“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another”

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Abbas Milani (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Philosophers have said writing is a pharmakon, a cure and a curse, a poison and an antidote,” writes Abbas Milani in Tale of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir.  The book, first published by Mage in 1996, when he was a professor in “the hospitable atmosphere of a small liberal arts college run by the Sisters of Notre Dame,” has been reissued in paperback.

Milani’s book is peppered with references to the way language, thought, and politics mix:

“Language is the source of problems for all revolutions. The structure of language, its ability to conjure memories of the past, interfere with the leveling goal of revolution.  Revolutions invariably strive to erase memory.  Memory, after all, defies the fiction of a totally new beginning. And so the Islamic Republic encouraged a new Arabicized lexicon. Everyday speech became a political act.  …

Revolutions are also about silence. Through a coercive reign of terror, the Islamic Republic milanicoverhad, unwittingly, enriched our language of silence and our society’s lexicon of gestures.  Literary language became more metaphoric and the language of gestures became textured with new layers.  Glances, brow movements, intonations, body language became pregnant with new precise meanings and possibilities. The faces, the crowd, the gestures of Khomeini’s frenzied burial can, I think, only be understood in light of this new vocabulary.”

Iran, after all, is the original home of ketman, which Czesław Miłosz limned in Captive Mind.  It’s not surprising that Shahryar Mandanipour discussed the same topics during a recent visit, with his friend Milani in the front row.  Milani’s remarks also bring to mind another writer’s immortal words on politics and language.

Milani’s remarkable rise to international prominence was described in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle profile here.  It is hard to exaggerate the importance of Milani in mobilizing the Bay Area Iranian diaspora. I interviewed him last week, but not all questions made it into the final cut. Here’s one, in which Milani modestly neglects to mention his own role in unifying the Iranian diaspora he praises:


How is this Iranian diaspora in the U.S. supporting the movement for democracy in Iran?

The events since last June’s contested presidential election and the participation of millions in disciplined, peaceful, and profoundly uplifting protests have invigorated, and in some ways unified the hitherto divided, often dormant Iranian diaspora.

The first quarter century of Iranian-Americans lives in America was primarily dedicated to establishing for themselves and their families new lives and developing new roots. Just as the community was beginning to look into becoming more politically and socially active, the emergence of the singularly impressive and inspiring democratic movement in Iran acted as a catalyst for this politicizing process. The Moghadam Family’s endowment of our Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, Bita Daryabari’s generous endowment that allows us to vastly expand our ability to teach Persian literature and culture here were clear indications of the community ‘s success and new sense of social responsibility.

Much more can and needs to be done by this diaspora to help with the inevitable transition to democracy in Iran—from helping enrich the debate about Iran here in America to sending a strong message of support to those fighting for democracy inside the country. Many community leaders are working hard to map out a strategy for this auspicious beginning.

Here’s another exchange that didn’t make the final cut:

Some fear that any reaction from us at all to support Iran’s democracy movement will backfire on the dissidents – that they be seen as foreign stooges, and the U.S government further demonized as the great Satan.

The Iranian regime is bent on accusing the West of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, and on dismissing dissent as nothing but a concoction of the West, or America. Before them, the Shah too accused his critics and opponents of being “agents” of foreign powers. Ironically, when leaders of this regime were part of the opposition to the Shah—1963-1979—they consistently demanded that the West, and America in particular, cease their support for the Shah and offer political and moral support to the opposition. Now when the Iranian opposition asks the world for the same kind of moral support, the regime accuses them of “serving imperialism.” It also accuses the Obama administration of “interfering” in Iran’s domestic affairs when it offers any support for Iran’s suppressed democrats.

A melancholy sweetness hangs over many of his memories of Iran, inviting inevitable comparisons from his second city on the West Coast:  “Here, lovers are lonely monads, guarding turfs, who quickly ‘get on with a new life’ when the old love proves impractical.  In English, we ‘fall’ in love, whereas in Persian we ‘become’ in love.”  (Translator Dick Davis echoes many of the same sentiments — I’ve written about him here.)

“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another,” writes Milani. “I am now a permanent exile.  I write in both English and Persian.  Persian connects me to my past, English is the language of my future.”


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