Home Opinion/Analysis Iranians: Feasting and fighting

Iranians: Feasting and fighting

There is a general sense among Iranians of all walks of life that they have rejoined the world.

Persian manuscript, fight between Rustam and his son Sohrab, late 15th century, Persia [Getty]

As fate would have it, exactly at the same time that Iranians were busy negotiating a nuclear deal with the US and their European allies in Lausanne, Geneva, a major exhibition of Persian art dubbed “Bazm and Razm: Feast and Fight in Persian Art” was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

The nuclear deal had a decidedly historic ring to it.

“The United States, Iran and five other world powers say,” according to a report on Al Jazeera, “they have reached an understanding that will lead to a comprehensive nuclear agreement within three months”. Reading out a joint statement on Thursday evening, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said a “decisive step” has been achieved.

Iran’s top diplomat gets warm welcome in Tehran

Iranians in and out of their homeland were ecstatic. Spontaneous singing and dancing of ordinary people were reported from Tehran, as in front of the Iranian parliament people burst into singing the national anthem. 

Ruling the world

Symbolism, rich and enticing, was everywhere. While Secretary of State John Kerry of the empire in which we live was looking for a pizzeria in Lausanne, and his Iranian counterpart Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his company were staging their ascetic and prayerful habits for the whole world to see, we in New York were reminded of much more sumptuous and royal circumstances when Persian monarchs were wont to oscillate between ruling the world and feasting on what it had to offer. 

In the exhibition in New York, major artefacts from the Met’s own collection – manuscripts, paintings, instruments, armour and ceramics – were reminiscent of different epochs (particularly those of the 15th and 16th centuries) when the two ideas of feasting and fighting defined what it meant to rule the world and enjoy its consequences. 

The two spectacles of feasting and fighting, when the king launched a battle or when he sat and reclined with his courtiers to enjoy the result, came together to stage the royal household’s worldly prowess. 

That feasting was of course exclusive to the royal court, while the fighting the king waged visited a heavy toll upon his subjects at large. 

Persia then, Iran now

Today, Iran is ruled by a Shia clerical clique and not by a monarchy, and while it has some soft power to flex in its own neighbourhood it no longer resembles anything like an “empire”. Yet, in an uncanny way, the Islamic Republic with all its claims to Muslim virtues and revolutionary asceticism is doing precisely what the monarchs it overthrew used to do.

Today, Iran is ruled by a Shia clerical clique and not by a monarchy, and while it has some soft power to flex in its own neighbourhood it no longer resembles anything like an ’empire’.


Who is doing the feasting these days and who the fighting? Iranian people at large are indeed very happy today that the threat of war, however momentarily, is lifted from them, and the regime of sanctions is to be eventually lifted.

But the real beneficiary of this deal is the ruling regime, and not the ordinary working families. Fighting for a half-decent life exacted under severe economic sanctions will continue to break the back of the most vulnerable segments of the Iranian society.

Will the lifting of these sanctions only enrich the already rich and powerful among the ruling elite, or will it translate into addressing severe economic issues faced by those who scream that their minimum wage is under the poverty line? 

The warmongers in the region are not happy with this initial deal. From Gulf Arab monarchies to Israel to the most pestiferous Republican forces in the US Congress, they did all they could to prevent this deal and will now do whatever else is possible to torpedo it.

Memo to warmongers

But in his speech on this occasion, US President Barack Obama made a very strong case as to why this is the best way to proceed. He has his work cut out for him, as do President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif against the warmongers on the Iranian side. 

But between these two opposing factions and forces, a far more solid measure remains at work, which is the plight of the working and middle classes in Iran and how they will fare in these new circumstances.

If all this deal means is the more aggressive incorporation of the Iranian economy into the neoliberal operation of the globalised capital, not much will remain for any cause of feasting for ordinary Iranians; while the deal can, in fact, exacerbate the fighting posture of the ruling regime in every troubled spot of the region from Yemen to Syria. 

The substance of what exactly is it that is to change will remain to be seen. But the celebratory disposition of a people, for however unclear reasons, is not something to be readily dismissed. There is a general sense among Iranians of all walks of life that they have rejoined the world, that the material and imaginative gates of their homeland are now flung open to the outside world.

In the opening of those horizons there are all sorts of evident and unanticipated consequences, the most certain of which is denying the ruling regime yet another crisis to blame for its own tyrannical incompetence. 

From the heart of Persian imperial history, the ever-magnificent poet Sa’adi once advised the ruling men in power too busy feasting on the broken back of their subjects:

I have heard that while on his deathbed Anushirvan

Thus advised his son Hormuz: 

Attend to the poor and the needy

Instead of catering to your own comfort and pleasure…

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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