Who are the Iranians?

We do not understand Iran and maybe never shall. It is not a normal country, and that is meant in a good way. Half a century of dealing with fractious, artificial Arab states in the Middle East, and suddenly the face of conflict is not one of these but Persia, and we cannot behave the same way.

Iran is an ancient land. We once knew it as Persia and by that name we had more understanding of it. The land was not renamed: Persia was always called ‘Iran’ in its own tongue, going back five thousand years, but in the 1920s the king demanded that the native name be used by outsiders too. In doing so he unwittingly built a wall of incomprehension. Had we continued to use the name of ‘Persia’, then the nature of this extraordinary land would be more apparent to us all.

Persia echoes throughout our history and our culture. Biblical Judah encountered it; the Greeks fought it; Alexander conquered it and his followers became Persian as they ruled it; the Romans met the Persian Empire as an equal throughout their long Empire; but long before Rome was founded and long after it fell, Persia remained. Their language too is so deeply embedded that it became a lingua franca across the middle of Asia, and was even the official language of British India until Macauley’s reforms.

This is a fundamental distinction with the fractious Arab world we have become used to. Those states are a loose collection of emirates and new republics, the largest of them carved from the flesh of the old Ottoman Empire just a hundred years ago and they have no deeply rooted sense of nationality, beyond the name of ‘Arab’. Persia however has had that idea of itself for five thousand years. When Saddam Hussein invaded the Iranian province of Khuzestan, he thought that its people, as Arabs, would rise and join him, but he could not appreciate that the Persian Empire has embraced a variety of peoples and languages for millennia and the Arabs of Khuzestan were just as proud to be Iranians their Persian-speaking compatriots.

Therefore when the west confronts Iran, the Iranians may see us as precocious children: the western states, even the oldest, have nothing to say to a country which was a mighty empire of cities, craftsmen and armies when our forefathers were living in mud shelters.

It hurts such a nation if it is belittled or humbled, as it has been in 19th century conflicts with British India and Russia, in the concessions wrung out at that time, in that it took European archaeologists to display their own ancient treasures, in the almost casual military occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1944.

The current sickness in the heart of the Iranian state comes from an existential conflict. Iran, Persia is ancient, but the ruling ideology is not. Extreme Islam will tolerate no rival identity; even that of the nation, and this leaves a problem for an average Iranian. Iran is 98% Muslim, which is a religion brought from outside by conquerors to supersede their culture, and there lies a conflict that has never been resolved. There is no consensus about whether the 7th century Arab conquest can be considered a liberation from evil practices, or a national humiliation. The late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, incurred the wrath of the Ayatollah by modernisation, but it is said that the final straw was when n 1971 he lavishly celebrated 2,500 years of the Persian Empire and those aspects of Persian history which predated Islam: Khomeini called it “the Devil’s Festival”.

I do not believe an entire culture can be provided by Islam alone, to the exclusion of all other influences. If you look at Pakistan, it was an equal inheritor of India’s heritage, but in creating a separate, artificial country its rulers tried to create a difference, casting out their inherent Indian identity and millennia of rich culture, which left only the Mohammedan religion to be their basis. It seems as if the Iranian rulers are attempting the same.

This division, between popular culture and religiously defined culture is a powerful one. Iranians personally are delightful people in my experience, intelligent, aware, celebrating life and culture as well as anyone might, and they are very aware of their country’s seniority. Against them are the religious authorities which guard the state and would define every minute aspect. In 2014, you may recall, the young folk who filmed themselves joyously dancing to Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’; only to be shut down and sentenced to 71 lashes.

A division between state and society is apparent and is growing, and as I grows the state must react against it, deepening the division. I dread to think how that may end.

When we ‘precocious children’ in the west stand against Iran, as we must, it is the wayward government of the country that we confront. Threatening economic ruin makes little sense if the government could not care what happens to the people, and threatening war plays well with the ‘victim narrative’. Behind it though is a most remarkable people waiting to be let out.

Peace at Christ-tide

This Melchizedeck was King of Salem, Priest of the most high God, vers. 2. First being by interpretation King of Righteousnesse, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace. Whence it is cleare, that Christ the King in his Kingdome placeth Righteousnesse and Peace together.

  • Psal. 34. Eschue evill and doe good, seek Peace and pursue it.
  • Isaiah 9:6,7. Unto us a child is born, unto us a Sonne is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderfull, Counsellour, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.
  • Isaiah 52:7. How beautifull upon the mountaines are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth Peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation, that saith unto Sion, thy God reigneth!

Luke 2:14.:In the Nativity of Christ, the voice of them that praised God saying, Glory be to God on high, and in earth Peace, good will towards men. And Isaiah 53:5. The Gospell is called the chastisement of our Peace. Isaiah 59:8. Righteousnesse is called the way of Peace. The way of Peace they know not, and there is no judgement in their goings.

Micah 5:4,5. speaking of the Messias, he saith thus, He shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the Majesty of the name of the Lord his God, and they shall abide, for now shall he be great unto the end of the earth; And this man shall be your Peace, Prov. 3:1,2. My sonne forget not my law, but let thine heart keep my Commandements, for length of dayes, and long life, and Peace, shall they adde to thee.

Thomas Hobbes: De Cive, Chapter IV. That the Law of Nature is a Divine Law.

Bydded i’r Hen Iaith Barhau

Llongyfarchiadau i di, Boris: the Conservative Manifesto repeats and re-enforces the pledge from 2017, and in 2019 we are promised:

We will support Welsh institutions such as S4C, the National Library and Museum, the Urdd and the National Eisteddfod.

This time the pledge is not in the Welsh local manifesto but the national, UK-wide manifesto.

I pause with the thought that yr Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (what happened to ‘Brenhinol‘ in the name?) and yr Urdd, even before we get to y Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru and yr Amgueddfa Cymru are devolved matters on which Westminster has little influence. Sprinkling a little star-dust, or money anyway, goes down well, and the richness found in the Welsh language should not be confined to the narrow bounds of the Principality: let the bards speak over the world.

Welsh, yr Hen Iaith, is the most beautiful tongue in the world and need not stay hidden in the western parts. It is not just a part of British culture and identity, but the oldest, most evocative expression of our nation – it was not always called ‘Welsh’ but used to be called ‘British’, and British it is, found in the place-names of the island far beyond the thirteen counties of Wales: the great cities of London, Winchester, Manchester, Leeds, York, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and others have their names from the old British language, from which Welsh of today has little changed. It suffuses the island and gives it a shape and a name. In the days of Rome, all those native tongues vanished in Italy, Gaul and Hispania, but the Britons did not give up our tongue, and it is spoke still, as Welsh.

It would be worth treasuring for that resilience alone, but there is far more, for it is not for nothing that the song praises Wales as ‘Gwlad beirdd a chantorion‘ (‘Land of poets and singers’): Welsh is peculiarly suited to poetry. You might not see this from the clumpy “Committee Welsh” painted on road-signs, but spoken in the free air it is such that you cannot speak it without singing.

Politics should not interfere, but if it does then at least let it do so with love. Labour’s manifesto says nothing of the Welsh language, nor does the Liberal Democrats’. (Plaid Cymru do, as you would expect, but only in an odd context: they have forgotten that we are out of the EU in weeks.) The Conservative and Unionist Manifesto adds on another project t supporting the institutions: “We will support the ambition for one million people in Wales to be able to speak Welsh by 2050”.

(It’s not like farming and building up a flock, you know – these are people, who can choose what to speak, my wife’s family among them.)

There is a richness to be found from understanding the Welsh language. A million speakers does not mean those who speak it at home, but understanding it is a worth though wearisome endeavour. I can suggest another angle though: do not confine it to Wales. The first Gorsedd and Eisteddfod were held in London, and they have met in Liverpool. Britons outside those western counties might care to recall that once Wales was all Britain, and maybe their ancestors spoke the language, which is therefore a route to our own heritage.

See also

Berlin – 30 years

The wall fell 30 years ago today; the most monumental event of an extraordinary year of freedom – 1989. The news should be wall-to-wall wall, but somehow it is as if the world has moved on. The sudden burst of freedom the year brought to many, many millions cannot be an ‘and finally’ on the news. We must never, never forget what lay behind the Berlin Wall and the thousand miles of barbed wire and minefields that snaked across the continent to stop the slave subjects of Communism from slipping their bonds into freedom.

The joy of escape that those imprisoned Germans felt as they entered West Berlin reverberated across the world, and although they were only escaping into a small bubble city itself trapped within the east, it was an escape into freedom that they could know at once, and at the same time, the border all across Germany was opened, but it was the wall, the horrible wall, which symbolised it all. That night men went out with pickaxes and began to take their revenge upon it, to open it physically. Once this would have been greeted with gunfire, but now with cheers.

There was no sense that the East Berliners were unwilling to accept an unaccustomed freedom, not knowing what it was – they and their parents had not lived in freedom for fifty-six years, not since Hitler snuffed it out, and Stalin followed him. They knew freedom though when they breathed it – it is the instinct of mankind.

I was in Berlin a few years later, and picked up a chunk of the wall. That piece, in its condition smashed off by that hand of a free Berliner was a symbol both of freedom, and of the slavery which preceded it. The dark days should never be sanitised, nor our accustomed freedom be treated lightly.

Dark times and better times

Treason is never far from us. It may come with an explosive blast – we have seen too many of those in latter years – or it may come with a whisper in dark corners. It may be in the actions of a murderous man intent of terrifying and tyrannising, or in the words of a useful idiot. Ambition, arrogance, malice, or a naïve hope to make things better out of the destruction and weeping – all these are with us.

How many politicians and activists agree that a “desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy”, and justifies thereby what is really an exercise in personal power for a personal thrill? Guy Fawkes and Catesby are not history but a tragedy of humanity.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
‘Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

The cynics have called Guy Fawkes the only man to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intent, but there are many men and women of selfless service there and long have been, and I trust that after the election there will be some there again, amongst the bulk of timer-servers and egotists.

Even now there are plots and plotters, and traitors. Times have been worse though, and the fact that we celebrate our national deliverance on the Fifth of November every year still after all the wars and calamities of the age tells us something. It was not wiped out even by the wars.

During the Second World War and the blackout, P L Travers, the authoress of Mary Poppins wrote:

From 1605 till 1939 every village green in the shires had a bonfire on Guy Fawkes’ Day. … Since 1939, however, there have been no bonfires on the village greens. No fireworks gleam in the blackened parks and the streets are dark and silent. But this darkness will not last forever. There will some day come a Fifth of November — or another date, it doesn’t matter — when fires will burn in a chain of brightness from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before. They will take each other by the hand and watch the rockets breaking, and afterwards they will go home singing to the houses full of light…

So we do, and long may we do so.

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