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The other terror
The art scene
Part Two >>> Part One

Februry 5, 2005

'Islamic art' has become a commodity for recycling petrodollars and the labelling of much of Persian art changes accordingly, it seems. In the 1960s, the unfortunate term 'Islamic art' was coined (allegedly by the late Ettinghausen) in an attempt to convince the Arabs to channel their new money into art that was hitherto known as Persian, Turkish or Mughal Indian, or if Arab, Egyptian or Mesopotamiam, but never Saudi. It took years to bear fruit, but now it has gone beyond the expectations of the inventor of the term. No amount of protest by the reputable expert, Souren Melikian-Shirvani, in his column for the Herald Tribune in protest about the use of 'Islamic' in attributing art, has had much effect.

The deans of Arab collectors are a sheikh from Kuwait and his spouse, both of them reputed to be knowledgeable patrons, but exceptions as such. Then Qatar joined the game in a very big way, thanks to a combination of circumstances. Prices rose to the sky as the market was sucked dry, so much so that a museum has been built to house their large collection. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that trend, it's their right to collect any art they fancy, so long as the labelling does not pass it off as what it was never meant to have been.

Now, even the Saudis, to whose strict olama art is sinful and who therefore refused to stop the Taleban's destruction of Afghanistan's Buddhist and Persian art, have begun to subscribe to 'Islamic art' with their girl at CNN showing off their love for 'their own heritage', not a shred of which was produced in their peninsula in fifteen centuries, except what was due to Ottoman rule, and even that has been razed, the most recent instance being the tombs of the Shiite Imams in the Baghi cemetery of Medina, as reported by an Egyptian with a very distinguished career (the Agha Khan Architecture Award and the World Heritage list). After the destruction of Bamian, the same source had divulged, in an interview with the French newspaper, Libération, how Ottoman mosques in Bosnia were flattened by Saudi contingents, because the ornamentation was contrary to Islam (and duly replaced them with modern concrete), without any whimper of protest from Western observers on site.

It was somewhat of a surprise when Christie's of London sent invitations on behalf of the Saudi Embassy to attend the preview of the Islamic art sale, held in October 2004, much of which, as usual, was Persian, Turkish or Mughal Indian. The invitation was also extended to the public through newspapers in the name of the Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Turki ben Faizal, who was formerly head of Saudi Foreign Intelligence and as such, perhaps once a backer of Osama bin Laden, when the CIA was recruiting Islamic fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Christie's later said that the ambassador himself had made the request. A cynic remarked that it must have been suggested by a PR firm consulted in a bid to improve their tarnished image.

My memory went back some ten years or so to the time when a full-page advertisement appeared in the Herald Tribune, not once but three times, announcing the creation of the new caliphate under the direction of a Saudi prince, with the Pakistani army acting as its military arm. I was shocked at the time, but in those carefree days before 9/11, not many seemed to care nor realize the full implications of the ad. (I have tried to locate the ads, but the libraries in London only have the CDs of articles, not of paid ads).

Yet even back then, there were some who knew well what was going on behind the scenes, especially in Afghanistan with the help of the Pakistanis and their Saudi funders. A Swiss journalist, by the name of Labévière, had published a book called 'Les dollars de la terreur', in which he revealed the intimate links between big money and terrorism. Michael Barry, an expert of Persian art and culture in Afghanistan, had come across a CIA agent who replied, when warned of the dangers of recruiting illiterate fanatics for the fight against the Soviets, "We are not in the nation-building business, we are in the Soviet-killing business" (this was reported later by the late Flora Lewis and by other writers).

Michael himself had tried to awaken the world to the damage done to Herat, the Florence of the East (see Robert Byron's beautiful book, 'Road to Oxiana') with an exhibition devoted to the heyday of Herat, when that city was the centre of Persian culture under the later Timurids, but noone was willing to come up with the modest one million dollars required, and destruction soon spread to much of the rich and diverse heritage of Afghanistan, initially through looting and later through wilful destruction, as the world would later find out.

As an art lover whose family origins lie partly in Khorasan, and as the mother of a former International Red Cross volunteer, who was taken hostage in Farrah, near Heart, and thankfully quickly released (through the intervention of the Iranian government in the days before the unforgiving Taleban), in my own little way I had tried to keep in touch with developments unfolding in Afghanistan. A full-day event on Afghan heritage had been scheduled at the British Museum, but by then the finest sculptures in the Kabul Museum were already gone, and Bamian was threatened imminently.

In desperation I contacted the late Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan, a collector and the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and as such, a person who was always committed to many worthy causes. I have his reply, saying that the Taleban decision could only be reversed by the Saudis, who, 'as expected', would refuse to 'lift a finger'. Nor were they pressured to do so by their friends in Washington D.C. To see the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in London now posturing as an art lover is indeed an ironic deceit.

With that precedent in mind, the damage in Iraq could have been avoided, if only there had been sufficient concern. With Iran threatened now, one cannot help feeling anxiety for its monuments, given that some of them were destroyed by Saddam without much reaction from anyone else. If surgical strickes are made against alleged nuclear plants, Natanz and Na'in would lose some precious archtiecture.

I once read a comment to the effect, that, after Afghanistan and Iraq, a sinister pattern of destruction of heritage seems to be emerging in that part of the world. I with to avoid any unncessary paranoiac, but there is cause for worry, not only for Iran's artistic heritage, but also for the collections of Qatar and Kuwait, much of which is Persian and given the precedent of Saddam's soldiers destroying or looting the Kuwait Museum. This time the danger could come from Islamists egged on by Saudi Wahhabite preachers and their followers. A double blow coming from different quarters but with consequences for Iran and its art and culture.

Meanwhile, one must hope that the experts engaged by the likes of Qatar will at least have the integrity to give credit where it is due and not invent a culture of the Emirates as was done in the exhibition 'First Cities' in New York, ironically at a time when excavations in Jiroft in southeastern Iran were turning the history of the Bronze Age on its head. Some foreign archaeologists have justified themselves for their work in the Emirates, by saying that Iran had forbidden their presence and they had little choice but to apply to whoever would pay. Now most of them are back in Iran, but this time on an equal footing with their Iranian colleagues, but because of the ban on Iranian objects in the United States, there is little chance that Americans will know about what important finds are made.

The distorted presentation by the Metropolitan Museum was, of course, due in part to generous funding by Arabs and in part to the embargo on Iran. There are other known cases of abuse by experts who will stoop to low depths in order to please a demanding patron. A notorious example is that of an archeologist (a Russian Greek, trained under the Soviets) who, to please the megalomania of his crazy paymaster, the Turkmenbashi, interprets the results of his excavations, including the important pre-historic finds of Marv (to which he nonetheless refers to by the Old Persian name, Margush) and in Nisa, the dynastic capital of the Parthian Arsacids of Iran, as belonging to the ancestors of the Turkmen, whose arrival on the spot he pushes back by a good two thousand years. To the extent that many of the Turkmen do have Iranian blood due to centuries of abduction of Iranian women as well as cohabitation, it is not wholly untrue, but not in the sense the Turkemnbashi would wish. Meanwhile, the said archaeologist has succeeded in drawing sarcasm and ridicule to himself.

Given the above, it was with a certain apprehension that I ventured to visit the exhibition curtly called 'Turks', on view in London. Initially I was relieved that Persian culture was given its due in the catalogue and a room was devoted entirely to the art of the Greater Saljuks of Iran. Having said that, there were reasons enough to doubt the motivation behind the whole scheme, all the more so that the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, was quoted in the press as having spoken of the 'extraordinary [cultural] legacy of the Turks', even though the catalogue admits that the works were more often than not produced by non-Turks.

The very word 'Turk' used to be offensive to both the Ottomans and the urban Uzbeks (essentially Tajiks), who applied it, as late as the late 19th century, almost exclusively to the nomads in their midst. Ataturk, at a loss for an appropriate word to apply to the multi-ethnic society cut out of Ottoman domains, rehabilitated the word. The Tatars of Russia, who knew no Persian, unlike the Caucasians and the Central Asians, were also instrumental in pushing for a pan-Turkic identity within the jadid or modernist movements of the early 20th century in the southern territories of the Russian Empire. One can hardly object to the wish to rehabilitate a word that applies to numerous dialects spoken over a vast territory. But one can have misgivings about the choice of art allegedly produced by the 'Turks'.

The criteria for the choice do not make much sense. The forced inclusion of a single inscription in the Old Turkic script, from Kazakhstan, and that of a baba or human-shaped totem sculpted in stone, from Kirghizstan, are obvious attempts to lay greater stress on the ethnic factor. If the criterion is ethnicity (a relative concept in a very mixed world), how about Iranians claiming the magnificent treasure of the Scythians and Sarmatians, that was dug up from the Altai to the Ukraine, most of which is housed in the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg? Even Lancelot's sword, since he too is said to have been a Sarmatian of Iranian stock? And the 'Golden Man', a Scythian ruler who was discovered in a Kazakhstan tomb covered with for four thousand pieces of gold ornamentation which show the influence of the Achaemenids. The Scythian ruler was buried long before there were Turks in the Altai. It is now the symbol of Kazakhstan, but escaped inclusion in the exhibition.

If, on the other hand, the criterion is territory, then the Greek and Roman art from Anatolia should be called 'Turk', and Herodotus should be called 'Iranian' for having been born in Halicarnassus (now Bodrum) under the rule of the Achaemenids. If the criterion is patronage by dynasties of Turkic origin, in that case Ghaznavid art from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, and the art of the Mamelukes of Egypt, and above aIndian Moslem art, from the Delhi Sultanate of the 12th century to the later Mughals, should have figured as well.

The selective inclusion of Timurid art, generally considered to have been produced mostly by Persian or Sogdian captives, and that of the Turkmen dynasties who followed the school of Herat and inherited its artists, suspiciously reeks of political aims. All the more ironic that it was always a matter of pride to the Ottomans that their sultan inflicted the only defeat on Timur when he was repelled from Anatolia.

As for the Turkmen, they were persecuted mercilessly for holding estoeric beliefs that threatened the Ottoman pretensions to the caliphate of Islam The Turkmen Qizilbash flocked to the the Safavids who were preparing to occupy the throne of Iran, and that was in fact what about the final conversion from Iranian Tati to Turkish in Azarbaijan. Finally, if the criterion is the language spoken now, then the miniatures produced in Herat, Isfahan or Shiraz, for example, should have been left out. The distinction between the 'men of the sword' and 'the men of the pen' as applied respectively to Turks and Persians, was not without reason and the small print of the catalogue, as already said, admits that the artists may not have been Turks.

Most absurd, however, is the inclusion of art from the Buddhist caves of Kizil in Chinese Xinjiang. I went twice to Kizil to view the frescoes when I was working on the many facets of Iranian influence along the Silk Route. That art was produced under the aegis of local Indo-European Tokharians, as evidenced by the features of the noble donors depicted in the art, but many of the motifs s generally recognized as having been influenced by Sasanian art. Most of them date back to the 4th and the 5th centuries AD, if not earlier, according to calculations by the Chinese, in other words to a time when the Uighur Turks had not yet arrived in those parts, even though there had been some raids in the area by the Xiong-Nu or Huns.

People do not have the patience or time to read catalogues. Journalists, especially, draw hasty conclusions from what they are shown. I have read their reports on the 'artistic and cultural riches of the Turks', though in the same breath they admit that the Turks appropriated and assimilated the cultures of the conquered peoples. I am not sure that they know what they are writing about. And this kind of confusion can only suit those who funded and provided for the exhibition. Nor is it immediately clear to the casual visitor that much of the Persian art included was sent as diplomatic gifts to the Sultans by Safavid monarchs, and as a result, the Topkapi museum has one of the major collections of illustrated Persian manuscripts.

The art of the Ottomans is rich and varied, influenced by sources of inspiration as varied as Persian, Byzantine and Venetian as well as innovative work by artists working under the patronage of the Ottoman sultans. Turkey has no need to resort to lies, unless they are dictated by a greater agenda to the detriment of Iran. While the catalogue, as said, is generally fair, the problem is that most of the visitors do not have the slightest acquaintance with the historical complexities of a region so vast. The Guardian Unlimited, for example, stated that much of today's Iran had once been a part of the Ottoman Empire, whereas the opposite would is true (except for brief spells of occupation in some of the borderlands of Iran). The greater part of Eastern Anatolia and Iraq were conquered from Iran (which admittedly had little power to enforce its rule in those parts).

One cannot help suspecting that the whole exercise is part of the overall picture of eroding Persian cultural influence by ambiguity or reattribution. While we do not need to use the dishonest tactics of cultural terrorists, some of whom, I have been told, even resort to raiding classrooms, if the lecturer discusses the Persian contributions to Islamic culture, there is ample reason to be on our guard. Being right is enough, if only politics do not interfere. Dedicated scholars need our support to withstand the onslaught. I was happy, on my recent visit to New York, to see that the exhibition on China at the Metropolitan Museum fairly and truthfully states the influence of Iranian motifs and ideas along the Silk Route, all the way to Xian, the capital of China under the Tangs.

If brick and stone and paper and metal can be destroyed, or presented in such a way as to intentionally mislead, language can be eroded to the point of no return. Our language is resilient enough to have withstood some of the pressures to which it has been subjected since 1837, when the Language Act substituted English for Persian as the administrative tongue of British India. Yet Indians, who have the dignity and confidence to admit interactions, without which there can be no culture and no art, willingly speak of Perso-Indian architecture and Perso-Indian art, just as Iranian experts admit the return influence of European motifs through the Indian medium.

Our language is resilient thanks to its beauty and rich literature. Iranian Jews abroad still speak Persian, not the least because of the remarkable verses by Judeo-Persian poets such as Shahin. And Persian has even been able to survive under strict Arab rule. Recently, on a street in London, I overheard three persons speaking fluent Persian. It turned out that they hailed from Bahrain, where they said some thirty per cent speak the language. There would be many more, were it not for repression by the ruling Khalifa dynasty, which arrived from the deserts of Arabia some two centuries ago and held on to its rule with British blessings.

With so much to show, yes, we are proud and have reason to be. In our long history we have survived a lot and it has given us the resilience and inventiveness to surmount other ordeals. But we must recognize the issues at stake and not put the cart before the horse. Yes, we are proud, not nearly proud enough, given that imperial policies have deprived our country of half of its territories in only two hundred years. That Iran should feel threatened is natural enough, but is has suffered enough to realize that war and conquest are not the preconditions for reasserting cultural affinities with other peoples. Iran is under threat more than any of its neighbours today.

If only the nuclear capacity of Iran were more than rhetoric (and I have it from a very reliable source that there is not much inside those installations, at least not enough to pose any risk of nuclear fallout to the population.) Rhetoric is the thing the mollas have always been very good at, but when they threaten to destroy Israel in retaliation and only in retaliation for attacks on Iran, they are conveniently quoted out of context, and thus offer an excuse for more and more lies about Iran to justify an attack.

One suspects that what bothers a Rumsfeld is the inevitable influence of Iran in the new Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated Iraq. Shat rankles a Cheney are the multi-billion-dollar deals concluded by Iran with China and India and France. The scandal-ridden Halliburton tried its luck in Iran, despite the embargo decreed and approved by the Congress and the Senate of the United States. No doubt the law does not apply to the VP or his business colleagues. (It seems that the deal has fallen through, after all).

I do not wish to get too paranoiac, but given that my feelings are shared by many who do not normally favour conspiracy myths, one can presume that cultural erosion may be a part of the overall strategy to weaken Iran. Longer term, history will be the judge and if the erosion continues apace, its judgment will be harsh. Meanwhile, our pride should not blind us to the point of claiming exclusivity for what should be claimed as 'shared creations' where that is the case, nor allow us to attribute to ourselves the contributions of other nations, as hot-headed ultra-nationalists have done.

Once truth has come out, there should be no reason not to share whatever has been jointly produced. That can only happen when the West acknowledges its 'great unpaid debt' and allows our culture its deserved place in world history. See Part One

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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Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian




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