Two Epics: “Samak the Ayyar” and “The Tale of Princess Fatima”

Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted by) (Columbia University Press, August 2021); The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma,  Melanie Magidow, (trans, ed) (Penguin Classics, August 2021) Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted by) (Columbia University Press, August 2021); The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma, Melanie Magidow, (trans, ed) (Penguin Classics, August 2021)

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.

Two volumes are welcome additions to the list of “oriental” tales available in English, and both of them digress from the usual format of epics: the Persian tale Samak the Ayyar features a commoner as protagonist in addition to a gallant prince and beautiful women, while the Arabic Tale of Princess Fatima has at its core a warrior woman, other female fighters who oppose her, and the men who love her or fight with her. In neither case are divine or superhuman powers attributed to the heroes (as we see, for example, in Homer), although they are, of course, on the right side of God. The women in Samak the Ayyar are no shrinking violets, either; there’s a powerful witch and Ruhfaza, another tough woman who helps Samak out as he tries to rescue first a Persian prince and then a kidnapped princess. Both books are part of much larger works; the complete Samak the Ayyar comes to five volumes, of which this one is the first (more are promised), and The Tale of Princess Fatima has been extracted and abridged from a work “of seven volumes and more than six thousand pages”, as editor and translator Melanie Magidow recounts. These massive epics easily dwarf their western counterparts such as the Chanson de Roland or El Cid, and even prose epics like War and Peace can each fit into one fat volume. Only Proust comes close!

These massive epics easily dwarf their western counterparts.

An ayyar is a Persian warrior who might be loosely compared to a Japanese samurai or a knight errant from an Arthurian romance. He owes allegiance to his own warrior class, which is not determined by geography; Samak, for example, is an ayyar from the land of Chin who decides to help Prince Khorshid Shah of Persia rescue his brother Farokhruz from the evil witch Shervaneh. Like the samurai, he adheres to a code of conduct, which is explained to the prince by Shaghal, Samak’s mentor. “There is no limit to being an ayyar,” Shaghal says, “but there are seventy-two principles that every ayyar knows.” Luckily for the prince, Shaghal sums it all up by saying that the “two most important” are “to keep secrets and to help those in need.” As the scholar Roxana Zenhari tells us, this code is known as javānmardi, the measure by which a warrior’s worth is calculated, but, as is the case here, the ayyar sees a kindred spirit in a man who will risk his life to help his brother out of a desperate situation, which suggests that Prince Khorshid Shah is worthy of being helped by an ayyar.

Of course, the characters of the two heroes are somewhat different. Samak is not just a great fighter; he’s intelligent and compassionate, as well as being capable of love and devotion, and just plain likeable, as is Princess Fatima, at least when one is on the right side of her. Fatima, too, has a mixture of personality traits; her fighting success often depends on stealth, but, unlike Samak, she has to deal with a rigidly patriarchal world in order to be who she is, so a good part of her battle is defining herself in terms of that world, which considers her a threat (think Tamora, the warrior-queen in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus). Like Samak, Fatima also adheres to a warrior code, but unlike him she has to confront difficulties with her father and a cousin, Walid, eventually defeating him in hand-to-hand combat after she consistently refuses his advances and offers of marriage, he rapes her anyway, and the rape results in a black son, Abdelwahhab, who himself becomes a great warrior after being repudiated by his father. “I may look dark,” he says in verse to his mother, “but my heart is bright enough to light up the world.” After this, Fatima finds herself up against another formidable woman, Princess Nura, who says at one point that Fatima’s army “give great effort, but I killed sixteen of them today.” Like Samak, Fatima wins most of her battles and triumphs, as one would expect, over all adversity, dying peacefully in her bed a rich, famous, magnanimous (she forgives and liberates Nura) and respected woman. The plot is, of course, complicated by the fact that Fatima is a woman and one that “had no patience for humiliation,” but her fighting skills, wit and personal strength win over the men in the story. As for Samak, we’ll have to wait for the final volume to come out.

It’s not always clear what “adapted” implies.

There’s no need to elaborate on the plot of these two books here, but the shape in which they are presented here merits some words. Samak is “adapted” by Jordan Mechner from a translation by Freydoon Rassouli, but it’s not always clear what “adapted” implies. Mechner, who knows no Persian, is the creator of Prince of Persia, a well-received video game, and as such knows what keeps people’s attention; however, to ”adapt” something also conjures up shades of old Thomas Bowdler, the redoubtable Victorian sanitiser of Shakespeare. Have Magidow and Mechner somehow tampered with the texts in order to make them more palatable to modern readers? In her introduction to The Tale of Princess Fatima, Magidow states that she chose to “gently downplay some of the religious phraseology, by removing a few culturally specific references that distract from the plot and characters.” She does not explain how they do this or give any examples; we simply have to take her word for it. She also removed “gratuitous descriptions of violence.” Would a translator of the Iliad or the Aeneid do that? “I delivered it in my style,” Magidow explains further, “sensitive to the patriarchal and dominant strains in the omniscient narrator that would lose contemporary readers.” Would they? After all, the Arab society depicted in the book was patriarchal and dominant, whether we like it or not, and as readers do we not want to experience the cultural background as it actually was? Mechner gives as his reason for adapting a desire to produce a clearer text with a unified narrative voice (also omniscient), as there are several versions of Samak. He also “streamlined narrations that seemed tedious or repetitive.” These, perhaps, are good reasons. The problem, in the end, is that Samak isn’t exactly the Prince of Persia and Fatima isn’t Mulan, Wonder Woman or the heroine of The Hunger Games. Great stories such as these don’t need to be somehow connected to video games and movies in order to have an effect or keep readers’ interest in a world of visuals and short attention-spans. I don’t mean to condemn these practices—they just make me wonder exactly what I am reading. How “authentic” are these texts, or should one care about that as long as the spirit of the work is conveyed? The rather rapid summing-up at the end of Princess Fatima raised some questions about authenticity, too. After all the adventures, Fatima becomes ill and dies “during hajj in Mecca one year,” in one short paragraph at the end of the book.

This having been noted, the above remarks do not necessarily suggest that either translator or adapter was somehow putting one over on the reader by providing an inauthentic text, and perhaps they were right in gauging the cultural milieu of modern readers and what their expectations might be. In the end it’s a personal preference, and it does matter who prospective audiences for such books might be, although I doubt very much that people who like Wonder Woman are going to explore a book like The Tale of Princess Fatima. In the end it’s impossible for someone not familiar with the language of the original to know exactly what was done with the text, and perhaps, in view of the readbility of both books, it doesn’t really matter that much. There are certainly precedents for adaptations; in 1869, for instance, William Morris began to issue versions of Icelandic sagas; he worked from literal English translations by his friend Eiríkur Magnusson and turned the prose into verse, as his own knowledge of Icelandic was rather elementary. Now that was taking liberties, considering the sagas were written in prose! At the same time, though, the method used by Morris and Magnusson was hardly different from that of Rassouli and Mechner in Samak. “Our priority,” they state, “was to create an entertaining, readable yet faithful and complete modern language version of Samak-e-ayyar,” and in this they succeeded, as does Magidow in Princess Fatima.

Given the fact that these books are not well-known to Western readers, the translators and adapter have done sterling work in making them accessible to a wider audience, and of course anyone who reads and enjoys them is free to ignore the reservations of one reviewer. These works are fast-paced, exciting narratives which retain the interest of the readers and make them wish for more, although the sheer size of both these works is daunting! The present texts are wonderful additions to our knowledge of Persian and Arabic literature, and it’s to be hoped that they will lead readers to explore works like the Shahnameh or Vis and Ramin, all of which give us a glimpse into unfamiliar societies, social structures and cultural landscapes as well as providing great stories. Both are highly recommended. 

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.