Retelling Karbala: a literary analysis of key plays of the Iranian Taʿziyeh repertoire
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date23/05/2023
Deacon, Eleanor Lucy
The Iranian taʿziyeh tradition commemorates the martyrdoms of Ḥusain b. ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb and his supporters at Karbala in 61 AH /680 CE. It includes a largely anonymous cycle of plays, the main episodes portraying the martyrdoms of Ḥusain, his relatives and supporters. This study examines four such episodes, The Martyrdom of ʿAbbās, The Martyrdom of Qāsem, The Martyrdom of Imam Ḥusain and Bāzār-e Shām (The Damascus Market). Comparing versions of their scripts from the Zand period (the earliest extant examples), through the Qajar period, and up to the mid-20th century, I analyse their literary features and how they developed. The majority of my sources are manuscripts drawn from the Vatican Library’s Cerulli Persian Collection. Through tracing the trajectory of these particular episodes, I make an important contribution to the understanding of the development of the taʿziyeh genre as a whole. I show the strong influence of the Iranian storytelling traditions naqqālī and pardeh-dārī, evidenced by narrative content, characterisation of the protagonists as heroes of epic, and by the presence of compositional features such as type-scenes and a composition-scheme (common in oral art forms). I also identify a societal connection between the early taʿziyeh composers and the storytellers of Selseleh-ye ʿAjam (the ʿAjam dervish order). In the dramatists’ embellishments of the Karbala narrative I find stories that assert the breadth of the Shiʿi community by connecting believers of different stripes to Ḥusain. I see the increased treatment of female characters, and find this to be a reflection of the taʿziyeh’s most active audience contingent. I see evidence of the dramatists’ impressions of European visitors to Qajar Iran, and find a hint of satire.