Thinking About Persepolis

(This is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Grand River Sachem earlier this year.)

What can I tell you? I’m fascinated by many things Iranian. An Ottawa girl, whose parents fled Iran not long after the Revolution in 1982, won Canada’s largest university scholarship in January, in large part because of her activism in publicizing the human rights violations of the Iranian government. (17. Wow! What were you doing at 17? I was mostly trying to perfect my jumpshot.) I’m also a fan of Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel, Persepolis, which has just come out in cinematic form. Persepolis (the ancient Greek name for the Persian empire) was born of a similar love for Iran and lament for its struggles and the oppression of many of its best people.

But now hear this (the tragedy of speechwriting, exhibit A): many people can’t hear mention of Iran without the malignant phrase “axis of evil” echoing around in their skulls. (The George Bush speechwriter who coined this famous political mantra, David Frum, is actually Canadian. I loved his mother Barbara, journalist/interviewer extraordinaire, but his influence in America is no cause for flag-waving, say I.) That Iran is a troubled state with shaky governance is obvious. I am only too aware of some of the political and religious repression that goes on there — my spiritual brothers and sisters have endured nearly two centuries as scapegoats — but I also appreciate Iran’s mighty contributions to world civilization.

The Zoroastrian and Bahá’í Faiths were born there, and some of the fairest fruits of Islamic civilization grew in Persian soil (including the towering mind of Avicenna – Ibn-Sina – a “renaissance man” who pre-dated the Renaissance by hundreds of years). Cyrus and Darius, as we call them in Western histories – Suroosh and Daryoosh would be more nearly correct – are only the best-known kings of a Persian empire that was the greatest of its age. The poetry of Omar Khayyam and especially of Hafiz are landmarks of Iranian culture. In my small contemporary experience, I know some of the sweet expressions of Iranian cinema, music, cuisine and their perfection of the art of courtesy. I see beautiful faces, generosity and a deep pride in their rich and ancient culture. There is so much more to Iran than nukes and turbaned mullahs.

If you’re interested in more on this intriguing and deeply important country, I can recommend a couple of things. Jean-Daniel Lafond – known in Canada mainly as the husband of our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean – is a prominent documentary film-maker. Over a year ago, I saw his 2001 film Salám Iran: A Persian Letter and heard Lafond interviewed immediately afterward. He followed, in his film, the return of an Iranian Canadian, living in exile since the revolution, to his mother and his motherland after two decades away. Lafond collaborated in this film with the writer (Persian Postcards: Iran After Khomeini), translator and lover of Iranian culture Fred A. Reed. In early 2004, the pair returned to Tehran. It was the eve of elections that would spell the end of the reform movement and install the hard-line conservative regime of President Ahmadinejad and all the blustering and crackdowns that came with it.

Lafond’s and Reed’s interactions with ordinary (and extraordinary) Iranians resulted in their newly published book Conversations in Tehran. I still haven’t read it yet, but I was impressed by these two men at an Ottawa Writers’ Festival event. They are worldly, compassionate, scholarly and curious. I detected no particular axe to grind, although it was clear that they hope for more openness and less theocracy in Iran, and for greater understanding and appreciation of the country everywhere else. These are the kind of films and books that most of us never look at, but we’d see the world in a much more interesting light if we more frequently did. These authors aren’t showmen. They are understated, moderate, marvellously articulate and, in their quiet ways, intensely passionate. They love Iran and Iranians with such intelligence and force that no one who listens could fail to think or say, “Maybe there’s more to Iran than I thought.” What Fox News gives us surely isn’t the whole story!

And I know how Reed and Lafond feel. I have much to be grateful to Iran for: some of my most deeply cherished friends and co-workers, for one thing, and for a Persian exile’s vision of peace and hope that keeps me sane, that helps me walk a faithful path with (fairly) intelligent feet. Salam, Iran, indeed. Salam means “peace”, and may it someday be so.