Inside Iran: Two insightful articles from NYT
New York Times, May 25, 2006
Op-Ed: The Persian Complex
By ABBAS AMANAT
IT is easy to label Iran's quest for nuclear energy a dangerous adventure with grave regional and international repercussions. It is also comforting to heap scorn on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his earlier denial of the Holocaust and his odious call for the obliteration of the state of Israel. The rambling intransigence expressed in his recent letter to President Bush offers ample insight into this twisted mindset. Yet there is something deeper in Iran's story than the extremist utterances of a messianic president and the calculated maneuvering of the hard-line clerical leadership that stands behind him.
We tend to forget that Iran's insistence on its sovereign right to develop nuclear power is in effect a national pursuit for empowerment, a pursuit informed by at least two centuries of military aggression, domestic meddling, skullduggery and, not least, technological denial by the West. Every schoolchild in Iran knows about the C.I.A.-sponsored 1953 coup that toppled Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Even an Iranian with little interest in his or her past is conscious of how Iran throughout the 19th and 20th centuries served as a playground for the Great Game.
Iranians also know that, hard as it may be for latter-day Americans and Europeans to believe, from the 1870's to the 1920's Russia and Britain deprived Iran of even basic technology like the railroad, which was then a key to economic development. At various times, both powers jealously opposed a trans-Iranian railroad because they thought it would threaten their ever-expanding imperial frontiers. When it was finally built, the British, Russian (and American) occupying forces during the Second World War made full use of it (free of charge), calling Iran a "bridge of victory" over Nazi Germany. They did so, of course, after Winston Churchill forced the man who built the railroad, Reza Shah Pahlavi, to abdicate and unceremoniously kicked him out of the country.
Not long after, a similar Western denial of Iran's economic sovereignty resulted in a dramatic showdown that had fatal consequences for the country's fragile democracy and left lasting scars on its national consciousness. The oil nationalization movement of 1951 to 1953 under Mossadegh was opposed by Britain, and eventually by its partner in profit, the United States, with the same self-righteousness that today colors their views of the Iranian yearning for nuclear energy.
Mossadegh was tried and sent into internal exile and Mohammed Reza Shah was reinstalled largely to safeguard American geopolitical interests and with little regard for the wishes of the Iranian people. A quarter-century later, Americans were "taken by surprise" when an Islamic revolution toppled the shah and transformed a country that seemed so friendly to the United States. But if Americans suffered from historical amnesia, for many Iranians, among them Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the thread of memory led clearly from the Great Game to the Great Satan.
For a country like the United States that is built on paradigms of progress and pragmatism, grasping the mythical and psychological dimensions of defeat and deprivation at the hands of foreigners is difficult. Yet the Iranian collective memory is infused with such themes. Since the early 18th century, Iran has been involved in four devastating civil wars. America's own highly traumatic Civil War was, notwithstanding Britain's sympathy for the South, a largely domestic affair. In the civil wars that Iran endured, however, the Turks, Afghans, Russians and British played major parts. And before the arrival of Western powers, Iranians held bitter memories of the Ottomans, the Mongols and the Arabs.
These intrusions punctuated the Iranians' modern historical narrative with conspiratorial fears and have helped to nurture a cult of the fallen hero, from the 1910's guerrilla leader Mirza Kuchak Khan to Amir Kabir, a 19th-century reformist prime minister, and later Mossadegh. Such painful collective memories have made Iran's pursuit of nuclear energy a national symbol of defiance that has transcended the motives of the current Islamic regime.
If the United States resorts to sanctions, or worse, to some military response, the outcome would be not only disastrous but, in the long run, transient. Just as the West did with Iran's railroad and oil industry, it can for a time deny Iran nuclear technology, but it cannot wipe out Iranians' haunting memories. And no doubt the Islamic regime will amply exploit these collective memories to advance its nuclear program even as it stifles voices of domestic dissent. Even more than before, Iranians will blame outside powers for their misfortunes and choose not to focus on their own troubled road to modernity.
If that course continues, Iran will most likely succeed, for ill or for good, in finding its own nuclear holy grail. Legend has it that the Persian king Hushang, an equivalent of Prometheus, introduced fire to the Iranians. But unlike his Greek mythological counterpart, who stole it from gods, he accidentally discovered it while fighting with a dragon.
Abbas Amanat is a professor of history at Yale and author of the forthcoming "In Search of Modern Iran."
New York Times, April 30, 2006
Essay: The Epic of Iran
By REZA ASLAN
FOUR hundred miles from the bustling metropolis of Tehran lie the magnificent ruins of Persepolis. Built some 2,500 years ago, Persepolis was the royal seat of an Iranian empire that, at its height, stretched from the Indus Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. Though the imperial city was sacked two centuries later by Alexander "the Accursed" (as Iranian chroniclers referred to him), the towering columns and winged beasts that still stand guard over the lost throne of Iran serve as a reminder of what was once among the most advanced civilizations on earth.
I first visited Persepolis two years ago. Born in Iran but raised in the United States, I knew the place only from dusty academic books about the glories of pre-Islamic Iran. I was totally unprepared for the crowds I saw there. Busloads of schoolchildren from nearby Shiraz filed through the complex of temples and palaces. A tour guide walked an older group up a stone stairway etched with row upon row of subject nations humbly presenting themselves before the king, or shah, of Iran. Families laid out sheets and napped in the shade cast by the intricately carved walls.
Breaking away from the crowd, I noticed a boy scrawling graffiti on the side of a massive stone block. Horrified, I shooed him away. When I moved closer to see what he had written, I immediately recognized a verse, familiar to many Iranians, taken from the pages of Iran's national epic, the "Shahnameh."
Damn this world, damn this time, damn this fate,
That uncivilized Arabs have come to make me Muslim.
Written more than a thousand years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the "Shahnameh," or "Book of Kings," recounts the mythological history of Iran from the first fitful moments of creation to the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century A.D. Ferdowsi was a member of Iran's aristocratic class, which maintained a strong attachment to the heritage of pre-Islamic Iran. According to legend, he composed the "Shahnameh" under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, who promised him one dinar for every couplet. But when Ferdowsi presented the sultan with nearly 60,000 couplets, a flustered Mahmud offered him a fraction of his promised reward. Insulted, Ferdowsi rejected the money and returned home to the city of Tus, where he died impoverished and embittered. But his poem endured.
Numerous partial translations of the "Shahnameh" exist in English, but the only complete version went out of print more than 80 years ago. Now, Viking Press has published most of the poem in an accessible volume translated by the Iran scholar Dick Davis. A poet himself, Davis brings to his translation a nuanced awareness of Ferdowsi's subtle rhythms and cadences. His "Shahnameh" is rendered in an exquisite blend of poetry and prose, with none of the antiquated flourishes that so often mar translations of epic poetry.
The "Shahnameh" has much in common with the blood-soaked epics of Homer and with "Paradise Lost" and "The Divine Comedy." But in truth, it's difficult to find a literary equivalent, especially one that has had as profound an impact in shaping, and preserving, one nation's identity. Most Iranians have either read the "Shahnameh" or have heard it read. Its verses are sprinkled into everyday conversation. Children are named after its heroes and political enemies likened to its villains. For many Iranians, the "Shahnameh" links past and present, forming a cohesive mytho-historical narrative through which they understand their place in the world. The poem is, in a sense, Iran's national scripture, and Ferdowsi Iran's national prophet.
Ferdowsi wrote only in Persian, and his history of creation ignores traditional Islamic cosmology in favor of the "pagan" creation myths of his ancient Iranian ancestors. But this should not be seen as reflecting any hostility toward Islam. As Davis notes in his introduction, Ferdowsi was a pious Muslim; his epic speaks reverently of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali. Nevertheless, the "Shahnameh" displays an unmistakable antagonism toward the Arabs and the culture, if not the religion, they imposed on Iran. The book's first villain is an Arab — the Demon-King Zahhak, whose shoulders, kissed by Satan, sprout two voracious serpents that feast daily on the brains of young Iranian men. Zahhak is ultimately defeated by a noble Iranian peasant warrior named Feraydun, who imprisons him in Mount Damavand, where he will suffer eternally for daring to usurp the throne of Iran.
The message is hardly subtle. In fact, Ferdowsi's animosity toward the Arabs carries the poem to its tragic end, when the warrior Rostam stands before the invading Arab armies and laments,
When the pulpit's equal to the throne
And Abu Bakr's and Omar's names are known
Our long travails will be as naught, and all
The glory we have known will fade and fall.
The stars are with the Arabs, and you'll see
No crown or throne, no royal sovereignty.
Still, the marvel of Ferdowsi's poem is how it tries to strike a balance between the two dominant threads of Iranian cultural identity, Persian and Islamic. And yet throughout Iran's history, the "Shahnameh" has often been used as a weapon in the continuing struggle between the turban and the crown.
For example, the Pahlavi shahs, who came to power in 1925, promoted study of the poem as a means of de-emphasizing the country's Islamic heritage and thus stripping the clerics of their ideological authority. They built a magnificent mausoleum for Ferdowsi in Tus to serve as an alternative pilgrimage site to the tombs of the imams. They commissioned an official edition of the "Shahnameh" and compelled schoolchildren to memorize passages that emphasized the glories of kingly rule. In 1971, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi journeyed to Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of kingship with an opulent party for hundreds of international luminaries featuring plates of roast peacock stuffed with foie gras and 5,000 bottles of Champagne. Standing on that hallowed ground, surrounded by soldiers dressed as ancient warriors, the last shah brazenly linked his rule to that of the semi-divine kings of the "Shahnameh."
It was an extravagant gesture that alienated Iranians and hastened the shah's downfall. Eight years later, during Iran's revolution, he was forced into exile. Almost immediately, the clerical regime began a vigorous campaign to cleanse the new Islamic Republic of all references not just to the Pahlavis but more generally to the country's pre-Islamic past. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini considered the "Shahnameh" an offensive, even sacrilegious, text that explicitly endorsed monarchy. He discouraged public readings of it, declaring all nonreligious poetry as makruh, or "detestable." In 1979, Khomeini's right-hand man, the Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, tried to bulldoze both Ferdowsi's tomb and Persepolis, before the provisional government stopped him.
Today, as a new generation of Iranians struggles to define itself in opposition to a widely reviled religious regime, the "Shahnameh" is re-emerging as the supreme expression of a cultural identity transcending all notions of politics or piety. Radio Tehran, "the voice of the Islamic Republic," begins every morning's broadcast with a reading from the poem. The country's most popular tourist attraction is not Khomeini's tomb or the tombs of the imams, but the ruins of Persepolis, where the government is currently rebuilding the gardens and pavilion built for the shah's infamous Persepolis spectacular.
When I visited, young Iranians were milling about the grounds in a trance, touching everything, as though a touch could transport them to another Iran. I stood with them in front of the palace walls, trying to imagine Persepolis as Ferdowsi must have seen it, recalling the eulogy he wrote a thousand years ago for a civilization he watched pass away in his mind's eye.
Where are your valiant warriors and your priests,
Where are your hunting parties and your feasts?
Where is that warlike mien, and where are those
Great armies that destroyed our country's foes? . . .
Count Persia as a ruin, as the lair
Of lions and leopards. Look now and despair.
Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American scholar of religions and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam."