Drago Štambuk – an interview from Iran

Drago Štambuk – an interview from Iran

The Corona virus was born from the shadows of our insatiable ambitions to master nature. Are we not seeing the path to the end? The metaphor of the Ouroboros dragon that eats its own tail is becoming an obvious symbol of our disordered civilization.

A press release about Drago Štambuk’s book
‘Damavand, that side of the sea’ in Tehran,
December 21st 2019

Drago 3


Drago Štambuk


In this interview with Većernji List, the Croatian ambassador to Iran, who is also a doctor and a poet, talks about the situation in a country that, burdened by Trump’s sanctions, is fighting the Corona pandemic. He talks of the Iranian perspective on the Iranian origins of the Croats and generally about a world that is facing a pandemic of unimagined proportions.

Recorded by: BORIS ŠČITAR

Dr. Drago Štambuk, one of Croatian’s most prominent diplomats, and currently its ambassador to Iran, is also a doctor. He is a specialist of internal medicine (gastroenterology and hepatology), a poet, author and an established promoter of his ‘Golden Formula of the Croatian language ča-kaj-što’, which has recently be placed on the list of ‘Intangible’ Croatian cultural assets. Before the war in Croatia, he worked for a number of years in clinics in London (including the Royal Free Hospital and the Kobler Center, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. He worked in London with liver diseases and was a pioneer in experimental AIDS therapy, involving AZT and the HGP-30 vaccine. At the heart of Tehran’s Corona pandemic is the state of affairs in Iran.

What is it like to be the Croatian ambassador to Iran in these times?

It is demanding and very challenging due to the complexity of this ancient civilization, and the current political, economic and epidemiological situation. But I am also grateful because according to certain historical opinions, I am at the source of Croatia’s earliest history. I feel privileged to be able to listen to its messages and to learn from its antiquities. A Persian perspective requires a double experience – an oriental and an occidental one. Here those sides collide, break and confront each other. They intertwine the past and the future with fraught outcomes, with ups and downs – with new phenomena growing before our very eyes. My teacher and unrepentant friend, academic Radoslav Katičić, a great Croatian intellectual, said and wrote that of all the theories about the origin of the Croats, the one about its old Iranian origins was the least incredible. And it is precisely by listening to his thesis – about who we are, where we are from and what we are – that I feel deeply ennobled by our uncertain and unpredictable history. Of course, my primary diplomatic work in Tehran is wide-ranging. I am here to strengthen Croatian-Iranian bilateral relations, encourage mutual understanding and to advocate for peaceful outcomes, including through the European Union (EU). For the first six months of this year it is Croatia that is representing the EU in Tehran, as the EU is not otherwise diplomatically represented here. Due to this, the obligations, responsibilities and scope of activities of the Croatian embassy have increased. Supporting Iran on its path to adhering to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which limits Iran’s nuclear weapons development, is a common and determined EU position. This is despite the US withdrawal from the agreement on May 8th, 2018 and its consequent imposition of heavy sanctions on Iran. A country which is at the center of the regional, Middle Eastern coronavirus pandemic (or ‘crown’, ‘crowned’, ‘crowning’ – as I mix them up in Croatian). The visit of the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to Tehran on the 3rd of February 2020 was extremely important. It has contributed to the strengthening of EU-Iranian relations, as well as to a stronger geopolitical positioning of the EU on what is a multilateral world stage.

Is Iran currently managing to curb the coronavirus pandemic?

 For now, Iran is coping well with the pandemic, although there were initial delays and wanderings in the proceedings. The country, because it has good doctors and a strong healthcare system – since the end of February to today, after . . . continued>>

“Everything that we as the human race have stood for and advocated has been turned upside down. The old world died overnight, its warmth turned into cold”


. . . continued >>

a worrying initial leg of exponential growth in morbidness and mortality, particularly in the holy city of Qom, and in neighboring Tehran there has been an easing of restrictions. Those places are vulnerable due to dry air and varying air pollution – they account for a third of Iran’s overall mortality and almost half of its morbid contagion. The developments there represent a bend in the epidemic curve. The loosening of the enforced physical distancing and isolation here was, in part, caused by the threat of economic collapse, which was prompted by the US sanctions. Given the passion with which the Iranians pursued their new social freedoms, even with additional protection measures, the result has been an increase in both illness and death. As is happening elsewhere in the world, a game of ‘squeezing and relaxing’ is being played out. The virus has penetrated the diplomatic community, so we diplomats are under additional pressures, and our work is gradually being virtualized. Which makes it no less demanding. ‘Corona-diplomacy’ is in full swing. As part of that, I organized a telephone conversation between Presidents Rouhani and Milanović, and an earlier conversation between Foreign Ministers Zarif and Grlić Radman. Iran is lobbying to secure humanitarian aid and the lifting of sanctions. Actions that further weaken it in the practical fight against the pandemic. The current ‘Crown Pandemic’ goes beyond the capabilities of individual states to respond. However, global challenges need to be addressed through common global measures and procedures. We are all currently in the same boat on an extremely rough sea.

What is the global impact of this pandemic?

I will answer the question in very personal tones. Everything that we as the human race have stood for and advocated has been turned upside down. The old world died overnight, its warmth turned into cold, its touch into distance. We changed into astronauts. Profitocratic momentum has pulled the carpet of stability from under our feet and greed has eaten away at our hearts. Our obsession with growth without restraint has become a cancerous lesion that has destroyed and consumed our known order. Before us is a terrified Earth and a distraught humanity that longs for peace and a wholesome slowdown. But how do we stop a bike that just keeps accelerating? If we stop it is because we have fallen and injured our poor limbs and body. The Corona virus was born from the shadows of our insatiable ambitions to master nature. To return to ourselves, to our primordial being, to harmony with the environment from which we originated, we must take control of our own destiny. The networking that undermines our powers must be replaced by the self-sufficiency and balance for which we were created. Transhumanity guided by technological progress is the beginning of the end of humanity. Are we in favor of cyborgs controlling and managing our thoughts and our feelings? We are being slowed down and placed on the path of self-destruction. We need to step back towards our essential, noble and calm selves. We are bombarded daily with demands and by ambitious Moloch orders. We are exhausted and constantly fall off our feet – but for how long? Are we not seeing the path to the end? The metaphor of the Ouroboros dragon  that eats its own tail is becoming an obvious symbol of our disordered civilization. Piles of rubbish bury the world, a plastic continent the size of Australia floats on our oceans, atomic weapons are piling up, the planet is warming, wars are multiplying and satirizing human dignity. Wake up, world, and realize that you are on the destructive path and that you are treading into the abyss! To be proud is in vain and unreasonable. We need modesty and our own contemporary field.  More and more – we need to become less. Less is more for a noble man, and without nobility there is no future for today’s tortured humanity. If the great German poet Friedrich Hoelderlin was right when he wrote that salvation grows where there is danger, then the crown pandemic is also a powerful warning for us to slow down at a dead end, which paradoxically points us to the ways out of it. If we do not change our behavior, if we do not progress and learn difficult lessons quickly, the world will end up as an adored landfill site.

Future developments could be different.

Again, a very personal reflection. Maybe tomorrow will be different if there is enough reasoning, wisdom, vision and goodwill. There must be an insistence on the common good and a just world order in which power will not be inherently right, but in which to be right will be a source of power. The pandemic is certainly an opportunity to change paradigms of global behavior. It is a stimulus for awareness. Universal and humane principles should come above harsh self-interests. If we want to survive in a shrinking world, we need to expand our hearts – we must share love. That may seem utopian, but it is time for a pragmatic sea change. We need an idealistic approach to interpersonal and interstate relations. In these chaotic times, above all, we are learning to distinguish truth from lies and good from evil – and we are learning to stand resolutely on the side of good.

How is it to experience the living Iran?

Iran is a very complex, multi-ethnic country, with an ancient and resonating civilization and it is a Shiite theocracy with its foundations in Khomeini ’s Islamic Revolution. The former glories of the Persian Empire are in the hearts of the people. The awareness is very much alive that there has been a territorial loss, if past and present geographical outlines are compared (Persian territories encompassed Bulgaria and India during the time of Cyrus the Great). A rich past and a lavish architectural and artistic culture gives the Iranian an inner sense of security, a sense of superiority almost. It is never favorable to be arrogant or high-minded with an Iranian, in conversation or in political negotiations. They are emotional, appreciative and compassionate, and they seek respect. Kindness is lavished and frequently one is surprised by their incredible gestures of friendship, unimaginable in other parts of the world. Iran is – on its aesthetic side – a land of poets, gardens, roses and nightingales, soothing turquoise, splendid buildings and an enviable urbanism. The cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Tabriz and Qazvin not to mention the others, are some of the pearls that every traveler should visit. Shiism is a grand and unique branch of Islam and it differs from Sunni Islam. Shiism is based on sacrifices and martyrdom. The Shiite festival of Ashura is similar to our Holy Week. At that festival Iranians remember the betrayal of the assassination of Imam Hussein in Karbala. From there the cult the victim and of sacrifice arose, along with the constant yearning to fight injustice and tyranny. While Christians await Christ the Savior, Shiites await the Mahdi, the 12th and last Imam who, as they proclaim, will bring peace and decide a just order.

Not far from Tehran is the city of Kashan where the story of three kings who go to worship the child Jesus in Bethlehem is set. One of the three kings was Gathaspa, Gaspar. He came from nearby Harahvaiti

A presentation to Iranian President Hassan Rohani on February 2nd, 2019

You have authored a book of poems in Persian! 

At the end of last year, I published a poetry book called ‘Damavand, on the other side of the sea’. It was translated by the Croatian-Iranian, Ebtehaj Navaey. Mount Damavand is an extinct volcano in the Alborz Mountains, on the northern edge of Tehran. It one of the most beautiful Asian peaks and comparable to Japan’s Mount Fuji. It is a mythical mountain where a legendary mystical bird called Simurgh nests. Around it takes place the events of Ferdowsi’s ‘Book of Kings’ (or Shahnameh), a quintessential Persian work where one can gains insights into the Persian language and the Persian mind. The presentation of the book was memorable and organized by the renowned Buhara, right in the heart of Tehran, on Yalda Day – the shortest day of the year that follows its longest night, when poetry is read in Iran. Interestingly, the poem about Damavand was featured on social media, and it was extremely well read and passed around for months.

What is new from your side in the creative sense?

Along with the aforementioned Persian book, its publisher, Tonimir, recently published a collection of my Latin-American poetry called ‘Angel with a Torch, Atahualpa’. It is a collection of painful experiences transposed into the beauty of verse. At the beginning of the year, Cantus released a CD collection of my poetry called ‘The Soul of the Word / Kotodama’. I recorded the material for it about ten years ago and it is a continuation of my Japanese experience of reciting and pronouncing poetry. My translations of the early poetry of the pacifist, and literary Nobel laureate, Hermann Hesse, will soon be published under the title ‘Heimweh / Homesickness’, and I am preparing several other literary projects.

Where would you place the theory of the ancient Iranian origin of the Croats?

Based on a large number of recently available sources and facts, I am inclined to believe that there was a Croatian homeland in ancient Persia. It was called Harahvati (Greek: Arachosi,  or ‘White India’). Vivana ruled the area close to the southwestern Afghan city of Kandahar and Lake Hamun which borders Afghanistan and Iran and that is fed by the Helmand river. Vivana was an ally of Darius the Great, during the Zoroastrian Achaemenid dynasty, and he helped the Persian ruler defeat his opponent Vaishpat. The ruins of Apadana palace in Persepolis contain a magnificent hall with columns. Indescribably valuable stone reliefs depicting Darius’ Croatian allies can be found there. On the rocks of Bistun, near Kermanshah, in cuneiform in three languages ​​- Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian – below a relief depiction of Darius the Great, Harahvati is mentioned . In Zarathustra’s Gathas our probable ancestral homelands are mentioned twice. The ethnonym ‘Croat’  is also of old Iranian origin, whilst the Croatian name zabrana, for ruler, is also an Iranian word. It means ‘guardian’ or ‘national leader’. Not far from Tehran is the city of Kashan where the story of three kings who go to worship the child Jesus in Bethlehem is set. One of the three kings was Gathaspa, Gaspar. He came from nearby Harahvaiti. We have been working with the University of Tehran for a long period of time on the organization of a bilateral Iranian-Croatian symposium. What has touched me most personally from it is the recognition of the similarities between old island Chakavian. I felt close to Kashan where I was offered a serving of wild plumb called zardeliu. This reminded me that on Brač we have always called the same fruit zerdelija. It is contextual that my ‘Golden Formula of the Croatian Language ča-kaj-što’ integrates the Chakavian idiom, which reaches into the Croatian language’s ancient Iranian linguistic roots. Unfortunately, the crown virus epidemic is likely to delay this symposium as it did the low-profile project planned for the election of the President of the EU, the exhibition of photographs of Mestrovic’s reliefs, and the ancient Iranian-inspired art of Filip Beusan and Barbara Vujanović, which we already arranged at the Azadi Tower. The tower is a masterpiece of modern Iranian architecture. Guitarist Petar Čulić’s concert has been affected as has that of the Iranian Tonal Choir which performs traditional songs such as those by Letovanić and others.

A few days ago, a strong earthquake struck Tehran.

The earthquake that shook Iran was magnitude 5.1 on the Richter scale. Its epicenter was close to my neighboring Damavand. Two people were killed and much damage was done. However, as Tehran is on seismic ground, its buildings are proofed against earthquakes. Although the earthquake was approximately as strong as the recent one in Zagreb, it did not cause as much damage. Jung would mark the coincidence of the combination of coronavirus and earthquakes in Zagreb and Tehran as being examples of synchronicity or meaningful coincidence. Maybe that is why there is some secret connection between our capitals. Secrets are important because they bind people together with irrational threads that bring them closer together – sometimes in spite of everything. We are unus mundus, one world, and everything is interconnected. Today, more than ever, we live in a state of waking dreams. Dreams, I believe, suggest solutions to us, only we are not awake enough to recognize them.


Udruga ŠTAMBUK – Selca, otok Brač, Hrvatska
OIB 55907686126
e-mail: info@stambuk.hr