By Robert Silvey
Shortly after 470 BCE, following years of triumph as the leader of wartime Athens, Themistocles was accused of treachery against the city. He escaped the death sentence and traveled to Persia to visit his erstwhile enemy, King Xerxes, but they did not speak a common language. So their conversation was translated, often clumsily, from Greek to Persian and Persian to Greek. Plutarch describes what happened next:
[Xerxes] gave Themistocles leave to speak his mind freely on Greek affairs. Themistocles replied that the speech of man was like rich carpets, the patterns of which can only be shown by spreading them out; when the carpets are folded up, the patterns are obscured and lost; and therefore he asked for time. The king was pleased with the simile, and told him to take his time; and so he asked for a year. Then, having learned the Persian language sufficiently, he spoke with the king on his own.
Imagine the high culture of the Persian courtâ€”and its dense, complex, artful language. Imagine yourself arriving in Persepolis 2,500 years ago, an outlander from a distant region the Persians considered barbaric and uncivilized. Themistocles was smart; he decided to learn the language and understand the culture.
When US envoy Ryan Crocker met yesterday with Iran’s Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in Baghdad, he expressed no interest in the multilayered history of Iran, and he did not choose to communicate in the subtle Persian language. Instead, he bullied the Iranian ambassador. Speaking in unsubtle English, Crocker accused Iran of arming Iraqi militants and said the US would be “looking for results,” implicitly threatening an attack if the results were not what the US desired. Kazemi-Qomi denied the allegations and pointed out that the US presence in Iraq was an occupation. Despite their unfriendly words, both representatives said that the exchange had been “positive” and that they would schedule further discussions.
But it appears to me that the carpets are folded up and the patterns of meaning are obscured and lost. If the American carpet were spread out for all to see, I fear that it would reveal an intention to create an excuseâ€”any excuseâ€”to attack Iran, and that the attack would be without real provocation and would follow no meaningful diplomacy.
It’s unfortunate that the Bush administration does not have a diplomat who is able to read the patterns in the Persian carpet and communicate an unthreatening message of peace.
The quotation from Plutarch’s Themistocles (29.5) is found in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler (HarperCollins, 2005).
[Cross-posted at Rubicon]