The star of this cautionary drama beats the average person in his love of courtly epic, but not by much — that is, not if shows like Game of Thrones or movies like The Last Duel give any sign. Something deep in our bones wants to slay dragons and tip goblets. We moderns, rich and soft like butter, ache for the glow of combat and courtship and “impossible foolishness.” No wonder books and movies that show the “hero’s journey” — a notion made famous by Joseph Campbell — are more popular than their rivals. So, it’s always curious to meet the stories that do slip through the cracks of quest-mania. Europe has its share of neglected romance, as proven by Roswall and Lillian or Guillaume and Melior, but things get even bleaker east of the Caspian. Names like Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba have long thrilled audiences, it’s true, but they’re only the jumping-off point for Middle Eastern storytelling. Less known are the Persian sagas of Alexander the Great and Prince Hamzah (a.k.a. the uncle of the prophet Muhammad), even though these legends have journeyed into languages from Georgian to Javanese.
But the lively tales of Samak the Ayyar (the “Drifter”), a Persian Robin Hood who tricks his enemies yet keeps a stern moral code, are obscure even in the Middle East. Lost for hundreds of years, they survive in a single manuscript that was only discovered in the 1950s. English-speaking readers can enjoy them in a the new adaptation by Prince of Persia game designer Jordan Mechner (translated from the Persian by painter Freydoon Rassouli, and published by Columbia University Press). The first major English-language rendering of these tales, Samak reveals a charmed world fit for a blockbuster HBO series, but more than that, it shows a sweep of heroism, betrayal, and friendship worthy of Gilgamesh or the Odyssey.
Let’s start with a few names. Ayyar means “wanderer,” but it sounds more odious in context: “vagrant,” “drifter,” “transient,” “rogue” are better approximations. A gentler term might be “knight errant,” yet this loses the calculated sass, the defiant spit and gristle meant to shock the enemy. Like the French revolutionary sans-culottes (“lacking britches,” a slur on their working-class trousers), Persian ne’er-do-wells sported insulting labels like onomastic war paint: ayyar (vagabond), shater (artful, shrewd), rind (rogue), and, in the 19th century, luti (rowdy, pederast). Other times the terms were plainly descriptive: they called themselves “young man” — fatan in Arabic or javanmard in Persian — to hide their shadier dealings.
The few sources that describe those dealings paint a dark picture. The ayyar gangs tore through towns and cities like a dust devil, smashing and looting their way to the good life. They used drugs, lies, and crossdressing to get their way. They were so notorious that the javanmard became a stock figure in poetry, a symbol of the cold but charming lover who wrecks the poet’s mind. “If that city-disturbing ayyar should ask about me one day,” wrote the Persian poet Sa’di, “say to him, ‘he can’t sleep because of the disturbance caused by the ayyars.’” These Persian vagabonds get a fairer hearing in love songs and Sufi meditations, which uphold the outlaws as local heroes who ensure justice when others can’t. Like the samurai, the ayyar follows a warrior’s code, javanmardi, the greatest tenets of which are “to keep secrets and to help those in need.” This is the rosy picture that governs Samak the Ayyar, the only Persian epic focused on a commoner instead of a blueblood.
Well, not exactly. Things do kick off at the court of Halab (Aleppo in present-day Syria), where Prince Khorshid Shah is hunting zebra with his brother Farokhruz. All of a sudden, Khorshid Shah meets a mysterious woman who puts a ring on his finger and a spell in his heart. He drops off to sleep and wakes up days later to find her missing but having left the ring as a clue. Forced to wait six months to unriddle the jewelry, Khorshid Shah finally learns the identity of Princess Mahpari, daughter of King Faghfur, who rules the remote but friendly kingdom of Chin. Khorshid Shah and Farokhruz set off to charm Faghfur Shah into letting Khorshid Shah marry Mahpari. Not merely for love, this union would bind their two nations and give an heir to the king of Halab.
Khorshid Shah hurries away to Chin and promptly kills Shervanah, the evil witch who has detained Princess Mahpari. This act triggers the wrath of Mehran, King Faghfur Shah’s tricky vizier. The blowback forces Khorshid Shah to seek help from Shaghal, head of the ayyar brotherhood and foster father to the titular Samak. From here, Samak and Khorshid Shah team up for a series of buddy cop adventures. Their questing illustrates the classic bazm o razm, “feast and fight,” a theme in art and literature that depicts the worthy ruler as both warrior and reveler. The duo frees Mahpari from the palace, along with a vaultful of suitors who rally together after Mehran stokes hostilities between Chin and the kingdom of Machin in order to secure Princess Mahpari for his pet warrior Shirafcan. Khorshid Shah and Samak wallop every champion tossed at them by Machin’s forces, then take down a whole corps of guardsmen at Shahak’s Keep, where Mahpari is held.
With all these names and places and events spinning like a typhoon, readers can start to feel lightheaded. Samak’s translators must have known this: the book includes a “Guide to Kingdoms and Characters,” only without the Tolkienish need to justify every speck of the universe. It helps that episodes of Samak mostly involve the same characters, thus departing from The 1,001 Nights or the animal tales of Kalila and Dimna, in which a fresh story line always brings new friends.
But where the new adaptation giveth, it also taketh away. Gone from Rassouli’s translation are the rhyming prose, the assonances, the stock metaphors (think Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”), and the Islamic prayers of the original. “I streamlined narration that felt tedious or repetitive,” Mechner says of his adaptation, admitting that he doesn’t know Persian and apologizing for his tampering. A gracious bid for readerly interest, yes, but one that forgets how repetition gives meaning and recalls oral performance; Samak and other romances were presented live in the coffeehouses of Iran and Azerbaijan up to the 20th century.
Poet and scholar Dick Davis has rejected charges of tedium leveled against another epic, the great Persian Book of Kings (Shahnameh), by saying that its redundant themes actually link two warriors, Rostam and Esfandiyar, across time. “They are in a sense avatars of a similar heroic spirit,” says Davis in his 1992 book, Epic and Sedition. Thus, skipping the repetition misses a key point. But translators like Rassouli and adapters like Mechner are less to blame for such lapses than today’s impatient reader, fed on a diet of blogposts and tweets till his mind darts around like a hummingbird. God forbid he should relax into the slow, fine gradations of an oral epic, rather than get distracted by the glitzy attention grabs of what passes for fiction today.
Still, he’d have sturdy grounds to wonder whom to root for. Prince Gezelmalek of Machin attacks Khorshid Shah and the forces of Chin, but only because nasty Mehran tricks him into it. Mugavgar, who guards the Fortress of Shahak, tries to murder Khorshid Shah, but only because Khorshid Shah murders Mugavgar’s mother Shervanah, the witch who spellbinds Princess Mahpari. Except for a few stock figures like the threatening sorceress or the wily vizier, everyone has a claim on justice. Everyone thinks they’re in the right. And when a character acts, his deeds ripple out like a stone cast in water and lap against other deeds, causing them to ripple and bounce in return.
At one point, Mehran justifies the kidnapping of poor Princess Mahpari by himself and Shirafcan, the greatest warrior in all of Chin. “Your highness, the ayyars are destroying our nation,” he says. “The way things are going, soon it will be they, not you, who rule the kingdom. History will say that King Faghfur Shah was defeated by but sixty ayyars.” Put differently, the ayyars serve the people by checking the king’s power; they make ambition counteract ambition, to restate James Madison’s Federalist 10, although they do so in an age before federalism and in a way that makes Western-style democrats squirm. In our own time, and ironically not far from where Samak might have happened, authors Shadi Hamid, Vanda Felbab-Brown, and Harold Trinkunas try to explain why so many people in Afghanistan supported the Taliban even before America’s disastrous exit: “People seek out governance from whoever can deliver it, and if the state cannot, they’ll find somebody else to do the job.”
Kevin Blankinship is a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University and a contributing editor at New Lines Magazine. He tweets at @AmericanMaghreb.