Borne on the breath of the glass-blower

The Secret of Laughter
October 21, 2005

Chroniclers, learned men, storytellers: these three groups made up the literary quarter of the courts of ancient Persia. Chroniclers set down daily events, learned men distilled these into histories, while storytellers drew from an endless heritage of folk legends.

This last group, however, was not confined to the courts alone, as Princess Scheherazade's life-saving stories in the Tales from a Thousand and One Nights have shown. In ancient Persia, storytellers were ubiquitous, from courtiers and princesses to the village weaver, from grandmothers and retainers to the professional storytellers, or naqqals , who performed to captive audiences out in the village square in good weather, or in tea houses during a storm. By committing to paper 18 ancient tales in The Secret of Laughter: Magical Tales from Classical Persia , Shusha Guppy joins a long tradition of naqqals in "narrativising" the oral and thereby ensuring the continuity of a tradition.

In doing so, Guppy has added to the contribution of a recent predecessor, Forough Hekmat, whose Folk Tales of Ancient Persia , published in 1974, set out in a thorough introduction the educational system prevalent in ancient Persia that enabled and preserved its literary tradition.

Guppy, through her tales of misguided kings, brave widows and their miracle-blessed children, endearing dervishes and magic saucepans, evokes an era that believed in the alam-e-gheib , the world of the occult. What one needs to bear in mind, though, as Hekmat reminds us, is the fact that these wondrous legends existed alongside a system in which the numerous maktab-khaneh , or "houses of writing", ensured that, as far back as the 11th century, the city of Shiraz alone was believed to have 800 women who could teach the Koran.

Like Hekmat, Guppy attributes her collection to the stories she was told in her childhood. Indeed, she dedicates the volume to the memory of her family retainer, Zahra, and three others.

The book's foreword, which highlights the role of women in this society, is an indication of the slant behind the selection, a majority of them being about the triumph of the oppressed, the wisdom associated with womanhood, the laziness of young men and female fortitude. But in its assertion that women were "the power behind the throne, the counter, the curtain or the veil", the foreword is in danger of myth-making, given that most of the female protagonists remain economically dependent on their men. Also, while the tales are culturally rooted in their use of distinct turns of phrase such as "laughed at his beard" (to mean insulted), running with "two legs and more", and the exquisite "breath of the glass-blower" (which refers to each individual's subtle, innate sense of proportion), Guppy's anachronistic asides on princesses not being photographed, the absence of nail varnish, guns, machines and tanks are slightly intrusive.

However, every naqqal has her style, and The Secret of Laughter remains a delightful read. As importantly, it allows us to witness the ability of literature to preserve a culture in the very act of representing it.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University, and now works in book publishing.

The Secret of Laughter: Magical Tales from Classical Persia

Author - Shusha Guppy
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Pages - 209
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 85043 4 1

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