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Labor and Power in the Persian Epic Tradition and Its Intertexts
Legendary kings may teach their people to sew garments or to write, but is there a kingly way to stitch a shirt, review a contract, or dig a ditch? This paper explores representations of labor in Persian epics and in texts that engage with the epic tradition. Among the latter category are 'Attar's gnostic ('erfani) didactic masnavis that retell stories of legendary kings, and 'Ali Akbar Khatayi's Khataynameh (Book of China), which contains citations of such verses by 'Attar. The Khataynameh's depiction of China as a powerful empire hinges on investing actions that can be classified as labor, and can thus be considered in some sense servile--for example, the digging of trenches and building of walls, the drafting, reviewing, and delivery of documents, or strict obedience to codified law--with regal or martial power. Thus, universal adherence to law is the foundation of the Chinese bureaucracy's authority, and constant labor and the crafting of firearms is its means of military dominance. This paper takes up the question of whether this reconfiguration of the relationship between labor and power was a novel move by Khatayi, or originated with 'Attar, or was already present in the epic tradition, including especially the work of Nezami-ye Ganjavi. One character in Nezami's tale of Khosrow and Shirin, the doomed lover, Farhad, engages in laborious and servile acts to win Shirin's favor. Retellings of this story by Amir Khosrow and Alisher Nava'i connect Farhad with China and elevate his role. Analyzing such narratives through the lens of labor reveals their political-economic dimensions, allowing us to read them not simply for lessons about kings and love, but about kingship as the apex of a network of interlocking bonds of obligation across all levels of society. Articulations of identity prevalent in the fifteenth and sixteenth century Persianate world, such as the terms Turk and Tajik, as well as the tradition of spiritual chivalry (javanmardi, fotovvat), all in some way concern the relationship between labor and royal or martial power. This paper thus offers a strategy for tracing the circulation of political-economic ideas across distinct textual genres and textual communities, which may in turn yield strategies for interpreting texts more directly connected to the life of laborers, such as certain fotovvatnamehs.
Geographic Area
Islamic World
Sub Area