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Literary Narratives, Music, Material Culture

Session XIII-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī’s maqāmāt collection, Majmaʿ al-Baḥrayn (1855), received little scholarly attention among Arab Renaissance, or Nahḍah, scholars. Due to Al-Yāzijī’s faithful emulation of al-Ḥarīrī’s maqāmāt, scholars of the Nahḍah viewed his collection as an empty repetition of the classical model, thus undermining its role in defining an Arab modernity, where literary revival coupled with innovation are considered quintessential to assess Arab literary input of the period. For example, author and literary critic Radwa Ashour expelled al-Yāzijī from her famous “possible modernity” altogether. Setting al-Yaziji side by side with the innovator Faris al-Shidyāq, Ashour contended that al-Yaziji’s collection, notwithstanding its display of language creativity, came as “empty of any innovation. It was marred by lifeless imitation of a [classical] text that had been immortalized for over eight centuries already.” This paper attempts to reappraise al-Yāzijī’s role in re-defining Arab modernity. It takes repetition as an analytical tool to reconfigure Arab enlightenment through mimesis and mimicry. Examining two of al-Yāzijī’s maqāmāt that are tellingly set in the Arabian Peninsula, which in mythic imagination is believed to be the terra prima of the Arabic language, I demonstrate that both “Of Yamāmah” and “Of Tihāmah” foreground repetition as al-Yāzijī’s way to convey a sense of skepticism over teleological narratives of an Arab nation brought together around a sense of homo-lingualism. By tracing hearing in the desert, repetition, and the production of “similar” but “distorted” poetic utterances in the deserts of Yamāmah and Tihāmah, I argue that al-Yāzijī viewed the Arab nation as an entity that is unattainable and is, like a mirage, in a condition of constant deferral.
  • How did the 18th century poet Mirza Abdul Qader Bedil (d. 1720) reach an elevated status of fame and formidability in the milieu of modern Afghanistan? This reception of Bedil led not only to a large number of scholarly works by Afghan specialists and literary exegetes but also to the prominence of Bedil as a poet of ethereal lyric and variegated valence in the popular imagination of citizens during a time when Bedil remained largely unknown and dismissed in neighboring Iran (a phenomenon that is now being interrogated and changing, given the steady rise in the popularity and stock of Bedil). My presentation traces the presence of esoteric circles of Bedil-Khwāni (close reading of Bedil) in various parts of what is now modern Afghanistan and focuses on the centralization of these gatherings in Kabul. In these gatherings of Bedil-Khwani, which were only accessible to the scholarly class and formed by individuals who were either mystics or had mystical proclivities, Bedil’s poetry and philosophical architecture were elucidated, discussed, and debated. It is precisely during some of the formative decades of the modern Afghan state that relations and renegotiations between such mystics and a number of prominent musicians (usually looked down upon in mystical and scholarly circles in Afghanistan), operating with new technologies of radio and television, that the poetry and poetics of Bedil shifts from the parameters of esoteric gatherings and is broadcast to the general Afghan population. This knitting of Bedil scholars and musicians reaches a melodic tapestry in the relationship formed between the mystic Abdul Hamīd Asīr, popularly referred to as Qandī Aghā, and Muhammad Hussein Sarāhang, the master par excellence of Afghan music. This Relationship carried the poetry of Bedil to all corners of Afghanistan and proclaimed his poetry as an integral aspect of Afghan identity and literary consciousness; the texture of which is still felt. The selection of Bedil’s poetry and the venues of performance were willful and possible only via the guidance of Qandī Aghā. I will show how prior to his recruitment by Qandī Aghā, Sarāhang was not only unfamiliar with Bedil’s poetry but also did not have the literary training and knowledge to engage with his writings. Now, however, in the realms of Afghan literary, musical, and popular imagination, the ballads of Bedil are intertwined with the voice of Sarāhang and the music of Sarāhang is the voice of Bedil.
  • Sufism is often considered as a way of mystical life, devoted purely to God eternally and spiritually while avoiding ephemeral material pleasures. Despite this overemphasis on spiritual as opposed to physical, it is surprising that many material objects have symbolic meaning and defining features for Sufis. This study aims to shed light on how the Mevlevis understood items and objects around themselves and their materiality. More specifically, it examines the materials and spaces around which the Mevlevi culinary culture and dressing tradition had been formalized in order to explain the transformative role of these objects in formalization of the Mevlevi rituals and formation of the Mevlevi tariqa. Indeed, this study argues that in addition to their symbolic meanings, the materials and spaces of clothing and culinary tradition were one of the central elements in the establishment of the Mevlevi etiquette and distinctive branding mechanisms for distinguishing Mevlevis from other Sufi orders from the 15th century onwards. This branding mechanism also demonstrates a paradoxical interaction of Mevlevis with objects. On the one hand, Rumi and his followers had often emphasized renunciation of worldly engagements, turning away from material pleasure, and derided those who cares outward looking. On the other hand, the very same materials, such garments, headgears, rituals around food and eating became the mechanism around which Mevlevis formulated their identity and tradition. Therefore, along with questioning what Mevlevis had thought about materials, this study also demonstrates how Mevlevis formulated their lives and interacted each other around these objects. Considering the rich material culture of the Mevlevi order, it is surprising that scholars have largely overlooked this topic. For all the significance of the physical objects among Sufis, the studies on Sufism, in general, have paid little attention to material culture and rather based their analysis on a life-and-works perspective by focusing on teaching and writings of influential Sufis. Therefore, this study aims to fill this general neglect by studying Sufi’s understanding of materiality in the case of the Mevleviyye.
  • This paper examines the forms, styles, and content of two works by the Qajar historian and writer Mirza Hasan Khan E’temad os-Saltaneh (1848-96). Among his many works are two which cover the lives and careers of the prime ministers of Iran from 1795 until 1896. The first text, entitled Sadr ot-Tavarikh, is an official history of the prime ministers over that period. The other, bearing the title The Rapture (Khalseh), or the Book of Sleep, is a fictional work dealing with exactly the same subject. We may surmise that the Sadr represented an official and public history of the prime ministers. The Rapture, however, reflected the writer’s true feelings about the reasons for Iranian decline during the second half of the 19th century. An examination and comparison of these two texts reveals much about the inside workings of Iranian politics and individuals within Naser od-Din Shah’s court. It also reveals something about the politics of writing history and the use of fiction in 19th century Iranian political and historical writing. Therefore, these two starkly different books by the same author and on the same subject reveal much about their author and about important individuals and events in late 19th century Qajar Iran.