Talisman Gate

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Jefferson Tile

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 28, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1280 words

HEADLINE: The Jefferson Tile

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The Iranians are hard to understand and hard to like. Actually, let's insert Persians instead of Iranians in that first line. By the deft act of rephrasing, my approval rating jumped 50 points among Iranian citizens. See, Persians, as a race, only account for 50% of the population of Iran; the rest are Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkomans, Armenians, and Lurs.

But it is the Persians who run everything over there, and they have a habit of "Persianizing" anyone, or any idea, that rises to prominence. This happens because they are an overpowering civilization that is so complex and culturally self-assured that it immunizes them from adsorption into the norms of others.

The Sassanians were the last grand non-Islamic Persian Empire, and they had their winter capital in the milder climates of Mesopotamia, near modern-day Baghdad. They pretty much ran things over there for four centuries. Persian-Arab relations were going smoothly, with a number of Arab vassal states paying homage and dues to the Sassanian court. Once in a while, there would be a flare-up with the Byzantine Empire to their west and its own Arab vassal states. However, the Sassanian kings, who at the time were comfortably gazing at fires and being Zoroastrian, were quite startled when some ragtag Bedouin messengers waltzed out of the desert in the sixth century A.D. and confidently demanded homage (and dues) to the new religion of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. It was all very funny until a ragtag Bedouin army came back to occupy the winter capital and put an end to the Sassanian empire. The Persians, now subjects of a nascent and hated occupying Arab empire, begrudgingly paid their dues, and in their own distinctively Persian way humored the new set of powerbrokers for a couple of centuries until they calmly made their comeback.

The Abbassid Caliphate which more or less ran the Islamic world for seven centuries was a big deal in world history. By taking a few historical short-cuts, one can demonstrate that the Persians ran the show behind the scenes right up to the end, while the Arab rulers of the Abbassid court themselves became "Persianized." The same pattern gets repeated a few centuries down the line when the Turks produced the Safavids, and then the Qajars, who ruled the part of the Middle East that is roughly labeled today as Iran from the 15th century onwards. Even today, whereas the ill-tempered, green-baton-wielding ruffians who make up the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guard are likely to be Kurds, Turks, or Arabs of Iran, the leadership is totally and hopelessly inbred Persian or "Persianized."

How do the Persians do it? Well, I don't know, and one tends to dislike what one does not understand. The average rural family somewhere in the Persian Triangle, that is to say the Persian heartland marked on the map by the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan and Yezd (where the 1584 year-old flame of Zoroaster still flickers), spends two years sending a single thread of wool back and forth to weave a single Persian carpet to sell in the market hoping to make some extra cash. Of course, the product is aesthetically very beautiful (and by the time it gets to the West through tens of middlemen, very expensive) but spending two years on a 12-foot-by-8-foot canvas is a very long time.

That 100-square-feet average rug contains thousands of intricate knots; one has to be very patient and almost naturally conspiratorial for the challenge. Come to think of it, Persians are very calm and are almost naturally conspiratorial. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Iranian bureaucracy would understand that they have set a whole new standard to the "Come Back Tomorrow" ethos of management. Maybe that is why they always come out on top in the intricate workings of power and statecraft; they outlast all their overly eager and sloppy challengers.

Some quick travel tips should you ever find yourself in the "Persianized" Lurr/Kurdish city of Kermanshah, Iran, which at one point was the capital of the Sassanian Empire: What you should do is pretend to be a lost tourist in the old part of town and get directions to a mosque called the Muavenel-Mulk tekyeh, built in the 19th century by some philanthropic Qajari state official.

The outer courtyard has all the usual stuff you'd find in a Shiite place of worship, with gorgeous tiles depicting the battle of Kerbala that went on for five minutes some 1,400 years ago (yes, five minutes, there were 72 guys, including the Prophet Muhammed's grandson, pitted against an army of 2,000). When the epic battle is recounted every year in every Shia place of worship, it usually lasts three hours. In these depictions, the Semitic Arab heroes of the Quraish tribe take on Aryan Persian facial features much like a Semitic Hebraic Jesus Christ looks like a modern-day Swede.

But what is really interesting is the larger inner courtyard: There you will find tiles depicting the Who's Who of Iran over the course of 3,000 years, including Farhad the poet, the Grand Ayatollahs of the 19th century and of course, the Qajari philanthropist. However, having Zoroaster and several Zoroastrian Angels in a Muslim place of worship is like having a statue of Zeus at a church or the Golden Calf at a synagogue. And thus stood Zoroaster, alongside several Sassanian kings, staring back across the ages from a shiny glazed tile. Some habits never break.

A lot is out there in print making the argument that Iran is ripe for a revolution to topple the ayotallahs and all that it needs is some prodding from the West, and it is countered by a lot of arguments as to why that approach is unfeasible and why the West should adopt a go-slow technique of fostering change. As policy-makers in Washington ponder what to do about the Islamic Republic of Iran of "axis-of-evil" fame, they should contemplate the enduring and complex nature of Persian civilization. Maybe, democracy is just another religion that needs to be incubated and "Persianized" over time in order to take root in Iran. And then, some aging Persian artisan will flip open a door to a clay furnace and easily extract a fire-glazed tile bearing the likeness of Thomas Jefferson, but with Persian eyebrows.


Tuesday morning, in Baghdad, four bearded assailants riding in a white Opel shot and killed a man I had been privileged to know and come to admire. Subhi Al-'Ayish, 59, of Garma just north of Fallujah, died instantly in front of his home in the Al-'Amiriya suburb. In 1979, Subhi was a young officer in the Iraqi army who was purged from the ranks when his politically prominent uncle was accused of plotting against Saddam Hussein. Since then, he worked in a variety of roles to undermine the dictatorial regime, but luckily he was one of those who never get caught in the act.

Abu Ahmed, as he was known among friends and acquaintances, was a brave man with an almost merry disregard for fear and danger. Since the liberation of Iraq, his name appeared several times in the Arab press as the likely nominee to head Iraq's security apparatus. Part of his activities that are in the public record involved working with the De-Baathification Commission in the Sunni Triangle, which is not a small feat to accomplish. His other off-the-record activities contributed greatly in the very few success stories in battling the fundamentalist insurgents, the sort of freaks that Subhi particularly disliked. Abu Ahmed, my only consolation in your untimely murder is that you finally have an answer to the question that's been nagging you for most of your adult life about the existence of God, a subject you shared with me and others during endlessly merry conversations. Rest in peace.