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"Everything went down after they came, and we have never been the same!" she said, wringing someone's neck in the air. And a friend I made here, an English teacher named Ali, spoke of how the loss of the empire still weighed on the national consciousness. "Before they came, we were a great and civilized power," he said, as we drove to his home on the outskirts of Shiraz, dodging motorcycles and tailgaters. Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, he added: "They burned our books and raped our women, and we couldn't speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they took out our tongues."

The Cult of Ferdowsi

The Iranians spoke Farsi anyway. The national language has been Arabized to some extent, but Old Persian remains at its root. The man credited with helping save the language, and the history, from oblivion is a tenth-century poet named Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi is Iran's Homer. Iranians idolize their poets—among many, Rumi, Sa‘id, Omar Khayyám, Hāfez (whose works are said to be consulted for guidance about love and life as much as, if not more than, the Islamic holy book, the Koran). When the people were oppressed by the latest invader and couldn't safely speak their minds, the poets did it for them, cleverly disguised in verse. "Sometimes they were executed," said Youssef the archaeologist, "but they did it anyway." So today, although Iran is home to many cultural denominations (and languages) other than Persian—Turkmen, Arab, Azeri, Baluchi, Kurd, and others—"everyone can speak Farsi," he said, "which is one of the oldest living languages in the world."

The poet-hero Ferdowsi, a sincere Muslim who resented the Arab influence, spent 30 years writing, in verse with minimal use of Arabic-derived words, an epic history of Iran called the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. This panorama of conflict and adventure chronicles 50 monarchies—their accessions to the throne, their deaths, the frequent abdications and forcible overthrows—and ends with the Arab conquest, depicted as a disaster. The most heralded character is Rostam, a chivalrous figure of courage and integrity, a national savior and "trickster hero," according to Dick Davis, a Persian scholar at Ohio State University who has translated the Shahnameh into English. "The stories of Rostam are their myths," he said. "This is how the Iranians see themselves."

The tales involve feuding kings and hero-champions, in which the latter are almost always represented as ethically superior to the kings they serve, facing the dilemmas of good men living under an evil or incompetent government. The work is haunted by the idea that those ethically most fitted to rule are precisely the ones most reluctant to rule, preferring instead to devote themselves to humankind's chief concerns: the nature of wisdom, the fate of the human soul, and the incomprehensibility of God's purposes.

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