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Politics of Gender and Desire in the Persian Qasida

Panel VII-21, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Persian panegyric qasidas, or lengthy odes of praise, were conceived as texts with distinct political, cultural, and performative dimensions that were expected to move, inspire, and attract patrons and courtly audiences through their ritualistic, economic, and geopolitical value. These texts expressed the full extent of their rhetorical power when celebrating gender identities, bodies, and desires at the intersection between political and personal interests and human relationships. This panel brings together in-depth analyses of the role of gender, desire, and sexuality in the development, recitation, and circulation of medieval and early modern Persian qasidas in a diverse range of socio-political and geographical contexts. The present papers account for the qasida’s “economy of desire” from the point of view of gender as a multilayered analytical lens that reveals how laudatory odes and their patrons’ bodies related to each other beyond binary paradigms. By analyzing the development of the Persian qasida as a malleable eroto-political genre - one that at times showcased and at others complicated or even erased the addressee’s gender - these four contributions assess the relationship between recurrent structural features that characterize the qasida form and key historical variables across a temporal arc that spans the Ghaznavid, Seljuk, Ilkhanid, Post-Mongol and early Mughal periods (11th-16th centuries CE).
  • Prof. Dominic Brookshaw -- Presenter, Chair
  • Prof. Domenico Ingenito -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Ms. Jane Mikkelson -- Presenter
  • Prof. Justine Landau -- Presenter
  • Prof. Domenico Ingenito
    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.
  • Ms. Jane Mikkelson
    Although the Mughal poet laureate Fayżī Fayyāżī (d.1595) composed many odes (qaṣīdas) in honor of Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605), arguably the sharpest theme that comes into focus across his odes is praise not for his patron, but for himself. Flexibly adapting the established Perso-Arabic mode of fakhr (self-praise), which commonly occurs at an ode’s conclusion, Fayżī composes entire poems about his own prowess, bragging about his deftness as a poet, his intellectual achievements, the nimble elegance of his imagination. Fayżī’s long-form boasts conjure familiar objects of masculine exemplarity (Alexander, Darius, Joseph, Plato); at the same time, he frequently extolls his poetic abilities through feminine attributes (delicate, beautiful, coquettish, bejeweled). At other moments, Fayżī’s self-praise leans on earth-transcending things (the stars and planets; philosophical concepts like “essence”), abstractions which do not partake of gender at all. As the object of his own praise, Fayżī the poet puts on a dazzling show of how “Fayżī the poet” is capable of embodying both masculine and feminine ideals, and of expanding beyond them. Fayżī frames these poems through the concept of himmat (“ambition”), a multivalent term with both positive and negative associations in different domains. This concept is put to similar use at a later historical moment by the Mughal scholar, poet, and princess Zīb al-Nisāʾ (d.1702), whose pen name is “Makhfī” (“the hidden one”). Her odes are not so brazenly self-laudatory, but she too uses himmat to make metapoetic statements about herself and her own ambitions. Makhfī’s poetic voice, like Fayżī’s, is striking in its ability to modulate the gender of its authority. At times, her poems more than hint at the pain and power of being a woman; however, Makhfī also describes how ambition pulls her towards masculine roles (she can become Aristotle, or Majnūn). Elsewhere, like in her ode about Sufism, she eschews gender altogether as she addresses the reader urgently, on serious matters, soul to soul. This essay argues that in Fayżī’s and Makhfī’s odes, ambition—specifically the ambition to attain excellence through literary language—is theorized by them as an expansion of the self. Reading Fayżī’s and Makhfī’s odes alongside their lyric poetry reveals how the form of the ode could be particularly well suited for activating metapoetic reflections about the authority and the ambition to speak, write, and think about the most powerful topics and figures in the world: God, the prophet, Akbar—and themselves as poets.
  • Prof. Justine Landau
    As the scant corpus available suggests, writing in praise of noblewomen was not customary practice among pre-Mongol court poets. In this regard, the sparse extant examples are all the more significant. Working chiefly at the court of Sultan Sanjar (d. 1157) in Nishapur, Anvari (d. c. 1186) penned several qasida-s in praise of Saljuq princesses, not all of whom can be identified with certainty. The powerful Safvat al-Din Maryam Khatun must have exerted considerable influence at court, as she is described by the poet as a discerning administrator and indispensable councilor, second only to the king. Extolled for her shrewd advice, sharp judgment, and magnanimity, she is ascribed Solomonic virtues and exalted in terms appropriate to the highest-ranking male rulers panegyrized by the poet. Glimpsed only through a limited set of discrete markers, including allusions to “chastity” (‘esmat) and the lack of reference to military prowess, however, Maryam Khatun’s gender remains highly elusive. As it appears through close reading and comparison with other panegyrics of men and women in his Divan, Anvari’s rhetoric of praise is, in fact, all but gender-blind. Instead, it can be said deliberately to erase gender difference in order, on the one hand, to promote a hyperbolic, if disembodied, notion of rulership; but also, as an apotropaic strategy to protect his female patron. As I will argue, Anvari’s practice in this regard set the standard for feminine panegyrics at least until the 13th century, as is reflected in Shams-e Qeys-e Razi’s normative compendium al-Mo‘jam.
  • Prof. Dominic Brookshaw
    In Ilkhanid Shiraz and Kirman, and in post-Mongol Baghdad, several politically powerful Mongol and Turkic noblewomen (sing. khatun) patronised poets to pen elaborate Persian panegyrics in their praise. Sa‘di Shirazi (d. 1292) and Imami Hiravi (d. 1287) in the thirteenth century and Khvaju Kirmani (d. c. 1352), Jalal Yazdi (d. c. 1357), and Salman Savaji (d. 1376) in the fourteenth, crafted non-binary madihs in which they praised their khatun-patrons as manifestations of a regal androgyny that transcended rigid gender binaries. These khatuns, who either ruled independently or wielded formidable political force, are likened by the poets simultaneously to both masculine and feminine archetypes in ways unimaginable when eulogising their male counterparts. Drawing on a close reading of 20 panegyrics produced for leading khatuns circa 1250-1350, this paper will examine how, in these gender fluid texts, court panegyrists attempted a delicate reconciliation of the sexes through which they freely associated stereotypically kingly virtues with these khatuns, while celebrating their femininity unabashedly. The poets studied in this paper display little if any anxiety in their non-binary praise of powerful women, which suggests their mixed-sex courtly audiences saw no contradiction or tension in this literary transgression of rigid gender lines.