Memoirs of scholar with intimate knowledge of Iranians
June 14, 2004
Excerpts from "The Greater
Iran: A 20th-Century Odyssey",
the memoirs of Richard Nelson Frye (Mazda Publishers, going on
sale Fall 2004). Retired after more than sixty years of study,
research and teaching
is now engaged in lectures and promoting Iran. Living in the Near
East and Central Asia has given him a much broader view of the
area than merely study and the reading of books. Also as an employee
of Afghan, Iranian and Tajik governments, rather than simply a
member of a foreign institution, or as a tourist, has been a unique
experience, shaping his views of lands and peoples. His writings
reveal an intimate knowledge not only of the past of those areas
where Iranian people live, but also an understanding of the present.
In a reversal of the usual maxim, he says that in order to understand
the past one must study the present.
The ancient traditions of Iran, found in many writings, even after
the Arab conquests, emphasized two institutions of power and authority--
church and state. They were brothers or sisters and as long as
they cooperated the nation and the people would flourish. Islam,
however, proclaimed the union of the two, and in effect instituted
a theocracy under one leader-the caliph. By the tenth century old
Iranian traditions reasserted themselves and soon a sultan and
caliph headed the religious and secular realms. After the revolution
in 1979 the religious leaders harked back to the early days of
Islam and instituted a theocracy. This was not in Iranian tradition...
It was July 1948 and on the main street of Shiraz
were many sherbet-khanes, like teahouses but serving all kind of
fruit juices, and it was
a pleasure in the hot evening to sit in one of them and discuss
many subjects with the local citizens. Invariably poetry was recited
and composed, while the kalyan or water pipe provided a relaxing
time. Women, who were with husbands or family members, would also
engage in conversation. The belief among foreigners that Iranian
women were shy and oppressed in my opinion was a myth. Not that
conservative people did not exist, as everywhere in the world,
but few in Shiraz at that time...
In the capital a number of associations
of clubs of poets and writers were producing a plethora of journals.
In one of the meetings in
lower Lalezar Street a group
of writers had assembled to produce a new literary journal called Sukhan. It
is impossible to remember all of the literary lights gathered to encourage the
editor, Parviz Khanlari, with his new magazine. But one quiet figure in the comer,
who did not speak, was Sadeq Hedayat, a prominent novelist, who was soon to leave
for Paris where he would commit suicide.
Sadeq Chubaq, on the other hand, was
ebullient, while Said Nafisi was full of anecdotes. This was the beginning of
friendship with many writers, which was to be sustained over the years...
In the late summer of 1953 Americans in Iran who
had not left the country were advised to take refuge in the new
embassy compound on Takht-e Jamshid St. Instead
I visited 'Ali Akbar Dehkhuda, who had bestowed upon me the sobriquet Irandoost 'friend
of Iran'. He urged me to talk to Dr. Mossadegh about Iranian-American relations,
and the prime minister agreed to see me on August 9, the day before
the referendum, which he had initiated.
I decided to present him with a small
book I had written called Iran, and in the dedication I called him the savior
of his people, which proved annoying to both Iranian and American officials
after the fall of Mosssadegh. After an hour I left feeling I
had spoken with a well-meaning
man, sincere in his beliefs, even though he may have been naive in his estimate
of Tudeh Party’s strength. He feared the Right more than the Left, and
in light of subsequent events this was understandable. Business was left in
the hands of his lieutenants, some of who were not known as scrupulous men...
At the end of January 1980, after Dan rather of
CBS and his crew had departed from their adventure in Afghanistan,
my wife and I decided to return home via
Tehran, and fortunately the Iranian consul in Peshawar at that time was an
acquaintance, so visas were easily obtained. People we met on the streets
of Tehran were convinced
that the hostage crisis would soon be over, since we had been allowed into
the country, a sign of coming change. How wrong we all were...
It was the spring of 1998 and the English speaking Iranian tourist
guide approached with an admonition, "Are you flirting with danger on purpose?" "Of
course not" I replied, "but this official is causing me trouble." It
was in the police station of southern Isfahan where foreigners had to register
or conduct business, and I had come to extend my visa by five days. The papers
were correctly filled out and my photos were acceptable, but then the burly official
in charge said it was necessary to make a copy of the first page of my passport.
can I do that?" I asked, and was curtly told he did not know. The
guide directed me to a nearby street and pointed to a photography shop,
but it was
closed. A nearby bank seemed a possible alternative, and sure enough the
clerks were happy to make a copy for me...
On returning to the station, I was informed that
also a copy of the receipt for the visa fee was required, and the
original would not do. That was
too much and
I began to upbraid him, without cursing, however, since the only good
curses are in Turkish rather than Persian, and Isfahanis generally
would not understand.
It was then that the guide warned me. "It doesn't matter if you have friends
high in the government. The police, army and pasdaran are all under the religious
authorities not the government."
I insisted that the official could take
the original receipt, which I did not need. Since he continued to object
I walked over to the office of his superior in the police force,
and complained about
the behavior of his underling, who obviously hated foreigners. He major
ended the shouting match by ordering my adversary to stamp the
passport, but it did
not end the latter's invectives against Americans....
It was October 1998, the month before elections
to the high council of leaders of the revolution, and everywhere
were posters of the candidates.
On TV and
radio only speeches were heard, and all the paraphernalia of elections
seemed in place.
There was a catch, however, for all of the candidates had to be selected
by the existing council, and they all had to be religious leaders.
was as though
the justices of the Supreme Court of the USA were elected, but the
incumbents would decide who could run for office as their successors,
and they all
belong to one persuasion or party...
In 1990 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan my job was to lecture at the University
of Tajikistan on the history of Iran and the Middle East. It became
were well acquainted with Russian history, but not with that of her
neighbors. It was quite a novelty to have an American, the first
many had ever seen,
to lecture in their own language, a dialect of Persian, and I was
glad to have
questions and interest in the subject.
An invitation to lecture in
Khojent (formerly Leninabad),
revealed that the red Army had evacuated the citadel where their
barracks had been, and the mayor was considering turning the area
into a museum.
suggestion I protested, saying that it was too difficult to build
a museum from nothing
in a few years, and furthermore tourists would come to Tashkent
and make the usual rounds of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, for
"Why not turn the barracks into a bazaar," I ventured. 'We
have a bazaar," was the answer." "You have a Soviet fruit and
vegetable bazaar, but I mean a crafts bazaar, as in Isfahan or Istanbul, where
silver smiths, carpet weavers, wood carvers, and the like, could ply their wares.
Then tourists would come here to shop rather than to view monuments." This
could revive private enterprise, and the crafts which had atrophied under the
Soviet regime. However I suspect that this suggestion was not followed....
In 1965 the reason for a meeting in Leningrad was
simple; it was the world center of Iranian Studies, with more people
engaged in those studies than in the rest
of the world put together. For example, there were ten specialists on Kurdish
alone in the Kurdish section of the Institute of the Peoples of Asia and Africa
of the Academy of Sciences, the new name of the Oriental Institute....
Other specialists were in the Institute of linguistics,
not to mention many in Moscow, Erivan and elsewhere in the USSR.
At that time in the western world Kurdish
was taught only in Paris and London by part-time specialists.... In 1965,
on another trip to Moscow I met my friend Bobojan Gafurov, Tajik head of the
Orientalists in the USSR, and I said to him, "Bobojan I have a problem." "What
is it?" he asked." In the USA they say I am a Soviet spy and in the
USSR people think I am an American spy, what can I do?" He answered, "Don't
worry, we who are your friends know that if you are a spy you are a spy for
Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan."
At the end of summer 1976, on the way home, we went
the same way we had traveled earlier in June, by boat across the
Caspian to Baku, and both same Afghans were
on the boat. They had been sullen and unwilling to talk but this time in surprise
they laughed and talked to us, believing we were in the same business of trading
as they. And what were they bringing to Moscow? They had started from northern
Afghanistan with karakul furs which they brought to Tehran to sell. Then they
bought panty-hose and luxuries for the Russian market, which they sold in Moscow,
and bought industrial diamonds to bring to Germany.
Their next goal was Stuttgart
where they sold the diamonds and bought Mercedes Benz cars which they drove
to Tehran and sold them there, because of the great demand in
Iran for that make
of car. After their log trip back to Afghanistan they obtained more karakul
skins and set out for the same journey. In the morning at the
customs in Baku it was
clear that the Afghans had an arrangement with the Azeri officials to expedite
their passage. They were only following an age old tradition in that part
of the world, to trade where the highest rewards were to be found,
even if it
meant long distances and much trouble...
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