I’m working on a pomegranate at the kitchen counter, one bowl for scraps of the leathery skin, another for the juicy, garnet seeds. It’s painstaking work, adult work, separating the hundreds of seeds from their paper-thin dividers. This is no rip-and-wolf banana. This is a winter fruit, for cold days indoors, when there is plenty of patience in the air.
Let’s talk about Iran, the country that gave us the pomegranate. The low-growing, dry-climate pomegranate tree is native to the mountains of Iran and east through Afghanistan to Kashmir. Of course, it was Persia then, when pre-biblical peoples started cultivating a fruit they saw as symbolic of fertility, royalty, and later in the Judaic tradition, righteousness, with the pomegranate’s many seeds representing the 613 Torah commandments.
This is the Persia that gave us Persian rugs, Omar Khayyam and the gentlest, most humanistic cinema on earth. (One of my favorites is Children of Heaven from 1999, in which a boy accidentally loses his little sister’s shoes and shares his own beat-up sneakers with her until he can win her a new pair.)
Persia gave us the pomegranate, and what have we given them but grief?
Back in the 1950s, after millennia of near-continuous monarchy, Iranians elected a Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq, who promised to nationalize the oil industry. The oil industry that had been controlled to that point by British and American companies. Since that outcome was clearly unacceptable, the CIA organized a coup which deposed Mosaddeq and re-installed the exiled Shah.
We liked the Shah even though he was a brutal autocrat who banned opposition parties and jailed thousands of dissidents. He was a jet-setter who skied in the Alps and spent a reported $100 million on a 2,500-year anniversary – roast breast of peacock and Baccarat crystal served under royal tents covering 160 acres outside Persepolis – while impoverished villagers stared from the outside.
By 1979, Iranians had had enough and rose up against the Shah’s private army, launched the Iranian revolution and sent the Shah scrambling to sanctuary in the U.S. We refused to return him for trial, and in response Iranian students took the 52 hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. For that, the U.S. government froze billions in Iranian assets: bank deposits, gold, and other property. The Ayatollah released our people, but we have never unfrozen their assets, and Iran has been demonized by every American administration since.
In 1980 Iraq invaded Iran, probably with U.S. foreknowledge. The war lasted eight years and killed over half a million people, thousands by poison gas. The Reagan White House not only supported Saddam Hussein (and his mustard gas), it intensified sanctions against Iran.
Nor did it end when the war finally stopped in a stalemate. Bill Clinton decreed a total embargo on Iran in 1995, outlawing all commercial and financial transactions. And he tried to strong-arm allies into going along, threatening sanctions on any country that did business with Tehran. The embargo included spare parts from Boeing to Iran’s national airline.
Then, of course, George W. Bush decided that Iran was part of an Axis of Evil and as such should be subject to ever more-inflamed rhetoric. The sanctions have impoverished millions of Iranians while succeeding only in hardening the government’s resentment.
No wonder they want the world to think they may be seeking a nuclear deterrent. They’re surrounded by U.S. forces in Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east. North Korea got the bomb, and now we’re talking with them. We have to. Maybe, as Barack Obama has suggested, it’s time to start meeting with the Iranians. World’s youngest empire sitting down with one of the world’s oldest. Maybe learn a thing or two. Maybe we could sell them fuel for a peaceful reactor. Or trade pomegranates, like the beautiful one I’m picking apart, grown in California.
The tart, staining juice of the pomegranate always makes me think of my sister, Polly. We were walking home from school together one late-fall southern California day. I must have been in third grade, she in first. A ripe pomegranate hung from somebody’s tree near the sidewalk. I pried it open along a crack in the skin, and we gorged on the rows of jewel-like seeds. No slow picking out the kernels, we just mashed our mouths into the exploding sweetness.
At home our mother couldn’t help noticing our bright red hands and lips. “Where’d you get the pomegranate?” she asked. Emboldened by our wickedness, and without a mirror, Polly said, “What pomegranate?”