DĀSTĀN-SARĀʾĪ (storytelling), term used for written and oral genres of fictional narrative. Other terms used for the same genres include dāstān-gūʾī, dāstān-pardāzī, qeṣṣa-gūʾī, afsāna-sarāʾī, and naqqālī. In this article primarily the oral forms of storytelling will be discussed. Oral storytelling is generally considered a part of popular culture, but it also touches on literary culture at many points. It is performed in a number of different genres and contexts, of which a general overview will be given here. Storytellingmay be classified according to the status of the storyteller, whether amateur or professional; the settings in which it takes place, either private or public; and the subject matter or literary genres of the stories.
In private gatherings traditional folktales are recited by older family members, male or female, as a form of family entertainment. Children may be put to sleep with recitations of such stories as “Sang-e ṣabūr” (Lorimer, pp. 153-56; idem and Lorimer, pp. 19-24). If the gathering includes listeners who are not members of the family, males and females may not both be present together: Female storytellers will address all-female gatherings, and males will perform for male groups (for an extensive discussion of this sort of storytelling, see Mills).
Storytelling in public contexts has been more widely studied. It encompasses a greater variety of performance genres. In pre-Islamic times minstrels performed at royal courts, providing entertainment, as well as news for their audiences. What is known of this practice has been described in detail by Mary Boyce. There are only scattered references to storytellers in Persian texts before the Safavid period. Bayhaqī (ed. Fayyāż, pp. 154, 905) described an incident involving an amateur storyteller (moḥaddeṯ) at the court of the Ghaznavid sultan Masʿūd (421-32/1030-41); he also condemned popular storytellers because they related tales of absurdities to please only the ignorant. Professional storytellers were often classed with such other public entertainers as jugglers, wrestlers, tight-rope walkers, and weight lifters (Sīstānī, p. 254; Wāʿeż Kāšefī, 1350 Š./1971, pp. 275-343), all of whom used to perform in squares and open areas of towns and cities.
In the Safavid period, when coffeehouses appeared in Isfahan and became centers of popular entertainment, the nature of professional storytelling began to change. The coffeehouse provided a place where storytellers could appear regularly and entertain a more or less stable audience, which in turn permitted them to tell longer and more complex stories that could be continued from one day to the next and did not have to be concluded in one session (for a broad discussion of such professional storytellers, see Maḥjūb). They also became more free to specialize. The most prominent form of public storytelling was naqqālī, still practiced to a limited extent in large cities. In the Safavid and Qajar periods naqqāl was most often a generic term for a narrator of stories from the Šāh-nāma and such great popular romances as Abū Moslem-nāma (see ABŪ MOSLEM ḴORĀSĀNĪ), Ḥamza-nāma, Eskandar-nāma, Dārāb-nāma, Samak-e ʿAyyār, Ḥosayn-e Kord, and in late Qajar times Amīr Arsalān.
Many naqqāls in the Safavid period specialized in single, though extensive stories; they were accordingly known as Šāh-nāmaḵᵛān, Amīr Ḥamzaḵᵛān,and the like. The names of some famous contemporary Šāh-nāmaḵᵛāns were recorded by Mīrzā Moḥammad-Ṭāher Naṣrābādī (pp. 145, 307, 357, 379, 401). In the 20th century, as competition from other forms of entertainment began to restrict the audiences for popular recitations, the naqqāls gradually limited their repertoire to stories from the Šāh-nāma.
Already prominent in the Middle Ages were various types of maddāḥ (lit., “panegyrists”) including the manāqebḵᵛāns, who told stories glorifying the Shiʿite imams, and the competing fażāʾelḵᵛāns, with stories in praise of the first three caliphs (Qazvīnī, p. 67).
Two specialized genres of oral storytelling were rawża-ḵᵛānī and parda-dārī. The rawżaḵᵛān told stories of the imams Ḥasan and Ḥosayn and the events at Karbalāʾ. They performed at private gatherings in people’s homes, as well as in public spaces like shrines and cemeteries, and their function had a religious significance beyond that of simple entertainment. The term rawża-ḵᵛānī itself is said to have come from the work Rawżat-al-šohadā of Ḥosayn Wāʿeẓ Kāšefī (d. 910/1504). Parda-dārī is a form of illustrated storytelling in which the narrator or two narrators working as a team recite stories, usually about important early Shiʿite figures, using a large painting, or parda, as a prop. These individuals, who were still functioning in Persia in the 1970s, were usually itinerant, moving from village to village on market days and setting up the parda on a wall in a village square (for a discussion of “picture storytelling” in its larger Asian context, see Mair, pp. 119-20).
Popular storytelling has been acknowledged in a number of literary works. The ethical dimensions of popular storytelling were discussed by Wāʿeẓ Kāšefīin a chapter on singers of tales and narrators of stories (1350 Š./1971, pp. 302-05). The poem “Pahlavān-e nāmawjūd” by Abu’l-Qāsem Lāhūtī (1304-77=1336 Š./1887-1957) is about people’s reactions to the performance of a storyteller on a summer evening in Kermānšāh (Monīb-al-Raḥmān, I, pp. 194-96). Mahdī Aḵawān-e Ṯāleṯ (pp. 66-68), in his poem “Ādamak,” gave the thoughts of an old naqqāl as he sees his audience seduced by the attractions of a radio in the coffeehouses of large cities. As naqqālī gradually disappears from these coffeehouses, more attention is being paid to it by litterateurs and scholars. For example, ʿAlī-Akbar Saʿīdī Sīrjānī has published a narration of the story of Esfandīār from the Šāh-nāma as a naqqāl would recite it, and Jalīl Dūstḵᵛāh has published the story of Rostam and Sohrāb from the ṭūmār, or notebook, of the famous naqqāl of Isfahan, Moršed ʿAbbās Zarīrī.
For a music sample, see Ilāri.
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Originally Published: December 15, 1994
Last Updated: November 18, 2011
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Vol. VII, Fasc. 1, pp. 102-103