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From Medieval Afghanistan, “The Most Beautiful of Stories”: Jami’s Yūsuf-u Zulaykhā, a Persian reading group and workshop series

January 12, 2022 @ 9:00 am - 10:00 am

The UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies and the UCLA Program in Iranian Studies, in collaboration with the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Program on Central Asia, invite scholars and graduate students from across the world to participate in the following research program: From Medieval Afghanistan, “The Most Beautiful of Stories”: Jami’s Yūsuf-u Zulaykhā, a Persian reading group and workshop series, which will take place via Zoom on a weekly basis between January and June 2022.

The reading group and workshop series are convened by Domenico Ingenito (Associate Professor of Persian Literature, NELC) and organized in the context of the UCLA Afghan Scholars at Risk Program, coordinated by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Humanities Division. The series takes place in conjunction with the cycle of workshops Afghanistan through Afghan Voices, organized by the UCLA Program on Central Asia, in collaboration with the University of Washington, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.


While today thousands of Afghan scholars and students are forced out of Afghanistan by the totalitarian bigotry imposed by the Taliban regime, during the 15th century poets and artists migrated to this Central Asian region from all the corners of the Persian-speaking world to contribute to the cultural efflorescence of the city of Herat.

In 1483, one of those medieval migrants, the celebrated Persian poet and polymath ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami, composed Yūsuf-u Zulaykhā, a literary masterpiece that revisited the erotic and mystical dimensions of the tale of Joseph—extolled by the Quran as the “most beautiful of stories.”

The aim of this reading group and workshop series is to explore the story of Yusuf and his lover, Zulaykha, through the lens of Jami’s book, which we may regard as an enchanting meditation in verse on the act of contemplating beauty for aesthetic and spiritual ends. Jami’s version of the narration is an originally Jewish and Islamic tale filtered through the lens of Persian mysticism and literature, a story that addresses and stages the multiple meanings of exile and displacement, unrequited desire and possibility of rebirth through love. It is a story that transcends ethnic, religious, and national boundaries. Although Jami’s text predates by centuries the formation of modern Afghanistan as a political entity, it is a story that resonates with the cultural an aesthetic ideals and practices of the land and its people. It further shows how medieval Herat can still inspire the peaceful and bright future that Afghanistan and Afghan scholars deserve today, beyond the political boundaries that separate them from Persian-speaking neighboring countries, including Iran.

Virtual Reading Group
Every Wednesday, starting January 12, 2022, at 9-10am via Zoom (Los Angeles time)

Scholars and graduate students (from all institutions) with an intermediate or advanced level of proficiency in classical Persian are welcome to join the reading group. Participants with rudimentary knowledge of Persian may audit the sessions.

The sessions will follow the format of a virtual literary majlis, where creative and intellectually stimulating conversations follow a collective form of shared concentration and active meditation on the lines and their meanings. Every week, four or five voluntary readers will prepare a series of lines beforehand. The lines will be read, tentatively translated, and discussed during the reading session.

No prior knowledge of the story is required, and participants are free to join the reading group anytime they wish. UCLA and UC graduate students may apply for credit. A PDF file with a critical edition of the text, along with optional introductory readings in English and Persian and images from Timurid and Safavid manuscripts, will be shared through a Dropbox folder.

Reading Group Registration Details: Prospective participants may join the reading group by submitting a short description of their background in Persian language and literature to the following email address: dingenito@ucla.edu

Workshop Series

Starting in Spring 2022, and parallel to the reading group, the program will host a workshop series on the artistic, literary, and historical dimensions surrounding the genesis, circulation, and reception of Jami’s Yūsuf-u Zulaykhā.

Preliminary program (abstracts and registration links will be circulated in February 2022) and confirmed speakers: Khalilullah Afzali, Leili Anvar, Lamia Balafrej, Dominic Brookshaw, Shiva Mihan, Julia Rubanovich, Claudia Yaghoobi.

The reading group and workshop series are generously sponsored by the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies, the UCLA Program in Iranian Studies, the Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Program on Central Asia, and hosted by the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies.


Image: detail from Jami’s Yusuf u Zulaykha, 1595 CE, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS. Elliott 418, f. 56r.


January 12, 2022
9:00 am - 10:00 am
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UCLA Iranian Studies
UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies