Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Iran: Modern & Medieval
Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 12:00pm
Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Iran: Modern & Medieval

Smith Memorial Student Union Room 294, 1825 SW Broadway

Free & open to the public


Any future involving Iran is now considered to be volatile. Will Iran seek nuclear armament? Will sanctions deter Iran’s rogue bent, or will they further radicalize the nation? Forgotten in this din is the very real possibility that the unity we accept as Iran is a mirage. When the West looks at Iran, it often projects its own ideas of the place and its people. Pundits argue that Iran is hostile and zealous, a combination that spells havoc given the prospect of nuclear weapons. Others bring up the Islamic Republic’s three-decade-old record and conclude a rational leadership. And there are those who look at the country’s vigorous youth movement as the “real” face of Iran—a hip but suppressed underworld ready to embrace democracy. Conflicting positions on Iran stem from the fact that Iran itself is divided—a nation at once modern and medieval. Without a proper understanding of this fundamental discord, the West continues to peg Iran erroneously as this or that, in turn feeding a foreign policy that rests on half-truths and quicksand assumptions.


Aria Minu-Sepehr opened his lecture by quoting the 1926 travel diary of Vita Sackville-West. The label on her traveler’s trunk was not a cause for concern among other passengers, nor did it go unnoticed.  It was ‘a little orange flag of ostentation.’ At that time the land of Persia was relatively unknown to Europeans, although the Anglo-Persian oil company had already been extracting for two decades. Persia was exotic but not dangerous, instead evoking intrigue and detached curiosity. Minu-Sepehr pointed out that Iran is in many ways still seen as charming and exotic, a land of labyrinthine bazaars, yet is also seen as modern , nuclear and dangerous – from whence the split?

Minu-Sepehr proceeded to entertain the audience with an array of quotes, anecdotes and images relating to everything from early oil exploitation to soccer short-shorts and epic moustaches. In the spirit of Vita Sackville-West’s observation that ‘the modern and the medieval jostle in the same phrase,’ Minu-Sepehr illustrated a sort of nation-wide Iranian cognitive dissonance that ranges from comical and quaint to confusing and concerning, but manages most of the time to live seamlessly with anachronism. Minu-Sepehr contrasted the image of a new minaret with F-5 Tiger jets flying in the background. A cover from a 1950s ‘Weekly News’ magazine showed an actress in the latest revealing fashions, with the question ‘Is Teheran going to welcome this kind of fashion?’ The actress’ hotpants provided a counterpoint to the modern Iranian regulation that women cannot attend soccer games because of the men’s revealing short shorts. Further photographs highlighted the parallels between older architectural traits and their contemporary manifestations: an inner dome of a medieval mausoleum was clearly the inspiration for the sleek dome of a modern ski resort.

However, despite the questions that Minu-Sepehr artfully left hanging in the air, he was unequivocal in his clear illustration of historical and contemporary efforts, by England and the United States respectively, to exploit Iran’s oil resources. An early black and white photo of a gushing oil tower was paired with a 1901 quote from an oil contract granting the English, ‘Full powers and unlimited liberty, for a period of 60 years, to probe, pierce and drill at their will, the depths of Persian soil, in consequence of which all the subsoil products sought by him without exception will remain his inalienable property.’ A map of 2011 global monetary interactions and another map of global oil reserves made a strong case for Minu-Sepehr’s statement that foreign policy towards Iran has been largely shaped by rivalries over access to oil, and indeed indicated that most politics of this century were determined by petro-politics.

Minu-Sepehr maintained that so long as the West continues to impose its own rubric upon Iranian culture and politics, and lacks mental flexibility, we will continue to misunderstand Iran. It is errant to consider Iran backwards without examining the nuanced circumstances of its uneven development that was exploited and hindered by foreign interest, and unproductive to apply cause-and-effect logic to a place that applies causeless effects.  Perhaps, suggested Minu-Sepehr, the mystical poetry of Hafez could give academics as much insight as a blogger.

Audience questions and comments drew attention to the Iranian blogosphere, the perceived threat of Iranian nuclear armament in light of Iran’s dualistic modality of medieval and modern, and the inability of Western politicos to predict Iran’s actions when they are so grossly uninformed. Other audience members asked about the opinions of young people toward the US, how can we show appreciation towards Iranians, and the disjunction between American and Iranian conventions of communication and politesse, both on the personal and political level.

This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Sara Swetzoff.


Aria Minu-Sepehr has lectured on issues concerning Iranian culture and U.S. foreign policy, and created and directed the Forum for Middle East Awareness at Susquehanna University, where he taught world and Middle Eastern literature. He is the author of We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran—a Publisher’s Weekly “top ten memoir of 2012”—and has been anthologized in That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone. Aria currently teaches at WoodSprings Institute for Creative Writers.


The Portland State University Middle East Studies Center Lecture Series podcast features audio recordings from the series, including this event. Download the audio podcast of this lecture or subscribe to the podcase to receive future episodes by clicking here.


Presented by the Portland State University Library and Middle East Studies Center with support from the U.S. Institute of Peace Public Education for Peacebuilding Support initiative and featuring some of the resources in the  Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys, a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, conducted in cooperation with the American Library Association. Support was provided by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Additional support for the arts and media components was provided by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

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