Thursday, March 15, 2007


In the middle of our heated anxiety over a US war in Iran and the mini-nuking of our country, I received an impassioned email-petition addressed to the film company Warner Brothers protesting the movie 300. Dr. Vahdati Nasab addressed a very important issue in his petition and asked Warner Brothers to research the topic discussed in the movie and apologize for distortion of historical fact by either the script writer or the scenarist or whoever was in charge of the distortion. The petition calls our attention to Iranian history in 450 BC and the reign of the King Cyrus the Great who was even acknowledged in the Old Testament, and even, according to the Iranian epic Shahnameh, is honored by occultation (which he did not mention).

While I do agree with Dr. Nasab, and while it pains me to see any part of our culture getting distorted for whatever reasons, political or else, still, deep inside, I am neither surprised nor willing to cast the first stone. We Iranians are to a great extend responsible for many of these misrepresentations.

A few months ago, the Pope’s speech in his home town Bavaria [.pdf] provoked the Moslem community over an alleged insult to Islam (depicting Islam as war mongering and blood thirsty).

When the clerics in Iran protested the Pope, I had the same feeling as now. Yes the Pope could have avoided his very insensitive remark if he wanted to. Yes, the screen writer could have been more careful in depicting Iranians in the battlefield if he had any sensitivity. Yes, Warner Brothers could have been more careful when producing the movie if they had any interest in giving either accurate information to those who would see the movies or if they had cared about the role they play in documenting history, even if the main purpose of their production was entertainment. And yes, as an Iranian I feel very upset when any aspect of my culture or history is tainted. But in the other hand, are we sure that Warner Brothers has any interest in our national pride or the accuracy of our history? I’m not so sure; I’m not so sure about the Pope’s good will either. I do not even know why we should expect otherwise. These people or institutions have their own agenda and they pursue it. Why should anybody care about our interests? I am not even sure if they know what our interests are. To be even more just, even we are not united in that front either. Our interests and what we take pride in are as varied as our populations and are sometimes even in conflict with each other. Moreover, time and again our countrymen have made declarations to prove their points disregarding the consequences.

I recall just shortly before the Islamic Revolution that there was a conference in Columbia University. One of the speakers was Dr. Reza Baraheni, just released from prison, where he had spent a few months (or, as he put it, “102 days”). In his talk, he recounted a legendary anecdote regarding the King Cyrus’s father who, interpreting his dream that a vine tree which had sprouted in her daughter’s lap had taken over the entire world, orders his minister to kill the baby who was born of his daughter. The minister disobeys and leaves the baby with a shepherd to be nourished. When the king became aware of his minister’s disobedience, he kills the minister’s newborn baby and feeds him with its flesh in a feast that night. He adds to this anecdote that in jail sometimes the meat in the food was bleached white and tasted very different and they were all wondering what had become of the political prisoners who were disappearing. He apparently thought that his ingenious suggestion of Iranian cannibalism rooted in the history would not only overthrow the Shah, but win him a Noble prize to boot. I do recall that after the meeting, when a few of us rushed to the stage to protest this, the organizer, one of the Trotskyists, Nasrin, defended him and said he, being a poet, is entitled to his poetic license and that the goal of the conference was not stating historical facts, but a political statement.

Unfortunately in expressing our disagreement with our governments, the Shah’s as well as the Islamic Republic, we Iranians generally have been so vindictive that we ended up damaging those we claimed we love. It was not only Dr. Baraheni who indulged in this sort of exaggeration and manipulation of fact and fiction to pursue his aim; we all have our own share of misconstruing and misrepresenting history.

Many Iranians opposed to the Islamic regime have raised outrageous claims like Dr. Baraheni’s with the same kind of intention. They are quite unaware that while they are trying to discredit the government, or even trying to prove a very legitimate criticism, they depict the Iranian people and culture, which they supposedly love and care about, as vicious and barbaric.

A few months ago, a feminist activist friend, reading the celebrated book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was bewildered how “unfavorable the author was towards Iranian women and how ignorant and dismissive she was to the feminist movements back home.” She was right that, the author was so busy portraying Khomeini as villain that she became dismissive of or even disdainful towards the Iranian woman and their incredible progress in every aspect of life.

The opposition’s claim of the growth of prostitution in Iran and the decrease in the age of the prostitutes, which they put at twelve; their allegation of the rise in the rate of “selling the young girls to the Arab countries,” which they now put at thousands and thousands, are just examples which are aimed to highlight the poverty and failure of the Islamic Republic’s economic plan. However these statistics portray Iranians as not much better than their portrayal in 300.

The Islamic Republic has its own share of distorting the facts, truth, and history, which ironically discredits itself, just to maintain its interests and position. I recall how when eleven Jews in Shiraz were arrested and tried and convicted for conspiracy and espionage, amazingly enough, not even a single middle rank, or even lower rank Muslim Iranian official connected to this operation was arrested. I tried to figure out what sort of information these alleged spies could have gathered to deliver to Israel, which did not involve any non-Jewish officials of its protection. Where was that information? Who was supposed to make sure that no one, such as a cobbler, would not have easy access to it? Do we arrive at any conclusion but how incompetent the Islamic Republic’s intelligence services are? How vulnerable the whole system must be is if a cobbler could circumvent all the security services and obtain the secret information! I’m sure the Islamic Republic won’t admit anything of this nature even if it were a matter of life or death.

In the last twenty-eight years, we have heard again and again that how a wide range of Iranian, even clerics, were accused of being “paid by foreigners” and “agents of the enemy of Islam.” Even if a fraction of these claims were correct then, I think, the Islamic Republic, by its own admission, should question not only its legitimacy and its popularity, but its competence.

Those of us old enough to remember life in pre-revolution Iran also recall that we would call anyone who dared to disagree with us a “SAVAK agent.” We all were comfortable in claiming that one third of the Iranian people work for SAVAK. The joke was that even there are three SAVAK agents in any group of two Iranians!

None of us thought then or now that all these ratios and numbers and figures have another side as well. Not all signify the brutality or insensitivity or incompetence of our government, but it also reflects on us, our culture and our country. After all, what sort of person, and for what reason, would spy on his own family and friends and jeopardize their life and welfare? What sort of culture breads the generation of fathers who sell their daughters? Are we reduced to that level within the short period of time of almost a quarter of a century that money dictates our behavior? Are we not declaring something derogatory along with these exaggerations? And why are there no protests when we dishonor our heritage in such a way?

My pain is not just limited to these petty naggings. I have much bigger pain. We have turned our back to our culture in every respect. We do not encourage it, we do not spread it, we do not nurture it. Our rich culture is sitting untouched in the shelves of libraries. The books about our history remain unread and the facts about it remain unexamined and not discussed. If we want to do something about it, we have to do it systematically. If the average audience knew a little about Iranian history, undoubtedly the Warner Brothers would not have dared to produce such film. Why don’t we promote our culture and educate our young generation about it? Why don’t we get the schools and local libraries to have shelves on Iranian culture? Why not donate money to these educational institutions to be used as scholarships for whoever does any scholarly work about Iran? Why don’t we support our young artists who are representing our culture? If every year we can recruit only five hundred PhD students to write their dissertations on Iranian art and culture, after which they will naturally will devote their rest of their lives to promoting it, then we would not need to write these petitions, we would not need to argue with ignoramuses or to stop them; the educated audience will do it for us. Let’s be democratic, let’s delegate responsibility, let’s do our work; let the audience do its work; let Warner Brothers do its; let the Pope does his job; and let our culture do its: let it thrive. Why should we all wait until too late?

"Look, Xerxes, I'm just not that into you!"


khargushoghli said...

And then there's the ineffable Ahmad Shamlu who called the immortal Shahnameh the Kharname and Imam Ali "Ali qadarehband".
With patriots like these, who needs traitors?

Bahlul said...

"That movie 300?" she said. "Turns out how they got that title was they measured how gay it was. (Pause.) On a scale of one to 10."

Sara Silverman