"The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming! ..." Conspiracy Theories and the Persian Psyche

One of the most interesting, bewildering, endearing, frustrating, -- choose your most appropriate descriptive term here -- characteristics of Iranians is that once they settle in for a good conversation over tea and sweets, inevitably their thoughts turn to politics, and sooner or later the topic of the British in Iranian and Persian politics takes center stage in the conversation.

There is a Persian proverb -- indeed there is more than one for almost any situation! -- that states: "Taa nabaashad tchizaki, mardom nagooyand tchizhaa!" ("If there were nothing to it, people would not talk about it!" or more to the point "Where there is smoke, there is fire!"). This proverb and the attitude that goes with it, is, of course, the fuel that feeds the fire of conspiracy theory in the Persian psyche. But this also reminds one of an impossible situation, called a "catch-22" (after the eponymous film). The catch is reminiscent of the story of the paranoid fellow, who kept complaining to his doctor that people were after him, and the doctor kept reassuring him that it was only in his mind. But in fact, people were after him! So also with Persians and their paranoia about the British and those other "running dogs of imperialism," the Americans.

Yes, Persians constantly talk about the British and their meddling in the affairs of their poor country, (present writer prominently included!), but the sad part of it is that the "paranoia" is true. The British did meddle badly in Persian affairs. They overthrew governments, toppled dynasties, had prime ministers and other high officials assassinated, replaced, exiled, set up, etc... The British did all of those things and relished them. Sir Percy Cox, or Lord Curzon ( "Curse On") for that matter, and their merry chaps at the Foreign Office, surely had a good laugh over brandy at the splendid little scenes they created for the "Shaw" of Persia, waiting to see how he would extricate himself from this one, Haw! haw! Haw!... Sadly enough, there is documentary evidence of how much they meddled in our affairs, and how much misery they caused as a result, and yet there are those who would still write about "conspiracy theories" in the Persian psyche as if this were a disease similar to seeing ghosts everywhere, that peculiarly afflicted poor Persians while having no basis in reality.

Case in point is Ahmad Ashraf's piece published under the auspices of Encyclopaedia Iranica, entitled "Conspiracy Theories and the Persian Mind." Though he starts his article by giving example after example of the very meddling I mentioned earlier, he still manages to "pooh pooh" the fact that Persians do in indeed feel hurt as a result of all the weight of that evidence and tend to at least went their frustrations by talking about that reality.

Now, is everything the fault of the British? No, of course not. In that Persians are no less prone to blaming the British than the Americans were, when Jefferson penned that long list of grievances against poor George III, which included just about anything for which George was supposed to have been responsible, foul weather almost included! But, on the other hand, did the British not do many of the things they were held responsible for having done, in the colonies and in Persia? Of course they did. Ahmad Ashraf agrees; they themselves agree; every scholar in the field can point to specific instances, and thus most everyone agrees. So why is it still called "conspiracy theory" if one points to the reality of that involvement? Well because some of the talk involves the British in the most immediate events that still loom large in the minds of Iranians, the events of 1979, of course, and for that there is scant hard evidence to back up one's suspicions -- and, of course, the British won't tell, at least not for another forty years or so...

So where does all of that leave us? Well it leaves us with this: Iranians are fond of conspiracy theories, because it allows them to see meaning in the bewildering array of circumstances they tend to find themselves in, politically speaking. There is truth behind those "theories" as evidenced by just about anyone. Belittling and explaining away the substance of those "theories" as a sort of baseless mania, aside from being factually wrong, is tainted with ulterior motives. For if the assertion that this is all a fantasy in the Persian psyche becomes the accepted truth, then indeed the British had nothing to do with us, and it was all in our minds and twisted imagination. I can see Curzon having a good hearty disdainful last laugh at us, right this moment, for having been duped yet again, and as a result I wish him even more ill than I did before!

Rather than buy into Ahmad Ashraf's dismissal of the factual basis for our complaints, I much prefer Iradj Pezeshkzad's satire "Daa'i jan Napoleon" (My Uncle Napoleon), which made us all laugh so heartily at our own impotent musings against the British, while deep down, taking our condition quite seriously. For, as a diplomat and scholar, Pezeshkzad has been quite aware of the truth of the assertion that the British did mess royally with us and our poor country. As a Qajar (Kadjar), I too am painfully aware of that fact as well. Thus, let no one belittle it, though, by Zeus, let them laugh heartily with Pezeshkzad at his brilliant little tragicomic character, the unforgettable Daa'i jan Napoleon!... And, remember, a curse on the British and particularly on Curzon for all the misery they caused us!





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