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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

The Body of the Friend in Early Modern Isfahan

Prof. Dr. Kathryn Babayan (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

Guest Lecture, October 15, 2014, 18:15–20:00


The lectureis part of Prof. Babayan’s book project,whichtraces shifts in literacy and the social and political values associated with it in seventeenth-century Isfahan. Literacy circulated via anthologies in the Safavi capital city at a moment of imperial state formation, a unique context in which to investigate the crafting of subjects and subjectivity.

The talk will examine letters between friends as an instrument of adab literacy and social exchange. Friendship letters collected across anthologies (majmu’as) were a distinct type of correspondence in Isfahan. Scribes, authors, and owners of majmu’as categorize them as a genre, rasa’il-i ikhwaniyat, or “fraternal” letters. These model letters conformed to protocols like those that governed sworn friendships within craft and mystical communities. They were a medium by which to maintain social relations and reflect anxieties around the vicissitudes of friendships in early-modern Isfahan. Model letters contained requests to meet, reproaches for negligence, and forgiveness for disloyal behavior.  The authors’ epistolary voices express their keen awareness of the physical absence of their friends’ bodies. The talk analyzes the narrative strategies employed to represent that physical absence; it also brings in a visual archive to assert that paintings of male readers may well have accompanied friendship letters to “fill in” for absent beloveds, as mimetic rather than narrative devices, as well as being a pedagogical tool for adab. Thinking through letters and portraits together allows reading the style of communication between friends, where speech, gesture, and gaze are written into text and image to fashion the body of the friend.

Short Biography

Kathryn Babayan is Associate Professor of Iranian History and Culture at the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and History. She earned her degree at Princeton University in 1993 and was appointed at the University of Michigan in 1996. Her research focuses on cultural and social histories of early-modern Iran, sufism, shi’ism, gender history, and history of sexuality. She is the author of Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (2003), which earned her honorable mention for the Saidi-Sirjani Book Award in 2004. Babayan has also co-authored Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavi Iran, with Sussan Babaie, Ina Baghdiantz-McCabe, and Massumeh Farhad (2004), and co-edited with Afsaneh Najmabadi Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire (2008). She is currently working on a monograph that explores cultures of literacy in early modern Isfahan.


Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies – Islamic Studies and URPP Asia and Europe


Room SOE E-1, Schönberggasse 11, 8001 Zürich