Hamid Rahmanian with shadow puppet. Photograph: Kingorama

Hamid Rahmanian

Fictionville Studio’s Hamid Rahmanian talks about his Shahnameh audiobook, ancient Persian history, and why Game of Thrones resonates with the Persian epic.


THE IRANIST: There are many translations of the Shahnameh. Why did you decide to publish your own?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: In 2009, I decided to create a new and accessible illustrated edition of Shahnameh, or the Persian Book of Kings, that would be contemporary and cater to the taste of people familiar with stories like Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones. Also, as a visual artist, I was really chomping at the bit to play with the imagery of Shahnameh. It was the perfect vehicle to capture and present the visual culture of Persian-influenced lands from Turkey to India over the last 600 years. I invited and commissioned Dr. Ahmad Sadri, who has an impeccable command of English and Persian, to come on board to create a new translation. Incidentally, Sadri would become the first Iranian to translate Shahnameh into English. Other available translations are written by Western academics. They are dense and primarily targeting academic researchers. We wanted to create a text for the lay reader.

From our original Shahnameh book, we expanded what we call the Shahnameh Project to include a pop-up book and a puppet show based on the story of Zahhak; a big-stage shadow theater production on the story of Zaul and Rudabeh; a comic book; and now the audio book. We have been really committed to finding new and varied ways to get these stories out to the public.

Shahnameh pop-up book. Photograph: Kingorama

THE IRANIST: Some have made comparisons between HBO’s Game of Thrones with the Shahnameh. Do you think that is an accurate observation?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: Game of Thrones is very similar to the Shahnameh because there is one king sitting on the Persian throne and in the show, there’s one king siting on the Iron Throne in Kings Landing. In the world of Game of Thrones, the Kingdom of the North is ruled by House Stark, the Kingdom of the Mountain and the Vale is ruled by House Arryn, the Kingdom of the Reach is ruled by House Gardener. It’s the same with the Shahnameh. Rostam is the king of Zabolestan, Goudarz in Esfahan. Also, this reference of “Seven Kingdoms,” or seventh heaven, is also in the Shahnameh. Author George R. R. Martin has many inspirations for his successful franchise, I would imagine Shahnameh might be one.

THE IRANIST: What does the Shahnameh mean to you?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: For Iranians, the Shahnameh is a national identity. It is the reason why the Persian language is alive today. Syria, Egypt, and other contemporary Arab nations lost their indigenous languages to Arabic after the Arab invasion of the 700s. It almost happened to Iran, but with the efforts of the 10th-century Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi and the creation of Shahnameh, the language survived and thrived. Shahnameh is the longest poem written by a single poet. It includes four tragedies and four love stories and endless battles. The tome is divided into three parts. The first couple of chapters contain the mythology, while the epic section is the majority of the book and where the strength of the Ferdowsi’s command of storytelling is laid out. The third part is more or less historical. My Shahnameh does not contain this final section, but we are working on it as we speak to add the remaining part into this edition.

Growing up, I was never a fan of the Shahnameh, I was afraid of the text. It seemed overwhelming, full of plots within plots, with numerous characters, and complicated narratives. And, I think that generally, Shahnameh has always associated with the older generations. I was more into the Persian poets like Rumi, Hafez, and Saadi. But when I decided to create a new edition, I wanted to tackle exactly the emotion that prevented my generation from reading and connecting with the stories of Shahnameh. Contemporary audiences are used to stories that move fast, streamlined plots and continuous narrative threads that one can follow. For audiences that are familiar with Game of Thrones, we wanted to create something they could relate to.

THE IRANIST: What’s your favorite story from the Shahnameh?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: I have a few, but I really like the tragedy of Forud, who was the son of Siavash, titled in our Shahnameh, “The Wrong Path.” The story of Forud is one of the lesser known tales. It’s very operatic; bad choices and a lot of hubris take the characters on a desperate journey, which is doomed from the start and leads to immeasurable suffering. The story of Forud has strong character development and interesting nuisances, indicative of a modern tale. It was especially exciting to play with the sonic environment for this chapter where I had to develop the emotions of this great tragedy. It was melodramatic.

THE IRANIST: Did you see that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had your book in his library during an interview?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: Not only him. Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were gifted the book. The prime minister of India and the former queen of Iran had copies as well. Regarding Zarif, many were surprised to see a copy of this pre-Islamic mythology on the bookshelves of his office. But it’s important to remember that Ferdowsi wrote this text at the height of Islamic renascence in Iran. It’s very much part of the history of Iran, even in the Islamic age. There was a time when the Iranian government tried to clamp down on any texts that were not explicitly Islamic, but I feel that time has passed. Displaying that book on his shelve was a statement to the importance of all of our shared history.

Shahnameh audiobook: download off of iTunes and Audible. Photograph: Kingorama

THE IRANIST: Tell us more about the Shahnameh audiobook.
HAMID RAHMANIAN: The book came out in 2013 and has been very successful. Now, after five reprints and a second edition that came out in fall, I decided to go further. I designed an audiobook unlike anything on the market. It combines the dramatized stories with music and sound effects, all creating a sonic and immersive listening experience that takes the audience right into the middle of the world of Shahnameh.

I created a sonic landscape of the epic. It’s not necessarily something you turn on and listen to as background noise. It’s engaging and flamboyant. It’s twelve hours long. I used over 400 pieces of music and sound effects. I interwove the narrative and music and effects to create a cinematic experience. It was a really labor-intensive project. It took me eight months, 18 hours a day, listening to thousands upon thousands of pieces of sound to find what was right for a part of the story. For example, when you listen to the story of Bijan and Manijeh, there’s a knock on the door, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” And then immediately after that, the music starts. I thought I needed a musical piece with a three-beat tempo to match, so I started looking. It took me eight hours to find the appropriate music to blend the sound effect into the music. It’s all very intentional and curated. (Listen to audiobook samples)

THE IRANIST: Why did you choose to use only one voice actor?
HAMID RAHMANIAN: Mark Thompson is a very gifted narrator; all 61 character voices are his. We went with one narrator because I was trying to revive the naghali storytelling tradition in Iran that I remember growing up and seeing in the bazaars and on the streets. These lone troubadours would set up large painted murals that depicted battles, conquests, and celebrations. The naghal, or storyteller, would use a stick to point to different illustrated panels and retell the stories of Shahnameh. This oral tradition is hundreds of years old and interwoven into the cultural fabric of Iran. I loved the idea of paying homage to this living tradition. Mark did a great job of capturing the spirit of the text and dramatizing its essence.

THE IRANIST: How did Francis Ford Copolla get involved in the project? 
HAMID RAHMANIAN: When I was working on “Feathers of Fire”—a big stage shadow theater production of the love story of Zaul and Rudabeh—in San Francisco, a mutual friend gave Copolla a copy of my Shahnameh. He was already familiar with the text and appreciated the book. Copolla invited me for coffee, and later I invited him to see the show. We stayed in touch. As I was working on the audiobook, I asked Copolla if he would say a few things about the book and his own experience with the Shahnameh to help potential readers unfamiliar with the text. It was great to have his stamp of approval, so to speak.

Download the Shahnameh on iTunes

Purchase Hamid Rahmanian’s Shahnameh book.

Check out when “Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic” is coming to your city.