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Crafting a Cultural Idiom of Engagement: The US President’s Persian Poetry (Part 2)

By Kevin Schwartz and Aria Fani

This the second part of a two-part series on president Barack Obama's use of Persian poetry as a diplomatic tool. Click here to read part one.

In his 2015 message, as he had done previously in 2013, the president quoted from the poetry of Hafez. Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafez of Shiraz, who died near the end of the fourteenth century, may not be as well known in the West as his predecessor Jalal al-Din “Rumi”—one of the best-selling poets in the US today—but his poetry is incorporated into the daily rhythms and traditions of the Persianate world in a myriad of ways. People seek out answers to life’s questions in his poetry (known as augury or “Hafez’s fortune”) and often place his collection of poems on the haft-sin table at Nowruz. In a message that was framed by the president’s noting of a “historic opportunity…to pursue a different future for our countries,” the choice to quote Hafez, where the constant themes of fate, desire and mortality often co-mingle, seemed only fitting.

“It is early spring,” Mr. Obama quotes the fourteenth-century poet, “try to be joyful in your heart for many a flower will bloom while you will be in clay.” If Sa‘di’s words captured for the president an uncertain hope and Behbahani’s words an uncertain defiance, then Hafez’s words reflect something seemingly more certain. You will all be in clay. Time passes, life goes on, and flowers bloom—as much for a president in the twilight years of his second term as for those hardliners in Iran and in the US Senate who oppose a nuclear deal. We will all be turned to  clay—all of us. But did the president mean to imply that flowers will always bloom around us regardless of what we do? If so, is that an argument to accept a final nuclear deal with Iran or not? Doesn’t the president desperately want a deal with Iran before his presidency becomes clay?

Hafez’s poetry is known for being infuriatingly ambiguous and open to many interpretations. The choice to deploy those lines by Hafez at a time when even an interim deal had not yet been reached was befitting of a political context of uncertainty. It also demonstrates the Obama administration’s most ambitious and sophisticated attempt yet to rely on the cultural currency of poetry, as exhibited in one of the language’s most complex poets no less, to express the administration’s current impressions of the prospect for political reconciliation. If quoting Sa‘di was meant to articulate a notion of desired human interaction, an opening salvo directed at resetting US-Iran relations, then quoting Hafez was more of a meditation on the ephemerality of the human condition looking well beyond the current state of political exigency. It was the difference, say, between recounting the conditions that allow a tulip to bloom versus speculating how a tulip in bloom would feel about its future wilted life.

The quotation of Persian poetry has not been the sole domain of the US president. Other actors in the US government have quoted Persian poetry and participated in this project of crafting a cultural idiom to redefine the contours of American-Iranian interaction. In October 2014, in offering her assessment of the current state of negotiations and the work ahead, US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman turned to the words of Sa‘di to “have patience; all things are difficult before they become easy.” The State Department’s Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre, has endeared himself to members of the Iranian media and ordinary Iranians through his frequent quoting of Persian literary lore, which he sends out via Twitter and sprinkles throughout his Facebook page. Together with the president’s quoting of poetry, these actions form part of the multifaceted process of cultural diplomacy of which one result has been the interim agreement in Lausanne. This use of the cultural idiom of poetry has not been limited to Iran. Speaking on December 17, 2014 upon the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana, the president addressed the people of Cuba directly and quoted a poem by nineteenth century Cuban poet José Martí. Recently, Esther Allen has admirably traced the genealogy of Mr. Obama’s use of the poem in translation for this blog.

Whether the continued formation and consistent use of a cultural idiom to engage Iran politically will be inherited by future administrations depends as much upon the success of any nuclear deal as it does upon the will of future administrations to recognize Iran as a complex and culturally diverse land. If a final nuclear deal is struck, the cultural diplomacy as inaugurated by the Obama administration, of which the quotation of Persian poetry is but one feature, should rightly be examined alongside the use of sanctions as a cause for such success. If a final deal is not reached, then one can only hope that the crafting of a cultural idiom to engage Iran remains in place, rather than being relegated to the status of curious footnote to the Obama administration’s endeavors to navigate an otherwise politically perilous time.

Published Apr 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Kevin Schwartz and Aria Fani

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