The Moderate Voice
Jan 3 2009

Iran Should Return To Its Global Position Again (Guest Voice)

January 3rd, 2009
By JOE GANDELMAN, Editor-In-Chief

Iran remains a big topic as the U.S. heads into 2009. TMV has run
several Guest Voice posts by Iranian freelance writer and blogger
Kourosh Ziabari who has long contended that Iran's image in the media
is misleading. In this Guest Voice interview, he talks to Harvard
University's Professor James Russell for some perspective on Iran. TMV
runs Guest Voice posts of various viewpoints. Guest Voice posts do not
necessarily reflect the opinion of TMV or its writers.

Interview With Prof. James Russell of Harvard University: Iran Should
Return To Its Global Position Again

by Kourosh Ziabari

Nowadays, Iran's name comes up in global media headlines for the most
catastrophic reasons. Nuclear weapons, terrorism, mass destruction,
violation of human rights, abduction of freedom activists etc. Such
longstanding hostile corporate media coverage of Iran news could
easily create international pessimism toward the people of Iran, the
culture of Iran and the history of Iran. This distorted image is why
Iran is perhaps the most misrepresented, misunderstood country in the
world ' with an image distorted despite the richness of its

This interview with an American scholar of Persian Culture who has
devoted almost 15 years of his lifetime to studying Persian culture
and the Iranian lifestyle gives a clearer and impartial viewpoint of
Iran ' the country the outgoing President of US calls the `Axis of

James Russell is a world-distinguished figure, a well-known name for
those interested in Persian culture, Persian civilization and Iranian
studies. He is a Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University
and the a former Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian studies at
Columbia University. He also taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Professor James Russell of the Harvard University is now writing a
book on a medieval Armenian collection of tales whose source he
believes to be the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, an important scripture
written by and for the Silk Road peoples, most of whom spoke Iranian

I interviewed Prof. Russell to learn how an American university
professor views Iran, an misrepresented and misinterpreted country
whose truths and realities can only be discovered if you visit it and
see it face-to-face.

In our brief talk, we discussed various topics such as the life of
Persian poet Mowlana, the customs and rituals of Iranian people, the
history of Persian Gulf and the richness of Persian literature. I now
invite you to come with us and as we walk you through the corridors of
7500 years history of Greater Persia; certainly you will learn some
things that you didn't know before!

Q: Prof. Russell, Why and how did you get involved in Persian
language? What happened for the first time that attracted you to this
ancient language and what efforts did you take to become a
professional speaker and teacher of Persian language?

A: I became interested in the culture of Iran because of the very
great importance of its spiritual and material culture across all
Eurasia, from ancient times to the present day. Persian art and music
were in fashion in medieval Japan; and speakers of Alan, a North
Iranian language, contributed to the shaping of the epic of king
Arthur in Britain. Zoroastrian ideas helped to mold Judaism,
Christianity, and Platonic philosophy.

Because of the tense relations between America and Iran, I've only
been to Iran once, in 2000. I loved every minute of it: the warmth of
people, their hospitality and sense of humor, the wonderful good taste
of everything, from the cuisine to the printed tablecloths and
metalwork, the sense of peace in coffeehouses when you smoke kalyun,
drink tea, and talk. When I was in Shah-e Cheragh mosque I felt as
though I were within a diamond.

Q: You are an American scholar yourself, but devoted your studies and
life to Persian culture which made you entirely familiar with the ways
of `oriental living' in Iran. Now you can feel the apparent
differences between the life of Iranian people and the lifestyles in
American or European societies. What are the main differences, in your

A: You ask about Persians vs. Americans and Europeans. I do not think
there has to be a difference between people. We are related, because
we were created. The Persian word darvish goes back to Avestan dregu,
`a poor man', that is, one who knows God is rich and relies upon him.

The only real war is the one that a person wages within himself
against his own evil inclinations; and as Hafez taught, kindness with
friends and courtesy with enemies is the secret of both the
worlds. The purpose of culture is to make all this part of our lives.

Iran was the France and Italy of the Near East and Central Asia, a
source of culture and literature. These terms are equivalent to Greek
paideia and mean the range of learning, taste, thought, and behavior
that define a civilized person. The word farhang (culture) comes from
Old Iranian fra-thanja, to draw forth, that is, to cultivate what is
already in existence within. The same as the Latin word educere from
which the term education comes.

I would like to see Iran play this role again as a secure and
prosperous regional power, but also as a peacemaker in a difficult
region. I think the idea of the `bridge of civilizations' advocated by
President Khatami was a move in that direction and I'm sorry events
have carried us the other way of late.

Q: If we consider the history and the language of each country as its
cultural heritage, then we can conclude that Iran has a treasured and
rich heritage with more than 15.000 years of age. Do you think that
Iranians are meritorious enough to preserve their historical heritage
of culture and arts?

A: It is not for me to say whether any people is a deserving heir of
its past. I'm just a man. But I do think that the Islamic world needs
to reject suicide bombing, hijacking, and the general sense of
grievance towards Israel, America, and the West in general. Most of
this is a problem specifically of the Arab countries and secondarily
of unsettled countries like Pakistan. But since Iran was the first
Near Eastern country to have a successful revolution that claimed
Islamic foundations, others who link Islam to various political
programs do look to its authority. So in view of that role I would
hope Iran served as a moderating and civilizing influence, as it has
done so often in the past.

How does one preserve a culture seven thousand years old? Well, by
living it and cherishing it, by teaching it to one's children, and
also by supporting museums, archaeologists, libraries. By welcoming
visitors and showing the cultural treasures to them. How about summer
programs in Persian language & travel for high school kids from all
countries and I mean all. It also means talking about cultural values,
through new literary, musical, and artistic forms, through open and
free debate about the relationship between tradition and
innovation. But you know all this without my saying it.

Q: I know that most of those who are acquainted with Persian culture
are the regular Mowlana enthusiasts, too. So let's talk about Mevlana
as an outstanding medieval ages spiritual poet whose nationality is
being called into questione by the Turkish scholars. Have you ever
read the Persian-English translation of Mevlana's poems? They seem not
to be professional enough.

Mevlana was of course a writer of Persian, and his family was from
Balkh. Since he lived in Konya, I do not begrudge our Turkish friends
their love for him. There is a recent translation in the Penguin
Classics from Persian by my classmate and friend Dr. Alan Williams of
Manchester University in Britain. Obviously I do not approve of poets
who produce translations of the Masnavi or Divan-e Shams and boast
that they do so without knowing a word of Persian. It is silly, and at
worst betrays an unbecoming cultural bias.

Q: The world-renowned Persian culture scholar Professor Richard Nelson
Frye has written a letter to Iranian president and requested to be
entombed near the Central Iranian city of Isfahan after his death. It
was a shocking headline for all of us. What is your estimation?

A: I think Professor Frye's desire to be buried in Iran is a sign of
his affection for the country. Richard Frye was instrumental in
establishing the chair in Armenian studies that I occupy at
Harvard. He is a strong proponent of peace and reconciliation between
the Arabs and Israel. He is also a loyal American. There is life
before death, though. I am more interested in people living in Iran
than where their bodies lie after the soul passes through the veil.

Q: Assume that you were born non-American again, but had the
opportunity to choose your nationality yourself. Would you select

A: You ask what my citizenship would be if not American, my answer
would be probably Israeli since I'm a Jew and I love the city of
Jerusalem. I hope for peace for my own people and all other people
there and if ever I do go to the holy city to live, any Iranian would
be an honored guest in my home and I would cook Persian cuisine for
them. And I guarantee that Mr. Ahmadinejad would be welcomed with
kindness and courtesy if he came and not in the uncivilized way
Columbia University received him, which was a disgrace. So that's my
contribution to the Middle East peace process. Probably I'm being too
idealistic, but the dinner invitation is real. I extend my hand, and I
know the Iranian nation are basically kind and noble and will take it.

Among many other things, Kourosh Ziabari has appeared on the BBC
outlook program and is a member of Stony Brook University Publications
editorial board. His writings have been translated into Italian,
German , Arabic, Spanish and Bulgarian and have been published on
several websites and online magazines.

http://themoderate osition-again-guest-voice/