makes them oblivious to our culture’s humble handsomeness, Shidmehr’s devotion to our legacy showcases just what treasures there are to lose if we neglect our heritage. Despite the taste of salt in her lament, Shidmehr’s protectiveness of Nezami forbids the foreigner Alexander to think his sword could defeat a Gordian knot as skillfully tied as Persian culture.
It is fair to acknowledge the complaint of star struck Lolitas, but we need no urging to suffer Shidmehr’s anguish because this writer has made it clear she is of the same body as the rest of us. Or as Farhad said of Shirin, “I cannot say we are of one body because self-worship is idolatry.”
Reading Shidmehr’s resurrection of Nezami in English, I wondered if it is it even possible for the thirty-year-old IRI weed to choke a three thousand years old tree? Shidmehr’s prognosis is not the hope of a mad lover when she says,
“No story is written unchangeably
in stone—not mine
nor Nezami’s Shirin’s,
Shah Khosro’s or Farhad’s:
“Reconfiguring Mount Bisotun.”
I could call Farhad back
to life, be a Jesus
and make Farhad rise
from the dead. He will lift
his head off the stones,
his breath lend its color
to the world I create
around him. He will intuit
that Shirin lives, that the news-bearer
was deadly and dead
wrong. He will raise”
When I see an Iranian writer unraveling our old myths to weave new meaning into familiar smelling wool, I am inspired to wish that for every copy of Reading Lolita In Tehran there would be two copies of Shirin and Saltman, Because inside the pages there
is nourishment , there is power, there is hope.
There is love.
1. See Nazy Kaviani’s prose telling of the Shirin and Farhad story, here.
2. See Nezami in the original, here.