From Karbala to Qādesiyyeh: the Spectacle of Arab “Other” in Persianate and Parsi Literary Traditions
Digital Repository at the University of Maryland
University of Maryland (College Park, Md.)
KeywordsNear Eastern studies
Arabs in Persian literature
discourse of "othering"
ethnic and religious minorities in Iran
nationalism and identity formation
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AbstractIn early decades of the twentieth century, a distinct anti-Arab discourse emerged in modern Persianate literature. A complex process of identification and disidentification of self and “otherness” came to cast them as the “other” of the Persianate people who are represented as occupying a higher standing on an imaginary evolutionary scheme. While this view faced strong competing discourses in the 1960s and 1970, prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, it did not fade completely. The present dissertation argues that the emergence of antiquarianism in Iran and its neighboring cultures in the nineteenth century, and a growing Shi’i conceptualization of “otherness,” underlined the discourse that recast the Arabs as destroyers of Iran’s antiquities. As the title of this project indicates, two traumatic moments define the range of materials examined here. “From Karbala to Qādesiyyeh” tries to demonstrate how the mutable image of the “other” in some Persianate literary environments historically has gone through certain changes where religious conceptualizations of self and “other” were displaced by ethnic ones. Examples of early Shiʿi poetry and performative practices like taʿziyeh performances and cursing rituals are sites where in Chapter One I examine the identity of this religious “other” as it ambivalently consisted of Omayyad Arabs, Ottoman Turks and Uzbeks. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, this ambivalence was reduced in favor of an ethnic “other” who was resolved to destroy not Iran’s Shiʿi faith but the Persian “nation.” This was when the emergent ideology of modern Persian nationalism replaced Shiʿi-Sunni paradigms of self and “otherness” with tropes and discourses derived from colonial sciences of archaeology and anthropology. As a result, the newly conceptualized Arab “other” no longer came from the battle of Karbala (680 CE) which is a foundational moment for the Shiʿi faith; instead, he came from the battle of Qādesiyyeh (636 CE) which marked the downfall of the Sasanian Empire and the advent of Islam in Iran. The career of renowned modern writer, Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951), tends to epitomize this epistemological shift. As a preamble to my study of Hedayat, in Chapter Two, I briefly investigate the emergence of antiquarianism in nineteenth-century Iran in the works of revolutionary poet, Mirzādeh ʿEshqi (1894-1924). I argue that ʿEshqi’s romantic reception of Iran’s antiquities, especially the Ctesiphon ruins where the remains of the Sasanian past could be seen, was a watershed moment for the formation of an antiquarian discourse in modern Persian literature. This was when ʿEshqi transplanted “footsteps of a barefooted Arab” at the Ctesiphon ruins in an effort to restore the latter’s agency as the purported destroyer of Iran’s pre-Islamic glories. As I argue in Chapter Three, Hedayat transformed ʿEshqi’s imaginary encounter with the Arab “other” into a political theatre where presumptions about the inferiority of Arab material culture, especially their uncouth appearance and humble source of subsistence, function as the armature of the evolutionary discourse he directs at them. Hedayat’s appropriation of the findings of European sciences of archaeology and anthropology –popular among elite circles in Iran in 1920s and 1930s – tends to frame his representations of Arabs as some “primitive” people attacking a superior Persian civilization. The racial anthropological underpinnings of his writings reached an unprecedented level when in one of his satirical works, he paraded the Arabs in a human zoo (ethnological exhibition) in Berlin supposedly to expose their “barbarous” deeds and creeds. By submitting the Arabs to the category of “savages,” Hedayat mobilized the pernicious tropes and discourses of certain colonial exhibitions where Africans and “Orientals” were put on display in Europe as signifiers of alterity. In Chapter Four, I argue that certain colonial elites in the Indo-Persian community of India, known as the Parsis, played a vital role in fostering the absorption of colonial sciences of archaeology and anthropology in the elite discourses of history and literature in nineteenth-century Iran. Examining the writings of Manekji Limji Hataria (1813–1890), the well-known emissary who was sent from Mumbai to Iran to improve the lives of its Zoroastrian community, can shed light on how the image of Arabs as “uncivilized” destroyers of Iran’s ancient glories was discursively manufactured by projecting onto them the very practices Hataria observed among contemporary Persians when it came to failing to protect their country’s ancient heritage. The Parsi texts examined here capture a vibrant interplay between age-old Persian concepts, and tropes and discourses they borrowed from European colonial literature. Exploring the intertextual continuities we find between the two traditions can offer fascinating comparative insight into the polyphony of voices that animates the Persianate literature in its trans-regional reach.