The purgatory of exile: Persian intellectuals in America
By Abbas Milani
March 27, 2003
Woe unto him who has no country.
Exile is when you live in one land, and dream in another. From Iran -- the landscape
of my dreams -- no land is farther away, geographically and metaphorically, than
the America where I now live. America is, in the words of one of its more astute
political observers, the "First New Nation." It is a country with little
history, and even less patience for indulging the past. Iran, however, is a land
where the past both haunts and enriches the present; it is a country that is, in
the words of Hegel, where the light of reason first began to shine. "The Persians
are the first Historical people."
As a nation, America is the land where the Frontier has been the formative mythology
of its history, where mobility and exile have been central to the country's collective
memory. Iran, on the other hand, though first peopled by exiles (the Aryans some
3,500 years ago) and though its Islamic calendar commences with the prophet's exile
from Mecca, has for centuries been characterized by the insularity of its national
experience; Iran, as an idea, seems almost synonymous with the sense of a protected
plateau, walled and shielded by towering mountains and forbidding seas.
For Jews, exile has been a constitutive component of their 5,000-year history.
Living in diaspora has become, for them, all but second nature, whereby, in the words
of George Steiner, "the text" has become a home, and an "instrument
of exilic survival." For Iranians, living in diaspora was, until two decades
ago, a rarity, an oddity experienced only by radical intellectuals, the economically
marginalized, or the stigmatized religious minorities.
The etymology, and the variegated connotations and denotations of Ghorbat,
the common Persian word for exile, eloquently conveys the culture's troubled relationship
with the exilic experience. In English, as well as the French and German languages,
a touch of romance, of affirmation, is attached to the very word exile. Its dual
meanings and genealogy -- "creating and coming forth" and "banishment"
-- afford it an air of heroism. Ghorbat, on the other hand, itself an exile
from the Arabic language, has the same root as dusk; it also shares its genealogy
with Maghreb, Persian for the West, and for the land where the sun eternally
Nasser Khosrow, the acclaimed eleventh century Persian poet, writes of exile as
"a tarantula," and the poet Sa'di, who often captures the soul and spirit
of Persia -- he was a favorite of Goethe's -- thought that a quick death at home
was preferable to a long life in exile.
Indeed, as if to underscore the inevitable melancholy of exile, one of the secondary
meanings for the Persian word for exile is "silent weeping." One of the
derivatives of the word Ghorbat is Ghorbati, ostensibly meaning anyone
who is away from home. It has, however, taken on harshly pejorative connotations.
As a culture that has historically privileged the sedentary over the mobile, a culture
whose traditional architecture eschews windows to the outside world in favor of enclosed,
high-walled gardens and yards, Ghorbati is used as a derogatory word, synonymous
with a Gypsy or a barbarian, or perhaps even a harlot.
Mohajerat, the other word commonly used for exile in Persian, is no less
unequivocal in betraying the culture's attitude toward the affliction of exile. Hejrat,
or the act of leaving home, not only refers to the prophet's forced departure from
his birthplace, but it can also be used to refer to death. It seems that in the unconscious
of the Persian language death and exile are part of the same continuum of rupture
And yet today, at least two million Iranians, from all walks of life, live in
Ghorbat. Close to a million of them are in America, and I am here to report
to you about the condition of Iranian intellectuals in the United States. And since
the "international context" of exile is one of the themes of this conference,
I would also like to search for some points of convergence and contrast between this
experience and the fate of German intellectuals who fled Nazism and landed somewhere
on the vast American continent.
The comparison is in one sense unfair, if not indeed untenable. Half a century
has passed since the arrival of the large contingent of German intellectuals in America.
Temporal distance has allowed for a full and dispassionate appraisal of their genius
and accomplishments, their foibles and failures. The fact that German intellectual
émigrés of the 1930s included an almost endless litany of towering
twentieth-century figures -- from Albert Einstein and Bertold Brecht to Thomas Mann
and Hannah Arendt, from Theodor Adorno and Ernest Cassier to Arnold Schoenberg and
Walter Gropius -- the fact that they helped change the very fabric of social and
natural sciences, as well as architecture and urban design in America, and finally
the fact that a majority of this group were Jews, and as such were not only exiles
in Germany itself, but also suffered some of the pangs of anti-Semitism in America,
have all worked to facilitate, and encourage a large number of studies on the nature
of their experience.
The history of Iranian intellectuals in America is, on the other hand, a work
in progress. The landscape of their accomplishments and failures has yet to be rigorously
surveyed. Furthermore, it is a landscape that is still constantly evolving, changing
as we speak. Any account of what they have sewn and harvested can at best be partial
Exiles, at the very ontological level, are bifurcated beings. In the post-colonial
lexicon, they have hybrid identities. For Iranian exiles, language provides an early
clue to the ambiguities of this hybridity. Twenty years after the surge of Iranians
arriving in America, there is still no consensus on what we should call ourselves.
Are we to bank on the romance the word Persia conjures and call ourselves Persians?
Should we, instead, resign ourselves to the less glamorous, and more politically
entangled, title of "Iranian"?
The labyrinthine subtext of this choice becomes more meaningful when we remember
that the official change of the name from Persia to Iran took place under the somber
shadow of Nazism. In the mid-1930s, the Iranian ambassador to Germany convinced Reza
Shah that in deference to Nazism's rising star, Persia should forfeit its name in
favor of one that underscored the country's Aryan legacy. In the last two decades,
this inauspicious genealogy has been further compounded by images of frenzied flagellating
mobs. All remnants of the old Oriental lure was replaced by a constant barrage of
television images, showing scraggly bearded, clench-fisted zealots, delirious in
their chants, parading blind-folded American diplomats around the once opulent compounds
of the American embassy.
In the early years of the revolution, being an exile in America was, paradoxically,
no indemnity for Iranian intellectuals -- as it was for German intellectuals in the
mid-1930s -- but instead something of a liability. Here was a group that had often,
by no choice of their own, left their country. Their only crime had been their valiant
opposition, at great danger to life and limb, to the oppressive nature of the Islamic
regime in Iran.
But now in exile, all too many of their American hosts, rightfully angered by
the treatment afforded American diplomats in Iran, were bent on venting their anger
at the first Iranian they could find. If an Islamic firing squad, or warrant of arrest,
haunted the Iranian intellectuals at home, in exile, not just the "bitter bread
of banishment" but the malfeasance of the same Islamic regime haunted them halfway
across the world.
In the tumult of those angry days, the safest path was for the Iranians to opt
for a hyphenated identity and call themselves, Persian-American, or Iranian-American
-- a name that, by its very morphology, by the sheer weight of its hyphen, emphasized
emotional detachment from Iran, and posited political distance from the regime at
home; a hyphenated name for a bifurcated identity.
Adorno, the gloomy poet and philosopher of exile, considers this bifurcation,
this suspension of attachment to a permanent home, an essential component of exile.
For exiles, he writes, "homeland is the state of having escaped." Exile
is coterminous with awaiting and transience, and with the solitude of the stranger;
it begets and breeds a near neurotic dependence on news from "home."
Exiles refuse to recognize the permanence of the status quo, and thus endlessly
engage in the Sisyphean task of trying to forge a cohesive narrative to surmount
the real and imagined travails and torments of their present purgatory, while at
once also nurturing utopian dreams of an edenic homeland. And thus exiles emulate
the Jewish experience and seek the same kind of panacea for their plight as pariah.
A text, a language, an imaginary homeland become tools of survival. In exile, speaking
Persian becomes a momentary escape from the constant feeling of disenfranchisement.
It is a gesture of communion, of solidarity. It is an act of defiance, with elegiac
Exiles are in the words of Elias Caneti, "custodians of a dead treasure."
Adorno, too, suggests the same idea by writing about what he calls his "damaged
life" in exile. Infusing into his narrative of exile his deep disdain for all
that is American, as well as elements of his pioneering work in criticizing what
he calls "the mass deception" of the "late capitalist era," he
writes that here "the past life of émigrés is, as we know, annulled.
Earlier it was the warrant of arrest, today it is intellectual experience... Anything
that is not reified, cannot be counted and measure, ceases to exist."
In other passages, he offers an even more gloomy image, suggesting that the problem
might indeed have little to do with the kind of reification eminent in capitalist
structures. "Every intellectual in emigration is," he writes, "without
exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself... His language
has been expropriated, and the historical dimension that nourished his knowledge,
sapped." Adorno even abhors the American natural landscape, for "it bears
no trace of the human hand."
Nader Naderpour, the recently deceased and laconically embittered Persian poet
who had for many years lived in Los Angeles, captures much the same sentiments in
his last collection of poems. His anguished voice captures the predilections of an
older generation of intellectuals who stubbornly refuse to assimilate into any aspect
of the host country. They prefer the comforts of the intellectual ghetto -- real,
or imaginary -- where they can rest on their past laurels.
Here in America, "a landscape without a history," cities are, for Naderpour,
"full of noise, empty of words." All that is left of him, he laments, is
the "mirthless ruin" of his soul. Everywhere he turns, he meets only the
"black shadow" of his own loneliness. Indeed, in the desolate landscape
of his exilic poetry -- a "land as vast as grief and waiting" -- everything
is bereft of magic and affect.
"In the night of this exile," he writes, "there are no stars."
Even the moon, the eternal muse of all poets, is dead and lifeless in America, appearing
as only "food for vultures." His new abode in Los Angeles, "this city
of angels," is "an inferno as beautiful as paradise itself" and its
soul-less, and greedy, inhabitants are only in search of a new forbidden fruit. Here,
houses, opulent or modest, streets, busy or quiet, harbors and seas, serene or stormy,
all conjure no memory, arouse no emotion. Here, he says, with no memory, and no trace
of his accomplishments, he rides time towards the penultimate destination.
The exilic laments described in these poems are certainly not unfamiliar to the
Iranian intellectual community. For one thing, ever since Plato tried to banish poets
from his Republic, poets and intellectuals have returned the favor, and felt like
exiles at home. Exile in this sense is more a state of mind than a fact of geography.
Cervantes, whose novel Don Quixote, heralded the advent of the modern age,
knew this well. His Don Quixote is a sublime image of an exile: At home neither in
his native land, nor in the wilderness of his imagination. To this condition of exile,
geography and locality is but a mere backdrop.
Naderpour captures the same sentiments when in his essay, called "The Poetry
of Exile and the Exile of Poetry," he writes that all poets are always exiles,
and "all genuine poetry of the world, is the poetry of exile." But aside
from this metaphoric exile, the past generation of Iranians have had some, albeit
limited, experience with banishment. The history of that experience can, I think,
be divided into three distinctive phases. While there is much that separates the
three phases, they nevertheless converge on two important points. Each has occurred
in crucial moments of Iran's encounter with modernity, and in each phase, language
has been a central problem.
The first large-scale exodus of Iranian intellectuals created the Hindi School
of Iranian poetry and criticism. Just around the time when Cervantes in Spain, Shakespeare
in England, and Martin Luther in Germany were contributing to the creation of national
languages, and thus preparing the ground for nationalism and other constitutive elements
of modernity, and jut as Iran's attempt to enter the modern world, orchestrated by
Shah Abbas was aborted, many of the brightest Iranian intellectuals, fearing the
frenzy of the Shiites, and the chaos of a war unleashed by the Afghan invaders, fled
Iran and sought a safe haven in India. In exile, they created what has since been
called Sabeque Hindi, or the Indian School.
Hazim, whose poetry is undergoing something of a revival in Iran today, was perhaps
the quintessence of the first generation of exiles. For him, and his compatriots,
poetry was the narrative form of choice, and in their verse, poetic tropes, words,
and metaphors implode unto themselves. A concentric cacophony of metaphors, with
no "objective correlative" other than the poet's ability to construct ever
more arcane, obtuse, and beautiful metaphors was one of the main accomplishments
of their exilic experience.
But this obsession with language had also another, unexpected result. It helped
foster a refreshingly modern, or more accurately post-modern, hermeneutics. Much
along the line advocated by Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century, literary critics
in the 16th century Indian school arrived at notions about the ephemeral nature of
meaning in a text, and about the contingency of language, and truth itself.
The second phase came around the time of Iran's constitutional revolution of 1905-1907.
When reactionary forces tried to resurrect oriental despotism in Iran, many of the
most prominent advocates of modernity, fearing for their lives, fled the country.
This time the safe haven they sought was not India, but Europe. Most of them ended
up in Berlin. Germany was a relative newcomer to the "Big Game" of colonial
domination in the Middle East; she was more than willing to support the efforts of
the Iranian nationalists to fight Russian and British influence in Iran. The "Berlin
Committee" could count as its members a truly impressive group of Iranian writers,
poets, and scholars.
Together, and with financial help from the Kaiser's coffers, they published the
journal Kaveh. By nearly every conceivable measure, it turned out to be one
of the most important publications of Iranian intellectual life in exile. Ultimately,
it would also help change the intellectual landscape in Iran. The first modern Persian
novel, as well as the first scholarly texts in economics and diplomatic history,
were all published in the pages of this journal. In every issue, there was also articles
about the inadequacies of the Persian language in facing the challenge of modernity,
a challenge that was, in the mind of Kaveh's writers, as inevitable as it
was welcome and auspicious.
In articulating these views, one of the main contributors to the journal, Seyyed
Hassan Taghizadeh, wrote words that he would later regret. "Iranians must,"
he said, "in their blood and bone, become western. Shedding all that is Persian,
and retrograde, and embracing all that is Western, is for them the sole path to salvation
and progress." Though he would later repeatedly modify and retract his statement,
the damage was done.
Soon enough, fokoli (literally, the bow-tied) found its way into the Persian
lexicon. They were comical figures, who at the mere whiff of the European air, had
come to denigrate all that was Persian In the classical disposition of colonized
souls so brilliantly depicted by authors like Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, and the
novelist Patrick Chamoiseaua fokolis insisted that Iran's only chance of salvation
was to forfeit its own culture and language, and become entirely European.
But Taghizadeh's words at the same time echoed an important historic fact about
Iranian intellectuals of the time. By then, for a whole generation of writers, poets
and thinkers, Europe had become a beacon of progress and hope. As a historic force,
these intellectuals were all children of the age of Enlightenment. The messianic
propensity of Iran's culture, ever awaiting a redeemer, was in perfect congruence
with the Enlightenment notion that intellectuals are the very repository of light
But many of these modern ideas traveled to Iran through Russia. In trying to explain
the intellectual climate in 19th century Russia, Isaiah Berlin has offered a useful
taxonomy of intellectuals. The French intellectuals, he suggests, consider themselves
"purveyors" of ideas and images, and accept no responsibility other than
producing the best possible works, while the Russians require "total commitment"
and think of themselves "a dedicated order, an almost secular priesthood,."
It was the Russian notion of the intelligentsia that came to dominate intellectual
discourse in Iran. These factors made it easier for the modern Iranian intellectuals
to fill in the historic grooves created by the Shiite idea of a Mehdi. In other words,
modern intellectuals became secular versions of the warrior-knight messiah, steeped
in a Promethean sense of social esteem.
The Pahlavi regime strengthened the intellectual's sense of self-importance. Both
Reza Shah and his son, Mohammed Reza Shah, had a peculiarly schizoid relationship
with the intellectual community. It is, I think, hard to find another Third World
regime that courted and coveted the intellectuals as much as the Pahlavi regime.
But wooing was only one side of the relationship; violence and bitter disdain was
the other constant component of the monarchy's troubled relationship with intellectuals.
On the one hand, the Pahlavis craved intellectual support, and on the other, they
jailed, censored, and occasionally killed prominent intellectuals.
With the fall of the Pahlavi regime, Prometheus gradually metamorphosed into a
pariah, stranded on the hard rock of shattered hopes, miscarried ideas, dissension
and division in intellectual ranks, a disillusioned public and a budding totalitarian
power structure that, contrary to the previous regime, had only distrust and animus
for the secular intellectuals.
Part of this distrust was political in nature: Many intellectuals had been in
the forefront of the fight against the new Islamic despotism. But there was also
another, historico-epistemological source to this tension. Throughout the centuries,
the clergy had considered themselves the sole and ultimate source of sacred and profane
truth. They had doted on such self-proclaimed titles as the Ulama, or the
learned. The genesis of modern intellectuals was clearly a direct threat to the clergy's
lucrative monopoly of truth.
As failed Prometheans, Iranian and German intellectuals who had come to America
had important points in common: They had both fled their respective countries after
calamitous upheavals, and the rise of new and menacing social forces. Both had witnessed
the development of a kind of persona in their country they could not fathom. The
thought and sight of "Hitler's Willing Executioners" in Germany, the presence
of hundreds of thousands of religious zealots, willing to kill and die for their
faith, provided the intellectuals of the two countries with a disheartening image
of their nation. Their response was to heed the advice of the Oracle at Delphi who
said, "Know thyself." Each group turned inward, and tried to lay bare the
collective unconscious, the unadorned histories of the countries they had left behind.
Adorno and his colleagues' monumental study of the Authoritarian Personality;
Leo Lowenthal's in-depth analysis of the German mass-culture during the years before
the rise of Nazism, Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, Eric Fromm's Escape from Freedom,
Hannah Arendt's influential study of the Origins of Totalitarianism, Franz Neuman's
Behemouth and its description of the Nazi economic system are only a few examples
of studies by German exiles that tried to come to theoretical grips with the unfathomable
fact that in the land of Marx and Beethoven, Hegel and Mozart, the likes of Goebbels
and Hitler had come to power.
A similar "historical turn," a critical appraisal of Iran's past, a
vigorous attempt to criticize, and when needed debunk the dominant ideological discourse,
has been evident amongst Iranian intellectuals in America. A veritable, albeit belated,
Renaissance has been taking place. Encyclopedia
Iranica, a project whose genesis predates the revolution by a few years,
could easily be considered the most ambitious modern effort at a full, detached,
and impartial appraisal of Iran as a civilization. Housed at Columbia University
in New York, (not far from the New School for Social Research where many of the German
intellectual exiles landed) it attempts to describe every major and minor historical
event and personage, every town and village, every writer and river in Iran.
Furthermore, two journals, one called Iranameh, the other Iranshenasi,
generally considered two of the most respected Persian journals in the world, have
been regularly published in America for some twenty years. There are also two oral
history projects, one based at Harvard University, the other at the Foundation for
Iranian Studies in Washington, which have attempted to save for posterity, the recollections
of some of Iran's most influential intellectuals and politicians. A third oral history,
centered in Los Angeles, is devoted to chronicling the life of Iranian Jews.
There are several theoretical and literary journals of various political persuasions
as well -- from the Socialist Elem-o Jamee, to the literary Persian Book
Review. There are at least two distinct organization of scholars ("Iranian
Studies" and CIRA) whose work is concerned solely with Iran. There are a number
of feminist organizations that regularly host conferences and talks. For many years,
they helped publish a quarterly called Nimeyeh Digar (the Other Half) that
only stopped publication a few months ago because of financial constraints.
Many of the bigger cities have their own Persian theater groups. Sometimes --
as in the case of the Darvag group in Berkeley,
whose productions have toured much of Europe over the last decades- -- they stage
avant-garde productions, other times they perform the more traditional fare of comical
or classical plays. The question of exile, the battle of the assimilated young with
the stubbornly unchanged old Iranians, a kind of comedy of manners, is the leitmotif
of most of these theatrical productions.
Iranians in Hollywood, too, have had their share of success stories: From Reza
Badii, who directed such diverse productions as "Mission Impossible" and
"Baywatch", to Darius Khonji, whose cinematography in such films as the
"Sheltering Sky" has won him many awards and favorable notices. The artistic
director of one of premiere opera houses in the world, the San Francisco Opera, is
a Persian, as are hundreds of managers, and researchers of small and large computer
companies. Few indeed are American colleges and universities were at least one Persian
does not hold an important faculty position.
Even a cursory look at the collective portrait of Persian exiles in America will
reveal that in their ranks, there is now a new breed of intellectual who has opted
for some measure of assimilation, and immersion in the host culture. They have mastered
the English language, and often publish their works in both Persian and English.
They are as comfortable with Shakespeare as with Sa'di; in contrast to the generation
of Taghizadeh, they are neither awed, nor overly impressed with the West; and in
distinction to the fokolis, they are also not oblivious to Iran's rich cultural
legacy. The poet Ali Zarin speaks for this generation when he writes, "America/
in the Poems of Walt Whitman/ Langston Hughes/ Allen Ginsberg/ the songs of Woody
Guthrie/ and Joan Baez/ I made you mine." [Made
you mine, America]
Over the last few years, an impressive number of these intellectuals have published
acclaimed literary anthologies, novels, memoirs, and innumerable works of scholarship,
all written in English. Taghi Modaressi was that rare Iranian who was already an
accomplished novelist in Iran before he arrived in America. Here he reinvented himself
by writing and publishing novels in English. His novelistic ruminations dissect the
agonies of the exilic mutilation, and yet are not despairing in their final effect.
Nahid Rachlin is another successful member of this generation of writers. Her
forte is describing the plight of Iranian émigré women. And finally,
if a book's gross sales are to be taken as a measure of success, then Gina Nahai's
on the Avenue of Faith, an acclaimed magic realist account of women's lives
at the turn of the century, in Tehran's Jewish ghetto, is clearly the most successful
novel written by an Iranian in exile.
Even Persian cooking has found its rightful place in the gourmet pantheon of America
and the popularity of this cuisine is to no small measure the result of the untiring
work of Najmieh Batmanglij, who has established herself as a world-class aesthete
and culinary maestro. Her books have transformed the cookbook genre from a simple
manual of a craft to a sublimely beautiful representation of an art. Mage
Publishers, which has published her books, has been devoted to publishing books
about Iran in the English language for two decades. It has succeeded in not just
surviving, but establishing an impressive reputation in the highly competitive publishing
world of the United Sates.
There are hundreds of sites on the internet, devoted solely to the issues of Iran.
Everything from the songs of the popular female singer Googoosh, to Koranic verses,
from soccer memorabilia, to the latest news about Iran can be found on the Net. So
vast are the number of Iranian sites that there is a special search engine, called
IranMania that can help you find everything
from photos of the famous to old stamps from the Qajar dynasty. Iranian chat-rooms
Persian music too has been transformed by this new genus of exiles. A promising
musical trend has been created by some young, second-generation, Iranians. A refreshingly
eclectic mix of Spanish cords, used in counterpoint with new interpretations of Persian
movements, or dastgahs, give this new music a delightful timber, at once familiar
and altogether strange. But the creative and critical work of this vast army of old
and new exiles has not been without its obstacles.
Nostalgia is the narcotic of exile, and the nemesis of sober and critical appraisal
of "home." Catering to this affliction has become, like much else in America,
a "big business." Numerous companies produce the sights, sounds, smells,
and tastes of the old country and sell them at often hefty prices. The plethora of
newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television channels and cultural groups that
exist in every town and city affords the exiles a fleeting glance at the imaginary
homeland they crave. There are, for example no less than 90 magazines and newspapers
in Los Angles alone. Furthermore, "over 130 feature fiction films made in Iran
before the revolution" bring home to "ravenous [audiences] sights and sound
of the homeland."
A mercilessly long litany of singers, many of them mere novices, with
more bravado than singing talent, cater to the exiles' endless appetite for sounds
of Persia. Much of what they produce is a strange, discordant mix that combines somber
and melancholic verse with jubilant and ecstatic music. Their songs are an awkward
combination of kitsch and pathos, cheap poetry and heartfelt laments for the lost
home. The same incongruity has been also observed in their music videos, where "the
incoherent and fragmented style" of the visuals is "accompanied by 'cohering'
ballads whose oft-repeated refrain is 'I am afraid..'"
A far more important obstacle on the road to intellectual consummation for Iranian
exiles in America are the events that have taken place in Iran over the last three
years. For nearly all of the last century, cities in the West, from Berlin and London
to Paris and Berkeley, have been the intellectual Mecca for most of Iran's secular
Oppression at home -- a constant fact of 20th century life in Iran -- had meant
that those who suffered the pangs of exile were at least rewarded with the feeling
that their ideas, thoughts and theories would be the vanguard of cultural, literary
and political developments in Iran. It was generally assumed that the West is the
smithy where the finest, and the most sophisticated ideas and theories about Iran
can be fashioned. Exiles, in short, were in the coveted, and privileged theoretical
position. What they lost in authentic "living at"home," they more
than made up for by their mastery of theory, their ability to speak freely, without
fear of retribution and jail.
The advent of the computer age, the inability of oppressive regimes to control
cyberspace promised to increase the privileged status of the exiled intellectuals.
They could, unchallenged by the native Procrustean authorities, enlighten the minds
of Iranians back home. The advent of the information revolution held out the promise
that exiled Iranians could become a forceful presence in Iran. The global village
was no longer a corny cliché, but an almost tangible reality.
then something uncanny happened in Iran. Relative freedom of the press came, and
soon Iranian intellectuals at home began to write with such bold vigor and innovation
that the creative texture, the immediacy, and the theoretical depth of their writing
soon eclipsed nearly all that the exiled intellectuals had to offer. A change of
historic dimension is taking place. The main arena for new ideas about politics and
democracy, civil society and reform, even modernity and tradition is no longer in
the West, but in Iran.
The world of scholarship, with its requisite long years of research and rumination,
and its dependence on archives and libraries, seems to be the only arena where the
exiles can still claim to enjoy a privileged position. Prometheus is now doubly bound:
estranged from his home, stranded half-way across the world, he is also exiled from
his self-affirming, and self-declared role as the ultimate source of light.
Since 1987, Abbas Milani has been chair of the Department of History and Political
Science at Notre Dame De Namur University. He is currently a Research Fellow at Stanford
University. His books include The
Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution,
Two Cities: A Persian Memoir and King
of the Benighted. He gave this lecture at the Litera-Tour 2000 conference
in Mainz, Germany.
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