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Demanding criticism
Aramesh Dustdar's sentences are pure delight, wonder and excitement on top of enlightenment

Abdee Kalantari
August 13, 2005

In response to a comment about Iranian thinker, Aramesh Dustdar:

Sorry for not responding in time. You asked me what is it that makes me fond of "this fellow," Aramesh Dustdar, if anything worth two cents. How can anybody with half a brain chide Hafiz for not being rational?! I suppose you didn't expect an answer as it's so obvious to you that I'm wrong about all those "shallow fulminations."

Let me first ask; Are you in possession of his books? They are not widely available, only recently they've gotten some limited distribution, and a lot of people hadn't heard of him until a short time ago. What he has said in a handful of recent talks and interviews does not have much to do with his books, and must not be a basis for forming an opinion of his published work. [Books: "Emtenaae tafakor dar farhang dini", "Molaahezaat-e falsafi dar deen o elm"]

Unlike almost anything in Farsi, his work is not easy-reading. His first book was written around the same time that "Asia vs. the West" and "Vaz-e Konooni-e Tafakkor dar Iran" were written (typical easy-readings-passed-as-philosophy-tracts).

As you might know, he belongs to the same generation of Tehran's academic "philosophers" in the early 1970's, people like Shayegan, Davari, Enayat, Nasr and a few minor figures around them, who were thinking within the same problematic/ discourse that Ahmad Fardid (via Al-e-Ahmad) laid its parameters out: the destiny of our culture against the onslaught of Western civilization; questions of History (capital H), faith, modern science and technology and what lays ahead, our future in the world. Aramesh Dustdar was the black sheep of the gang, the antichrist among the gatekeepers of Hekmat-e-Elaahi.

Then something strange happened which is not dissimilar to Germany in the 30s. Amazing parallels! History took a grave turn and everybody got caught up in its tremors. We don't get in to that story but one immediate result was a moratorium on thinking, the kind which had just started.

Regardless of what we think of these individuals and the weight and caliber of their thinking (I happen to think the majority were ersatz-philosophers), we should grant them that they were the first group of post-Mashrootiat intellectuals who could be called "thinkers" or "philosophers." All the others before them were Adeebs, Mohaghgheghs, encyclopedists and Alems, and of course a mass of journalists that we can loosely call our modern intelligentsia.

But among that crew of thinkers, Aramesh Dustdar was the oddball; he did not have the nativist peasant attitude sporting a tassbih, clearing his throat with verses of Hafiz (or hooey from Sepehri) every step of the way, and he certainly was not a dilettante-tourist-philoshophe with Parisian accent searching Illuminations from the East. He was a true German mandarin of strong atheistic stripes, a heavy-weight. And he was bent to grapple with all those mystifications generally known as farhang-e Irani-Islami. Only one person before him had done something similar, a serious wake-up call, little understood up until even today: a man named Ali Esfanidari, otherwise known as Nima Youshij.

As a sociologist of the intellectuals, you must have (I'm sure you do) some sort of mental map of post-Mashrooteh generations, a book of Who's Who, some sort of relational locator. Based on your classifications, you place people and trends on the map. I know you've attempted to do so in a couple of articles. That's why I don't see any reason for your comparing Kassravi to Aramesh Dustar.

Kassravi was, for the most part, a brave journalist and an amateur historian with iconoclastic pretensions, but not really a thinker of any depth. A lot of people have expressed their hostility to Islam, Sufism and Erfan. We should not put them all in the same bag because of that fact. That would be a superficial reading of Dustdar's work. (Believe it or not, he has some staunch supporters who have no clue what he has written, championing his 'cause' simply on account of his hostility to Islam. Similarly superficial and clueless are those detractors who identify Dustdar's work as old-fashioned Enlightenment tracks, championing naïve scientific rationality against superstition.)

In reading Dustdar's prose, a major hurdle is in the way and that is our habits of reading. This is a long story I don't get into now. A certain kind of prose, Nasr-e-shiva, popularizing and simplifying complex ideas, sprinkling them with bits of poetry by Hafiz and Molavi, mixing it with rhetorical (Manbari) tropes; all this has come to be known as the yardstick of good, clean writing -- Nasr-e-del-neshin!

This is like Ghormeh-Sabzee, everybody likes it, and each Ghormeh-Sabzee is different from the next, but they're all overcooked, darkened vegetables and meat where the gooey greasy mixture has a certain immediate satisfaction (with gas producing aftermath) but we cannot call it exactly refined taste. And we're all grown up with it; it did not require hard training of our taste buds! Same goes with Abgoosht, and Abgooshti prose that is Nasr-e-fassih-va-baleegh!

Until you are overcome by a grave sense of boredom with Nasr-e-fassih-va-baleegh, you cannot appreciate Aramesh Dustdar's prose. Like every good intellectual, he is a stylist. His is acquired taste; dense, packed with multi-directional insights, unconventional adjectives, and full of twists and turns that kicks everything that appears habitual or familiar. There are both tight analytical sections, and broad-stroke interpretive passages, but they always build up upon themselves both conceptually and structurally.

If you don't lose the thread of his sustained arguments, you'll see the thinking process in action, going up brick by brick before your eyes, which forces you to think along, or give up and not go further. (A gentleman friend, Mr. Mehdi Khalaji, described his experience of reading Dustdar as "torture." He is a fan of Abdolkarim Soroush's prose. My experience is the opposite. But if this is torture for some, I tend to think it's a necessary one, the beginning of an awakening! But really, his sentences are pure delight, wonder and excitement on top of enlightenment.)

There are a few honcho philosophy students fresh out of classroom (and there will be more) who are out to "get" him, to establish their own name and reputation. What they have jotted down so far is laughable, but the serious among them, if they're really sincere and careful, might learn a few things about rigorous thinking in the process of their criticism. Ultimately that's what counts, learning how to do rigorous thinking, not regurgitating oft-repeated polemical cheap shots. And that's how we all learn, by serious criticism. In that regard, Dustdar's work is certainly not beyond criticism. It demands it.

So, with these assertions and provocations, did I manage to get your attention in perhaps sitting down and carefully reading his books? I wouldn't expect a sympathetic reading, since you are a Muslim intellectual and a translator of Soroush's into English. But I count on your Weberian sense of scholarly distinction.

Abdee Kalantari is the editor of Kankash and Nilgoon magazines as well as the moderator for the "Donkeys Party" mailing list of academics who discuss current events.

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