115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Dastan: Towards a Definition of the Genre

Mariam Zia, Lahore School of Economics (Pakistan)

This paper defines the Indo-Persian storytelling genre of the dastan for an Anglophone audience. It takes issue with the use of translated approximations in critical engagement with the genre and is the first to use the word dastan in order to denote a specific genre indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent.


Dastan is an oral storytelling tradition indigenous to Arabia, Persia and the Indian Subcontinent. The genre is perhaps best exemplified for the Anglophone world in the Arabian Nights. While the Nights were translated as early as 1701 C.E., other stories belonging to the same tradition – some perhaps more famous – were not translated till very recently. Loosely structured around the life of Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Dastan-e Amir Hamza Sahibqiran), the longest and the most famous of these dastans in the Indian Subcontinent, was translated into English in 2007.

From its Indian rebirth in Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court as the famous Hamzanama miniature painting manuscript in the sixteenth century, to it being relegated to the not-to-be-mentioned, hidden corners of the Muslim subconscious during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dastan has an illustrious history. In the last twenty years, interest in the written version of the story has rekindled and the question of the distinction between dastan-as-text and dastan-as-tradition has been at the heart of critical engagement with the genre. However, there has been no detailed critical engagement with its peculiar nature as a storytelling medium caught between history and fiction. Thereafter, this paper focuses on the possible definitions of the dastan and looks at how the text of the dastan functions without the “peculiarly directive powers of the storyteller” as defined in Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.”

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