Thursday, December 29, 2011

Post #138 - Continuities and Contradictions

(More on John Limbert's book on Negotiating with Iran.)

Iran's history has not only been a series of defeats and losses. Iranians have, out of necessity, developed coping mechanisms to deal with adversity. Limbert: "This adaptability and openness to the ways of outsiders has been a key to Iran's survival as a distinct nation for more than twenty-five centuries. Foreign conquerors and foreign ideologies could change but not destroy the Iranian identity....From the Arabs, Iranians took religion, script, and much vocabulary, and in return gave the new Islamic world their great creativity in politics and in the arts and sciences...In more recent times, Iranians have taken enthusiastically to two other foreign imports -- the art cinema and the Internet."

I often say that Arabic found with Persian is a bit similar to the presence of the Romance languages in modern English. We can talk about a man taking a cow to market using only Germanic/Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, but it is nearly impossible to talk about art, culture, science and civilization (all words that came from Norman French) in such terms. So it is with Persian -- the nomenclature of religion, philosophy and the like is dominated by Arabic-derived terms, but conversations about daily life can be done with nothing but pure Persian. In modern times, we see French words or fragments (such as "mini-jube" for miniskirt), Russian terms (such as "samovar") and English terms (such as "blog"), but the things described are brought into a determinedly Iranian context.

The modest house where Khomeini lived in Tehran.
"Religion," Limbert writes, "has always been at the heart of Iranian society and politics." Yet, he points out, "if Iran is a land of faith, it is also a land of heresy and heterodoxy, where the people, unsatisfied by the straight-forward answers of the orthodox, have often rejected conventional wisdom in a search for a more subtle, complicated, and ambiguous divine truth." Mazdakism (5th C.), Shi'e Islam (now the dominant faith in Iran), and Baha'ism (begun in the mid-19th C. and now anathema for the Islamic Republic's ruling class) all represent departures from the contemporary dominant belief structures. Additionally, Limbert says, "A deep religiosity permeates the Iranian national spirit, but there is also a parallel strain of anticlericalism...Khomeini himself drew his public admiration as much from his modest lifestyle and his personal and political from his religious credentials."

The acoustics of Khajoo Bridge - perfect for a love-song
"...there is continuing tension between...religion -- which frowns on music, images, and mysticism -- and...Iranian cultural tradition that elevates all three." Indeed, even today one sees the famous Persian miniature still being produced and all sorts of music being played -- from traditional songs of romantic love to modern Western hip-hop or rock (on knock-off CD's hawked on the sidewalk of Tehran). Poetry, the most quintessentially Iranian art-form, is still hugely popular, even though most of the themes do not derive from the theologically-correct ideas of the regime.

(more on Limbert's book in my next post)

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