Monday, July 04, 2005

Benjamin Franklin & Iran

I am sorry I couldn't respond to the translation request. I have been traveling and have limited access to the net. It'll be a while before I can return to my regular schedule. In the meanwhile, here is a Fourth of July repost from last year.


The Independence Day that Americans everywhere celebrate is a bitter sweet day for some here. It was only yesterday that we commemorated the sad anniversary of the U.S.S. Vincennes' destruction of the Iranian passenger jet with a loss of 290 lives. Pedram has some reflections on the calamity.

The relations between the U.S. and Iran have been tumultuous in recent years. You would (justifiably) get the impression of one giant, perpetual evolving scandal; from the 1953 coup that toppled the popular administration of Mossadegh, to the support, spanning over a quarter of century, for the authoritarian regime of the late Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, as well as the backing for Saddam during the war, the hostage crisis, the Marines in Beirut, the Iran-Contra affair and the ongoing saga of the nuclear proliferation and the differing perspectives about the future of Iraq.

But there is a bridge. At least, a couple of million individuals of Iranian descent have found a welcoming haven over the years on the shores of the United States. Meet one of my favorites. Perhaps one day soon perhaps, some might choose to return and help build a more civil future in Iran.

This post is going to be positive though. It is, after all, the Fourth of July.

I think some years ago I read in this Leonard Levy book, about what the hapless King George III had written in his diary on July 4, 1776: “Nothing of importance happened today.” Sounds funny today, doesn’t it? But some thing significant did happen that day.

Among the group of men we have come to know as the Founding Fathers, one of my favorites has always been Benjamin Franklin.

Most know him as a scientist, an essayist, and an entrepreneur who boasts a wicked sense of humor. What some may also find interesting is that Mr. Franklin also has been implicated in a scandal of his own which in a round about way involves Iran.

Now, I must admit, I appreciate the man especially because of his associations with Thomas Paine. There is an outstanding translation of Paine’s Common Sense prominently displayed in some of the bookshops close to the University of Tehran. If only some could have had the sagacity to learn!

Oddly enough though, I haven’t found his Rights of Men! Must be a sign from the gods! I digress though. Back in 1776, of course, there was no America as we know her today. Empire would have been a dirty word. And Iran was known then as Persia. Still, there was certain symmetry.

Persia was just becoming stable again after 40 years of turmoil thanks to the reign of Karim Khan Zand. He too shared the Founding Father’s disdain for kings. So even though he is associated with the Zand Dynasty, he refused to refer to himself by that odious title, “King of kings,” preferring instead the less pretentious Vakil—literally a regent. He managed to cut the taxes and get the government off people’s backs, which is why he is still remembered today as a compassionate ruler who was chiefly interested in expanding commerce, and promoting sciences and the arts.

But luckily for us and Mr. Franklin, the scandal (at least this time) doesn’t involve money, arms, or intrigue. Now that takes character. No wonder they are called the Founding Fathers.
The matter in question involves a certain “Parable against Persecution,” and the charge is “plagiarism.”

Read the full account here. Apparently, Mr. Franklin is caught having fun using a story that is ascribed to the Persian poet Saadi. This story he successfully manages to pass as a lost book of Genesis. I must admit, however, that to date I have never managed to locate the original story myself. Here is the short version:

“To amuse himself with an oriental apologue which he called "The Parable of Persecution," he had the story bound with a Bible. From this book he would read the legend aloud, amazing his auditors that so beautiful a scriptural passage had escaped their knowledge.

The form in which Franklin cast the tale is this:

"And it came to pass after these things, that Abraham sat in the door of his tent, about the going down of the sun.

"And behold a man, bowed with age, came from the way of the wilderness, leaning on a staff.

"And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, `Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy feet, and tarry all night, and thou shalt arise early on the morrow, and go thy way.'

"But the man said, `Nay, for I will abide under this tree.'

"And Abraham pressed him greatly: so he turned and they went into the tent, and Abraham baked unleavened bread, and they did eat."

And when Abraham saw that the man blessed not God, he said unto him, `Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, Creator of heaven and earth?'

"And the man answered and said, `I do not worship the God thou speakest of, neither do I call upon his name; for I have made to myself a god, which abideth alway in mine house, and provideth me with all things.'

"And Abraham's zeal was kindled against the man, and he arose and fell upon him, and drove him forth with blows into the wilderness.

"And at midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, `Abraham, where is the stranger?'

"And Abraham answered and said, `Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy name; therefore have I driven him out from before my face into the wilderness.'

"And God said, `Have I borne with him these hundred and ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me; and couldst not thou, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?'

"And Abraham said, `Let not the anger of the Lord wax hot against his servant; lo, I have sinned; lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray thee.'

"And Abraham arose, and went forth into the wilderness, and sought diligently for the man, and found him, and returned with him to the tent; and when he had treated him kindly, he sent him away on the morrow with gifts.

"And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, `For this thy sin shall thy seed be afflicted four hundred years in a strange land. "`But for thy repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with power, and with gladness of heart, and with much substance.'"

Allow me to conclude on a personal note to my readers: those of you who never tire of insulting us, mindlessly disparaging our way of life, however problematic it might be: heed Franklin’s warning!

Those of you who never tire of repeating that you were deceived into a war, perpetually blaming the neocons, the Israelis and their agents, or Iranians and their agents, note Franklin’s pointer!

And to those who never tire of bullying citizens and trampling rights: listen up: there are consequences. The Declaration says so!

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