Licensed Fool. The Damnable, Foul-Mouthed Obeyd-e Zakani

Illustrations by Ardeshir Mohassess

Series: Bibliotheca Iranica: Literature Series 12
Availability: In stock
Published: 2012
Page #: xvi + 218
Size: 7 x 10
ISBN: ISBN 13: 978-1568592510, 1-56859-251-5
bibliography, index, notes


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Quick Overview

What can be said with certainty about Obeyd-e Zakani hardly fills a paragraph. He was born around 1300 near Qazvin, a city in northeastern Iran. Apparently there were two branches of the Zakani clan: one belonging to the minority sect in Islam, Shiism, and the other to the majority Sunni sect. Zakani appears to have been part of the Sunni branch. A contemporary chronicle written in 1330 mentions him as a writer of “good poetry and celebrated works” and, like some of his kinsmen, as a high official or vizier. He wrote poems and prose works dedicated to various patrons including court functionaries and petty dynasts. These poems tell us that he spent time in the Iranian cities Shiraz, Kerman, Esfahan, as well as in Baghdad. Zakani probably died between 1368 and 1372. Almost as if to compensate for the poverty of biographical detail in his writings, Zakani’s works grew during the three or four centuries after his death. These accretions reveal more about the times in which they were added than Zakani himself. From them we know that the name Nizâm al-Din Ubaydallâh Zâkâni (as the Library of Congress styles it) acted like a catch basin in a sewer. Stray bits of off-color humor, scatology, homoeroticism, and genital-revealing insults that Persian-users never allow in mixed company regularly lodge under his name. It is as if the mere act of attributing dirty writing to Zakani somehow excused breaches of verbal decorum that in the works of other Persian writers were unthinkable. For example, many manuscripts of the writings of the great author of the Golestan, Sa‘di (d. 1292), contain obscene poems and stories that, at the present time, have been banished from the canonical works. By allowing off-color jetsam to float to the surface of literary discourse in Persian, Zakani has served as a licensed and licensing fool over the ages. Being Obeydian indemnifies the urge to swear in Persian, to express what is ordinarily suppressed or censored. Over the centuries, when Persian wits have waxed obscene but, at the same time, have wanted to remain anonymous, they could preface their remarks by writing: “As ‘Obeyd-e Zakani says…”. After all, it is only natural to find waste in a sewer. The attribution allowed them to retain their anonymity, but their witticisms—licensed by Obeyd-e Zakani—would become immortal. But not all the material that found its way into Obeyd’s works is off color. Some of it is radiantly ironic and, as such, can be compared to the works of the great satirists of world literature, writers like Aristophanes, Juvenal, Erasmus, Swift, etc. Zakani was unusual also because he lived a long life at a time when the most innocent remark could prove fatal—especially to men of letters, who, like him, orbited close to the centers of power. Given the delicate nature of the positions he held (courtier, court poet/wit), it is remarkable that Zakani wrote so boldly yet appears to have died a natural death. This longevity made his collected works a roomy refuge for any wit that wanted to make fun of the powerful and survive. "Licensed Fool" focuses on the Obeydian. It offers a close reading of Zakani’s works in the context of those of his predecessors and contemporaries. It also examines how his works have swelled or diminished depending on the tolerance and tastes of Persian users. The book ends with a study of how Zakani’s writings have fared in contemporary Iran, where many of the subjects found in them—the beard, corruption, masturbation, pedophilia, etc.—are sensitive religious, political, and social issues.


Paul Sprachman

Paul Sprachman first began to understand Persian (Dari) as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English as a second language and trigonometry at Lyceé Sena’i in Ghazni, Afghanistan. He and his wife Susan served for two years in Afghanistan, and, before returning to the United States, traveled to Iran, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Indonesia, England, and France. After studying Arabic and Persian at the University of Chicago and at the Ma’had Bourguiba in Tunis, Sprachman went to Iran to study Persian at the University of Tehran. One year later he took a position at the University of Isfahan teaching English to Iranians and Persian to non-native speakers from many parts of the world. He and Susan lived in Isfahan for three years. After leaving Iran, Sprachman worked at Columbia University as a researcher and, later, at Rutgers University where he taught Middle Eastern studies and Persian. Sprachman is the translator of a number of works from Persian to English. Among them are "Gharbzadegi" (“Plagued by the West”) by Jalal Al-e Ahmad; "Once Upon a Time" by M. A. Jamalzadeh; "A Man of Many Worlds: the Memoirs of Dr. Ghasem Ghani"; "Journey to Heading 270o" by Ahmad Dehqan; "Chess with the Doomsday Machine" and "A City under Siege: Tales of the Iran-Iraq War" by Habib Ahmadzadeh; "One Woman’s War: Da by Zahra Hoseyni"; and "Two Centuries of Silence" by Abdolhussein Zarrinkoub. Sprachman is also the author of two studies of censored Persian writing: "Suppressed Persian: an Anthology of Forbidden Literature" and "Licensed Fool: the Damnable, Foul-mouthed Obeyd-e Zakani" as well as a study of modern Persian "Language and Culture in Persian."

Preface ix

List of Illustrations xi

Introduction 1

Chapter I. Four Obeyds 13

Chapter II. Obeyd's Praise and Invective 27

Chapter III. Obeydvari:
Vulgarity as Pure Amusement 43

Chapter IV. Obeyd's Parody,
Pastiche, and Satire 71

Chapter V. The Legacy of Obeydvari 129

Notes 151

Sources 187

Transliteration 207

Index 209

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