Adept at adab

In Persian, the word often translated into English as ‘manners’ or ‘etiquette’ is adab. However, adab is about far more than politeness or ethics even. It means proper social and aesthetic form and, across Persianate culture, form conveyed substance and, by extension, meaning.

From the 13th to the mid-19th century, Persian was the language of learning, culture and power for hundreds of millions of diverse peoples in various empires and regional polities across Central, South and West Asia. Persian was not the language of a place called Persia – this placename is used only in European languages (otherwise, the place is known as Iran), and using it as an adjective to describe its people obscures the fact that Persian-speakers lived in many other lands.

Increasingly, scholars use ‘Persianate’ as the cultural descriptor of Persian as a transregional lingua franca. For six centuries, Persianate adab – the proper aesthetic and social forms – lived in this language through its widely circulated texts, stories, poetry: the corpus of a basic education. To learn adab, these particular forms of writing, expression, gesture and deed, to identify their appropriate moments, and to embody them convincingly, was to be an accomplished Persian.

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