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On Escaping or Not Escaping Solitude. Persian Tales of Turtles and Pearls

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Janet Gibson.

Narratives speak volumes. As remarked by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, they are the only possible medium to express the complexity of philosophical or other conundrums. Often, the reader’s effort to decode them, that is: the exercise itself, contains the pedagogy. This presentation examines two great Medieval Persian narrative works: the Book of Kalila and Dimna ( کتاب کليله و دمنه Ketab-e Kalile-o Demne) by Nasrollah Monshi and the Seven Portraits ( هفت پيکرHaft Paykar) composed by Nezami Ganjavi. Should we escape or not escape solitude, that feeling experienced in a state of physical or mental isolation? Aren’t friendship or love preferable, even at very high costs? My two authors-philosophers propose deadly serious situations … and leave us to work them out. Listen to what happens to the bored old King of the Monkeys up in his fig tree! Be baffled by the riddles of the Princess who sets such very high standards to her suitors! I will introduce you to my way of interacting with these two sophisticated narratives written for the highest social strata of the Persianate world; they address people whose expectations from literature were manifestly different from ours in this 21st century. Nevertheless, my aim is to see you leave this lecture with a huge smile on your face and a new way of looking at friendship and love, basking in a new awareness of what Persian tales do to us and how irresistible they are.

Christine van Ruymbeke (Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Ph.D) is Ali Reza and Muhamed Soudavar Professor of Persian Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge. She is also Graduate Tutor and the College Praelector at Darwin College, Cambridge. ( She is a long-standing member of the councils of learned societies, including the Iran Heritage Foundation (London, UK), the Royal Asiatic Society (London, UK) and the Ancient India and Iran Trust (Cambridge, UK). She was elected Secretary to the Board of the Societas Iranologica Europaea in 2019 ( In 2009, her book Science and Poetry in Medieval Persia. The Botany of Nizami’s Khamsa, received the World-prize of the Book of the Year of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Christine is a literary critic working on classical (medieval and pre-modern) Persian literature, with a special focus on its medieval non-mystical narrative production. How can we engage today with these classical Persian texts? Can we regard them as meaningful and helpful despite the temporal and geographical distance with their authors? Christine approaches these medieval texts through aspect such as medieval authorial rewriting techniques and anxiety of influence; narrative structures and embedding techniques; intratextuality, poetics and cognitive effects, bringing together medieval and present-day literary and poetic theory. She explores how Persian poetry has irrigated other traditions well beyond the Persianate world, such as early-modern French and Victorian English literatures. This approach also encompasses the poetry’s impact on visual culture, especially the calligraphy and illustrations in medieval and pre-modern Persian manuscripts.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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