Archive for January, 2009

Son of a Rug Man

January 28, 2009

Photo by Michelle May. A shop near the Tehran bazaar.

A declaration.

San Francisco
Tehran Bureau | comment

As we Iranian Americans recount all too often, we are doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists and even elected officials. We are considered to be one of the (if not the) most successful immigrant groups in the United States. There is one more thing that we are, however, that none of us ever wants to discuss: Rug dealers.

Stereotypes are a funny thing. Usually they’re based in those same one-dimensional negative experience of the perceiver, probably housed in a section of the brain that’s hard to control. And regrettably these experiences often feel very real.

The Persian Rug Dealer has become a pillar of American stereotypes: They’re cheaters, shysters, they employ shady marketing practices, they just won’t go out of business even though they promised they were about to years ago, they are nothing more than used car salesmen, no one can be trusted less. Not even the self-congratulatory “Persian,” nor the staunchest Iranian apologist will stand by their rug-selling brethren.

As the son of a rug man, I’ve seen this typecasting played out thousands of times, in hundreds of different ways, watching the line between innocuous stereotyping and racism crossed almost daily.

At first it hurt a little, but then I realized that this stigma was so ingrained into people’s thinking about rug men that it wasn’t even worth combating. Most of the rug men I knew had decided that it came with the territory and the only defense seemed to be even more over the top in their chicanery.

Over the past couple of years, however, I’ve witnessed an interesting trend; rug shops have become one of the few places where average Americans feel good about asking their Iran questions.

I think the logic goes something like this: “I don’t want to offend my neighbor or dental hygienist with a potentially hurtful question, so I’ll ask the heartless rug guy.”

As one of the few groups of people who actually do business with Iran, rug dealers are of course a natural source of information on Iran. Their opinions are as biased as anyone’s to be sure, but their attitudes are also more well rounded than the Iranian who hasn’t returned in thirty years or the one who goes back for two weeks every summer. Anyone importing regularly from Iran has a complex understanding of that country’s economy, business practices, public sentiment and every other social barometer imaginable.

Thus far though, it’s been mostly a missed opportunity. For most rug men their Iranian-ness has come to represent one more barrier to a sale and therefore something better left out of the conversation with their clientele.

My feeling though, is that we can’t hide from who we are. Real success comes when we’re able to embrace ourselves, warts and all. I’m Iranian, not Mediterranean or Spanish; and I’m the son of a rug man, nothing more nothing less.

For a crash course on Persian Rugs, click here.

On the Brink

January 27, 2009

Washington D.C.
| comment

Anger is boiling over in the Middle East over Gaza, and the result of the war has been to boost radicalism throughout the region, to strengthen the terrorist-inclined fanatics of Hamas, and to enhance the muscle of terrorist-inclined Israelis, including far-right parties such as Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and, of course, Likud’s bombastic Benjamin Netanyahu.

You probably didn’t know that the reason the Bush administration, in its last days, reversed course on Gaza is because they feared that U.S. embassies in the Middle East might be stormed by angry crowds if they did nothing. You’ll remember that, after weeks of supporting Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the United States suddenly reversed course and allowed the UN Security Council to pass a unanimous resolution demanding a ceasefire. (The United States didn’t vote yes, but it abstained — rather than threatening its oft-used veto.)

Speaking on January 14 at the New America Foundation, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilizad, said explicitly that the United States feared a violent explosion in the region, including the seizure of U.S. embassies by angry mobs, if the United States continued to block action by the UN. A central concern, said Khalilzad, is that mosque leaders all over the Middle East would mobilize the anger and direct it against the United States.

“What happened with this particular resolution is that there was a judgment made by our government that, after so many days of fighting, that given the pressure that the moderate Arabs were facing, and given that the Arabs were willing to accept a reasonable resolution, … [we needed] a reasonable resolution that emphasized a durable ceasefire …

“Given the Friday prayers that were coming — this was Thursday we are talking about — the fear was that if there was no resolution by the Security Council…by the prayer time, in the broader Middle East,that there would be embassies overrun, there would be a huge amount of violence. There was a lot of Egyptian and French diplomacy going on, and perhaps waiting…might have been a good idea, if the mosque issue was not a factor.”

In case you think the anger against Israel and the United States among theArabs is limited to Hamas and Hezbollah, consider the stunning comments of Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, who also served as the country’s ambassador to both Great Britain and the United States:

“In the past weeks, not only have the Israeli Defense Forces murdered more than 1,000 Palestinians, but they have come close to killing the prospect of peace itself. Unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk….

“America is not innocent in this calamity. Not only has the Bush administration left a sickening legacy in the region — from the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to the humiliation and torture at Abu Ghraib — but it has also, through an arrogant attitude about the butchery in Gaza, contributed to the slaughter of innocents. If the U.S. wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.”

These sentiments, that sort of anger, are virtually unprecedented coming from a top Saudi leader. He went on to suggest a possible Saudi alliance with Iran — yes, Iran! — in support of a jihad against Israel:

“Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran wrote a letter to King Abdullah, explicitly recognizing Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and calling on him to take a more confrontational role over ‘this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children’ in Gaza. The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom’s primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni. Further, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call for Saudi Arabia to lead a jihad against Israel would, if pursued, create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region.

“So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain.”

So: a top U.S. official says that American embassies were on the verge of being “overrun” by mobs, and a top Saudi official warns that his government is finding it hard to resist a “jihad” along with Iran.

“Heckuva job, Olmerty.”

Copyright 2009, The Nation, used with permission of Agence Global.

A Guide to Iran

January 25, 2009

A jaunt through Tehran, Esfahan and Persepolis.

Tehran Bureau | passport

The joke was barely out of my mouth before I regretted making it.

“The Great Satan,” I’d quipped when the Iranian airport security official asked me where I was from. Unsmiling, he looked me up and down and said, “Please come with me.”

A thousand thoughts exploded in my head, none of them comforting. But it turned out the man only wanted to walk around the corner for a little privacy so he could ask about getting a visa to come to America.

It was a most unexpected welcome to Iran — but not, as it turned out, all that unusual. During the month I spent there one fall not too long ago I had similar exchanges with Iranians from all walks of life, few of them interested in discussing the animosity that has existed for so long between our two governments.

Nobody burned an American flag in my presence. Nobody threw rocks or taunted me. Many, in fact, expressed embarrassment over the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days.

And rarely did average Iranians air their grievances with the United States, of which there are many: the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that overthrew a democratically elected prime minister; the decades of U.S. support for the unpopular Shah; the help given to Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war against Iran; and the shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing all 260 people aboard. The United States says it was a horrible accident; the Iranian government maintains it was deliberate.

Nor did anyone bring up the current contretemps over the enrichment of uranium and Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb. (My visit was before Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bizarre conference of Holocaust deniers last December.)

Understandably, though, most Americans are reluctant to travel to an “axis of evil,” as Bush calls it. But it’s perfectly legal to do so. Unlike Cuba, where U.S. law makes it virtually impossible for its citizens to set foot, Iran can be visited by any American who can get a visa (which, admittedly, is not always easy to do).

And there are plenty of reasons to go. In 2005, UNESCO ranked Iran seventh in the world in terms of historical, natural and archaeological assets. There’s world-class diving in the coral-rich Persian Gulf; skiing and mountain trekking take place amid peaks over 18,000 feet. But visitors don’t have to worry about jostling crowds: Iran ranks only 70th in the world in tourism revenue, which means not many are coming.

As an Iranian American growing up in Marin during the 1980s, I was constantly confronted with images of Iranians that never matched my perceptions or the experiences of people I knew so well. From an early age, I wanted to go to Iran and get to know it for myself, beyond both the U.S. propaganda and the often-distorted nostalgia of Iranian expats living in America.

Focused on the past

Arriving in Tehran, it’s hard to imagine there would be much worth staying to visit. The smog hangs over the city so thickly it has a texture. The city streets often resemble a parking lot. Many of its old architectural gems were destroyed by the Shah and replaced by drab, modern buildings, many now cheerlessly adorned with billboards honoring martyrs from Iran’s war with Iraq. Tehran, one quickly discovers, is a little rough around the edges.

Something about it, though, kept me transfixed. Tehran’s charm doesn’t lie in prettiness but in its surprises. For a city of its size (somewhere between 12 million and 15 million; no one is really sure) Tehran is improbably warm and friendly. Since the streets are packed, many Tehranis opt to take taxis. Unless the passenger is ready to pay for the whole cab and clearly states so, the driver will pick up as many passengers as the car will hold. This is a great way to see Tehran and get to know its residents. Any official gender segregation goes completely unnoticed, and men and women from all social strata discuss everything from government corruption to American pop music to computers to ever-rising inflation. I speak a little Persian, but it’s not essential for a visit; many Iranians, especially the younger ones, speak English.

One afternoon, to escape the smog, I hailed one of these communal cabs and headed for the top of Tehran, to one of the Shah’s former palaces. As I made my way through the entrance of the Sa’ad Abad Museum Complex, I felt I was in another world. The grounds were covered in lush, mature trees that appeared to be well manicured. On the ample lawns that surround the regal buildings, couples of all ages sat and flirted, making sure not to do anything too risqué.

It was clear from the literature provided at the door and from the bored and scruffy-looking guards — who were all too willing to give a guided tour of the artifacts of monarchial excess — that this museum was meant to show the evils of the Shah’s reign. The effect, though, was of a wistful nostalgia on the part of every visitor I saw, most of them ogling the large Persian rugs (the likes of which have all but vanished from Iran into the collections of Westerners) while the elders recounted the Iranian achievements of that era. Iran, I realized, is a nation fixated on what could have been.

Tehran today

Returning to reality — and to the smog — I made my way back to Tajrish, a bustling, upscale neighborhood in the north of the city, where I was approached by a women shrouded completely in black, a rare sight in that more liberal part of Tehran.

“Are you going to Vanak Square?” she asked.

I told her I was, but that I wasn’t a driver.

“I am!” she snapped, as if it should have been obvious. “Get in and let’s go.”

One of the few female taxi drivers in Tehran, she took us on shortcuts through residential neighborhoods and drove as if she would know them with her eyes closed. With every pothole we hit, she cursed the inefficiencies of the regime, to the delight of the five of us who were her fares.

For visitors from the West, the role of women here is an eye-opener. Sixty percent of university students are female. Women now hold many of the traditionally male jobs and are a conspicuous and beautiful part of Iranian public life. Compare these numbers with U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, and it leads to head-scratching. And as I learned that night, they can most certainly drive cars.

One site in Tehran is far more fascinating to visiting Americans than it is to most Iranians: The old U.S. embassy, site of the 1979 student takeover that so badly soured relations between the two nations.

It’s an imposing site, taking up several city blocks in central Tehran, and it’s surrounded by a huge brick wall. The walls are covered with anti-American and anti-Israeli murals and quotes from Ayatollah Khomeini. Above the wall is barbed wire.

These days, much of the grounds are used as a headquarters for a military group, while the main building is an anti-imperialism museum open only a few days a year. A couple of rooms are dedicated to depicting American operations within the “Den of Spies,” as the Iranians once called the embassy. Other exhibits honor the students who took over the embassy and spent weeks painstakingly piecing together shredded U.S. documents. Photo exhibits depict atrocities perpetrated on Iran and other developing nations.

I happened to be in Tehran on one of the few days the museum was open. When I asked a taxi driver to take me to the “old American Embassy,” his response surprised me: “Old American Embassy? There’s only one American Embassy, which is the property of the U.S.” He went into a long diatribe about how international law was broken when the embassy was seized. For most Iranians, the embassy takeover was clearly not their proudest moment.

When I arrived, groups of schoolchildren were being led around and quizzed about Western atrocities against Muslims. After I made it clear to everyone there that I was American, the scene quickly changed to one of curiosity and friendliness.

“What’s new in Hollywood?” asked one of the students in a hushed voice. Young Iranians are more informed about American pop culture than I’ll ever be, but as far as American political history goes, they seemed uninterested.

‘The Persian Florence’

If Tehran is an acquired taste, Esfahan is an epiphany. Travelers returning from Iran have for centuries boasted of the “Persian Florence.” Visiting the blue, mosaic-tiled mosques that help quench the desert’s ravenous thirst for civilization, though, I had to question that comparison. Both towns rose to glory during the same era, but it was Esfahan, not its unofficial European sister city, that was Earth’s most populous capital. Behind every corner I stumbled upon spectacular reminders of that rich past.

The city was built around the river Zayandeh Rood, which is crossed by two of the world’s most picturesque pedestrian bridges. The first is Si-o-Se Pol, literally “Thirty Three Bridge,” named for its 33 arches. The second, the Khaju bridge built by Shah Abbas in 1650, has two stories and features stone stairs that descend to the river. It’s probably the best place in Iran to dip your feet on a hot day.

A popular Persian rhyme of the day that “Esfahan is half the world” gave Esfahan’s square its original name. Indeed, the square has been the heart of the city since it was built in 1612, flanked by some of the most important buildings of the Islamic world and a labyrinthine bazaar that still serves as the center of commerce.

After five centuries, it remains one of the largest public squares in the world. It is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and from the moment I entered through one of its ancient corridors it has been my favorite place on earth. Not surprisingly, the past two regimes have co-opted the square as its own, going predictably from “Shah Square” to “Imam Square.” But, as a dapper young doctor in Levis and Reeboks told me, “We are proud of our city and its place in history, and to us this will always be known by its original name, ‘Reflection of the World Square.'”

Esfahan continues to be Iran’s most religiously diverse city, with a number of churches, Zoroastrian temples — and, yes, synagogues. This comes as a big surprise amid all the anti-Zionist rhetoric, but Iran is home to more Jews — about 30,000 — than any other Middle Eastern nation, other than Israel. In a country known for its devotion to religious icons and martyrs, for me Esfahan itself was the ultimate pilgrimage.

Ruins of an empire

Stepping even further back in time, I visited the ruins of Persepolis, south of Esfahan — the ancient Persian city constructed by Darius the Great, beginning in 512 B.C.

What remains today is a series of bas-reliefs with intricately carved characters that include brigades of soldiers and mythical figures such as the winged Homa, which predates Islam by many centuries but remains a symbol of Persian pride.

Buried under sand until the 1930s, when it was excavated, the remains only hint at the grandeur of this desert palace. Darius’ father-in-law, Cyrus, was the founder of Persia and the first architect of a human rights declaration. During his reign the Persian Empire spread to become the largest nation the world had yet seen.

The construction of Persepolis took nearly 150 years, and the city’s glory was short-lived. Alexander the Great’s army burned the city to the ground in 330 B.C.

Wandering the ruins early in the morning, I thought about how Persepolis represented Iran’s first what-could-have-been moment, and how it is facing another fork in the road right now. Based on the warm welcome the people here gave to a citizen of their ostensible enemy, I left full of hope.

Jason Rezaian, director of Iran Media Services, is a guide to journalists visiting Iran.

Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran

January 24, 2009

Photo by Iason Athanasiadis

Los Angeles

Tehran Bureau | spotlight

It is the most hypothetical news story topping the international news agenda: Is the Islamic Republic pursuing a nuclear bomb? Does it lurk behind the Iraq insurgency? Is it out to dominate the Persian Gulf? Where is the fire amid the smoke?

Speculation and demonization consistently drown out WHAT IS arguably the Middle East’s most diverse ethnic and religious culture. They obscure landscapes of rare variety and geological beauty pulsating with colour and a rare light. Iran’s mystical topography is the setting for the struggle between tradition and modernity. It has been a constant in the modern era, first during the Qajar and Pahlavi empires, then throughout the three-decade lifespan of the Islamic Republic.

I come from Greece, a country as rich in heritage and as culturally fractious as Iran. Moving to Tehran in 2004, I was struck by our shared culture wars. Old civilizations find it particularly awkward to adapt to a rational modernity where culture and tradition stand for little; countries where indigenous religions, Greek polytheism, and Iranian Zoroastrianism, are subsumed by Christian and Muslim monotheism.

Greece and Iran have both been crossroads and laboratories for experiments in social conditioning. The most radical consequence of these culture wars was the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Whether in the form of churches planted on top of marble temples or Zoroastrian shrines transformed into imamzadehs (burial shrines for Shiite saints), the imposition of monotheism signified the loss of indigenous traditions.

I photographed Iran from the perspective of charting shared narratives and divergent fates. I leave you to make up your mind about this secular theocracy manifesting paradox in its every fissure.


“Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran: Through the lens of Iason Athanasiadis” opens tomorrow at CAFAM in Los Angeles. The exhibit offers an alternative narrative of the country famously included in the “Axis of Evil” by President George W. Bush. Through the vivid photography of international photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis, visitors will experience an Iran rarely seen in Western media. Vignettes of daily life not unlike our own are revealed in stunning color and black and white photography: Friends on a weekend ski-trip; a Tehran designer’s first fashion show; Soccer fans rooting for the home team; backstage at a rock concert. With the youth demographic rapidly growing—today, nearly 70% of Iran’s population is under 30—Iran’s traditional culture is adapting and being reinterpreted by a youth subculture that is both Western and critical of the West.

The Art (and Politics) of Translation

January 23, 2009

Niloufar Talebi reading from her book, “Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World.” Rug Jones, San Francisco. Photo by Golnoush Niknejad

Read in Persian.

Save our literature.

New York City

Tehran Bureau | spotlight

In 2002, a poet friend of mine, Sally Lee Christian, was recruited by a few Uzbeks to help them translate the poet Delshod into English, a collaborative act she found so riveting that she set upon a campaign to recruit me to translate Iranian poetry with her. At that time, I had not so much as thought about translation, despite the fact that I had studied Comparative Literature in college, which meant I had read a good chunk of the classics in translation, and even though as an immigrant I was translating, on some level, all the time.

Her persistence prevailed on me. I eventually agreed — albeit casually — to try my hand at it. For our project, I naturally gravitated toward Forough Farrokhzad from my parents’ abundantly stocked library, which they had brought over from Iran. But my Persian was rusty. I had not really read Persian since 1984, when I left Iran as a schoolgirl. I picked “Tavallodi Digar” or “Another Birth,” which is one of Farrokhzad’s iconic poems, to start. With help, I began to understand each verse, stanza, and eventually the whole poem. Sally would drive 45 minutes to our sessions in my studio and after reading my drafts and notes about the original poem, we would discuss for hours Farrokhzad’s possible intentions, each defending our interpretations, sometimes tearfully as to whether to opt for ‘pool’ over ‘pond’ in a certain line, for example. It was in this process of understanding, interpreting and creating the translation of a poem that I began to understand the work, as well as the responsibility and pleasure of translation. In short, I fell in love, found myself in this activity that seemed to bring it altogether for me, and devoted myself to the art of translation.

In this pursuit, as I heard more and more of my friends refer to Rumi as the only Persian poet they knew in translation, I was overcome with the desire to introduce them to the many 20th century writers unknown to them. But I scarcely found literary translations of Shamlou, Sepehri, Al-Ahmad, Nima, Sepehri, Farrokhzad, Behbahani and others that had captured a wide readership. Rilke, Akhmatova, Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, Szymborska, Pushkin had all been widely translated, studied and enjoyed in English. So, I thought, why not contemporary Iranian writers?

I had a personal connection to the poet Ahmad Shamlou, who I had the great fortune of knowing in Iran. In the years between 1980 and 1984, he often visited my parent’s home, so finding a way to introduce contemporary writers in translation became not only a matter of principal, but a personal quest for me. As a result, in 2003, I founded The Translation Project, an organization dedicated to bringing contemporary Iranian literature to worldwide audiences. Since then, each time I am interviewed by the media, I receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions from Iranians asking to have their writings translated and published in the United States. Because the number of such emails are far beyond what I can reasonably reply to, and also becauase of the similarity of requests, I will respond here. By doing so, I hope to make Iranian writers aware of the challenges we face in bringing translated works to readers in the United States.

Let me start off by giving some basic facts about the state of translation in the United States, gleaned from information I’ve gathered from attending the American Literary Translators Association and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conferences, in addition to consulting sources such as the PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation, To Be Translated Or Not To Be, by Esther Allen (Ed)., and from experience accumulated by working in the trenches as a literary translator of contemporary Iranian literature.

The current reality is that very few works of literature written in languages other than English ever find their way into the U.S. market. Statistics suggest that of all books published annually in the United States, less than 3% are works of translation, a number which includes retranslations, reissues and non-literary works. The number of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry is closer to 0.3-0.7%, a number mainly comprised of works of European literature, since countries such as France, Germany, Greece, Italy, etc., provide support for the translation of their national literature into English and other languages. Recently, China has partnered with large publishers such as HarperCollins and Penguin to bring several Chinese titles into the English language and distribute them in the U.S. and U.K. markets. The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for the book publishing industry, held annually in mid-October in Germany, plans to feature China as its guest nation in 2009; and the Man Group investment company, the sponsor of the annual Booker Prize, has announced the creation of a new literary prize for Asian writers. These are all examples of large-scale, organized efforts on behalf of these countries to introduce their literature in translation. Apart from the small startup nonprofit that I run, and the limited way in which it can compete for attention in translating and publishing Iranian literature, there is no other organized, translation-focused effort to advance Iranian literature in English that I know of.

The 0.3-3% stands in stark contrast to the much higher rates of translation available in countries like Germany and Iran. We all know that one can (and I did) read the Western canon translated into Persian (Greek tragedies, Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Eliot, Cervantes, Kafka, Emile Zola, among others); but the treasures of Iranian literature — save for the handful of classical works — are scarcely available in translation in the United States.

The good news is that awareness of this general scarcity of translated works has spawned a trend in the United States since I started following these issues closely in 2003: The National Endowment for the Arts increased the funding — small as it is to begin with — it allocates to works of translation; PEN American Center’s PEN Translation Fund was established in the summer of 2003 by a gift from an anonymous donor in response to the disarmingly low number of literary translations currently appearing in English; websites like, and new publishers of literary translations such as Archipelago, and Open Letter have sprung up; veteran publishers of literary translation such as Dalkey Archive Press, New Directions, and Graywolf Press continue their dedication to publishing translations; literary magazines such as Circumference, and Two Lines publish translations only, and several blogs about translation, like Three Percent now exist.

Something else we have working in our favor is the mass Iranian migration after the 1979 revolution, which has produced a new generation of truly bilingual Iranian-Americans whose dominant language is English and who can provide a unique service in bringing this literature into English. (This does not implicate that being Iranian or bilingual is necessary for rendering successful translations, but this is a topic for another blog entry!). Now, slowly but surely, literary translations of Iranian literature, especially contemporary Iranian literature, are on the rise. Here is a brief list of publication in the past 5 years:

Women Without Men, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet (The Feminist Press at CUNY, March 2004)

Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, Tr. Richard Jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2004)

The Love Poems Of Ahmad Shamlu, Tr. Firoozeh Papan-Matin (Ibex Publishers, December 2005)

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, Tr. Dick Davis (Modern Library, April 2006)

Selections from Saadi’s Bustan
, Tr. Richard jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2006)

Strange Times My Dear, The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, Ed. by Nahid Mozaffari (Arcade Publishing, April 2006)

Sin: Selected Poems of Forough Farrokhzad, Tr. Sholeh Wolpe’ (University of Askansas Press, October 2007)

The Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, by Ferdowsi, Tr. Dick Davis (Panguin Classics, February 2007)

Touba and the Meaning of Night, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at CUNY, Jan 2008)

Missing Soluch, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Tr. by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, June 2007)

BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, Edited and Translated by Niloufar Talebi (North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

Though all of these new efforts have somewhat strengthened the presence of translated literature in the United States, comparatively speaking, translations of Iranian literature are still not prevalent in America. With the tremendous shift in book reading and buying trends, causing the decline of the U.S. (and world) book market, in addition to the lack of any systematic support (the likes of which exist for countries like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, etc.) for Iranian literature in translation, we might only hope for a slim representation.

Considering these factors, one fundamental question arises: How can we systematically plan and support the translation and publication of Iranian literature?

The answer to this question is simple: With proper funding from the many (Iranian) individuals who are in the position to contribute an endowment, we can establish a fully functioning International Institute of Iranian Letters capable of commissioning translations through the recommendations of rotating editorial committees, paying translators, and placing proposals with publishers to get the works published. Until there is support for such an organization, these efforts cannot be systematically fulfilled. And until then, I ask people who email me to consider that without proper support and staff, we simply cannot focus resources on every unsolicited manuscript we receive. Currently, our focus can only be on writers who have left an imprint on Iranian literature already — writers such as Shamloo. However, in order to address the numerous requests we receive, we are now offering professional translation, editing and proposal-writing services to authors at standard global rates in order to prepare them to pursue these efforts on their own. See our Translation Services Web page for information on this.

We welcome partnerships with larger art organizations, universities or other groups to realize our goal of launching Iran’s first International Institute of Iranian Letters. With proper partnerships, strategy, funding and leadership, we can make anything happen.

Niloufar Talebi is founder of The Translation Project, the editor/translator of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, August 2008), and creator of ICARUS/RISE, new Iranian poetry in multimedia Naghali.

هنر(وسیاست) ترجمه

January 23, 2009
هنر(وسیاست) ترجمه
نیلوفر طالبی
به ترجمه ی شهریارخوّاجیان

Read in English.

یکی از دوستان شاعر من، سالی. لی. کریستیان ، در سال 2002 به درخواست چند شهروند ازبکستان درآمد تا به آن ها در ترجمه ی سروده های های دلشاد به انگلیسی کمک کند، کاری گروهی که چنان برای وی جالب توجه بود که شروع به فعالیت برای جذب من برای ترجمه ی شعر های فارسی بهمراه خود کرد. من درآن زمان چندان به ترجمه فکر نمی کردم، و این به رغم تحصیلات دانشگاهی ام در رشته ادبیات تطبیقی بود که معنایش این بود که قطعات زیادی از ادبیات ترجمه شده را خوانده بودم، و حتی به عنوان یک مهاجر تمام وقت به نوعی مشغول ترجمه بودم.

پافشاری او مرا متقاعد کرد وسرانجام موافقت کردم- هرچند بطور غیر جدی- تا در این کار دستی داشت باشم. من طبیعتا ازمیان انبوه کتاب هایی که پدرومادرم با خود از ایران آورده بودند، گرایش به کارهای فروغ فرخزاد پیدا کردم. اما فارسی من در آن زمان آنچنان روان نبود ومن به واقع از 1984(1363) که به عنوان یک دختر مدرسه ای ایران را ترک کردم، فارسی نخوانده بودم. من سروده ی تولدی دیگر فروغ را برگزیدم که ازجمله ی محبوب ترین ونمادی ترین سروده های وی برای پرداختن به کارهای اوست. با گرفتن کمک، شروع به درک هر مصرع، بیت، و سرانجام تمامت این سروده کردم. سالی 45 دقیقه رانندگی می کرد تا به جلساتی بیآید که در استودیوی من برگزار می شد. پس از خواندن دستنویس و یادداشت هایم درباره ی سروده ی اصلی، ما ساعت ها درباره ی مقاصد فروغ بحث و هریک از برداشت های خود، با عشق و دوستی، دفاع می کردیم.

در این فرآیند درک، تفسیر و ترجمه ی یک سروده بود که شروع به درک ، و نیزاحساس مسئولیت و لذت از کار کردم. خلاصه اینکه، دلبسته ی این کار شدم و خودرا درگیر فعالیتی یافتم که بنظر می رسید که روح دو گانه ی مرا تسکین می کرد و خود را وقف هنر ترجمه کردم.

دراین راه، درحالیکه از شمار هرچه بیشتری از دوستانم می شنیدم که تنها رومی(مولوی) را به عنوان شاعر پارسی گو از طریق ترجمه ی آثارش می شناسند، این تمایل در من به وجود آمد که آنان را با بسیاری از نویسندگان (و شعرای) ناشناخته ی ایران قرن بیستم آشنا سازم. اما به کمتر ترجمه ‘ادبی’ از آثار شاملو، سپهری، آل احمد، نیما، فرخ زاد، بهبهانی برخوردم که بتوانم آن را به خوانندگان توصیه کنم. آثار ریلکه، آخماتووا، گوته، نرودا، ریمباد، ژیمبورسکا و پوشکین به شکل گسترده ای به انگلیسی ترجمه، خوانده و از آن ها بهره برده شده است. بنابراین، ازخود پرسیدم چرا آثار نویسندگان ایرانی به شکل گسترده ترجمه نشود؟ من رابطه ای شخصی با شاعر ایرانی، احمد شاملو داشتم و از فرصت بزرگ آشنایی با او در ایران برخوردار بودم. درسال های 1980-84(1359-63) وی اغلب به خانه ی ما می آمد، و لذا یافتن راهی برای معرفی نویسندگان معاصر از طریق ترجمه نه تنها مسئله ای اصولی برای من، که یک امرعاطفی شخصی نیز شد. درنتیجه، در سال 2003(1382) پروژه ترجمه را به راه انداختم ، نهادی که اختصاص به معرفی ادبیات معاصر ایران به مخاطبان جهانی دارد. از آن زمان، هر بار که با رسانه ها مصاحبه می کردم صدها پیشنهاد ناخواسته از ایرانیان دریافت می کردم که تقاضای ترجمه و انتشار نوشته های شان در آمریکا را داشتند. ازآنجا که شمار رایانامه (یی میل) های دریافتی بسیار فراتر از آنچه هستند که بتوانم به شکل مناسبی به آن ها پاسخ دهم، و نیز به دلیل شباهت این درخواست ها، پاسخ خودرا به علاقمندان دراین نوشته بطور یکجا می دهم. با این کار امیدوارم این نویسندگان را از چالش های پیش رو در ارتباط با معرفی آثار ترجمه شده به خوانندگان آمریکایی آگاه سازم.

اجازه دهید با طرح چند واقعیت مهم درباره ی شرایط ترجمه در آمریکا آغاز کنم، که حاصل اطلاعات گرد آوری شده از حضور در انجمن آمریکایی مترجمان ادبی و کنفرانس های سالانه ی انجمن برنامه های نویسندگان و نویسندگی و نیز مشورت با منابعی همچون PEN/IRL ، گزارش پیرامون شرایط بین المللی ترجمه ی ادبی تحت عنوان ترجمه بشود یا نشود ، نوشته ی استر آلن(ویراستار)، و از تجربه انباشته از کار به عنوان مترجم ادبیات معاصر ایران، بوده است.

واقعیت کنونی این است : آثار ادبی غیرانگلیسی انگشت شماری راه خود را به بازار آمریکا می گشایند. آمار حکایت از این دارند که کمتر از 3 درصد از همه ی کتاب هایی که سالانه در آمریکا منتشر می شوند آثار ترجمه ای هستند، رقمی که بازترجمه ها، تجدید چاپ ها و آثار غیر ادبی را نیز در بر می گیرد. شمار آثار ادبیات داستانی، غیر داستانی و شعر نزدیک به 0.3-0.7 (سه دهم تا هفت دهم) درصد است، رقمی که عمدتا شامل ادبیات اروپایی می شود، زیرا کشورهایی مانند فرانسه، آلمان، یونان، ایتالیا و غیره از ترجمه ی ادبیات ملی شان به زبان انگلیسی و دیگر زبان ها حمایت می کنند. بتازگی، چین در شراکت با انتشارات بزرگی همچون هارپر کالینز و پنگوئن چندین عنوان کتاب چینی را به زبان انگلیسی درآورده و آن ها را در بازار آمریکا و انگلیس توزیع کرده است. نمایشگاه کتاب فرانکفورت ، بزرگترین نمایشگاه تجاری صنعت نشر که همه ساله در میانه های اکتبر(اواخر مهرماه) در آلمان برگزار می شود، در نظر دارد چین را به عنوان میهمان ویژه ی سال 2009 خود معرفی کند. شرکت سرمایه گذاری Man Group، حامی مالی جایزه سالانه بوکر نیز مبتکر ایجاد یک جایزه ی جدید ادبی برای نویسندگان خاوردوری شد. این ها نمونه هایی از تلاش های پردامنه و سازمان یافته ی برخی کشورها برای معرفی ادبیات خود بصورت ترجمه هستند. جدا از این نهاد تازه کار غیرانتفاعی که من اداره ی آن را بعهده دارم، و امکانات محدودی که برای رقابت در توجه به کار ترجمه و انتشار ادبیات فارسی دارد، من کار سازمان یافته و ترجمه- محور دیگری را برای عرضه ی ادبیات ایران به زبان انگلیسی سراغ ندارم.

رقم 0.3-.07 درصد تفاوت فاحشی با ارقام بسیار بالاتر ترجمه در کشورهایی همچون آلمان و ایران دارد. ما همه می دانیم که می توان متون ترجمه شده به فارسی (تراژدی های یونانی، هومر، ویرژیل، افلاطون، ارسطو، اووید، شوسر، دانته، ولتر، روسو، بالزاک، الیوت، سروانتس، کافکا، امیل زولا، و دیگران) را خواند (و من خود خوانده ام)، اما گنجینه ی ادبیات فارسی- به استثنا ی معدودی از آثار کلاسیک- کمتر بصورت ترجمه در آمریکا وجود دارد.

خبر خوب این است: از سال 2003 که من این مسئله را دنبال کرده ام، آگاهی از کمبود کارهای ترجمه شده روندی را در آمریکا به جریان انداخته است : موقوفه ملی هنر بودجه ی تخصیصی به آثار ترجمه ای را افزایش داد (هرچند اندک در آغاز کار)؛ صندوق ترجمه پن وابسته به مرکز آمریکایی پن درتابستان 2003 به واسطه ی هدیه یک اهداکننده ی ناشناس و در پاسخ به شمار بسیار کم ترجمه های موجود ادبی به زبان انگلیسی، تشکیل شد؛ وب سایت هایی مانند و ناشران جدید ترجمه های ادبی همچون Archipelago و Open Letter سربرآورده اند؛ ناشران کهنه کار ترجمه های ادبی مانند
Dalkey Archive Press ، New Directions و Graywolf Press تعهد خودرا به انتشار کتاب های ترجمه ای ادامه می دهند؛ نشریات ادبی همچون Circumference و Two Lines فقط آثار ترجمه ای را منتشر می کنند، و اکنون چند بلاگ مانند Three Percent در ارتباط با ترجمه فعالیت دارند.

پدیده ی دیگری که ما به سود خود می بینیم، مهاجرت انبوه ایرانیان پس از انقلاب 1979(1357) است که نسل جدیدی از ایرانی- آمریکایی های دو زبانه به وجود آورده است که زبان مسلطشان انگلیسی است، و لذا می توانند نقش یگانه ای در برگردان آثار ادبی ایرانی به انگلیسی ایفا کنند. (این بدان معنا نیست که ایرانی یا دو زبانه بودن لازمه ی انجام ترجمه های موفق باشد، اما این موضوعی برای یک مقاله ی دیگراست!) اکنون، ترجمه ی ادبیات فارسی بویژه ادبیات معاصر ایران، آهسته اما پیوسته، رو به افزایش دارد. موارد زیر نمونه ای از این روند افزایشی است در پنخ سال اخیر:

زنان بدون مردان ، نوشته ی شهرنوش پارسی پور، ترجمه ی کامران تلطف و ژوسلین شارلت
(The Feminist Press at CUNY, March 2004)

گزیده هایی ازگلستان سعدی، ترجمه ی ریچارد جفری نیومن
(Global Scholarly Publications, 2004)

سروده های عاشقانه ی احمد شاملو، ترجمه ی فیروزه پاپان – متین
(Ibex Publishers, December 2005)

دایی جان ناپلئون ، نوشته ایرج پزشکزاد ، ترجمه ی دیک دیویس
(Modern Library, April 2006)

گزیده هایی از بوستان سعدی، ترجمه ی ریچارد جفری نیومن
(Global Scholarly Publications, 2006)

روزگار غریبی است نازنین ،جنگ نامه ی پن درباره ی ادبیات معاصر ایران، ویرآستار ناهید مظفری
(Arcade Publishing, April 2006)

گناه : گزیده ی سروده های فروغ فرخزاد،ترجمه ی شعله وولپه
(University of Arkansas Press, October 2007)

شاهنامه ، کتاب شاهان ایران،سروده ی [حکیم ابوالقاسم] فردوسی ، ترجمهی دیک دیویس
(Penguin Classics, February 2007)

جای خالی سلوچ ،از محمود دولت آبادی ، ترجمه ی کامران رستگار
(Melville House Press, October 2007)

طوبا و معنای شب ، از شهرنوش پارسی پور، ترجمه ی حوا هوشمند و کامران تلطف
(The Feminist Press at CUNY, Jan 2008)

دلبستنگی :شعر های جدید ایرانیان سراسر جهان
ویراستار و مترجم نیلوفر طالبی
(North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

هرچند همه ی این تلاش های جدید تا اندازه ای حضور ادبیات ترجمه ای را در آمریکا تقویت کرده است، ترجمه ی ادبیات فارسی هنوز در مقایسه با دیگر کشورها متداول نیست. با توجه به دگرگونی فوق العاده در امر کتابخوانی و خرید کتاب که موجب افول بازار آمریکا (وجهان) افزون بر فقدان هر گونه حمایت سیستماتیک از ادبیات ایران (از نوعی که در کشورهایی مانند آلمان، اسپانیا، فرانسه، ایتالیا، یونان و غیره وجود دارد)، فقط می توان امید به نتیجه ای محدود داشت.

با توجه به این عوامل، یک پرسش بنیادی مطرح می شود : چگونه می توان از ترجمه و نشر ادبیات ایرانی حمایت و برای آن برنامه ریزی کرد؟

پاسخ این پرسش ساده است : با کمک مالی بسیاری از افراد (ایرانی) که از موقعیت کمک به یک موقوفه (بنیاد) برخوردارند، ما می توانیم یک نهاد بین المللی فعال در رشته ی ادبیات فارسی تاسیس کنیم که بتواند از طریق توصیه ی کمیته های ویراستاری نوبتی سفارش برای ترجمه دهد، به مترجمان پول بپردازد، و طرح پیشنهادی ی نوشته یا کتاب را برای انتشار این آثار به ناشران بدهد. تا زمانی که حمایت از چنان سازمانی شکل بگیرد، این تلاش ها نمی تواند بطور سیستماتیک به بار نشیند. تا آن زمان، از کسانی که برای ما رایانامه می فرستند می خواهم که توجه داشته باشند ما بدون حمایت و نیروی انسانی کافی نمی توانیم منابع محدود خود را صرف هر متن ناخواسته ای کنیم که به دست مان می رسد. در شرایط کنونی، توجه ما فقط به نویسندگانی است که عملا اثر و نشانی از خود در ادبیات ایران بجا گذاشته اند- کسانی همچون شاملو… با این حال، در مورد درخواست های بیشماری که دریافت می کنیم، ما اکنون خدمات ترجمه ، ویراستاری حرفه ای و طرح- نوشته به نویسندگان با نرخ های استاندارد جهانی عرضه می کنیم تا آن ها را در پیگیری این کارها به یاری خودشان آماده گردانیم. برای اطلاعات بیشتر Translation Services .به صفحه ی وب رجوع کنید

ما از شراکت با سازمان های بزرگتر هنری، دانشگاه ها یا دیگر گروه ها برای تحقق هدف مان در راه اندازی نخستین نهاد ایرانی ادبیات فارسی، استقبال می کنیم. با شراکت، راهبرد، بودجه و رهبری مناسب می توانیم هر کاری انجام دهیم.
The Translation Projectنیلوفر طالبی، بنیانگزار
مترجم و ویرآستار دلبستنگی : شعر های جدید ایرانیان سراسر جهان
(North-Atlantic Books, August 2008)
است. multimedia Naghali شعرهای جدید ایرانی در

Persepolis, à la Grecque

January 23, 2009

Photo/Effie-Michelle Metallidis

Shiraz, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

My hand scrapes along a wall of fallen Persepolis as the sun wanes. We’ve reached the site just as the centuries-old ritual between sun and stone begins, the play of light evoking how far the remains have endured, surviving not merely ancient grudges, but modern arrogance. A pass under the Gate of Nations reveals as much: the American journalists Henry M Stanley of The New York Herald has already been here in 1870 as per a carefully chiseled inscription; so has a DSP E Andre, who also carved his name into the base of the entry gates in 1899, while J Granytam, JB Marrige and Wm Lundt all took their time to etch their names in cursive in 1810.

I can only imagine witnessing the grandeur of Persia’s glory a few hundred years ago, when the absence of digital cameras and websites made viewership an exclusive affair. The heightened adrenalin that, much like mine, coursed through veins of travelers passing through the remains of what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, torched to the ground. Or, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, had torched to the ground at the command of Thais, an Athenian woman whose vitriol caused the historian to enthuse that “the sacrilege committed by Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the Acropolis of Athens was avenged by a single woman, a fellow-citizen of the victims, who many years later, and in sport, inflicted the same treatment on the Persians.”

But the journey I made to Iran during late November of 2008 wasn’t on the premise of rehashing bygone enmity. Nor was it to examine Persian relics as a DSP E Andre or Wm Lundt; nor was it to ride the coattails of a new-found Orientalism. I came as a Mediterranean whose roots were mottled by centuries of conquest and empire, whose ethnic identity seemed as malleable as the red clay of sequestered Abyaneh. I did not come as subject nor conqueror, but as Alice, peering through the looking glass, and watched as a remote language re-aligned itself in a familiar pattern that told of the same humor, hospitality, culture and traffic violations.

It is the folly of nationalism that has disrupted the complexity of geography, thrusting Iran and Greece into their present states without paying much heed to the intertwined history both cultures continue to share. From the carved Greek and Persian inscriptions on a horse at Shaipur’s Parade in Naqsh-e-Rajeb, to the controversy kicked up over Hollywood’s interpretation of Thermopylae in 2006’s 300, to the fact that history still calls Persia’s crown jewel a name given to it by the Greeks, the ghosts of past alliances linger, and they walk among the living.

It is partly through a raging 19th century Hellenophilism, trumpeted by the likes of Byron and other romantics, that has kept Greece in the popular imagination of the West, while Iran, its shah, its revolution and its past, have slowly drained from the annals of collective memory. In imagining Iran, my generation has had little to draw on other than the sound bites of antagonism: the Iranian hostage crisis, Iran Air flight 655, sanctions, isolation, distortions further parlayed into the imagination through portrayals like Frank Miller’s comic book yarn of the freedom-loving Spartans facing Xerxes’s barbarous empire.

Staring at the remains of Persepolis now with Greece in mind, the relics of these two ancient civilizations seem to collude together as only former centers of the world can. There is something of the retired cabaret dancer in both of them; a sad beauty that only hints at past performances of a stunning nature. In Iran, the relics of the fallen empire aspirate an empty grandeur. In Pasargade, only columns and a mute tomb remain. The hollowness consumes the space between the monuments, the vapid breath of the valley. Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab are quiet, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they exist off of the E-7 highway, the path of modernity at pains to make concessions for no one. There, in an area marked off by a fence and some gravel, the remains of Sassanid bas-reliefs. Further down the road, tufts of withered grass on the dirt path leads to the tombs of Achaemenid kings. The casual nature of their existence, 4000 years of history chiseled into rock that follows along an asphalt road, reminds me of a mother with too many children to look after. There are simply too many layers to count, too many historical moments to cordon off and venerate.

The sites are at once glorious, tragic, forgotten and persistent, and nowhere more so than at Persepolis. I shuffle through the gravel, following the stele of a regal procession showcasing delegates of the 23 nations under the empire. How to parse and separate them? How to delineate between East and West, Greek and Persian, here or there, when no such partition exists in the mind, when then, as now, labels fray like threads when put under intense pressure?

It is maddening. And all the time, ever-present, ever-watchful, the eyes of Persepolis. The soldiers, the demi-gods, the lions, the lamassus, the Gopat-Shah, even defaced, even the replicas. Large, round, rubbed with a dark tint that lends dimension to their muteness. Ever-watchful of their environs and their visitors, the round surface of each orb, all-encompassing, as was the empire from which they emerged.

And yet among the difference, I find myself experiencing a strange sense of deja vu. The empire – the Hellenic, the Persian – worn down by time, pollution, visitors and memory, their ruins still speaking of a shared legacy, as when one Iranian friend journeyed to the Acropolis and, upon hearing his background, have a Greek remark, “You didn’t come to finish the job, did you?”

Who is Afraid of a U.S.- Iran Rapprochement?

January 20, 2009

Arab Governments.

Photo: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appears to covet a status more commonly associated with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Cover of Diplomat magazine, published by the Saudi foreign ministry, last November.


Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were broken off by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, after the American embassy in Tehran was overrun by Iranian students in November 1979 and 53 Americans were taken hostage for 444 days. The Reagan administration tried to secretly establish working relations with Iran, but that led to the infamous Iran-Contra scandal. President George H. W. Bush was so interested in re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran that in his inauguration speech in January 1989 he declared that “good will [on Iran’s part] begets good will” on the part of Americans.

After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, passed away in June 1989, the Iranian government began to gradually distance itself from his revolutionary policies. Hence, in response to President Bush’s call, Iran helped the U.S. with freeing the American hostages in Lebanon, and provided support to the U.S.-led coalition forces that expelled Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991. But, Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, and the Clinton administration quickly let it be known that it was not interested in rapprochement with Iran.

In a gesture for re-establishing relations with Washington, the government of the pragmatic Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, granted in 1995 a large contract to Conoco to work on an offshore Iranian oil field, even though another oil company had won the bidding. Rafsanjani went so far as declaring publicly that “the era of Ayatollah Khomeini is over.” But, not only did Clinton prevent Conoco from doing the work, he also imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

The government of moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, was also interested in re-establishing relations with the United States. Khatami suggested the “dialogue of civilizations” as an opening, but the Clinton administration did not take it seriously until it was too late. At that time, Iranian hardliners were opposed to rapprochement between Tehran and Washington because Iranian reformists were in power.

Khatami’s government did provide crucial help to the U.S., when it attacked Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001, by opening Iran’s airspace to the U.S. aircrafts and providing vital intelligence on the Taliban forces. The forces of the Northern Alliance that Iran had supported for years against the Taliban were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government. Then, during the United Nations talks on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iran’s representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with the U.S. envoy James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing. Iran also pledged the largest investment and aid to Afghanistan after the U.S. Two months later, however, President Bush rewarded Iran by making it a charter member of his imaginary “axis of evil.”

In May 2003 Khatami’s government made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S., offering to negotiate all the important issues, including recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders, and cutting off material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was rejected. That was, of course, when Bush’s “mission accomplished” banner was the toast of Washington.

Contrary to popular perception, the Iranian hardliners are not opposed to re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States. They are fully aware that the Iranian people favor such relations. Therefore, they consider re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. a “grand prize” that Khatami and his reformist camp could not have been allowed to receive. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on June 15, 2005, right before Iran’s presidential elections, the author predicted that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would suppress internal dissent, but would try to start negotiations with the U.S.

That is exactly what has been happening. While cracking down hard on internal dissent and committing gross violations of human rights of Iranians, Ahmadinejad has tried to bring the U.S. to the negotiation table. He sent a long letter to President Bush, but did not receive any response. Every September he has participated in the gathering of world leaders at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, and has met with many influential American political thinkers. In an unprecedented move, he congratulated Barack Obama upon his election on November 4. The collapse of the oil price, a deteriorating economy, and the UN-mandated sanctions imposed on Iran due to its nuclear program have provided additional impetus for the Iranian leaders to seek out better relations with the United States. President-elect Obama has also said that his administration will be willing to negotiate with Tehran without any pre-condition.

Therefore, the conditions seem to be ripe for the U.S.-Iran negotiations and rapprochement to begin, provided that Obama’s foreign policy team will take the right approach. One would think if that happens, it would be greeted with a great sigh of relief by the Middle East’s governments. Not so. Two powerful lobby groups are opposed to any rapprochement between Iran the U.S. One is the well-known Israel lobby. I will discuss Israel’s opposition in a separate article, but point out that the opposition has nothing to do with the imaginary “existential threats” Israel claims Iran poses to it.

The second group that opposes the U.S.-Iran rapprochement consists of the Middle East’s Arab governments. Their fears are rooted in their total dependence on the U.S. for the survival of their regimes, fierce anti-American sentiments of their populations, as well as the historical resentments that Arab governments have had towards Iran. Let me explain.

In the 1960s, the Labor government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson recognized that Britain could no longer afford to act as an imperial power. Thus, he announced in January 1968 that by December 1971 all the British forces to the east of the Suez Canal would be withdrawn, and began setting up the United Arab Emirates in the southern part of the Persian Gulf, as a way of transferring power to the Arab sheikhs who had worked closely with Britain. But both the British and U.S. governments were worried about the designs that the Soviet Union had on the Persian Gulf.

Since 1928 successive Iranian governments had declared sovereignty over Bahrain, and so did the Shah, a close U.S. ally. At the same time, three strategic islands near the Strait of Hormuz — the Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands — that historically belonged to Iran were protected by the British navy and claimed by the emerging UAE, but the Shah wanted them back under Iran’s sovereignty.

The Shah and Britain reached a secret compromise. In return for Iran’s acceptance of a UN report in 1970 that indicated that the Bahraini people wanted independence, Iran sent its military to the three islands, but agreed to share economically with the UAE the Abu Musa Island. That happened on November 30, 1971, one day before the end of the official presence of British forces to the east of the Suez Canal.

That turned Iran into the undisputed power in the Persian Gulf, which was also what the Nixon administration wanted. The Nixon doctrine, announced by President Richard M. Nixon in July 1969, had declared that the U.S. allies had to take care of the defense of their own regions. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had conceived the idea of supporting local “gendarmes” that would protect U.S. interests around the world, and Iran and the Shah were the designated gendarme for the Persian Gulf. Thus, they told the Shah that he could purchase any U.S. weapon, and helped him begin Iran’s nuclear program.

The Shah started throwing around Iran’s weight. Iranian forces intervened against a leftist insurgency in Oman. He forced Iraq and Saddam Hussein to accept the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that settled a border dispute on terms favorable to Iran. These events revived the resentment and historical fears that the Arab governments of the Persian Gulf had towards Iran, even though it was the Arabs that invaded Iran in the 7th century and converted Iranians to Islam.

The Shah also had good relations with Israel, which was helping him with Iran’s internal security. Although he never hid his dislike of many Arab governments, his plans for the revival of Iran’s power did include close relationships with some of them, in order to use them against other Arab nations; for example, Egypt and Sudan against Libya and Muammar Qaddafi, who was fiercely opposed to the Shah.

Thus, after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser whom the Shah despised (to the point that the Iranian press was not alowed to print Nasser’s picture) passed away in 1970, the Shah developed close relations with his successor, Muhammad Anvar Al Sadat. He also provided Jaafar Nimeiri, Sudan’s president, a $150 million loan after Nimeiri expelled the Soviet advisors and re-established diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1971. The Shah also had close relations with King Hussein of Jordan, and in the mid 1970s began paying at least lip service to the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. In an interview in 1976 with Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, he even complained about the influence of the Israel lobby in the U.S.

These developments were not to Israel’s liking. Neither were Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Syria happy with such developments. The Shah’s weapons purchases from the U.S. and Britain had created a powerful military, and Iran’s oil wealth, strategic location, and control of the Persian Gulf had made it indispensable to the United States. Israel tried to dissociate the Shah from the Arab world, but to no avail. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, disrupted all of that. In particular, Iran’s diplomatic relations with Egypt were severed, and have never been restored.

The same type of dynamics drive the present Arab governments’ fear of Iran, which is why they are covertly opposed to the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Iran’s strong influence on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the Shi’ite groups that are in power in Iraq; the large Shi’ite populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, and the fact that Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites (who make up about 10% of the population) reside in the oil region of the country, all worry the Arab nations of the Middle East.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently told his ruling party that, “the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states.” He has also said that, “most of the Shi’ites are loyal to Iran, not to the countries they are living in.” King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned about a “Shi’ite crescent” from Iran to Lebanon. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia accused Iran of trying to convert the Sunnis to Shi’ites.

The Arab governments of the Middle East profess worries about Iran’s alleged attempts to spread its Islamic revolution to the entire Middle East. But, this fear has no basis in reality. As mentioned above, when it comes to foreign policy, Iranian leaders set aside a long ago their ideological views. The only exception to this is Israel. In fact, Iran’s foreign policy has been very pragmatic for the past two decades. To give an example, in the dispute between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran has sided with the Christian Armenia, rather than the Shi’ite Azerbaijan. Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas — their armed forces are relatively weak — are meant to give it strategic depth against Israel and the United States.

The Arab governments of the Middle East are also supposedly afraid of Iran becoming a nuclear power and threatening them. Again, such fears are baseless. First, it was the Arab governments that supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran, and provided him with $50 billion in aid to keep fighting. Even then, Iran threatened almost none of the Middle East’s Arab governments. Moreover, Iran has no territorial claims against any nation.

Second, the same Arab governments have never expressed fears over Israel’s nuclear arsenal, even though they have been declaring for decades their solidarity with the Palestinians, but kept silent while Israel developed its nuclear arsenal, and has continued occupation of the Palestinians’ lands. In fact, some of these governments are still in a formal state of war with Israel.

Third, even if Iran does develop a small nuclear arsenal — and there is no evidence that it aims to do so — it would be purely as a deterrent against repeated Israeli and the U.S. threats. At the same time, the same Arab governments have been buying tens of billions of dollars worth of modern American, British, and French weapons, while Iran, under an arms embargo by the West, has had to rely mostly on its own domestic arms industry which does not produce top-of-the-line weapons.

Therefore, the fears of Iran expressed by the Middle East’s Arab government are simply smoke screens. The real reason for their fears is threefold. First, the Arab governments of the Middle East have proven impotent in stopping Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, which is nothing short of a crime against humanity; or working out with Israel a reasonable solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, due to Iran’s support of the Palestinians, and Hezbollah’s victory over Israel in the summer 2006 war, Iran’s leadership is very popular among Arab masses (certainly much more so than among Iranian people). So, the prospects of Iran negotiating with the U.S. while also supporting the Palestinians are frightening to the Arab leaders.

Second, the Arab governments are worried that if the U.S. and Iran can begin to resolve their differences, it will demonstrate to the Arab masses that it is possible to resist U.S. pressure, to negotiate with the U.S. from a position of strength, and preserve political independence from the United States, that they don’t have to be totally dependent on the U.S., as the Arab governments of the Middle East are, to the deep resentment of their people.

The Arab masses have seen that Kuwait has been used as the staging ground for the occupation of Iraq; tiny Bahrain houses the headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet; Qatar, Oman, and the UAE provide military bases to the U.S. and France, while Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have close military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.

Third, the Arab governments believe that so long as Iran is under strong U.S. pressure, it will not bother with them. While they pay lip service to supporting U.S.-Iran negotiations, they do not wish such negotiations to resolve the differences between the two nations. They do not wish for the United States to attack Iran because they will also be forced to get involved, but they also do not want normalization of relations between these two present foes.

On the other hand, Iran is ripe for fundamental changes. Its democratic movement will be greatly aided if U.S.-Iran negotiations do begin and result in lessening tensions between the two nations. Once the threat of a U.S. attack on Iran is removed, Iran’s hardliners will find themselves at a crossroads. They will either have to address the aspirations — economic, political, and social — of the Iranian people, or they will be removed from power one way or another. That will be in the interest of the entire Middle East, including the Arab nations.

Therefore, it is not just the Israel lobby which is frightened by the prospects of a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. So also are the Arab governments of the Middle East.

Campaign Promises

January 20, 2009

CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate (July 2007)

QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. [Tehran Bureau: Sadat was killed in 1981. He went to Israel in 1977.]

In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

COOPER: I should also point out that Stephen is in the crowd tonight.

Senator Obama?

OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.


Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq — one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.

COOPER: I just want to check in with Stephen if he believes he got an answer to his question.

QUESTION: I seem to have a microphone in my hand. Well, I’d be interested in knowing what Hillary has to say to that question.

COOPER: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.

I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration.

And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.

Diaspora Marks 30th

January 20, 2009

San Francisco
Tehran Bureau | vitrine

Years ago, an Iranian-American friend mockingly referred to me as a ’79er. He was referring to my belonging to the group of Iranians who immigrated after the 1979 Iranian revolution, as opposed to him, who had been raised in the U.S. since the early seventies. His remark was piquing. Why define a group by a political event? Could ’79ers create an identity for ourselves independent from it? In the early years, ’79er were busy paving a path for ourselves, learning to survive in our new host countries, and I was too young to understand that one day ’79ers would not necessarily be defined for what we had escaped, but by how we had recreated ourselves. The poets in this book are ’79ers who have struggled through that path, untangling their identity questions in their work: Who are they? Where do they belong? How to live with nostalgia? How to manage their complex web of loyalties, pushing and pulling them in all directions?

Most ’79ers have lived in that ambiguous zone between longing for their past in Iran and wanting to belong in their present lives. They have strived to uphold their customs—Mehregan (Harvest festival), Norouz (New Year in the Spring)—and have inevitably adopted new ways like Thanksgiving, Oktoberfest, and Le Jour de la Bastille. In the meantime, three decades have gone by; the world has changed before their eyes, and a new generation—born outside Iran—has inherited and contended with their ’79er parents’ place of limbo, that place between longing and belonging, and lived it through their unique prism.

BELONGING features three generations of poets: those born between 1929 and 1945, 1946 and 1960, and 1961 and the present. In the first generation, we have Naderpour, Afrasiabi, Assadi, Kho’i, Nooriala and Roya’i. In the second are Farmand, Keshmiripour, Moshkani, Naficy, Ghahraman, Rashid, and Saffari. And in the third, Aghaee, Huleh, Karbassi, Moussavi, and Naanaam. The representatives of the generation born between 1929 and 1945 were by and large already established poets when they left after the revolution. The generation after that, born between 1946 and 1960, emerged just before and during the revolution, but has matured since the revolution, outside Iran. The younger generation, born after 1961, left Iran young, and its members are emerging voices.

Excerpt from the Introduction to BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, August 2008), edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi


The Translation Project, partnering with the San Francisco International Poetry Festival, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, and Asia Society, would like to invite you to the Second Annual ‘Iranian Literary Arts Festival’ on February 5-6, 2009, featuring exciting Iranian poets Ziba Karbassi, Granaz Moussavi, Majid Naficy, Partow Nooriala, and Abbas Saffari, featured in BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, Aug 2008). The ‘Iranian Literary Arts Festival’ chronicles Iranian diaspora poetry on the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Read the poets’ lyrical, erotic, funny and moving poetry here.

Thursday, February 5 at 6:30 pm – Book Bay Fort Mason, (Building C, Room 165), San Francisco “30 Years of Be-Longing” – Roundtable talk about the future of diaspora literature with poets featured in BELONGING, SF poet laureate Jack Hirschman, and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, professor of Asian American studies.

Friday, February 6 at 6:30 pm – Friends of the SF Public Library’s loft (391 Grove St. @ Gough), San Francisco Reading and film screening with poets featured in BELONGING. Reception to follow.

All events are FREE and OPEN to the public.

Advance registration is highly recommended to reserve tickets:
Feb. 5:,
Feb. 6:

For more information, visit: <