Gianni Izzo – Playing the Fool

Gianni Izzo’s insightful paper is a welcome contribution to rebalancing the Eurocentric weighting of fool studies. For a Western audience, he brings to light (and life) a number of historical Iranian jesters during the Safavid (1501-1722) and Zand (1750-79) periods, drawing on primary source materials, including memoirs, travelogues and court chronicles.  The jesters he introduces include, listed after their respective rulers:

  • Shāh Ṭahmāsb (r. 1524–76): Mawlānā Taqī Pīrzād
  • Shāh ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629): ʻĀqilī, ‘The Wise’ – Dalāleh Qezī – Kal ʿEnāyat, “ʿEnāyat the Bald” (d. 1608), also known as Karbalāʾī ʿEnāyat – Kachal Muṣṭafā – Sag Lavand, ‘Coquet Dog’
  • Zand ruler, Muḥammad Karīm Khān (r. 1751-79): Lūṭī Ṣāleḥ of Shiraz
  • Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh’s (r. 1848–96): Karīm Shīraʾī

Their potted biographies and lively anecdotes about them resonate with accounts of outspoken jesters in other parts of the world, including Europe, China and India, and they appear to have enjoyed the same licence to speak forthrightly, similarly being able to influence policy or behaviour.

Quote - John Malcolm - Persian jesters

One such example concerns the jester Kal ʿEnāyat (ʿEnāyat the Bald) (d. 1608) who served Shāh ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629).  Another story about him is a classic tale of jesterish mockery and irreverence.

Quote - Jean Chardin - Persian jesters
Quote - Gianni Izzo - Persian jesters

These are fully paid up members of the confraternity and the relative freedom they had to speak out seems, as elsewhere, to have encouraged some learned individuals to take on the guise of the jester. 

Quote - ʿAbbās Eqbāl Ashtiannī - Zakani

As with most jesters, they tended to be from relatively humble backgrounds, bringing a demotic perspective close to the apex of power:

The dalqak was one of the few positions available in the court where common people could elevate their socioeconomic standing from scarcity to abundance and from obscurity to fame. Their fortune was earned and not inherited. Although, in an official capacity, the occupation offered economic security, it produced a dependency on court largesse and new motivations for a continual, personalized style of performance. As an outsider now inside the imperial estate, the dalqak’s humble background still served as a conduit for the common sentiment of the king’s subjects.  (pp. 4-5)

Among those we meet through Izzo, particularly striking is Dalāleh Qezī.  Firstly, female jesters are in general greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, more notably so outside Europe.  Secondly, she seems to have been a strong individual given much more latitude than would normally have been allowed to women in the context of the time.  She accompanied the Shah on his travels and did not wear a veil or observe gender segregation.  In one intriguing account, Izzo mentions her being deployed to ‘hold the fort’.

Quote - Gianni Izzo - Persian jesters

Much latitude, much licence, but we know that the jester could overstep the mark and meet with threats or even, albeit very rarely, death.  One such example is shared by Izzo, concerning Kachal Muṣṭafa, killed by Shāh ʿAbbās I.

Quote - Gianni Izzo - Persian jesters

In addition, Izzo explores some Persian words in the jester lexicon, including the standard term for ‘jester’ (dalqak) and a nuanced explanation of ‘luti’, a baldish, roguish type.   There is a wonderful anecdote featuring a jester so named, Lūṭī Ṣāleḥ, who served and managed to safely insult the Zand ruler Muḥammad Karīm Khān (r. 1751-79).

Quote - John Malcolm - Persian jesters

Izzo also highlights the hats worn by some Iranian jesters, echoing the emblematic cap and bells of European archetypes.

Safavid jesters who, depicted in the miniatures of Sulṭān-Moḥammad Naqqāsh (c. 1565–1625), wear tall conical hats from whose top dangles various trinkets. This style of headwear also marks a continuity with comic entertainers in the succeeding Qājār period (1789-1925), including Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh’s (r. 1848–96) most renowned jester, Karīm Shīraʾī. (p. 3)

Izzo’s thoughtful comments on the nature of the jester seem to apply as much to the Iranian jesters as to those elsewhere:

The jester trespasses on what is taken to be quotidian, proper, dignified, aesthetic, and normative.  His humour, whether manifest in Italian jesters of Renaissance vintage or the Ryokan “holy fools” of Japan, collapses the remoteness of cultural spheres and geographic locations.  (p. 1)

This excellent paper strengthens our understanding of the role of the jester, brings to a broader audience several historical Iranian jesters, and shares some vibrant anecdotes about them.

REFERENCE:

Izzo, Gianni, ‘Playing the fool: jesters of the Safavid and Zand courts’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (August 2023), pp. 1-15.

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