Mustafa Fahs

Learning Farsi

Tehran’s pervasive influence in Lebanon is shutting out past and present Iranian cultural wealth from entering the country.

A page from a copy of Rumi

Slightly over a week ago, Lebanon’s General Security stopped the screening of the Iranian documentary The Silent Majority Speaks at the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival in Beirut, a decision based on the idea that the film attacked, or presented a negative image, of another country.


The decision to prevent the film from being screened goes hand-in-hand with the stereotypical image Tehran’s allies in Beirut insist on circulating, which is completely at odds with the true situation in Iran. It is ironic that Iranian cinema, which has won international prizes, rather than being presented to the Lebanese by the supporters of the Tehran regime, has been combated, banned and accused of defaming the revolution.


Iran’s supporters in Lebanon have prevented the entry of names like Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami or Jaafari into our intellectual and cultural dictionary. Their television channels have not broadcast films like Children of Heaven, The Taste of Cherry, The Color of Paradise and The Lizard. If it wasn’t for the Beiteddine festivals, the Lebanese would never have heard the works of Iranian musicians like Nazeri, Shajarian, Yezdi and others. In Beirut, the poetry of Omar Khayyam and its influence on humanity has not been discussed. The Iranian Cultural Center has not introduced us to Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and their place in Iranian literary taste. The new revolutionaries have not discussed the history of the Constitutional Revolution and the Green Movement. The Islamist government in Tehran and its ally in Lebanon insist on showing us what the Iranian people no longer accept and what cannot be applied in the society of the Islamic Republic. The Wilayat al-Faqih thought police and its loyalists do not circulate the name of the great Iranian statesman Amir Kabir, who is seen as the next evolutionary step, both as a personality and a legislator, Mohammad Ali Pasha. Even, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was his contemporary, wrote about him in his book Amir Kabir: Founder of the Iranian Renaissance.


On the other hand, political and cultural salons in Beirut have continued to use French as an expression of social advancement, intellectual progress, literary variety and even as a sign of distinction from the Arab and regional status quo. The use of French in Lebanon, which a certain Lebanese sect once used to distinguish itself from the others, is the result of cumulative activity by educational missions and delegations. It became a language for politicians and most people active in the public sphere after independence when learning it became possible for most Lebanese citizens. Most people could learn the language at the schools set up by the post-independence state during its initial eras of right wing politics and political “Maronite-ism.”


The Lebanese right was unable to monopolize the French language as a distinguishing characteristic that separated it from intellectuals and activists from other sections of society. The left was also directly influenced by France — leftists traveled there, studied, embraced the culture and learned the language until eventually they seemed like the sons of French colonies around the world, or the disciples of its countless missions.


Perhaps the best living example of this is Walid Jumblatt; socialist son of a socialist father, and an old friend of the Soviets, and after them the Russians. While he only knows a few words of his allies’ language, his knowledge of French language and culture equals that of the French themselves. It should be pointed out here that the French language became established as a competitor to the mother tongue in most states that were subject to French colonialism directly or indirectly. A relationship developed between the people of those colonies and the colonists that continued after they became independent. French literature, art and philosophy as well as the leaders of the French revolution and figures who contributed to the European renaissance became symbols for liberation movements all over the world; a revolutionary example to be followed by the leaders and activists of these movements.


The rise of Shiite Islam as a political movement in Lebanon, and its direct connection to the Islamist regime in Iran should have been accompanied by a cultural and literary advance, with Persian language, literature and culture at its core.


But the only thing that advanced was Hezbollah, the so-called “Party of God,” and the environment it engendered. This has led to the appearance of a political clientelism or cultural dependence, created by Hezbollah limiting itself to militarism and a sectarian culture. The party presented a difficult language, not just for the Lebanese, but for Shiites as well; a language that soon crept into the details of everyday life — through a vast system of interests and control over the centers of decision making belonging to both the sect and the state.


In Lebanon, it is impossible, among the followers of the Supreme Leader, to find anyone who would mention Amir Kabir, Mohammad Taqizadeh, Mohammad Mosaddegh, Sayyed Hassan Modarresi, Sayyed Abol-Ghasem Kashani or Mir Hussein Mousavi.


When Iran is mentioned in literary forums connected to official forums in Tehran and Lebanon, it seems as if the country has no playwrights, poets or novelists. Although Beirut’s bookshops and book fairs are packed with translations of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s works, one cannot find a single translation of the Iranian novelist Dolat Abad, who is no less important. It is as if the novel didn’t exist in Iranian literature. As for the intellectual Ali Shariati, everyone from Qom to Beirut’s southern suburbs has avoided him, under security service orders.


In Beirut, there is no place for the Iran of Omar Khayyam, Avicenna, Hafez, Saadi, Abdolkarim Soroush and Qom’s enlightened scholars Montazeri, Saanei, Malekian, Shabestari, Kadivar, Mohammad Khatami, Abdollah Nouri, Mohaghegh Damad and Darwish Mehrizi. The Iran that reaches us is limited to Wilayat al-Faqih, the dominance of military governance, the arms race, empty military maneuvers, ringing speeches, and the summoning up of the metaphysical rather than relying on facts. The vast expanse of Iranian culture that spans eras is reduced to myths, fatwas, nuclear capability and a primitive and unhealthy confectionary known as sohan famous for being manufactured in Qom.



Mustafa Fahs is a columnist for Asharq al-Awsat. He tweets @MustafaFahs

Masterpieces of Iranian culture past and present are not making it into Lebanon. (Wikipedia)

When Iran is mentioned in literary forums connected to official forums in Tehran and Lebanon, it seems as if the country has no playwrights, poets or novelists.