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"Memory of a Phoenix Feather" Iranian Storytelling Traditions and Contemporary Theater NiloufarTalebi oday in the West, we don't much stumble upon itinerantstorytellerson thestreetsor JL in cafes, bringing to life Western legends and stories fromBeowulf, Chaucer, Ovid, or the Bible. And yet thedramatization of thestories and legends of the Iranian people is exactlywhat hap pens in the streetsand cafes of Iran. Storytelling is the oldest oral art form.From the cave-dwellers who gathered around the fire to recount or reenact theday's hunting stories, to themost sophisticated theatrical extravaganzas, humans have communicated their stories to con nect, inspire, heal, and educate. Each culture has itsown storytellingtraditions throughwhich their national legends,myths, epic and folk tales, and sagas are retold. Iranian traditions of storytelling date back to pre-Islamic times, before the seventh-century a.d. Arab invasion thatbrought Islam to theZoro astrian Persian empire. They are too numerous to describe here, but themost common forms of public storytelling still practiced today?though towaning frequency?are Nagh?li, Pardeh-d?ri, and theperformance genre ofTa'zieh, all ofwhich are based on various literarysources of historical and religious events. The Iranian national legend is mainly composed of the tenth-century epic, the Sh?hn?meh,or the Book ofKings,written over thirty-five years by thepoet Ferdowsi, who man aged, in fifty thousand couplets, to tell thehistory and myths of thePersian people from thetime of Creation to the seventh-century Arab invasion, in ABOVE A scene from ICARUS/RISE, created and narrated by Niloufar Talebi July-August 2009 i49 An award-winning translator and theater artist, Niloufar Talebi istheeditor/ translator of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, 2008) and creator of ICARUS I RISE, the concert editionDVDofwhichwas released this summer. Visit www.thetranslationproject. org or www.niloufartalebi. com. Editorial note:The two poem excerpts reprinted here ("Downfall on the Horizon" and "Icarus," by Shahrouz Rashid) are from Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around theWorld, tr.Niloufar Talebi (2008),by permission of the translator. The author would also like to thank Peter Chelkowski, Mohammad Bagher Ghaffari, and Fatemeh Habibizad(Gordafarid). Her personal conversations with them, inaddition to the sources noted on page 53, greatly facilitated her work on this essay. ABOVE A Pardeh-d?r performs in the streets of Mashhad, Iran. thePersian language spoken before the invasion, some threehundred years prior tohis effort. Reli gious stories about the lives,deeds, suffering,and death of Shi'ite Muslim martyrs are taken from sources such as theRowzat'ol Shohad? (TheGarden of Martyrs), a book written during theSafavid rule (1501-1722) when Shi'ite Islam was established as the state religion, aswell asmany othermanu scriptswritten by known and anonymous authors. Oral storytelling was the main source of entertainment and community-building until the twentieth century when radio, television, and other media began replacing theater and, more specifically, oral formsof literarytheater.Never theless, they do survive, and professional story tellerscontinue to rework and reinterpretthe liter ary sources today. Nagh?li (also spelled Naqq?li) is one formof public storytelling.Traditionally, Nagh?ls, or storytellers, were associated with a P?togh, a base, at one or more coffeehouses, where they would perform independent episodes of a longer story at designated times,which could take any where between seven and forty one-and-a-half- to two-hour sessions. Nagh?ls may perform in two coffeehouses inone day, or twoNagh?ls may per form at different times in the same coffeehouse. Nagh?ls may also split up theiryear, spending some time inone town and some time in another town. Their clientele are regulars who attend the coffeehouse every day to hear the cumula tive episodes of the storybeing told.Audiences, usually men, form attachments to a Nagh?l at a coffeehouse, at a specific time,but even if they don't stay to hear another Nagh?l at the same coffeehouse, chances are theywould not go hear theiradopted Nagh?l at another coffeehouse.Cof feehouses can also have theirown resident paint ers orNagh?sh, who create coffeehouse paintings thatdepict scenes fromthe most popular stories. Stories are usually told in musical prose with sections of recited poetry from the original liter ary source...