Reflections on a Lecture by Karimi-Hakak

Reflections prompted by a lecture by Ahmad Karimi-Hakak about Persian literary production in India. The lecture is in Farsi but my thoughts are not specific to his lecture:

I’ve been revamping and stretching my imagination of “Iran” and “Persian” consistently since I’ve started my readings for this project. I think this is the best part of the project for me so far. I never liked the nationalism that was forced down our throats in schools in Iran, but I had the imagination that all these other places where Rudaki, Amir Khosrow, etc were from were part of a “greater Iran” that was coterminous with but only larger than the Pahlavi Iran with the defined borders and the central state I knew. I wasn’t aware of how deeply that myth had a hold on my imagination even as I rejected nationalism and Persian ethno-centrism – thanks to Samad Behrangi whose work, ironically, I got to read in Farsi first when I was nine.

In my high-school – fittingly called Pahlavi University High School – there were students from around Iran (the creme of the crop picked from across the nation to be trained for the next generation of elite technocrats and bureaucrats), and many of them spoke other languages and dialects: Kurdi, Azari, Gilaki, Lori, Baluchi, etc. We studied in Farsi (except for our English classes) and we were ranked according to our scholastic performance (grades) and divided into different sections (A, B, and C). Section A students, who were considered to be creme de la creme, mostly had Farsi as their mother tongue. Azari, Kurdi, etc students were mostly in B and C sections. I found that to be so ridiculous especially because as someone who hardly ever studied I knew I neither was smarter nor worked harder than many of the students in sections B and C. I performed better only because I knew the language well and understood the teachers’ lectures better which was a great advantage. So I saw Farsi functioning as a colonial language and representing ethnic dominance and injustice. (By then I was more deeply politicized too and familiar with facts of ethnic repression thanks to what I’d learned from my friends in B and C.)

What I’ve been learning over the past couple of months has been helping me disentangle the language from territorial boundaries and concepts of nation, ethnicity and identity, and to begin to recognize the historical shifts that contributed to my limited/limiting imagination. This is painting a world for me which is very different from that of the rigid nationalisms constructed within the matrix of western colonialism. So this has been fundamentally a decolonizing process. However, I still have a lot of dis-ease with the way in which power relations are flattened in discussions of Persian as the “lingua franca” of a vast geography with immense ethno-linguistic diversity. I can’t take it for granted, as Karimi-Hakak seems to (min 51), for example, that when Mohamad Iqbal Lahuri wants “to write his best philosophical thoughts in poetry, he resorts to Farsi.” This depoliticizes linguistic development and currency and severs language from power. Maybe it’s my rigidity, but I don’t see how we can do that. That, after 30 years of living in exile, I write my most elaborate thoughts in English doesn’t neutralize/naturalize English nor erase the traumatic displacements that predate my fluency and facility with English. Just as the vast Arabic literature produced by ethnic Persians and others of different languages cannot efface the traumas of defeat and domination predating their production.

It’s interesting that just as Karimi-Hakak’s talk is so good in dispelling the ethno-chauvinistic attitudes toward non-Persian Persian speakers/producers, it produces a different form of silence around questions of power and language. Why is this so common amongst people who are looking at this history? What am i missing?

Posted in Reflections