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

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

Abbas Milani

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.

Again, I suggest, there is no country that is as praised in the Old Testament, other than Jews themselves, who are the central characters of the Old Testament, as the Persians. There is no mortal in the Old Testament that is as praised as Cyrus. Cyrus is the person that freed Jews from the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus is the one that rebuilt Jerusalem for Jews. So it is at the result of the Babylonian captivity, that we have the first mass migration of Jews into Iran. Jews have been living in Iran for almost 3,000 years. And I can tell you, again with some certainty, except for the 20th century, Jews lived more comfortably, more safely in Iran, than they did in Europe. You never had pogroms like you had in Europe, in Iran. And Jews have lived there comfortably.

And today, as I speak in spite of the lunacies of Ahmadinejad, in spite of the anti-Israeli rhetoric of the regime, there are more Jews living in Iran today than in the entire Muslim world together. There are close to 25,000 Jews living in Iran today. Before the revolution there were about 125,000 to 150,000 of them. So Iran has had this rather remarkable history with Jews.

The other remarkable history, again in the Bible, I won’t repeat it, this story of Esther. 2,500 years ago an Iranian king was married to a Jew, and at the same time, the dark side, the paradoxical side of Iranian history, manifests itself in the efforts of the Prime Minister who tried to commit the first act of genocide against Jews and when he failed, you have the Feast of Purim, you have the Savior, you have Esther, who is incidentally buried in Iran. The place of burial for Esther is in Iran today. Some of the hoodlums in the Islamic republic recently tried to demolish it; fortunately, they did not succeed.

Fast forward, 700-800 years, to the 7th century, and you have the advent of Islam. Islam comes to Iran in the 7th century. Iran was by then Zoroastrian. Zoroastrian faith again is very little known in the world. But Zoroastrian faith has probably contributed more to the theologies of Judeo-Christian and Islamic systems than any other religion in the world. Let me give you briefly some of the ideas that have come from Zoroastrianism and found their way into Christianity into Judaism, into Islam.

The idea of a Messiah, the idea of a millennium, a thousand-year cycle of history, the idea of Hell, the idea of Heaven, all come from Zoroastrianism. The word you know and use for Heaven is in fact a Persian word. Paradise is a Latinized version of Pardis, which is the name of a Persian garden, which incidentally is also captured most beautifully in some of the carpets you see. There is no theme more repeated in Persian carpets than an effort to recapture Paradise. So Islam comes to this country that already had this very sophisticated Empire and a very sophisticated theology.

What happens to it? Well, what happens to it, first of all, Iranians fight for about a 150 to 200 years to resist this. Iranians were the only country that were conquered by the Arabs but did not take Arabic language. The concept of “Arab,” the strange concept of “Arab,” as everyone who speaks Arabic, was developed in that early phase. Iranians were the exception. They kept the language, they did not take Arabic. Persian remained their language. And then something very remarkable has happened. And historians, scholars, have been writing about this increasingly fascinatingly detailed accounts. And that is: that Iranians took some of the Islamic Ideas and gave them an Iranian bent. Shi’ism, which is the state religion in Iran today, many scholars will tell you has more in common with Zoroastrianism than it has with any other Muslim society. And the dominant esthetic motif, after that Arab invasion, something you see in many Persian carpets, in many Persian fabrics, probably the motif you’ve seen more than anything else from Iran, is the paisley.

The paisley is said to be this paradoxical identity of Iran. Partly Zoroastrian, pre-Islamic, partly Islamic. The pine tree was the tree of Zarathustra. It was bent by the Arab invasion, but it wasn’t broken. So Iran took a paradoxical character, partly pre-Islamic, partly Islamic. And its Islam that’s different than anywhere else in the world. The Islam that is dominant in Iran today, the Shi’ism, has many characteristics of the Zoroastrian ideas we talked about.

Fast forward again to the 19th century. In the 19th century, you have two, again, fascinating developments both inside Iran, and in the perception of Iran in the West. Paradoxical development. The 19th century is the age of increasing despotism in Iran. But it’s also an age of remarkable intellectual development, of remarkable religious reformation. Very little talked about in the West. But it is the age where Shi’ism is undergoing a remarkable shift, and you have the birth of a new religion. You have the birth of the Bahá’í movement, out of the Babi movement.

Two years before Seneca Falls, what is considered to be the first feminist convention in America, an Iranian woman by the name of Qurratu’l-‘Ayn walked on stage, took off her veil, and gave a talk. The sight was so stunning that someone took a knife to his own throat and another one went on the stage and tried to kill her. That is 150 years ago. That’s the beginning of the women’s movement in Iran. And you can move forward in the last 150 years, and see that, this remarkable turmoil, this remarkable change, this remarkable assertiveness of Iranian women.

In the West, as Iranians are undergoing this change, you have two different approaches to Iran. You have a romantic adulation of Iran. You have Emerson, the quintessential American intellectual, falling in love with Iran, falling in love with Iranian poets. He tries to learn Persian to read some of this poetry in Persian. Goethe, the quintessential romantic in Europe, tries to learn Persian because he says: Hafez and Saadi and Rumi, the best selling poets in America today, Khayyám, who is the subject of what is considered maybe the best translation of poetry in history… I am sure all of you have at one time been told by your beloved, or have told your beloved that a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, is all you need. That is from a Persian poet called Khayyám. That aspect, is part of the paradoxical approach of the West to Iran or Persia in the 19th century.

But you also have the development of colonialism. Colonialism has come to this region. Iran is one of only 6 countries in the 3rd world that is not colonized. When the West begins to colonize the world, Iran is one of the 6 countries that survive, maintains its independence. But at the same time, colonizers, particularly British, begin to develop a rather nasty language to talk about Iran. Talking about Persians as shifty people. Talking about Persians as eternally inclined toward despotism. In need of a British hand to be civilized. England! Iran had a city that was 2 million people, it’s estimated, a thousand years ago. Iran had a city that had 5000 professors in the 11th century. England, at the time, was a cow pasture.

At that time in the 20th century, someone enlightened in England understood that’s a dangerous game to get into! The idea of civilizing Iran. Civilizing India. The white man’s burden. Women were not part of this. Today’s Iran is the last moment of this paradoxical history I’m going to talk about. You all know about the leadership, you know about the government. You know it’s one of the most despotic theocracies in the world. You know that there’s a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of one unelected official. You know that the government has come in order to create an Islamic society. Ayatollah Khomeini, who founded the state, said: “Economics is for donkeys. We made the revolution to change people into Islam.”

And I can tell you with absolute certainty, Iranian society today is as far away from the model that Ayatollah Khomeini had in mind as it is possibly to imagine. What you have in Iran, beneath the surface, is a vibrant society, that is in many ways bursting at the seams. More than 60 percent of college graduates in Iran today are women. Iran has 40 million people with access to the Internet. Iran has 5 million Facebook subscribers. And Facebook is banned in Iran. Music is banned in Iran from being officially shown on television. Women are banned from singing on television, as a solo vocalist.

But Iran is undergoing a remarkable musical revolution. Iran is undergoing a remarkable sexual revolution. One journalist says instead of calling Iran the Islamic Republic of Iran, we should call it the Erotic Republic of Iran. Truly what is happening with women, at the forefront of the struggle, is one of the most fascinating heroic stories.

So my hope is that by hearing some of these episodic aspects of a very rich, complicated history, every time you see an image of a Mullah on television, you see that, that is the shadow of a history that is remarkably rich. It has had its downfalls, but it has had its peaks, and it is in my view impossible to understand what we call our common human heritage without understanding the very significant contributions that Persia has made. Thank you very much.

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