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CMRS-CEGS Research Seminar: Iranian 250
Dominic Brookshaw (Oxford University)
“Zulaykha’s Redemption: From Lustful Villain to Female Icon”
The guile associated with Zulaykha in the Qur’an is largely absent from her depiction in the ghazals of fourteenth-century Iran. The negativity surrounding Zulaykha’s expression (or manifestation) of female sexuality dims in the Persian ghazal where we witness the character’s salvific rehabilitation. On the surface, Zulaykha represents female-driven sexual desire, an impulse celebrated infrequently in Persian lyric poetry. That Zulaykha seeks to initiate a sexual liaison with her male love object recalls (albeit in a more aggressive form) Vis’s desire for Ramin, and Shirin’s for Khusraw. Though ostensibly a demonstration of heteroerotic desire, Zulaykha’s has been read as homoerotic if we accept that male listeners would partner with Zulaykha in a collective yearning for Joseph. Zulaykha, an older woman, finds the young Joseph attractive for the same reasons older men find themselves aroused by him. The beloved’s allure does not acknowledge gender boundaries and his beauty can arouse (and disturb) both men and women alike. This gendered aspect of the story is further complicated in the ghazals of Jahan-Malik Khatun (d. after 1391; the most prolific female poet of medieval Iran), who alludes to Zulaykha more frequently than do her male contemporaries. In a reversal of the Qur’anic narrative, Jahan depicts Joseph tearing his own shirt in exasperation over his frustrated desire for Zulaykha. Through this image, Jahan transforms Zulaykha into the object of Joseph’s desire, and reworks the tearing of Joseph’s shirt into a marker of his frustrated longing for sexual union with her, rather than proof of Zulaykha’s willfully destructive lust. Jahan disrupts the roles of lover and beloved, desirer and desired one, and this shift in the erotic dynamic of the story allows Jahan to identify her voice with that of the male protagonist in pursuit of his female beloved. This change in the direction of the desire as depicted in the standard narrative complicates homoerotic readings of the story and demonstrates the malleability of the Joseph-Zulaykha narrative. A sufficiently positive image of Zulaykha emerges in the lyric poetry of the fourteenth century that poets deem it appropriate to draw favourable comparisons in their panegyrics between Zulaykha and some of the most politically powerful women of the day.
Dominic Parviz Brookshaw is Professor of Persian Literature and Iranian Culture at the University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow in Persian at Wadham College. Dominic previously served on the Editorial Board of Middle Eastern Literatures and, from 2004 to 2014, he was Assistant Editor for Iranian Studies. He is a former member of both the Board of the International Society for Iranian Studies, and the Governing Council of the British Institute of Persian Studies. His latest book, Hafiz and His Contemporaries: Poetry, Performance, and Patronage in Fourteenth-century Iran (I B Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2019), was awarded the 2020 Saidi-Sirjani Book Award. His current book project is a study of early Qajar poetry in which, for the first time in any scholarly monograph, the poetry of women, provincial litterateurs, and members of ethno-linguistic and heterodox religious communities will be read alongside that produced by elite men to unpack the gender and center-periphery dynamics at play in the Bazgasht-i adabi, Iran’s last truly indigenous literary movement.
Claudia Yaghoobi (University of North Carolina)
“Queering the Ideal of Islamic Beauty”
In Persian cultural productions, Yusuf is depicted as a feminized, often androgynous, object of desire. Although his androgyny matches the standards of pre-modern Islamicate culture, modern viewers might find such representations disruptive. Furthermore, while feminized, Yusuf has been portrayed as a passive (and, as such, emasculated) recipient of the female gaze. This representation was also disruptive to the pre-modern (and modern) understandings of male-female, active-passive gender roles in the Muslim world. In this talk, using paintings and tile works from the Qajar era (1779-1925), and contemporary tableau rugs, and Iranian TV series, among other media, I argue that these works “queer” Yusuf’s masculinity and male beauty, and in so doing construct gender in a reverse manner, challenging gender categorizations, and illustrating the fluidity of sexuality. Through Yusuf’s representation, these works simultaneously mark the boundaries and initiate the destabilization of masculinity while the same masculinity is constituted and defined vis-à-vis dominant discourses as well. To do so, I position myself in a discourse similar to European medieval scholarly works and I use the term “queer” to disturb rigid conceptions of sexuality and gender, to explore non-normative desire, and to trace the power dynamics of heteronormativity within Iranian cultural discourses.
Dr. Yaghoobi is a Roshan Associate Professor and the inaugural director of Persian Studies at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of Temporary Marriage in Iran: Gender and Body Politics in Modern Iranian Literature and Film (Cambridge UP, 2020) and Subjectivity in ‘Attar, Persian Sufism, and European Mysticism (Purdue UP, 2017). She is also the editor The #MeToo Movement in Iran: Reporting Sexual Violence and Harassment forthcoming from Bloomsbury/IB Tauris in 2023. Dr. Yaghoobi’s third book titled, Transnational Culture in Iranian Armenian Diaspora is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.
Iranian 250, “Persian Literature in English Translation: Global and Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” taught by Associate Professor Domenico Ingenito (NELC), offers a survey of medieval and early modern Persian literature in English translation. The seminar fosters interdisciplinary conversations among graduate students from a plurality of departments and programs, including Islamic Studies, Gender Studies, History, Art History, Global Medieval and Renaissance Studies, English, and Comparative Literature. All sessions will be held in English, and students with no prior knowledge of Persian are welcome to enroll. Twice a month, international scholars will deliver lectures focusing on their current research trajectories. Key topics: epics and ethnic identity, philosophical poetics and occasion, mysticism and performative queerness, Judeo-Islamic literary intersections, ideals of beauty and lyric performance, literary modernity from Ottoman Turkey to Moghul India, German romantic and modernist appropriations of the Persian poetic canon, etc. In collaboration with the UCLA Program of Iranian Studies.
Friday, April 8 at 9:00 am Pacific Time.
Register here for online attendance on Zoom.
Image: Painting from Baysunghur’s manuscript of Sa’di’s Gulistan, Herat. Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.