The Persian Prince
The Rise and Resurrection of an Imperial Archetype
Hamid Dabashi



Who Is the Persian Prince—What Is the Persian Prince?

We are here as trustworthy delegates

For all those Persians who have marched away.

Aeschylus, The Persians (472 BCE)

I AM SURE YOU REMEMBER HOW, early in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s iconic book The Little Prince (1943), the eponymous narrator tells us how reasonable adults could not fathom the shape of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant and thought the picture he showed them represented a harmless hat. This book you are about to read is also the patient drawing of a picture that requires the child dwelling in your wise adulthood to imagine an idea dwelling inside an archetype that, instead of frightening you, will excite and invite you to a faraway landscape of our past and present humanity: why and wherefore we do as we are told, obey orders, seek the approval of the person sitting on the throne or inside the Oval Office, bend backward to accommodate their power, think better of ourselves if we do and worse if we do not—that even if we revolt, we rush to replace the prince we just overthrew with another prince to tell us what to do next.

This book is about the Persian Prince, an archaic Iranian archetype that, as I theorize it here, has gone through varied historic gestations, from ancient Persia to the Hebrew Bible to classical Greek antiquity to medieval European mirrors for princes to its Renaissance resurfacing in modern political thought down to its postcolonial resurrection as a rebel, a prophet, a poet, and a nomad—a white elephant inside the belly of a boa constrictor that is the political history of a significant part of our humanity habitually divided between East and West, which here I seek to reimagine as one expanded domain.

Who is the Persian Prince? What is the Persian Prince? Where is the Persian Prince? The Persian Prince is an idea, an ideal type, an archetype, a political proposition, a mode of contemplating politics, a manner of speaking history, culture, civilization, ethics, normative morality, moral philosophy. The Persian Prince is more a persona than a person, an idea than a reality, a character than a physiognomy. In this book I wish to introduce you to the idea of the Persian Prince—as a historical fact and a heuristic device, as a metonymic allegory of a mode of political thinking that has moved around and about history like a colorful chameleon, a floating signifier.

The Persian Prince was born and raised in Persia, from time immemorial, to Iranian, Indian, Greek, Arab, Armenian, Mongol, and Turkic parentage. The Persian Prince was Zoroastrian, Hindu, Manichean, Pagan, Mazdakite, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic. The Persian Prince spoke Avestan, Pahlavi, Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Mongolian, Armenian, Russian, Turkic . . . and now English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and others. The Persian Prince appears in paintings, sings in songs and poetries, dwells in historical fact, hides in literary fictions, acts in dramas, dances in ballets, and resurfaces in operas. The Persian Prince is featured in Greek theater and revered in the Hebrew Bible; he hunts in Persian miniatures and waxes eloquent in Arabic prose, Turkish chronicles, Armenian memories, and European mirrors for princes and paintings.

The Persian Prince was first theorized by the Greek soldier and philosopher Xenophon in Cyropaedia (370 BCE) and first portrayed by Aeschylus, a Greek dramatist, in The Persians (472 BCE). This was all long after the Persian Prince was personified by Persians, sanctified by Zoroastrians, idealized by Indians, immortalized into holy scriptures—originally by Jews, then by Christians and Muslims. The words of Aeschylus first recited by the Chorus Leader in the play The Persians some 2,500 years ago have echoed throughout history:

We are here as trustworthy delegates

For all those Persians who have marched away.1

The Persian Prince is a poem, a prose, a politics, a philosophical treatise, a mystical tale on the purpose of being. The Persian Prince was a Poet, became a Prophet, and settled down on the royal throne, perpetually looking behind and beneath and beyond itself into a futurity that was always already somewhere else.

The Persian Prince is a Shahryar, a Monarch, a Shah, a King, a Caliph, a Padeshah, a Sultan, an Amir, a Caesar—and yet the Persian Prince is a rebel, a revolutionary, a rabblerouser, an iconoclast. The Persian Prince is all of these at the very same time and without the slightest contradiction.

The Persian Prince is the alter ego of those who imagined it, an ideal prototype, a self-projection, a mirror image of those looking for the Persian Prince, the Perfect Person. The Persian Prince (as I theorize and stage it here) is the subject, the object, the subjection, the objection. The Persian Prince is the fusion of the thinker who thinks, the thinking, and the thought of the Persian Prince.

The Persian Prince was once normatively monadic, then it split and became narratively dyadic and ultimately unfolded upon its own formative forces and turned into a nomadic person, persona, character, condition, subjectivity. In the figure of the Persian Prince as I imagine it here, I have found the entire course of a vast spectrum of human civilization in a nutshell.

The Persian Prince is the Persian person in search of itself—a self-universalizing subject. It is degendered, androgynous, with the particularity of its own claims having a universal validity.

The Persian Prince has walked through the battlefields of history, climbed mountains of revolt, ruled with magnanimity, terrorized its subjects and tyrannized them with an iron fist—and then the Persian Prince has revolted against the Persian Prince. The Persian Prince is the Divine Gift of Grace, in specifically Zoroastrian terms. It glows if it has it—it dies if it loses it.

The Persian Prince has fallen, arisen, feared, fumbled, triumphed, and been soundly defeated, right before it has metamorphosed and been resurrected.

The Persian Prince has towered over all other poetic metaphors and stylized proses of our history, adorned the sacrosanct texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Vedic hymns.

The Persian Prince has defined and held together successive and mighty empires, worn regal robes and sung beautiful arias on theatrical stages as well as the silver screen, whispered into the ears of the most rebellious and iconoclastic dramatists, artists, and filmmakers—from Hollywood to Bollywood.

The Persian Prince has been lost to the heroic ages and has evaporated into the mythic air, the historical solidity of who and what and why we are—and why and wherefore we remember the Persian Prince. I plan to remember and remind you of the Persian Prince in this book, a rigorously detailed reflection on an ancient archetype, historicized, resurrected, remembered, forgotten, sublimated.

This book is (about) the Persian Prince. Once upon a time, a Persian Prince . . .


1. Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Ian Johnston (Nanaimo, BC: Vancouver Island University, 2012), http://johnstoniatexts