Celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL

Last month was the UK’s LGBTQ+ History Month, and to celebrate this occasion, we at the Nizami Ganjavi Library created a display to showcase some of the Bodleian Libraries’ LGBTQ+ related materials, from across the Middle East. I hope that seeing this side of the collections was as enlightening for you as it was for me, and thank you for all those who expressed a positive interesWith the NGL’s blog newly up-and-running, I thought I would it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to provide a bit more information!

A collection of books on a table. Some are proppeA collection of Bodleian Libraries' books on LGBTQ+ themes. Behind the books is a board with images from 'There Are No Homosexuals in Iran' on the left and the movie poster for 'Alexandria Again and Forever' on the right. In the centre is a sign with text in the colours of the Progress Pride flag that reads LGBTQ+ History Month at the NGL Behind the Lens.
Last month’s display by the NGL issue desk.

Front cover for the book Islamicate Sexualities

The display included works from and about a wide range of countries are included – Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Armenia – representing a diverse range of perspectives on LGBTQ+ experiences. This was very necessary, because often conversations on LGBTQ+ issues are dominated by Western frameworks – some of which may be inappropriate to the cultures discussed. This is a difficulty that the volume Islamicate Sexualities tackles head-on, questioning how well Western queer identities can apply to subjects of study that are distant not only geographically, but also temporally. The volume’s contributors carefully excavate from documentary evidence how various historic Islamic writers represented normative sexuality as it existed in their time and region, making for a fantastic and subtle analysis. I highly recommend this title!

Front cover for the book Unspeakable Love

Similarly, Brian Whitaker, in representing the LGBTQ+ experience leading to the modern day, carefully writes to avoid simple orientalist narratives about a repressive Middle East and a tolerant West. At the same time, he acknowledges the many obstacles faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the countries he discusses.

This reality can also be seen in how many of the queer authors included here write from outside of their country of origin, or in European languages, such as Abdellah Taïa who writes in French, and Khaled Alesmael who writes in German. This interplay is present in Siba Al-Harez’s novel The Others, in which the protagonist discovers same-sex attraction for the first time. Al-Harez writes about the difficulty of finding information about sexuality on the internet under Saudi censorship, and the different language that the unnamed main character encounters on domestic sites compared to foreign ones – language of sin versus language of identity – and how she finds both equally confusing.

Front cover for the book Selamlik by Khaled AlesmaelFront cover for the book Another Morocco by Abdellah TaïaFront cover for the book The Others by Siba Al-Harez

Image from There Are No Homosexuals in Iran depictingtwo fat women cover each other's faces in a well-lit white room. Both wear white t-shirts. One wears orange trousers and the other black trousers. One has blonde hair and the other has dark hair.
Image from ‘There Are No Homosexuals in Iran’ by Laurence Rasti

Yet another perspective can be seen in Swiss-Iranian photographer Laurence Rasti’s There Are No Homosexuals in Iran. This title is a reference to a comment made by then Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007. In this beautiful series of photographs, Rasti shows a variety of queer Iranians defiantly and quietly living their daily lives, interspersed with images of Tehran and domestic scenes. Another reason why I chose to include Rasti’s work is because this year, the theme for LGBTQ+ History Month is ‘Behind the Lens’. This theme drew me to written works by queer Middle Eastern filmmakers like Khaled Alesmael, Saleem Haddad, and Abdellah Taïa, but also Hovhannes Tekgyozyan’s ‘movie novella’. This book both evokes the subject of filmmaking in the form of the protagonist, Gagik’s projects, and in its structure and style. To me, this novel is not only queer in having openly gay characters, but also in the way that Tekgyozyan’s use of ‘cuts’ and ‘scenes’ to play with time in this work, conjures the concept of ‘queer time’.

Movie poster for Alexandria Again and Forever with text in both French and English. In the foreground is the actor Amr Abdulgalil in a light suit and shirt, making a swooning gesture.
Movie poster for ‘Alexandria Again and Forever’.

I have also included in this display information about Youssef Chahine and his autobiographical Alexandria quadrilogy. While Chahine was never openly queer, the films in this series are notable for their nuanced depictions of masculine same-sex desire. Whether or not these representations illustrate anything about the creator’s own identity, the theme of ‘openness to the other’ runs through many of Chahine’s films, and his willingness to show queer perspectives fits this trend. In any case, these films are an indispensable part of understanding queer Egyptian cinema. I particularly recommend Alexandria Again and Forever – a genre-bending dramedy that examines themes of obsession, history, and auteur theory, but is also a fun experience.

It has been rewarding for me to look at LGBTQ+ history through a different ‘lens’ at the NGL, and I hope that you find something interesting or enlightening for you in these materials too. But this is nowhere near everything that the Bodleian has to offer on LGBTQ+ themes in the Middle East. For example, the book Queer Turkey: Transnational Poetics of Desire is also available online via SOLO. I can only encourage you to explore further!

New Day, New Face!


Welcome to the new face of the Nizami Ganjavi Library blog!

It’s been a long time since our last post, but going forward we hope to use this site more actively to keep our visitors up to date on the Library’s holdings, events, and related activities in Oxford and beyond.

Given the theme of renewal, it seems only fitting that the first post on our new site would revolve around the theme of Nowruz — the Persian New Year and a spring festival celebrated across much of Eurasia — which is also, incidentally, the theme for our book display for the month of March 2023!

What is Nowruz?

Nowruz is, at its core, a celebration of spring and – more specifically – of the spring equinox. In the Iranian calendar, which is a solar calendar, this is also the first day of the first month, فروردین Farvardīn, making Nowruz the Iranian New Year celebration.

While Nowruz is celebrated by numerous groups which do not make use of the Iranian calendar, the name Nowruz and certain traditions associated with it betray a common origin somewhere in the distant, pre-Islamic past of greater Iran.

Though the ultimate origins of the holiday are debated, the Persian epic poem, the شاهنامه Šāhnāma of Firdawsī, tells of how the legendary king Jamšēd saved the world from an endless winter by building a gold and bejewelled throne which, when raised up towards the sky, shone like the sun and banished the darkness, saving humanity. In commemoration of this “New Day”, the Iranians celebrate Nowruz < Persian نو naw “new” + روز rōz “day”.

One of the Library’s many versions of the ŠāhnāmaDick Davis’ English translation, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings (New York/London: Penguin, 2007) can be found on our book dispaly this month.

You can also find جواد برومند سعید Javād Barūmand Sa‘īd‘s excellent research collection on the history of Nowruz, نوروز جمشيد: پژوهشى نوين از پيدايى نوروز Nawrūz-i Jamshīd: pizhūhishī nuvīn az paydāʼī-i Nawrūz.

Nowruz is celebrated in different cultures across Eurasia, so it’s no surprise that there are different ways to render/spell/pronounce the name of the holiday. One book on our display, Fatih Köse’s Osmanlı Devletinde Nevrûz (İstanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat, 2007) relates how Nowruz celebrations were once common among certain classes and populations within the Ottoman Empire, even if they are primarily associated with Kurds in Turkey today.

Here are some other versions of the name for this holiday in languages you may come across.

name language(s)
Navrez Crimean Tatar
Neowrez Mazandarani
Nevruz Albanian, Turkish
Newroz Kurmanji, Zazaki
Novruz Azerbaijani
Nowruz Turkmen
Nûroj Kurmanj (rare/learned)
Навруз Navruz Nogay, Russian
Науруз Nauruz Bashkir
Наурыз Nauryz Kazakh
Нәүрүз Näwrüz Volga Tatar
Нооруз Nooruz Kyrgyz
نەورۆز Newroz Sorani
نورۇز Noruz Uyghur
نوروز Nowruz Gilaki, Iranian Persian
Nawrōz Balochi, Dari, Pashto
نوورځ‎ Nawwraź Pashto (rare/learned)

The Nizami Ganjavi Haft-Sin Table

The Haft-Sin (“Seven S’s”) Table — سفره‌ای هفت سین  Sofre-ye Haft-Sin (Sufra-yi Haft-sīn) in Persian — is a fixture of most Iranian households during the Nowruz season, much the same way as a Christmas tree or Chanukkiah. The table is decorated with seven items, each starting with the letter س S in Persian.

In many regions, Nowruz traditions involve the number seven. Exactly why this is in uncertain, but it likely derives from the importance of the number in the Zoroastrian tradition.
In the Avesta, the most holy text of the Zoroastrian religion, Aməša Spəṇta “The Eternal Holies” are seven emanations of the supreme god, Ahura Mazdā, personified in the form of seven divine beings, each representing one of the seven eternal aspects of creation. You can read about this yourselves in an original-language copy of a portion of the Avesta in the form of William A. V. Jackson’s Avesta Reader (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1893), currently adorning our Nowruz dispay in the NGL.

The seven items on a Haft-Sin table sometimes vary, but the standard seven are, along with the things they are often said to represent:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سیب sib (sēb) apple beauty
سیر sir (sīr) garlic health
سنجد senjed (sinjid) oleaster love
سمنو samanu (samanū) malted wheat pudding strength
سماق somāgh (sumāq) sumac the sun
سرکه sirke (sirka) vinegar patience
سبزه sabze (sabza) greens rebirth

Additional items beginning with س S that are sometimes used alongside or instead of the above are:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
سکه sekke (sikka) coin prosperity
ساعت sāʿat clock time
سنبل sonbol (sunbul) hyacinth spring

Other items are often placed on the Haft Sin table for their symbolic significance regardless of the letter they start with:

Persian translation symbolic meaning
آینه āyine (āyina) mirror introspection
شمع shame’ (šam‘) candle light
تخم مرغ رنگی tokhm-e morgh rangi (tuxm-i murğ rangī) red painted egg fertility
نارنج nārenj (nārinj) orange in a bowl of water the earth
شیرینی shirini (šīrīnī) sweets pleasure
اسفند* esfand (isfand) seeds of Ruda graveolens (rue) banishing evil
شیر shir (šīr) milk purity
بیدمشک bid-meshk (bēd-mišk) branch of a Salix aegyptiaca (musk willow) nature
**کتاب ketāb (kitab) book wisdom

(* Indeed, in some dialects and in older varieties of Persian, this word was pronounced سفند sifand or سپند sipand and would have therefore begun with س S.)

(** The book in question is traditionally one of four: the Qur’ān, the Avesta, the Šāhnāma, or the Dīvān of the poet Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz. For our display at the NGL, we’ve chosen a version of the دیوان حافظ شیرازی Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ-i Šīrāzī — one of many available in our collections!)

Haft-Sin tables are nevertheless as varied as the people who make them, and no book demonstrates this better than Maryam Khosrowshahi’s Sofreh: the art of Persian celebration (London: ACC Art Books, 2014), also on our book display.

In the two-volume set, you’ll find superbly decorated tables, not only for Nowruz but for other Persian celebrations.

Speaking of which, you can learn more about traditional Persian holidays from another of our holdings on display this month, Aly Mazahéri‘s Le Nowroûz et le Mihrikân (Paris: Association des disciples d’Aly Mazahéri, 1992).

Since Nowruz is such a big part of the culture of so many regions within the NGL’s purview, we’ve decided to celebrate this year by adorning our Nowruz book display with a traditional Haft-Sin table!

The board shows even more information about Nowruz traditions from around Eurasia, so don’t forget to stop by before the end of March and see how many of the items above you can spot on our display.