Monday, December 05, 2005

* The Persian Paradox and the West

First Draft November 10, 2005

The Persian Paradox and the West

Ali-Asghar Kazemi*
November 2005

« Ah! Ah! Monsieur est Persan? C’est une chose bien extraordinaire! Comment peut-on être Persan? »
Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes (1721)

When French famous thinker Charles Baron de Montesquieu published in1721 his renowned satirical work Lettres Persanes, where he superbly exposed his philosophical thoughts, Persia and Persian people were little known to the West, including France as a European nations. In his book, Montesquieu spoke about the “prestige of celebrity” and “inconveniences of incognito.”

The story is about two traditional Persians who left Persia for political reasons and went to Paris-France for visit. In a series of letters, one of them recounts his observations of the French society and people for his compatriots. The first day in Paris, dressed with traditional Old Persian costumes, he attracted so much attention of curious Parisians that he decided to change his conventional outfit to Western attire. Thence, nobody paid attention to his presence anywhere and this disturbed him even more. However, when he revealed his identity, peoples were bewildered and curiously asked question: Ah! Ah! Mister is Persian? This is an extraordinary thing! How one can be Persian?

Persians are indeed amazing people with peculiar character; perhaps not to the extent similar to what James Morier mentions in his Hajji Baba of Isphahan.[1] But, as Graham Fuller described in The Center of the Universe,[2] Iranians are alike to their impressive carpets with immense intricacy in designs and colors. They are difficult to approach and comprehend. They don’t expose their thoughts easily and they are master of concealing their intentions.[3] Kenneth Pollack[4] goes even further in his depiction of Iranian national character. In a book named The Persian Puzzle, he indulges in criticizing Iranian emotionalism, xenophobia, exaggerated "self-importance", "considerable ignorance” about [their political environment].

While as a Persian, I don’t quite concur with such a contemptuous portrayal, but in the back of my mind something intrigues me and tickles my head. What is wrong with our attitude or behavior that justifies such unfair judgments?

Of course, it is rather difficult for a native Iranian to pass judgment on the overall character of his own nation, with so disperse variety of traditions, values, customs, mores, and ethnic background. But it is not hard to understand why others have such a weird impression about us and how they perceive Persian attitude in their interactions and dealings with us. Now, a query is appropriate here: that is whether Iranians have always possessed such a complex attitude? The answer is not simple, but it is believed that the feeling of insecurity and fear of oppressive regimes in various stages of Iran’s past and present history, made them to a great extent circumspect and conservative.

In fact, the vicissitudes of the Persian history and the sense of uncertainty and insecurity has always shadowed and influenced Persian life and culture. Persian literature and precious poetry are the product of such condition in this land of legend. Hafez, the famed Persian lyric poet of 14th century is the illustration of this feeling par excellence. Describing the double standard behavior of the pretentious preacher, he has said in his fabulous book of poetry:

Pious men who in public and on the dais show virtuous attitude,
Do much vicious deeds when they retreat to their solitude. [5]

Hafez is the fervent critic of hypocrisy in a period when Persia was under subjugation of pious, oppressive, fanatical and intolerant rulers. He had to compose his inspiring lyrics in ambiguous and versatile manner so that people would find in them the expression of their own misery and gloom. Seven centuries after Hafez, people of all walks still read, enjoy and console themselves with his marvelous mystical poems.

This short piece of writing was not intended to be a literary essay; but, when one engages to portray the Persian traits, the pen is cogently dragged into this kind of reflections. As national character is the product of a number of determinants, a one sided review of such phenomenon could be misleading. Today, the typical “Persian” is caught in a crisis of identity. The juxtaposition of Islamic culture to that of national customs has trapped Iranians in a confusing quandary. While he has lost contact with the past, he seems unable to assimilate the present and has no hope in the future.

The problem of identity crisis in Iran is one of the burdens that any political system should be prepared to face with, now and in the future. The dilemma seems to arise from the official religious teachings, dogma and rituals within the Shiite doctrine backed by the state, and the purely national mores and traditions, severely affected by universal values of modern society. In political realm, the dichotomy is still more flagrant and the appeal for a secular approach to the government and the daily affairs of people is gaining momentum. Thus, there seems to emerge some sort of confrontation between the strict rules emanating from the almighty God and the more tolerant code of human interaction, stemming from the free will of man on earth.

The present “Persian” feels betrayed by politics and everything that goes with or emanates from it. He is also deceived by polemics and no longer pays attention to rhetoric and abhors words and deeds devoid of ethics and sincerity. Justice and compassion seem to have lost their true meanings, and are farfetched wishes. Right and might have become indispensable corollary to each other. Law and order is merely the instrument of selfish and greedy social and political relations.

Indeed, such a confusing condition hardly motivates people for constructive ideas and may not lead to action and sense of progress. Every once and while some new figures appear in the political horizon, pretending to lead the nation for combating against injustice, corruption, insecurity, poverty and other social glitches. The recent presidential elections in Iran are an example of such occurrence. While in his campaign the new president gave so many nice promises, once in office, he brought with him a team of “Revolutionary Guards” (Passdars), and appointed all colleagues, friends and relatives to important positions. The new ruling junta is supposed to tackle with many vital issues on the agenda of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, including the nuclear crisis. Unfortunately, this latter case is on the verge of being referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions, due to horrific blunders of the elected president.

Almost three centuries after Montesquieu, a Persian, dressing in the garments of a political leader of the “new Persia” (Iran) bewildered the world, by his odd statements, once at the United Nations General Assembly and on other occasions, by his eccentric edict about the annihilation of a state member of the UN. This time the “Persian” himself happens to be the “President” of a nation with 2500 years of history behind[6]. The event attracted a great deal of attention around the world and brought much snagging celebrity overnight for the naïve Persian. He and his entourage are much puzzled as to what went wrong with him and his performance during the short period of his tenure as president. Yet, the 21st century Persian does not seem to be willing to change the outfits. He is trapped between celebrity and incognito; between polemics and politics. He is accusing the West and other malevolent conspirators for his failure and is impatiently waiting for the hidden Shiite Imam to save the nation from the plot of foes and infidels.

Now the whole world, astonished by such an odd political figure, would probably ask: Gentleman is President? This is an extraordinary event! How one can be a [Persian] President?

Notes * * *
* Professor of international relations and political analyst.
[1] Hajji Baba of Ispahan, hero of The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan by James Justinian Morier (3 vols. London, 1824), the most popular Oriental novel in the English language and a highly influential stereotype of the so-called "Persian national character" in modern times. Morier (1782-1849), a former diplomat who had resided in Persia for nearly six years (1808-1809 and 1810-1814) at a critical juncture during diplomatic entanglements with European powers, fashioned his novel on his personal observations and direct knowledge about Persia, but with a decidedly hostile and satirical overtone. An Orientalist project par excellence, Hajji Baba lampoons Persians as rascals, cowards, puerile villains, and downright fools, depicting their culture as scandalously dishonest and decadent, and their society as violent. Morier depicted the East, not simply through the arrogant eyes of a European traveler, like his own accounts of his visits to Persia (published in 1812 and 1818), but in the form of a biography of a "native," a composite Persian character whose imagined identity was wrapped in deliberate ambiguities. See:
[2] Former CIA analyst and author, See: Graham Fuller, Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Westview Press, 1991)
[3] This is my own recollection from the book.
[4] Kenneth M. Pollack, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, now at the Brookings Institution. According to some observers, he tends to make a mockery of objective analysis bereft of such abstract generalization smacking of what the late Edward Said labeled "Orientalism". Cf. review by :

[5] This is my own translation
[6] Interestingly, according to the Islamic regime constitution, one important prerequisite of candidates for presidential elections is supposed to be “rajol-e-siasi” (political statesman). Mr. Ahmadinejad was neither a statesman nor even a common sense ordinary man. He was “passdar” or member of the Revolutionary Guard, akin to many devout Iranians who participated in the Iraq-Iran war without much military training, at the beginning of the revolution. Though he was appointed Tehran Mayor for a short period of time with no particular achievement, he proved not to have the capacity and competence to understand the subtleties of statesmanship or rudimentary norms of diplomacy. He has no political tact, experience or insight.
He has done more harm to the country in his short tenure than any other office-holder in the past. In less than four months in office, the country is on the brink of conflict, diffidence, decadence, and insolvency.