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Heroic Mongrels, or Who's Afraid of the Iranian Genome Project?


16 May 2011 20:43Comments


The lasting lessons of Iran's Book of Kings.

[ comment ] Now that Stanford University's Iranian Genome Project has been partly funded by a diaspora philanthropic organization, speculation is running wild in certain Iranian circles. The project's expected medical benefits notwithstanding, Facebook is abuzz with comments about the potential unintended consequences of the racial revelations it may yield. A common Iranian lamentation is that virtually every major civilization has invaded us at least once: Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, Turkic, and European armies have all set up camp here. The odds are that the project will deliver a healthy shock to the racial purists among us. A similar project revealed that most Palestinians are not descended from Arab interlopers, as some Israeli ideologues argued, but from the ancient Jews who converted to Christianity and Islam.

The idea of racial purity came to the Middle East in the 19th century as an extreme manifestation of nationalism. Soon, storms of Pan-Turkic, Pan-Iranist, and Pan-Arab agitation were brewing in tiny social teacups around the Middle East. Suddenly everybody was congenitally better than everybody else. Grandiose maps imagining new, ethnically correct national boundaries were drawn up and plans were made to recover national innocence by exorcising foreign words. I still remember the Pan-Iranists' slogan of my youth: "Ahead to our own borders." Even as a Tehran teenager in the 1960s, I was afraid of the "war of all against all" that would erupt if everyone in the region picked their own favorite historical era as the basis on which to designate "definitive" borders.

The chimera of racial purity led the to fabrication of new national myths and the systematic distortion of old ones. Some Iranians (like their Turkic and Arab counterparts) sought to escape their present inglorious existence in dreams of a golden past. In this spirit, much praise was showered on the national epic of Iran, Ferdowsi's Shahnameh or Book of Kings. As might be expected, some of the most fervent acclaim came from those who had never actually read the book.

Far from a simplistic "us vs. them" scenario, the Shahnameh confronts us with the timeless questions of human existence. It does not merely pit national enemies against each other but repeatedly sets vassal against king, friend against friend, and father against son. Ferdowsi's love stories routinely disregard social and political boundaries.

In the Shahnameh's origin myth, Iranians, Turks, and Romans descend from the three sons of King Fereydoun, who marry the three daughters of an Arab king. The Iranian King Kei Khosrow has a Turk for a mother and the only overtly racist arguments against him are advanced by a knight, Tous, who is portrayed as the most unrighteous of the Iranian characters.

Above all, Rostam, the central hero of the Shahnameh, is not a "blueblood" but a "mongrel," the product of what antebellum racists called "miscegenation." His father is an albino who was cast out of his family as an infant and his maternal line traces back to the evil Arab serpent king Zahhak. In Ferdowsi's telling, however, Zahhak was evil not because he was Arab, but because he committed parricide to attain the throne.

Unlike the protagonists of our increasingly racist action movies and graphic novels (think 300), Ferdowsi's heroes are not handed white or black hats based on their national origins. They are often torn between incompatible imperatives: moral duty versus group obligations, filial piety versus national honor. Some Iranian kings -- Fereydoun, Kei Qubad -- appear in the Shahnameh as shining examples of courage and nobility. Others -- Jamshid, Nowzar, Kei Kavous -- are portrayed as flawed souls who lose their divine "charisma" to indolence, pettiness, and hubris. The Shanameh is often compared to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, whose performances were patronized by the aristocrats of archaic kingdoms of the eighth century B.C. In its critical approach to the ruling classes, however, the Shahnameh resembles the Greek tragedies of the fifth century B.C., such as the works of Sophocles and Euripides that were written for the ordinary folks who crowded the amphitheaters of Athens.

If the Iranian Genome Project reveals that we are, indeed, all mongrels, surely Hakim Abolghasem Ferdowsi, our land's greatest author, who penned the 50,000 heroic verses of our Shahnameh, will be smiling from his grave in Tus. Ancestry was of course important to him, as it is for us. After all, we are puny creatures limited to a tiny sliver of time and space in this immense universe. If we are humble, we will recognize that our own parentage, culture, and language will never be trumped by pretensions of cosmopolitan intellectualism. But the same humility should induce us to recognize parochialism as a weakness and aspire to transcend it. The Shahnameh teaches us a simple lesson of immense value. What matters are not the facts of our genetic, cultural, and national heritage but what we do with them.

Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, Chicago.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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