National Geographic featured a cover story this month on Iran, offering a brief, but in-depth look at the history and culture behind what the Bush administration so ignorantly termed one of the members of the “axis of evil.” While much of author Marguerite Del Giudice’s observations are significantly enlightening, I found a few passages poignantly relevant in today’s heated atmosphere.
When discussing how well-treated she was by the Iranians, Del Giudice expounds:
It’s a part of a complex system of ritual politeness — taarof — that governs the subtext of life here. Hospitality, courting, family affairs, political negotiations; taarof is the unwritten code for how people should treat each other. The word has an Arabic root, arafa, meaning to know or acquire knowledge of. But the idea of taroof — to abase oneself while exalting another person — is Persian in origin, said William O. Beeman, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Minnesota…
Being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding your true feelings — artful pretending — is considered the height of taarof and an enormous social asset.
The explanation of cultural mindset and behavior has in many ways answered a question gnawing at me for some time. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s smiling, lying, side-stepping-of-issues manner with which he engages interviews has long confused me. I first noticed the way Ahmadinejad presented a perfectly docile and respectful personage during a 2006 60 Minutes session with Mike Wallace. Since the Wallace interview, I have watched CNN’s Christiane Amanpour engage Ahmadinejad and, most recently, NBC’s Brian Williams.
Why a person with such ugly words – the denial of the Holocaust, wiping Israel from the Earth – would smile so sweetly while avoiding answers and delivering untruths was frustrating. He has provoked international consternation and heightened multilateral tensions on various global fronts, and yet he sits demurely and humbly with each accusing question. We want to understand Ahmadinejad and his motivations, but our Western ways have clearly misinterpreted his behavior – as is represented when interviewers point out his smiling to him as if it is oxymoronic to his words. It is not. He is, to paraphrase Del Giudice says, being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding his true feelings. Viola! A light bulb has perpetually displayed above my head since reading this piece in NG.
But it goes even further to give context to Iran’s current activities. Of the historical Iranian empire:
‘We have nostalgia to be a superpower again,’ said Saeed Laylaz, an economic and political analyst in Tehran, ‘and the country’s nuclear ambitions are directly related to this desire.'[…]
The empire once encompassed today’s Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and the Caucasus region. ‘The borders have moved in over the centuries, but this superpower nostalgia, so in contradiction to reality,’ he said, ‘is all because of the history.’
Whether right or wrong, our destruction of Iraq gave Iran the perfect opening to widen its regional influence and begin the steps to regain much of its historical glory. History has already sadly begun to acknowledge the volumes of considerations Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz, Feith, Luti, Hadley, Perle and the rest of the architects of the Iraq War failed to take into account when launching their unnecessary war. With dollar signs in their eyes and revenge in their hearts, the war-mongers ignorantly ignored the potential implications and results of such a conflict. Many of these eventualities could have easily been foreshadowed, and perhaps even prevented the war itself, if these people had only asked the right sources the appropriate questions and sought all relevant knowledge on the region rather than just knowledge on the invasion.
And many of our Right-wing, Neo-Conservates are committing the same egregious sins all over again with Iran. At issue is their short-sighted “Might Makes Right” contention that only the U.S. should be armed to the gills and unworthy nations must yield authority on many matters, but mostly nuclear weapon development. It is true that irrational actors are one of history’s leading causes of war. However, the U.S. is slowly losing its economic might as India and China emerge and massive reserves of hydrocarbons are found on foreign soils. As our hegemony wanes, so does our might. Instead of acting like the wise big brother deserving respect in these times of transition, uneducated and foolish men mostly on the Republican side of the aisle are pushing the U.S. to be the schoolyard bully – shouting orders and stomping feet and dropping bombs to coerce others to do our will. This is a dangerous policy that has already yielded death and destruction and would continue to do so to our detriment.
Despotic rulers are eventually overthrown and if the U.S. insists the world must listen and obey our voice – we will see more terrorist plots succeed. When men like Sean Hannity spout repeatedly that the United States is the “bestest” and greatest country god gave the earth, he is insulting the other 6.3 billion people on this earth his “god” gave us. This isolationist arrogance will only cause us to fall harder as other countries assert their dominance on the global stage. As Karl Rove’s “Permanent Conservative Majority” was an exercise in rejection of reality, so is the notion the United States will always reign supreme. Every empire has fallen – Egyptian, Iranian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, etc. This is not an alternate universe and the United States cannot escape its eventual fate, whether in our lifetimes or beyond it. We must lay the foundation of respecting other nations and progressing together.
Neo-Cons believe the Iranian situation is on either/or footing. You either abide by our terms or we will bomb you into oblivion. The neo-cons forget we already have two wars in play, one of which we’re winning by buying off insurgents and the other we’re losing. They’re those boys who touched the stove even when they’re mothers told them not to and they knew it was hot. Only this time, their stubborn insistence to refuse common sense or acknowledge reality will burn us all.
The closed minds demanding bombs and war bring millions of us ever closer to a greater shame and more death than the Iraq War has. Their continued refusal to acknowledge or understand the entire situation will have dire consequences if we do not check the intentions of these relics and stifle their incorrect presumptions of the will of the American people. These men have already harmed the United States and the rest of the world with the Iraq War – a conflict they so pathetically did not understand would create a power vacuum and give birth to Iran’s new ambitions of greatness. These war mongers should not be permitted — under any circumstances — to lie their way into another deadly conflict and untold disasters that they will only leave to the next administration to rectify.