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Seducing a Prince: Eroticism and Politics in Early Persian Poetry
Praise poetry from the early Ghaznavid period (first half of the 11th century CE) offers an excellent vantage point to understand how the relationship between eroticism and politics dominated the entire history of medieval Persian court literature. This corpus of multilayered, dramatized, and refreshingly realistic texts—which miraculously survived centuries of oblivion—opens windows into the way poets staged ideals of sacred kingship through ritualized poetic compositions revolving around the expression of physical and symbolic desires. This paper focuses on the literary, political, interethnic and erotic relationship between two key historical figures from the period. One of them is Farrukhi Sistani, one of the most celebrated poets who were active at the court of the famed Turkic sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (d. 1030 CE). As an outsider who came from a family of modest landlords in Sistan, young Farrukhi strove to gain the attention (along with lofty financial rewards) of the Ghaznavid Sultan and his entourage in Ghazni as well as key provinces of the sultanate: Balkh, Guzgānān, Herat, and Bust. The other is the young son of the Sultan, prince Muhammad, aged seventeen when Farrukhi joined the court and eventually became one of his closest associates, if not his primary educator and courtly interlocutor. Farrukhi praised prince Muhammad extensively, with qasidas (that is, long bipartite panegyrics that usually opened with a brief amatory section) that extolled the prince’s intellectual and martial qualities and imagined the glory of his future involvement in the destiny of the Ghaznavid sultanate. By analyzing key passages from Farrukhi’s qasidas to Muhammad, this presentation highlights the central role of homoerotic desire in the shaping of princely upbringing as imagined and performed by poets. The poems will be read against accounts from the historiographical and belletristic tradition (Bayhaqi, Gardizi, Nizami) and through the lens of theories formulated in the context of the study of Arabic and Persian qasidas as socio-literary rituals (S. Stetkevych, Meisami). After showing how Farrukhi engaged with prince Muhammad through subtle rituals of mutual seduction, we will see how, in these texts, the poet emerges as a political subject who, despite all social constraints, was capable of affirming his own agency by means of literary eroticism and the manipulation of princely desires.
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