Majid Naficy

This is the English translation of the appended fourth chapter of my book In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented, Male-Dominated Culture in Iran (Baran publisher, Sweden, 1991). Preface - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2Chapter 3

Years ago, when for the first time I saw the book of “Khosrow and Shirin” written by Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209), I wondered why he had called it "Khosrow and Shirin" and not "Farhad and Shirin".  Of course, in my elementary school books, I had read about Khosrow Parviz (570-628) and his royal pageants, but I did not know that the name of his beloved was Shirin.  I took Shirin solely as a mate and partner to Farhad. After I read the romance of “Khosrow and Shirin” by Nezami, I found out that both Khosrow and Farhad love Shirin, with this difference, that the former succeeds in his love, but the latter fails and as a result, hurls himself from Mount Bisotoon. There is a reason for my misconception:  What has been engraved in our Iranian collective memory is the Platonic love of Farhad and not the story of earthly love between Khosrow and Shirin.  In our written and oral literature, everywhere Farhad, the mason, is known as the ideal model for endurance and honesty in love and Khosrow as a lustful debauchee. I find the roots for this attitude in the dominant culture of our society in which, carnal love and joy are considered a sin and instead, masochism and imaginary love are encouraged. 

Nezami begins the story of “Khosrow and Shirin” with an introduction describing love.  He considers love as the origin of the whole universe:

The firmament has no altar except love.
The world has no water without the land of love* (P. 5)

His love is not imaginary, and it only signifies the mutual attraction of two individuals:

When the humors have nothing but attraction
Physicions call this tendency love (Ibid)

In fact, Nezami himself is inspired by an earthly personal love while writing his romance.  Afaq, his wife, a woman from the Turkic people of the Qebchaq plain in central Asia, dies in her youth, and Nezami haunted by her memory  writes his book,  as can be seen in succeeding lines:

When I saw no life for myself except with love
I sold my heart and bought a life
I burnt every horizon with my sighs for Afaq*
And made sleepy the eyes of wisdom
I was inspired by love to write this story
And I filled the world with the call to love (Ibid)

When closing the story, Nezami writes these lines after the death of Shirin:

You are obliged to shed tears for this tale
And to drop some bitter rose-water for Shirin*
Because that short-lived beloved
Withered like a flower in her youth
She walked briskly like my Qebchaqian Turk
You might imagine she was my own Afaq (P. 326)

In the text of the story, there are four sexual relationships which are highlighted: first, Khosrow and Shirin, second, Khosrow and Maryam, third, Khosrow and Shekar, and fourth, Farhad and Shirin. Relationships with Maryam and Shekar each represent a deviation from love.  In the former, Nezami criticises a marriage without love, and in the latter, the fleeting lust.  The marriage of Khosrow and Maryam is not based on love, rather it stems from political expediency.  In order to crush the rebellion of his general, Bahram-e Choobineh and save his throne, Khosrow needs help from the Byzantine emperor.  To obtain this goal, he flees to Byzantine and marries the emperor's daughter.  Economic and political expediencies are often the basis for arranged marriages, and by depicting the loveless relationship of Khosrow and Maryam, Nezami targets the very foundation of traditional marriages.  Khosrow must give up his throne, if he wants to win his love.  Shirin tells him once:

My heart is troubled because of you,  Khosrow
You should give up your throme, if you want me
And don't taunt me with your sovereignty 
You still seek a solution through tyrany
And your kingdom has made you arrogant
Alas, this pride distances you from love
You do not need me or my love
Do you want a kingdom or true love?
One who falls in love, should be humble
Because love does not need those who are not needy (p. 238)

Shekar is Maryam upside down.  Khosrow has heard of the coquetry of this Isfahani woman and wants to sleep with her.  Shekar, however, is smart.  Instead of herself, she sends one of her slave-girls to the king's chamber on the first night of cohabitation.  She allows Khosrow to sleep with her only when the king legally marries her as a free woman. Thus, Nezami does not oppose men's debauchery, as long as it is approved by religion.  Nevertheless, he considers this kind of pleasure fleeting and searches for his ideal love. The short-lived love is superficial; whereas the real love is essential,  just as sugar (Shekar) is a form of sweetness, but the sweet (Shirin) is itself the essence of sweetness:

There is an obvious difference between Shirin and Shekar
Because Shirin is the soul and Shekar substitutes soul
His heart said I must have Shirin soon
Because Shekar does not sustain my joy (P. 212)

Farhad's love for Shirin is imaginary and has the same relationship to real love that the Platonic Ideas have to the real objects.  Farhad represents the perfection of selflessness and absolute purity in love.  In order to reach his love, he is ready to literally chip away a whole mountain with his adze. Farhad does not want to live without his beloved.  But he is not motivated by sexual desire.  For example, once Shirin almost falls from her horse. Farhad rushes to save her,but does not want to touch her body.  So he goes through this hardship:

They say that her wind-like horse
Once slipped when that jewel was riding it
As the lover saw that his beloved was about
To fall to the ground from her swift steed 
He lifted the horse by its neck on the spot
With its royal rider still on its back
He thus took that fresh flower to the palace
So gently that no part of Shirin's body  was harmed
He put her down at the gatehouse of the guards
And then from the gate he went on his way (P. 184)

Farhad never directly expresses his love to Shirin. Instead, he bargains for his love with his rival, Khosrow.  He is ready to demolish a mountain in order to beat his rival, but he cannot say to Shirin: "I love you." Farhad wants the portrait of his love and not the person.  He does not express his love to Shirin, whom herself has come to the mountain to visit him, but he talks day and night to the lifeless image of his beloved inscribed on the rock.  In reality, love for Farhad does not mean a relationship between two living individuals, but it shows the obsession of an unsuccessful lover with himself.  In order to win Shirin's heart, Farhad never makes positive efforts, on the contrary, he withdraws and hopelessly retreats to a desert and lives with wild animals.  Can this extreme hopelessness be attributed to the class difference between the mason, the lover, and his royal beloved?  No! Farhad embodies imaginary love, and for this reason, he must be trapped by his own defeatism.  Even if by deception Khosrow had not drawn Farhad from the desert to Mount Bisotoon, Farhad still could not pass the realm of defeatism and win his love.  Farhad is the myth of love and not its reality, and to become successful negates the nature of this myth. 

The mutual love of Khosrow and Shirin, contrary to Farhad's love for Shirin is real. In the beginning, they fall in love even before visiting each other.  However, in the course of events, they truly make efforts to realize their love. Shirin gallops her horse toward Iran and Khosrow toward Armenia.  During this trip, not only do they have to change each other, but also they must be transformed themselves.  Khosrow finds out that in order to obtain his love, he has to give up arranged marriage (Maryam) and fleeting lust (Shekar).  Shirin realizes that to attract her lover, she has to take risks, even if society calls her names.  Advised by her aunt, Mahin Banu, the Armenian queen, Shirin avoids sleeping with Khosrow before marriage.  However, toward the end of the story, she becomes mentally ready to sleep with him without marrying him. When Shapoor, Khosrow's servant and messenger, comes to her, Shirin sends Khosrow two messages.  The second one is as follows:

Secondly, I request that if he wants to approach me
The king of kings must lawfully marry me
If he does not want to fulfill my wish
He may do as he wishes and thus disgraces me
Otherwise, I will go on my way
Return home and retreat to my solitude (P. 270)

Khosrow and Shirin's love is passionate and playful. They enjoy visiting each other and appreciate each other's beauty. They ride horses, swim in ponds, pick flowers, drink wine, converse and debate through Barbad's lute and Nakisa's harp. They are two real individuals with actual bodies and souls, who are faced with earthly love, and in order to reach one another, they make efforts filled with optimism. 

Of course, this earthly love happens in a male-dominated society, and Nezami cannot go beyond its limitations.  Shirin embodies chastity and virginity, whereas Khosrow can make love with many women.  Even when finally Shirin becomes mentally ready to have sex with Khosrow before marriage, the reader does not know to interpret this as Shirin's rebellion against social prejudices, or a manifestation of her humiliation. 

The tragedy of Farhad and the romance of Khosrow and Shirin both have sad endings. Farhad hurls himself from Mount Bisotoon when he is falsely told that Shirin had died.  Khosrow is killed by Shirooyeh, Maryam's son, and Shirin to escape sleeping with her stepson, commits suicide. In spite of this final similarity, the essence of these two types of love remains the opposite: Farhad's love is by nature doomed to lose, whereas Khosrow and Shirin's love stems from hope and joy. Have we not reached the time to dust our Iranian collective memory, and alongside the tragedy of defeats, also remember our successful stories?*

*-Dastan-e Khosrow-O-Shirin- edited by Abdol-Mohammad Ayati 2nd edition, Tehran 1984 I have translated Nezami’s verses from Persian into English.
*-Afaq means “horizon”. 
*- Shirin means “sweet”.
*- This text was written in April 1991, and first published in Barresi-ye Ketab Magazine, Vol.3, No.11, Fall 1992, Los Angeles.