By James R. Russell
James R. Russell is the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at the Near East Department and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.
The first confusing and inconvenient thing to know is that Persia and Iran are the same thing. Iran (note to self: look at map) resembles a comfy pussycat sitting up, with its ears between Turkey and the Caspian Sea. Its furry southwestern belly is the province of Fars. The Arabs conquered the latter in the seventh century and didn’t say “p” then, either, so Pars got its modern name. The language thereof, properly called Persian, came to be pronounced as “Farsi”— and it is all very well to refer to it that way only if you are equally agreeable to call the language you are more likely studying, if you are an American, Español rather than Spanish. The old word parsa meant “broad-shouldered”, as in “Hello, big guy.” The equally self-complimentary aryanam, from which we get Iran (Ee-ráwn, not pronoun plus preterite “I ran”), meant “(expanse) of the noble ones”. As in “Yo, noble one,” I suppose.
It is sometimes useful to come from a country with two unrelated, though similarly laudatory, designations. During the 1979 hostage crisis a friend of mine was walking across the University of Utah campus and some football players asked him where he was from. “Iran,” he said. So they punched him in the nose. A few days later a similar company posed the same question. “Persia,” he replied. “That’s cool, man,” said his interlocutor. “My girlfriend has a Persian cat.” If you memorize this humorous, true story you’ll be able to remember that Iran and Persia are the same, they speak Persian there, and the country is shaped like a cat.
Persian is written with a modified form of the Arabic alphabet, but its root vocabulary is related, sometimes not so distantly, to English: your immediate relatives are pedar, madar, and baradar. If you have a khwahar instead of the latter, she’s still the Indo-European *swesor from which our “sister” comes, via a sound change. In addition to having two names, Iranians (Persians) have, in a way, two cultures. Though there are numerous Iranian Jews and Christians, most Persians nowadays are Muslim (they pronounce it Moslem). Their ancestors, though, followed a revelation preached by the Prophet Zarathushtra, English Zoroaster in the second millennium BCE. The Zoroastrians (most of whom now live in and around Bombay, I mean, Mumbai, and are called Parsis because yes, Indians pronounce the sound “p”) believe Ahura Mazda, the Lord Wisdom, an entirely beneficent God, created the world as a beautiful place, without death, to be enjoyed in every way. In Zoroastrian culture, art, music, and procreative, heterosexual love are therefore Good Things. However a wholly evil spirit, Angra Mainyu, who is inferior to Ahura Mazda but independent of him, invaded and polluted all this with death and other evils. In this dualistic system, God is all-good but not-all powerful: if you suffer, it is because the two forces are locked in combat (and which side you take, matters). The upside is that the agonizing question of theodicy—Divine justice—doesn’t exist: God doesn’t mysteriously permit evil. The downside is that God isn’t omnipotent, either: “Sorry you’ve got this problem, kid. I’ll try to help. But hey, I’m hustling too.”
Iranian culture is Zoroastrian as well as Islamic: Persians love music and all the visual arts, and are as strict about the Second Commandment as the Renaissance artists of Catholic Italy were. Children memorize and recite every morning a few verses at a time of Hafez and Sa’di and others—gorgeous, passionate love poetry. Though the Zoroastrians are supposed to be exclusively heterosexual, Herodotus informs us that the Persians learnt the more ambidextrous Greek approach to love and actually became quite proficient at it. Much of Persian love lyric is addressed to handsome young men. The downy peach fuzz on their fresh faces is like the grass of the sun god Mithra. They have slender figures like cypress trees. Their shaggy bangs are like polo sticks cupping the lover’s broken heart like a ball. They have sweet tongues, like a parrot’s (an odd metaphor of the Persians, never mind). And one would like to try their thrusting swords two or three times in a joust. Ahem. However I am reliably informed by Iranian friends that all the foregoing is a metaphor for the Sufi mystic’s love of God. Just like the Song of Songs.
And another nice thing about Iran is its cuisine, one of the world’s least known great traditions of cooking. Forget about falafel, hummus, and other monotonous Middle Eastern fare. Think instead of quince stew or chicken with pomegranates: Iran is as close to India and Central Asia as it is to the Arab world. Persian dishes are complex, subtle, and generally flavored with herbs, dried lemons, and berries rather than sharp spices. Iran has its own ice cream, a concoction so strangely sweet and sour and divine that after tasting it you’ll never go back to Toscanini’s again. (And now that Harvard and the other real estate magnates have had their way, indeed you won’t.) Iranians drink tea, often an Earl Grey blend scented with cardamom—in establishments called, of course, coffee houses. On Thursday nights, professional reciters at some coffee houses chant the nation’s heroic epic, the Book of Kings of Ferdosi, while gesturing to frescoes on the walls and adding verses ex promptu in honor of habitués and guests. Though a number of activities are illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the wine classical Persian poets drank to excess, in one respect the country is considerably more liberal than the Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts. You may smoke.
Other impressions. Owing to the American embargo, Iranians bottle, yes, Parsi Cola. It is quite as good as the original, as are Persian pizzas and hamburgers, which are served near where Persian kids go rollerblading, in Shamiran, one of the tonier Tehran neighborhoods. You can tune in every morning to “Good Morning Iran”, a show that features… Iranians from all over, waving at the camera and saying good morning to you. Since the country has many different climate zones, tribes, languages and dialects, and types of clothing, from salt deserts to a tea- and rice-growing semi-tropical region where people still live in thatched houses, “Good Morning Iran” is kind of interesting ethnographically. The people on the show are often elderly; and it is nice to see a wise, wrinkled face crease in a loving smile. If you want to see the Western fare of pretty boys and muscled girls, get a satellite dish (or read Hafez and use your imagination, just remembering that the eroticism is about God, please). At night they sign off with a picture of a flower (beloved of the nightingale). A dewdrop falls from one of its petals, becomes a calligraphic representation of the phrase “God is very great”, and the pleasant chords of the national anthem follow.
Persians are gregarious people. Even if only four are expected to dinner, food is cooked for ten. And if the weather is fine, three generations of an extended family will pile into cars later in the evening for a picnic in a park or on the bank of a river. This involves filling a giant sack with sandwiches, bottles of the ubiquitous orange soda, and the inevitable box of Kleenex that serves dualistic duty: napkins for Mazdean cleanliness; tissues for the least sign of an Ahrimanic sniffle. (If there were a hypochondriac Olympics, Iran would sweep the gold.) We arrive. Families by the hundreds relax on rolled out carpets. Here and there a samovar steams. Big and little kids run around: it’s near midnight, but nobody worries. As for conversation, it can be political jokes, or poetry, or whatever. I once sat with a friend for hours in Shah-e Cheragh mosque in Shiraz talking about God, the Meaning of Life, and Everything. Shah-e Cheragh means “king of light”: it is like being inside a diamond. Iranians have not yet lost the art of conversation to Facebook, Bored@Lamont, YouTube, MySpace, and the other spiritual delights of the cretinous culture we are asked to defend against the Axis of Evil.
Another salient difference between Cambridge and Tehran is that Iranians cultivate manners. Catch the attention of a total stranger and there will follow his careful Be-farmayid? which means “Would you deign to command me?” which means “Yes?” You and a Persian approach a door. Of course you open it and ask him to command you, but he declares Namisheh! “It is impossible (that I go before you).” After a few more rounds of Ghorban-e shoma! “(May I be) your (honorific plural) sacrifice!” somebody moves. Unless it is a revolving door, in which case both are mangled and an ambulance is called. When you leave an Iranian home (a palace, invariably described by its owner as “my inconsiderable hovel”) you apologize to your host that Zahmat dadim, “We gave you trouble,” and she insists that you endured it, Zahmat keshidid! The exaggerated politeness of ta’arof may often be formulaic; but thoughtfulness of speech and deeply ingrained courtesy, I think, serve at least as often to sustain what is gentle and kind in a human being as to mask hypocrisy. I need only summon to my mind the memory of close friends urging one to say what was on one’s mind with a tuneful Jun? literally “My soul?” There’s nothing like returning to the studied unfriendliness and subhuman rudeness of our own campus to remind one that two civilizations can clash as loudly as any cymbals.
Through some happy misperception a number of people your reporter met in Iran in September 2000 believed him to be the Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia rather than a humble professor of the language and culture of that ancient Christian realm just above the ears of the Persian cat (see map again). It took me a while to realize this. We are on an Iran Air flight from the capital to the holy city of Mashad, and seated beside me is, I think, the rector of the university (roughly equivalent to the Dean of FAS, that is, though without the imperial pretensions). “We are very happy to have Armenia as a neighbor.” I make some sort of appreciative noise, not quite understanding if this is some arcane reflex of ta’arof. “Really,” he continues, “when you consider our other neighbors are all lunatics.” “?” He proceeds clockwise around the cat. “Saddam in Iraq. Turkey (the Armenian Genocide) and Azerbaijan (more of the same). Turkmenistan with its Turkmenbashi. The Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan and its various dictators. But Armenia is quite normal.” Later that evening, at Ferdosi’s tomb, the governor of Khorasan province intones greetings to the namayande-ye Armenestan, “representative of Armenia”; and if his guest book makes it to the archives, it will provide a minor puzzle some day in the future for a historian of Iranian diplomacy. Iran really is a good neighbor to Armenia, too: it trades with—and invests in—the country at a time when Turkey is blockading it. Iran recognizes the Armenian Genocide. (America and Israel do not.) The Armenian community in Iran is large and it has never been mistreated. Iran issued a postage stamp for Christmas once: a verse about Christ from the Qur’an, in Armenian translation. It’s not exactly a Manger scene, but to the Iranians, Armenia is the Christian nation par excellence; and citation of the verse from a sacred Scripture one believes issues directly from the essence of God Himself is a completely honest way for a Muslim to acknowledge and honor another people of the Book. Being an Armenologist helps one to see Iran and its politics in a milder light that they might otherwise appear.
But I was also taken for a member of another Near Eastern minority with an embattled but normal sort of tiny state of its own. Night, near the main mosque of Yazd, and I’ve just purchased a little metal Zoroastrian fire altar in an antique shop. The owner of a nearby Internet café (which serves mainly tea) invites me to his establishment and asks me to add a drawing on the wall to those of their national flags by innumerable backpackers from safe, neutral, boring places. “If you mean the Stars and Stripes, I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” I suggest, and he interrupts, “Not that one, the blue and white one!” The day after that’s possible, I assure him, I’ll make a special trip to Yazd to color it in.
Why has that day not yet come? Later in September 2000, Holly Davidson, a Persian specialist and head of the ILEX Foundation, hosts a breakfast at her home on Beacon Hill for the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi. The Iranian de facto ambassador in the US, Hojatoleslam Mahallati, tells me normalization of relations isn’t proceeding fast enough. We’ve a window of opportunity while Khatami is President and the US is not doing whatever one does with that metaphor, climb through it, wave, anything. And he has forebodings too. Well that’s no surprise: the Iranians were aware of how dangerous the Taliban were long before we were: their whole consular staff had been massacred in Heart, Afghanistan. April 2001. The Taliban dynamite the Bamiyan Buddhas. I write a letter to the Crimson about Heinrich Heine’s warning that those who start by burning books (or, mutatis mutandis, destroying art) will end up burning men. I add that we can expect another attack, imminently, on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. They refuse to publish my letter. 11 September 2001: a squad of mostly Saudi Arabian terrorists attack NYC and Washington. In Tehran, hundreds of students hold a candlelight vigil in solidarity with this country. A few months thereafter, our President names Iran in the “Axis of Evil”. They are baffled: after the US invasion that topples Saddam’s régime, President Khatami writes President Bush a conciliatory letter offering continued Iranian cooperation (they’ve been providing some, quietly, in Afghanistan already) and asking us to stop calling them evil. Khatami offers to reduce support for Hezbollah and to support a peace process with Israel. Though this is essentially a 180-degree turn in Iranian foreign policy, he receives no reply. Outmaneuvered at home, his efforts at liberalization stalled, Khatami finds no opposite shore on which to anchor his “bridge of civilizations”. A hardline president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, replaces Khatami. To the consternation of the Iranian parliament, and despite a public rebuke from the leader of Iran’s Jewish community, Ahmadinejad embraces Holocaust revisionism, inviting the Louisiana politician and KKK leader David Duke: instead of a symposium of minds, we get an hors d’oeuvre of degenerate, fascistic nuts and an anti-Semitic Southern cracker. (No shortage of those.) A number of Iranian intellectuals signed a petition condemning the Tehran conference. My colleagues in Near Eastern studies at Harvard and elsewhere were silent, of course: one recalls the observation of Victor Klemperer that of all the classes of German society who quietly resisted the Nazis, it was his university colleagues alone who never helped him in any way. But that is not to say the ivory tower of this fair land is silent on such knotty problems as US-Iran relations and terrorism. For the irrepressible Prof. Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University’s answer to what was once an actual program in Iranian studies (they are in process of reducing to imbecility the Armenian program there, too), has offered his musings on Azar Nafisi’s book Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about how Iranian women students think about literature and their own culture. He compares the experience of the book, and its intent, to torture at Abu Ghraib. Personally I found it a good read. And he has penned a rather elliptical prose poem celebrating 9/11 as a sort of guillotining of twin phalluses. Vivat academia.
The Iranians have a case against us, though writing like Prof. Dabashi’s is literally the very least one can do on their behalf. They rightly deplore our extreme interference in their internal affairs from the 1950’s right up to the flight of their King in 1978. A friend remembers how an American air force officer stationed in Tehran used to warn his kids not to play with “dirty Iranians”. You can eat off any surface in any Iranian home. We were angry in turn at the storming of the US Embassy; though it now seems a mild affair, compared to the sanguinary enormities of more recent terrorists. The Iranians liked even less our support of Saddam Hussein when he attacked them with poison gas on the battlefront and with barrages of Tehran and other civilian areas with Scud missiles. There were lots of Scud missiles, many more than fell on Israel in the first Gulf War. And there were hundreds of thousands of dead, including the brother of a close friend. You see candles in niches for these people, in residential parts of Tehran. Some daring, some good will, and maybe we wouldn’t be where we are, with them maybe making a bomb and maybe ready to drop it on Israel or give it to some Hezbollah sleeper cell to detonate in Harvard Yard, and with us making the Persian Gulf look like a sort of rush hour for aircraft carriers and planning to bomb fifteen hundred (that’s one thousand five hundred) military sites.
No, I’m not enthusiastic about the possible incineration of Tel Aviv. The Israeli historian Benny Morris rightly says a new kind of Holocaust is in the making: for at least the Germans had to look at our faces. However I do not think it at all likely that Israel, which has hundreds of nuclear weapons and the means to launch them from the Persian Gulf in such a way as to destroy every major city in Iran, will wait to be attacked. If there is a war, if diplomacy fails, the first faces of the murdered you don’t see will be Persian faces. But in the long, catastrophic war that will ensue, the other faces of the dead will be yours. If I’ve done anything in this piece I’ve tried to get you to see those Iranian faces, maybe even hear voices and smell smells and imagine colors. In Iran, any targeted “site” is as likely as not to harbor an old man sitting in a shed with his favorite rose bushes outside and his teapot inside, with maybe a friend visiting and a favorite cat (the country is shaped like one, check map) nosing around. Lots of these sites are near Isfahan, a very densely populated city and one of the most beautiful ever made by the hand of man. To some, Isfahan is a word, an abstraction. For me, it’s evenings drinking tea in a coffee house (what else) on a seventeenth-century stone bridge and listening to a friend play the ney, the reed flute Jalal al-Din Rumi sings about in the first lines of the Masnavi.
We need to solve this crisis peacefully, my friends. And if it is war, count me out.
Or let me go drink a last cup of tea with my friends and let the bomb fall on us together in the country shaped like a cat. There’s a verse attributed to the epic poet Ferdosi, Chu zamin-e Iran na-bashad, tan-e man ma-bad: “When the land of Iran ceases to be, so die my body!” I have lots of relatives in Israel, too. If only one could be in two places at once for this occasion. A coward, they say, dies many deaths. But those are sequential, not coincident. No way out there. Life’s good, spake Zarathushtra. Life’s overrated, say I, if this is all we’ve come to.
For many years I could not enter Iran, though I had studied its culture and imagined and longed for it since my youth. But in 2000 I was able to leap nimbly, with the help of Deutsche Lufthansa, through that window I wrote about earlier. Upon arrival at Mehrabad airport I was offered tea and cookies, and I kept touching everything around me, unable to believe I had at last come to the place of my dreams. The two policemen sent to escort us at that late hour into town were amused. It was just before dawn when we reached the hotel, and the cops said now I could at least sleep: they still had predawn prayers to say. “What makes you think I don’t have prayers to say, too?” I asked them. One of the cops nodded apologetically. “Of course,” he said, “every creation is praying all the time, whether or not it knows, whether or not it is aware it does, praising God, full of the love of God, full of love.”
“All this is not too bad,” sighs Michel de Montaigne at the conclusion of his essay “On Cannibals”, the first self-critical exploration of comparative cultures by a modern European. “But what’s the use? They don’t wear trousers.” That is as far as our sage policy planners, no irony, would get; and they do not know that the ancient Persians, gentle reader, invented trousers.