Talking with Persia, spreading out the carpet

Persian carpetBy 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 court—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 excuse—any excuse—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]

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5 replies »

  1. Robert,
    First, thanks for using the excellent gloss of Themistocles and Xerxes to illustrate the dunderheadedness and (I risk the wrath of Gavin here, but I

  2. No doubt I am being too kind to imply, even ironically, that the Bushites would wish to accomplish anything diplomatically but that they are merely incompetent in executing that desire. As with their general Middle East policy, the fault is first with their solipsistic perspective, belittling anything that is not American. This uncaring obliviousness leads naturally to bullying, which creates pushback, if not blowback. Let

  3. It works both ways, though. Themistocles was going to Xerxes for sanctuary and needed to learn how to please his erstwhile hosts. This he did. The US may need Iran’s help to stabilise Iraq (something also in Iran’s interests, by the way) but Iran still needs US help if they intend on becoming a savoury member of the community of nations.

    It is up to both sides to compromise and find accord. Don’t place all the blame on the heads of US representatives, competent or not.

    It was, after all, the Iranians who kidnapped and held hostage British troops operating from a dingy in Iraqi waters. I imagine that if the US were to exercise the same lack of caution and capture an Iranian military vessel in Iranian waters there would be hell to pay.

  4. There is a tendency these days to slip into an either/or mentality where our leadership is concerned. Every time I hear Hugo Chavez ripping into Bush I can’t help thinking how very on the mark he is. Of course, that does mean Chavez isn’t a barking loon, too, and the same goes for Ahmadinejad.

    Iran is a problem. A large one. And neither our leadership nor theirs is helping things much. But if there were a way to work toward a sensible relationship we’d all benefit in the short and long run.