DALQAK, buffoon, court jester, also sometimes known as masḵara. The earliest extant study of buffoons is that of Athenaeus (bks. 1, 6, 12) from the 2nd century CE, though it seems that clowns, comic actors, jugglers, conjurors, and acrobats were not yet clearly distinguished (Welsford, p. 4). The absence of such clear distinctions among different classes of royal and popular entertainers is also typical of Persian sources, both pre-Islamic and Islamic. Here the word dalqak refers to the court jester, the professional buffoon employed by nobles and kings for the explicit purpose of entertainment. In addition to such resident court clowns, when kings or nobles were traveling local fools or humorists were sometimes brought to entertain them.
From references to court jesters in Husraw ī Kawādān ud rēdag (de Menasce, pp. 1182-83) and data scattered in classical Arabic texts it seems that they already existed under the Sasanians. (Pseudo) Jāḥeẓ, in Ketāb al-tāj (p. 21), a text based primarily on Persian sources, reported that kings had need of a number of attendants, including jesters (możḥeks), whom he distinguished from satirists (ahl al-hazl). According to him (pp. 23-24, 26), the Sasanian Ardašīr I was the first to rank his companions in three groups, including jesters in the third; Ardašīr was also supposed to have warned his descendants against such frivolities as jesters and clowns (p. 65).
There is more information about court jesters in the Islamic period. Ebrāhīm b. Moḥammad Bayhaqī, who was active under the ʿAbbasid caliph al-Moqtader (295-320/908-32), wrote Ketāb al-maḥāsen wa’l-masāwī, in which he referred to a group of entertainers of the Omayyad period, apparently professional clowns. They wore saffron-colored garb, which sometimes did not even cover their genitals, and played musical instruments and chattered meaningless gibberish (dār-bāzī) in the streets, which made people laugh. Such entertainers sometimes also provided amusement for the ruling class (II, p. 239). The ʿAbbasid caliph al-Motawakkel (232-47/847-61) was fond of jesters and had one who was often tormented for fun on his orders. This jester, when frightened by lions or poisonous snakes or distressed by other unpleasant means, would cry out in anguish, which caused great merriment. A later, more pious caliph, al-Mohtadī (255-56/869-70), dismissed all the entertainers who had served his predecessors (Mojmal, ed. Bahār, pp. 361, 364). Helāl Ṣābeʾ (d. 448//1056; pp. 15-27) included jesters in a long list of personnel at the caliphal court. A monthly budget of 3,300 gold coins was required to pay the expenses of this staff (Faqīhī, p. 395).
In the early Persian classical sources, though dalqaks are frequently mentioned, little detail is provided. Most references are simple statements that clowns, listed among the lowest social classes, made courtiers laugh (see, e.g., Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, pp. 279, 483). A clown named Abīvard, who was a great mimic, was mentioned among the courtiers of Ḥasan b. Moḥammad Mohallebī, vizier of the Buyid Moʿezz-al-Dawla (334-56/945-67; Baktash, p. 101). Another, Ebn Moḡāzelī, known for his ability to tell funny stories of various ethnic groups while mimicking their speech mannerisms and accents, entertained the caliph al-Moʿtażed (279-89/892-902; Masʿūdī, Morūj VIII, pp. 161-64). Abū Bakr Ḵᵛārazmī (d. 383/993) wrote a letter to the Buyid vizier Sāḥeb b. ʿAbbād (d. 385/995) on behalf of several banished clowns, requesting that each be reviewed with respect to his particular talents (Baktash, p. 101). The most famous of the dalqaks of the Ghaznavid sultan Maḥmūd (388-421/998-1030) was Talḥak, whose name became synonymous with dalqak in Persia (Nūrbaḵš, pp. 10-11; Zarrīnkūb, II, p. 952). According to Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqī, during Mehragān celebrations the Ghaznavid sultan Masʿūd I (421-32/1030-41) distributed 30,000 silver coins to be divided among the minstrels and jesters of his court (ed. Fayyāż, p. 274). Māfarrūḵī mentioned a number of jesters at Isfahan in the same period, including a certain Abu’l-Fawāres, several of whose anecdotes he included in his text (pp. 46-47; tr. pp. 109-11). The Saljuq ruler Malekšāh (465-85/1072-92) had a clown named Jaʿfarak, who made a practice of ridiculing the grand vizier Neẓām-al-Molk behind his back at the sultan’s private parties. When Jamāl-al-Molk, Neẓām-al-Molk’s son, heard of this behavior, he ordered the clown to be put to death in a horrible manner. Malekšāh, offended by this action but also mindful of the grand vizier’s influence, supposedly had Jamāl-al-Molk secretly poisoned in revenge (Ebn al-Aṯīr, VIII, p. 131; Mīnovī, p. 217; Faqīhī, pp. 562-63; cf. Bosworth, p. 75; Lambton, Continuity, p. 303). Jalāl-al-Dīn Rūmī (604-72/1207-73) related several tales about jesters in his Maṯnawī. In one a fictitious jester of the provincial governor Sayyed Shah of Termeḏ (bk. 2, v. 2333; bk. 4, v. 2507; bk. 6, v. 2510; cf. Zarrīnkūb, I, pp. 129, 336) was described in terms that may also have been applicable to real jesters: “There was no companion more agreeable . . . bringing up stories and jests and keeping the king in merriment and laughter” so that he “would grip his belly with both hands . . . and his body sweated from the violence of his laughter, and he would fall on his face with laughing” (bk. 6, vv. 2531-34). Elsewhere Rūmī described the relative immunity of the court jester from punishment (bk. 6, v. 2570). Tales about jesters can also be found in the works of other poets (see, e.g., Moʾayyad, pp. 612-13). The satirist ʿObayd Zākānī (d. ca. 772/1371; p. 151) ruefully advised men to learn masḵaragī, music, and dancing, rather than pursuing the sciences.
From the reign of the Safavid shah Ṭahmāsb (930-84/1524-76) there is an account of a procession of comics (możḥekān) singers, homosexuals, and prostitutes formed to ridicule a person of high rank (ʿĀlamārā-ye Šāh Ṭahmāsb, p. 71). Among the clowns at the court of Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629) were Kal ʿEnāyat (lit., “ʿEnāyat the bald”) and a woman named Dalāla Qezy (Falsafī, pp. 250-52). For unknown reasons the surname kačal (bald) was applied to several comedians before the Zand period (1163-1209/1750-94), when the term kačalak-bāzī came to signify a play performed by bald lūṭīs (rogues; Bayżāʾī, p. 170). Jean Chardin, who visited the house of Kal ʿEnāyat in the Dardašt neighborhood of Isfahan, reported that he was a talented performer, who could, simply by adopting comic postures, make people laugh whenever he wanted. He had a lively and sensible mind and took liberties even with the shah, performing comic sketches designed to influence certain royal decisions, for example, the unpopular ban on kūknār (an infusion of poppy seeds; Falsafī, pp. 250-51; Chardin, VII, p. 471, VIII, pp. 124-30).
Karīm Khan Zand (1163-93/1750-79) had a great many buffoons, who bore the titles moqalled-bāšī (chief mimic) masḵara-bāšī (chief buffoon), and lūṭī-bāšī (chief rogue). Two of them were quite skilled in producing a variety of sounds with their intestinal gases, whereas others told amusing jokes and anecdotes (Āṣaf, pp. 101, 410-11). The most famous of Karīm Khan’s clowns was Lūṭī Ṣāleḥ Šīrāzī, who managed to amass considerable wealth in the service of his patron. Perhaps he was the buffoon who compared the Lorī dialect of Karīm Khan’s family with the barking of dogs (Malcolm, II, pp. 551-52; Dubeux, p. 459). Lūṭī Ṣāleḥ later entered the service of the founder of the Qajar dynasty, Āqā Moḥammad Khan, in Tehran. One of his jokes supposedly stirred that monarch to kill his brother Jaʿfarqolī Khan. Later the repentant shah was supposed to have cut off the clown’s nose in revenge, but Lūṭī Ṣāleḥ remained at court through the first years of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s reign (1212-50/1797-1834). He is believed to have died at Kāẓemayn in Iraq (Bāmdād, Rejāl IV, pp. 122-23).
Of the Qajar rulers Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (1264-1313/1848-96) was most famous for the number of clowns at his court. The most renowned clown of his period, however, was not a courtier: Karīm, whose sobriquet Šīraʾī referred to šīra “molasses” and not, as some have thought, to the narcotic šīra, obtained from the residue of burned opium (Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, p. 360; cf. Dehḵodā, s.v.). Karīm, a native of Isfahan, was an intimate of the shah; between 1299/1881 and 1311/1893 he rose to the rank of nāyeb (lieutenant) of the naqqāra-ḵāna (drum corps). He was also a kind of patron for groups of moṭrebs (minstrels), who brought him their conflicts and quarrels for settlement (Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, p. 359). Karīm was described as tall and thin, dressed in colorful clothes of strange design and riding a short-legged donkey (Nūrbaḵš, p. 31). He performed both at court and in the royal harem. His critical views of dignitaries and his ridicule of courtiers greatly delighted the shah. Some courtiers even bribed Karīm to avoid becoming targets of his wit (for a sample of his jokes, see Mostawfī; Nūrbaḵš; Moʿayyer-al-Mamālek, p. 287). He was also known for practical jokes on individuals associated with the court, including the Austrian instructors of the Persian army (Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, p. 163). Knowing of the shah’s hatred for freemasonry, several years after the banning of the Armenian Malkom Khan’s lodge in 1277/1861 Karīm performed a grotesque sketch in which he presented his own version of freemasonry, called farāmūš-ḵāna (for details, see Bāmdād, Rejāl I, pp. 397-98). Several plays performed in the 1950-60s were attributed to him: Ṭabīb-e māzandarānī (The physician from Māzandarān), Dallāk-e māzandarānī (The barber from Māzandarān), Zan-e Mollā-ye deh (The wife of the village mulla), and Yak zan o seh mard (One woman and three men), but no details are known (Bayżāʾī, p. 178). Karīm Šīraʾī is enshrined in Persian folk and artistic traditions as the protagonist of many jokes and anecdotes and one of the principle prototypes for Ḏabīḥ Behrūz’s comédie-bouffe “Jījak-ʿAlīšāh” (first printed in Berlin in 1922).
Another famous clown of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah was Esmāʿīl Bazzāz, who began as a servant in the house of ʿEzzat-al-Dawla, the shah’s sister. Later he became a draper, a trade at which he continued to work until the end of his life (Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, p. 361). He gained more status for the callings of clown and minstrel than they had enjoyed previously, though stern courtiers like Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana disapproved of the practical jokes, some of them extremely tasteless, that he played on dignitaries. The shah, however, remained protective of his clowns, despite courtiers’ objections. Esmāʿīl Bazzāz’s sharp wit did not spare even the religious practices of his time. In September 1888, accompanied by about 200 buffoons and musicians, he reportedly presented a comic sketch, with obscene gestures, following a performance of the taʿzīa play Dayr al-Solaymān (The monastery of Solaymān) attended by the shah and the British and Italian ministers (Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, p. 591). Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah noted in his memoirs (I, pp. 19-20) that Esmāʿīl Bazzāz and other Persian performers attempted unsuccessfully to emulate the style of performance of Molière’s comedies. Referring to some Algerian female dancers whom he saw during his visit to Europe in 1889, the shah commented, “They made gestures that even Karīm Šīraʾī and Esmāʿīl Bazzāz would not dare to make” (I, p. 270). In about 1310/1892 Esmāʿīl Bazzāz withdrew from his profession as buffoon and was succeeded by Akbar Ḡūra (lit., “Akbar sour grapes”), whom Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana found sinister (Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, p. 836). Esmāʿīl Bazzāz himself made the pilgrimage to Mecca at the end of his life, built a mosque in Tehran, and made pious endowments. The present Mawlawī street in Tehran used to bear his name (Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, p. 361).
Still another clown of this period was Shaikh Ḥosayn, also known as Shaikh Šeypūr. Originally an āḵūnd who had changed his profession, he was still performing during the reign of Aḥmad Shah (1327-44/1909-25). He could expertly mimic a variety of animal sounds, as well as the fanfare, from which he drew his sobriquet Šeypūr (trumpet). Mehdī Bāmdād, who knew him personally, called him a charitable man (Rejāl I, p. 395). Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Marāḡaʾī referred to his skill at mimicry and added that he gave to the poor a portion of the money that he made by entertaining the rich (pp. 363-65). Shaikh Ḥosayn made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1319/1901 and received the title Amīn-al-ʿOlamāʾ (lit., “confidant of the learned”).
Another clown with similar skills was Shaikh Karnā, a bearded man who could duplicate the sounds of the long horn (karnā; Bāmdād, Rejāl I, p. 400). Still another clown, ʿAlīyon, was so liked by the king that he was even allowed to ride his mare into the royal palace (Bāmdād, Rejāl I, p. 401). Shaikh ʿĪsā, the jester of Amīn-al-Solṭān (q.v.), was also a moneylender (Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, Rūz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, p. 614).
Many other characters are mentioned in the written sources because of their comic talents or skill in entertaining rulers. As most of them were not professional jesters, however, and many were individuals of some means, they cannot be included among the dalqaks.
ʿĀlamārā-ye Šāh Ṭahmāsb, ed. Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1370 Š./1991.
Rostam-al-Ḥokamāʾ Moḥammad-Hāšem Āṣaf, Rostam al-tawārīḵ, ed. M. Mošīrī, Tehran, 1348 Š./1969.
Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, tr. C. B. Gulick as The Deipnosophists, 7 vols., London, 1927.
M. Baktash, “Taʿziyeh and Its Philosophy,” in P. J. Chelkowski, ed., Taʿziyeh. Ritual and Drama in Iran, New York, 1979, pp. 95-120.
Ebrāhīm b. Moḥammad Bayhaqī, Ketāb al-maḥāsen wa’l-masāwī, 2 vols., ed. M. A. Ebrāhīm, Cairo, n.d.
B. Bayżāʾī, Nemāyeš dar Īrān, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965.
C. E. Bosworth, “The Political and Dynastic History of the Iranian World (A.D. 1000-1217),” in Camb. Hist. Iran V, pp. 1-202.
L. Dubeux, La Perse, Paris, 1841.
N. Falsafī, Zendagānī-e Šāh ʿAbbās-e Awwal II, Tehran, 1334 Š./1955.
ʿA. A. Faqīhī, Āl-e Būya wa awżāʿ-e zamān-e Īšān, Tehran, 1357 Š./1978.
Helāl Ṣābeʾ, Ketāb al-wozaraʾ, Cairo, 1958.
(Pseudo) Jāḥeẓ, Ketāb al-tāj fī aḵlāq al-molūk, ed. A. Zakī, Cairo, 1332/1914.
Mofażżal b. Saʿd Māfarrūḵī, Maḥāsen Eṣfahān, ed. J. Ḥosaynī Ṭehrānī, n.d.; tr. Ḥosayn b. Moḥammad Āvī as Tarjoma-ye Maḥāsen-e Eṣfahān, ed. ʿA. Eqbāl, Tehran, 1328 Š./1949.
J. Malcolm, A History of Persia, 2 vols., London, 1815.
Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Marāḡaʾī, Sīāḥat-nāma-ye Ebrāhīm Beyk, Tehran, 1364 Š./1985.
J. P. de Menasce, “Zoroastrian Pahlavī Writings,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pp. 1166-95.
M. Mīnovī, Naqd-e ḥāl, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1358 Š./1979.
Ḥ. Moʾayyad, “Hazl o ṭanz o šūḵī dar šeʿr-e Bahār,” Īrān-nāma 5/4, 1365-66 Š./1986-87, pp. 596-624.
D.-ʿA. Moʾayyer-al-Mamālek, Rejāl-e ʿaṣr-e nāṣerī, Tehran, 1361 Š./1982.
Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, Dīwān-e ašʿār-e Ḥakīm Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow-e Qobādīānī, ed. S. Ḥ. Taqīzāda, Tehran, 1361 Š./1982.
Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah Qājār, Ḵāṭerāt-e safar-e sevvom-e Farangestān, ed. E. Reżwānī and F. Qāżīhā, Tehran, 1349 Š./1970.
H. Nūrbaḵš, Karīm Šīraʾī, Tehran, 1347 Š./1968.
Jalāl-al-Dīn Moḥammad Balḵī Rūmī, Maṯnawī, ed. and tr. R. A. Nicholson as The Mathnawí of Jalálu’ddín Rúmi, 8 vols., Leiden, 1925-40; tr. repr. 3 vols., London, 1977.
E. Welsford, The Fool. His Social and Literary History, Gloucester, Mass., 1966.
ʿObayd Zākānī, Kollīyāt-e ʿObayd Zākānī, ed. P. Atābakī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1343 Š./1964.
ʿA.-Ḥ. Zarrīnkūb, Serr-e ney, 2 vols., Tehran, 1364 Š./1985.
Originally Published: December 15, 1993
Last Updated: November 11, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. VI, Fasc. 6, pp. 611-614
Farrokh Gaffary, “DALQAK,” Encyclopædia Iranica, VI/6, pp. 611-614, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dalqak-buffoon-court-jester-also-sometimes-known-as-maskara (accessed on 30 December 2012).