I went to the annual exhibition of Iranian products today, right next to the Phoenicia hotel where some of our parliamentary members are being hosted with American and French money(got it from an insider source…). Well at the very least, it is not the Lebanese state that is paying for their expenses there, a good thing I guess, judging from the tight financial fiscal situation.
Anyway, I found the exhibition very disappointing. Apart from carpets, some vases, and some sweets there weren’t any other Iranian products. On top of that, most of the stands in the exhibition were held by Lebanese businesses. Even in the case of Saffron, which is the typical spice you buy from Iran, people were rushing to the Lebanese stand rather than the one selling Iranian packaged products. The reason was simple: The Iranian saffron was already mixed with tea and held in tea bags. The Lebanese stand had the actual saffron leaves, to be sure, imported from Iran. But along with it it had all kinds of spices, herbs and so forth produced in Lebanon, either from the Bekaa or the South. Everytime the woman holding the stand introduced herself as “I am from the south” she would double the quantity of customers buying. I like the marketing strategy.
But this is not the reason why I am writing this post. There was a Lebanese publishing house that had a huge stand with books on religions, Shi’ism, Khomeini, Hizbullah, alternative medicine, astrology, dreams, basically the books you find published by what has lazily been dubbed as the “hala islamiya”. I asked out of sheer curiosity the guy in charge if he has a book of the Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam. And to my greatest surprise he answered ‘of course’. The book is edited in Tehran, and is based on one of the best translation in Arabic (the one of Ahmad al Safi al Najafi). There is a little introduction by the publisher who opens with “in the name of god the merciful and compassionate”, something that would have probably made Khayyam shiver in his grave. Then he continues with a clarification that if he publishes the Ruba’iyat, it does not mean he agrees with Khayyam views on life and what goes with it, but cannot stand insensitive to the beauty of his writing style, and that hence, cannot but render it visible in the name of Iranian culture. Bear in mind that the introduction by the actual tranlator (al Najafi) that is quite important and sheds light on Khayyam’s thought has been cut down to 3 pages (the introduction in the original edition is kind of 20 pages long). On the front page, there is a picture of the statue of Khayyam, and on the back, of his grave, both being public places in Iran.
In this case, Khayyam is a national symbol that Iran cannot do without, and it is interesting to see how its printing sector tries to circumvent the problem without having to mute it completely. Let me just clarify for those who don’t know and who by now should feel very confused, that Khayyam is a a poet of wine, depraved love, enjoyment of the present, and so one and so forth. Now that I check, I like this line in the wikipedia entry on the guy:
Omar Khayyam’s personal beliefs are not very clearly known, but much is discernible from his poetic oeuvre. However, he was clearly quite liberal in his views; e.g. in one of his rubaiya, he apparently says: “Enjoy wine and women and don’t be afraid, God has compassion” (emphasis added)
That pretty much sums up at the very least, the impression Khayyam leaves on humanity. Oh and he was a Mathematician too. Incidentally, there are many funny things in the wikipedia entry on the guy. And you can check the statue and the grave.
Of course, I have never been to Iran, don’t know how many versions of the Rub’iyat are in circulation, don’t know how Khayyam persists in the representation of the different social classes, regions, etc. So I’m just taking this book as an interesting example of print strategy to use a figure you don’t agree with in order to prop up the more important goal of imagined collectivities (Persian or Iranian here).