Book of kings

Who are these three kings on the Persian miniature, so resolutely marching on their horses? Were it not clear from the flags on their saddle-clothes, it is made clear to us by their traits, well known from the photographs and cartoons: the cigar of the stocky one, the pipe of the large-mustached one, and the elongated visage of the third one. Truly, these are here Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt as conquering generals, on their way to the 1943 Tehran conference.

The British and Soviet forces invaded Iran from the north and south between August 25 and September 8, 1941. The reason for the invasion was that after the German offensive against the Soviet Union in June, they felt threatened the Iranian petroleum resources in their management, and they also intended to transmit war material from the Persian Gulf via rail to the Soviet Union. Although Iran was neutral, the Shah had basically done the inter-war modernization of the country with German help, and he refused to expel the German advisors on British request. After the peace treaty the British deposed him and expelled him to Egypt, and raised on the throne his son Reza Pahlavi, who represented the Anglo-American policy, and declared war on Germany. Subsequently, in November 1943 opened the Tehran conference with the participation of the three above kings, with the aim of coordinating the common war efforts and to open the second, western front.

Iranian women watching an Allied convoy somewhere on the “Persian Corridor”, 1943

The easy defeat of the Persian army and the humiliation of the occupation hit very hard the country’s public opinion. This was acerbated by the fact that the massive British buying-up of food for the troops caused a severe famine in the occupied zone, and that, on the principle of “divide and conquer”, both occupying forces excited the ethnic minorities living under their power against the Persian rule. All this is described in detail in Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun (1969), the key novel of 20th-century Iran.

It is understandable therefore, that on the occasion of the Tehran conference the British saw it opportune to present the purpose of their arrival in an easily perceptible visual form to the Persian people. The London propaganda office asked the renowned Iranist of Cambridge and Rumi translator Arthur Arberry to design a series of posters. Arberry asked for the advice of the Persian historian Mojtaba Minovi, at that time working for the BBC Persian service, who suggested that instead of the usual victory posters, they should take the motifs and manuscripts of Ferdowsi’s Shahname, the Book of Kings, the Persian national epic as a model for the transposition of the western message into Persian visual language.

The end result was not a poster, but a booklet, which contained six rippable postcards, and which was distributed in the Persian tea houses, where the professional naghâls at that time still recited the verses of the Shahname. The drawings were made by the Egyptian-born British graphic designer Kimon Evan Marengo (“Kem”, 1904-1988), who was equally at home in the western and Islamic iconography, and who created nearly three thousand British propaganda graphics in various languages during the war.

In the images Hitler takes the shape of the evil ruler Zahhāk, from whose shoulders two snakes hiss, and who would be finally expelled from the throne by the popular uprising incited by Kaveh, the righteous blacksmith. In this way the British propagandist makes clear the good and the bad side, as well as the role of the Persian people in the worldwide cataclysm.

Hitler-Zahhāk sitting on the throne among his bodyguards. The two snakes on his shoulder are Mussolini and the Japanese Prime Minister and Commander in Chief Hideki Tōjō. Göbbels as a small hoofed evil – Iblis – serves them coffee. The verse: On Zahhāk’s shoulders two serpents grew by magic and destruction was rained down on the people

Hitler-Zahhāk and Göring find their pleasure only in torturing and killing. The iconography follows a later episode of the Shahname, the execution of the socialist and anti-clerical Mazdak and his disciples. The verse: The law of the wise became hidden, and the desires of madmen became widespread; the hand of the government grew long in evil purpose, goodness was only heard of in secret.

Hitler-Zahhāk sees a dream about the three kings who come to kill him. The verse: Then, from the palace of the emperor, he saw three warriors suddenly appear.

Left: Kaveh, the blacksmith rises against Hitler-Zahhāk. The verse: He cried and raised his hand before the Shah: O Shah I am Kaveh in demand of justice. There must be a limit to oppression; oppression must always have a just cause.
Right: The three kings (Churchill always in the lead!) with Kaveh carrying Hitler-Zahhāk fastened to the saddle and crushing Göring. The onlookers, seeing Zahhāk’s defeat, take off their swastikas. The verse: Strongly he tied his two hand and waist, so that his fetters could not be broken, even by a raging elephant.

The sixth, last postcard was only found in a small black and white version. On this, Hitler-Zahhāk is nailed to Mount Damavand. The verse: Swiftly, as a post-messenger, he brought Zahhāk away and bound him to Mount Damavand and, when the name of Zahhāk became as dust, the world was cleansed of his evil.

The series is complemented by yet another large poster, on which the three kings happily chase away by arrows, sword and spear the three evils: Hitler, Tōjō, and Mussolini. The latter, wounded by Churchill’s arrow, already fell on the ground, as a reference to the British landing in Italy. However, this image formally does not belong to the above series, since it was made in a different style, ad Hitler is not represented in the guise of Zahhāk. Its designer was not Kem, but Musavver al-Molk from Isfahan, and its commissioner the son of the former Kerman and Mashhad consul Sir Percy Spikes, who came to the mountains above Isfahan to prepare the Bakhtiari tribes against an eventual German invasion. The verses running around the edges recount how Rustam, personified by Churchill in the poster, fits eagle’s feathers on his arrow and shoots them on his enemies.

3 comentarios:

Prunella Vulgaris dijo...

I've read bits and pieces of the Shahnameh and this makes me want to go back and revisit. I also wish someone had made postcards with the Houghton Shanameh illustrations on them because they're just so incredible!

Karen dijo...

I just found the original art for the first five cartoons in the archives of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Studiolum dijo...

Great! Did you find the original drawings or the original prints? – And no trace of the sixth one?