Following Ferdowsi's Footsteps in the 21st Century
Imagine if you will a scraggly English man dressed in tattered clothes with a patchy beard trying to cross the border from Iran into Afghanistan. This is the exact image that Nicholas Jubber, author of Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard, paints. At a time when the on-going battles between the forces of the Taliban and the United States military had led to much bloodshed, the border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan was a hard one to make, let alone for an outsider. But that’s exactly what Nicholas Jubber did in 2009, disguised as a mute man named Abbas. “Why would someone willing make this trip?” one might ask, and the answer to that question is simple for Jubber: the Shahnameh. The Persian Book of Kings has been the subject of study for many scholars and researchers; however, Jubber takes it one step further and attempts to trace the journey that Abul Qasem Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh, would have had to have taken to present the book to Shah Mahmud, the ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty at the time.
Jubber’s trip begins in Iran and throughout his stay in Iran. He makes many comments regarding the epic poem’s impact on modern Iranian culture. Ranging from cultural customs to the existence of the Zoorkhaneh and Shahnameh-khwani, the author draws many parallels with the Iran of today and the Iran of the 10th century when Ferdowsi lived. Jubber’s trip also takes him through Bukhara and Tashkent, Uzbekistan and into Dushanbe and Panj Rud, Tajikistan where he makes observations on the impact of Ferdowsi into contemporary post-Soviet states in Central Asia. Jubber’s trip finally ends after he crosses from Iran into Afghanistan and travels from Herat to Lashkar Gah and finishing in Ghazni. According to Jubber’s account the Afghans of today and the Ghaznavids of Ferdowsi’s time have changed very little and the people of the region are well suited to living in even the most inhospitable places, a problematic interpretation in my view.
As an adventurous tourist, Jubber’s travelogue is interesting but his depiction of Iran and Afghanistan is imbued with Orientalist views. For example, while he paints a semi-accurate picture of the recent history of Iran, his European upbringing tints the perspective more favorable for the British. Particularly, while discussing the 1953 coup, he avoids discussing the important role the British played in overthrowing Mossadegh. Another instance of Jubber’s orientalist attitude can be found early in the book when he references the Persian phrase of endearment with slightly sexual or flirtatious undertones, jigaret bokhoram, where he draws the comparison to cannibalism, an idea that has very negative connotations. While such Eurocentric point of view is more familiar to the Euro-American readers, making the story both accessible and sellable, the book’s controversial title certainly draws further market attention. Yet, the title itself refers to a minor scene in the book and does not represent the gist of its content.
It is no secret that with the advent of the Internet and the spread globalism, orientalist Euro-American views have begun to subside. Yet I can’t help but ask myself: “Is this phenomenon something that will ever completely disappear?” Although I can’t answer that question it seems as though we, as students in a diverse society, are moving in the right direction. While it’s good that authors, like Jubber, are bringing new perspectives to the Persianate world, they need to be careful about subconsciously presenting orientalist biases.