• 12 November 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Culture

A History of Exchange

As I meandered through the Falnama: The Book of Omens exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, I was reminded once again of the shared history between Europe and Iran, the East and the West or the Occident and the Orient. However and wherever the dividing lines are drawn, they obscure a history that is far richer in cultural and intellectual exchange than is often recognized or acknowledged. Among the paintings depicting events that are specifically Persian in heritage, there were ornate paintings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and, my personal favorite, Hippocrates riding the Simorgh.

The Simorgh is a creature of Persian mythology that symbolized, among other things, nearness to the Divine and wisdom. The image is evocative of the Simorgh carrying Zal to its nest. In Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh the Simorgh imparted some of its wisdom to Zal, including showing Zal how to perform a cesarean. What a perfect image then, the Simorgh carrying Hippocrates who is lauded as the progenitor of modern medicine.

The picture reminded me of a point made at a colloquium on Islamo-Christian civilization I attended some years ago. The speaker said that if you compared the total time that consisted of peaceful intercultural exchange between the East and the West is compared to the total time that was consumed by hostilities, the relationship is overwhelmingly defined by peaceful exchange and not by mutual hatred and mistrust.

Unfortunately, the media and academia are nearly always focused on the instances when communication has broken down. This presents a skewed view of history that sees current conflicts and tensions as the result of historical events, as simply the nature of things. For example, this attitude can be found in works such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.   

The truth of the matter is that internal conflicts, i.e. Christian vs. Christian or Iranian vs. Iranian etc., has been a far more regular occurrence than us-versus-them style conflicts. One great example is that at the height of its power Venice built forts along the Mediterranean coast ostensibly for defense against the Ottoman Empire. In reality, however, Venice had a fantastic trade relationship with the Ottomans, and was building the forts as a defensive line against the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, Venice often continued trading with the Ottomans, albeit surreptitiously, when other European countries had declared general war on the Turks.

I do not mean to portray an idealized past of perfect cooperation, but, instead, to point out the fact that there has been an enormous degree of cultural exchange between the East and the West. Cultures do not exist in individual bubbles isolated from the rest of the world. They are syncretic. They are the products of a continuous process of the borrowing and exchange ideas and beliefs.    

We would do well to think of the current tensions between Iran and the United States, or between the Muslim world and the West, as an interruption in a long tradition of exchange, and not as a continuation of historical practice. The blame for this break with tradition cannot be assigned to any one group. We are all responsible, and we should all work towards re-forging avenues of intellectual and cultural exchange.

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    One Response to “A History of Exchange”

  1. Pirouz says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Matt.

    I would just add that even though there is a high level political dispute going on between the US and Iran, there is still a great deal of cultural exchange being observed between the two’s respective peoples. Tehran is flooded with bootlegged examples of American pop culture, while Rumi remains America’s most popular poet.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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