The Paradox That is Persia: Abbas Milani at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

Abbas Milani – American-Iranian historian

Iran that you see in the media, Iran that you see talked about, Iran that you see written about, most often in the last 30 years, is a dour country, run by angry old men, who shout death to America, death to Israel, who promote a cult of martyrdom. But it’s also a society that produces Maz Jobrani. And I am here to tell you that there is a lot more happening inside Iran than what you see here. A lot more things that are very very promising.

I’m not here to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about Iran, but I’m here to tell you that if you really understand the paradox of Persia, you will find a country that is worth being interested in. And it is a country that does not deserve to be stereotyped by the behavior of its current rude impolite and impolitic leaders.


Why do I call it the “paradox of Persia”? For those of you who are older than 35, you would know that before the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran was called Iran. If you are a little older, at least 85 years older, you would know that in the English languages, essentially in all the Romance languages, Iran used to be called Persia. So when we talk about Persia, we’re essentially talking about what you today would understand as Islamic Republic of Iran.


And where does this paradox begin? It begins essentially at the dawn of Western civilization. And it begins at the dawn of the great Empire that Iran was 2,500 years ago. So I’m going to try to give you a little bit of its history of these 2,500 years and try to pick moments of that history that show you the Iran that is different than the Iran that you generally hear about, or read about. But it’s 2,500 years of history, and I have 14 minutes. If I’m very lucky, 17 minutes. So how do you do this in 17 or 14 minutes? I’ll do it.


I decided to take my cues from a Persian woman. And this is not by accident. Persian women are now in Iran at the forefront of the battle for creating a democratic society. They have been for the last 150 years. I’ll tell you a little bit about them. But Persia has also given us the greatest storyteller of all time. Many of you don’t know her as Persian. Many of you know her maybe as the person that gave you what you probably know as “Arabian Nights.” But Arabian Nights actually is called: “A Thousand and One Nights.” And the person that created “A Thousand and One Nights” is a woman called “Shahrazad.” Shahrazad gives us the paradox of Persia.

Shahrazad is the daughter of a Prince, some say the daughter of the Prime Minister. She is married to this murderously jealous King. The dark side of the Iranian history as well as the light side of the Iranian history. And if you’ve read the story, you would know the jealous King, in order to make sure that he’s not cuckolded by his wife, he’s been cuckolded once, he doesn’t want it happen again, he kills his wives every night after he consummates marriage.


Shahrazad comes and decides the way to delay this is tell him a story, and keep the punchline for the next day. The punchline continues for a thousand and one nights. That’s why we get a 1001 nights. She is saved, we have one of the greatest stories of all time. We have basically one of the most remarkable story structures. The episodic story structure that every television series you love is based on really comes from “A Thousand and One Nights.” It has a structural story, it has the overall narrative and it has episodes that you can take in and out.


By the time the West got a hold of “A Thousand and One Nights,” it became “Arabian Nights.” By the time Hollywood got hold of it, it became “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves of Baghdad”. That’s what often happens, unfortunately, when Hollywood gets its hands on Iran.


So, I’m going to give you 4 episodes of Iranian history. The beginning, the advent of Islam, the 19th century, and today. And in each case, I’m going to try to give you a sense of this paradox that defines what it means to be Persian, what it means to be Persia. I can say with some certainty there is no country that I know of that has been as central to Western consciousness as Persia has. That’s a big claim to make, but I’m willing to back it up. And I have 2 and a half minutes to do it, and I am going to try to do it in 2.5 minutes.


We have two canonical texts in the development of the Western consciousness of itself as the West. One is the Bible. The other one is Herodotus’ “Histories.” These are the two canonical texts. Herodotus is essentially about the war between the Greeks and the Persians. And Herodotus is very clear. He says the Greeks began to see themselves as different than the East in opposition to Iran. So Iran was essentially at the time the Other of the West. It was the force that they defined themselves in opposition to. Herodotus has wonderful things to say about Iran. But he also has some very negative things to say. Herodotus might well have been in fact Iranian himself. He lived in the part of the Asian minor, that at the time of his birth was dominated by Iran. If you’ve read “Creation” by Gore [Vidal], you would know the story of Herodotus’s life. Go to the Bible, the Old Testament.

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