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Persian and Ottoman Literature: Gender, Rhetoric, and Sexuality

Session II-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Discourses on fatalism and intercession (shafa’ah), in Islamic terminology, are two of the most-discussed themes that Kalam scholars, philosophers, mystics, poets, and others have tried to scrutinize. This paper will consider the evolution of gender and love from the perspective of fatalism and intercession in a Persian love poem, “Varqa and Golshah” by Ayyuqi (10-11th centuries), a verse adaptation of the Udhri-style adventure of the Arab poet Urwah bin Hizam and his beloved Afra bint Iqal. The importance of Ayyuqi’s work lies in the series of changes made by him on the elements of the story of Urwah and Afra to create a more suitable narration of the lovers’ tale in accordance with the culture as well as the discursive trends of the 10-11th centuries Persia. Compared to Afra, the character of Golshah, as the female protagonist of the story, is much more active and involved in the plot progression; she is a free, literate, and wise warrior woman who plays a significant role in the epic events that were added to the original story by the poet, however, her retrogression to the traditional passive status of Afra in the middle of the story represents a contrast with her former role. The goal of this paper is to elucidate the reason for this reversion. It seems the evolution of the character of Golshah, is to assist Ayyuqi in getting his point across. She solves problems, and her wisdom carries Varqa to the last part of the story: the climax, fatalism, and death of the lover for the sake of love, and ultimately the intercession for the lovers' resurrection, as the poet wants for himself in the opening part of the book.
  • Medieval Persian pornography constitutes one of the richest and unexplored subfields of Middle Eastern literatures. Oscillating between disturbingly demeaning invectives, explicit representations of intimate body parts, and titillating explorations of sexual desire, obscene poetry interacts with the mainstream genres of the Persian literary canon at multiple levels and through unexpected points of contact. Comparisons with the medieval pornographic traditions of the West have inspired scholars to conceive of Persian pornographic poems as “counter-texts” to the courtly lyric tradition (i.e., amatory qasidas, ghazals, etc.). Counter-textual readings enable us to reconsider the contextual power of obscene literature to explore the human body from perspectives that bridge the gap between courtly ideals of beauty and physical experiences of desire. By relying on counter-textual affinities between courtly lyricism and obscene poetry, this paper addresses the problem of gender in Persian literary pornography and its connection with the representation of the human body beyond sexual binaries. While Persian ghazals tend to un-gender the body of their idealized objects of desire (even when specific physical traits seem to suggest same-sex interactions among men), pornographic counter-texts dwell extensively on gender-specific intimate body parts and clothing. When analyzed within the same literary canon, juxtapositions between ungendered idealized representations and gendered depictions of the beloved’s body open new windows into the fluidity with which medieval Persian authors imagined physical expressions of desire. Insights based on the theory of counter-textuality and contemporary paradigms emerging from the field of gender studies will be applied to the analysis of “trans-gendering” amatory ghazals by the medieval princess Jahan Malik Khatun (fl. 14th c. CE) and short obscene texts by Suzani Samarqandi (12th c.), Sa‘di Shirazi (13th c.), and ‘Ubayd Zakani (14th c.). This critically informed philological approach will show how forays into the neglected space of literary pornography can help us make better sense of the complexity of shifting gender representations in classical Persian poetry.
  • Numerous scholarly frameworks have so far taken up issues of gender and sexuality in Ottoman literature. However, there is currently no academic study that brings together texts that tackle non-normative practices of gender and sexuality in early modern Turkish and late-Ottoman literature. This paper gives voice to overlooked epistolary novels, short stories and memoirs produced in Ottoman Turkish that pose criticism toward hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity and femininity in the wake of Turkey’s transition from empire to republic. Among these overlooked texts are Şahabettin Süleyman’s play Çıkmaz Sokak (Dead-end Street), Mehmet Rauf’s novella Bir Zambak Hikâyesi (A Tale of Lilies), Mehmet Asaf Borsacı’s Kocamın Kocası (My Husband’s Husband), Peyami Safa’s Havva’nın Üvey Kızları (Stepdaughters of Eve) and Osman Cemal Kaygılı’s Bir Hilkat Garibesi (A Freak of Nature). A striking commonality between these texts is that all of them are penned by male writers and they treat lesbianism, or what was called muaşakat-ı nisaniye (woman-to-woman love affair) in Ottoman. The texts in question are important historical documents that help us understand the sexual, religious, and social positioning of women vis-à-vis men in late-Ottoman society in its path to modernization. The erasure of these “odd,” “strange,” “pervert,” “immoral,” or queer texts from the Turkish literary canon is a systematically conducted process to exclude heterodox voices. Therefore, my paper is also a modest attempt to remedy the lack of queer voices in early modern Turkish literature.
  • This paper will examine Munir Lahori’s (1610-1644 CE) commentaries on the development of the early modern literary style of taza-gu’i (‘Speaking Anew’), also known as sabk-i Hindi (‘Indian style’). A central focus of this paper will be Munir’s unedited commentaries on a number of qasidas by the eminent Safavid-Mughal poet, ʿUrfi Shirazi (1556-1590 CE). Although Munir is critical of the Iranian poet’s use of taza-gu’i and the overly complex nature of his style, his criticisms are qualified, grounded in the logical interrogation of metaphor, placing a premium on semantic plausibility and clarity. In addition to critiquing proponents of this style, Munir is also critical of literary and cultural developments in Mughal, Deccan, and other regional courts that began to favor Iranian poets and literati over their Indian counterparts. For Munir, ʿUrfi was symbolic of a wider emerging literary movement that emphasized the importance of a poet’s Iranian origin while simultaneously detracting from the role played by South Asian literati in the development of Persian aesthetics. By examining Munir’s philological criticism of ʿUrfi’s qasidas and the promulgation of taza-gu’i, it will be possible to determine how the discourse on early modern Persian literary developments has been influenced by the prominence of Iranian figures in South Asian courts, as well as painting a clearer picture of the methodologies at play in Safavid-Mughal literary criticism. Shining a light on the cultural and literary climate that promoted and facilitated taza-gu’i, these understudied commentaries nuance our view on the development of early modern Persian literature, pushing back on both the Iran-centrism of Persian literary history and narratives that reduce the period to a singular (and especially “Indian”) taste for ‘newness’ in poetry.
  • Maintaining a harmonious environment requires searching for common fundamental grounds upon whom the spirit of brotherhood can be developed. Persian spiritual and poetic literature, alongside Arabic sources, have been inspiring many scholars and religious figures in many cultures in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent as well as South East Asian region. This interaction has often been neglected specially in the Malay World; its exposure can develop a platform for cross cultural dialogue with the aim of reviving our common grounds. Traces of intellectual and spiritual connection between Iran and Malay World became prominent in 16th century, through the works by Ḥamzah Fanṣuri – a renowned Malay scholar and mystic who is also revered as the father of Malay literature. Hamzah Fansuri’s contributions acted as an intellectual gateway that connected Southeast Asian Muslims to the rest of the Muslim world. He often quotes Persian sources in his three outstanding treatises: 1) Asrārul-‘Ārifīn (The Secrets of The Mystics); 2) Sharābul-‘Āshiqīn (The Drink of Lovers); and 3) Al-Muntahī (The Adept). His writings exhibit a command over Arabic and Persian, in addition to his Malay mother tongue. His works had greatly influenced Muslim thinkers and Ṣūfīs in South East Asia. In between his discussions he often quotes passages and verses from Persian thinkers and poets such as Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Irāqī (d.1289), ‘Abd al-Rahmān Jāmī (d. 1492) Muhammad Ghazālī (d. 1111), Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d.1207), Sa‘di (1291), and Shaykh Mahmūd Shabistari (1340). This study is aimed at identifying traces of Persian poetry and prose in Hamzah’s writing with special reference to the three treatises stated above. Keywords: Ḥamzah Fanṣūrī, Ṣūfī Literature, Persian Literature, Malay World, Cross Cultural Dialogue.