Based on a text by Murathan Mungan
"Shāhmārān" (2019) for One Found Sound is based on an ancient Kurdish tale originally from Anatolia region (today's Turkey) but is known all across the Kurdish regions in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iraq as well. The story also carries notions of Arabic culture and Zaroastrianim inside itself. The mythological character Shāhmārān is a man or a woman, half human and half snake who rules over thousands of demons and snakes underground. He/she falls in love with a human named Tahmasb, and takes him through a process of enlightenment through telling him stories of love and betrayal.
Text by: Murathan Mungan
It is difficult to take the risk of knowing; Knowing disturbs people, frightens them. Knowing is a bit like being damned.... Let us take a moment just to think, what is Shahmaran? Who is it? What did its resplendent portrait express as it roved for centuries, from the white-washed mud-brick walls of village coffeehouses to the cafes of all the backcountry provinces?
What is the venom hidden in the breast of the Shahmaran’s tale? It is the venom that has spread from mouth to mouth for a thousand years, with the lingering taste of a fairy tale. The fellowship between snake and man stretches back a long, long time, even to the day of the apple. It is the snake who is noble and man who is capricious in the climate of this tale.
Long, long ago — at a date in time that we either do not know, or do not wish to make known - there was a man named Tahmasb. Tahmasb and his friends spent their days enjoying themselves, without a care in the world. Woodcutting was nothing but a cheerful journey for them. All of life was an aimless adventure for them and they lived it as such.
On a day just the same as any other, they headed for the forest hills, a small cave hidden amongst dark branches caught Tahmasb's eye, its mouth veiled by lush vegetation.
His friends ran into the cave a step behind him. Eventually they encountered a marble surface. When they tugged all together and lifted the lid, they discovered a great well of honey. This well of honey that they had found was their secret, shared among them.
The days ran into weeks, the weeks into months, until one day the bottom of the well that they had thought bottomless began to appear. Tahmasb climbed down the rope they'd tied to his waist for the last time, hand over fist, as he always did. Except this time, after he'd filled the last tins and sent them up to his friends, they gathered up the rope they'd sent down, closed the marble lid of the well and left Tahmasb there, abandoned him to his fate...
Tahmasb had to do something other than stand around helplessly. It was much later when he caught sight of a light the size of a pinhead in one of the walls. No, this was no illusion. It was a light. He started to dig towards the light.
A long, wide garden stretched out before him, as far as the eye could see. It was a fairy tale country, this place. The place he stepped into was the land of Shahmaran. He would only understand this later, however. All of a sudden, the air was filled with colorful trails of smoke, each tracing a delicate and cloudy rainbow, then fading and disappearing within the chalk-white fumes. A huge demon appeared from within the fog. He was carrying a silver tray on his head in great solemnity. He took the tray and placed it before the throne, then drew hack respectfully. Upon the tray was Shahmaran.
"Welcome to my country," said Shahmaran . "Don't be afraid: all the snakes, demons and dragons you see around you are my friends, my helpers. No harm will come to you here from anyone. "But mankind betrays.” said Shahmaran. “For this reason, not even, a single person must know of our place; they must not share in our secret. You came here as the result of a betrayal; your path was ultimately defined by wrongdoing. Because once betrayal has begun, it changes its clothes and lasts all lifelong. You are still very naive, Tahmasb! You place great trust in yourself. Yes, this is my residence, you are subject to my rules. Tahmasb understood that Shahmaran would keep him a while longer; it would not set him free easily. "How long will it last?" asked Tahmasb. "A thousand fairy tale nights," said Shahmaran...and every night passed with a new fairy tale.
One day, Tahmasb said: "Everyone can only be happy as long as they're with their own kind. I am another. I am the other. You can't understand what it means for me to live always as a stranger.” Shahmaran smiled: "Well, do you know what it means to live in secrecy, Tahmasb? I didn't know it made you this unhappy being here, being together with me," it said.
"I know you will leave, I can't keep you here any longer. I ask only one thing from you: After you return home, you will never enter any bathhouse, you will never wash yourself Because if a human who sees Shahmaran goes to a bathhouse, his body will grow scales below the waist and give away his secret.". Tahmasb swore at length that he would not say anything to anyone and that he would never enter a bathhouse. After he had gone, Shahmaran wept for a long, long time.
And Tahmasb returned to the earth's surface. Every day he would see to the daily chores, work, rest, read; at the same time, he remembered with longing the magic of a thousand fairytale nights spent in Shahmaran's castle. After returning to the earth's surface, his life had grown colorless and dim.
One of those days, the sultan of the land, Kheykhosrow, was struck with a severe and incurable illness. The vizier was a sorcerer, learned in the science of sand gazing; his name was Shehmur. Vizier Shehmur knew the only cure to this disease's affliction was the flesh of Shahmaran. All at once a great hunt for Shahmaran began in the country. In a small but outside the town, Tahmasb lived a tiny, suffocated, colorless life far away from everything. The sultan's armed guard had come to even Tahmasb's doorstep. He escaped to nearby villages at first, then more distant ones. And so one day they got hold of Tahmasb and sent him to the bathhouse. Tahmasb told them he had never met Shahmaran or seen.
He was objected to humiliations, the most unendurable tortures. Eventually he began to lose his strength to resist and withstand, began to quietly come undone. He began to search for grounds to justify himself in his own eyes so that he could tolerate himself, render himself in the right. "If I don't tell them, someone else will, somehow," he said.
The moment of shame had come. He pointed with a trembling finger: "There it is!" he said. Vizier Sheymur, the sorcerer, burnt incense and east spells, poured sacred water around the mouth of the cave. Thick smoke billowed out as the marble lid was lifted; a demon appeared within the smoke, its face hidden by a black veil. Tahmasb will take me, I will leave this place in his arms!" Then Shahmaran turned to Tahmasb: "I told you, Tahmasb," it said. "Mankind betrays.
When they arrived at the palace, the wide doors split open. A great bonfire had been lit in the courtyard. A great fire was waiting for sacrificial meat. Shahmaran's body was laid within a deep, wide earthen pot. It was a corpse now. Hundreds of people had watched as it was murdered.
As the boiling water grew more and more frenzied, the forty pieces of Shahmaran's chopped-up body were moving around in the water. Every piece that surfaced with the water's boiling would begin to speak and tell of its magic powers. In the meantime, Tahmasb received news of the death of Vizier Shehmur, who he'd made to drink the first broth. The second broth that Tahmasb drank, however, gave him an inner tranquility and wisdom. Tahmasb fed the forty pieces of Shahmaran to the sultan over the course of forty days. He rose to his feet completely cured.
Tahmasb left the city, destined for faraway mountain paths, wildernesses, the adventures of the wandering dervish. No one ever saw Tahmasb again. But his name still lives on; there are many rumors as to his fate. It's said that he drowned in a bathhouse; The very bathhouse where he had first bathed.