This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 May, 2008
Nothing smacks more of a "clash of civilizations" than the classic Greek-Persian confrontation of antiquity. That's what they tell us, anyway. Because soon after the clash, it turned into something that was more akin to an amalgamation of civilizations, with the emergence of a new, multicultural environment that influenced, if not outright dominated, much of the Euro- Mediterranean world until the Church and Christianity became official organs of empire.
Fast forward to April 13, 2008: Iran's National Library held a ceremony inaugurating a Greek section and commemorating Nikos Kazantzakis - of "Zorba the Greek" fame - who died 50 years ago. The event, co-sponsored by the Greek Embassy in Tehran, was attended by a number of Iranian officials. Evangelos Venetis, a Greek scholar on Iran who presented a paper on Kazantzakis at the event, told me that, "Iranians consider his works a treasury of freedom literature, and that is why he is highly respected not only by the academic elite in Iran, but also among other strata of Iranian society, including politicians and bureaucrats."
Undoubtedly, Kazantzakis, because of the breadth of his work and his thirst for answers to existential questions, means different things to different readers. Hence, it's little surprise there are Iranians who find his works appealing. But there is a difference between individual Iranians deciding on the importance of a particular message in the work of Kazantzakis, and the Islamic Republic of Iran offering official recognition of a figure as controversial as he. Indeed, the choice of Kazantzakis over other Greek authors is ironic, but perhaps it is also reflective of the paradox that is Iran.
Kazantzakis is not just any author - not in Greece, and certainly not for a theocracy like Iran. He was passed over by the Nobel selection committee in 1956 because of the controversy his work had stirred, particularly among conservatives and church elements. He is probably one of a handful of writers to have managed to enter the proverbial "black books" of both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches - the latter went so far as to excommunicate him. He toyed with communism, but was sufficiently self-aware to see the real face of the Bolshevik revolution, and turned his back on it in the 1920s, though he never relinquished his empathy for the common man.
Just as he explored political philosophies, Kazantzakis delved into religions - challenging clergy and placing more faith in man than he did in any God. Indeed, he wrestled with God to the point where he did not hesitate to place God in man's shoes, faced with man's temptations, suffering and anxieties. Most of all, Kazantzakis was obsessed with freedom, and recognizing the myriad chains that bound humanity, be they in the form of basic daily needs, social mores or religious authority, he struggled to find solutions. More than anything else, then, Kazantzakis was a humanist - praised by the likes of Albert Camus, Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer.
It is easy to criticize the Iranian state for its oppressive policies. The Iranian people have never had much freedom, whether under shahs or mullahs. And so, the decision to commemorate Kazantzakis is not only curious, but perhaps even hopeful. Mahmud Fazeli, Iran's charge d'affaires in Athens, wrote an introduction for the event that was quoted extensively in Iran's English media. The diplomat, clearly aware of the paradox entailed in honoring Kazantzakis, valiantly tried to avoid having to explain how an author notorious for his criticism of the clergy could be officially accepted by a state that is ruled by clerics. Even though Venetis qualifies the anti-clericalism of Kazantzakis as not being absolute, he acknowledges that "the fact that this event took place under the most official Iranian academic patronage clearly shows that reality is much more complicated in Iran."
Fazeli opted to attribute to Kazantzakis the broadest possible cultural and philosophical traits. He wrote that "although many remember Kazantzakis for his banned book 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' his world is not confined to a book or a certain line of thought." He described him as believing that man is "on a permanent odyssey" in search of God. For those who "regard him as a Christian," Fazeli says they are missing the complexity of the author: "Simultaneously or consecutively, he has been a Christian, an irreligious person, an anarchist, a humanist and a stoic."
Is there a message here we may all be missing about Iran? As Fazeli tried to explain about Kazantzakis, whose works he said "sometimes contradict each other," Iran is a paradox, too. In a recent article on elections in Iran, U.S.-based sociologist Ahmad Sadri says that although Iran may not be a liberal democracy, it is "a representative democracy grafted onto a theocracy." Referring to the Islamic Republic as "a unique specimen," he predicts an emergence of a stronger democracy in Iran, and in one scenario, "the increasing ceremonialization of theocracy," which he considers likely if radical destabilization in the country is to be avoided.
Perhaps by then, the response Kazantzakis gave to his critics in the church may also be heeded by the powers that be in Iran: "You gave me a curse, holy fathers, I give you a blessing: May your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I."
9 May, 2008