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Review - The Persians - A History - Homa Katouzian

Review of The Persians – Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran, by Homa Katouzian Yale University Press

Reviewed for Tribune Magazine

Think Iran currently and there come the inevitable images and thoughts: Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, the nuclear threat, scenes of protests from last year’s election which saw Ahemdinijad re-elected by a questionable 10 million votes against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose campaign colour of green, is still worn as a symbol of protest against the current government. Yet all of this, whilst important in our age, clouds the reality of Iran as a country with millennias old rich and glorious history. In fact, if this book were titled The Iranians, one would wonder how limited its market may have been in the West, compared to culturally and historically rich connotations of The Persians, which Katouzian concedes.

As a self-confessed novice, albeit one for whom Iran has long piqued her interest, I was hoping for a book that would give me an in-depth overview. But, with Katouzian’s latest, in-depth would be an understatement. But then what to expect from Oxford based Katouzian, an archetypal man of letters? And numbers. Originally a lecturer in economics, in his mid-forties he turned to the study of Iranian history, politics and literature, and his particular literary specialism is the poet Sa’di, one of the greatest Persian poets. It is clear that he has a passion for his country’s literature, calling it the ‘most glittering jewel in the crown of Iranian history and culture’. He is clearly a man who, despite living and working in Oxford, retains a great love for his country.

Katouzian excels in revealing the personality of each era covered, which he calls ‘short-term societies’, or Jameheh-ye Kolangi, translated as ‘the pick-axe society. The term was originally introduced in his 2003 work, Iranian History and Politics, the Dialectic of State and Society. It is a reference to the Iranian habit of demolishing buildings after only a few decades. This is despite the contradictory fact that, apart from literature, Iran has the greatest variety of architecture, represented by Persepolis and the Congregational Mosque of Isfahan. He gives small mention, thankfully, to one of the three c’s associated with Persia – carpets, describing them in their rightful artistic context. Yet no word of the other two – cats and caviar!

Covering each period, from the establishment of the first Persian empire, formed of disparate tribes, in 550BC and ancient Iranian mythology, originating from ancient Iranian-Indo traditions. Later written accounts are based on pre-Islamic myths and legends, much of which is contained in the post-Islamic Shamnameh, otherwise known as the Book of Kings, all the way to Khomeini and the cultural revolution and present day Iran. Yet Katouzian does not, thankfully, create a work that is sentimental in its glorification of Iran’s heritage. He acknowledges, in his introduction, that Iran is ‘such a controversial member of the world community at the time of writing’. And at the time of reviewing it is unfortunate that it is just as, if not more, true. He also informs us that, essentially I feel, Iran is so divided ‘that, if not each one of them, then every group, class and creed has a conception of the country and its history more or less at odds with the rest’. He adds: ‘Not only are there Islamist, non-Islamist, pre-Islamist, nationalist, democratic, patriotic, leftist and ethnic separatist forces and sentiments current among Iranians at home and abroad, but there is even a greater variety of conceptions of Iran’s past, present and future... and each one is held as both absolute and sacred truth’.

Katouzian is also quick to discuss the infamous and long-standing Iranian preoccupation with conspiracy against them. Yet it is a preoccupation that is somewhat understandable, originating as it does from the history of British imperial intervention. But, for many, this conspiracy long ingrained into the collective psyche, is now treated by many as a joke. This conspiracy was given the humorous treatment in the popular novel My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad. Banned since 1979, the book remains popular.

One also gets a real feel for the landscape – a large mass with just one great river, the Karun, which gives rise to a network of small, almost self-sufficient villages. Yet Iran also has a ‘cross-roads’ effect. The country’s geographical location – the cross-roads between Asia and Europe, East and West – has been both destabilizing and enriching. It has meant that Iran hosts a wide variety of ethnic and linguistic communities: Persians, Kurds, Turks, Arabs... Added to this is the disjoint between state and society. Since the 1906 Constitutional Review, whenever the state identified with Islam and traditionalism, society sought identification from a reinvention of pre-Islamic Persia; and whenever the state, well, vice versa. Perhaps it’s less of a disjoint, more like a game of tag. It does, however, portray a proud people who will not, despite the reports, be dictated to.

More of its character can be gleaned by referring back to its history of short-termism, summed up by the well-known Persian expression – ‘Six months from now, who dead, who alive?’ Whilst a nice maxim to have to try and put things into perspective, it is a double-edged sword that begs question of the future. Yet, it can certainly be seen, whilst questionable as a maxim for a state, as a personal philosophy adopted through necessity.

Six months from now, six years from now, Katouzian’s book will be well on its way to becoming a standard text on this complex and culturally rich country.

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