Ben's Logarion ☪

Persian Literature: Recommended Reading

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Hello, logonauts! In an attempt to provide something interesting for you all to read I'm sharing a response today that I wrote to a good friend in my literature club who wanted to be introduced to Persian literature (in English, of course). I will quote my response below for your perusal, if you happen to be so inclined to spend your quarantine days in pursuit of classical oriental literature.


I'm fascinated by the aesthetics of Persian culture, though that's all I have experienced of it from what I remember. Could you recommend something suitable for me, given what we have discussed so far?

Hmm that's a great question. When we talk about aesthetic in Persian culture, literature is a core element of that tradition, but it's also surrounded by extra-literary items, so like if you want help getting a feel how Persian speakers experience their literature and culture, there's a lot of visual arts you can look at, like Persian calligraphy, Persian miniatures, classical Persian music (OK, not primarily visual), architecture, gardens, and so on and so on.

Beauty is an overarching theme in Persian literature, so in a place like Iran for example, it's not just works of writing, but it sort of bleeds in to the whole lifestyle and cultural aesthetic, so the literature aspect might be food for thought, like beautiful ideas, which are part of a bigger package of also beautiful sights, sounds, tastes, and smells.

I often come back to this personal comparison I do comparing Iranian to Japanese culture, where they have this kind of artistic ethos that they have to put into everything. Of course, not to say that they are so much alike, but I noticed some general common themes in their cultures like conformity, the rule of being polite (both cultures have a taboo against telling people "no" bluntly), and the need to stick to tradition as a proper form.

So if you want to do reading, it sort of depends on what you can find in English because I'm sure not all works have been translated, but surely the most important ones have. The ones I mentioned (Rubaiyat and Masnavi) are crazy-influential in Western culture. In Russian culture in particular they used to treat Rubaiyat almost as if it were a holy book, and among Persian speakers it's very common for Masnavi to be considered sacred somehow.

We have classes on Masnavi in university, and I got familiar with its translation into English. There is poetry written by Coleman Barks that you should be wary of because it's not really a translation. It also happens to be the best-selling rendition of Rumi's work in English, so oftentimes when you come across Rumi poems in English they're actually Barks' poems. He doesn't even know Persian; what he did was read an incomplete and flawed translation of Rumi's poems (like a dictionary dump) and used that as inspiration to write his own versions of what he thought the poems were about.

Of course you can read Barks' work if you like it, there's nothing wrong with that; you just have to know that it's not original, but more like Rumi-inspired. I was able to find online a few PDF's of prose translations of the Masnavi, and that was pretty good actually because the Masnavi is a series of stories/parables, and the stories themselves are meant to be interesting and meaningful, so reading it in prose makes perfect sense, even though it was originally poetry. Back then they wrote books in poetry because they felt like you basically had to or it wouldn't be worth writing or reading.

Another Persian work that's very famous and important, though less-read, is the Shahnameh, and Dick Davis has an abridged prose rendition (with some lines of poetry mixed in at key points) in English which I feel is a very good work. If you read that you'd end up knowing more about the Shahnameh than the average Persian speaker. (They talk about it a lot but they never read it.) Shahnameh is a totally different genre from the above poetry I mentioned; it's rather a heroic epic and collection of Iranian myths and legends.

Another work you should look into if you want to get into Persian literature is Saadi's Gulistan, which by some estimations is the finest book ever written in Persian. Many Iranians think the greatest work is the Divan of Hafiz, but I don't think I'd recommend that for a general audience. First of all, Divan of Hafiz has (in my opinion) less interesting content, although it stands out in Persian literature in the quality of its verses in Persian language itself (like, structure, rhyme, use of various literary devices). Probably 90% of what makes it interesting would be lost in translation, whereas Gulistan would shine through.

Dick Davis also wrote (with his wife) a translation of Attar's Conference of the Birds, which I think is really fantastic. The original work is amazing in itself, and Dick Davis' translation is in poetry (the entire text!) rather than prose, which is quite a feat. Like the Masnavi, it's a Sufi work based on parable. I would argue it's more beautiful than the Masnavi, but that's my opinion. (The frame story of the birds' journey to find Simurgh is an exceptionally good plot device.) The parable is about the human's journey in search of the spiritual or divine, and the ending may surprise you.

That's about all that comes to my mind right now, but if I think of anything else I'll let you know. There's of course works out there that I haven't read and aren't aware of yet. Persian literature is vast enough that you might find random translations of works that even I'm not familiar with, especially if you include works from related languages/cultures like classical Turkish or South Asian (Muslim) literature. I recently ordered a recent English translation of a work called Kathakautukam that I'm eager to read, which is a classical Islamic Persian story (Yusuf and Zulaikha) that was, surprisingly, translated and adapted to Sanskrit and Indianized in the process.

Persian literature was so broadly influential in Asia that there's even works in languages like Chinese and Georgian that are based on some Persian sources. Some works like "Kalila wa Dimna" have a dizzying origin story (originally from India, gained fame after being translated into Persian, gained more fame after being translated into Arabic and expanded upon, then translated back to Persian as well as into several European languages). Kalila wa Dimna is also noteworthy because it is one of the Persian works popularly known to Europeans very long ago, and it contains fables (talking animals) not too unlike Aesop's Fables.

OK this is getting too long lol I'll have to continue another time. ;p