A love letter to Iran
Fasten your seat belts.
You are going to meet the most notable Iranology scholars of the
April 13, 2005
Iran: A 20th Century Odyssey, by Richard N. Frye. Costa
Mazda Publishers, 2005.
I first met Professor Frye as a graduate student at Harvard.
He was a lanky, bow-tied, and sharp-witted Agha Khan Professor
of Iranian. He welcomed me to the class by saying if Mohammad would
not go to the mountain, the mountain would go to Mohammad. I was
auditing his course and, therefore, did not have to fear his grading
style, which was reputed to be exacting. I took an immediate liking
to him. And I grew fonder of him as I came to know him better.
We collaborated in organizing an international conference on
Iran in 1962 when the U. S. foreign policy seemed to be taking
course under John F. Kennedy. At the conference, Princeton University
Professor T. Cuyler Young regretted the CIA intervention in the
coup of 1953, Dariush Homayoon (later Minister of Information
under the Shah) articulated a nationalist perspective, and Hossein
(a National Front opposition leader) outlined an alternative
to the Pahlavi regime.
Much to the Shah’s chagrin, Mahdavy’s article later
appeared in Foreign Affairs. I later ran into Frye in Tehran, Shiraz,
Cambridge, Winchester, Brimfield, and at a Sufi conference in California.
He was always jovial and young. He did not seem to age.
Swedish in ethnic background, Frye had a great gift for languages.
He spoke a dozen living languages. He knew some dead ones too,
including Ancient Pahlavi, Middle Persian, Soghdian, etc. His language
abilities opened many doors for him. He was a lovable character.
Unassuming in manners, ready to rough and tumble as the story
of his travels show, and with an open heart for high and low. On
page 227, he writes, “I felt at home everywhere I lived,
which unfortunately made me a poor recorder of particular characteristics
of other people.” Frye is a great raconteur. The book is
full of the stories of his adventures. Fasten your seat belts.
You are going to be taken on a rapid tour of Eurasia. You are also
going to meet the most notable Iranology scholars of the 20th century.
Although the book is focused on Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan
(Greater Iran), in pursuit of his scholarly interests, Frye will
take you to Russia, Germany, France, China, India, Pakistan, Japan,
and the farthest corners of Central Asia.
Iran is mainly a love letter to Iran. The author wishes
to be buried in a mausoleum overlooking the Zayandeh Rud in Isfahan.
The prose is peppered with a scholar’s wit and wisdom. It
also contains photos of his family and friends, some of them prominent
20th century politicians and scholars. In a nod to the Iranian
conspiracy complex, he admits that if he were a spy, he would not
be a spy for the KGB or the CIA, but for Iran. It is a lesson in
the counter- intuitive effects of history to find out that Frye’s
glorious career in Iranian studies began during World War II as
a spy for the U. S. Office of Strategic Services.
The book is a pleasure to read. I could not put it down until
it was finished. It is also a remarkable account of how micro and
macro histories converged during the heady times of the Cold War
(1947- 89). Although Frye was never a politician, he handled the
political events of his time with great charm, understanding, and
forbearance. He is the last of the Mohicans, a breed of scholars
who have pursued their subject primarily not out of greed, or lust
for power, but for
the love their fellow human beings.
Majid Tehranian is Professor, School of Communications,
University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu, Hawaii. His
latest book is Bridging
a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).