Erev Purim. Tragically, I’m not inebriated, yet the crackling of groggers reverberates in my head. The captivating story of Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia, rescuing her kinsmen was on my mind. Blessed be Mordechai, the Queen’s wise cousin and advisor- Cursed be Haman, the wicked Persian Councillor that plotted to destroy Am Israel. In addition to this, like with many people, politics played into my Purim thoughts. Given all the fuss in the news about a certain speech given by a certain Bibi Netanyahu about the modern Persian threat to Am Israel, modern Persia (or Iran) was on my mind, too. Bibi’s auto-implication of his being a modern-day Esther had me thinking about the modern-day Haman, in terms of this analogy, that being Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And with that, I spent half the night thinking about Iran.
Come October and provided I don’t crash my exams, I will be studying the Middle East along with Arabic and Hebrew at university. But no Persian. I have never tried studying it before, despite my interest in the area and vague considerations about doing so in the past. Honestly, the inevitable questions that would be asked have always stopped me. The questions- “why bother with such a useless language?”, “you’ll never go to Iran anyway”, “do you support the Ayatollah or something?” and the like- were always a put-off. But I started thinking some more and had a bit of an epiphany.
I thought to myself- It is a tragedy among many tragedies in the modern Middle East that so much history, such a rich culture as Iran’s, should be locked up in the spiritual but sometimes literal jail cell of a delinquent regime. It is a shame that the very word Iran, at least 1300 years old, should be associated by so many exclusively with the “Islamic Republic’s” barbarities; youths being lashed for singing and dancing, people being executed for their ideological or sexual choices, a government that financially and morally supports terror groups such as Hizb’allah, Hamas and the Taliban, one that watches its people being crushed under sanctions in pursuit of dangerous and potentially genocidal nuclear leverage over the rest of the region. It is a shame that the Iranian language, the progenitor of possibly the most beautiful poetry ever written, should be associated with statements threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” and “punish Tel Aviv with lightning bolts”. The “Islamic Republic” has hijacked a beautiful culture and a beautiful country- History will, no doubt rank that too as one of its many reprehensible crimes.
Nobody discusses the poetic genius of Omar Khayyam and Rumi, writers whose works deserve places next to the likes of Shakespeare and Dante in the canon of world literary masterpieces. Inventions such as the windmill, the guitar and the brick can, too, all be attibuted to the ingenuity of Ancient Persia. Zoroastrianism was one of the first Monotheistic faiths, contributing greatly to philosophy as well as the philosophical development of other religions, including Judaism. Iranian cuisine, which I have only experienced within the limited culinary confines of restaurants and home-made recipes, is quite glorious and must be even better in its homeland. And vis-à-vis Iran’s relationship with the Jews: Although Persia and the Jews have a tumultuous history, it cannot be forgotten that Cyrus the Great facilitated the return of 40,000 Jews from their exile and started the rebuilding of the second Beit HaMikdash, the second Holy Temple. More contemporarily, just 40 years ago during the reign of the Shah, over 90% of Jews were in the affluent middle or upper classes, a veritable Golden Age for Jacob by any standards of any point in time in Jewish history.
But that was then; The pages of history books that chronicle times of friendship and cooperation between nations are always closed when a new history of conflict and conflagration between them is about to be written. The contrast between Iran’s greatness forty, a few hundred, a few thousand years ago, and the unfortunate Iran of today, is so very great. The “Islamic Republic” continues to burn the bridge that once stood between a genuine wealth of cultural and intellectual and historic treasures, and the rest of the world. The flames of this bridge-burning fire represent a simple metaphor for what can only be described as acts of retrogressive barbarity, perpetrated daily by Iran’s theocratic government; the basic liberties of movement and choice, free speech and free thought that we all take for granted, are diminished and some cases abolished; the public amputations of hands and fingers and other appendages for arbitrary offences occur frequently; the brutal executions of innocents, hung either in prisons after days, weeks or months torture and abuse, or from cranes for all to see, is at the least, a monthly occurrence. It is a tragedy, and I genuinely fear that if the Iranian regime continues its current path which, in its current form it inevitably will- Iran’s remarkable legacy to the world will be painted black with the tar of today’s despots, the Ahmedinejads and the Ayatollahs, and despite the smiles, yes, the Rouhanis, too.
But I honestly want to see beyond that unfortunate veil of religious fundamentalism. Beyond the frightening nuclear diplomacy, beyond the chants of “Death to Israel, Death to America”, beyond the human rights abuses and the mad Mullahs of Tehran, beyond the darkness of the last 36 years- There is something much brighter, much greater, and much more genuine about Iran- that is Iranian culture. I want to explore it, I want to know more about it, I want to learn about the real Iran, the one that existed before the inglorious Revolution and the one will exist, I really do hope, after it has been swept into the dustpan of history. And as a linguist, I feel the way to do that is through the Persian Language, Farsi.
With a language, it is possible to penetrate the Weltanschauung, the world-view, of a culture and a civilisation. By learning words, all of which are tied with concepts, sometimes very unique, “untranslatable” ones, you learn who has invaded, what words or things they brought, how people interract day-to-day. All words lie within certain semantic fields that can allude to friendship or push towards outrage, so you learn the nuances of emotions like love and hate. By learning about the grammar, which is not always the most enjoyable exercise, you learn about what is emphasised in sentences and how words, and by extension, how thoughts are arranged. All mantras aside aside, learning a language is a genuine way to learn about much more than a new means of communication. You are introduced to culture, society, history, and with time, a new way of thinking.
I want to know at least a little bit about Iran and Iranian culture in this way. I want to know more than the number of centrifuges that they are demanding in negotiations, or the latest stage of development that their Shahab ICBMs are at. I want to know about the famous Persian courtesy and the vast number of ways to say hello. I want to know about Persian humour and kindness, but obviously the swear words too. There is so much more to a country than its politics, and that could not be more the case with Iran. Its politics and grand strategy are huge issues, which goes without saying, but for my part, I have no hand in negotiations or lobbying, and my invite to Congress hasn’t arrived in the post yet. So my great affront to the Mullahs that seek to choke Iran with fundamentalist Shi’ite Islam, will be to look at a different face of Iran, other than the one that they present. I will appreciate the achievements of the country and the beauty of its language and culture, and because of that, I will hope even more than I do now, that one day, Iran will return to the fold of “normal countries” (to use a Bibi-ism) so I can one day see for my own eyes what it’s really about.
Being a half-British, half-American, politically opinionated Jew makes it exceedingly unlikely that I will ever set foot in Iran (or many other places) for now. I won’t be able to catch the next flight to Tehran, go through the bustle of the airport and say “moteshakkeram” as I pass through airport security, as I did in Germany. I won’t be able to go into a Qom café and ask for “yek qahve ba shir“, and discuss the quaintness of an Englishman visiting town as I did in Italy. I will be unable to use my Farsi outside the few Persian diaspora centres in London and elsewhere. But that is enough to break down stereotypes and generalisations, enough to rid me personally of the false characterisation that Iran is an exclusively political thing that cannot crop up outside of a conversation about potential nuclear armageddon. Which is why, on Erev Purim, I curled up on my sofa with my iPad and started reading an article about Persian Simple and Compound Verb Conjugations. Besides, I suppose Esther and Mordechai could speak Persian, so why shouldn’t I?
Chag Sameach! – !חג שמח