Omar Khayyam and modern Iran

Arguably Persia’s greatest son, Omar Khayyam, was born on May 18th, 1048. He found fame as a mathematician, an astronomer and a poet. His mathematical works include contributions to the understanding of cubic equations and conic sections, and there is evidence that he must have known and used a general binomial theorem.

 As an astronomer he produced the Jalali calendar, still in use today, and more accurate than the Gregorian calendar, in that it has an error of only one day in 5,000 years. His fame today, however, rests on his poetry, written as quatrains, and freely translated into English by Edward FitzGerald in his 1859 “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

It has many themes, dealing with the brevity of life and an acceptance of the fatalism that accompanies its journey. Many of the 101 stanzas (quatrains) are, however, in praise of wine.

“The grape that can with logic absolute

The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute:

The subtle alchemist that in a trice

Life's leaden metal into gold transmute.”

This sits ill with the strict Islamism of post-revolutionary Iran, and its rejection of alcohol. When my colleague, Dr Eamonn Butler, received a copy of an Iranian edition of one of his books, he noticed that in his photo on the back, the glass of wine alongside him had been airbrushed out of the picture.

A friend about to visit Iran asked if I had any tips. I suggested he should learn some verses of the Rubaiyat and recite them if he found himself in the company of other young people. He reported that it brought delight, with Iranian youngsters recognizing them in translation and eagerly quoting from their Persian originals.

Iranian people, especially the young, are among the most highly literate and educated. They long for contact and exchanges with their counterparts in the West, but are held back by a mediaeval theocratic regime that seeks to constrain them into a limited lifestyle prescribed by religious leaders. This is a regime that has put death sentences on those who diverge from this lifestyle. Its people are now yearning for the freedom to express themselves.

Brutal and repressive regimes can survive for decades through their monopoly of violence and their readiness to use terror to compel obedience. The street thugs of the Revolutionary Guard are there to repress any expressions of freedom, or any deviation from their code of dress and behaviour. But these things run their course, and the hope must be that the primitive and barbaric regime that denies young Iranians the freedom they yearn for, will one day be swept into history’s dustbin. Then, perhaps, they will be able to enjoy life as Omar Khayyam advocated, perhaps even extolling its pleasures as eloquently as he did.