Thursday, December 24, 2009

Satire in the preface of the Shahnama

Literary satire within the Western European tradition has come to refer to writings that display a critical or mocking overtone. Classical Persian literature, however, has no single word equivalent to “satire.” Instead, it distinguishes between two terms—Hajv, meaning “inventive” or “lampoon” and Hazl (“comical”), referring to a more light-hearted type of satire. While the Shahnama is not a satirical work per se, some versions of the Shahnama begin with a stinging satire of Sultan Mahmud located in the preface of the text. This type of satire is one of the more popular examples of Hajv during the classical period of Persia, the time period after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Firdausi had originally dedicated the Shahnama to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (971 A.D.–1030 A.D.), and had included an introductory eulogy for the sultan in its preface. It is said that when Firdausi completed his work and presented it to the Sultan, he had been offered significantly less than what he had originally been promised. Feeling cheated, Firdausi rejected the Sultan’s offer. This response both angered and embarrassed the Sultan who then condemned Firdausi to death by being trampled upon by elephants. Firdausi fled for his life to another town, seeking protection from the reigning prince. He then sought vengeance against the Sultan by writing a biting satire on Mahmud, whom he depicted as a pact-breaking king of peasant origin:

Long years this Shahnama I toiled to complete,
That the King might award me some recompense meet,
But naught save a heart wrung with grief and despair
Did I get from those promises empty as air!

Had the sire of the King been some Prince of renown,
My forehead would surely have been graced by a crown!
Were his mother a lady of high pedigree,
In silver and gold I'd have stood to the knee!

But, being by birth not a prince but a boor,
The praise of the noble he could not endure!

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