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Defending our turf
In the present mood we have no alternative

By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian
June 5, 2002
The Iranian

There are more things on heaven and earth than are even dreamt of in the philosophy of a Robert Fisk, even though he dares say more than most others do (and I hope he does not go the way of the prince who said those famous words). One of your readers has remarked that Fisk does not say it all, for example about the one million victims of the Iraq-IraqWar.

But Fisk knows that the world just looked on and even encouraged what was happening then. He must know that Saddam Hussein rose to power thanks to active encouragement by the very same ones who punish his nation. Some of us remember TV interviews with top US officials, at least one of whom said with a strong Germanic accent: "Let them kill each other off"; some of us remember how the United States insisted that it was Iran, not Iraq, that was using poisonous chemicals against Kurds, and so strong was that propaganda that most believed it, even after Flavio Cotti of the International Red Cross publicly corrected the record. Nobody was wiling to defend Iranians, even less say a word against Iraqi bombing of World Heritage sites like Isfahan (and other important monuments), as I sadly experienced when I tried to get a petition signed against the destruction of our monuments.

Glenn Lowry af the Sackler Museum in Washington DC responded that Reagan did not care any more about Isfahan than he cared about redwood; a Swiss photographer and self-made art historian, who had published a coffetable book on Isfahan, slammed the door in the face of the person who went to ask him to sign a petition; newspapers contacted asked for figures and dates, in other words, they wanted to report after the destruction had occurred, which is what Souren Melikian of the International Herald Tribune gave them eventually, after the splendid 12th-century shabestan of the Friday was demolished by Saddam's missiles. (It has since been rebuilt by masterly craftsmen). Even many of our own Iranians protested about wanting to save 'bricks' while people were dying, as though people were cattle with no need for culture.

Fisk does not say it all, that the Saudis and the 'Petrol stations of the Persian Gulf', i.e. emirates (so called by an unhibited French football magazine during the Gulf War) took comfort that their own simplistic brand of Islam could be propagated as a single message valid for all Moslems. The damage thus done was much greater that what weapons alone could have ever achieved. The Saudis were indeed given licence to hit out at the culture and language of the hated 'majus' (the Magians, that is us), one of three despicable species (the other two being Jews and flies), according to a brother of Saddam Hussein, who was then in semi-banishment at the United Nations office in Geneva.

The sad story is that Saddam, lke later the Taliban, was propped up by an odd assortment of diverse interests who benefited from war. Turkey literally took off, France sold its deadly Exocet missiles, Russia sold the SCUDs that poured down on the heads of our relatives and monuments, Israel sold weapons and Jaffa oranges to the Iranian army, and the rest of the world, including the USA, bought our embargoed oil for $5 a barrel on the high seas (no doubt, by courtesy of a certain Mark Rich), thus giving a much needed boost to the sagging economies of the West. Nor were the Arabs free of guilt, and except for Syria which had its own bone to pick with Iraq, they all gave their support to Iraq against us.

Egypt alone made some 3 billion dollars from weapon sales and it was reported that some of its pilots, stationed in the emirates, flew Iraqi figher planes against us. As one of your readers mentioned recently, one might expect them to take the same stand, if it were to happen again. With the one exception of Lebanese Shiites, who, come shah or molla, will always support us, thanks to half a millennium of close relations, which is why Iran has a moral duty to give humanitarian help to the uprooted Shiites of Lebanon, just as the Jewish diaspora feels obligated towards fellow Israelis both in peace and in war. This does not mean that we, as Iranians, should not empathize with the tragic fate of the Palestinian people, especially since their lot has come to touch on ours in more ways than one. Yet the Palestinians must also bear a share of the blame of what has befallen our country.

Robert Fisk fails to say however that the Palestinians, by trying to engage Iran and its oil revenues for their cause as a substitue for failing Arab help, had recruited some of our most vicious mollas in their camps, the very same ones whom the people of Iran would gladly send packing. And they succeeded well, in that soon after the mollas' takeover, in the heat of revolutionary excess, Arabic-speaking Palestinian agents proceeded to investigate, confiscate and sometimes drag away some of our relatives, most of them innocent of government or political involvement; that those same agents were later found to have been guilty of burning an Abadan cinema with 400 people locked up inside in August 1978 .

Alas, no power group of any country is above sacrificing its own people to its political agenda; examples are legion and not limited to any one nation. One man knew, however, what troubled waters might be lying ahead and he tried to stop it. That man was Moussa Sadr, a fine man and leader of Lebanese Shiites, who appealed to the sovereign of a Moslem country and asked him to warn the Shah about plots being hatched by the clerical hierarchy against him (personal communication). The warning went unheeded, as history tells us, because a dreamer lost in clouds, with visions of past glory, simply could not relate to harsh reality. And Moussa Sadr disappeared for wishing to avoid confrontation and unnecessary bloodshed; one can well imagine that he stood in the way of more than just one group.

Robert Fisk does not say it all, because he cannot possibly know it all. Shiism became a dirty word, which is why the dollars of Saudi proselytes were let loose everywhere to fund their narrow-minded brand of Islam to the detriment of our much richer and syncretistic traditions which can hold their own against any other of the great metaphysical traditions of the world. Harold Bloom, the great Shakespearean scholar at Yale acknowledged this fact in his book 'Omens of Millennium', which, because of that stance, remained largely unread.

The longstanding legacy of Persian culture in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Pakistan were targeted by Wahhabite proselytes who helped their colleagues in Pakistan buy the allegiance of the poor in order, for example, to make them say 'Allah Hafiz' instead of their usual 'Khoda hafiz'; Shiite ceremonies became targets of attack in northern Pakistan; and Nowruz, that most hallowed of Iranian festivals and a time-honoured mark of the identity of all Iranian people beyond national or devotional borders, was banned by the Taliban who also took orders from Wahhabites. Even Persian poetry, many of whose greatest representatives were born in Balkh or Herat, was deemed to be un-Islamic then.

Did anyone bother to denounce that kind of 'cultural terrorism' ? Or to denounce the disappearance of Afghan artistic heritage, 70% of which, including much of the best, was pillaged or destroyed long before the assualt on Bamian by a variety of offenders. The world cared little about the fate of a landmark Buddhist site like Hadda (near Jalalabad), where some of the best art from the Buddhist period of Afghanistan had been excavated, and the Pakistani military became the agent of smuggling leftovers to international art dealers.

Yes, a few brave souls, both Afghan and foreign, did work hard to salvage whatever they could, but for the most part Afghanistan and its thousands of years of cultural legacy had been obliterated from the conscience and memory of the world. This neglect is what led to the grand finale at Bamain and the almost total destruction of the salvaged items of the once wonderful Museum of Kabul.

The sad fact is that the Saudi royal clan could not be faulted by a world heavily dependent on its oil. Yet one word from them might have well saved Bamian, if not the plundered rest. All of this in the name of Wahhabite orthodoxy which does not go back to the Prophet, but only to an Abdul-wahhab, who founded the sect to which the Saudi royals adhere.

Abdul-Wahhab turned against any heterodox tendencies, after he did a stint at the renowned School of Isfahan in the 18th century; he found the philosophy of a Molla Sadra (the original founder of the school which had relocated to Shiraz by that time) and of his disciples or predecessors far too difficult for his understanding, he dopped out and returned home to preach a no-frills Islam, more suited to his tribal customs than to the spiritual refinements of a world religion. Thanks to oil, that Islam is the one that the likes of the know-all Thomas Friedmans now perceive as the one and only.

Our gnostic and Sufi traditions may well be heresies, but that is their beauty. If that does sometimes lead to temporary abuse, it also leaves the door wide open for reform. Meanwhile, though, the world has come to associate us with values and practices that are not really ours. Even beyond Islam, the rest of our culture has suffered from neglect and from crass ignorance. Supposedly learned people like the NY Times literary critic, Richard Bernstein, declare that Pasthun (an eastern Iranian language) and Dari ('language of the court', i.e. Sassanian court, as it is still referred to by Afghans) are derived from Urdu, a much newer language that grew out of the multinational military camps of the Mughals of India. Urdu happens to be the language of a president whose first name is Parvez ('victorious' as in Khosro Parviz, the Sassanian emperor) and who, moreover, ends his speech with the words 'Zinda bad Pakistan, Payanda Pakistan'. How much more Persian than that can you possibly get?

None of this will undermine our culture longer term. Our land has been challenged many times and has always survived and even been strenghtened by challenge. There is enough material to draw on in our past, icluding in our Islamic gnostic erudition with which a Harold Bloom expresses emotional and intellectual linkage, as well as in our Zoroastraian and Mithraic traditions to which Bloom and other knowledgeable scholars attribute groundbreaking influence on Judaism and thereby on both Christianity and Islam (especially Shiite). Such a rich and diverse cultural legacy will not dry up overnigh, just because a few hysterical voices in the US Senate or a few benighted spirits in Wahhabite Islam should will it to be so. Nonetheless we must be on our guard, because the immediate impact can still be damaging.

After September 11, for a moment we thought that the lack of Iranian inolvement and the fact that our nation, even our mollas, were despised by Taliban, might finally restore our reptuation and reverse the anti-Iranian trend. But Saudi Arabia had to be kept as friend, and Iran was instead sacrificed on the altar of Christian and Jewish fundamentalist votes, with the concomitant demonization of Iranians as a whole, no matter what their political affiliations. The excuse is of course the arms shipment to Yasser Arafat, so conveniently 'discovered' to arrest potential improvement in relations with the USA.

Not that the hardliners in Iran are blameless, but in this case the timing and the circumstances were a bit too obvious to be quite credible, which is why so many in the world consider the shipment to have been an intentional plant' which not only Israel, but some of the allegedly 'moderate Arab friends' of the United States rushed to blame on Iran, the convenient scapegoat that distracts attention from their angry masses. (Iran is the 'mother of terror' one Khalid Guran said on MSNBC.) I do not have access to the evidence and do not wish to put blame on any one side, but it has struck me, from reports in the press, that the source of shipment has not so far been traced beyhond Dubai, well-known for money-lanundering and smuggling.

Obviously noone thinks it is necessary to look for more substantial proof of Iran's direct involvement. One wonders where all the Israeli coastguards had been until then and why they happened to find that particular shipment at that particular time. All of this takes me back to the days when Iran was accused of using chemicals against Kurds who in fact were flocking to Iran for refuge, as were indeed more than two million Afghans who were put up and paid for by an Iran strapped for cash because of an economic embargo that punished our people more than it has punished the mollas.

Meanwhile, the backlash continues at high pitch, with all Iranian nationals being refused visas to visit the US, even if those invited by American institutions. A convenient case of mixed identities. Only last week, the Iranian Studies Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, had to do without the participation of twenty invited scholars from Iran, whose visa applications were refused. One could cite many more examples of absurd reactions toward Iranians.

Despite the defeat of the Taliban, we are back to square one, with the same issues being pursued under another name. The wise voice of the Blooms of this world are drowned out by that of the Hillary Clintons and the Feinsteins (one of whose first reactions to 9/11 was to ask that Iranian students not be allowed into the United States) and others of that ilk. American fundamentalists of all creeds hijacked the tragedy to pursue their own anti-Iranian agenda, even though the administration that brands us as 'evil' admits that no Iranians were involved in it. Then why did Bush Junior turn his head away in disgust at the sight of Iranian sportsmen parading in Salt Lake City, as though they were lepers?

With a government so intent on spreading its own unilateralist vision of 'evil' through a president whose state has ordered the greatest number of officially sanctioned executions, on could almost be proud of being included in the roster of evil. (Like Galbraith who said that he was proud of being on Nixon's Black List). Not that that should change our behaviour and turn any of us into the 'terrorists that the American government would like to see us as. That is not our way, and the few publicized exceptions have their equivalents just about everywhere.

Out of curiosity, I have on occasion gone to London's Trafalgar Square in London, where some of the most massive Islamic fundamentalist are held, and to date have not seen an Iranian face or heard a word of Persian among demonstrators. Not even the present government of Iran, like them or not, has refused to cooperate against terror; it only insists on doing it through the United Nations, which seems reasonable enough, given that Iran is under a US embargo and does not have diplomatic relations with the United States. If the Iranian hardliners are a threat, is is mainly to us, not to the rest of the world. We are thus twice 'blessed' , chube do sar tala, (given the dubious morality of our adversaries, both inside and outside, I do not mean tala as a euphemistic substitute for the other four-letter word.)

Nor does discrimination stop at politics; it sadly encroaches on culture and history beyond Iran's present boundaries. After September 11, the US government ordered a substnatial increase in funds to be devoted to the study of Central Asia and Eurasia, but if one looks at the list of countries included in these seminars, one notices that Iran is conspicous by its absence, except for a part of Khorassan which is not even identified as an integral part of Iran. As a Khorassani, I found it offensive.

Moreover, it seems that not only Iranians, but all Persian-speaking populations are open to attack. In Samarkand the sixty Persian-language schools of the overwhlemingly Tajik population were closed down recently by the Uzbek government, without so much as a whimper from anyone. It is in this context that the issue of Iran vs. Persia acquires its importance.

What would Iran be without its cultural and historical roots in Samarkand, Bokhara, Marv, Herat, the centres where our identity, culture, language and above all, our epic myths, the very foundation of our identity, were formed over millennia, and where Turkic migrants from Inner Asia adopted our culture wholesale before mixing with us and ruling over us with the tools we gave them? These places are no less than our 'Jerusalem' , which does not mean that we should reoccupy them, or engage in a pan-Iranian crusade such as this century has seen with pan-Zionism, pan-Arabism and pan-Turkism.

Without resorting to extremes of nationalism which, like any other fanaticism, is not to be condoned, history should be told as it was. Thus, to leave Iran and even Western scholars of Iranian studies out of seminars or studies on Central Asia ad Eurasia is to rewrite history in a Stalinist vein. The mollas tried it, but soon enough realized thaty they might be cutting the very branch they have been sitting on. The cultures of the Eurasian steppes bore the seeds of at least part, a fundamental part, of our ancient civilization and present identity.

To ignore that is to deny the existence of historic Iran and its widespread cultural influence throughout what the noted French historian of Turko-Mongol steppes, René Grousset, aptly called 'Iran extérieur'. No matter how hard some try to deny it, truth tends to bounce back and impose itself with vengeance. I have seen Iranian students from modest backgrounds, who, having graduated from Islamic universities in Iran, are so aware of this that, even though sent by the government to study in England, they have opted for Sassanian art, no less.

And in St. Petersburg I recently bumped into the much maligned Iranian students of nuclear physics whose main area of concern, as I found out, were the adoption of new technologies that might prevent leakage from nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone zone. Their main aim in pursuing such a career is their awareness of the necessity to save diminishing oil supplies. Where did I meet them? At the Romanoff tombs where they were photographing on their Sunday outing. Does the United States really want to reverse such positive trends? One does wonder at times. (Let it not go unsaid that those same Iranians who are not allowed to visit the USA may apply for immigration permits).

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not bear a grudge against any of the countries I have criticized. A long history the end of which has been lightly declared by some Americans - has the advantage to teach us to take adversity with a nice grain of salt. But the truth must out, especially now that it is suffering from both censorshiip and auto-censorpship in this witch-hunting mood.

Beyond that, I have no desire to demonize America or Americans, though fundamentalism and proselytism of any brand I can do without. I leave hate-mongering to Bush's government (just look at Ashcroft's face). And please stop equating any criticism of that government with anti-Semitism. In Iran, our Jews have a long history of fruitful contribution. Nor do I resent the gifts of Arab culture to our own, so long as they do not resent our massive contributions to theirs, and do not pass it off as their exclusive right (this also applies to Turkey and to some of the Central Asian republics).

The real battle for us, both inside and outside of Iran, is about our culture, and our natural friends and allies are those countries which recognize this. It has nothing to do with political frontiers in the modern sense, any more than it does in the case of the Greeks, much of whose cultural roots developed in areas that now lie outside of Greece. To establish Persian schools in Herat which, as the city of Jami, Behzad, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and many others, adamantly remains 'Persian' to the core, is not equivalent to reclaiming a city which was lost to us less than two hundred years ago as a result of the Great Game intrigues which are being replayed. That city is now part of Afghanistan, a brother nation, if ever there was one.

Our sole aim should be to enable the culture which belongs to Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks, no matter what their creed, to retrieve its rightful place in the history of civilizations and not be trampled underfoot by lust for power, greed for oil or whatever other base motivations. (For those of you who believe that it is cynical to believe that it might be about oil, please refer to last week's 'The last oil frontier')

To deny the roots of our heritage and to relinquish them is to give up on the origins of our language our myths, on the making and remaking of our identity - which does not remain static but produces new branches from strong roots in the past. To ignore this is to give up on some of our greatest thinkers and scholars like Biruni, Avicenna, Khwarazmi (without whom the West would hardly be where it is); on Rudaki, the founder of our great New Persian poetry (as opposed to Old Persian or Pahlavi) and many authors whom we still quote as a matter of course; on one of our greatest and least appreciated dynasties, the Parthians whose dynastic capital lies just outside Ashkabad, not far from the Anau mound whre Indo-Iranians from the steppes first came into contact with the culture of the Iranian plateau and through it, of Mesopotamia; on that geatest of our epic heroes, Rostam, who was born a Saka in Sakestan or Seistan, in other words a Scythian related to Scythians on the steppes , and through him, on all of our childhood memories and our literature; on Zoroaster himself who saw light on the steppes (perhaps even as far north as in Kazakhstan, according to recent theory); and on some of our greatesst Sufi masters, not to mention monuments and artworks owed to the expertise of our artists ad artisans. Others take advantage of the present mood to pounce on these names and claim them as their own.

To wit, Azarbaijan (which should rightfully be called by its more flattering previous name of Arran so called after the Alans, an Iranian tribe whose presence stretched at one time from France to China), has recently redrawn its school maps to include the real province of Azarbaijan which is within Iran, as it always has been. This serves the interests of a notoriously corrupt wheeler-dealer and KGB agent who redraws maps with impunity and with the added bonus of being included in Europe. (If you send a letter from here to Baku or even Lankaran right on the border, you pay the same as you would for Paris, but to Tabriz you pay two or three times more.)

We will gladly share our culture with others who lay claim to it, but in the present mood we do not have much choice but to defend our turf. What to do and where to begin? One could picket seminars from which Iran and Iranian scholars are excluded, and end up being arrested for plotting 'terror', Or one might divert funds for Iranian Studies from the USA to countries whose academic institutions are starved for financing and where understanding of our culture, based on centuries, if not millennia of contact, is far greate, countries such as Russia, India and China, even some European countries with whom we share large chunks of history, and of course, to Iran itself.

A worthwhile idea to pursue longer term, but right now it would unjustly penalize many of the wonderful scholars in the USA, both Americans and Iranian-Americans, who have devoted their careers to the study of our culture, and some of whom have bravely sprung to its defense. At a recent London lecture by a renowned and respected former professor of Persian and Indian art from Harvard, the speaker broke out into sobs at the end of his talk and apologized for his government's behaviour. My most heartfelt thanks to these brave sensitive souls.

So, Iranian or Persian? I would opt for Iran, and leave Pars to the inhabitants of the province that was the heartland of our history (they do recognize themselves as being from Pars, contrary to what someone has said on your site). Even in the Encylopaedia Iranica, an invaluable contribution to the understandinf of Iran and Iranian, the choice of Persia in preference to Iran, gives rise to some awkward dilemmas. Jahanshah attributes the use of 'Iran' to a visit by Hitler's finance chancellor, Schacht. This is to ignore that the term Aryan or 'Iran' was usurped and misused by Nazis, and refers uniquely to Indo-Iranians as they knew themselves and only themselves after separation from the rest of the Indo-Europeans.

We have come a long way since then and are now a healthy mixture of indigenous and migrant elements of different ethnic backgrounds, which does not make the term 'Iran' less valid. It goes goes back to the Sassanians, if not the Parthians, who first coined Eranshahr. Iran covers more ground than 'Persia' which is appicable to our language (please parsi, not farsi which is the Arabic pronunciation for it), and by extension, to many aspects of our culture, but by no means to the whole of our identity.

Much has come to light in recent years, through research, but only scientific journals carry the information. More and more, even though ignorance or bias might dictate otherwise, these studies lead straight back to 'Iranians' , if not always to Iran. Yet it is only in Iran that 'Iranians' left a permanent mark in the name of a country that has had a continous history, notwithstanding varying borders, of some three thousand years since Iranians first came (and some three thousand more beyond that, through Elam which covered more or less the same territory as present-day Iran).

Unless we ourselves are well informed about who we are and what we represent, we will be easy prey to short-term interests. Our strong sense of identity, no matter what our creed, our resilience and the sense of humour which comes from having seen it all before, should preserve us against the pitfalls that are temporarily laid on our enduring path. No matter what ugly names we may be called by others, we take it with a smile and still hold our heads high. History has not come to an end, as some say, it is an ongoing process of mutation. Luckily most of our people recognize this. From there to salvation the path is uphill, and fraught with difficulty, but not impossibly so when one is so endowed with culture, courage, flexibility and a will of iron.


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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