:: Article

Shirin (and Farhad (and, yes, also Khosrow))

By Agri Ismaïl.

Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, Safavid Dynasty, 16th Century

Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, Safavid Dynasty, 16th Century


Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, Safavid Dynasty, 16th Century

Well look, he didn’t say “Suppose she’s kiddin’”

And he didn’t say, “Suppose it rains”

And he didn’t say, “A tunnel, you can’t do that”

He just started shovelin’ and callin’ her name

Oh yeah, ’cause Shirin, oh Shirin

Had a real Mccoy lover in her young Fahrad

Oh yeah, yeah, in her Fahrad.

Jonathan Richman – Shirin And Fahrad

0. The Crawl

When the front crawl was reintroduced in the West (after the swimming stroke was largely forgotten during the middle ages), many swimmers only had textual descriptions in various newspapers at their disposal, often resulting in deformed variations of the actual stroke.1 Meanwhile, the stroke referred to as the Indian stroke in a multitude of texts until the late 1800s is now forgotten to us, most historians agreeing that it was a form of trudgen, but unable to derive its exact characteristics from textual references to the stroke.

We forget, we twist, we misremember.

1. Historical Accuracy

The story at hand is a love story, its protagonists Khosrow II (aka “the Victorious”, king of the Sasanian Empire from 590 to 628 AD), Shirin (his Aramean, and thus, Christian wife who ruled as queen) and Farhad (the often Kurdish, sometimes Chinese architect/sculptor). Though the historical detritus of the first two are scattered across the Kurdish region of Iran in the form of castles, cities and caves, it is unclear whether Farhad was also a historical figure. (The unroyal amongst us are more likely to slip into anonymity or fiction, after all.) Khosrow first appears in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings that to this day remains the national epic of Iran, but his love story is only alluded to, Ferdowsi preferring to focus on Khosrow’s heroic acts as king. It was Nizami Ganjavi who expanded on Khosrow’s story with the 12th century epic poem Khosrow & Shirin, an overplotted mess of staggering lyrical beauty and dubious character motivation that is now widely considered one of the most important texts in all of the Middle East.

In an attempt to simplify the story, many subsequent authors focus only on the Farhad subplot (which in Nizami’s text is simply a brief romantic complication for the OTP endgame of Khosrow and Shirin), and the events are moved around to more closely correspond to what we would today recognise as a romance: star-cross’d lovers from different socioeconomic backgrounds, difficult tasks to be performed to win the hand of the beloved followed by a tragic death due to evil rumours and subsequent miscommunication/overreaction. You know the drill.

Unburdened by the canonical weight of the Shahnahmeh and Nizami, non-Persian cultures have an easier time jettisoning the Khosrow part of the story, each culture twisting the story to better conform to their needs. In Mumbai director Aspi Irani’s 1956 movie Shirin Farhad, as well as in the opera Resurrected Iranian Kings, the Khosrow figure — rather than being a love interest — becomes Shirin’s father. The Kurds usually endeavour to make Farhad more likeable, while the Assyrians tend to paint Shirin as sympathetically as possible, each trying to place their own in the best possible light.

Which, if any, of these variations correspond to a historical truth is no longer known, but the castles of Shirin and Khosrow remain.

2. Kiarostami 

Still from Abbas Kiarostami Shirin

Still from Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 film Shirin is comprised entirely of close-ups of 115 actresses as they watch an adaptation of Khosrow & Shirin. Instead of being screened in a gallery setting, Kiarostami’s film was  released in regular cinemas, where the director’s loving close-ups — the likes of which we have rarely seen since Dreyer shot Falconetti — were shown next to The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda.

What makes Kiarostami’s movie interesting with regard to the mutable Shirin myth is the fact — never disclosed in the movie — that the actresses weren’t  actually watching  a Khosrow & Shirin adaptation at all. The film’s soundtrack was recorded only later, and the women are in fact looking at some dots above the camera, responding to the director’s prompts. That the story of Khosrow and Shirin was ultimately selected was a fortuitous fluke: an early sketch of the movie shown at Cannes used the soundtrack from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet instead, before Kiarostami decided to switch to his own country’s equivalent.

3. The Lustre Plate

(Copyright considerations preclude me from including an image of the plate in this text, but follow this link, and you can see it)

A decorative plate by Shams Al-Din Al-Hasani, which is part of the Smithsonian collection in Washington DC, was long believed to illustrate the famous scene where Khosrow finds Shirin bathing, one of the most replicated motifs in Persian art. An analysis of the scene depicted on the plate, however, led to the conclusion in the 1960s that this could not be them (because the figure believed to be Shirin was here naked, when she was robed in blue fabric in Nizami’s telling of the story as well as all subsequent depictions of the scene). This was, it turned out, the representation of some other folkloric tale, the origins of which are now lost to us.2

All we have left of this other tale is this plate, a plate we would still believe was the representation of Khosrow and Shirin if it hadn’t been for the assiduous work of two art historians.

4. Nizami

Nizami Ganjavi (1130-1209), author of Khosrow & Shirin, was a well-educated Persian poet who was displeased with the middling reception of his religious work but still wanted to make a living from poetry.

Though Nizami claimed that this early work had been commercially unsuccessful, he was still given a slave-girl named Afaq (which means “very white”) as a present by a ruler as a way to reward Nizami for a poem he had written.3 Now, I don’t know what, say, The New Yorker currently pays its poets, but considering you could get more than 10 cows and over 150 goats for a female slave in the 1200s in the nearby India, Nizami seemed to be doing pretty darn well.4 Regardless, he is said to fall in love with the slave-girl and marries her, and when she dies it will have been ten years since he’s written anything at all.

Much of the subsequent literary analysis (Chelkowski, Gandjeï, &c) surrounding Nizami’s Khosrow & Shirin (which Byron called “the Romeo and Juliet of the East”,  never mind that Nizami’s poem predates Shakespeare’s play by 400 odd years) mentions that it was the loss of Afaq that allowed him to pen a work of such lasting beauty, when in fact another reason he decided to switch genre to the heroic love story — even though he seemed to believe the genre was beneath him — was that he believed he could be more famous and make more money this way (“why should I trouble myself about mere passions?” he writes, before conceding that “However there is no one in the world today / who hasn’t a passion for poems on passion5). And so Nizami embraced the hack life, and wrote what he later ever so modestly referred to as “the sweetest story in the world”.

5. The Painter

Though Khosrow and Shirin’s meet-cute varies, Nizami’s version has Khosrow falling for Shirin after hearing a painter friend of his talk about her. The painter describes Shirin’s beauty, her beautiful companions, her beautiful horse. He says things like “her face is a wild rose, and her lips as sweet as her name”, which makes Khosrow fall madly in love with Shirin. Though this speech-act leading to actual love tends to be seen as a testament to the power of words, Nizami shows off in a bit of a metatextual flourish by of course writing the painter’s loving description himself and so demonstrating how good a writer he is  — by making a reader imagine that such prose would indeed make a king fall in love with a stranger.

(A slightly more MRA/PUA interpretation: Khosrow has Shirin’s value shown to him as he sees the painter so obviously smitten by the girl and so knows that she is worth having simply due to the approval of his friend.)

Khosrow sends the painter to Shirin where  he starts leaving paintings of Khosrow pinned to various trees. When Shirin sees  one of the paintings “her heart dissolved with joy” and “she seized it from the branch herself and worshipped it as if it were an idol. In its homage she drank wine; with every sip she kissed the ground”. Which, if people had a tendency to just start getting it on with paintings in ye olden middle eastern times, we can perhaps truly begin to understand Islam’s need to prohibit idolatry.

In summary: Khosrow only falls for Shirin because of the painter’s description, and Shirin only falls for Khosrow because of the painter’s paintings. It may be worth mentioning here that the painter is “covered with jewels” by Khosrow for his help: quite the little hustler was he.

6. Shirin

Shirin was beautiful. There really isn’t much more to her characterisation than that. Everything else is mutable: her agency, the true object of her affections, her political prowess, but the beauty remains. (After all, literature has shown us through the fates of Paris & Helen, Orpheus & Eurydice and countless others that if a man is going to do some incredibly stupid things, best have a pretty woman to blame it all on.)

According to the Kurdish literary critic Fakhir Z. Mohammad, Shirin’s lack of character is due to her story having been told a thousand times by a thousand people over a thousand years. “Time erodes complexities, whittles people down to their essence, down to a single word. Heroic, deceitful, brave, cunning. For Shirin that word is beautiful.”6

Aside from her beauty, which ultimately isn’t very interesting to a reader, it strikes me how callous she is with the men in her life: in many, if not most, variants of the story she asks Farhad to prove his love for her by performing frankly impossible tasks, such as carving a canal through an entire mountain so that she can drink milk whenever she wants to.  And when Khosrow and her finally wed — after enough sidetracks to make George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books seem like straightforward narratives, including a subplot where she sends him away to conquer the whole of the Persian empire before she is willing to wed him, a process that takes several years — she sends a “crone” into the bedroom with him because Khosrow is drunk and she wants to see if he would sleep with just anyone. Khosrow notices that the woman in his bed is not Shirin and kicks “the wrinkled, hairy, hunchbacked old womanservant” out of the room, furious. Shirin is content that “Khosrow was not beyond his senses” and joins him in the bedroom.

Such behaviour would be more understandable , of course, if she did not love the men in her life the way that the male writers of this love story insist that she did. Her reticence to commit to either king or architect (two professions that are prevalent in contemporary rom-coms though rarely concurrently) would make more sense if she did not like either of them, if hers were in fact a tale of captivity. In many of the Kurdish retellings of this story, the Khosrow figure is substituted by an evil emperor (this change in dynamics is not surprising, considering the Kurds have been under the yoke of brutal leaders for centuries). Said emperor promises to give Shirin to the young Farhad if he is able to dig through a mountain. A material reward, just as Nizami was given a slave girl for his poem.

Akin to how all that we know of the iconic patients in Freud’s journals is derived from the case studies, and thus Freud’s gaze,7 we must conclude that what we know of Shirin are only what we glean from the narratives insisted upon by male poets who seem desperate to interpret any of her acts as those of a woman in love. After all, Nizami has Shirin “accuse women of deceitfulness and [assert] that loyalty (vafa) can be found only in men,”8 which sounds more like what a man would want a woman to say than an honest transcription. In these eternally shape-shifting love stories, then, Shirin has become a Manic Pixie Dream Princess against her will.

7. Friend Zone Farhad

There is something pathetic about the Farhad character, the sort of Nice Guy™ that often covers a deep-seated misogyny. After all, Farhad repeatedly performs impossible tasks to win over Shirin’s love and does everything for her and yet she repeatedly chooses the bad guy who is never around. Farhad is someone who, before he starts to dig through an entire mountain just to impress Shirin, carves a life-size relief of Shirin into the cave wall and creepily kisses the relief’s feet every morning before starting work. “Every time [Farhad] broke the rock with his hammer, he said the name of Shirin, and the strength of his hammer became a thousand times greater because it was joined by the feeling of his heart.”9 When Shirin thanks him for doing what no man has ever been able to do before (by giving him her pearl earrings), Farhad “overwhelmed, fled to the desert, where he wandered, weeping and calling Shirin’s name. The wild beasts came to comfort him; the lion was his pillow and the wolf sat at his feet.”10 At one point, Farhad lifts Shirin’s tired horse onto his shoulders, because he’s just that strong, or that smitten. When the time has come to dispose of Farhad, Khosrow sends a messenger to tell him that Shirin has died from a fever and so Farhad kills himself. Sometimes he chops his head off with an axe (!), sometimes he leaps from the mountain to his death, but he always dies. Why he doesn’t do his due diligence before killing himself to make sure that Shirin is, in fact, truly dead is beyond me, but Kurds are known to overreact in love stories: there is a famous ballad in which a young lad is instructed by his beloved to bring red flowers from the pasha’s garden, so the lad breaks into the pasha’s palace but sees that there are only yellow flowers. He is discovered by the guards and narrowly manages to run away, bringing with him a bouquet of yellow flowers to said beloved who refuses them, saying that she wanted red flowers not yellow. The lad’s solution to this is to cut open his chest and dip the flowers in his own heart-blood. The flowers were red, at last.

No wonder we don’t have a country of our own, right?

8. Khosrow

When Khosrow and Farhad finally meet they do the 12th century epic poem equivalent of a rap battle: a verbal duel about Shirin, in stichomythic verses where they both talk about how much they love her and how beautiful they find her. Throughout this conversation, Khosrow sees Shirin “as a prize or booty to be conquered and possessed11 and, perhaps because of this, loses the verbal duel, but wins the battle by sending the messenger and orchestrating Farhad’s death.

Long before this, when Khosrow first arrives in Shirin’s home town (only to find that she has already left for his palace to find him), Khosrow doesn’t take the fastest steed in all the land (which he has previously used to “cover two days’ distance in one”) to catch up with her. Rather, he decides now would be a good time to “claim his rightful throne”, which he does until someone overthrows him and he finally goes to see Shirin (this is several years after he fell in love with her), who won’t sleep with him until they’re married. Before this can happen, however, Khosrow goes and marries someone else because that person’s father promises him an army of fifty thousand men, which Khosrow needs to protect his kingdom. So Shirin and Khosrow cannot get married until many years after this, when Khosrow’s first wife dies.

This is somewhat of an overwrought story, I know.

One final thing about Khosrow: when he finally gets stabbed to death in his bedroom (by his son from the first wife, as it happens), he wakes up “to find himself wounded and close to death. He thirsted for water but would not disturb Shirin, for he knew how tired she was.”

9. Historical Accuracy II 

Khosrow Beholding Shirin Bathing, India, c. 1720

Khosrow Beholding Shirin Bathing, India, c. 1720

The Behistun mountain is located in Kermanshah province, in western Iran (or eastern Kurdistan, depending on who you ask), it looks like any of the many other mountains surrounding it except for its tip being shaped not entirely unlike a trident or, if you’re a moody teenager with very narrow reference points who has run out of batteries on his Game Boy, the comic book supervillain Galactus’s helmet. The mountain is known for the Behistun Inscription, the cuneiform equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, and for being the setting of Farhad’s impressive feats. My father pointed to giant cavernous openings in the mountain and said that’s where Farhad carved a tunnel to prove his love to Shirin. The relief he carved of Shirin, to inspire him during the mountain-digging, was also there, eroded by time.

Except none of this is true: the reliefs are now known to be far older than the reign of Khosrow II and there don’t seem to have been any hand-dug caves, the internet now informs me. I call my parents but they can’t remember ever having told me any of this: the border city of Qasre-Shirin (Shirin’s Castle) was almost entirely destroyed by the Iran-Iraq war, they say, so it’s not impossible that what I remember seeing was the result of warfare. But I can’t have seen a cave, I’m told. Whatever I am remembering has to be something else.

I message an Iranian friend, asking them what I could have seen. They don’t know. They don’t remember the story that well to begin with and the Iranian government banned Nizami’s text in 2011 after it was deemed that the “references to the consumption of wine and unchaperoned visits between unmarried male and female characters” were sinful. Authorities especially objected to Shirin embracing Khosrow’s dead body, seeing in this a vulgar display of physical affection between a woman and a man.12Which one was Farhad again?” my friend asks, and I am made to perform a condensed version of the story since the Iranian government has banished the text and forced the story back to its oral roots. As I narrate the story, omitting some of the more nonsensical elements and adding new details, the tale of Shirin and Farhad and Khosrow mutates anew. As it always did and as it will keep on doing.

author pic


Agri Ismaïl is a Sweden and Iraq-based writer. His work has previously appeared in The White Review, Guernica, Asymptote, and Litro amongst other places. He tweets at @a9ri.


1. Axel Andersson, Den Koloniala Simskolan, Glänta Hardcore, 2016

2. Grace D. Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, “The Iconography of a Kāshān Luster Plate”, Ars Orientalis, Vol. 4, 1961.

3. When men, then, expect a woman as a prize for doing a good deed, we should perhaps look beyond Super Mario Bros and its Princess Peach-shaped reward and into actual human history.

4. Najaf Haider Jawaharlal Nehru, Prices and Wages in India (1200-1800): Source Material, Historiography and New Directions, University New Delhi.

5. A.J. Arberry, Classical Persian Literature, RoutledgeCurzon, 1958.

6. Fakhir Z. Mohammad, The Oral History of Shirin and Farhad, Mazda, 2008.

7. Karin Johannisson, Den Sårade Divan, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2015.

8. Minoo S. Southgate, “Men, Women, and Boys: Love and Sex in the Works of Sa’di”, Iranian Studies, Volume 17, Issue 4, 1984.

9. Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan: The Alchemy of Happiness, Library of Alexandria, 1960.

10. Peter J. Chelkowski, Mirror of the Invisible World: Tales from the Khamseh of Nizami, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.

11. Encyclopaedia Iranica, under “Farhad”.

12. Blake Atwood, “Sense and Censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, World Literature Today, Vol. 86, No. 3, 2012.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 11th, 2016.