Whenever I tell people that I’m studying Persian, the response is often some variation on the same question: Does studying Iran’s language and culture give you a different perspective on what’s happening there now?
“What’s happening there now” is usually left vague, but I can assume it’s shorthand for everything that makes the Islamic Republic top the list of America’s worst nightmares: Islamic fundamentalism, support for terrorists, anti-Zionism and nuclear ambitions. Implicit in the question is a second one: Are things really as bad as they seem?
Before I attempt any answer to that second question, I can reply to the first with an unequivocal yes: Studying Iran as a historical and cultural entity, rather than as a political vigilante, does make me see things a little differently.
It means I can pay attention to linguistic subtlety. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad made a speech in which he proclaimed that the “occupying regime” in Israel “must vanish from the page of time.” Confounded by this threat, translators opted for “Israel must be wiped off the map” — bombastic enough to fit the popular image of Ahmedinejad in the West, if not entirely accurate.
The mistranslation is interesting on its own, but few noted that the Iranian government enthusiastically embraced the false rendering. Log onto the Iranian presidential website, and there it is: a call for the “Zionist regime” to “be wiped off the map.” It’s a near-perfect illustration of how American and Iranian paranoia feed on each other.
Studying Persian means I do not confuse Persians for Arabs or the Islamic Republic for the Taliban. The Taliban massacred thousands of Shiites and forbade women to work or study; Iran’s constitution protects minorities, and Iranian women have held office as high as the vice presidency. This is not to obscure the innumerable abuses that occur against women and minorities in Iran. It is merely to suggest that the country is a place of contradiction and complexity, not rigid fundamentalism.
It means I can understand why the Iranian public overwhelmingly supports the acquisition of nuclear capabilities, even while I dread the thought. But it also means that I can appreciate the irony of our alliance with nuke-stockpiling, Al-Qaida-sheltering Pakistan and our enmity with Iran.
It means I take notice when, in the midst of great diplomatic tension, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” wins the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. This drama about a divorce between middle-class Tehranis is only the latest film of the Iranian New Wave, a remarkable genre that has emerged since the Islamic Revolution and met with critical acclaim almost unprecedented for the output of a single nation, let alone one so diplomatically isolated.
These films share an intimate focus on characters adrift in urban jungles or unforgiving wildernesses. Their politics are interpersonal, sexual, moral, but never national or international. This is likely due to strict censorship on artistic production, but it also makes the films appear like oases of humanity in the otherwise bleak face of the Islamic Republic. The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott exuberantly proclaimed, “If 10 years hence there are American tourists on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan and peace reigns in the region, perhaps we will all look back at films such as Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ and think: That helped.”
Kennicott may be overstating the import of a film that only a handful of Americans will ever see. Moreover, looking at the personal struggles of Iranian families in no way diminishes the deadly seriousness of Iran’s challenge to regional stability. For decades, Israelis and Palestinians have produced films and novels calling for peace and understanding — if these have had a significant impact on the conflict, I have missed it.
But Iran sees itself as an embattled nation that interacts with an aggressive world through valorous resistance and cultural production. Alexander the Great swept aside the Persian armies but then adopted Persian customs. For centuries, Turkish emperors and Arab sultans across the Middle East addressed each other in ornate Persian prose. Rumi and Omar Khayyam have entranced Victorian Orientalists and New-Agers alike. Iran does not see a contradiction between its bellicose announcements and its critically acclaimed works. Rather, these constitute a two-pronged assault on what many Iranians, no matter how progressive, perceive as Western imperial power — be it aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf or Hollywood movies on the Tehrani black market.
So that second question — are things as bad as they seem? — may have less to do with the specifics of uranium enrichment than with competing visions of the future. One stresses unification and global openness — the other, national pride, cultural distinctiveness and a reflexive fear of extinction. This conflict exists within America and Iran as well as between them. When citizens and media outlets rephrase this struggle as a fundamental clash of civilizations, then things may be as bad — worse, even — than they seem.
Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.