Iranian identity: a double burden

Martin Woollacott
Thursday October 13, 2005
The Guardian 

How ancient history relates to modern problems is the question to be examined at a public forum on Iran
organised jointly by the British Museum and the Guardian. It is certainly a difficult legacy. Italians shrugged off Mussolini’s fantasies of a new Roman empire and derive their identity mainly from the Renaissance, while the Greeks are both proud of their ancient prowess and irritated by some of its consequences, like having to learn ancient Greek. India and China, emerging as substantial powers in the 21st century, have a relatively comfortable relationship with former greatness.

But Iran labours under a double burden. First, its ancient past, not least because the role of another universal religion, Zoroastrianism, clashes with its Islamic identity. The analogous contradictions of Christianity with paganism, or modern Chinese secularism with Chinese religious tradition, are not of the same severity. Second, Iranians have a profound sense that the importance of their civilisation has never been as wholeheartedly acknowledged as that of others. Not by Arabs, who gloss over the contribution of Iranians during the Golden Age of Islam, not by Indians, who minimise Iranian influence in the subcontinent, and not by westerners, even though western scholars led in reconstructing the Iranian past.

Iranians reacted against the Shah’s attempt to appropriate the pre-Islamic era, but they have also reacted against the Islamic Republic’s attempts to suppress what remains of its traditions. Norouz, the old Iranian new year, is still enthusiastically celebrated, as is the fire festival of Charshanbeh suri. Iranians still call their children Cyrus, Darius, and Roxana after emperors and their consorts, even though the regime at one stage said such children would not get birth certificates. And, as Nasrin Alavi notes in her fascinating book We Are Iran, an anthology of Iranian blogs, even the regime seems to forget sometimes, for instance permitting IranAir planes to carry an image of Homa, the pagan Persian guardian of travellers.

The Iranian authorities have recently taken a different line. Under Khatami, western archaeologists returned to Iran to work on excavations with Iranian colleagues, there are new departments of pre-Islamic studies at some Iranian universities, and ancient Iranian history is back in the school curriculum. A surge of interest in the period brings new titles into the bookshops every year, although most are translations of western works.

از یادداشتی در گاردین به مناسبت شروع تربیون آزاد بحث از ایران که این روزنامه برگزار می کند. فقط در آن دو اشتباه آمده است. یکی که سهو است این که آقای خاتمی را آیت الله معرفی کرده که از گاردین چنین خبطی بعید است. ثانیا و مهمتر اینکه اظهار نظر ناشری را منعکس کرده که گفته است در ۳۰ سال گذشته یک کتاب هم با استانداردهای آکادمیک غرب در ایران در باره تاریخ اسلامی یا پیش اسلامی نوشته نشده است. این حرف جاهلانه ای است. آثار احمد تفضلی، کتایون مزداپور، مهرداد بهار، شفیعی کدکنی، زرین کوب، پورنامداریان، دوستخواه، محمد محمدی ملایری، خالقی مطلق و گروهی دیگر همه ناقض این ادعای بی سند است. به هر
حال قرار است نشست گاردین در باره ایران روز سه شنبه ۱۸ اکتبر برگزار شود

· The unbroken arc: what ancient Persia tells us about modern Iran. This public forum, supported by the Guardian and chaired by Jon Snow, is at the British Museum on Tuesday October 18, from 7pm. Tickets are £۱۰ ,available on 020-7323 8181 or at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

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