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Unique experience
Memoirs of scholar with intimate knowledge of Iranians

June 14, 2004

Excerpts from "The Greater Iran: A 20th-Century Odyssey", the memoirs of Richard Nelson Frye (Mazda Publishers, going on sale Fall 2004). Retired after more than sixty years of study, research and teaching at Harvard University, Prof. Frye is now engaged in lectures and promoting Iran. Living in the Near East and Central Asia has given him a much broader view of the area than merely study and the reading of books. Also as an employee of Afghan, Iranian and Tajik governments, rather than simply a member of a foreign institution, or as a tourist, has been a unique experience, shaping his views of lands and peoples. His writings reveal an intimate knowledge not only of the past of those areas where Iranian people live, but also an understanding of the present. In a reversal of the usual maxim, he says that in order to understand the past one must study the present.

The ancient traditions of Iran, found in many writings, even after the Arab conquests, emphasized two institutions of power and authority-- church and state. They were brothers or sisters and as long as they cooperated the nation and the people would flourish. Islam, however, proclaimed the union of the two, and in effect instituted a theocracy under one leader-the caliph. By the tenth century old Iranian traditions reasserted themselves and soon a sultan and caliph headed the religious and secular realms. After the revolution in 1979 the religious leaders harked back to the early days of Islam and instituted a theocracy. This was not in Iranian tradition...

It was July 1948 and on the main street of Shiraz were many sherbet-khanes, like teahouses but serving all kind of fruit juices, and it was a pleasure in the hot evening to sit in one of them and discuss many subjects with the local citizens. Invariably poetry was recited and composed, while the kalyan or water pipe provided a relaxing time. Women, who were with husbands or family members, would also engage in conversation. The belief among foreigners that Iranian women were shy and oppressed in my opinion was a myth. Not that conservative people did not exist, as everywhere in the world, but few in Shiraz at that time...

In the capital a number of associations of clubs of poets and writers were producing a plethora of journals. In one of the meetings in lower Lalezar Street a group of writers had assembled to produce a new literary journal called Sukhan. It is impossible to remember all of the literary lights gathered to encourage the editor, Parviz Khanlari, with his new magazine. But one quiet figure in the comer, who did not speak, was Sadeq Hedayat, a prominent novelist, who was soon to leave for Paris where he would commit suicide. Sadeq Chubaq, on the other hand, was ebullient, while Said Nafisi was full of anecdotes. This was the beginning of friendship with many writers, which was to be sustained over the years...

In the late summer of 1953 Americans in Iran who had not left the country were advised to take refuge in the new embassy compound on Takht-e Jamshid St. Instead I visited 'Ali Akbar Dehkhuda, who had bestowed upon me the sobriquet Irandoost 'friend of Iran'. He urged me to talk to Dr. Mossadegh about Iranian-American relations, and the prime minister agreed to see me on August 9, the day before the referendum, which he had initiated.

I decided to present him with a small book I had written called Iran, and in the dedication I called him the savior of his people, which proved annoying to both Iranian and American officials after the fall of Mosssadegh. After an hour I left feeling I had spoken with a well-meaning man, sincere in his beliefs, even though he may have been naive in his estimate of Tudeh Party’s strength. He feared the Right more than the Left, and in light of subsequent events this was understandable. Business was left in the hands of his lieutenants, some of who were not known as scrupulous men...

At the end of January 1980, after Dan rather of CBS and his crew had departed from their adventure in Afghanistan, my wife and I decided to return home via Tehran, and fortunately the Iranian consul in Peshawar at that time was an acquaintance, so visas were easily obtained. People we met on the streets of Tehran were convinced that the hostage crisis would soon be over, since we had been allowed into the country, a sign of coming change. How wrong we all were...

It was the spring of 1998 and the English speaking Iranian tourist guide approached with an admonition, "Are you flirting with danger on purpose?" "Of course not" I replied, "but this official is causing me trouble." It was in the police station of southern Isfahan where foreigners had to register or conduct business, and I had come to extend my visa by five days. The papers were correctly filled out and my photos were acceptable, but then the burly official in charge said it was necessary to make a copy of the first page of my passport.

"Where can I do that?" I asked, and was curtly told he did not know. The guide directed me to a nearby street and pointed to a photography shop, but it was closed. A nearby bank seemed a possible alternative, and sure enough the clerks were happy to make a copy for me...

On returning to the station, I was informed that also a copy of the receipt for the visa fee was required, and the original would not do. That was too much and I began to upbraid him, without cursing, however, since the only good curses are in Turkish rather than Persian, and Isfahanis generally would not understand. It was then that the guide warned me. "It doesn't matter if you have friends high in the government. The police, army and pasdaran are all under the religious authorities not the government."

I insisted that the official could take the original receipt, which I did not need. Since he continued to object I walked over to the office of his superior in the police force, and complained about the behavior of his underling, who obviously hated foreigners. He major ended the shouting match by ordering my adversary to stamp the passport, but it did not end the latter's invectives against Americans....

It was October 1998, the month before elections to the high council of leaders of the revolution, and everywhere were posters of the candidates. On TV and radio only speeches were heard, and all the paraphernalia of elections seemed in place. There was a catch, however, for all of the candidates had to be selected by the existing council, and they all had to be religious leaders. It was as though the justices of the Supreme Court of the USA were elected, but the incumbents would decide who could run for office as their successors, and they all had to belong to one persuasion or party...

In 1990 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan my job was to lecture at the University of Tajikistan on the history of Iran and the Middle East. It became clear that the students were well acquainted with Russian history, but not with that of her neighbors. It was quite a novelty to have an American, the first many had ever seen, to lecture in their own language, a dialect of Persian, and I was glad to have questions and interest in the subject.

An invitation to lecture in Khojent (formerly Leninabad), revealed that the red Army had evacuated the citadel where their barracks had been, and the mayor was considering turning the area into a museum. At that suggestion I protested, saying that it was too difficult to build a museum from nothing in a few years, and furthermore tourists would come to Tashkent and make the usual rounds of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, for Khjent had nothing comparable to offer.

"Why not turn the barracks into a bazaar," I ventured. 'We have a bazaar," was the answer." "You have a Soviet fruit and vegetable bazaar, but I mean a crafts bazaar, as in Isfahan or Istanbul, where silver smiths, carpet weavers, wood carvers, and the like, could ply their wares. Then tourists would come here to shop rather than to view monuments." This could revive private enterprise, and the crafts which had atrophied under the Soviet regime. However I suspect that this suggestion was not followed....

In 1965 the reason for a meeting in Leningrad was simple; it was the world center of Iranian Studies, with more people engaged in those studies than in the rest of the world put together. For example, there were ten specialists on Kurdish alone in the Kurdish section of the Institute of the Peoples of Asia and Africa of the Academy of Sciences, the new name of the Oriental Institute....

Other specialists were in the Institute of linguistics, not to mention many in Moscow, Erivan and elsewhere in the USSR. At that time in the western world Kurdish was taught only in Paris and London by part-time specialists.... In 1965, on another trip to Moscow I met my friend Bobojan Gafurov, Tajik head of the Orientalists in the USSR, and I said to him, "Bobojan I have a problem." "What is it?" he asked." In the USA they say I am a Soviet spy and in the USSR people think I am an American spy, what can I do?" He answered, "Don't worry, we who are your friends know that if you are a spy you are a spy for Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan."

At the end of summer 1976, on the way home, we went the same way we had traveled earlier in June, by boat across the Caspian to Baku, and both same Afghans were on the boat. They had been sullen and unwilling to talk but this time in surprise they laughed and talked to us, believing we were in the same business of trading as they. And what were they bringing to Moscow? They had started from northern Afghanistan with karakul furs which they brought to Tehran to sell. Then they bought panty-hose and luxuries for the Russian market, which they sold in Moscow, and bought industrial diamonds to bring to Germany.

Their next goal was Stuttgart where they sold the diamonds and bought Mercedes Benz cars which they drove to Tehran and sold them there, because of the great demand in Iran for that make of car. After their log trip back to Afghanistan they obtained more karakul skins and set out for the same journey. In the morning at the customs in Baku it was clear that the Afghans had an arrangement with the Azeri officials to expedite their passage. They were only following an age old tradition in that part of the world, to trade where the highest rewards were to be found, even if it meant long distances and much trouble...

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