Iran Before Islam: Challenging Stereotypes Through Art

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A Smithsonian exhibition of ancient Iranian objects offers a different perspective on the country than Westerners normally see.

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A hemispherical bowl from the Sasanian period, 7th or 8th century. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Americans are bombarded with media coverage of the three-decade-old Islamic Republic and its nuclear aspirations. But there's more to Iran than Ahmdainejad, as can be seen in the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries' new project, Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, a new exhibition of pre-Islamic Iranian artifacts.

The Atlantic invited a panel of Iranian-American leaders to discuss the exhibit. Taking part in the dialogue are Azar Nafisi, the much-acclaimed Iranian-American author of long-standing New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran; Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic Art Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; and Mahnaz Afkhami, Iran's former minister of women's affairs and president of the Women's Learning Partnership.

Pre-Islamic Iranian history is believed to range from about 4000 BC to 651 AD. The roughly 40 pieces of luxury metalwork at the exhibit, many of which were used in elaborate religious ceremonies and bacchanalian banquets, offer glimpses into Iranian existence between 550 BC and the Islamic conquest of the region over a millennium later.

As they discussed the art objects, the panelists observed that media coverage of Iran can be at times short-sighted and superficial, reducing a 6,000-year-old history to three tumultuous decades and lumping the nation together with the rest of the Muslim world.

Nafisi, who recently spoke to The Atlantic about the Oscar-nominated Iranian film A Separation, points out that great works of art transcend the tumult of politics and power. She observes that Iranian youth have long used American art and literature as a window into the Western world and laments that Americans too rarely return the favor:

Over here the way people connect to Iran is not through the aspect of Iran that is enduring. Iranian people paid a great deal of respect to the rest of the world and to America, especially, by connecting to America, not through its presidents or its politics, but through its "golden ambassadors" -- the Marx Brothers, Saul Bellow, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Hopper. The least any people can ask of the other is to respect them through trying to understand them.
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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz & Massoud Hayoun

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is an Atlantic senior editor. Massoud Hayoun writes for and produces The Atlantic's International channel.

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