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Changing Iranians' Habits


02 Jul 2011 19:47Comments
ketab6.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? -- Nassir Ghaemi

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Who's been fooling whom?

In the time of Fath Ali Shah, Sir John Malcolm, who wrote the first scholarly history of our nation, said, "No matter how far and wide I searched, I rarely saw beggars in Iran." This would seem odd today, but the observer was not an uninformed man. So we have to ask: Given that we think of ourselves as intelligent and clever, how did we get to the point that Westerners now say few countries have more beggars, more poverty, than Iran? Could it be that we have fooled ourselves in thinking that we were fooling those Western simpletons? Did we fool them, or did they fool us?

When we say Westerners see us as smart and sociable and friendly, we should realize that these are really superficialities and don't reflect our inner selves. We don't have a word in Farsi that precisely corresponds with "character," the term for that inner self [especially its best attributes] -- being truthful, seeking truth, courage, beneficence, optimism, a spirit of sacrifice. Unfortunately, the criticisms others make of us have to do with these character traits, and when these criticisms are repeated, it becomes our reputation as a nation. The people of the world are not forced to see only our strengths and to ignore our flaws.

Thirty years ago, when I lived in Berlin, Mirza Reza Khan Tarbiat was quite upset about the publication of a German book that said quite critical things about Iranians, in particular that we were prone to lying; it instructed German businessmen to be very cautious when engaged in commerce with Iran. In some Western cities to which young Iranians have gravitated, I've also heard that the native citizens are unwilling to rent rooms to our youth. I know that in some Swiss cantons, Iranian men are allowed to marry Swiss women only if a certain amount of money is placed in a Swiss bank, so that the women can return from Iran if they become unhappy.

In the face of all this, we must address the question of whether we Iranians -- who are so pleased with ourselves -- have no faults at all. If we refuse to accept any criticism as valid, we will harm only ourselves and our children. Extremism solves nothing. We have to confess that we, like all people, are a mixture of the virtuous and the wicked. Some of us -- who seek nothing but wealth and power -- are very evil, while many of us are quite good. The good may be weak, and the evil strong, but this is the case in most of the world. With less tyranny and more education, the visage of Satan will fall from those faces which now display it.

So how can we respond to the criticisms of others?

We could take the ignorance and bliss approach: Let's pretend we hear no evil about us. Let's say we ignore any bad comments, following the old maxim that "the response to fools is silence." Let criticisms enter one ear and depart the other. "If all others are swept away by flood, we are taken away only by sleep." Let our critics talk until their teeth hurt and their tongues tire -- we'll pay no mind.

In other words, let's say that everyone else is wrong, and we're right -- we upstanding, virtuous Iranians. This would be an easy solution, but a false one. Some will quickly retort: Why then do all your governments feel obliged to declare that the fight against corruption is a paramount priority? Others will identify our very denial as another of our faults. Such an approach only increases our moral burden.

We need to put emotion aside, and give sway to reason and justice. We need to ask ourselves, honestly, What is in our best interest?

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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