Jafar Sharif-Emami in Exile

Jafar Sharif-Emami

Sharif-Emami's memoirs were recorded by me during three sessions lasting a total of nine hours on May 13, 1982 and May 12 and 24, 1983 at his apartment in New York City. Although I had met Mr. Sharif-Emami a number of times before the Revolution, I had not seen him since then.

In April 1982, while in New York City, I obtained his telephone number from a mutual acquaintance, called, and asked to see him. He invited me to his home. He lived on the East Side in a modern building in which he occupied an apartment on one of the top floors. At the initial meeting, I told him about our project to collect the oral history of Iran and he agreed to participate. He had certain conditions, however. He said, for instance, "I'm not going to discuss personal matters relating to the Shah or his sister." I said we wanted him to be comfortable with whatever he said.

In early May 1982, I telephoned him again and arranged to go to his apartment at 9:30 A.M., Thursday, May 13 to begin recording his memoirs. All three recording sessions took place with the two of us alone in his study. His study was furnished with a desk, a large sofa and a couple of leather chairs. Facing the sofa was a bookcase filled with perhaps 100 to 150 books, mostly on Iran. Before we began recording his memoirs, he told me that he had left nearly 11,000 books in his house in Tehran which, along with the house, he had offered to give to the new government to be designated as a public library. He had also offered certificates of deposits in a Tehran bank, income from which was to be used to maintain the library. He had sent this proposal to the Revolutionary Council through his wife who was still in Tehran. The Council had accepted his gift and conditions, according to Mr. Sharif-Emami, and the agreement had been implemented for a few months before the books were transported to Qom and the house was confiscated for other uses.

Mr. Sharif-Emami also spoke of having kept a diary for the preceding thirty years, containing notes regarding various appointments in Iran and meetings and discussions around the globe as president of the Senate and prime minister. He was very dismayed that he had not brought these notes out with him. He said, "I knew there was going to be a revolution, but I didn't think the revolution was going to be so extensive as to affect things such as my diary and memoirs-because I did have the chance to bring them out but didn't think of it. And later when I wrote my daughter and asked her to send these notes to me, she told me that during one of the initial inspections of the house, the revolutionary guards had spotted these notes because they were hand-written and had taken them." He was wondering whether the notes were still available or whether they had been thrown away or destroyed. This reminded me of similar regrets expressed in his interview by Mr. Abolhassan Ebtehaj who had kept notes for decade-the essence of his work and his meetings and his career which were no longer available to him to use to write his memoirs.

Mr. Sharif-Emami told me that his daily routine consisted of going to bed at midnight and waking up at 6 A.M. After reading the morning newspaper, he would begin work in his study in the same serious way he had in Iran prior to the revolution. Part of his day was spent learning Spanish. He repeated what many other narrators had told me: the revolution had forced him into retirement. Otherwise he would still be carrying on his long daily work schedule.

Tony Judt

Tony Judt

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.

-- Tony Judt, "Words," The New York Review of Books, July 15, 2010.

Tony Judt, Chronicler of History, Is Dead at 62

Tony Judt’s Night

I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig's disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration.

My Scheme of Order

Excavated axe head

My scheme of Order gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho' it might be practicable where a man's business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours. Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extreamly difficult to acquire. I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbour, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel; he turn'd, while the smith press'd the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. "No," said the smith, "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled." "Yes," says the man, "but I think I like a speckled ax best." And I believe this may have been the case with many, who, having, for want of some such means as I employ'd, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that "a speckled ax was best"; for something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.

-- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Human Life

Human life can be compared to a person dancing in a variety of forms around his own self: thus the vegetables of our first picture book encircled a boy in his dream -- green cucumber, blue eggplant, red beet, Potato père, Potato fils, a girly asparagus, and, oh, many more, their spinning ronde going faster and faster and gradually forming a transparent ring of banded colors around a dead person or planet.

Another thng we are not supposed to do is to explain the inexplicable. Men have learned to live with a black burden, a huge aching hump: the supposition that "reality" may be only a "dream." How much more dreadful it would be if the very awareness of your being aware of reality's dreamlike nature were also a dream, a built-in hallucination! One should bear in mind, however, that there is no mirage without a vanishing point, just as there is no lake without a closed circle of reliable land.

Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 92-93.