Dear Mr. Ahmadinejad

I thought this would be funny, but it only makes me sad

Published May 7, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Mr. Ahmadinejad,

At first I thought it would be funny to write to you. I thought, your name sounds like a sneeze. I will make this funny.

But the more I wrote, the more melancholy I became.

I suppose what frightened me and filled me with melancholy as I attempted to write a lighthearted letter to you was that I sensed the depth and darkness of your despair and anger.

So unnerved was I that I had to get out of the house. So I walked up the shore of the Pacific to the rocks at the Cliff House and climbed up on a warm rock by a fisherman, and I sat for an hour and thought about the history of your people -- your beautiful, heroic history, the history of Persia, all that wealth and beauty. I also thought of the many Iranian women who studied at the University of Miami while I was there in the 1970s.

But mostly, as I sat on that rock meditating, I thought of all those paintings locked up in Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art, and I thought: You are the president of Iran. You probably have the key.

As I sat on this rock by the sea yesterday and thought about your great Persian culture and the transforming power of beauty, I wondered where you find beauty today -- in the faces of your wife and your children, in your private moments together, in a few cherished objects in your house? Does that sense of beauty accompany you throughout the day, or does it drop away as you enter the harsh realm of judgment and calculation that makes up your political life?

Art has the power to transform a human soul. You should look at more art.

I imagine there wasn't a lot of art around in the village where you grew up. You had to work hard to survive. You have struggled to gain what you have. I can identify with that -- the feeling that others have more, that others do not worry about their next meal, that others do not get it, that you have had to endure things no one has any inkling of, and that therefore when people you do not even know tell you what you should do, their speech reeks of impossible arrogance and ignorance and presumption. I can imagine how that feels, and I do not wish to be lumped in with those who ignorantly presume to tell you what to do. You are the leader of a great nation. I am just a guy who writes letters to people.

I can also imagine that, while I believe in the redemptive power of art, seeing beautiful things might not work on you the way it does on others but might instead fill you with the pain of deprivation, because in the past beautiful things only reminded you of all the things you could not have. So it may seem frivolous to suggest that art could change anything. And yet, as I sat on that rock with that fisherman, that was all I could think of -- your great architecture and poetry, and all that art locked up in that museum in Tehran.

Now, I am not a political person, and I do not give orders to others or attempt to outwit or out-argue others about matters of policy. I simply try to understand.

I am trying to understand how you feel about your own great power. I sense that it grieves you that the West does not respect your power.

I think you are probably right that the West does not really show the kind of respect your power merits. But there is something about us Americans I want you to know, something that no one will really tell you because no one seems to really believe it: Since 9/11 we have been a terribly aggrieved people, mad with grief, and the craziness of our politics has to do with this shock and grief, for we were not prepared for this grief, and we are not handling it well, for we are a young and spoiled people to whom great power came suddenly and easily and we have never had to husband our sorrow together like this. We don't know what to do. We are sentimental and unsubtle, and we are having a bit of a tantrum over here. We lack restraint and act like children. I know we do. And we lord our power over everyone else. It's true. We are children.

But we are dangerous, too, and I know that is what concerns you. It is what concerns us, as well -- that you are dangerous and opaque to us, that we have no idea what you are really planning and thinking.

We are a danger to others and a danger to ourselves. And so are you. You know, when wondering if someone should be locked up, mental health practitioners ask: "Are you a danger to yourself or to others?" Perhaps we should be locked up for a period of time, actually, while we do our millennial grieving for our former glorious hegemony, but that is neither here nor there, is it? For here we are, rattling our sabers, demanding you behave.

The thing about a deep and terrible grievance is that it warps everything around it so that nothing can escape and nothing can be seen; in the grip of a righteous grievance we become truly blind and cannot see what is beautiful.

So we are in the same boat. You are blind and we are blind, and we are yelling at each other and threatening each other.

When one can no longer see beauty, one might as well be dead. And if the world is run by men who have lost their love of beauty, well, such men might just plunge us all into darkness.

The one thing that keeps us from being even worse monsters than we are is our childish love of entertainment. In fact, in addition to you, there is something else I haven't been able to get out of my mind as well, and that is the song "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," as sung by Jackie Wilson, but lately as sung by the three remaining young female singers on "American Idol." Do you get cable? You don't even need cable, actually. It's a network show. I think it's on Fox, but who notices anymore. We just set our machines to record.

Oh well. Everyone has an argument for everything. Between your arguments and the arguments of America and all the others, what have I got that can affect anything at all? Poised against the awful majesty of atomic weapons are just my thin mysticism of nature, my California nonchalance, my 12 steps and my forgiveness, my belief in redemption: None of this is going to make any difference to you and other world leaders.

On the other hand: Is this you with your soccer team in 1976?

You do not seem so different from the rest of us.

But my guess is that you have been prevented, by the demands of your office and by the structure of your own personality, from looking into your own heart and divining the wisdom to be found there. You have a religion which you practice fervently, but you do not have a personal connection to anything outside yourself.

So you cannot see that your methods -- and I don't mean just yours, Mr. Ahmadinejad, but America's as well -- will only lead to more bloodshed and destruction.

I understand this. I do not think I have a solution. That is what fills me with despair. What also fills me with despair as I write to you is that I do not think that you are going to change. I do not think the others with whom you are locked in struggle are going to change, either.

Yet I know change is possible. That is what drives me mad: I know human change is possible and good. I have seen this. I see it every day. I see people driven by their demons to reckless destruction who finally find a way to calm down, to sit by the sea or by a reflecting pool and calm down and find a way out of torment, by giving a little, by being clever and yielding and yet strong.

It happens all the time among the humble and the poor. Yet it only rarely happens among men in positions of power!

Why is that? Why is it that men in power find it so hard to give up even a tiny part of their power in order to grow in their own wisdom and compassion? Is it because too much is at stake? Is it that you cannot risk giving up even a tiny bit of what you claim to have for risk of losing the will of your people, of letting them down? Is that why men drive their people into insane wars rather than risk ask their people to give up even a fraction of what they believe they already have?

It seems as if those of us who are powerless in the world -- meaning me and most of the rest of us billions of people -- find our fate in the hands of men driven not by concern for our welfare but by some dark inner need all their own.

Can that ever change? Is that what power always does?

To admit that your approach to the world arises out of some personal insufficiency would make you a better leader. It would make any leader better to see clearly whose needs are being met in his great symbolic power games. But it would feel like a loss of some sort -- wouldn't it? -- to admit that your actions arise not out of some worldly and knowing wisdom and compassion for your people but out of a personal need to be seen as powerful. It would mean giving up the very things that allow you to keep pushing aside that personal insufficiency, that shame and fear of death, that longing for connection and respect. So you are not likely to do it. And the world is likely to continue in its agonizing and neurotic spiral.

That is why I have become so melancholy as I write to you. That is why even Jackie Wilson and American Idol cannot cheer me up.

The tragedy of leadership is that the personal becomes the political, but not in a good way: Our longing for destruction can become the destruction of a whole people, a whole city, a whole nation. And yet there is very little inside the world of power to hold us back. So here we are:

You hold the keys to world events. But I am thinking about a different set of keys. I am thinking about that art in the Tehran museum, assembled by the Shah before the Islamic Revolution. Say what you will about the Shah, he had some good taste. You are the president. You must have the key! Or you know somebody who has the key. It is within your power to go down there where all those paintings are and just have a few pulled out for you to look at. Wouldn't that be a nice thing on a stressful afternoon, to go down there and look at all that art?

That's what it's all about, my man, Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose name is hard to spell and sounds like a sneeze. That's what it's all about: The simple pleasures in life.

Please, do not get too far from the simple, sensual pleasures of life. They may save you, and all of us, these little moments.

So look at those paintings, and perhaps your heart will be filled a little.

There is something healing in beauty. The destruction of beauty is a disease of the world.

When you are frightened and angry, go look at those paintings. Beauty can help. Maybe it will save the world.

"So just be quiet and sit down.
The reason is: you are drunk,
And this is the edge of the roof."

By Cary Tennis

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