Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

October 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh ‘aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).


Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.

 

 


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