In Praise of Persia

Arabia, Bedouin, Caliphate, civilisation, desert, Empire, history, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Muslim, Persia, philosophy, Political Culture, Religion, thoughts, Travel, Tribes

I watched a riveting BBC4 documentary last night called ‘The Art of Persia’. Contained within that visual treasure trove were cultural jewels of incalculable worth. The West might look on with a mixture of bemusement and disdain at the black chadors, the mass weepings, the ceremonial burnings of Imperialist flags of red, white and blue, and the tales of woe spun by Persia’s disgruntled diaspora everywhere from Tehr-Angeles to London, but that’s not the half of it. The country known since 1935 as Iran is arguably as great a continuous civilisation as there has even been, anywhere. But what makes Iran so interesting is how its personality traits reveal a duality deep in its cultural psyche.

To the Persians, who live either in wealthy North Tehran or else abroad, the name Iran is anathema to them because of its proximity to all that is humiliating to a once insuperable civilisation. To them Iran equals the puppet Shah. Iran equals fanaticism. Iran equals paranoid pride. Iran equals vice and virtue and blasphemy and stoning and vicious assaults on the freedom to think out loud. Iran equals secret shindigs with homemade grog. Iran equals ousted premiers. Iran equals the Ayatollahs. Iran equals political prisoners. Iran equals implacable hostility to nearly everyone except fellow villains, Russia and Syria. The name Persia, on the other hand, conjures nothing but antiquarian admirers. The Iran we know today, in stark contrast, has nothing but perceived enemies. On top of this litany of woes, for Persians the name Iran strikes fear into the heart because it equals Islam in its most austere form of submission and at its most fervent. To those Persians who see themselves as secular patriots – defenders of 4,000 years of unique culture, rather than defenders of a faith imported from impoverished desert lands – Iran in its present state will eventually be consumed by the larger meaning of Persia. For everyone, including Orientalists like me, Persia denotes the literary romance of Sheherezade in the 1001 Persian Nights and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; of intoxicating poetry recited in a garden of red roses, crocuses and pomegranate trees; of revelling in the NOW instead of waiting on God, as is the wont of modern Islam. Persia is the Sufi mysticism of Rumi as opposed to the stripped-down demystification of latter-day political Shi’ism.

To the Iranians, who live everywhere else in Iran’s hinterland, Persia is something to be taken, if not lightly, then with a degree of scepticism. Persia equals complicity with the predatory West. Persia equals lingering resentment of being conquered by an inferior culture who brought a book – the Qur’an – which changed everything. Persia equals ambivalence, at best, toward the idea of Islamic piety. Persia equals antiquity, an age that’s gone forever. Persia equals wine and hedonism from the quills of drunken poets who saw things very differently from the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. Persia equals Zoroastrianism and the fire temples of old. Contrarily, Iran equals Shi’a, a tough, oppressed, self-flagellating branch of Islam. Persia equals all that is effete: of brocades and silken rugs; of grand viziers in courtly costume; of silver filigree and lapiz lazuli glaze on priceless urns; and, of artistic depictions too close to iconoclastic for comfort. In short, for Iranians, nostalgia for old Persia is the antithesis of political Islam. It is a weak underbelly that allows outsiders to enter the forbidden gates on the pretext of weakening the present land by exalting its past.

The BBC documentary highlighted this duality as such. Uncovering the many layers of Persian culture we learn that when it comes to a civilisation that stretches back to the Elamites at Susa 4,500 years ago, an empire that during the reign of the Achaemenids under Cyrus stretched from Greece to Afghanistan, a simple either/or will not do. When something is that old and that far-reaching, dichotomies are rarely that simple. The BBC4 series taught us that even the political Islam of the 21st century Republic can not wash away that feeling of distinction held by so many Iranians. Their exceptionalism chimes with similar exceptionalism experienced by Brexit Britain and the Trumpite United States. It is this analogue with great Western powers that plunges modern Iran into a state of competitive hostility with them. It is the similarities therefore, and not the differences, that explain the fraught relations between the anglo-American West and the new Persia.

Eternally unknowable and all-mighty for being so is what makes Iran so much like the God of Islam it has worshipped for nearly 1,400 years. A bruised civilisation in such a battle for true identity on the shifting game board of power politics is what makes Iran the Persia it truly is to this day, and likewise what makes Persia the true Iran it has become. Its place at the head of the table of nation states has become problematic, none more so than within Iran itself. This was the first civilisation to claim the one true god, Ahura Mazda. Its official state religion of Zoroastrianism was as long-established as Persia itself. But all changed so suddenly. Zoroaster’s fires were extinguished by the Arab Conquest of 637AD. In many respects, an inferior culture usurped one whose deeds it could never match. A tribe tamed a civilisation, and I don’t think Iran has ever come to grips with that. Alexander sacked Persepolis in 330BC, but he razed it to the ground supposedly in the name of Hellenic Civilisation. The Arabs who swept into Sassanid Persia on the command of the Caliph Umar just four years after the death of the prophet Muhammed were a tribe of tribes with all the ostentatiousness of a Glastonbury festival-goer. They came unadorned and, other than tax and sovereignty, demanded little else. These bedouin Arabs were no Islamic State. Their relative tolerance was their enduring power. As the documentary states, Islam was adopted in Persia at a rate that Arabisation never ever was. The Persians took the commandments of Muhammed readily enough, though it was the language and cultural traits of the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula that had little staying power in the eyes of a people who believed, rightly of wrongly, that they had nothing to learn (other than the revelations in the Qur’an) from these usurpers in their raggedy clothing.

I taught a bunch of Iranians about ten years ago, all of whom had come to the West not so much for a taste of cultivated learning, which of course they could have delved into at home. They came, rather, to throw off their chadors and to relive the secular freedoms their parents had enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty. They came to change Iran not from within, which was too dangerous, but from without. Away from the Iran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard they could embrace the Persian in themselves, throwing off the shackles of the Iranian who boarded the aircraft in Tehran. In our ignorance, some locals asked if, being Muslim and existing in the heart of the Middle East, they were Arabs. The Iranian reaction was prompt and dismissive to say the least. You could actually see them wince at the mere suggestion. In my classroom there they sat together, far from the ethnic Arabs who were seated at the other end of the room. They looked and spoke different. They carried themselves differently, for unlike the Arabs in the room, the Persians had a dual identity: the one Iran foisted upon them at birth, and the Ferdowsi-reading Persian residing permanently in their heart. 


From Ingenious to Helpless


How Oil Has Turned a Resourceful Desert People into Overdependent Recipients of Vast Resource Wealth.

Considering how innovative they were to survive the harshest, most unforgiving of natural environments for so long, these days it’s hard to see how the heirs of the great Arab conquest of 632AD could survive in this desert they once mastered, far less innovate in this ultra-modern society they now govern.

The discovery of vast, easily extractable reserves of oil in the 1960s transformed a preindustrial society into one whose all-round development was so rapid as to be unparalleled anywhere, including China. Yet, in all this frenzy of socioeconomic transformation a link crucial to historical identity has been lost and with it the skills and resourcefulness to eke out a living on the bare minimum that nature provides in this most arid of regions.

And so the spectre of the desert looms again. For tribes to claim it as home, an environment consisting of a combination of desert climate and geography tolerates nothing less than a winning formula of mental agility and physical hardiness from its few inhabitants. This innovation to survive on the margins of habitable ecology has been squandered in relatively short time, however, by the purchasing power of oil. If these dwellers of the great desert, here known in a loose grouping as the Bedouin, are to make themselves future-proof it is to the desert they must look, and not to global investment banking, Western innovative engineering and Indian graft that has become the mainstay of their social and economic development over the past two generations. They need to rediscover that fortitude, that stamina and that simple genius of innovation – in short the survival skills of desert life – if they are to emulate their illustrious forebears.

Back in the day, they blazed a zealous trail out of Mecca in an expansion dovetailing west as far as the the Atlantic coast of Al-Maghreb and east as far as the Pamirs. The distance covered on horseback, the lands subdued, within such a short spread of time, was nothing short of breathtaking. With sword in one hand and the book in the other, they bore down on every Berber and every Pathan and every hardy native in between.

These North African and Central Asian tribes, described by historians such as Polybius and Livy in their writings on Alexander, were hardly pushovers. But no ancient Roman or Greek could have seen the Bedouin Arabs coming. In rapid succession, a new rising overshadowed the cities of the Byzantine empire: of Damascus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and other important staging posts of the Near East. They crushed the heirs of Constantine as if the citadel walls were not of Roman cement but of sand! The fearsome Armenian warriors they took to task. Persians, the Arabs subdued them as if their thousand-year empire had never existed. The Parthian heartlands folded more like paper than like the mountains that made them men of stone. Khwarizm, Khorasan, Transoxania all toppled like dominoes. Roderick’s Visigoths might as well have given up Spain as tribute before the fight. Hell, even the Nile itself seemed to narrow to let them cross on their way past the worthless Pyramids. Destination unknown, the desert warriors would take their jihad however far the sunset would take them. They would stop along the way only to make inroads in ancient Roman provinces like Cyrenaica and beyond to Mauretania where Islam would be consecrated for once and for all in Kairouan in modern day Tunisia.

Emboldened by faith and destiny, from there these simple desert folk swept over the Rif mountains of latter-day Algeria and Morocco, breezed across straits their man Tariq named along the way, coveted the fair lands they saw en route through Visigoth Spain, retraced Hannibal over the well-watered Pyrenees, then continued unaided all the way to the Frankish stronghold of Poitiers where they met the uncompromising figure of Charles Martel. If not for him and his Frankish army, all of Christendom would have become the greenest province of the Caliphate.

Those 7th century Hijazi Arabs – Meccans and Medinites – were a resourceful lot. Of that there is no doubt. Within a mere 50-odd years from the death of their prophet Muhammad in 632AD, the first caliphate of the Umayyad had broken free from the clutch of the desert to unleash like a fever. Like the Mongols and Conquistadors centuries later, the Arabs might have had divinity in the sky and horses on the ground to manifest their destiny, but they had not much else to go on. Rather, it was mastery of the world’s most inhospitable terrain – namely, the deserts of rock, sand and scrub – that made all the difference. No one, but no one, could solve a problem like aridity in the way they could. Few, if any, could make a living, far less mount complex military campaigns, in temperatures brazen enough to cook a man’s brain into delirium within hours.

From dwellers of the desert worshipping rocks and things, within a hundred years history elevates them to heights hitherto unrivalled in their world, arguably unseen since the beauty of Achaemenid Persia or classical Rome. From finding ways of keeping cool in summer temperatures topping 50°C to finding ways of being cool through fractal geometry in structures designed by man in the mind of God, a people from a harsh land came a long way in a short period by taking the resourcefulness of desert living all the way to its physical and metaphysical end.

The golden age was in the reign of the Abbasid. Libraries that today adorn the present seats of civilisation – of London, Paris and New York – are reminders that once there was Baghdad and its House of Wisdom. In that house much thinking was done. Much that had been lost was found. If in that epoch Europe’s was an age of darkness, Al-Kindi and his housemates of wisdom resurrected classical Greek teaching, fusing it with their own in an age of light.

Where the rough and ready nomadism of the Bedouin Arabs had laid foundations, the more urban and urbane descendants of the Muslim expansion could turn their hands and minds to a new and golden age. That age required an intellectual climate that was temperate. Ironic when you imagine that to arrive at this cultural zenith – epitomized by the first universities in Cairo, Fez and Cordoba – one has to start the historical and geographical odyssey in a climate which was anything but temperate with tribes that were anything but learned: in the empty, blistering desert with the camel-driving Bedouin.

What the desert giveth the desert taketh away. To survive it takes more than faith. It requires supreme resourcefulness, and complete independence from the outside world.

Today, the Arab world is a paradox of helplessness and enormous resilience; of dazzling wealth and yawning poverty; of incredible stability and disintegration; of building the world’s tallest buildings but not having a clue how to do it. They were, only two generations ago, a wholly different animal, lacking even infant schools and field hospitals, eking out a living in the most inhospitable places, cultivating vegetables and palms on soils that received less than a few millimeters of rain per annum, mastering the flow of artesian water, getting by. Look at them now: hiring resourcefulness from outside, paying top dollar for expertise, getting others to find water for them, hiring an army of impoverished labour to pick up after them. Ambitions outweighing abilities, commissioning others to build them a world of comfort that they managed largely themselves for so long in their own modest ways. In short, using oil money to buy helplessness.

So is the discovery of an ocean of oil beneath their timeworn feet a blessing or a curse? With each petrodollar these Bedouins are taking the harsh out of living and themselves out of the desert which had made them uniquely adapted to conquer and consolidate half the known world fourteen hundred years ago. Unforeseen events in the coming century or two might give cause for a hard landing, even among those who appear most financially disposed right now to avoid it. But when a people go soft and lose the resourcefulness and simple innovation that kept them one step ahead of the desert and its punishing cycle of heat and hardship for so long, what insurance policy will shore them up and what investment banker will bail them out then?