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Obama, Nowruz, and Sa’adi

March 23, 2009

While this blog ostensibly is about Lebanon and Syria, when President Obama quotes the Persian poet Sa’adi I can’t help commenting.  On the occasion of the Persian new year (nowruz), Obama offered a videotaped message of new year’s greetings and kind wishes to the Iranian people and leaders in what was clearly intended as a conciliatory gesture.  Click here for the video or here for the transcript.

Interestingly, Obama quotes the great 13th Century Persian poet Sa’adi in the following remark, “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.’”

While Rumi may be the most popular poet in the US, Saadi seems to have more geo-political relevance.  The same bait or couplet that Obama cites also appears on the entrance to the Hall of Nations of the United Nations building in New York.  The poem on “Humanity” goes [courtesy of Wikipedia]:

بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضوها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

The poem is emblematic of cosmopolitanism.  It suggests that human beings, despite national boundaries and differences, are really parts of a single whole.  Moreover, the poem insinuates that the members of the whole have equal relationships and responsibilities to one another.  What the poem does not imply is that there are necessarily mutual gains in peaceful cooperation between two nations.

However, in his speech Obama states:

So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.

Yet Saadi’s poem is more concerned with cosompolitanism rather than Obama’s pragmatism, which is much at home in a world of nation-states.  For all practical purposes, we are not “limbs of Adam” created of the same “essence”, but members of nation-states with particular ideologies and interests.  I will avoid any metaphysical conclusions.

The Iranian nuclear program, which is of course the issue at hand, is broadly popular in Iran even among Khameini’s critics as is Iranian nationalism.  Thus, such cosmopolitan appeals are not likely to be change the Iranians can believe in.

More to come on Khameini’s response.

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