Introductory Remarks

Speaker: Zuzanna Olszewska (University of Oxford)


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Description: Introductory Remarks to the Contemporary Persian Verbal Culture: A Symposium conference


Keynote Lecture: Persian, Dari and Tajik: A Shifting Linguistic Landscape

Speaker: William Beeman


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Description: Although Modern Persian first emerged as a literary language in Bukhara in the 10th Century C.E., it has developed a number of established varieties, influenced by social, political and cultural developments over a millennium. Today we recognize Dari and Tajik as well as Modern Iranian Persian as varieties of a single language, with many sub-varieties and accents. In this paper I focus on social language use, showing how these different varieties interact with each other in different settings and contexts. Despite the variations we see in the language I will show how speakers retain core competence that allows cross-communication between different language communities.


Life in War/War in Life: Afghan Personal Narratives, Traditional Speech Genres and Cultural Loss

Speaker: Margaret Mills


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Description: This paper will present examples of three Afghan Persian traditional speech genres annexed to the task of articulating personal experiences of war, exile and return, including afsaneh (folktale), traditional sung poetry (chaharbayti, bayt) and zarb ol-masal (proverb). Speakers’ use of these genres is by no means evenly distributed in the population or across the life cycle. The afsaneh example was provided in 1995 in Herat by a formerly adept narrator, in the context of a demonstration of her afsaneh repertoire loss while in exile. Chaharbayti is a better preserved genre in the general population. Given its traditional focus on separation, loss and longing, it readily serves as a vehicle for performers to integrate expressions of recent and ongoing personal loss into a traditional aesthetic and ethical value system, and thus to assimilate recent, ongoing, even chaotic disruptions of individual and social life to a larger system of spiritually meaningful suffering. Thirdly, while proverbs and aphorisms are alive and well in Afghan everyday speech, this paper will turn from the use of proverbs by interviewees with a familiar interlocutor (the author) in Dari language in a home setting, to the deployment of Afghan/Persian proverbs by Afghan women memoirists publishing in English. In translation, proverbs demonstrate double voicing, in which a restricted-code genre is heard differently (partially or imperfectly heard) by a “stranger” audience relative to the utterance’s resonance for cultural insiders.


Language and Performance: Oral Traditions in Tajik Badakhshan

Speaker: Gabrielle van den Berg


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Description: Central Asia is an important region with a turbulent history on the crossroads of civilizations, a melting pot of cultures and peoples, both with a nomadic and a sedentary background. Apart from steppes, rich agricultural land and cities, Central Asia has high mountain ranges, and mountain populations played a distinct role in the history of Central Asia. Governing powers could not easily gain access into the mountainous areas and this has given the mountain populations of Central Asia considerable autonomy and cultural independence.  One of these mountain areas is the Pamir mountain range, a remote and until recently isolated area straddling the border between China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The variety of languages spoken in this area reflects a rich cultural heritage. Many of these languages are non-written languages, belonging to the group of Pamir languages, a branch of the Eastern Iranian language family. The written, literary language of the speakers of Pamir languages is either Persian or Chinese, depending on the specific region within the Pamir Mountains. In this paper, I would like to discuss the role of the local languages vis à vis ‘literary’ language in the oral poetry of Tajik Badakhshan.


Vernacular Identity: Tehran’s Relationship with the Colloquial

Speaker: Dominic Parviz Brookshaw


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Description: This paper explores the relationship between the city of Tehran and the colloquial language associated with it. Drawing on a range of works spanning the fields/genres of ethno-linguistics, anthropology, dialectology, and memoir (including Sama’i’s Farhang-e loghat-e zaban-e makhfi, Shahri’s Qand-o namak, and Ahmadi’s Farhang-e baro-bachcha-ha-ye Terun), the paper explores the organic nature of Tehrani slang and shows how, in a major world city such as Tehran which is relatively lacking in traditional manifestations of history, colloquial language plays a key role in sculpting a distinct, geographically-rooted identity. Attention will be paid to the continuously evolving nature of Tehrani slang, and colloquial diversity found across the disparate neighbourhoods that constitute this urban space.


Parazit: Persian Satire in the Facebook Age

Speaker: Samad Alavi


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Description: Since first airing on Voice of America’s Persian News Network in 2008, the satirical news program Parazit (‘Static’) has gained a large viewer and fan base, as evidenced by the eight hundred thousand-plus Facebook users who have “liked” the program on their profiles. The English-language news and entertainment industry has also taken notable interest, though its commentators focus almost exclusively on just two aspects: Parazit’s vocal opposition to the leaders and policies of the Islamic Republic and the program’s resemblance to the popular American fake news program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In this paper, I will explore a facet of Parazit’s humor and appeal that does not translate as easily into the “Iranian Daily Show” monicker that several anglophone journalists have assigned it. The show’s writing, I argue, draws heavily and consciously from a long satirical tradition in Persian poetry and prose, particularly from the early twentieth-century literature of the Constitutional Revolution. Thus while acknowledging how Parazit delivers its outwardly anti-conservative politics through the hyper-contemporary media of Facebook and satellite television, this paper also locates a politically and culturally ambivalent engagement with the Persian literary canon in the program’s particular brand of humor.


The Simple Language of War: Women Writers and the “Literature of the Holy Defense”

Speaker: Niki Akhavan


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Description: Cultural productions about the eight year war with Iraq have constituted a consistent part of Iran’s social and media landscapes. Almost always under some form of state support, remarkable numbers of films, books, and poems about the war enter the market in any given year. Significantly, women’s accounts have established a place for themselves within an arena dominated by military officers and erstwhile soldiers. This includes works that are both officially sanctioned as contributing to “Literature of the Holy Defense” and those that fall outside of it. Whether hailed for sustaining the memory of the “Holy Defense” or dismissed out of hand as state propaganda, little attention has been paid to the specificities of state sanctioned women’s war literature. With a primary focus on Zahra Hosseini’s memoir Da, this paper begins to examine how such texts both participate in and challenge the state’s narratives of the eight year war. It calls for this work to be situated in relation not only to the massive body of state endorsed materials on the war but also to the trend of “ordinary women” writing best-selling books. In so doing, it suggests that women’s “Literature of the Holy Defense” forms a bridge between two bodies of literature that have heretofore been largely produced and received in isolation from one another.


Out of Tune: Islam as a Contested Idiom in Iranian Rap, Rock and Pop Music

Speaker: Nahid Siamdoust


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Description: My paper is an inter-generational study of discourses produced by Iran’s post-revolutionary musical subcultures, which negotiate with the dominant narrative of the Islamic Republic in a multitude of ways in order to arrive at their own positions vis-à-vis ‘Islam.’ Through a textual analysis of song lyrics and themes as well as an examination of musical styles that the various artists employ, I highlight the ways in which artists negotiate the terrain of religion differently, engaging with the notion of Islam as a contested idiom. The artists draw on various literary traditions as well as performative conventions in order to construct their diverse positions. Older musicians of the “Burnt Generation” who are now in their mid to late thirties and experienced a greater deal of repressive state measures and incursions into their private lives, often openly reject and ridicule leadership by the clerical class and seek dialogue between Iranian and Western music. Some of the musicians of the younger “Third Wave” generation, on the other hand, don’t even engage in the internal discourse on Islam. They prefer to reject everything “Arab” and highlight their country’s pre-Islamic past, inadvertently rejecting the state’s raison d’être. Still other younger musicians engage with the state’s Islamic discourse by appropriating its terminology, but they do so on their own terms, claiming a different kind of Islam.


Poetry as a Mode of Existence in Modern Iran

Speaker: Setrag Manoukian


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Description: Developing my previous work on poetry as the emblem of culture in modern Iran, this essay considers the existential dimension of this process and investigates the power of poetry and its affects through an historical and ethnographic account mainly drawn from fieldwork in the city of Shiraz. First I consider poetry as a particular form of sociality and describe how in settings such as anjumans (poetic gatherings) the capacity to express and feel pathos is cultivated and related to normative expectations that concern at once the form of the poems and the sensations they produce. Second, I look at how these expectations are turned into an existential ground by discussing my conversations with a modernist poet and his work and reflecting on how poetic and affective language are sublimated into each other. I conclude suggesting that in twentieth century Iran, poetry has become an equivalent of “life.” In different if not opposite ways these settings suggest that verses are supposed to embody the experiences of an affective subject and stand as its “true” and ultimate expression. This “vitalistic” understanding of poetry marks a particular relationship with secularism and undergirds a specific “bio-political” model that moves between a normative moment in which poetry works as a system of judgment of people and things, and an immanent one in which poetry works as a potentiality.


Generational Conflict and Authenticity of Expression in Afghan Poetry Circles

Speaker: Zuzanna Olszewska


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Description:  This paper describes a stylistic transition between what are predominantly considered “classical” and “modern” poetic conventions in Afghanistan and among Afghan refugees in Iran. This shift is often perceived as a generational transition – or struggle – and is accompanied by extensive commentary, criticism and acrimony. Drawing on sociological and anthropological theories of cultural production, I describe the “position-takings” (Bourdieu) through which aesthetic norms are linked to morality, status and propriety, thus becoming a form of symbolic capital. In Afghanistan, and in a slightly different way among Afghans in Iran, the symbolic capital of poetic forms is being contested by the younger generation of poets, both male and female, who believe that blank verse, ‘postmodern’ poetry and ghazal-e naw (‘new’ ghazals) dealing with subjective themes including love and eroticism are the most authentic forms of poetic expression available to them. They are increasingly critical of the ‘conservatism’ of the older generation, which counters that the young poets lack poetic rigour and skill, and that their work is ‘pornographic’. Such debates, however, have been ongoing in the Persian-speaking world for over a century, and have often been expressed in much the same terms, with simple language, a breaking of classical forms, and social ‘commitment’ being aligned with modernity, progress and authenticity.


Mavlavi Jununi and New Sufi Poetics in Tajikistan

Speaker: Benjamin Gatling


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Description:  This paper discusses trajectories of recent Sufi poetical tradition in post-Soviet Tajikistan.  Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian republics, Sufi adepts in Tajikistan have revived their performance of public ritual and adopted new texts for ritual use. Chief among these texts is the poetry of one late 19th century Tajik poet, Mavlavi Jununi. During the poet’s own lifetime and later during the Soviet period, his body of work was unknown save to his own disciples and immediate family. Now, chapbooks of his verse can be found in most Dushanbe bookstalls. Among Tajik Sufis, this poetry is often held in such high esteem as to be interchangeable with that of the classical Persian masters. In this essay, I trace the recent history of Sufi poetical texts, the creation of textual authority, and the broader pragmatic potentialities of poetical discourse in post-Soviet Tajikistan. I suggest that Sufi practitioners in Tajikistan creatively engage with the Persian sacred past in order to mitigate discourses of Islamic revivalism and that localized religious, poetical tradition works to open up emic heuristic space for critiquing dominant state strategies aimed at combating terrorism and extremism.