Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Persians

The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran
© 2009 Homa Katouzian
452 pages




Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. It'll take a while, because there's been a lot of them.The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran is a sweeping  political history of Persia, and of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran. The author quotes a Persian proverb which asks -- six months from now, who alive? Who dead?  --  and argues that Persian history is established proof of the thin line between arbitrary authority and chaos. While technically  a survey, its density and focus on a list of rulers rather than the general trends within Persian history makes it a formidable challenge to the beginning student.

The Persians is largely modern, reaching the 20th century in less than two hundred pages.  What follows beforehand is essentially a long list of men killing men.  It’s nearly biblical – just replace “begat” with “who was killed by”, and you’ll get an idea. Oh, there’s some variety; sometimes the potentates settle for blinding one another instead of killing, which does get passé, and some Turkic and Mongolian fellows are offed, too.   Although Persia looms in the background of western history, invading Greece and lopping off Roman consuls’ heads, even marching on Jerusalem,   those episodes of strength seem to be the exception rather than the rule.   The tediously recorded butchery may actually be intentional, for the author’s main contention is that arbitrary tyrants have been the norm of Persian history, and that not until the 20th century has any work been put into creating a state beyond the will of one man, in forming a civil society that checks the ambitions of a solitary tyrant.


Even once the text moves to the 20th century and becomes more fulsomely detailed and varied, it’s still a little odd in what it dwells on. The author mentions, for instance ,that the 1953 coup has been studied in detail, and so...he bypasses it. If you didn't know that coup was executed by Britain and America to shore up their client-king’s absolute authority over the the Iranian people, too bad. If you're in the dark, you're staying there, because one minute Mossadegh is in power and the next he's in prison. Trends within Iran which bear significant fruit, like the  development of the Shiite clergy,  are barely present, or are  like the poetry buried under the mounds of executed kings.

That's not to say there isn't material of interest in here. I didn't realize that Alexander the Great is actually claimed by the Persians as one of their own, a half-Persian lord who appears in the Shahnameh, a massive work of legendary history.  The Great War and World War 2 take on a different light from Iranian eyes: because Britain and Russia spent the late 19th and early 20th century playing tug-of-war with an increasingly frayed Iran,  Iranians admired and sympathized with the Germans in both conflicts. The closer the author draws toward the present day, the more communicative he is about Iranian culture in general:  in the final hundred pages there is a good section on the evolving role of women in Iranian society, which -- while not as good during the Shah's forced modernization -- is not as bad as it was in the early 1980s.  

While there's no shortage of useful information to be mined here, beginners should probably look for something less mountainous and less dry.

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