Early today I started writing a “serious” assessment of the goods and bads of the deal announced early Tuesday morning between the U.S. and Iran—and, not incidentally, also involving Russia, China, Germany, France, and Britain.
I’ll probably finish that on Wednesday. Preview: From the U.S. point of view, I think that this augurs much more good than bad, and that the people who have rushed to denounce it before the details are clear reveal something worse about themselves and their temperaments than about the negotiations. But that’s for tomorrow.
Today and tonight I had an improbable, serendipitous, and surprisingly moving introduction to another part of U.S.-Iranian interactions. I want to be careful in describing it, because there is a limit to what it meant. But it meant something, at least to me.
In the late 1850s, when The Atlantic was starting, one of it stalwart contributors was Henry David Thoreau. You can find a few of his articles, scanned in from the bound volumes, here. Walden was completed three years before our magazine began, but Thoreau wrote on similar nature, conscience, and consciousness themes for us.
In the late 1980s, when The Atlantic was owned by the real-estate developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman, it had an odd re-connection with Thoreau’s famed Walden Pond, in that Zuckerman was trying to build a big office complex there. Without getting into the details, Zuckerman (disclosure: we’re not friends) was never able to go through with the plans. In large part this was because Don Henley, singer and songwriter of the Eagles, led an effort to block the development efforts and preserve the woods.
Now, with Henley as its chairman, the Walden Woods Project is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And on this evening of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, by pure coincidence, it hosted a lecture by Ali Taghdarreh—a middle-aged Iranian who was making his very first trip outside his country, and who has devoted the past 10 years of his life to producing the first-ever translation of Walden into Farsi.
Ali (as for simplicity I will call him) was careful to say that he was there to talk about translation, Thoreau, and the surprisingly shared mystical sensibility that linked the American transcendentalists of the Thoreau-Emerson era with classic and modern Persian poets. All of this he said he would discuss, rather than implications of the strategic deal that had been announced a few hours before he spoke. And the formal content of his talk was indeed all literary.
He began by saying that he was just finishing high school when the “cultural revolution” led to the closing of universities in Iran, so his formal education came to an end. But he worked on, from a little apartment room in Tehran, as an independent researcher and scholar. He’d first learned English before the revolution from movies and TV—“I loved American Westerns, and now I find myself in the Eastern part of the country,” he said this evening—and later he used old English newspapers and magazines, and occasional videos, to maintain his language skills. “Thoreau wrote that ‘the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready,’” Ali said. “‘The other’ was not ready in my country, so I decided to be the academic who traveled alone. Thoreau taught me how.”
Ali first became aware of Thoreau because Thoreau, like Emerson, had studied the works of Persian poets—especially Sa’adi, whose poems from the 13th century are still recited in Iran. The link that appealed to Ali, he said, was the American transcendentalist emphasis on mysticism, and the sense of shared human connection beyond nationality, race, or religion. “One of Sa’adi’s most famous sayings is ‘All human beings are limbs of the same body,’” Ali said. “‘If one part of the body suffers pain, then the whole body is affected. If you are indifferent to this pain, you cannot be called a human being.’ I saw this as well in Thoreau.” He said he had first learned about Thoreau through a broadcast on a $1 portable radio in 1982.
And so Ali decided to spend the past 10 years of his life creating the first Farsi version of Walden. He found the language difficult, allusive, and elusive—“You’re not alone,” Henley cracked. (Henley flew in from the current Eagles concert tour to introduce Ali’s speech as soon as he learned that the visa arrangements for the trip had finally worked out; then he went back this evening to rejoin the tour. As described in China Airborne, my wife Deb and I got to know Henley during an Eagles tour in China four years ago, and we later visited a Chinese coal-gasification plant with him. Last year we visited another of his conservation projects, the Caddo Lake Institute on the Texas-Louisiana border. Last night he told us about Ali’s event and asked if we wanted to come. We scrambled to get there and are glad we did.)
For Ali, the enormous breakthrough came when he was able to connect with amateur and professional Thoreau scholars outside Iran via the Internet, including via a “Walden list” on Yahoo. These Western, mainly American, contacts helped him with obscure points of translation, supplied him with academic texts, and eventually helped finance the trip to the United States that he happened to be making when the nuclear deal was announced. “I want to thank my one supporter in Iran,” he said at the end of his speech, meaning his wife. “And my many friends from the rest of the world, whom I had never met but who have made it possible for me to be present, in body, in the place where through Thoreau and Emily Dickinson I have been present for a very long time in spirit.”
The questions after Ali’s lecture carefully avoided politics. He talked with the Chinese translator of Walden about the toughest challenges in rendering knotty, often-antique, intentionally dense English into other languages, including plant and animal names unknown in China or Iran, or the challenge of dealing with puns. (“I try to recreate them with new puns.” With a smile: “Often I fail.”) He had a jaunty fatalism not often heard in strictly American discourses. “In certain endeavors in life, you are sure to be defeated. The measure is how far you go”—this concerning his plan to spend the next five years on the near entirety of Thoreau and Emerson. But mainly he emphasized connection.
“Thoreau felt he had the blood of Persian poets in his hands,” he said. The effect of reading Walden was “that my soul was melting into the rest of humanity.” Why did he want to devote his life to this (objectively) obscure task? “Because the mystical sensibility, and the mystical connection to nature, will be very powerful to my people. Hemingway will just bring them the bones of a fish. This is something more powerful and deep.” His full lecture will be online in a few days, and I’ll provide a link so you can see for yourself.
Let me be clear in what I am not saying. Obviously liking a citizen does not mean liking a state. Even closed regimes contain big-hearted, broad-minded people. Conceivably you could find the likes of Ali Taghdarreh right now in North Korea, trying to translate Leaves of Grass. The best-intentioned citizens have only so much control over their governments, as many Americans have had cause to realize through the years.
But. But. I have learned over the years that it matters if people from one culture generally feel a connection with, versus an estrangement from, people from another. I won’t detail the ones that strike me as estranged. I will say that relations between the United States and China, as discouraging at this moment as they have been for nearly 30 years, could be far worse if not for the fact that Chinese and American people basically get along well. That’s a gross generalization, but one I’m willing to defend. And I contend that most Americans who have lived in China would agree—as would most Chinese people who have spent time studying or working in the United States. There’s a similar sense of humor, a similar individualistic impatience with rules. The human rapport doesn’t eliminate the mounting tensions between the countries. But it makes more difference than you would think that so many Chinese families have a cousin in Lansing, a son in Sioux Falls, or that an increasing number of Americans can think of friends in Wuhan or Chengdu.
Which brings us back to Iran. Ali Taghdarreh’s entire theme was: From his little room in Tehran, he recognized the human, the transcendent, the universal in the works of that quintessential American, Henry David Thoreau. Today he had a chance to say so at the real Walden Pond that he had thought about but never seen. I have imagined that, given a chance, most people in Iran and the United States would recognize a similar connection. That does not obviate the complications of this proposed agreement or the conflicts in national interest. But it means something, and something left out of a lot of the fevered “let’s bomb them before they do more evil!” talk.
More on the details tomorrow. Tonight, my appreciation to Ali Taghdarreh and to the team at Walden Woods that has helped him see in reality the place where he has lived, in spirit, for so many years.