If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.
If you are in Tokyo and you’re riding on the Yamanote Line, you are likely heading to one of the major shopping destinations on that line, such as Shibuya, Shinagawa, or Tokyo Station. If you are going to Tokyo Station, you will pass through Komagome, once a place in the country where people had villas with gardens. It was where the noblewoman Ogimachi Machiko (ca 1679-1724), second concubine to Lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714) composed her classic memoir, In the Shelter of the Pine, covering the years from 1690 to about 1710.
The adventures of Samak, a trickster-warrior hero of Persia’s thousand-year-old oral storytelling tradition, are beloved in Iran. Samak is an ayyar, a warrior who comes from the common people and embodies the ideals of loyalty, selflessness, and honor—a figure that recalls samurai, ronin, and knights yet is distinctive to Persian legend. His exploits—set against an epic background of palace intrigue, battlefield heroics, and star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess—are as deeply rooted in Persian culture as are the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur in the West. However, this majestic tale has remained little known outside Iran.
Year in year out Spain produces 1,500 kilos of that delicate spice, saffron, sold wholesale for US$700 per 100 grams. Gourmets were puzzled a few years back when 1900 kilos of Spanish saffron hit the market. Food inspectors soon discovered that the yellow powder contained traces of the flavorless plant root, or worse, animal droppings. The huge increase in volume came from the diversion of Iranian saffron, whose sale is stifled by the American embargo, to Spain’s packagers. Along the way crooks put their fingers on the scale by adding the impurities. Similar scams were practiced by spice dealers in 13th-century Damascus, involving precious products like myrobalan, agarwood, ginger, indigo, musk, ambergris. “Wise up to these things,” exhorts the Book of Charlatans, this newly translated compendium of tricks, cheats and phony spells.
Top Graduate Zhang Xie is the first extant play in the Chinese southern dramatic tradition and a milestone in the history of Chinese literature. Dating from the early fifteenth century, but possibly composed earlier, it is the work of a writing club called the Nine Mountain Society.
The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is widely held to be the greatest work of Chinese literature, beloved by readers ever since it was first published in 1791. The story revolves around the young scion of a mighty clan who, instead of studying for the civil service examinations, frolics with his maidservants and girl cousins. The narrative is cast within a mythic framework in which the protagonist’s rebellion against Confucian strictures is guided by a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest. Embedded in the novel is a biting critique of imperial China’s political and social system.
Journey to the West, and especially the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is beloved by readers across China, East Asia, and beyond. The story and its characters have been written and rewritten in books, comics, graphic novels, movies, television shows, and video games. In many ways, Journey to the West and Son Wukong have become archetypes: stories and characters that people refer to and recognize, without ever looking at the original source material.