Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama, Peres, Colbert on Persian New Year

Update | 1:06 p.m. In President Barack Obama’s videotaped message to the Iranian people on Friday — which can be seen with Farsi subtitles on the Web site of Radio Farda, a broadcaster financed by the American government — he discusses the celebration of the Persian New Year, Norouz, which began today. (Readers in Iran: Happy 1388!)

Mr. Obama’s video outreach is currently the lead story on the English-language Web site of Press TV, Iran’s state-sponsored satellite broadcaster. In an interesting sign of connection via the Web, the report on the Iranian site links directly to the video on the White House Web site.

Notable in Mr. Obama’s message is his reference to the words of Saadi, a revered Persian poet. Near the end of his remarks, Mr. Obama said:

I know that this won’t be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”

Saadi lived and wrote in what the Persian calendar counts as the 7th century (in the West, the 13th), and there is a shrine to him in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where he died. The American travel writer Rick Steves recently visited Saadi’s tomb in Shiraz. Video of the shrine, and of Iranians reading his poetry there can be seen at the very end of this YouTube clip and the very beginning of this one. Mr. Steves notes that Saadi was known for his extensive travels, which exposed him to many different cultures.

Mr. Obama was quoting from a translation Saadi’s poem “Bani A’dam.” The full text of the poem has been rendered into English in several varying translations. During the siege of Sarajevo in 1994, Anthony Lewis quoted the poem in full in a column in The Times. Marizeh Ghiasi, a blogger in Canada who was born in Tehran, published this translation, beneath an image of the original Persian script on her blog:

The children of Adam are the limbs of one body
That share an origin in their creation
When one limb passes its days in pain
The other limbs cannot remain easy
You who feel no pain at the suffering of others
It is not fitting for you to be called human

This message of connectedness, situated in the Iranian and Muslim traditions, is interestingly similar to what was perhaps the central moment of Mr. Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He sought to define the role of government in a similar way, invoking a tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that makes this country work.

Ynetnews, the Web site of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, reports on Friday that Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, also broadcast a message to the Iranian people: “partly in Farsi, urging them to ‘return to enlightened world’.” The Israeli newspaper Haaretz adds that Mr. Peres’ message “was broadcast on Israel Radio’s Farsi channel, which enjoys a wide audience in the Farsi-speaking world.” (In 2008 Israel Radio moved its foreign-language offerings to the Web and stopped all shortwave radio broadcasts except for those in Farsi.) As Alan Cowell notes in The Times today, “Both messages suggested that there was a place for Iran as an equal in the international community.”

But political leaders were not the only ones to make televised addresses in recent days touching on the Persian New Year. Last week, Stephen Colbert objected to the fact that his image was being used to sell clothes in Tehran without his permission, mainly on the basis that it was a violation of “the true meaning of Norouz:”

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