Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Iradj Amini


Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Iradj AminiAbout Iradj Amini

For years, Iradj Amini was diplomatic advisor to the Shah’s sister, Princess Ashraf. Then he served as the Shah’s last ambassador to Tunisia. He has lived and worked as a writer in Paris for many years. The English translation of his history of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, from its discovery by the founder of the Moghul dynasty in the 16th century until it became the property of Queen Victoria, was a best-seller in India. He then wrote another scholarly book, about Napoleon’s brief alliance with Persia in 1807. It won an award from the Académie Francaise.

Iradj Amini on Amazon:

1.    What are the hardest things about living in exile?

When I arrived in Paris at the beginning of January 1979, the political situation in Iran was getting from bad to worse. However, although I knew that the country would never be the same as before, I was hoping that evolution would prevail over revolution and that I would soon be able to return to Tehran and resume my career. Barely a month later I had to face reality. There was no going back.

I had to remain in France or any other country but mine for the time being. This time not as a student, tourist or diplomat, but as an exile. A situation that entails a lot of traumas, amongst which language barrier, homelessness, indigence, depression, loss of identity. The latter was to hit me the hardest.

The first months of exile went by without much difficulty. I spoke French fluently for having learnt it in France and Switzerland, my parents were living in Paris, my sons were studying in England. I soon applied for and was granted the status of political refugee, together with a passport which allowed me to travel to any country but Iran.

A few months earlier I had been a diplomat, I had a respectable passport, I could travel to most countries without a visa. Now, I was a nobody. Stateless, as an immigration officer at Heathrow airport once reminded me. People were even unable to pronounce my first name correctly. Iradj, what a strange name!

Twenty-two years later, I went back to Iran. Everyone I met knew of my family, Iradj was an ordinary name, thousands of men shared it with me, a Tehran street was named after it. I did not feel an exile anymore. I had recovered my identity.

2.    You have expressed surprise at the politeness accorded you on your return to Iran, what is it about the country that remains, whoever is in power?

In September 2001, I went back to Tehran to do some research on Iran’s contemporary history. The last time I had set foot on Mehrabad airport was twenty-two years earlier. From a city of four million inhabitants when I left, Tehran had grown into a megalopolis of twenty million, extending in every direction.

All but the centre of the town was new to me. People had also changed. They were still warm-hearted and welcoming but traditional politeness had somehow subsided, especially among the younger generation. For example, the familiar ‘you’ as a form of address was prevailing over the courteous one. It took me sometime to get used to it.

The atmosphere was different at the establishments I visited for the purpose of my research, i.e. archives, libraries, research institutions. I was surprised by the politeness their staff accorded me, more so since they were composed mostly of younger men born after the Revolution. They had heard many things, good and bad, from the Shah’s days, but seldom had they met officials from that period. Therefore, while helping me with my research with utmost courtesy and kindness, they were eager to learn first-hand details about pre-revolution Iran.

3.    You have written about Napoleon- was he a force for good or not?

Was Napoleon a force for good or not? Through the eyes of his enemies he certainly was not. The French view him with mixed feelings. Some revere him, others blame him for having failed to bring peace to Europe before it was too late. I know little of Napoleon’s life history to pass judgment, my knowledge being limited to his relations with Persia.

I do not want to enter the details of those relations which were established on 4 May1807 at Finkenstein, near Osterode, now part of Poland. For Napoleon, they were useful, first as a means of access to India and second as a source of diversion against Russia. For the Persians, their importance lay in France’s promise to make every effort to drive the Russians out of Georgia and other Persian territories they had recently conquered, once a Franco-Russian peace treaty had been concluded. Scarcely had the French ambassador set out for Tehran, when his country’s policy towards Persia radically changed.

On 14 June 1807, the Russians, defeated by Napoleon at the battle of Friedland, sued for peace. On 7 July, Napoleon and Alexander I signed a peace treaty at Tilsit, in which there was no mention whatsoever of Persia. Even so, the Persians did not lose hope. The French ambassador, embarrassed by his government’s change of policy, tried by renewed promises, to assure them that Napoleon would stand by his word. After two years, disillusioned by France, Persia looked to Britain for assistance. As far as Persia was concerned, Napoleon was a negative force indeed.