Stephen Gottlieb: Sa’adi’s Iranian Poetry and International Order

Oct 29, 2019

This could be called a tale of two birthdays. While celebrating my wife’s birthday at a restaurant, she got an email in response to her request that the writer handle some things at an upcoming national conference.

Early American presidents ended their letters by declaring themselves “Your most humble and obedient servant.” They believed in humility and public service. Persians express humility differently. Like my wife and myself, the writer of the email she opened had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His note reflected Iranian hyperbole and the Persian system of manners which they call Ta’arof: “I am your sacrifice,” he wrote, “you may walk on my eyes.” That was not a complaint, but, in context, much like Jefferson’s expression of humility and willingness.  The Persian reference to injuring eyes preserves painful memories, like many nursery rhymes we sing unsuspectingly. The Persian reference is to Mongol rulers, descendants of Genghis Khan, who cut out their opponents’ eyes. Knowing it’s meaning, I’ve never been able to use that expression. But both his and Jefferson’s reflect a culturally rooted sense of civility.

My dad visited me while I was in the Peace Corps and I threw him a party for his 70th birthday. While there, he gave me a book of Persian poetry as a gift, the Gulestan or Rose Garden, by Sa’adi, a much loved thirteenth century Persian poet, and the pride of the city where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Poetry is very important to the Persians. There were monuments in Shiraz to Sa’adi and Hafez who wrote just a few years after Sa’adi died. Two centuries earlier, Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a beautifully poetic attempt to remember the pre-Islamic past of Iran.

This Administration, and some of its predecessors, have tried to force Iran into submission with painful restrictions on trade. This and other countries have also tried to isolate Iran among dangerous regional regimes that have threatened Iran in the past, most notably Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, of which my wife is president, was invited to make a presentation at the Kennedy Center. As part of that presentation, John Limbert, himself both a former ambassador and hostage, responded to the policy of penalizing and isolating Iran with a reference to the poetry of Sa’adi.[1] Many Persians know Sa’adi’s poetry by heart. In fact, when I called a friend to ask him about the language Ambassador Limbert had recited, I heard my friend’s father start reciting the entire poem in the background.  Here is the couplet Limbert recited – in both Persian and English translation:

نمیبینی که چون گربه عاجز شور

به چنگال در آرد چشم پلنگ

Nemibini ke chun gorbeh 'aajez shavad,

be changaal dar avarad, cheshm-e-palang?

Have you not seen the cornered cat,

whose tiny claws will tear out the eyes of a leopard?

The implication is that they don’t want to fight but can and will to save their country.

It is a mistake to think of Iran in stereotypical terms as a bunch of brutes. Like all peoples, they can overreact, especially during a revolution, and international politics often brings out the worst instincts of nations. Nevertheless, I experienced Iranians as a very decent, cultured and friendly people, but a people who love their country and expect to be treated with respect. It’s funny, but showing respect is, at once, one of the easiest and most difficult things to do. Often, it’s little more than the language that reflects each other’s humanity and accomplishments. But it’s so difficult when we fight about who’s number 1.

[1] The Gulistan or Rose Garden of Sa’di , 85-86 (George Allen & Unwin, ltd. Edward Rehatsek, trans., W.G. Archer, ed. 1964) (in the eighth story in the first chapter).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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