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Our Iranian Character


08 Feb 2011 19:28Comments
jamalzade2.jpgTranslator's note: Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh is a leading figure in modern Persian writing. The Hemingway of Iran, he broke with the florid 19th-century style that unfortunately continues to convolute Iranian writing. In its place, he introduced a plain, clear prose style that inspired a new generation of writers, beginning with Sadegh Hedayat and leading to Jalal Al-e Ahmad.

Jamalzadeh outlived them all. In his 102 years (1895-1997), he knew Iranian society both before the Constitutional Revolution and after the Islamic Revolution. By the end of his life, he was favorably viewed by almost all sides of the Iranian cultural divide. Moderately religious, he did not disapprove of the Islamic Revolution, hence his acceptability to the Islamic Republic. Yet he resided in Geneva for most of his long life and was a great lover of the West, hence his appeal to secular Iranians.

This grand old man of Iranian letters, living quietly in Swiss solitude, was a rebel at heart. And it was this quiet man who wrote perhaps the most direct criticism of Iranian culture by an Iranian that has ever been published. In 1966, the year of my birth, Jamalzadeh came out with Our Iranian Character, in which he examined what Westerners thought of Iranians, and what Iranians think of themselves. With this book, he made enemies of left and right, up and down, fundamentalists and monarchists. Some hated the work because it attacked Iran's glorious antiquity; others disliked the critique of our present. Nationalists condemned it for questioning Iranian pride, leftists rejected it for accepting the views of Western imperialists, fundamentalists worried about the denial of traditions. At one point, not a single invited speaker from Iran was willing to go to an expenses-paid conference in Geneva about Jamalzadeh.

All in all, it was a radical tract. One is only partly radical if one criticizes others -- this group or that, this country or that. The true radical criticizes himself. And in the tradition of Iranian letters, only Jamalzadeh ever dared do this.

And yet, or maybe as a result, his book has remained, as far as I know, untranslated into English. After the initial Rushdie-esque firestorm in the late 1960s, Jamalzadeh himself appeared to put the topic aside, and over time the tempest was forgotten.

For more than historical reasons, the work deserves an audience outside of Persian-language readers. If there is truth to any of it, we should be willing to read it again, and think it over one more time, not just in Farsi, but in English; not just for Iran, but for the world. What is the Iranian character?

A brief note on translation: I have omitted sentences and, in some cases, paragraphs that do not substantially add to the meaning conveyed by the translated text. Indeed, I have focused on Jamalzadeh's meaning rather than the literal reproduction of his text, except where he clearly intended for the literal sense of specific Farsi words to be used. The following is excerpted from the original work's first 20 pages. This is the first of several intended translations from Our Iranian Character, with occasional commentaries. My glosses are indicated by square brackets. -- Nassir Ghaemi

janet1.jpgRecently an Iranian literary magazine asked commentators to write about the Iranian character, a theme not itself literary but nonetheless important for understanding the Iranian scene. Iranians today are little different from yesterday, so the beginning of an answer to this request involves seeing how others have seen us, and how we have seen ourselves, as relates to our character. From ancient Greece and Rome until now, the nature of Iranians, for better or worse, has been the subject of much discussion. To pull together all these sources is a necessary, though not easy, task, even though I fear most of my countrymen are likely to see any such an effort as traitorous, or at least sinful.

Perhaps our moral failings, difficult as they may be to admit, will prove to be the deepest cause of our backwardness, our inability to keep up, shoulder to shoulder, with the progress of other nations. If we wish to reach our deepest desires today, to progress with the rest of the world and become prosperous and happy, we have to try to address these problems of character. We have to heal those mental illnesses that may afflict us. And yet, how can you treat an illness when you fail to recognize that you have it?

Ancient sources agree: Human beings are inherently sinful and deceitful. Omnis homo mendax, they said: All humans lie. Homo homini lupus: Men are wolves to each other. The Bible describes original sin; our own Holy Book says humans are by nature oppressive and ignorant. Only God is without fault. One of our greatest mystics, Sheikh Abu Ishaq Kazeruni, was blunt: "In this world, even our greatest men are not free of sin." So we shouldn't be upset if, justifiably or not, others ascribe faults to us.

Positive traits of Iranians

Before cataloguing our faults, we should realize that all the various peoples who have interacted with us over the millennia have universally ascribed certain positive traits to us: We are consistently seen as intelligent, civilized, warm, and passionate. We are clever, quick-witted, sociable, and entertaining. Almost all agree that an Iranian is a person with foresight, mannerly, polite, respectful of guests, and generous. We are people who care about our reputation. The Iranian soldier is viewed as capable of great sacrifice and courage. Iranian villagers -- the masses of our nation -- are hard-working, satisfied with their lot, loyal, faithful, and well-intentioned. Iranian students are well-regarded in Western universities, and often among the highest in academic rank. Even 1,400 years ago, it was said of us: "If all knowledge were hidden in a chandelier, someone from the people of Pars would find it."

I read recently in an Iranian newspaper that a poor man took a blind cleric into his house as a tutor for his children. The man admitted he was poor, and could barely feed his own, but he would do whatever he needed to do to feed and house the blind cleric so that his children would not be without an education. We read: "Iranians have a poetic temperament. From the entranceway to their homes, to the curtains on their walls, their mirrors, their beards and baldness, their bathhouses and backgammon games, their dinner tables and their rugs, and even their soups and sodas -- everything is a symbol of their zest for life."

Professor [Edward] Browne [a famed 19th-century Orientalist who specialized in Persia], who knows Iran and Iranians better than anyone, said that Iranians have shown their courage and their willingness to sacrifice and their faith on two recent occasions: the appearance of the Bab [who founded the Baha'i faith in 1844] and the Constitutional Revolution [1906-11].

Most historians have praised the nobility and integrity of the first ancient Iranian kings, especially in their generosity to their foes. Even our enemies admitted that ancient Iranians greatly valued truth-telling and straightforwardness. Herodotus was very blunt about this: "Iranians see lying as the worst sin, and after lying, being in debt; and the reason is that if one is debt, one sometimes is inclined to lie."

Our literature, which is over a thousand years old, is one of the strongest branches of spiritual wisdom in the world, and every day the world is still plumbing its depth and worth.

How we differ from others morally

Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written by others about us, our character, our behavior. Both good and bad can be found in these writings, but when we Iranians refer to them, we tend to focus on the good. But what nation is there that is not a mix of good and bad? And besides, what is good and bad is relative to one's time, as the French thinker Pascal pointed out, and as our own Rumi and Attar did centuries earlier. All nations have certain characteristics which are acceptable to themselves, but seem blameworthy in the eyes of other nations. For instance, is it our fault that our simplest idioms, like "my life" or "my dear" or "I will be your sacrifice" -- which are really no different in meaning from "cher ami" in French or "mein lieber" in German -- are translated by Westerners literally and seen as odd?

Iranians, instead of simply using the formal "you," also say "at your service" or "highest worthy" or "sacrifice." Instead of simply saying "I," in seeking to minimize themselves, we say "your slave" or "small" or "claimant" or "low as dust." Instead of saying "go," we say "give us the order"; instead of "come," "honor us." Should we make fun of these habits, which are simply politeness through and through? Westerners used to talk and write like this too, but over time, they've made matters simpler and now speak and write more plainly, just as likely will happen to us in the future. But it is no sin if instead of "I agree," we say "to my eye," or if instead of "merci," we say "I kiss your hand."

When Westerners meet, they greet each other by shaking hands, while we simply say "salam," which receives the reply "salam alaikome" -- given the heat of Iran, it makes sense to say "salam" rather than to shake sweaty hands. Westerners take off their hats when they meet, while for us, to take off one's hat when greeting a stranger would be a sign of disrespect.

In our classic poetry, it is widely accepted to praise another poet by using his verses in one's own poem. For instance, Hafez uses Saadi thus:

The heart of Hafez seeks union with you,

Tell me who does not seek union with you.

Those verses are directly taken from Saadi, who wrote:

Tell me who does not seek union with you,

Show me who sees anything if he does not see you.

For the West, this is pure plagiarism.

For us, it is praise.

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University and writes a blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Ghaemi has written about Jamalzadeh's ideas in the context of contemporary U.S.-Iran relations, which can be found on his blog.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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