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Writings in Afghanistan and Persia

Panel XII-28, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • In his 1911 manifesto “New Language,” the Turkish author Ömer Seyfettin (1884-1920) proclaimed the necessity of breaking with the Ottoman literature of the past: both newer authors, who looked “towards the West,” and the corpus of older literature oriented “towards Iran.” The authors he claimed belonged to the former tendency were largely his aestheticist contemporaries, but those epitomizing the latter were considerably more varied: the poets Nedim (1681-1730), Sünbülzade Vehbi (1718-1809), Enderunlu Fazıl Bey (1757-1810), Osman Rahmi Efendi (1832-1896), and the poet and playwright Muallim Naci (1850-1893). What linked these writers both to each other and to Iran was neither their particular language nor their literary style, but what Seyfettin viewed as shared mode of eroticism and desire, typified by the poetic figure of the çar-ebru [four-browed] young male beloved. This paper traces the çar-ebru through the works of these five poets, in order to explore how this particular trope became problematized, constituted in late Ottoman literary discourse as a locus of gender anxiety, and ultimately asserted as an effect of Iranian influence and thus foreign to an authentic Turkish culture. By reading these poets in connection with Seyfettin’s own writings on normative gender roles, the desiring and desired body, and the production of a “healthy” eroticism through the engineering of language, this paper argues that Seyfettin’s anxieties over the figure of the çar-ebru were foundational to his broader project of linguistic and cultural reform. At the same time, this paper explore how Seyfettin’s queering of the çar-ebru also served to constitute the Persianate as a contingent site of resistance to his proposed ideal of a heteronormative, monolingual nation-state: in particular, it discusses how actresses from the Ottoman underclasses utilized Persian guise to sustain and display condemned practices of gender-crossing in the form of Acem kantosu, or Persian cabaret. Ultimately, this paper concludes by noting the influence of Seyfettin’s project on the later linguistic reforms of the Turkish Republic, and the persistence of its shadow – the “queer Persianate” – in the form of deprecated language and modes of desire.
  • Gertrude Stein writes that the official "we" is always about forty years behind what is actually going on in the arts. In world literature also, the majority of the research on twentieth-century still cannot fit much in after the 1950s. In fact, one of the most significant challenges facing world literature studies today has always been "the contemporary". The history of contemporary literature's exclusion from the Persian literature programs is as long as the history of academic Persian literary studies itself. Since the early days of establishing the first modern institutions for studying Persian literature, such as Dār al-Mo'alemin-e Markazi (later called Dār al-Mo'alemin-e Āli) in 1929 and later the University of Tehran in 1934, early modern, modern and contemporary literature had a minimal share of the curricula. Over nine decades, conservative canonization movements led by the authorities of the field and their critical approach toward the notion of literary change have significantly impacted the Persian literature curriculum and scholarly research in Iranian universities. Academic critics of modern Persian poetry claim that, because of their anti-traditional nature and aesthetic immaturity, many modern and contemporary works could be potentially dangerous to the literary taste of the readers and, eventually, the sacred cultural heritage. However, one might argue that inculcating the so-called "good taste" through curriculums is not only an orientalist approach towards cultural production of the peripheral regions but also a way of promoting a dominant, hierarchical regime of evaluation which is to depoliticize academic literary research. In this presentation, I will argue that advocating for "good taste" leads to an approach that is to turn non-western literature into archival objects that must be preserved rather than developed. I will also analyze the strategies of three different generations of conservative academics to exclude modern and contemporary literature from the Department of Persian Language and Literature curricula from the 1920s to the 1960s.
  • In early fourteenth-century Ilkhan Iran, the Sufi poet of Tabriz Mahmud Shabistari (d. ca. 1320) composed the Gulshan-i Raz (“Garden of Mystery”), a masterpiece Persian poem on Sufi doctrine and practice. More specifically, the Gulshan concisely encapsulated, in a didactic question-and-answer format, the controversial philosophy of the famed Andalusian Sufi Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240). While the poem’s simple summary of Ibn ‘Arabi’s cosmology and perspective on the unity of belief (iman) and infidelity (kufr) are well-known, this paper asserts that the Gulshan was a foundational master text for the people of tahqiq, or the muhaqqiqs, a new group of Ibn ‘Arabian Sufi-scholars who treated the cosmos and human self as ever-changing scriptures on par with the Qur’an. Translated either as “verification” or “realization,” tahqiq, as it was formulated by Ibn ‘Arabi, was a practical epistemology for seeing all created entities as self-disclosures of Divine Truth (haqq) and God’s literal Being (wujud). Just as the Qur’an is an infinitely reinvigorated scripture, the cosmos (macrocosm) and the human self (microcosm) are compendiums of God’s speech to be understood by the Sufi muhaqqiqs, or “realizers”. These muhaqqiqs explicitly differentiated themselves from the people of taqlid, which means “imitation” or blind following of the rational intellect (‘aql) or past precedent. To be more specific, the muhaqqiqs championed direct experience of revelation—found equally in creative readings of the Qur’an, enchanted observation of the physical universe, and introspection—in opposition to the faulty knowledge of philosophers, jurists, and theologians. Mahmud Shabistari lauded tahqiq and denounced taqlid in the Gulshan. Furthermore, he did so in simple, memorable, and pedagogical Persian poetry, in contrast to the difficult and revelatory prose of Ibn ‘Arabi. This is what made the Gulshan a foundational, initiatory text for the people of tahqiq in the centuries following the poem’s creation. This paper analyzes the Gulshan and a few of its commentaries from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to show how it shaped what it meant to be a muhaqqiq, one who believes in the continuous renewal of Divine Truth (haqq) in scripture, self, and cosmos.
  • This article offers three arguments about al-Ghazzālī’s major Persian work, Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat, by examining his Sufi sources. First, al-Ghazzālī’s praise of God, or ḥamdala, in the foreword of Kīmīyā should be considered the earliest example of praise of God in Persian Sufi literature. Second, this Persian divine laudation is translated from Kharkūshī’s Arabic praise of the prophet Muḥammad in his Tahḍīb al-ʾAsrār. Third, al-Ghazzālī’s controversial reference to his Persian-speaking audience as ʿawāmm (laypeople) in the preface of Kīmīyā is similarly a Persian translation of Kharkūshī’s preface in Tahḍīb al-ʾAsrār. The article further proposes that Mustamillī al-Bukharī’s Sharḥ al-Taʿaruf li-Madhhab Ahl-i Taṣawwuf, the first Arabic-to-Persian translation of a Sufi manual, is another neglected source of al-Ghazzālī. As shown by these examples, Persian translation was one of the most subtle and ingenious ways in which al-Ghazzālī borrowed from his Sufi forerunners. Investigating al-Ghazzālī’s use of Sufi sources will further help scholars of Islamic literature to understand the origin of the thoughts and concepts echoed in his major Persian work.