*Veneration for a Poet and the Iran Deal

Veneration fora Poet:  The Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, April 2010

Veneration fora Poet: The Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz. Photo: Vinay Lal, April 2010

It is no surprise that much of the discussion around the “Iran Deal” between Iran and a group of “world powers” led by the United States has hovered around several questions, none of which have any substantive bearing on the needs of the Iranian people or the consequences of the decade-long sanctions regime upon the people of Iran.  Now that Obama has weathered the storm, and evidently made it nearly impossible for Republicans to jeopardize the agreement, the discussion is focused on Obama’s attempts to secure his “legacy” and his surprising string of successes in recent months.  In the days preceding last week’s successful repudiation by the Democrats of the Republican endeavor to compel Obama into submission, public discussions revolved around other axes, such as the intense lobbying effort carried out by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its powerful friends and supporters to deliver what was hoped to be a crushing defeat for Obama.

For nearly six months since the Iran Deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is formally known, was announced in Lausanne on April 2nd, the New York Times has featured an extensive series of full-page ads in support of or, as was largely the case, in opposition to the agreement.  There may be no greater cliché which bedevils the Jewish community than the commonly held view which at once links the “Jew” to the world of money and banking, but here at least Jewish money seemed to be flowing as supporters and detractors attempted to set forth their case.  (A full-page ad in the New York Times runs to $150,000.)  One of the more interesting and yet bland ads appeared on August 11, headlined “We are all connected”, and carrying the signature of prominent Iranian-Americans.  Something more singularly insipid can scarcely be imagined, if we are to confine ourselves only to this emphatic declaration, “We are all connected”, the meaning of which is uncertain.  Are we connected merely by virtue of the fact that we are “human”?  Is there a tacit reference to the supposed fact that technology has brought us closer, or that technology has at least made us aware of the various ways in which we might be “connected”?  Or do the signatories of the ad suppose that there are certain universal norms—the feeling for the divine, some commonly accepted notions of parental love, and so on—which connect us to all other humans?  There is yet another strand of questions, prefaced by these two queries:  Is it always a virtue to be connected?  Why might we wish not to be connected?

However insipid and bland the ad, it is not without interest; it is certainly an object lesson in the limitations of American political discourse.  The twenty-four signatories commence their appeal thus: “Dear fellow Americans:  We are Americans of Iranian descent.  Like all Americans, we’re proud of our great country, and we vigorously defend the U.S. ideals of freedom and opportunity.  We’ve worked together to make this the best country in the world.”  In one stroke, American exceptionalism is affirmed:  the US is unambiguously pronounced to be “the best country in the world”, and tacitly it is suggested that the “ideals of freedom and opportunity” are best witnessed in the US.  From there, the ad moves on to an affirmation of another cliché that is now unquestionably part of the liberal consensus:  we, the signatories, do not agree on everything, but (like reasonable people) we can agree to disagree; but we do agree that “solving problems through communication is better for the world than conflict.  In the past few decades, wars have cost Americans thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and conflict has persisted.  When we achieve America’s goals through diplomacy instead of war, we all win.”  Since the message is directed to fellow Americans, it is perhaps reasonable, many will argue, that the ad thus far is resoundingly about American lives and American objectives.  There is some uncertainty, too, about the “we” in “we all win”:  is the “we” a reference only to Americans of varying political disposition, or is it inclusive enough to include not just Iranians but perhaps all those who deem themselves citizens of the world?

Given that the signatories at the outset describe themselves as “Americans of Iranian descent”, the reader might reasonably expect that an invocation to Iran’s history or people is in order.  And the ad, in this respect, does not disappoint:  acknowledging that there are profound differences between the governments of Iran and “of the West”—the elision between the US and the West is noteworthy, presupposing as it does the firmly Anglo and Judeo-Christian nature of American dispensation—the ad states that “the people of Iran have a long history of tolerance, hospitality, creativity, and innovation that predates modern governments and religions—and these are values that Americans share.”  Governments may have differences, but “people” do not; or, to read the ad rather more forcefully, the differences that the signatories themselves have is not with Iran’s people but rather with its government.  Indeed, there seems here to be an invitation, even if disguised, to Iran’s people to reclaim their history and rid themselves of their government.  The ad concludes with a ringing declaration that “the people of Iran want peace, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness just as much as Americans do.”  They may not consciously be aware of it, but the people of Iran are awaiting their Thomas Jefferson.  Join us, the signatories urge of their fellow Americans, “in embracing this unique opportunity for Americans and Iranians to connect.  Let’s make history.”

Among the signatories, I recognized the names of two scholars, Reza Aslan and Vali Nasr.  It is perhaps no little matter that Vali Nasr is the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which, as I pointed out in a blog a few months ago, has been altogether shameless in accepting a gift that would help establish an institute in the name of the war criminal Henry Kissinger, no doubt to honor his skills in diplomacy and peace-making.  The American university has been selling its bricks, buildings, and mortar to the highest bidders for many years now, so there is perhaps nothing spectacular here.  I doubt that Vali Nasr would even recognize the slightest discrepancy between his appeal for peace and diplomacy and his joyous celebration of the gift to honor Kissinger.  But it is perhaps no small matter that Vali Nasr is also the son of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world’s most eminent scholars of Islamic science and philosophy, Sufism, and comparative religion.

Wondering what Seyyed Hossein Nasr might think of this matter, my mind came to rest on an image that I am unlikely ever to forget as I thought of the plea issued by Iranian-Americans to their fellow Americans.  In 2010, I had occasion to visit the tombstone of Hafez, 1325/6-1389-90 [also Hafiz], whose name is attached to the city of his birth and death, Shiraz [thus Hafez-e Shirazi].  Whatever the Iranian Revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power has accomplished or destroyed, it has been unable to shake the extraordinary affection in which ordinary Iranians hold Hafez, whose poems celebrate wine and women and mock the hypocrisy of the mullahs and the religious elite.  I never quite fathomed the veneration a people might have for their poet until I visited Hafez’s mausoleum.  Mobbed by people throughout the day, its visitors take their turn besides Hafez’s gravestone; many of them stoop down to kiss the cold stone, and then they plant themselves alongside it, opening their pocket version of Hafez’s Divan to their favorite poem.

The Mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, twilight hour. Photo:  Vinay Lal, April 2010

The Mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, twilight hour.
Photo: Vinay Lal, April 2010

Watching the spectacle unfold before my eyes, I thought to myself whether anything even remotely resembling such reverence for a poet might ever be witnessed in the United States.  What poet would receive such veneration?  Whitman?  The same Whitman who wrote, “I Hear America Singing”?  Where is he buried?  I am clueless and, I am quite certain, so are the vast majority of Americans.  Or might it be Robert Frost, who has endeared himself to at least one American president and who is sometimes thought of as America’s most homely poet?

Tribute to Hafez-e Shirazi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, April 2010

Tribute to Hafez-e Shirazi. Photo: Vinay Lal, April 2010

The tomb of Hafez, in Shiraz.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, April 2010.

The tomb of Hafez, in Shiraz. Photo: Vinay Lal, April 2010.

The veneration for a poet may have nothing to do with the Iran deal.  But I am dazzled by the talk of those American politicians and commentators who speak of bombing Iran into submission, or those who have raised the prospect of nuclear armageddon if the deal goes through and Iran is permitted relief from sanctions.  With what arrogance and insolence do some Americans speak of Iran, which has gifted the world a Hafez, the Shahnamah, and a Saadi, as a rogue state?  Emerson recognized Hafez as a “poet’s poet”, and it was Hafez’s Divan which moved Goethe to compose his own West-oestlicher Divan.   Our Iranian-Americans are too reticent in their appeal to fellow Americans:  on the one hand, their appeal overlooks the now widely recognized role played by the United States and Britain in instigating the coup d’état that led to the overthrow in 1953 of the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh; and, on the other hand, they ignore the fact that the civilizational claims of Iran supersede any claims that America might advance on behalf of itself.  One knows, too, that the realists will find the very thought of civilizational claims comical, outlandish, and—at best—romantic.  Poets may not be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but they are much less oppressive and stupid than those who rule the roost as politicians, policy makers, and political pandits.

2 thoughts on “*Veneration for a Poet and the Iran Deal

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful read, Vinay. Your point about the lack of veneration for poets (and poetry!) in the world’s Number One nation is starkly underscored by the museum in Baltimore dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, where the whisky loving poet once lived and which lost funding a few years ago because of budget cuts. It was evidently a modest place—not too expensive to sustain and maintain. Wouldn’t it have been a nice gesture, not to mention something of PR coup,
    had the HBO funders of the TV series The Wire given just a couple of hundred thousand dollars to help keep the museum open until perhaps some poetry loving philanthropist cut a larger check?


  2. Hi Ajay, I didn’t know about the fate of the Poe museum in Baltimore. No one much cares about remembering poets in this country, even though the LIbrary of Congress has a Poet Laureate, as do most if not all of the states. Frost was the Poet Laureate of Vermont, which is where he is, I believe, buried.


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