Monthly Archives: February 2012

Azar Nafisi: My Father’s Shahnameh


Folio from a Shahnameh, circa 1525

In honor of Nowruz, we are delighted to publish author Azar Nafisi’s personal remembrances of her father and a very special copy of the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings.


I have two books in front of me. One is Dick Davis’ Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings. The other is a much thinner book, designed for young readers. On its cover, above a Persian miniature painting of men on horses, is written in Persian: Selections from Shahnameh by Ahmad Nafisi.

In his introduction to this selection, my father mentions that the idea for this book goes back to the time he started telling stories from Persia’s classical literature, beginning with the poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, to my brother and me when we were no more than three or four years old. My father always insisted that Persians basically did not have a home, except in their literature and especially in their poetry. Our country has been attacked and invaded numerous times, and each time, when Persians had lost their sense of their own history, culture, and language, they found their poets as the true guardians of their true home.

Citing Ferdowsi and [explaining] how, after the Arab invasion of Persia, he rescued and redefined his nation’s identity and culture through writing the epic of Persian mythology and history in his Book of Kings, my father would say, “We have no other home but this,” pointing to the invisible book. “This,” he would repeat, “is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.”

When I was married with children of my own, my father would tell them of the conflict between the noble poet Ferdowsi and the fickle king Sultan Mahmud Ghaz-navi. According to this version, Sultan Mahmud assigns Shahnameh to Ferdowsi, promising to pay the poet a gold coin for every line. The king does not fulfill his promise, and instead sends the poet silver coins, which Ferdowsi, despite his dire poverty, refuses. Finally realizing the worth of the poet, the king repents of his behavior and travels to the city of Tus. He is too late: As his procession enters the main city gate, it encounters another procession leaving with Ferdowsi’s coffin. Implied in this legend, as in Shahnameh itself, is the truth that in the struggle between the poet and the king, the latter might win in this world, but to the former belongs the glory that comes with the conquest of that most absolute of all tyrants—Time.

“Nearly a thousand years have passed,” my father would say, the tone of marvel never missing from his voice, “and we remember the king mainly because we remember the poet. As Ferdowsi prophesized in the final lines of his epic, the poet still speaks to us:

I’ve reached the end of this great history,

And all the land will fill with talk of me.

I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save

My name and reputation from the grave,

And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,

When I have gone my praises and my fame.


Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter. She is currently a visiting professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. © Azar Nafisi, all rights reserved.

Feast Your Eyes: An Interview with Curator Massumeh Farhad


Wine horn wih gazelle protome; Iran, Sasanian period, 4th century CE; silver and gilt; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S1987.33

The Freer and Sackler’s extraordinary collection of luxury metalwork, considered one of the largest and finest of its kind, is showcased in Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran. Featuring exceptional works of silver and gold, the exhibition opened this year in honor of the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Many of the objects were collected and donated by Dr. Arthur M. Sackler to the Smithsonian museum that would bear his name.

Bento caught up with Dr. Massumeh Farhad, F|S chief curator, curator of Islamic art, and curator of this exhibition, for a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the ancient Iranians.


Bento: What does Feast Your Eyes reveal about kings and kingship in ancient Iran?

Massumeh Farhad: The objects in the exhibition tell us about how kings projected and expressed their power and authority. The picture plates, such as the one of Shapur II, represent the king as a sharp, skillful rider and hunter. In a way they are portable propaganda. At the same time, Sasanian kings also had their images carved into huge rock reliefs. Here, they would show themselves hunting, succeeding to the throne, or with their enemies kneeling in front of them in defeat. One of the reliefs can be seen in an archival image in the exhibition, taken by the 19th-century photographer Antoin Sevruguin. These huge reliefs were intended more for the public, while the picture plates were sent as portable royal gifts to governors and other high-ranking officials within the empire and beyond. As we can see, the Sasanians adapted imagery to both large and small scale.

Bento: What do the multiple images of hunting tell us about the Sasanians?

MF: Hunting is the most important pastime associated with rulers in the Near East, beginning with the Assyrians and continuing well into the Islamic period. When kings were not at war, they demonstrated their skill and courage by going hunting. The popularity of hunting imagery in the Sasanian period may have also carried a religious meaning and been intended to show the king’s ability to overcome chaos (or at least reign in chaos).

The Sasanians were known for huge cultivated grounds, which they used for hunting. The word “paradise,” meaning an enclosed lush garden, is derived from the Old Persian term pardis. These walled gardens existed all over their empire.

Bento: Tell me a little bit more about Shapur II.

MF: Shapur II is the most frequently depicted king on Sasanian objects. He was one of the most successful Sasanian rulers, who succeeded in pacifying the Central Asian tribes in the east and conquering Armenia in the west. He was also the longest reigning Sasanian king; he reigned for 70 years because he was crowned in his mother’s womb.

Bento: What do we know about the day-to-day lives of the Sasanians?

MF: Sasanian society seemed quite rigid and hierarchical. It was divided into  priests,  warriors, secretaries, and commoners with the king in the center. Most of the information about the Sasanians comes from Persian religious texts or Greco-Roman sources, which tend to be somewhat biased. For the Achaemenids (ca. 550–331 BCE), there are a large number of tablets found at Persepolis, which have been deciphered for the last several decades at the University of Chicago. Once [the research is] completed, we will know much more about their everyday life, social interactions, and economic transactions.

In the meantime, we have to piece together a picture of Sasanian life based on contemporary religious texts and somewhat biased Greek sources. For instance, the Greeks seemed fascinated with Persian eating habits and report extensively about their excesses. Allegedly, they made the Greeks eat out of gold and silver vessels and ate multiple courses. The Sasanians were also very fond of  desserts and wine.

Bento: My heroes! I hear they also ate their meals in silence. Why?

MF: Meals were serious and solemn occasions, even during the Islamic period. In the West, meals can be boisterous and chatty. In Iran, you ate your meals in silence. Basically the only person who could speak was the priest. Everything else was conducted in silence.

Shiraz was well known for many years for its viticulture. Wine was produced there. The Persian king had a vintner and an army of cooks. It was known that the Romans watered down their wine and the Persians did not. They also loved celebrating their birthdays. Aristophanes left a firsthand account and wrote, “And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and glass cups.”

Building a Foundation for Asian Art

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, we’ll be featuring posts throughout the year that commemorate the museum’s founding. Some, like this one, will look back. Others will look forward, and most will be just right! Here, in 1986 or so (the museum would open in 1987), the Sackler is being built. The Smithsonian Castle and the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center can be seen in the background. In addition to a new home for Asian art, the re-envisioning of the quad included the neighboring National Museum of African Art (which, if the photo were panoramic, would be on the right).

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Galley of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

They Came, They Saw, They Slurped: Noodles and a Movie at the Freer

Enjoying noodles in the Freer Gallery before a screening of Eat Drink Man Woman.

On Wednesday evening, more than three thousand people (yes, three thousand!) came to the Freer for Noodles and a Movie in honor of the Chinese Lunar New Year. They were treated to food prepared by one of Taiwan’s top culinary artists, chef Hou Chun-sheng, winner of the 2011 Taipei Beef Noodle Soup Competition. After, many patrons enjoyed a screening of Eat Drink Man Woman, by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee. The film, about an elderly chef and his family, made for a noodlecentric evening that was enjoyed by all.

Were you there? Let us know what you thought!

A Very Good Day: Honeymoon in Hangzhou

In 1925 writer, curator, and professor Benjamin March—one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art in the 1920s and 1930s—and his wife spent their honeymoon in Hangzhou, China, which he recorded in his journal and in photographs. Here’s an excerpt just in time for Valentine’s Day:

“In the early afternoon, we took rickshas [sic] and rode out of the city through narrow streets to Six Harmony Pagoda. I had been wanting to visit it again, and to try a couple of pictures I had not been able to make succeed the last time. We took our supper down to our boat and went out on the lake to enjoy the moon. We drifted and paddled about the lake and the islands. After supper we sat, wrote a little verse, and then Dorothy sang for a long while and I lay on my back watching the white moon. A good day, a very good day—and no rain.”

Learn more about the Benjamin March papers in the Archives of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.