The story of Ārash the Archer dates back to ancient times and still has inspirational and timely messages for us today. Ārash’s heroism has inspired Iranians century after century with his courage and self-sacrifice. He defeated an unjust enemy with a single arrow and returned confidence and pride to his people. The best known version from the 20th century is that of the poet Seyavash Kasraii, whose life spanned the final years of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic.
In today’s world the poem resonates with the fear and tragedy that come with oppressive regimes and with the non-violent heroism of those who stand for freedom. Looking further, we may see the role played by artists in humanitarian causes.
Kasraii sets the ancient tale at the fireside, in a hut high in the mountains. Amu Noruz arrives from afar and tells Ārash’s tale. This kind of story within story is a much beloved form of oral and written literature in the middle east, including the 1001 Nights. Kasraii’s poetic style is reminiscent of ancient epics. His occasional ambiguities leave openings for the reader’s own interpretations, although in his own time the use of ambiguity and metaphor helped him to avoid censorship.
In 2014 Haideh Hashemi and I worked together to translate this poem from Farsi to English. We had a lot of fun with it and hope we have given you hints of the beauty of the original poetic language.
Ārash the Archer
Snow is falling,
Snow is falling on thorn bushes and on granite rock,
Mountains are silent,
Valleys are lonesome.
The roads are watching for a caravan and the sound of its bells.
If no smoke were rising from the hut roof,
If the flickering of a lamp did not convey our message,
If there were no footprints on the slippery paths,
What would we do in our heart’s confusion, brought on by the snow storm and its cold breath?
Now, now, a lighted hut appears
On a hill facing me…
The door opened.
Kind people welcomed me in.
Soon I knew that far from our story of the snow’s anger and frostbite,
Amu Noruz would sit by the fire and tell his children a tale of olden times1.
“I said that life is beautiful.
I said it and yet that’s not all. Life has many facets that remain to be discovered.
Flowers emerging from under snow,
The soft glow of fish dancing in crystal waters.
The aroma of earth softened by rain in the mountains.
Sleeping wheat fields seen in moonlit springs,
Coming, going, running,
Sitting with another in sorrow,
Moving to the rhythm of our joyous dance.
And coming to rest.
Surveying vistas of dry and thirsty deserts,
Drinking pure water from an earthen jar,
Taking sheep to the mountains at dawn,
Singing in one breath with the homeless mountain nightingale.
Giving milk to a fawn caught in a trap, and setting it free.
Resting in the midday of our tiredness, in the shelter of a valley.
Now and then,
Under the ceiling of these mist-covered earthen brick roofs.
Hearing the raindrops’ voices drumming tangled tales of sorrow,
Seeing the motionless rainbow cradle in a corner of the roof.
Or, sitting by the fireside on a snowy night,
Hearts giving themselves to dreams in the mesmerizing blaze.
Becoming one with the spreading flames.
Yes, yes, life is beautiful.
The life inside a fireplace may endure for a long time.
If you feed it, the dance of its flames can be seen everywhere.
But if you do not, the fire goes out, and that is our fault.”
The old man, calm, smiling,
Threw a log to the fire’s dying soul,
His eyes searched the darkness of the hut,
Whispering, he slowly talked with himself.
“We must feed the flames of life. Flames of burning wood.
You are a forest, oh my people!2
A noble forest, grown from the essence of freedom.
Generously spreading over the mountain’s skirt.
May the nests that rest on your fingertips abide there to eternity,
Springs bubbling in your shady places.
Sun, wind, and rain are sown on your head.
Your soul serves the fire.
Be proud and be green, oh human forest!
“Life needs flames,” the voice of Amu Noruz rang out,
“The flame’s light will burst forth from carefully laid kindling.”
My children, our story is about Ārash.
His soul was dedicated to serving the garden of fire.
There was a time,
A dark and bitter time.
Our fortunes were as dark as the faces of those who wished us ill,
The enemy victorious over our soul.
The city received a blow and was left reeling, hallucinating.
The city had many story fragments on its tongue.
Life cold and black as rock,
A time of shame.
Zealous care for those we love, contorted in bondage.
Love has lost its soul to the illness of dying hearts.
All seasons turned to winter.
The pleasure of gazing out onto flower gardens was lost.
Sitting in a place of rest,
In silent sanctuaries,
The aroma of forgetfulness seeps into the flower of thought.
Fear was there, and the wings of death,
Like still leaves on a branch, no one moved.
The freedom-loving Iranian camp was silent,
While the enemy tents were full of movement.
Boundaries of the land unsettled,
As are the borders of thought’s expanse.
Towers of the city,
Like ramparts of the heart, defeated and ruined.
The enemy’s numbers surpassed all boundaries and belief.
No one had the energy even for vengeful thoughts,
There was no affection,
No one offered a hand to another, nor did they exchange smiles.
Gardens of desire with no leaves,
Skies full of tears.
Warm-hearted and free people were now in bondage.
And only villains flourished.
The enemy assembled again and again,
They brought their advisors and champions
To bring forth a plan from their impure hearts.
They wanted to place our defeat in our own hands.
Their finely detailed and shameless schemes —
May they never see a better day —
At last they discovered the ruse they had been searching for.
Eyes full of fear
Search in all directions,
Every mouth repeats this news, whispering ear to ear.
“The last command, the last humiliation…
An arrow’s flight will determine the boundary!
If it lands nearby,
Our houses will be crushed narrow.
Our wishes are blind.
Even if the arrow flies far,
Where to? How far?
Oh! Where is the arm of steel and where is the hand of fate?
Every mouth repeats this news,
Eyes communicate in silence
As they search in every direction.”
The old man sadly rubbed one hand with the other.
From distant valleys came the howling of a tired wolf,
Snow falling on snow.
Wind rubbing its wings against the window panes.
“Morning was on the way,” the old man said calmly,
“The enemy’s army faced the army of friends,
Not a field but a sea of soldiers…
The sky had given up its diamond stars.
Darkness became breathless in the mouth of morning,
The wind was pouring over the open fields at the foot of the Alborz Mountains.3
The Iranian army was plagued by a painful anxiety,
Two by two, three by three, whispering among themselves.
Children on rooftops,
Girls sitting at windows,
Sad mothers by the door.
Little by little the whispering rose up, ever louder
People, like a restless sea,
Came to a boil.
They began to rage,
And rose up into waves.
One wave sliced open its chest and a man emerged like a pearl from a shell.
“I am Ārash.”
Thus the man began speaking to the enemy.
“I am Ārash, a free-spirited soldier.
I’m now prepared to test your bitterness with the only arrow in my quiver.
Don’t search for my lineage — I am a child of suffering and hard work,
Racing away like a meteor from the night
Ready to meet the morning.
A blessing on the garment worn for combat,
And may the wine drunk in victory bring refreshment
May the garment and the wine bring new blessings!
I hold my heart in the palm of my hand and press it in my fist
My heart a cup full of vengeance, full of blood,
A restless, furious heart.
Until I drink at a feast in the name of your defeat,
Until I strike your heart’s cup in combat,
My cup of vengeance is made of stone.
Be it in feast or in combat, this is a war of your earthen pitcher and our rock.
Truly, a ceramic pitcher cannot endure beside a rock.
In this battle,
In this work,
The people’s heart is in my fist,
The people’s hope stands silently behind me.
Our whole galaxy is the bow in my hand
I have that bow. I am the archer.
A swift meteor is my arrow.
The majestic mountain summit is my home.
The eye of the freshly risen sun is where I belong.
My arrow flies like fire,
The wind obeys me.
But today the solution is not to be found in power, force, or heroism.
Liberty does not come from a body of steel and the power of youth.
On this battlefield,
My arrow brings the burning that creates order.
The feathers must have life so that the arrow will not fall in its flight.”
Then Ārash turned toward the sky
Speaking different words to a different tune:
“Greetings to the last morning, farewell to the dawn!
This will be your last meeting with Ārash.
A vow to the true morning!
A vow to sunlight — hidden, kind and pure!
Ārash will put his soul into his arrow,
Then without pause he will shoot.
The earth knows this, as do the heavens.
My body is flawless and my soul is pure.
My deeds embody neither trickery nor deceit.
There is no fear in my head, no anxiety in my heart.”
He paused for a moment and his lips were silent.
The breath in those restless breasts rose to the boiling point.
“Death is before me with a formidable mask on his face,
Flinging out fear with every terrifying step.
He keeps his bleeding eyes on me.
He takes flight around my head on vulture’s wings.
He lands on my path, blocking my way,
And laughs coldly in my face.
His bitter laughter pours out over mountains and valleys.
And echoes back again.
My heart has seen enough of death.
Death is a despicable evil spirit that eats people,
But, at that moment when the spirit is dimmed with grief,
But, when the battle is between good and evil,
Going down to the mouth of death is sweet.
It is the only way to be free.
Thousands of speaking eyes and silent lips
Know me as their messenger of hope.
Thousands of trembling hands and worried hearts —
Sometimes they hold me back and sometimes they push me ahead.
I come forward.
Heart and soul, I adorn myself with the best of human qualities,
With the power that life has in eyes and smiles,
I will remove the mask from the fearsome face of death.”
He fell on his knees to pray.
He opened his hands toward the summit.
“Rise up, oh sun, you who provide us with a knapsack full of hope.
Rise up, oh glorious cluster of the sun’s rays!
You bubbling spring, I am the restless thirsty one.
Rise up to overflowing, until my soul is sated.
As I have one foot in the mouth of hot-tempered death,
As I war with evil in my heart.
I want to bathe in a wave of light.
I seek the colour and fragrance of your petals, oh golden flower,
You, oh lofty, proud and silent summits,
Who rub your foreheads on fearsome thunder,
Who watch dreams on the porch of night,
Who wear the silver epaulettes of golden day,
You who take a fiery cloud into your shelter,
May you stand proud and celebrated!
Raise my hopes
Like flags of wind at daybreak!
Hold my dignity in your care,
Like the leopard that you hold within your mountain and its boulders.”
The land was silent and the sky silent.
As Ārash spoke, you could feel the whole world was listening.
Little by little the sun’s rays slid into the mountain’s mane.
Scattering thousands of golden spears to the eye of heaven.
Ārash looked toward the city, and it was calm.
Children on rooftops,
Girls sitting at windows,
Sad mothers by the door,
Men on the road.
A wordless song laced with deep sadness
Rises from eyes to accompany the morning breeze.
Which song flows forth?
Which melody can echo footsteps marching courageously toward death?
The echo of footsteps fully aware of where their path leads.
Enemies, oozing mockery in their silence
Opened the way.
Children called to Ārash from rooftops,
Mothers prayed for him.
Old men turned their eyes away.
Girls grasped their necklaces in their fists,
And accompanied him with the power of their love and faith.
Ārash, still silent,
Went up through the gaps in the Alborz,
And after him
Curtains of tears fell, one after the other.”
Amu noruz closed his eyes, a smile on his lips, drowned in dreams.
Children with tired eyes, longing for sleep,
Yet full of wonder at the heroic acts they had seen.
The woodstove’s flames in flight,
The wind in an uproar.
Searching, constantly searching for Ārash on the summits,
Having found no sign of his body.
Bow and quiver were there but no arrow.
Yes, yes, Ārash had put his soul into the arrow.
Ārash did the work of hundreds,
Hundreds of thousands of sword blades.
Horsemen rode another half day beyond the river Jeyhun,4
They saw Ārash’s arrow resting on a majestic walnut tree.
And from that day on, that place was known as the boundary between Iran and Turan.5
For years the sun, in its unhurried flight,
Passed slowly across the roof of our purified world.
Moonlight, gaining nothing from its night wanderings, all silent in the heart of every quarter, every district, passing every porch and every door.
Sun and moon rose and set.
Years passed, years and more.
In the whole expanse of the Alborz,
All across the sad and silent peaks that you can see there,
Within the snow-bound valleys you know so well,
One after the other, mountain travellers who are still out at night sing Ārash’s name And tell him of their need.
Ārash answers from the mouths of mountain rocks.
He warns them of dangers on the path, its ups and downs.
He gives them hope,
And guides them on the way.”
Outside the hut, snow is falling.
Snow is falling on thorn bushes and on granite rock,
The mountains are silent,
The valleys are lonesome.
The roads are looking out for a caravan and the sound of its bells.
Children have long been asleep
Amu noruz is asleep.
I put a log on the fire.
The flame rises up, still burning with our soul’s sadness.
Translation © Haideh Hashemi and Kira Van Deusen, 2014
1 Amu Noruz is the kindly being who brings children gifts at the new year, similar to Santa Claus in North America.
2 For Communists such as Kasraii, the forest is an image of the people.
3 The Alborz mountain range stretches across the north of Iran.
4 Jeyhun is a river also known as the Oxus or Amu Darya, which runs through central Asia. Today it is east of Iran’s border with Afghanistan.
5 Turan was an ancient enemy of Iran, well-known from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.
More about the poet
Seyavash Kasraii lived from 1926-1996. In his university years he was attracted to ideas of a just and classless society based on the works of Karl Marx. Kasraii joined the Tudeh party, a branch of Communism, and in the 1940s joined with other poets whose political mission was to support the people. He was arrested and imprisoned for a short time in 1953.
In his early life, Kasraii’s poetry was often lyrical and even romantic but in the 1960s it became more ideological. Ārash the Archer is his best-known poem, published in 1959. Kasraii left Iran after the revolution of 1979 and lived in Afghanistan, Moscow, and Vienna where his writing became less optimistic. He died in Vienna in 1996.
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