Curzon's last laugh
There's good reason for part of our anti-British 'paranoia'
By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
October 26, 1999
One of the most interesting, bewildering, endearing, frustrating, --
choose your most appropriate descriptive term here -- characteristics of
Iranians is that once they settle in for a good conversation over tea and
sweets, inevitably their thoughts turn to politics, and sooner or later
the topic of the British in Iranian and Persian politics takes center stage.
There is a Persian proverb -- indeed there is more than one for almost
any situation! -- that states: "Taa nabaashad chizaki, mardom nagooyand
chizhaa!" ("If there was nothing to it, people would not talk
about it!", or more to the point, "Where there is smoke, there
is fire!"). This proverb and the attitude that goes with it, is, of
course, the fuel that feeds the fire of conspiracy theory in the Persian
But this also reminds one of an impossible situation, called a "Catch-22"
(after the eponymous novel and film). The catch is reminiscent of the story
of the paranoid fellow, who kept complaining to his doctor that people
were after him, and the doctor kept reassuring him that it was only in
his mind. But in fact, people WERE after him! So also with Persians and
their paranoia about the British and those other "running dogs of
imperialism," the Americans.
Yes, Persians constantly talk about the British and their meddling in
the affairs of their poor country, (present writer prominently included!),
but the sad part of it is that the "paranoia" is true. The British
did meddle badly in Persian affairs. They overthrew governments, toppled
dynasties, had prime ministers and other high officials assassinated, replaced,
exiled, set up, etc.
The British did all of those things and relished them. Sir Percy Cox,
or Lord Curzon for that matter, and their merry chaps at the Foreign Office,
surely had a good laugh over brandy at the splendid little scenes they
created for the "Shaw" of Persia, waiting to see how he would
extricate himself from this one...
Sadly enough, there is documented evidence of how much they meddled
in our affairs, and how much misery they caused as a result, and yet there
are those who would still write about "conspiracy theories" in
the Persian psyche as if this were a disease similar to seeing ghosts everywhere,
that peculiarly afflicted poor Persians while having no basis in reality.
A case in point is an article by Ahmad Ashraf published under the auspices
of Encyclopaedia Iranica, entitled "Conspiracy
Theories and the Persian Mind"
that I came across not long ago while researching themes related to
the Qajar period.
Though he starts his article by giving example after example of the
very meddling I mentioned earlier, he still manages to "pooh pooh"
the fact that Persians do in indeed feel hurt as a result of all the weight
of that evidence and tend to at least went their frustrations by talking
about that reality.
Now, is everything the fault of the British? No, of course not. In that
Persians are no less prone to blaming the British than the Americans were,
when Jefferson penned that long list of grievances against poor King George
III, which included just about anything for which George was supposed to
have been responsible, foul weather almost included!
But, on the other hand, did the British not do many of the things they
were held responsible for having done, in the colonies and in Persia? Of
course they did. Ahmad Ashraf agrees; they themselves agree; every scholar
in the field can point to specific instances, and thus most everyone agrees.
So why is it still called "conspiracy theory" if one points to
the reality of that involvement?
Well, because some of the talk involves the British in the most immediate
events that still loom large in the minds of Iranians, the events of 1979,
of course, and for that there is scant hard evidence to back up one's suspicions
-- and, of course, the British won't tell, at least not for another forty
years or so.
So where does all of that leave us? Well it leaves us with this: Iranians
are fond of conspiracy theories, because it allows them to see meaning
in the bewildering array of circumstances they tend to find themselves
in, politically speaking. There is truth behind those "theories"
as evidenced by just about anyone.
Belittling and explaining away the substance of those "theories"
as a sort of baseless mania, aside from being factually wrong, is tainted
with ulterior motives. For if the assertion that this is all a fantasy
in the Persian psyche becomes the accepted truth, then indeed the British
had nothing to do with us, and it was all in our minds and twisted imagination.
I can see Curzon having a good hearty disdainful last laugh at us, right
this moment, for having been duped yet again, and as a result I wish him
even more ill than I did before!
Rather than buy into Ahmad Ashraf's dismissal of the factual basis for
our complaints, I much prefer Iradj Pezeshkzad's satire "Daa'i jan
Napoleon" (My Uncle Napoleon), which made us all laugh so heartily
at our own impotent musings against the British, while deep down, taking
our condition quite seriously. For, as a diplomat and scholar, Pezeshkzad
has been quite aware of the truth of the assertion that the British did
mess royally with us and our poor country. As a Qajar, I too am painfully
aware of that fact as well.
Thus, let no one belittle it, though, by Zeus, let them laugh heartily
with Pezeshkzad at his brilliant little tragicomic character, the unforgettable
Daa'i jan Napoleon! And, remember, a curse on the British and particularly
on Curzon for all the misery they caused us!
- Send a comment for The Iranian letters
- Send a comment to the writer Manoutchehr