By Maryam S.
It is said: Even if you leave your homeland for good, she will never leave you. Whether recalling friendships that I have cherished for over five decades or when in some life circumstance, suddenly an expression from my homeland, Iran, comes to mind. One unforgettable piece are the stories from my childhood: stories that are deeply rooted in the past yet alive in my memory to this day, which still unify the Iranian people.
One epic story “Zahhak, the Serpent King” was written around 1020 CE by the famous poet Ferdowsi, with all the beauty and purity of the Farsi language. It inspires several questions relevant to the current day, especially: How much can a human soul take to achieve freedom?
In the story, Zahhak, the son of a kind king, rises to power after killing his father. One day, the devil, Ahriman, shows up to the doors of his castle and asks the king if he can cook for him (“Ahriman” means “Satan” or “devil” in Persian). Ahriman’s culinary skills are excellent, and Zahhak asks how he can reward him. The devil’s only wish is that he allow his cook to embrace the king as the sign of humility and gratitude. Although surprised, the king accepts the embrace; Ahriman kisses each of the king’s shoulders and immediately disappears. Once the devil disappears, two black snakes grow from Zahhak’s shoulders that cannot be removed. Learned doctors gather about him, but no one finds a remedy. Then, the devil appears in the form of a wise doctor who recommends feeding each one of the snakes the brain of a young man or a woman everyday. From then on, every day, two young people’s brains are fed to the serpents. Zahhak lives for a very long time, casting a dark cloud of hopelessness and grief over the people and the land. Eventually, a child called Feraydun is born. At age 16, his mother tells him how his father was killed by Zahhak, and how she escaped and hid herself and Feraydun, safe from the king’s assassins. Feraydun decides to gather enough followers to challenge Zahhak’s powerful army.
Meanwhile, Kaveh, a blacksmith who has lost 11 sons to Zahhak, comes to the palace to demand that his last son be freed. First, Zahhak’s guards try to seize the insolent commoner, but a mountain of iron, tall and forbidding, rises up before Kaveh and protects him. As father and son leave, Kaveh hoists his leather apron on a spear as a rallying point and shouts, “Today it was my boy, tomorrow it will be yours.” A crowd of people gather and everywhere they march, joining Feraydun and his followers. Eventually, they defeat the evil king, imprisoning him in a deep, dark cave in Mount Damavand where he will suffer until end of the time. Feraydun returns to the palace and ascends the throne. The whole earth rejoices, and peace and fortune return to the land and to her people again.
So, the story considers what happens to those who swim against the river of power, greed, cruelty, violence, and selfishness. Losses and loneliness can seem insurmountable for those few who choose this path. But what encourages those few heroes whose decisions are unchanged, fighting for freedom until their last breath? Is there anything but faith in freedom for humankind, for their sisters and brothers, for their country, for a better society to pursue a better life? One modern woman’s story can provide some answers.
In 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an Iranian woman, Dr. Shirin Ebadi. She was the first female judge during the secular regime in lran, before the Islamic revolution of 1979. However, according to seventh-century sharia law, after the revolution she could no longer practice as a judge and was forced to work as a family lawyer. In her first book, Iran Awakening, published in 2006, she shares an overview of her upbringing, the history of social and political changes since the revolution, her challenges, and her fight for under-served children and women in the Islamic republic of lran. Although the world recognized her efforts for the well-being of her country, she suffered from the regime’s hostility, espionage, and social harassment, ultimately leaving in exile in 2009.
Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in lran is her memoir, published in 2016, of events in lran and the Middle East. Ebadi’s views about the lives of ordinary people in lran encompass a good part of the book: the economic hardship that many Iranian families endure daily, as well as the regime’s zero-tolerance policy for political criticism. She also writes about the women who selflessly assisted her in continuing her work as a human rights lawyer. She worked not only for women, but for men, for those with different religious beliefs, for jailed writers and journalists, and even for those who worked for the regime but didn’t understand how the wrong interpretation of Islamic law and the abuse of Islamic sharia was destroying family structures and the society overall.
Although this book was written a decade after the first one, l still found Ebadi’s words honest. Her description of the events and incidents that she, her family, and her colleagues endured are described in frightening and unsettling details. She repeatedly mentions the security that the Nobel peace prize committee afforded her; legal support from the committee was like an invincible human force against the regime’s hostility and humiliations, so she could continue her legal fight for her clients pro bono. I found her hopes for the freedom of her country unshakable, despite losing most of the valuable possessions that she was attached to, emotionally and physically. Through her words, I found her vulnerability not pretentious but genuine, whether doubting herself or receiving criticisms from her closest family members. She is still an ordinary human with flaws and achievements in her life. But, she is still closer to the reality than a dream for freedom described in the stories of my youth.
The story of Zahhak the Serpent King can be found in Myths of the World: The Ancient Persians, written by Virginia Schomp.
More about Dr. Ebadi can be found in these titles:
The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz; illustrated by Saffa Khan.
Who Did It First?: 50 Politicians, Activists, and Entrepreneurs Who Revolutionized the World by Jay Leslie
Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella
Maryam S. is a customer service specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves traveling near and far and loves to cook and bake from new recipes.