A few days ago, my husband and I were discussing the meaning of the word “brave.”
“It can’t simply mean courageous,” he said. And, to clarify, he quoted Miranda’s famous line from The Tempest,“O brave new world that has such people in’t.” In this context, the word means something like “magnificent,” “splendid,” or “impressive.” Used in this way, it’s a good description of a story I’ve been immersed in for the past month.
|Hunting Scene from the Shahnameh|
This year I’m in the middle of a three-year project in which Gerry Fierst and I are collaborating with a group of ELA teachers at Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, NJ. It is an exciting project, the ultimate goal of which is to create a storytelling culture in the school. The six teachers with whom we’re working are learning to embed storytelling and storytelling-centered activities in their ELA curricula. Professional development for these teachers takes place both in and outside of the classroom.
In September of 2017, Gerry and I began telling stories and implementing follow-up activities to model how we use story to enhance curriculum. As the first year of the project developed, teachers began to take on responsibility for planning activities and some of them began telling stories, themselves. This year, my teachers continue to take on more responsibility for planning and teaching storytelling-based lessons and, although I’m still telling in some classes, I’ve become mostly a resource for tales. One exception to this routine was the lessons I taught in December to Kathleen Dellanno’s 10thgrade students. In these classes, I learned with the students. Here is the story.
In one of our early planning workshops this year, Kathleen told me that she had decided to add The Kite Runner, the novel by Khaled Hosseini, to all of her 10th grade reading lists. She said that it had been summer reading for her Honors students and those students were so moved and excited by the book that she wanted to give all of her classes the opportunity to read it. “We’ll be able to find connections to storytelling,” she said. “Stories are an important part of the book.” I had not yet read The Kite Runner so, as soon as I got home that day, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began a storytelling adventure.
Most of The Kite Runner is set in Kabul, Afghanistan and tells the story of two boys: Amir, a wealthy Pashtun, and Hassan, his Hazara servant, who come of age at the time of the fall of the Afghan monarchy and the subsequent Soviet intervention. The boys’ relationship is complicated by many things, among which are class differences and their relationships with their fathers and father-figures. One of the pleasures of their young lives is sharing stories from the Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings”, an epic written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 10thcentury C.E. In the novel, the boys sit in the branches of a pomegranate tree where Amir reads stories from the Shahnameh to the illiterate Hassan. Their favorite tale is that of Rostam and Sohrab, a tragedy in which a father unwittingly kills his son.
When I finished reading The Kite Runner, my first idea for connecting it to oral story was to learn to tell “Rostam and Sohrab” so I began to read the Shahnameh. After sampling three translations, I chose to read the Penguin edition translated by Dick Davis. It is the most recent translation and Davis has rendered most of the text in prose narrative with sprinklings of verse. (The original is all rhymed couplets.)
The story of Rostam begins about a quarter of the way through this massive tale, so I became engrossed in, what for me was, a completely new world of myth, legend, and history before I began reading the story I initially planned to tell. Almost from the beginning of my journey through the Shahnameh, I realized that, although the story of Rostam and Sohrab may be most central to Hosseini’s novel, other themes of the epic reverberate through the story of Amir and Hassan. Because the Shahnameh is about the rise and fall of royal dynasties, there are many stories about fathers and sons, each with their own unique complications. Some of these reminded me of conflicts in The Kite Runner. For example, the hero Sam initially rejects his son, Zal, because he sees in him no similarity to himself. In the novel, Amir’s father, Baba, expresses the same thought when describing his feelings about Amir. There are also issues of class distinctions in the Shahnameh and, as in The Kite Runner, the upper-class characters often lack the nobility and moral strength displayed by their servants.
It may be that the reason I was able to make these connections between the novel and the poem is because these themes are universal and, if I had followed my reading of The Kite Runner with a body of story from another culture, I would have found similar connections to the novel. In fact, the stories of the Persian kings and heroes share motifs with the stories of the Hebrew Bible, the epics of Homer, the Mahabharata, and other “big” stories from various cultures.
One definite parallel between The Kite Runner and the Shahnameh, however, is the setting. Early on in our study of the novel, Kathleen said, “Hosseini has made Afghanistan a character in this book.” I think that’s true. The events in the novel make the reader feel the country’s suffering, as well as the suffering of the characters. Reading it allowed me to empathize with the people of modern-day Afghanistan in a way that news articles and, even, photographs had not. In a similar way, the Shahnameh is about the long history of struggle in the same region and reading it often gave me a feeling of déjà vu – the wars for territory, conflicts over differences of belief, struggles within families, blatant destruction of cities and monuments could be descriptions of current events. And, like the novel, the poem made all of these acts more real for me.
But the Shahameh, like The Kite Runner, also paints a picture of an exquisitely beautiful place, - a land of gardens, fountains, and palaces – peopled with gorgeous characters, and containing wealth beyond comprehension. A truely brave world.