Samak the Ayyar [A Review]

Samak – a warrior, a hero and a prankster – is the hero of a tradition of ancient Persian storytelling never before available in English. This book, the first in a planned five volumes from Columbia University Press, brings the epic of Samak the Ayyar to English readers for the first time.

Samak the Ayyar Cover Image

In the city of Chin, a young man wanders the bazaar. A stranger in the city, he has found himself in a situation beyond his powers to remedy. Walking through the bazaar is a powerful looking man, accompanied by a younger man and an entourage of armed soldiers. The stranger asks the locals who the men are. He is told the first man is Shaghal, head of the ayyars, the younger man is his adopted son, Samak. The ayyars have no official standing, but the citizens know they can turn to them for protection from injustice. The stranger manages to get an audience with Shaghal, to explain his case.

The stranger tells Shaghal and Samak that he is from Persia. The King of Persia, Marzban Shah, was without an heir. The King was told by an astrologer that he would have a son by a foreign princess, one who was already married and had a son. Golnahr, the daughter of Somaregh, King of Iraq, and recently widowed, fits the description. A marriage is soon arranged and the new queen has a beautiful boy they name Khorshid Shah – the Sun King.

Khorshid Shah and his half-brother, Farokhruz, to whom he has a striking resemblance, grow up together and are best friends. When seventeen years old Khorshid Shah goes on a week-long hunting trip. Chasing a zebra, Khorshid Shah becomes isolated from his party and comes to the edge of a desert. In the distance he sees a column of smoke and decides to investigate. He arrives at a luxurious red tent. Inside he finds a beautiful princess. Each is surprised by the other and full of questions, but when Khorshid Shah drinks the water she gives him, he becomes dizzy and loses consciousness. His party find him in the desert, the tent and princess gone. On his finger there is a new ring.

Khorshid Shah’s father, the King, doesn’t know what to make of his story and no one can decipher the markings on the ring. Khorshid Shah soon falls ill, sick with love for the princess he cannot stop thinking about. All an astrologer can tell them is that Khorshid Shah will leave his Persian home and rule a vast kingdom. An old man comes forward saying he can translate the meaning of the ring. He says the ring belongs to a princess named Mahpari, daughter of Faghfur Shah, King of Chin. She is not married but is dominated by her nurse, a clever witch named Shervaneh. The witch has set three challenges that must be met by anyone who wants Mahpari’s hand. None have succeeded. He suggests that the Zebra was the witch herself, luring Khorshid Shah to Mahpari.

Khorshid Shah, wants to leave for Chin to pursue Mahpari. The King and his advisors are divided – anxious that it is all an elaborate trap and sceptical of the old man’s interpretation fearing he may be part of the plot too. In the end Khorshid Shah is allowed to leave, the fact that the astrologer predicted a happy ending persuading them. He leaves with an accompanying army, a hoard of gold and treasure as a gift for the King of Chin, and his half-brother, Farokhruz, who has sworn to protect Khorshid Shah.

Despite a moment of danger, where two of their generals plot to kill the princes and make off with the treasure, Khorshid Shah arrives at Chin, meets with the King and is ready to take on the challenges and win Princess Mahpari’s hand. It starts off well. The first challenge is to tame a wild horse which Khorshid Shah does with ease. The second is to wrestle a giant Abyssinian warrior and defeat him by pinning him to the ground. Khorshid Shah also does this with ease, even spinning the Abyssinian over his head, before defeating him. The third challenge is to find a talking Cyprus tree. Khorshid Shah asks for three days to complete this task but the witch, Shervaneh, perhaps fearing defeat, denies his request and flies out of the room with the prince as her prisoner.

This is the story the stranger tells Shaghal and Samak. But there is one thing no one else knows – the man the witch kidnapped was not Khorshid Shah but his brother Farokhruz! It was Khorshid Shah who completed the two challenges but, out of concern for his safety, the princes would swap places when in an audience with the King and the witch. Khorshid Shah is in fact the stranger before them, hoping the ayyars can help him in his predicament. Shaghal offers the services of the ayyars to Khorshid Shah in his mission but is unsure how to best proceed. Fortunately, Samak has a daring plan.

So begins the epic tale of Samak the Ayyar. The story quickly escalates into something far larger than anything Samak, Shaghal, Khorshid Shah or Farokhruz ever anticipated. For Khorshid Shah is not the only prince with a mind to winning Mahpari’s hand and with it, the Kingdom of Chin. What begins as a fairy tale mission to defeat a witch and win a princess’ love evolves into a brutal war between two city states. As well as Kings and princes; generals, viziers and heroic warriors orchestrate matters on the battleground. But behind the front lines, espionage, abductions, betrayals and sabotage could be where the war is won or lost. Ever present are the ayyars, whose skills will determine the outcome.

When Armen Shah heard the messenger’s report, he shouted in fury: “How much bad news must I receive in one day? Tiruq, our great champion, slain! Twelve Canyons Fortress fallen! The prisoners gone! How can one man do so much harm, and we with our army of thousands cannot stop him?”

Samak is the hero of this ancient Persian romantic adventure epic. As a hero, a warrior and a trickster, Samak conjures comparisons with other ancient heroes such as Odysseus or Heracles. An immediately apparent difference with Samak, though, is that he is a commoner, with no royal or divine blood.

Khorshid Shah was so excited to see Samak that he stood up from his throne and walked toward him with open arms. Everyone else present immediately stood up, following the prince’s example. It was an extraordinary honour for the prince of Persia to greet a commoner with such humility.

 He is also a bit of a prankster and a joker. Samak is also an ‘ayyar’, but who were the ayyars?

The ayyars were a Persian warrior class with roots going back thousands of years. As a fraternity of men skilled in the arts of combat and espionage, guided by a code of ethics, it is tempting to compare them to Samurai or an Order of knights. Their independence from the ruling class and devotion to common people make them a little more like Robin Hood’s Merry Men. But operating in the setting of the ancient world, predating feudalism let alone modernity, makes a precise analogy a little difficult to produce. They are not as sectarian or motivated by religion as the Order of Assassins, whose era coincided with the period when Samak the Ayyar was transcribed. Also, as becomes clear in this story, the ayyars that Samak belong to are not the only ones. Other city states have their own ayyars and some ayyars live nomadically. These other groups of ayyars are mostly independent of each other and do not necessarily share any allegiance to each other or even observe the same code. The ayyars of Chin, that Samak belongs to, live by a code of 72 principles, the two most important being keeping secrets and helping those in need.

Samak asked about the ayyars of the city. The old man explained that Machin’s ayyars backed the nobility and the ruling class. The was the opposite of the situation in Chin, where the ayyars always protected the public from oppression by the nobility.

Stories of Samak the Ayyar have circulated for centuries, performed orally by professional storytellers before finally being transcribed in the 12th century, some of it possibly as early as the 9th century, making it somewhat contemporaneous with the Thousand and One Nights. Like most extant ancient literature, it is fortunate to still be available to us, having been nearly lost to us several times. This book is the first volume of five to be published by Columbia University Press in what is believed to be the first English language translation of the epic of Samak the ayyar, based in part on a six-volume edition of the epic published in Tehran in 1969, compiled from disparate source material by Dr Parviz Natal Khanlari, an Iranian academic.  

If, like me, you have read the Thousand and One Nights or Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, or at least part of them, you may know what to expect from Samak the Ayyar. The story is very plot-heavy and the plot moves quickly. Every few chapters, or section of chapters, contains enough action for an entire adventure story in itself. The story I introduced above is contained in just the first four chapters in a book of 55. The story is able to move quickly because the narration is very bare as you would expect from ancient oral-tradition storytelling. You should not expect complex characterisation, long descriptive pieces to create mood, fractured timelines, changes of pace or drawn-out tension, as you might with more modern storytelling. The narration tells you plainly what happens in the order it happens with no commentary and lets the action speak for itself.

The narration is, not only omniscient, but shares much of its omniscience with the reader. There is therefore not much in the way of twists or surprises in the story since the reader often knows everything that is going on. The story is also very repetitive. Not necessarily in the use of repeated phrases, like what you get when reading epic poetry like Homer, but more in the plot. This book is mostly a story of kidnappings and abductions, followed by rescues and escapes, occurring behind the frontlines of battle and diplomacy between the two warring city states of Chin and Machin. The rescues and escapes from heavily-guarded palaces and prisons, impenetrable and isolated fortresses, are accomplished with little difficulty with the same methods used repeatedly. At times, the story can also stretch the reader’s credulity with its use of coincidence, convenience and good fortune.

All this being said, Samak the Ayyar does contain elements that give it a point of difference to other stories you may be familiar with. While it is true the oversharing narrator does not leave much to imagine, there are moments of genuine surprise, twists or mysteries and moments when characters keep things to themselves and reveal them later. Unlike similar tales, not everyone in the story, including Samak, is brilliant at what they do. Some are more humanising; they make mistakes, overlook things or just are not very competent. The women in the story are not only sheltered princesses, beautiful virgins or dutiful handmaids; some are adept in the same arts as Samak and want to become ayyars themselves, something Samak admires and encourages. And complexities arise as Samak realises he can’t fulfill all of the promises he’s made, must prioritise between those he is loyal too or pledged to serve and finds he cannot necessarily trust those he’s made alliances with. It isn’t just the villains who may be denied a happy ending in this epic. It cannot be understated how much these aspects add to the story. There are also a few moments that are genuinely funny.

Khanlari’s edition quickly went out of print and tracking down copies of it proved difficult. These Columbia University Press volumes of the Samak the Ayyar epic have been translated from the original Persian by Freydoon Rassouli and adapted by Jordan Mechner, best known as a creator of the Prince of Persia video game franchise. In the Introduction to this volume, Mechner describes how he and Rassouli met and resolved to bring the epic of Samak the Ayyar to a global audience.

But as well as being translated, this edition has also been ‘adapted’. What does that mean? From what I gather from the publisher’s response to my query and what Mechner says in his introduction is that it means smoothing out the narrative to remove inconsistencies and other minor issues, to make it more readable and engaging, while being faithful and respectful to the original. Samar the Ayyar is not a work of literature written by a single author. As such, the source material suffers from understandable problems as Mechner says:

A traveller makes a journey in one day that is described elsewhere as taking a month. A person on foot arrives before a rider on horseback. A character established as being in a particular place disappears for a stretch, as if the storyteller had forgotten he was there. Two characters meet for the first time, unaware that they had already shared an escapade several chapters earlier. The pacing is uneven: the death of a minor character is described in detail, while one central to the story is dispatched abruptly with little fanfare.

[…] As much as Rassouli and I wanted to be faithful to the original, it became clear that a strict literal translation would be a book few readers would have the patience to finish. Some dramatic licence was required.

This sounds fine to me and I’m sure most readers would welcome it too. It must have been a difficult task and not one that can be absolutely completed – some inconsistencies remain from what I can tell, but must be forgiven for the sake of the plot. What I had feared, when I heard it had been ‘adapted’, was that it had also been ‘sanitised’ in some way. That, rather than risk upsetting 21st century readers, it had been cleansed of aspects that modern readers might find objectionable. I would not have wanted that; I prefer literature to reflect the time and place of its creation and to experience it on those terms. But I know of no evidence of that approach and assume from their assurances of faithfulness that they have not taken that path.

As I say, if you have read the Thousand and One Nights or The Shahnameh; or ancient epic poetry like Homer; or even literature that predates the modern novel like The Canterbury Tales, then you know what to expect from the style of Samak the Ayyar. It is not going to be as engaging and entertaining as your latest genre fiction. But that’s not why we read books like this. We read them to participate in the history of storytelling and literature and to lend our support to keeping the rare shards of this history alive. We can see in the moments Samak the Ayyar offers something different, a step in the evolution of literature that shows how it got to where it is today. For those of us outside of Persian culture, we also read books like this to experience other cultures, to share in the humanising universality of storytelling and support the work of translators in bringing them to us. This first volume of Samak the Ayyar leaves much unresolved. Hopefully readers will soon be able to continue the story. If Rassouli and Mechner succeed, Samak the Ayyar may one day be as well read as the Thousand and One Nights.

Note – Samak the Ayyar will be published by Columbia University Press on August 3, 2021. Columbia University Press provided me with an advanced copy in exchange for an independent review. You can purchase the book here.

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