The Humiliations of Persia

November 23, 2019
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THAT Persian or Iranian national identity is so deeply bound up with intellectualism and love of beauty has led, in the past, to a calumny known as Orientalism or, more specifically, the ‘Persian Fallacy’.

Portico of the Ali Qapu Palace, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan

The Persian Fallacy holds that Persian culture, precisely because it is so decorative, must therefore be decadent. And, indeed, in ways that involved a certain degree of excessive fondness for cushions, carpets, interior decoration, boudoirs and the company of women, all of which would distract the men of the country from the manly arts of war.

In past centuries, this alleged form of decadence was often described by the word effeminancy. This didn’t mean homosexuality or anything like that so much as, rather, as a quality of having ‘gone soft’ which was more cultural in nature. Of having come to value frilly decoration over the development of pecs and biceps, and, for that matter, over the austere geometry of the straight line.

It was the ancient Greeks, often at war with the Persians and famously without much prejudice against homosexuals as long as they were manly, who first came up with the Persian Fallacy of effeminate decline. Thereafter, it seems to have persisted among the Romans and the Arabs, who often contrasted idealised warrior cultures to those in which the men had gone soft.

After the passage of many centuries, the fallacy sprang up anew the nineteenth century, when countries such as Persia, indeed indeed pretty much the rest of the world, suddenly fell behind America and Western Europe in industrial terms.

Why were the Persians and those in their sphere of cultural influence industrially backward? Was it just that they were still living in the eighteenth century, but would soon catch up? Or was it because because they were somehow overly fond of cushions and carpets and interior decoration, as the Greeks had alleged?

In spite of the fact that the first explanation was more plausible, Westerners of the Victorian era often preferred the second.

The charge of decadence wasn’t applied to the most austere desert Arabs or the Islamic mountain warriors battling it out with Kipling’s redcoats near the Khyber Pass. Adversaries whom the Victorians dubbed the ‘martial races’ of India, and whom they rather admired.

But this kind of decadence was held to be true of the majority of modern-day Turks, Persians, and inhabitants of Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo, who were portrayed as lolling round on cushions all day long and smoking hubbly-bubbly pipes, probably laced with hashish, while Westerners got on with building railways and things of that nature.

Ernst Rudolf, ‘Smoking the Hookah’. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Persian Fallacy was lately reheated, in considerably more offensive terms than a mere painting of a gent smoking the hookah in a room full of carpets, in the film 300 and its sequel 300: Rise of Empire. Films of which the first was likened to Nazi race-propaganda by Slate critic Dana Stevens, and became the target of mass protest in Iran.

The word Orientalism was made popular at the beginning of the nineenth century by people like Lord Byron. At that time it meant a fascination with the Middle East as somewhere rather romantic: palm trees, starry nights, bandits, and so on.

But it soon came to be associated with a style of art that depicted the Persians and the inhabitants of the Middle East’s wider cultural realm as being in decline.

Orientalism included a whole genre of paintings that tended to fit that stereotype, in ways that ranged from examples of mild condescension like ‘Smoking the Hookah’ to stuff that was a lot more extreme, prefiguring 300.

It wasn’t just Westerners who believed in the Persian Fallacy, repackaged as Orientalism. These stereotypes influenced the thinking of Middle Eastern reformers, who often came to see their own countries as rotten to the point of being in need of a complete cultural makeover.

Reformers like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, and the very similar figure of Reza Khan in early twentieth century Persia, sought to modernise and industrialise their countries — which had to be done — and, going further, to Westernise them and suppress many elements of the indigenous culture.

Reza Khan. Public domain image.

Such people were often stern military officers, dressed — of course — in Western-style uniforms.

Persia’s humiliations continued in the first half of the twentieth century, when a country still underpopulated, and barely industrialised, was invaded by more modern powers in both World Wars.

In World War One, the Ottoman Turks and the Russians clashed over who was to pluck Tabriz from the carcass of the old Persian Empire. Only the collapse of the Ottoman Empire itself and revolution in Russia, which had already taken other provinces from Persia, kept the Tabriz area Persian.

In World War Two, Iran was invaded and taken over by Britain and the Soviet Union, the better to establish a supply corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Vitally-needed war materials would be railed up through Iran to Caspian Sea freighters and shipped and barged up the Volga River, which pours into the Caspian’s northern end, past the crucial choke-point of Stalingrad. The Nazi war machine tried to take Stalingrad in order to choke off the flow of supplies from Iran, but failed.

Fair use image, via Wikimedia Commons
Total World War II US wartime aid shipments to the Soviet Union. US State Department via Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.
The location of Stalingrad, renamed Volgograd, north-west of the Caspian Sea. Imagery ©2019 Google, Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO. Map data ©2019 Google. North at top.

In the film Enemy at the Gates, Bob Hoskins makes out that Stalingrad had to be defended at all costs because it bore the name of “the Boss.” Well, no. The reason Stalingrad had to be defended at all costs was a lot more practical than that. And so history was made, in ways that involved Iran. Yet from the point of view of the Iranians, it was being made without their participation.

Shortly after their invasion, the British and the Soviets removed Reza Khan from the Iranian throne (he had become Shah in 1925) and installed his son, Reza Pahlavi. Who was fated to be Iran’s last Shah, as things would turn out.

After the War the British and the Americans encouraged the Soviets, who had revived the old Russian claim on Tabriz, to quit Iran and respect the country’s pre-War frontiers.

Grateful for this, and fearing that he might be removed just like his father if he didn’t play ball with the West in other ways, the Shah then stood by while his nationalist, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossaddegh was overthrown in a 1953 coup assisted by the British and the Americans.

As a result, the last Shah came to be seen as a Western puppet, his own plans for the modernisation and Westernisation of Iran less and less acceptable, till he was overthrown and replaced by a clerical regime.

One of the best-known Iranian novels to be published in English, Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun: A Novel about Modern Iran, is set in those turbulent times. The occupation of Iran by foreign troops is in some ways a metaphor for a dozen other humiliations, including abusive relationships among the people of Iran itself.

Daneshvar was one half of an interesting couple.

Her husband was Jalal al-e-Ahmad, a political polemicist who argued that Iran had fallen into a humiliating, colonial relationship with the West and needed to rediscover its own authentic culture.

Al-e-Ahmad popularised the word ‘garbzadeghi’, which means being stricken or infatuated with Western ways in a pathetic, wannabe sense. Countries that suffered from garbzadeghi had a small, Westernised elite of jet-setters and skiiers that was cut off from the mostly peasant masses. Their economies weren’t as developed as Western countries, so the Westernisation of the elites was shallow.

Given that it was neither desirable nor possible to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages, these countries needed to become more modern (or ‘Western’) in a deeper sense. They needed to develop modern industries and modern scientific skills.

But at the same time they needed to avoid becoming as trashy, pornographic and consumerist as America.

Many people who wrote about modernity and modernisation assumed that the process of becoming modern meant becoming as much like America as possible. Where America went, the rest of the world would follow.

According to Al-e-Ahmand, this was all wrong. The modernisation process in a country like Iran needed to involve a much more critical engagement with the modern world in general and the USA in particular. The fine old traditions of Persia and the Muslim Middle East were still relevant in this respect, he wrote.

Al-e-Ahmad died suddenly in 1969 at the age of 45. Daneshvar, and many others, decided that he must have been poisoned by agents of the Shah’s secret police, infuriated by the garbzadeghi insinuation.

Lots of people have said similar things, and not just in Third World or Muslim countries either. More than a hundred years ago the Roman Catholic Church came up with the expression ‘the American heresy’, whereby the traditions of Mediterranean and Catholic Europe would serve as a counterpoint to the rough and ready qualities of the 1890s USA.

Even in 1960s Australia, a country not so different to the USA, the writer Robin Boyd coined the term ‘austericanism’. Which meant essentially the same thing but in an Australian context. The austerican was an Austalian who was more or less uncritical towards the United States.

In an Iranian or Middle Eastern context, garbzadeghi is also the flip side of Orientalism. If Orientalists tend to see the Middle East as decadent and in need of being Westernised or even Americanised, people who use the word garbzadeghi tend to see the West and America in particular as decadent, instead.

Some of al-e-Ahmad’s rhetoric, including the word garbzadeghi, was recycled after his death by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Yet even the rulers of the contemporary Islamic Republic also seem Orientalist or anti-Persian in the rather special sense of rejecting the more liberal aspects of Persian culture in favour of a hard, martial edge, whereby the West will be fought to a standstill and Persian culture no longer judged as effeminate.

A recruiting poster I saw in Shiraz

The prickly attitudes of present-day Iran, though understandable up to a point, have led to conflict with neighbouring powers.

Most seriously, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been at daggers drawn.

The origin of that feud seems to have less to do with religious and cultural differences between Persians and Arabs, than on the fact that the American-backed Saudi royal family sees the current Iranian regime as exporting revolution and the overthrow of anybody backed by the Americans.

In other words, so the Saudis believe, it will be a case of the Shah first, the House of Saud next, if the Iranian Islamic Republic is allowed to have its wider way. On the other hand, Turkey, a republic these days and not so obviously beholden to the USA, has fewer problems with Iran right now.

To be continued . . . If you want the whole story more quickly, check out my short book Iran: Make Love not War, now on sale with 281 pictures and maps. Click on this image for a link to where you can get a copy. I also have my first book, A Maverick Traveller, available as a free download on my website if you sign up for the newsletter.


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