Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A 21st-century warning from a 13th-century poet

    Wednesday, August 06, 2008   No comments

By Fatemeh Keshavarz

Sa'di of Shiraz, a 13th-century Iranian poet, was a man for all seasons. Distinct among his peers for a rare poetic talent and a sharp humor, he was a traveler, teacher and master ghazal writer all in one. But, above all, he loved to tease and to question. In a most serious love poem, he warned the beloved: "I was ruined by your love. I will not go to others to get well." And lest the beloved get all the credit for uniqueness, he added: "Broken gold vessels cannot be repaired with glue."

In real life, Sa'di offered his own glue for fixing broken lives and social relations: a set of compassionate and pragmatic ethical teachings published in his two celebrated books, "The Orchard" and "The Rose Garden." Despite hailing from 13th-century Iran, what Sa'di has to offer is relevant to our lives in 21st-century America.

Reading "The Orchard" last week, I found what I took to be allusions to "enhanced" interrogation techniques — the politically correct term for "torture" — and to House Resolution 362: "Children of Adam are limbs in a single body," Sa'di concluded an anecdote. "If one is hurt, none will be able to rest."

Let me elaborate:

Physicians for Human Rights, the Massachusetts-based group that shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to ban landmines, recently published an important report. Prepared by physicians and other health care professionals, it evaluates accounts of torture inflicted by the United States during interrogations of prisoners at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In an introduction to the report, retired U.S. Army Gen. Antonio Taguba describes the report as "the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture." He goes on to say "This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individual's lives on their bodies and minds."

The report is fraught with gory details pointing to physical violence, psychological abuse and sexual humiliation. However, as you read further, if you can stomach the details, something unexpected happens: You start to feel sympathy not only for those subjected to these "enhanced" interrogation techniques but also for those who applied them. This is not because it is easy to overlook the responsibility of the torturers. It is because you know deep down that no one can injure someone else to this degree without injuring himself or herself in the process.

You don't have to struggle to understand why you get this feeling; Sa'di already has done so: If one limb is injured, the whole body suffers.

The so-called enhanced interrogation techniques may leave minimal evidence on the tortured body, but nothing can protect the torturer from the knowledge of what he or she has done. The universal human connection to which Sa'di refers is written into our being.

Almost at the same time that the physicians group's report was released, U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., co-sponsored House Resolution 362, which calls for intensifying sanctions on Iran and imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or leaving that country. Some analysts have said that this could require a U.S. naval blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically crucial sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Such a blockade could be viewed, analysts contended, as an act of war.

Are we talking, then, about more wars, more prisons and more "enhanced" interrogation techniques? How many more of our limbs can we damage before our whole body is plunged into a state of shock?

Even Sa'di refrained from pushing the metaphor that far. Perhaps he hoped we would be wiser.

Fatemeh Keshavarz chairs the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University. She is the author, most recently, of "Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran" and is working on a monograph on Sa'di of Shiraz, a medieval Persian poet.


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