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The lasting legacy of Central Asia’s writers: The founding fathers (Part 1)

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991 left all the former republics scrambling. Self-rule was a surprise for many, certainly for the leadership in Central Asia.

Among the many pressing matters in those days was establishing signs of sovereignty — a flag, a national anthem, and so on.

They also needed a history; roots for building a new nation and national identity. No heroes had emerged from independence — the U.S.S.R. simply fell apart and suddenly there were five countries in Central Asia.

Lacking contemporary heroes, the five governments searched the rich history of Central Asia, looking for known figures who could assume the role of founders of these new nations.

The respected writers of Central Asia’s past were obvious choices.

The “founding father” for Tajikistan became Ismail Somoni, the late 9th-century conqueror whose Samanid Empire included what is now northern Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Central Asia south of the Syr-Darya River. His tomb is in Bukhara, in what is currently Uzbekistan.

Tajik authorities also claimed as native sons two of the best-known writers from the late, and post-Samanid, period — Abu Abd Allah Jaar ibn Muhammad al-Rudaki, or Rudaki (858-941); and Abu Ali Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (980-1037).

The Father Of Persian Poetry

Rudaki is called the father of Persian poetry and is credited with making enormous contributions to modern Persian language. But he was also a prototype for Central Asian writers. Rudaki composed verse and he also played music.

In a time and place where illiteracy was high, music helped carry poetry throughout the region and would continue to be a main transmitter of Central Asian poetry for the better part of the next millennium.

Rudaki was also from Panjikent in what is now western Tajikistan. His tomb is there today, reinforcing Tajikistan’s attachment to the poet.

Curiously, the mausoleum was originally built in 1958, by Soviet authorities (they dug up the body first to make sure he was really there). Such was the respect Rudaki commanded, and still commands.

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Iran/France: ‘The French have dreamlike image of Persian poetry’

LeilianvarLeili Anvar, a Professor of Persian language and literature at the Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (INALCO) in Paris, says that the French have a dreamlike image of Persian poetry.

Anvar, who last week received Iran’s Book of the Year Award for her French translation of “Le cantique des oiseaux” (The Conference of the Bird) by Persian poet and mystic Attar Neyshaburi (C. 1145-1221), said that her personal interest in mystical literature inspired her to translate these types of works. Continue reading