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Reasserting the truth
Iranology is alive

November 3, 2003
The Iranian

With a big smile he wished me congratulations. Shirin Ebadi had just won the Nobel Prize for Peace on the last day of a weeklong meeting of Iran specialists. The man who rejoiced at the news even more than the women who were there was one of a dozen participants from Iran attending the conference of the European Center for Iranian Studies, an event that is held once every four years in a different place.

This year's choice was the small town of Ravenna, Italy, which houses, apart from spectacular mosaics in some of the earliest churches erected on European soil, a branch of the University of Bologna on a street adjacent to a double piazza complete with outdoor cafes.

The conference was arranged in four sections devoted to ancient, middle (i.e. Sasanian, Sogdian etc.), classical and contemporary, with about 300 speakers scheduled to hold talks on a host of subjects related to Iran. And the list of subjects seems to grow all the time, notwithstanding the pirates who help themselves at will to pages torn out of volumes and volumes of Persian culture.

There was a sizable proportion of last-minute defections, most of them from Iran and from Tajikistan (and a few from Russia), primarily those whose expenses had been promised but never paid out, due to the caprices of a few bureaucrats at Miras Farhangi.

In the case of a country like Tajikistan, which its Soviet-drawn borders have reduced to a land without major resources, it was to be expected (though caring Iranians could contribute perhaps to the participation of fellow upholders of Persian culture.) But in the case of the Iranians, their travel expenses would not have amounted to the pocket money of a wealthy mulla or of his bazaari friends.

The pattern of promising and reneging on contracts and expenses to scholars and archeologists has become familiar by now, not only with respect to applicants from Iran. Scholars and institutions of other countries are also affected by promises withdrawn inexplicably for reasons that at best have to do with unfounded suspicion, and at worst with petty corrupt officials.

Many of the Iranians who turned up had dipped into their pockets to dish out an amount equivalent to one year's salary, to pay for the trip, for they know they cannot progress well without meaningful exchange with other scholars. Nor did they pay any attention to the presence of a big man with a beard who roamed through the halls without ever attending a lecture and who seemed to be there for the purpose of stalking participants from Iran and to report on their activities there. A telling example of opposing factions at odds in Iran.

On the one hand are those who are keen to study their heritage and to draw edifying lessons, and on the other are those who ignore or much worse, denigrate their heritage for their immediate gains. Their numbers are dwindling, but the problems they cause increase in proportion.

One participant who was asked, upon application for his exit visa, to state the purpose and destination of his trip and duly replied that it was to attend a European gathering of Iranologists, was met with the despicable reply, "Iranology is dead". With the newfound courage of a generation of Iranians who do not let mullas tell them what to think, he valiantly countered: "Never has it been more alive than it is now, thanks to you and your likes." And the likes of the former are on the defensive nowadays, even within the government itself which happens to have a department devoted to Iranshenasi under the leadership of one of the few enlightened men in their midst.

Later in October, a delegate of the latter (where on earth do they find so many seyeds to fill the top posts?), who was sent to inaugurate the centenary of Iranian Studies at the University of Goettingen, Germany, went so far as to say that every Iranian is always perforce an Iranshenas, in a limitless field.

From bits and pieces of information gathered on these two occasions, one gets the impression that scholars are victimized less by concerted policy than by virtue of haphazard decisions motivated by a range of petty motivations such as greed and envy. Those who occupy seats of authority without related merit or qualifications, rake in as much as they can while the going is still good for their likes. They are relics of the past.

A totally different picture emerges when one talks with the young and scholarly of Iran. The ones who turned up in Ravenna, a dozen men and women, some of them very young, others more mature, some of them very good and some mediocre, some of them novices speaking poor English but trying their best to take up the challenge without official support, were involved with just about every aspect of our evolution, from the paleolithic to recent events.

They represent the future to which they are giving a new shape in their minds. They have given much though to the future of Iran, a different future in which the constituent elements of our culture will not be cast out so much as recast, recomposed and blended with newer elements. They have little respect for the outdated gurus like Al-e Ahmads, Kasravis, or Shariatis whom they deem to be anachronistic and insufficiently informed.

Never has there been a more questioning youth in our whole history and this will eventually affect not only the premises on which society is built, but also the people who are placed in positions of authority without any intrinsic merit and therefore are envious of those who are praised for good work both within Iran and abroad. It may not be by chance that the best are harassed.

They encompass the nation all the better that they come from different walks of life. One said he was, as a boy, a shepherd in Bojnurd and only spoke the local Tati dialect (a language akin to the original tongue of Azarbaijan and Semnan and still used in parts of Talesh, including Lankaran in the former Soviet Azarbaijan), but who has now learnt to read Elamite, Old Persian and the Greco-Roman classics like Strabo whom he quotes in lectures as though he were quoting Hafez or Saadi.

They are also quite clear as to the problems they face and never recoil from the daily struggle of trying to obtain a modicum of support for research much of which, in spite of apparent lack of commitment from official quarters, is coming from Iran.

Fight they do daily for their institutions and for the work they pursue; fight they do to denounce the negligence of monuments and sites and the tragic looting of archeological finds that are shedding more light on our understanding of the prehistoric past; fight they do to obtain the renewal of contracts and a meagre handout for their scholarly trips. Some even see their work disappear overnight.

One of the heart-rending complaints came from someone who, even, in his public delivery, poured abuse on the razing of monuments and the looting of archeological sites, usually for the purpose of erecting buildings that will bring them profit, and justifying the desecration of heritage by adding and adjoining mosalla for Friday prayers, the better to mask their real intentions.

A much-publicized case in the earlier days of the revolution was the Arg of Tabriz, the partial destruction of which was justified by the perpetrators as motivated by its link with the Bab and Babis. A transparent excuse which deprived the city of its major landmark. But it did not end there. Near the Arg were the few surviving remains of the splendid Blue Mosque, with beautiful tilework that was only surpassed in Timurid Samarkand and Herat (with a lot of the latter now defunct).

In the eighteenth century Tabriz had been struck by two disastrous earthquakes with aftershocks continuing for months thereafter, but the main coup de grace was then dealt to the Blue Mosque by a group of mollas who coveted the land (yes, they were already into that kind of thing two hundred years ago), and with no Babis then, they blamed the Sunnis (the Qaraqoyunlu had originally ordered the mosque to be built by the finest craftsmen). One bit of wall had remained to afford a glimpse of what had been a tribute to the craft of the tilemaker in blue-and-gold artistry and was duly although belatedly restored in the very last years of the Pahlavi reign.

When the situation in Iran had calmed down sufficiently after the heat of revolution and the miseries of war with Iraq, dedicated experts decided to unearth what they could from the ruins, but only to see their successful efforts neutralized again by the razing of the site by order of the Minister of Housing who wanted to use the valuable land in the centre of Tabriz for the building of his mall-musalla.

Or maybe he believed that old tiles were not worth preserving at all, that it might be better to replace the old tiles with copies as has been done in the case of great monuments, even in Isfahan. (One wonders what was done with the old tiles removed). The problem is that tiles of the quality used in the Blue Mosque cannot be reproduced nowadays and even the ones that can do not have the same quality. There were protests, of course, but countered with accusations of 'separatism'.

Actually the alleged distinctions between Azaris and Persians become blurred in this case as well as in others, when one is told that the Minister in question is a native of Urmia and that the archeologists are both from Tabriz and Tehran and they hardly identify with Baku's selective piracy of cultural property that belongs to a joint heritage, and anyway stops short of great monuments to the north of the Araxes where, if at all, they appear in the form of stone forts that come from an altogether different tradition.

The majority of our own Azaris are aware of being a full part of an undivided whole, and not of a fragment as decided by tyrants, be they mollas or KGB officials now involved with enriching themselves, and as recent elections in Baku have just shown, with brutally rigging elections in favour of their primogeniture.

As a matter of fact, young scholars from Iran are also worried about the piracy of their legacy in the absence of a government committed to its preservation. Admittedly the case of the Blue Mosque of Tabriz is an extreme example, and destructions of that kind are increasingly rare, but there seems to have been a change of direction recently for reasons that are not really clear. Other monuments are threatened by smog, when a little money and care could avoid the worst of the damage, for example by implementing a project to shield the Persepolis sculptures with glass or roofing, as suggested but not done.

I would not have written about any of this if my informers had told me that it would put them at risk. But they are fearlessly committed and laughed off my concerns by saying that they themselves do not hesitate to air their grievances in the Iranian press. Without the efforts of dedicated souls the demolition squads would have been more active and their bosses would have made more money but only to find out that, like Molla Nasreddin, they are cutting the branch they themselves are sitting on. They have not reached that point and let us hope they will not, for it might be too late to salvage the best.

From the Blue Mosque to the Bronze Age sites of Kerman, more especially Jiroft, the story is sad and after a period of respite and great hope, now getting sadder. I alluded to the looting of Jiroft in an article earlier this year. (See "Under the arch"). I had written about how extraordinary prehistoric objects from the prolific Bronze Age of Iran had turned up at auctions, especially in Paris where the best of them had fetched stratospheric prices, while the Iranian delegate to UNESCO, although informed in advance, had ignored the affair.

At the time I did not know the extent of the finds nor of the damage. In the meantime they have been fully documented in an article written in the French magazine Archeologia. And people in Iran are very concerned about the illegal export of objects that shed light on the importance of the Iranian plateau long before Iranians had come from the north to settle and to rule.

Having used information from the site of Shahdad, also near Kerman, for an essay on the history of cosmetics in Iran, I knew that the latter had been excavated by professionals, but it seems that the same also holds true for the site of Jiroft which has yielded important evidence for a period that is fascinating archeologists worldwide and shedding a far more important light on Elam, the extent of its rule and its major achievements, a role so decisive that I know of at least one European scholar who has turned his interest in the Bronze Age almost exclusively to the sites of third-millennium Iran. But their work has been hampered by smugglers who intervened in the wake of experts to pillage at will.

Since Iranians are by law forbidden to buy artifacts, the money to be made must come from abroad. Thousands of artifacts of historical significance and often of staggering beauty lay underground to satisfy the greed of thieves who went about the task without precautions to preserve the context. And without the context there can be no in-depth study of a period about which a lot more remains to be learnt, though we already know that it was a major turning-point in the course of civilization with far-reaching effects from the Levant to the Indus, and Elamite Iran, right in the middle of that transnational route playing a pivotal role in inventions that changed the whole history of mankind and resulted in exchanges that put globaliztion to shame.

Later visitors have described the result of the massacre of the site as a tragic moonscape with hundreds of deep holes pockmarking the area of Jiroft. Thankfully a few hundred artifacts have remained in Iran, but the rest, including a majority of by now world-famous carved chlorite vessels that are testimony to the culture and craftsmanship of the early Bronze Age in Iran were smuggled out and sold.

The exhibition 'First Cities' in New York was criticized by Iranians for devoting chapters to not only Bahrain and Oman, which were important outposts of that transnational trade, but also to an island off Saudi Arabia where crude copies of the vessels were fortuitously unearthed, while Susa, the capital of Elam only received a few pages not worthy of the great role it played. No mention of Jiroft or Shahdad on the map of Bronze Age cultures in the catalogue devoted to that exhibtion. This was partly due to the embargo by an American government that cannot tell the difference between art and artifacts and the tools of terror.

Nonetheless, if one reads the small print, one notices that, in spite of the money received from Arabs, the writers could hardly avoid the mention of southeastern Iran under Elamite rule. The latter extended to Bactria or Balkh and Margiana (also known as Murghab, Marv, Margush) in Afghanistan and in Turkmenistan, a region that, because of its obvious links with Elamite Iran, has been labelled 'Trans-Elamite' by the French scholar Amiet.

Such is the heritage that was shamelessly looted right under the eyes of a government so little concerned with the proofs of their ancient culture. I do not know if the smugglers were acting alone or with official blessings, but it seems that a great many of the artifacts were bought by Arab collectors from the Persian Gulf islands, and since the the bulk of the magnificent pre-Achaemenid silver objects found in a cave near Ilam in the late 1980s was also bought by a collector from Kuwait, they assume that it must be the same with the Jiroft abjects.

This has bred resentment among Iranians who, out of frustration, read wild interpretations into deals that involve the very foundations of their identity, especially if the buyer is a petro-sheikh whose country forbids importation of printed matter that says 'Persian Gulf'. While one is loath to condone any gratuitous conspiracy theories, the feelings of Iranians are understandable in light of academic institutions in the West representing the greatest Iranian scholars and scientists of medieval Islam as Arabs.

I propose you swallow a Valium and then read a Shadi Akhavan's article, "Close enough". This misguided lady chided her countrymen for failing to recognize the major contributions to Islamic culture by 'Arab' scientists like Avicenna or Rhazes! Yet their very names betray their true origins -- except to Shadi.

For the first one is in fact Abu Ali Sina, a native of Bokhara in its Persian heyday under Samanid rule and born of a father with the Iranian name, Sina, and who moreover wrote not only in Arabic (the lingua franca of science in medieval Islam as Latin was that of medieval Christian Europe), but also in Persian for his patrons in Marv, Isfahan and Hamedan where he died and is buried; and as for the second, his name of Razi (Latinized as Rhazes) is a sure indication that he hailed from the city of Rey near Tehran. I hope that the likes of Shadi were at least invited to the premiere of the first opera in Arabic on the theme of -- take a good guess -- Abu Ali Sina.

True enough, our heritage has been raped many times, and true enough, the looting of archeological sites is not limited to Iran, but our nation has become more aware of its past, whereas its leaders do not pay enough heed to what would benefit even their insatiable appeties by attracting tourists and gaining these leaders the respect they so lack. When countries like Poland send a large delegation to the Ravenna conference on Iranian studies, why should the home country refuse to finance the attendance of its own? And if the artifacts exported are so valuable, then why should Iranian students not be encouraged to learn about them?

The latest news from Iran is very disturbing. The harassement of archeologists continues apace, and contracts to native or foreign experts are withdrawn or cancelled at the cost of interrupting some excellent work and major discoveries such as a cave that has evidence of a feminist cult in the eighth century BC. The reasons for this are probably mundane, for ideology is only an excuse nowadays, as the case of the Blue Mosque demonstrates so well. The reasons, as I learnt from talking to numerous people involved, can range from envy on the part of a petty bureaucrat who resents the work of the best and the perks such as travel that go with such work, to greed which is translated into pocketing money earmarked for scholars or for conservation.

The targeting of experts recognized abroad for their valuable work may also have to do with a major exhibition on Achaemenid art, due to be held at the British Museum in 2005. Why let the experts get credit for it? I am only guessing that a battle is being fought backstage to derive the maximum benefit from an international event in which the government of Iran is fully participating. But the worries are now extending to something more serious, because, on October 28th, a Persepolis fragment showing the full head of an immortal guard (stolen in the early nineteenth century by a Ousely, the first British amabassador), went on sale in London for 850,000 Pounds to a bidder on the telephone, presumed to be the future Museum of Qatar.

Are experts kept at bay from Persepolis so that fragments can be carved off with impunity to be sold off by traitors to collectors abroad? Given the precedent of Iraq and the clerical appetite for gains, there is reason to worry, though it seems quite unlikely that such a devilish scheme can be brought off at the site of Persepolis whose every inch is so well documented that any new item appearing by chance on the art market would inevitably be highly suspect. Nevertheless, every Iranian abroad has a duty to keep an eye open for any such misdeed and if necessary alert international instances to be on the watch for illegally exported fragments from this and other known sites of the Achaemenids.

The reasoning of the people who neglect heritage is incomprehensible in a country surrounded by newly created countries so eager to cut out a page of our history and culture to appropriate as their one. How can one protest when the leaders of the country do so little to defend our cultural rights? With a little good will, it would be easy, for piracy of history relies on fabricated lies.

Just how selective the pickings of some former republics of the Soviet Union can be is illustrated by the case of Zoroaster. An apocryphal tradition does in fact link the prophet with Azarbaijan (ours not theirs), but it has been proven to be a late fabrication by Magians who had to leave Rey in the Seleucid era when Greek gods took over from Iranian ones. The actual birthplace of Zoroaster remains disputed and is placed between the mountains of the Altai and the former Eastern Iranian provinces to the north of the Amu Darya.

Nonetheless upon independence Baku wasted no time in hailing Zoroaster as one of its sons, until the leaders came to the conclusion that the prophet has been firmly linked with Iran by Western scholars. He has since been demoted from his high position in favour of Babak Khorramdin whose very existence does not make any sense without links to Mazdakism. This is how capricious the culture of these new republics can be and it extends across the Caspian to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But it is nonetheless useless to clamour against 'separatism' or 'foreign intrigues' when preservation is lax and the tangible legacy that confirms the integrity of Iran since the early Bronze Age is sacrificed on the money altar.

In spite of the darkening horizon, however, nothing will detract the students and scholars in Iran from their laudable cultural pursuits, beginning already in their school years when they work doubly hard to fill in for the inadequacies of school books that, apart from other deficiencies, are totally silent about art. They do not trust what they learn from a curriculum written and planned by mollas.

A new generation is indeed being formed, a generation that no longer waits for a king or a military strongman or a foreign power to solve its problems. It is more deserving than its predecessors for having understood the issues at stake and without taking its cue from some foreign master or repeating lessons like parrots in a cage. These dedicated young are all Ebadis, each within his field and each working hard on projects and writings that result from no less than an ordeal of fire. There are many of them, for the field is indeed a vast one and lies at the basis of a strong identity that goes back for millenia and not to a dead culture as some might suppose, for there are survivals of the past at the local as well as the mainstream level, as research is increasingly showing now.

As the multiplicity of subjects dealt within Ravenna demonstrated so well, identity is complex but linked by a thread of conscious or semi-conscious belonging to a whole. This is what creates the Ebadis of Iran. No wonder Iranians are unhappy with the media of the West for presenting her first and foremost as Moslem, and only then as Iranian. She herself admitted, in an interview with a French magazine, that being Iranian was no doubt a factor in making her what she is.

As her Nobel Prize confirmed, all is not darkness, there are glimmers of light, but the danger signals are flashing here and there and must not be ignored. The young people in Iran expect us to protest the desecration of our past and give them support. But of course one must do it knowingly and not on the basis of rumours and allegations.

Luckily for every traitor there is a dedicated person who continues to fight for cultural rights. For every report of evildoing there is compensation in the form of good work and positive attitudes from a new generation of thinking Iranians who are encouraged by the fact that despite lack of funds, Iran holds its own among academics so actively wooed by other money and by short-term geopolitical considerations as well. For every attempt to place Central Asia and the Caucasus in the faculties devoted to Eastern European studies there is a Pole or a Russian who has something to say about common links with Iran.

And at Goettingen's centenary of Iranian studies which aimed to to celebrate 'Iran, Land of Culture, The Iranian Tradition as a World Civilization', not only was a presentation made by a Kurdish Yazidi with 'pagan beliefs' that are linked with Mithraism (and erroneously presented as devil-worship), but the event came to an end with a Jewish Bukharan musician, now resident in Berlin, performing a concert on a rebab. And even though the music of Bukhara is somewhat different from that of Iran due to Altaic and Chinese influence, its modes or maqams are basically alike and share the same roots. He got so much applause that it brought tears to his eyes. Iranian students surrounded him to obtain his address for further communication.

Iranology is alive, and Iranians as well as non-Iranians are involved not only in keeping it alive but in adding to the sum of knowledge. For history has a way of reasserting the truth. And the truth points to the resilience of our people, especially when their cultural identity in its full variety is seen to be at risk. They will never give up and they are up to the task of defending what their leaders so pitifully neglect.


Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian




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