Posts tagged Persia

Over My Shoulder # 49: Sic Semper

Here’s the rules.

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from my class readings, Herodotus (c. 449 BCE), The Histories (trans. G.C. Macaulay and Donald Lateiner); I read it during one of my study jags over at The Coffee Cat. It’s Herodotus’s version of the end of the life of Cyrus the Great, the first King of Kings of the Persian Empire. At this time in his life, Cyrus had gained supreme power over the Persians, taken power over the old Median Empire, and set out on decades of large-scale conquest, subjugating nearly all of the peoples in Asia Minor, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. He then went with his army to the river Aras, in the hopes of expanding his conquest onto the Central Asian plains.

201. When [Babylon] also had been subdued by Cyrus, he desired to bring the Massagetai into subjection to himself. This nation is reputed to be both great and warlike, and to dwell towards the East and the sunrise, beyond the river Araxes and over against the Issedonians. Some say that this nation is of the Scythian race.

. . . 205. Now the ruler of the Massagetai was a woman, who was queen after the death of her husband, and her name was Tomyris. To her Cyrus sent and wooed her, pretending that he desired to have her for his wife. Tomyris, understanding that he was wooing not herself but rather the kingdom of the Massagetai, rejected his approaches. Cyrus after this, as he made no progress by craft, marched to the Araxes and campaigned openly against the Massagetai, forming bridges of boats over the river for his army to cross, and building towers upon the vessels which gave them safe passage across the river.

[. . . The captive king Croesus advised Cyrus to leave behind part of his army, along with preparations for a feast with strong wine, as a snare for the Massagetai warriors, who had no experience with Persian drinks.]

211. . . . After this when Cyrus and the sound part of the army of the Persians had marched back to the Araxes, and those unfit for fighting had been left behind, then one-third of the army of the Massagetai attacked and proceeded to kill, not without resistance, those whom the army of Cyrus had left behind. Seeing the feast that was set forth, when they had overcome their enemies they lay down and feasted, and being satiated with food and wine they went to sleep. Then the Persians came upon them and slew many of them, and took alive many more even than they slew, and among these the son of the queen Tomyris, who was leading the army of the Massagetai; and his name was Sparagapises.

212. She then, when she heard that which had come to pass with the army and also the things concerning her son, sent a herald to Cyrus and said: Cyrus, insatiable of blood, do not celebrate too much what has come to pass, namely because with that fruit of the vine, with which you fill yourselves and become so mad that as the wine descends into your bodies, wicked words float up upon its stream,–because setting a snare, I say, with such a drug as this you overcame my son and not by valor in fight. Now therefore hear this my word, giving you good advice:–Restore to me my son and depart from this land without penalty, triumphant over a third part of the army of the Massagetai. If you shall not do so, I swear to you by the Sun, who is lord of the Massagetai, that surely I will give you your fill of blood, blood-thirsty though you are.

213. These words were reported to him, but Cyrus disregarded them; and the son of the queen Tomyris, Sparagapises, when he sobered up and he realized his plight, entreated Cyrus that he might be loosed from his chains and gained his request. So soon as his hands were free, he put himself to death. 214. He then ended his life in this manner; but Tomyris, as Cyrus did not listen to her, gathered together all her power and joined battle with Cyrus. This battle I judge to have been the fiercest of all the battles fought by Barbarians,[1] and I am informed that it happened thus:–first, it is said, they stood apart and shot at one another, and afterwards when their arrows were all shot away, they fell upon one another and engaged in close combat with their spears and daggers; and so they continued their fight with one another for a long time, and neither side would flee; but at last the Massagetai got the better in the fight. The greater part of the Persian army was destroyed there upon the spot, and Cyrus himself died there, after he had reigned twenty-nine years. Then Tomyris filled a skin with human blood and had search made among the Persian dead for the corpse of Cyrus. When she found it, she let his head down into the skin and doing outrage to the corpse she said this over it: Though I yet live and have overcome you in fight, nevertheless you have destroyed me by taking my son with craft. I nevertheless according to my threat will give you your fill of blood. There are many tales told about the end of Cyrus, but this one is to my mind the most worthy of belief.

–Herodotus (c. 449 BCE), The Histories, Book I §§ 212-213. (Trans. G.C. Macaulay and Donald Lateiner.)

  1. [1][Sic. By Barbarians, Herodotus simply means nations that do not speak Greek. –CJ]

On traditionalism: how homoeroticism flourished in medieval Persia, and how political homophobia came to be imported from the West

One of the difficulties in having serious conversations about cultural conservatism — both here and abroad — is how often it turns out that what the so-called conservative wishes to preserve or to restore the conditions of a past that never existed. When this kind of mythistory is used to pass off modern authoritarian’s political desiderata as if they were accurate representations of history, both the pseudotraditionalists, and their self-styled progressive opponents, tend to take for granted that history must have been whatever modern political conservatives want it to have been; they just argue over whether that history is a good thing or a bad thing, and so whether to join in the march of Progress or to stand athwart history yelling Stop! In reality, though, antiquity is always a much more complicated affair than simple-minded political progress narratives would make it. And often it is exactly the opposite. Take, for instance, the story of queer eroticism in Iran, where — setting aside the propaganda of the Ayatollahs and the colonialist liberals both — it becomes clear that medieval Iran was full of passionate expressions of same-sex eroticism and same-sex romantic love, and that political homophobia, far from being an ingrown feature of traditional culture or religion, is in fact a colonial import, which came into Iranian political culture mainly through the modernizing ideologies of Marxism and Westernizing progressive nationalism.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his infamous claim at a September 2007 Columbia University appearance that In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country, the world laughed at the absurdity of this pretense.

Now, a forthcoming book by a leading Iranian scholar in exile, which details both the long history of homosexuality in that nation and the origins of the campaign to erase its traces, not only provides a superlative reply to Ahmadinejad, but demonstrates forcefully that political homophobia was a Western import to a culture in which same-sex relations were widely tolerated and frequently celebrated for well over a thousand years. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, [by Janet Afary,] to be published at the end of next month by Cambridge University Press, is a stunningly researched history and analysis of the evolution of gender and sexuality that will provide a transcendent tool both to the vibrant Iranian women’s movement today fighting the repression of the ayatollahs and to Iranian same-sexers hoping for liberation from a theocracy that condemns them to torture and death.

In her new book, Afary’s extensive section on pre-modern Iran, documented by a close reading of ancient texts, portrays the dominant form of same-sex relations as a highly-codified status-defined homosexuality, in which an older man — presumably the active partner in sex — acquired a younger partner, or amrad. . . . Afary dissects how classical Persian literature (twelfth to fifteenth centuries)…overflowed with same-sex themes (such as passionate homoerotic allusions, symbolism, and even explicit references to beautiful young boys.) This was true not only of the Sufi masters of this classical period but of the poems of the great twentieth-century poet Iraj Mirza (1874-1926)… Classical poets also celebrated homosexual relationships between kings and their pages.

Afary also writes that homosexuality and homoerotic expressions were embraced in numerous other public spaces beyond the royal court, from monasteries and seminaries to taverns, military camps, gymnasiums, bathhouses, and coffeehouses… Until the mid-seventeenth century, male houses of prostitution (amrad khaneh) were recognized, tax-paying establishments.

. . . Unmistakably lesbian sigeh courtship rituals, which continued from the classical period into the twentieth century, were also codified: Tradition dictated that one [woman] who sought another as sister approached a love broker to negotiate the matter. The broker took a tray of sweets to the prospective beloved. In the middle of the tray was a carefully placed dildo or doll made of wax or leather. If the beloved agreed to the proposal, she threw a sequined white scarf (akin to a wedding veil) over the tray… If she was not interested, she threw a black scarf on the tray before sending it back. As late as the last half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, Iranian society remained accepting of many male and female homoerotic practices… Consensual and semi-open pederastic relations between adult men and amrads were common within various sectors of society. What Afary terms a romantic bisexuality born in the classical period remained prevalent at court and among elite men and women, and a form of serial love (‘eshq-e mosalsal) was commonly practiced [in which] their love could shift back and forth from girl to boy and back to girl.

In a lengthy section of her book entitled Toward a Westernized Modernity, Afary demonstrates how the trend toward modernization which emerged during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and which gave the Persian monarchy its first parliament was heavily influenced by concepts harvested from the West.

One of her most stunning revelations is how an Azeri-language newspaper edited and published in the Russian Caucuses, Molla Nasreddin (or MN, which appeared from 1906 to 1931) influenced this Iranian Revolution with a significant new discourse on gender and sexuality, sharing Marx’s well-documented contempt for homosexuals. With an editorial board that embraced Russian social democratic concepts, including women’s rights, MN was also the first paper in the Shi’i Muslim world to endorse normative heterosexuality, echoing Marx’s well-documented contempt for homosexuality. Afary writes that this illustrated satirical paper, which circulated among Iranian intellectuals and ordinary people alike, was enormously popular in the region because of its graphic cartoons.

MN conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, and attacked clerical teachers and leaders for molesting young boys, played upon feelings of contempt for passive homosexuals, suggested that elite men who kept amrad concubines had a vested interested in maintaining the (male) homosocial public spaces where semi-covert pederasty was tolerated, and mocked the rites of exchanging brotherhood vows before a mollah and compared it to a wedding ceremony. It was in this way that a discourse of political homophobia developed in Europe, which insisted that only heterosexuality could be the norm, was introduced into Iran.

MN‘s attacks on homosexuality would shape Iranian debates on sexuality for the next century, and it became a model for several Iranian newspapers of the era, which echoed its attacks on the conservative clergy and leadership for homosexual practices. In the years that followed, Iranian revolutionaries commonly berated major political figures for their sexual transgressions, and revolutionary leaflets accused adult men of having homosexual sex with other adult men, of thirty-year-olds propositioning fifty-year-olds and twenty-year-olds propositioning forty-year-olds, right in front of the Shah. Some leaflets repeated the old allegation that major political figures had been amrads in their youth.

. . . The expansion of radio, television, and print media in the 1940s — including a widely read daily, Parcham, published from 1941 by Kasravi’s Pak Dini movement — resulted in a nationwide discussion about the evils of pederasty and, ultimately, in significant official censorship of literature. References to same-sex love and the love of boys were eliminated in textbooks and even in new editions of classical poetry. Classical poems were now illustrated by miniature paintings celebrating heterosexual, rather than homosexual, love and students were led to believe that the love object was always a woman, even when the text directly contradicted that assumption, Arafy writes.

In the context of a triumphant censorship that erased from the popular collective memory the enormous literary and cultural heritage of what Afary terms the ethics of male love in the classical Persian period, it is hardly surprising as Afary earlier noted in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution that the virulence of the current Iranian regime’s anti-homosexual repression stems in part from the role homosexuality played in the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers to power.

In that earlier work, she and her co-author, Kevin B. Anderson, wrote: There is… a long tradition in nationalist movements of consolidating power through narratives that affirm patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, attributing sexual abnormality and immorality to a corrupt ruling elite that is about to be overthrown and/or is complicit with foreign imperialism ….

— Doug Ireland, Direland (2009-02-27): Iran’s Hidden Homosexual History

Read the whole thing.

(Via Jesse Walker 2009-03-09.)