In the shop of an Iranian Jew, David Somekh, deep in the shadows of Tehran’s bazaars, I bought my first Persian carpet. It was stunningly beautiful, an early tribal Afshar. I forget what I paid for it but I’m sure it was a lot.
I was seduced by its radiance, its asymmetry, the Persian date woven into its pattern; by the hospitality, the cups of tea and coffee, pistachios and idle chatter. Today, each time I step on the rug I revisit those memories with pleasure.
1969. My first visit to Iran. I returned to my home in Beirut with the carpet, its reds so hot they seem to burst through its wrapping, a one kilo tin of black-market caviar, a newly acquired taste for crusty Persian rice and chilled yoghurt-cucumber soup, heavy with garlic, and fond memories of all the Iranians I met.
1979. I sadly realized, after Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and the dark days of Iran began, that I was no longer welcome.
This week, as I listen and read of a possible preemptive strike on Iran, I think of David Somekh and wonder where he is and will he and his family be safe. I wonder who is worrying about the 25,000 Jews who continue to live in Iran. I wonder who will protect them from the days of rage that will surely follow if Israel or the United States attacks Iran. Mobs are not rational and often strike out blindly. Are they just considered potential “collateral damage?”
Such thoughts frighten me. I had not meant to write about Iran this week, but news from Tel Aviv, London and Washington reawakened fears of a potentially cataclysmic conflict. Rhetoric from Republican presidential aspirants, from American neo-cons who brought you the war in Iraq, and from Israeli hawks, all rising as with one voice, should worry us all.
What are they thinking? There is no surer way of uniting the Iranian people than by attacking them. There is no surer way of sending us back into deep recession than by Persian Gulf flames of conflict. There is no surer way of turning back the modest gains made by the United States in the Muslim world than by having another Muslim country attacked. There is no surer way of moving all those who demand peace further apart.
Do I like the idea of an Iran with nuclear weapons? No. Do I like the idea of its neighbors Pakistan, India, Israel and Russia having nuclear weapons? No, of course not.
That’s not the point.
Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, in a rare moment of candor said, on “Charlie Rose,” that he could understand why Iran, in such a tough neighborhood, would desire nuclear weapons. He was immediately slammed by Israeli politicians and the press, saying his words implied that Iran had a justification for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Poor Ehud. I never agree with him. But this time he was right. Maybe Iran is looking for parity in a dangerous neighborhood.
Maybe it’s not just about Israel. Maybe it’s about our inability to talk to each other.
My most recent visit to Iran was two months ago. Shortly after Ramadan, shortly before Rosh HaShanah, I went to a concert at Tufts.
One of the most precious things I own is my “musbaha,” prayer beads, 99 well-fingered pieces of black coral, each imbedded with silver, each representing one of the 99 attributes of God.
Once owned by a Hajji, a Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and purchased in Jerusalem by a priest who presented them to me, they rarely leave home, I am so afraid of losing them. They are my Xanax, my Prozac, and in September they accompanied me on a journey that was both revisiting a past and examining the hope of a future.
Galeet Dardashti presented a program titled “Monajat,” Fervent Prayer. Jewish, her family lived for generations in Iran. Her grandfather, Yona, was a famous cantor and singer of classical Persian music.
Abdullah Ansari (1006-1088) lived in what is now Herat, Afghanistan. Sufi, theologian and poet, his most famous work is “Munajat Namah” (Dialogues with God).
Dardashti has taken Ansari’s 13th-century Sufi poem and blended it into the traditional Persian songs and liturgy for Selihot. Watching an Israeli, an Iraqi-American and a Palestinian as her backup musicians, listening to the beauty of Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and English transfix an audience moved me to tears as I was reminded of the beauty and richness of lands I have traveled that have moved so far apart.
My beads clicked in rhythm as they flowed through my fingers. A Jewish woman singing liturgical poetry in a Middle Eastern community that does not have female cantors made me yearn to some day hear Muslim woman lead men in prayer.
On Thanksgiving include a prayer for peace in the Holy Land. Pray for the wisdom of leaders to find new paths to peace and security, to step back from war and illuminate our lives with beauty, renewal and love.
“O Lord, give me a heart / I can pour out in thanksgiving.
Give me life / So I can spend it / Working for the salvation of the world.”
— Abdullah Ansari
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.