Celebrating a millennium of Persian textual production in Washington, DC
Infrequent are the times in Washington, DC when the name ‘Iran’ is uttered outside discourses revolving around security and politics. The country has come to be defined by the ongoing circuit of think tank events and publications that grapple with Iran’s role in the world, and the piling up of congressional resolutions in response to its nuclear programme. Washington-Tehran relations are framed by some of the iconic sights of the US capital’s past and present, such as photographs of Jimmy Carter and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the White House lawn wiping their eyes (as a result of the tear gas intended to fend off nearby protesters), and the dull, turquoise dome of the deserted Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art at the Smithsonian, in focusing on Iran’s cultural heritage, have offered a refreshing, alternative perspective on Iran for US audiences, amidst geopolitical sturm und drang. The ongoing exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran includes gilded and silver rarities from Iran’s pre-Islamic past, and serves as a reminder of the rich cultural heritage of the Iranian people and their engagement with elements beyond uranium. Joining the Freer and Sackler Galleries in highlighting Iran’s cultural achievements in Washington, DC is an exhibition at the Library of Congress entitled A Thousand Years of the Persian Book. Running through September 20, 2014, the exhibition has also been accompanied by a series of lectures by internationally-renowned scholars on Persian literature, culture, and heritage.
A Thousand Years of the Persian Book focuses on a millennium of Persian textual production, not just from Iran, but also from other corners of the Persian-speaking world. Today, the region includes countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, parts of Uzbekistan (e.g. Samarkand and Bukhara), and even remote corners of Western China, but at one period, it also extended to the Indian subcontinent (where Persian enjoyed the status of the language of the court and the literati under the Mughals) and present-day Turkey. In his monumental work The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Marshall Hodgson defined the lands where ‘cultural traditions in Persian or reflecting Persian inspiration’ were prevalent as ‘Persianate’. Persianate traditions are not restricted to peoples of Persian descent or ethnicity, but rather embraced by those exposed to its influence. The expansive cultural topography, and more specifically, literary geography, are the focus of the exhibition at the Library, featuring texts produced by Iranians, Indians, Tajiks, Afghans, and Parsis (among others), all united by their attachment to a particular linguistic and aesthetic medium.
In organising the exhibition, the Library’s African and Middle East Division has drawn from its rich collection of Persian texts. Introducing the exhibition is a brief overview of the Persianate world and the development of scripts and writing styles therein (e.g. Cuneiform, Avestan, Pahlavi) that predated the Perso-Arabic script that exists today. What follows is a series of mini-exhibitions displaying illuminated manuscripts, lithographs, and printed books, divided according to the genres of history, science and technology, religion, and literature. The works range widely, from a text on medicinal plants and a rare work on Indian castes and professions by the Calcutta-born East India Company soldier James Skinner (d. 1841) to Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis, with the result being an impressive achievement.
A final category in the exhibition has been devoted solely to Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings), a magnum opus that occupies a central place in the identity of all Iranian peoples. Written in the late 10th/early 11th century, the Shahnameh is the national epic of Iran, consisting of a mix of myth and history from the beginning of time (commencing with Kiyumars and the Pishdadian dynasty) to the fall of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century, and encompassing subjects ranging from heroic deeds, tragedies, and dramatic battles to the advent of Zoroastrianism. The impact of the epic has far exceeded Iran’s borders, and has elicited an outpouring of alternative renditions, retellings, imagined continuations, and imitations throughout history. During the reign of the Safavid monarch Shah Abbas the Great, for example, an unknown author wrote two poems imitating the style and form of those in the Shahnameh, in narrating the battles between the Iranians and the Portuguese over various territories in the Persian Gulf. Further west, the Ottomans employed poets who praised the deeds and triumphs of various Sultans in a manner emulating the imagery, language, and style of Ferdowsi’s masterpiece.
The three Shahnamehs featured here are copies of Ferdowsi’s work, rather than retellings or imitations; nonetheless, they express the manner in which the text has retained its timeliness for myriad peoples throughout history – both inside and outside Iran, of various ethnicities and backgrounds – and the way in which it has adapted to the shifting textual media of changing times. Of the three Shahnamehs featured, one was copied in Iran in 1618 and another in India sometime between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with the third being a lithograph produced by Bombay’s Parsi community in the 19th century. The latter includes a chapter on notables of the Indian Parsi community, demonstrating how the text was recalibrated to correspond with the aims and concerns of the community at the time.
The expansive [Persianate] cultural topography, and more specifically, literary geography, are the focus of the exhibition at the Library, featuring texts produced by Iranians, Indians, Tajiks, Afghans, and Parsis (among others), all united by their attachment to a particular linguistic and aesthetic medium
A fourth and final rendition of the text by graphic designer and filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian appears at the end of the exhibition. Using the latest in graphic design and digital technology, Rahmanian colourfully recast battle scenes and mythical heroes usually restricted to manuscripts, providing a bridge between a masterpiece produced over 1,000 years ago to the present. As a digital-age take on the classic, the work is flanked by audio selections of Persian poetry, where visitors can listen to portions of a 1970s Shahnameh-inspired ballet composed by Loris Tjeknavorian, Forough Farrokhzad’s recital of her poem Conquest of the Garden, and intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush’s readings of poems by the 13th century Persian mystic Rumi.
The bulk of A Thousand Years of the Persian Book is devoted to Persian literature from the 10th century to the present, with the texts on display divided into three time periods: classical Persian poetry, 18th and 19th century literature, and modern and contemporary literature. In addition, works by female writers and those in the realm of children’s literature are featured. This portion of the exhibition provides an excellent introduction to individuals and texts that helped form the contours of Persian literature, such as Rumi’s Masnavi, the collected works of Sa’di, the poetry of free-verse master Nima Yushij, and the modern verse of Ahmad Shamlou. Lesser-known authors such as Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi, the Afghan poet and father to one of Afghanistan’s greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, Mahmud Tarzi, have also been recognised. The majority of the texts revolve around poetry, although prose writers such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Sadegh Chubak are also honoured here. Among the iconic works of the modern period on display are Iraj Pezeshkzad’s Daei Jan Napelon (My Uncle Napoleon), one of the most beloved novels (and later, television mini-series) of 20th century Iran, and Sadegh Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor (The Blind Owl).
The organisers of the exhibition are also to be commended for the inclusion of figures in Persian literary culture who flourished outside of Iran, such as Asadullah Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal from South Asia, and the reformist intellectual Sadriddin Aini from Central Asia. The same is true regarding the focus on female writers. In addition to household names such as Forough Farrokhzad, and the late Simin Behbehani and Simin Daneshvar are lesser-known figures such as the 10th century mystic Rabi’a Balkhi, the 18th century Mughal princess Zeb un-Nissa, and Ayisha Durrani, an 18th century Afghan noblewoman. Much of their work still remains popular today, albeit largely outside of Iran. Curiously absent from the featured authors, however, is India’s Abd al-Qadir Bidil (known in Iran as ‘Bidel-e Dehlavi’ / ‘The Heartless One from Delhi’), an 18th century poet whose style led to an array of imitators in the Persianate world and who is often championed as the most famous Persian-language poet in Central Asia today. Ghalib, Iqbal, and Aini all had some form of interaction with Bidil’s work, and his poetry still elicits recitations in far-flung places and annual gatherings in his memory.
Individual authors and iconic texts, as opposed to circumstances and eras are the focus of the exhibition, and are regarded here as the primary guardians of Persian literary heritage and expression – an approach often favoured by historians and scholars. It is, after all, individuals and their output that best elucidate particular literary styles. Here, though, the exhibition may have benefited from an organisational rubric not as dependent on the personas and output of literary luminaries, but instead one that would have explicated the circumstances and conditions that allowed these individuals and their texts to flourish. Various courts and dynasties, including those of the Samanids in Khorasan (9th to 10th centuries) and the 15th century Timurid ruler Hossein Bayqara in Herat, the informal societies of poets in the Safavid and Qajar eras, as well as Sufi travel lodges, all of which functioned as centres that helped churn the wheel of Persian literary production and make the emergence – and later, maintenance – of the Persian book possible, come to mind. Such places served as locales for authors to receive patronage and have their texts copied and distributed, as well as enjoy sponsored readings in communal settings. An approach such as this would have further reinforced the exhibition’s central theme: that is, that the Persian book represents a legacy for a diverse set of populations, reaching far beyond particular poets and their works.
Using the aforementioned rubric for the exhibition would not have been an easy task, however, and one can sense that the organisers reached the same conclusion, more or less. One must make do with the traces they left throughout the exhibition that hint at this larger ‘matrix’ of literary production and circulation, which includes the wide-ranging popularity of certain works across boundaries; the way in which certain poets revived and responded to the styles of their predecessors; the fact that many of the manuscripts displayed were copied or printed a great distance away from their original place of composition; and a pocket-sized chapbook of poetic selections carried around and read for both personal enjoyment as well as one’s peers. In considering such phenomena, one can begin to see glimmers of a world extending far beyond literary giants to courts, workshops, scribes, bookbinders, elites, lesser-known poets, and the general populace, who together crafted and perpetuated the economy of literary products and knowledge en masse.
This matrix is clearly seen in other segments of the exhibition, where the focus there is more directed towards the Persian book’s centrality with respect to particular communities. This is certainly true for the section on religion, which features, among other texts a Shi’a prayer manual, selected writings of Baha’ullah, founder of the Baha’i faith, a pocket-sized version of the Ewangeliyon (Assyrian Gospel), and a resplendent illuminated manuscript of the Psalms of David in both Hebrew and Persian, gifted by the Iranian reformist cleric Abdolhamid Masoumi-Tehrani on behalf of the Iranian people to the US as a gesture of friendship.
While the notion of a Shi’a cleric giving a Jewish religious text to the people of the United States may strike some as surprising, the humanistic impulse to produce and gift such a work has been a common practice in the Persianate world for a long time, if not quite a millennium. Just as the Persian language and Persian literary production were forced to adapt to a new script, overcome the Mongol onslaught, and survive the rise and fall of many an empire, such a preservative impulse endures to this day. As minorities in Iran continue to face challenges and the tension between the US and Iran persists, the inclusion of such a text in the exhibition gives hope that the Persian book can continue to maintain its relevance for those both in Iran and beyond, and serve as a bridge to connect diverse peoples in the face of conflict and turmoil – perhaps for another 1,000 years.
‘A Thousand Years of the Persian Book’ runs through September 20, 2014 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. To view some of the items on display, visit the LoC website.