Posts Tagged ‘Firdausi’

A Message for Keir Starmer from a Master of Persian Literature

December 2, 2020

I’ve just started reading Barbara Leonie Picard’s Tales of Ancient Persia (Oxford: OUP 1973). It’s a children’s book, one of a series of books on world folktales and legends. It’s really a retelling of the great Iranian national epic, the Shahname, or ‘Book of Kings’, composed by the poet Firdausi in the 12th century AD. By this time Iran was very definitely a Muslim country, but the book is about the great heroes of Zoroastrian myth and legend, fighting for the good god, Ormuzd or Ahura Mazda, against the evil god Ahriman, his demons and tyrants.

One of these tyrants is Zohak, an Arab prince who has been corrupted by Eblis, the Islamic Satan sent by Ahriman. After arranging for him to seize the thrown and introducing meat-eating, Eblis asked to kiss Zohak’s shoulders as a reward. Zohak allows him, and this results in a pair of monstrous serpents sprouting from his shoulders. Monstrous reptiles that grow back as soon as they are cut off, and can only be satisfied through eating human brains. So every day, two people have to be brought to the royal palace to be killed so that their grey matter can be fed to them.

But Zohak has been warned in a prophecy that a hero, Feridun, will arise and slay him. Forewarned, Feridun runs off to the mountains, where he gathers a small army of loyal followers against attack.

The Persian people put up with Zohak’s oppression until one day a blacksmith, Kava, arrives at the palace. He wants justice. He has had eighteen sons. 17 have been killed, and only one of them remains. But he has been taken and he wants him back, to comfort him in his old age. Zohak agrees to restore the son, and asks him who has done all this. Kava replies that it is him. He has had 17 of his sons killed to feed the serpents. Zohak, however, keeps his promise, and gives his son back to him. Kava seems satisfied at this, and so Zohak believes he will be loyal to him. He therefore asks Kava to swear an oath he has made everyone else in Persia swear, that Zohak is a good and just king and they love him. Kava, a man of integrity, is utterly outraged and not only refuses to swear the oath, but smashes the tablet on which it’s written and storms out. He puts his blacksmith’s apron on a spear turning it into a banner and seeks out Feridun. The two then raise an army. As they march through Persia they are greeted as liberators and people flock to their cause. Finally they storm the palace, Feridun kills Zohak and seizes the throne.

All very stirring stuff, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with Starmer and the Labour Party? Well, I believe there’s a message here for Starmer. He isn’t a demonic creature like Zohak, and I’m pretty sure supernatural snakes aren’t coming out of his shoulders to munch on people’s brains. Except in a symbolic way, of course. His leadership is so partisan and inept it does seems to be result of mind-destroying stupidity. But in his partisanships and petty vindictiveness he is pushing people into rebellion. He’s done this through his purge of Corbyn’s supporters and the left of the party, and increased this in his suspension of the former Labour leader himself. He’s been forced to reverse this, but has refused Corbyn the whip. But what has added insult to injury is that he and his chairman, David Evans, have issued diktats forbidding ordinary Labour members and constituency parties from discussing any of this, or rejecting the E.H.R.C.’s report on anti-Semitism in the party.

As a result of this and other massive failures by the leadership, ordinary members are leaving the party in droves. People are defying him, taking to social media to discuss all this while a string of local constituency parties, Labour affiliates and trade unions have passed motions of solidarity with Corbyn. Some have also passed votes of no confidence in Starmer and Evans.

A rebellion is going on. And it’s been provoked not only by bad, overbearing and partisan leadership, but by an attempt by the same leadership to stifle debate and discontent. Just like Zohak tried to cover up his tyranny by making the people of ancient Persia swear an oath that he represented good government.

I wonder if there wasn’t a piece of political commentary in this. It’s a great story, and in a freer Iran you could turn it into a fantasy epic, like the Chinese have with Monkey. But apart from its entertainment value, I think Firdausi was also including an important political lesson. He was writing for the shah, Mahmud of Ghazni, and while monarchy everywhere in the Middle Ages was absolute or near absolute, there were rebellions against it. Hence, in medieval Europe at least, there was the literary genre of ‘mirrors for princes’, advising them on good, popular government.

The message here is simple and eternal. A leader can only push people so far before they will rebel. And they will do so even if, or especially because, of edicts trying to silence them and enforce absolute loyalty.

It’s a timeless message for rulers and leaders. And what makes great literature is that it can speak across time and place to make comments on politics and the human condition.

Including to Starmer. But he’s not listening to anyone except the other Blairites.