Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures

Cosmopolitanism in Pre-Modern Islamic Literature

This workshop was conceived in keeping with the goal of the Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures group to focus "on the diverse processes of transfer, exchange and interaction that exist between the literatures of the Near East and other world literatures." Experts of Near Eastern or Islamic cultures, namely of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu literatures, are aware of the need to initiate a debate among themselves since their areas of research remain separate and isolated despite the common cultural traditions they share and historical interconnections between them. The use of the term cosmopolitanism as used in this workshop is close to the term "cultural mobility," but more precisely in the words of Sheldon Pollock, "a mode of literary [and artistic] communication directed toward an audience that is consciously unbounded and potentially infinite in extension." The pre-modern Islamic world was not a monolithic cultural bloc, and while it is true that the early flowering of Arabic provided a model for other literatures, Islamicate cosmopolitanism was characterized by a constant interplay of shared values and aesthetic ideals with diverse local traditions.

The presentations in this workshop focused on various representations of urban life in poetry, painting and architecture, and in fiction and autobiography, both from a scholarly as well as a creative point of view. The questions raised concerned issues such as literary influence and cultural borrowing, poetic individuality and innovation, the function of pre-modern literary texts and material objects in their own historical contexts as well as in our present-day world, in order to arrive at a more nuanced definition of Islamic cosmopolitanism.

The first three papers dealt with the theme of poetry about craftsmen and urban life in Islamic cities, an ideal case study to gauge the nature and extent of a cultural mobility that had a thousand year history and spanned several linguistic and regional cultures. As Goethe wrote to Carlyle in a letter, "The peculiarities of a nation are like its language and its different coins, they make interaction easier, indeed only they make it fully possible." Sunil Sharma's paper, "People of the City: Persian Poetry as Ethnography," compared visual materials such as the works of the German photographer August Sander, medieval Persian miniatures, nineteenth century Iranian tile paintings and photographs to Persian poetry. Thomas Bauer's paper, "Beloved Craftsmen: Genesis and Development of the Arabic 'Berufsepigramm'" examined this rich but neglected genre in Arabic poetry that is a rich source for social history. Selim Kuru's paper, "City as the Mirror of the Beloved: The Case of the Ottoman Sehrengiz" analyzed an Turkish narrative poem on this subject in the context of the poetics of Ottoman cities and love lyric. Emre Yalcin's presentation, "Peddlers and Carpenters: Establishing Houses in Late 19th Century Istanbul" was a creative account that illustrated the domestic consumption of objects made by craftsmen as an example of cosmopolitanism. Finally, there was a reading and question and answer session with the author Orhan Pamuk, who read from his historical novel, My Name is Red, which touches upon the theoretical issues of this workshop, and from the forthcoming translation of his latest novel, Snow, that has a political theme.

Sunil Sharma / 26 April 2004