Iran talks & the language of diplomacy: Rumi-speak from the State Department

by Rashmee

Posted on March 31, 2015



Alan Eyre on Voice of America's Farsi language television show Parazit when the State Department announced that Iranian student visa rules would be eased
Alan Eyre on Voice of America’s Farsi language television show Parazit when the State Department announced that Iranian student visa rules would be eased

As the Iran negotiations continued and media outlets started to run out of things to say while they waited for a conclusion of some sort, there was renewed interest in the American who speaks the real language of diplomacy to the Iranians.

For years, Alan Eyre, the State Department’s Persian language spokesman, has been explaining American policy in idiomatic, poetic Persian. During the current complex negotiations, he’s been discussing the wishlist and the hitches using fragments of Rumi or appropriate bits from the 13 century Persian poet Saadi’s ‘The Gulistan’. 

As The Washington Post wrote, he might tell Iranian reporters that time is of the essence by cribbing a line from ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’: “Be happy in the present, and don’t put your life in the wind.” 

And instead of “no comment,” he would quote Saadi: “A knowing man will not utter every word which occurs to him. It is not proper to endanger one’s head for the king’s secret.”

Mr Eyre, who can, it seems also rap in Persian, has another more serious role too. If there is an agreement, it will fall to him to translate it so that the Persian version accurately matches what is written in English.

This, more than anything, is crucial. Consider the problems that translation and interpretation can pose in matters of diplomacy. The story of the Treaty of Wuchale, signed between Ethiopia and Italy in 1889, is often repeated. One verb, which meant something in Amharic and quite something else in Italian ensured that the Ethiopian king thought he had considerable autonomy in the conduct of foreign affairs while the Italians thought they had a protectorate that was in hock to them. Six years later, the differing interpretations led to war.

Clearly, getting nuance and meaning right – in more than one language – is a huge burden. Or, as Mr Eyre would say, using the Persian idiom: “Don’t put watermelons under my armpits”.


Rashmee has lived and worked in several countries in the past decade, including Afghanistan, India, Haiti, Tunisia, the UAE, US and UK

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