Posts Tagged ‘Abbas Milani’

In good company: Gabriella Safran, Abbas Milani, Ian Morris discuss their books

Friday, February 10th, 2012
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I know, I know – I keep promising Paris.  But here’s a down-payment, while I figure out how to download my photos.  A colleague recently sent me this youtube video from last April’s “A Company of Authors.”

Included in this excerpt from the day-long event are authors Gabriella Safran, Humble Moi (a.k.a. Cynthia Haven), Abbas Milani, and Ian Morris presenting our recently published books.  That’s Gabriella’s Wandering Soul, my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, Abbas’s Myth of the Great Satan/The Shah, and Ian’s Why the West Rules – For Now.

Writing quickly from Desk #39 at the BNF … more later

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011
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“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.

Iran? “We need a new paradigm,” writes Abbas Milani

Monday, October 18th, 2010
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He fights for democracy in Iran (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In a friendly chat with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is trying to drum up support for his leadership,  Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered these words of wisdom:

“The Iraqi nation is vigilant and aggressors cannot dominate this country again,” Mr Khamenei told Mr Maliki, according to a statement put out by his office. “May God get rid of America in Iraq so that its people’s problems are solved.”

Solved for which people? I doubt it will improve much for women, if Iran is to be held as a role model:  Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani‘s former lawyer said, after he legged it to Norway, “In Iran, unfortunately, one could say women are in a real situation of slavery.”

So much remains to be “solved” — her fate, and the fate of others like her.  And nukes.  And “fuel swaps,” and … and…and… Will any of it work?  This, from Abbas Milani‘s new book, The Myth of the Great Satan:

“Of the many problems plaguing U.S.-Iranian relations in the last thirty years, the most elemental problem is the one most easily overlooked or ignored: the United States plays by the normal rules and logic of diplomacy while the clerical regime plays by its own idiosyncratic rules.  Trying to deal with the regime only through traditional channels of diplomacy is akin to fighting an agile terrorist insurgency with the ponderous might of a regular army.  While it is clear that there is no military solution to America’s ‘Iran problem,’ it is no less clear that a new paradigm, equipped to counter the Iranian regime’s self-serving rules of conduct, needs to be developed.  The Iranian regime’s agility is rooted in its despotism; the ponderous pace of American policy is the price society pays for democracy.  The challenge is to match Iran’s agility without sacrificing the principles of democracy.”

Milani writes that a number of factors have resulted in a “diplomatic disparity between the regime, with its double talk and outright lies, and the United States, trying to play by the traditional rules of diplomacy.  Tagiyeh, a Shiite concept allowing the faithful to lie in the service of faith, provides clerical leaders with a theological cover for their lies and obfuscation.”

We’ve written about Milani before here and here — and did a Q&A with him a while back here.  He is a relentless advocate for Iran’s Green Revolution, and says the solution to our problems is to back democracy in Iran.

A pessimistic lawyer, an optimistic dissident, and a fatwa

Monday, July 12th, 2010
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Scott Turow talks very briefly about his new book here.  What’s the difference between his 1987 hit, Presumed Innocent, and this season’s Innocent?

“The practice of law is not the same,” he says. “The veneer has worn away. People realize that private practice is about money, and public practice is often about politics. These facts—which were demurely hidden from the public and sometimes, among lawyers, from themselves—are now in the open.”

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Milani in the classroom (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

The same Stanford Magazine issue also profiles author and leading Iranian dissident Abbas Milani (we’ve written about him here and here).  In the article, Milani recalls a 2006 dinner at the Stanford home former Secretary of State George Shultz, where President Bush was a guest:

“When Bush met Milani, the president told him to stay after the other guests left. ‘I want to talk to you one-on-one,’ Bush said. Milani and Bush chatted privately for 15 minutes. Bush asked if there were any reliable intermediaries who could negotiate with the mullahs on Washington’s behalf. As they were leaving, Milani told Bush, ‘You know, you’ve got a lot of popularity in Iran for standing up to these guys.’ The president wheeled around and stared at Milani. Then he said, ‘You’re not bullshitting me, are you?'”

Milani seems an eternal optimist.  The most unambiguous supporters of democracy tend to be those who didn’t grow up under it. If democracy happens in Iran, would Milani board a plane for Teheran?

“Milani considers the question for a while. Outside, it has grown dark. ‘Many of my friends who live there tell me, even if you can come back, don’t. The Iran you have in your mind, that you love and miss, is lost. These guys have created a different animal.’

Then Milani brightens. ‘Regimes in my view are like relationships,’ he says. ‘If you have a bad relationship, the worst of you comes out. If you are in a good relationship, you do things you never thought you were capable of. You see colors you never knew existed. Democracy is like a good relationship. It really brings out the best in people.'”

His books have been banned in Iran, and he was last summer put on trial in absentia as “one of the most important leaders of the opposition.”

Meanwhile, also in Iran, Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani, an Iranian mother, could be put to death by stoning (or other means).  Sign an electronic petition for her here.

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Molly Norris

Elsewhere in the Middle East:  Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is not a forgive-and-forget kind of guy.  He’s placed Molly Norris — the cartoonist  who helped launch the recent “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day!” before distancing herself from the campaign — on an execution list, with these words: “A soul that is so debased, as to enjoy the ridicule of the Messenger of Allah, the mercy to mankind; a soul that is so ungrateful towards its lord that it defames the Prophet of the religion Allah has chosen for his creation does not deserve life, does not deserve to breathe the air.”

Read about it here and here.

She joins a growing class of cartoonists, thinkers, activists and filmmakers who now must have lifetime protection by bodyguards, 24/7.

UPDATE 7/14 — Article at the Huffington Post here.

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The Book Haven and yours truly got a nice mention in the thoughtful, often provocative Anecdotal Evidence — in a post called “Solitary, Silent, Compellingly Warm” (no, Patrick Kurp was not referring to moi).

Iranian fantasies, bad translations, and electric cats

Monday, June 28th, 2010
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Leon Wieseltier

In WaPo, the New Republics controversial literary editor Leon Wieseltier responds to the “false and heartless” June 21 op-ed by Fareed Zakaria, in which  the Newsweek editor worries that too much concern for Iranian democracy will lead to war.  Wieseltier is usually unbuttoned — but this article rather takes the biscuit.  He concludes:

“The Khameini-Ahmedinejad ‘oligarchy’ represses and imprisons and rapes and tortures and murders its own citizens. It also promotes theocracy and terrorism in its region and beyond. All this is pretty plain. Why is Zakaria so fearful that American foreign policy will respond to such a government with stringency and loathing? Perhaps he believes that President Obama’s policy of respect and accommodation will solve the nuclear problem and bring a measure of decency to the rulers of Iran, but there is no empirical basis for such a belief. It is a much greater fantasy than the ‘fantasy’ that Zakaria deplores, which is no fantasy at all. Real realism consists of the recognition that nuclear peace and social peace in Iran will be reliably achieved only with the advent of democracy, and that since June 12, 2009, the advent of Iranian democracy is not an idle wish.

Milani (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Morally and strategically — this is one of those perplexities in which they go serendipitously together — President Obama’s refusal to strongly support the Iranian resistance against the Iranian tyranny is not prudent, it is perverse. But when democracy comes to Iran, Fareed Zakaria will plummily assure us that this was his dream all along.”

Whew!

However, in its central contentions that democracy will resolve the nuke impasse, he sounds a bit like Abbas Milani — without Milani’s tempered patience.  No surprise: Milani contributes to the New Republic and is a friend.  But glad that the taste for democracy as a resolution for the Iranian imbroglio is contagious.  I’ve written about Milani’s views on the subject here, and also on the Book Haven here and (along with writer Shahryar Mandanipour) here.

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We’ve written about the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, and Marilyn Yalom’s defense of the controversial new translation.  Simone de Beauvoir herself was unhappy with the earlier translation by Smith College zoologist H.M. Parshley, who had never translated a book from the French and knew little about philosophy:  “I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.”

In a Chronicle of Higher Education review of the new translation by Carlin Romero here, he concludes:

… it’s a shame that the Second Sex Translation Follies are turning into a well-made play in which everyone acts the role assigned by theatrical cliché. Maybe a wiser way to look at things is that it’s precisely because all have done so that we find ourselves in such a happy place. … The unabridged material before us … demands extraordinary respect for a writer and thinker who, earlier false images to the contrary, didn’t kneel to Sartre or write off the top of her head, but argued effectively and with rich evidence for a vision of women that now dominates the well-educated West.

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Kit Smart

And finally, for fun, a friend alerted me nearly a year late about poet Robert Pinsky’s quick write-up of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” — a poem beloved to  all cat-lovers.  Last year’s Salon article (It includes a 6-minute reading of the poem by Pinsky — definitely worth a click — here)

A sampling for those unfamiliar with the poem — in which Kit Smart considers his cat Jeoffrey:

For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven
to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. …

Robert Pinsky (Photo: Steve Castillo)

Ed Hirsch, too, referenced Kit Smart during his recent visit — perhaps Kit appeals to a modern sort of pantheism.

Smart was eventually consigned to a madhouse. According to Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s work: “My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place…I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

By the by, you might enjoy Pinsky’s pre-millenial commencement address at Stanford, which is here (with video link).

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

Saturday, April 17th, 2010
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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.”

Crème de la crème

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010
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fishkinTo be one of 700 honored by a prize may not seem like that big of a deal — until you realize that you had about 25,000 competitors.

Choice, which reviews book for the American Library Association, publishes a list of outstanding academic titles reviewed during the previous calendar year in its January issue.  It reviews about 7,000 works each year out of 25,000 submitted.  The list of “Outstanding Academic Titles” is selected from the reviewed books.

Two authors already appearing in the electronic world of the Book Haven have been awarded:  Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin (who appeared here and here) was awarded for Feminist Engagements: Forays into American Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan) and Abbas Milani (he’s mentioned here, and there’s a ABC report about his inclusion on Iran’s “enemies” list here), for his acclaimed Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979 (Syracuse).milani2

Both are on the Stanford faculty, but so are a few other winners:   physicist Leonard Susskind, with his intriguingly titled The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (Little, Brown); pediatrician Donald A. Barr, author of Health Disparities in the United States: Social Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Health (Johns Hopkins) and Richard G. Klein, the biologist/anthropologist author of The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (Chicago).

Another winner is Stanford University Press, whose honored books included: Joel Andreas’s , Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class; Andrew Elfenbein’s Romanticism and the Rise of English; Hiromi Mizuno’s Science for the Empire: Scientific Nationalism in Modern Japan; Diane Perpich’s The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas; Sultan Tepe’s Beyond Sacred and Secular: Politics of Religion in Israel and Turkey, and Muthiah Alagappa’s The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia.

Iranian writer speaks of “the insanity of censorship”

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
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Mandanipour (Photo by Elena Seibert)

Shahryar Mandanipour’s debut at  Stanford this week was decidedly understated:  about 70 people gathered in Lane Hall, most of them apparently Iranian.

His topic was, perhaps, the obvious one: censorship.  The chief symptom of censorship is the “corruption of language,” he said, echoing Orwell. He noted that his  “poor language” has been commandeered to tell “thousands of lies.”

“It’s not important to write a political story, but it is important that you write an artistic story,” he said. In such circumstances, the job of the writer is to remind readers that “the word tree means tree.”

What he called “the insanity of censorship” was not always his topic of choice: Mandanipour recalled that the subject was raised so often that his interviews in America became bland and predictable.   He waited, in vain, for the question he wanted to hear:  “What is this literature, and what has it achieved?”

His own has achieved a great deal already:  his novel was accepted for publication by Knopf on the basis of only 50 submitted pages.  Censoring an Iranian Love Story has been  named one of the New Yorker‘s top books of the year.  No mean feat for the writer who arrived on this side of the Atlantic only three years ago.

The novelist from Shiraz cut an appealing figure:  a ruggedly handsome man in a black shirt and jacket, with a shock of frizzled gray hair.  Another shock: a surprisingly light, breathy voice that was often inaudible, sometimes incomprehensible,  in its heavily accented English.

Occasionally, as his English faltered, he would turn tentatively and murmur, “Help me, Doctor,” to the man sitting in the front row.  Abbas Milani, head of the program in Iranian Studies, reminded Mandanipour of his youth in Teheran, he said, when Milani was “the youngest and best teacher in political science.” The program Prof. Milani directs is too little known — it’s startlingly top-drawer. I’ve written about its visiting scholar Dick Davis here, and its Bita Prize for Literature and Freedom, which honored eminent poet Simin Behbahani, here.

Following Mandanipour’s reading, the question-and-answer period took an interesting turn when one man observed that fundamentalist regimes reserve their www.randomhouse.comheaviest artillery for literature, since  these religions preach certainty, and the novel thrives on doubt and uncertainty within its characters, motifs, and plots.

Mandanipour warmed to this theme.  These regimes, whether or religious or political, share an underlying fallacy: that “people are the same, there is no difference, no individuality.” The work of authors is an obvious target because “literature tries to show that there are many points of view in the world.”

“Democracy, the novel — they both come together.”

Nevertheless, Iranian literature, with its “layer of dark, bitter humor” is “complicated, personal,” he said. “For this reason, it’s not easy for this literature to have a dialogue with the world.”

He spoke movingly of writer’s block in his early days in the U.S., looking at the flowers whose names he did not know, and his mind would return to those who had “burned their memories so that only the flames would read them.”  He also thought of those who were still fighting — “brave students beaten with bottles,” facing interrogation and torture in their struggle for human rights.

“There are times the Iranian women are braver than the men. I think so,” he said softly.