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He is Awake: Close Up on Cyrus Kar




"Stay Awake you won't die today, Stay Awake ..." - Cyrus Kar in Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq ( cnn report)

"O Cyrus [Koroush], great King, King of Kings, Achaemenian King, King of the land of Iran. I, the Shahanshah of Iran, offer thee salutations from myself and from my nation. Rest in peace, for we are awake, and we will always stay awake." - Shah of Iran's historical speech at  Pasargadae October 12th, 1971.

It's a fascinating story : That of  a quest of an Iranian-American in search of his roots. Or is it a quest that every Iranian expat has somewhat undertook if not physically at least subconsciously in the past 27 years for anyone who has left Iran due to War, Revolution, or Terror that followed the Islamic Revolution of 1979? In the aftermath of September 11Th, Iran was labeled by US President George W. Bush as part of an Axis of Evil paradoxically in an equally religious terminology that has often been used by Islamic Fundamentalists over the years to qualify the US or Israel. A strange rhetoric unexpected to be used by the President of the most powerful nation in the world and oldest Democracy. A paradoxical designation also for a country like Iran whose ancient roots dig deep in the history of Humanity as a Cradle of Civilization and whose founder, Cyrus the Great, was to establish the very first Declaration of Human Rights nearly 2500 years ago. An act also recorded in the Bible and Torah for which a fragile mud-baked brick cylinder, today in display at the British Museum ( and also a replica of which stands in the United Nation's Building in NY) also is said to have inspired the drafting of American Constitution as we know it today. This is where this story of a personal quest gets into the big picture of international politics:


Cyrus Kar, an Iranian-American, became an identifiable face on CNN news reports for being wrongfully imprisoned and in violation of his Constitutional Rights. He went to Iraq to film a historical documentary on his Royal namesake Cyrus the Great hoping to shoot footage of ruins in Babylon and archeological sites. Kar was charged with being a terrorist and placed in the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison. Kar passed a lie detector test but was refused a lawyer. The FBI raided his Los Angeles apartment but found no evidence that he was involved in terrorism. Kar was held for 55 days, 53 in solitary confinement. After 49 days, he was given a hearing. Cyrus Kar is again making headlines for attempting to sue former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. A lawsuit that Kar is adamant to pursue as much as finishing his very fascinating documentary on certainly the Greatest Persian King and Conqueror of all Time...


Darius KADIVAR (DK): Much has already been written on your dangerous predicament in Iraq followed by your arrest and detainment in Abu Ghraib. Was shooting part of your documentary on Cyrus the Great in war torn Iraq that essential to your film ?


Cyrus KAR (CK): Most people don't realize that I had already invested some $200K and two years of my life into this project by the time the war with Iraq began.  My film was designed to take the audience on a vicarious tour along the footsteps of Cyrus The Great.  Ancient Babylon, which is in present-day Iraq, was the site of Cyrus's most defining moment. 


With so much time and money invested, we couldn't simply forgo Cyrus's conquest of Babylon.  We waited for the situation in Iraq to stabilize.  We expected the U.S. military to secure Iraq while we filmed all of our other locations. 


So we literally retraced Cyrus's conquests through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.  But the situation in Iraq had only gotten worse.  To complete our film, we had to reach El Kasr Hill, the site of ancient Babylon.  We feared that if we waited any longer, we would not get another opportunity. 


When we entered Iraq, there was still a reasonable chance of returning in one piece.  We went through great lengths to secure permission not just from U.S. military officials but also from Iraqi authorities, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK), and the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities and Heritage. 


But we never reached El Kasr Hill, our final filming destination.  Something I will always regret.



DK: What is a typical day or night like in Abu Ghraib ? Did you have any contacts with your other crew members ?


CK: I was in Abu Ghraib for only a few hours before I was taken away to Camp Cropper.  However, my cameraman, Farshid Faraji spent his entire incarceration at Abu Ghraib.  His ordeal was far worse than mine.


A typical day at Camp Cropper consisted of 23 hours of solitary confinement and one hour of sitting outside in an enclosed cage.  The only physical challenges I faced were adapting to the claustrophobia of my 2 x 3 meter cell and malnutrition.  The prison served mostly meat, and as a vegetarian, I lost over 15 pounds. 


But far more difficult was coming to terms with my feelings of abandonment and betrayal by my fellow-countrymen.  The same military, which I had served honorably, was now dishonorably imprisoning me.  They knew we were innocent, yet they made no effort to release us.  They didn't tell us anything.  So the same questions haunted me day after day.  How long were they going to keep us?  Is anyone doing something to get us out?  Are we stuck here for the duration of the war?


I didn't see my cameraman again until my first court hearing 50 days later.  I had requested him as a witness mostly to get him out of Abu Ghraib if even just for a day.  The hearing was intended only for me.  But I told the three judges that I would not leave without my cameraman.  They informed me that there was nothing they could do for him.  But a few days later I was told that Farshid would be released with me.  Perhaps the pressure to release me had finally superseded the mind-numbing bureaucracy of the U.S. military. 


We were reunited on July 10, 2005 at Camp Cropper and taken to the "Green Zone" where we were set free.


DK: Did you ever lose hope of not being heard of abroad or not to see your family again?


CK:  I was allowed a phone call to my family in Los Angeles on the 7th day of our captivity.  So I was relieved that my family knew I was alive.  I also knew they would inform my cameraman's family in Tehran.  I was confident that sooner or later I would see my family again.


DK: Was Cyrus the Great and his ideals in your thoughts while on detention in that remote and infamous Iraqi prison camp ?


CK:  The irony was inescapable.  Here we were, making a film about a man who many consider "The Father Of Human Rights" while our own basic rights were being violated.  I compared Cyrus's invasion of Iraq to President Bush's invasion of Iraq and found several similarities.  For example:


1.       Both Sadam Hussein and Nabonidus, the king of Babylonia during the time of Cyrus, were unpopular with their people. 

2.       Both were minority kings, who ruled over a majority.  Sadam Hussein, a Sunni, ruled over a majority of Kurds and Shiites, and Nabonidus, a follower of the Moon-God Sin, ruled over a majority of Marduk worshippers. 

3.       Both Persian forces and U.S. forces were initially received as liberators. 


But here the similarities end.  Unlike U.S. Forces, Cyrus managed to keep his image as 'liberator' from slipping to "occupier."  We even know how he did it.


In his famous clay cylinder, Cyrus tells us in his own words that he did not allow any looting to take place: "I did not allow any troublemaker to arise.  Marduk's city of Babylon and all his cult-centres I maintained in prosperity."


U.S. forces, on the other hand, consciously allowed looting to occur throughout Iraq.  When asked why looting was permitted, one U.S. Officer replied, "Iraqi's are getting their first taste of freedom."


Cyrus granted amnesty to enemy fighters.  According to Xenophon, Cyrus told Babylonian soldiers, "You shall dwell in the same houses and work the same farms; you shall lie with the same wives and have control of your children just as now.  But you shall not have to fight either us or anyone else again."


The Bush Administration on the other hand embarked on a "De-Baathification" policy, which sent thousands of former Baath party members fleeing to their nearest insurgency group.


We also know that Cyrus spared the life of Nabonidus.  According to Eusebius and Josephus, Cyrus even appointed him governor of Carmania in southern Iran.  In contrast, the Bush Administration celebrated Sadam Hussein's recent death sentence as a "milestone for Coalition Forces."


These are but a few differences, which demonstrate just how far ahead of his time Cyrus really was.  In other words, Cyrus treated the Babylonians with respect.  Had U.S forces treated Iraqis with the same dignity, I'm quite certain they would be regarded today as liberators.  But I can personally attest to their inhumane behavior, which is quite unusual for U.S. forces.  As a veteran of the U.S. Navy, I know first-hand how decent American servicemen and women are.  Their unfettered behavior in Iraq is the result of their Commander and Chief.


DK: You were born in Iran but raised in the US and I suppose with Hollywood films particularly Epics. You seem to share some frustration as to the lack of representation and even misrepresentation of Persians in the few films that were made on them, like Rudolph Maté's 300 Spartans or Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great. What explains this shortcoming in your viewpoint ?


CK:  I'm not a conspiracy theorist.  But something happened around the mid 19th century, which changed the West's perception of ancient Persia. 


Before the 1850's, Xenophon was the West's main source for Persian history.  Xenophon, a Greek mercenary in the employ of a genuine Achaemenian Prince, portrays the Persians as heroes who exercised benevolent power.  This, along with the glowing accounts of the Old Testament, boded well for our Persian forefathers.


But after 1850, the West's official source for Persian history suddenly became Herodotus.  So determined was the West in effecting this change, that it even called Herodotus, "The Father Of History."  Herodotus was a Greek living in Persian-occupied Halicarnassus.  As such, he depicts the Persians as barbaric tyrants who sought to overthrow Greece's fledgling democracy and enslave all of Europe.


This became the West's official stance on ancient Persia.  It was taught thereafter in Western schools and eventually adopted by Hollywood.  The newly released movie '300' and its forerunner '300 Spartans' is a fanciful tale about 300 Greek Spartans who hold 2 million Persians at bay at the Battle of Thermopylae and comes straight out of Herodotus' 'Histories.'  Oliver Stone used this vilification of the Persians to make a hero out of Alexander, a feat not even Alexander's own scribes were able to accomplish.


I believe the sudden shift from Xenophon to Herodotus was a conscious and deliberate effort by the West to promote democracy.  By opting for Herodotus, the West severed its ties with the East, solidifying its European identity and linking its history directly to Athenian democracy.  At the same time anti-democratic Persia came to symbolize a monarchy from which America had fought to liberate itself. 


The West's strategy worked.  Today, democracy and human rights are seen as "Western Values, not only by the West but even by its detractors in the Middle East who dismiss democracy and human rights as the sinister trappings of Western neo-imperialism. 


Unfortunately the truth has been the biggest victim in this Herodotian agenda.  In fact, most historians know that the first practicing democracy and the first human rights legislation, in recorded history, both find their origins in Iran beginning with the Medes and Persians respectively.  But when has Iran ever been credited for these invaluable contributions to human civilization? 


Our film is truly revolutionary in that, for the first time, the world's leading scholars reveal the origins of what we have come to regard as "Western Values."



DK: What kind of Man was Cyrus ?


CK:  If I had to describe Cyrus The Great in one word, it would be 'honorable.'  All his other characteristics were built atop bedrock of 'honor' in the true Iranian tradition found in Ferdowsi's 'Shahnameh.' 


Based on everything I've read, his unwavering honor made him a universally admired figure.  His soldiers worshipped him.  The Jews called him "Messiah" and Iranians called him "Father."  He was even liked by his enemies.  The Greeks called him "Law Giver," the Babylonians welcomed him as Marduk's elect.  Some states such as Cilicia and Miletus even submitted to his rule voluntarily.  He became the symbol of 'benevolent power.' 


Dr. David Stronach, perhaps the world's foremost authority on Cyrus The Great, sums it up best:  "For the first time in human history, Cyrus used his great power to improve the human condition rather than degrade it."


There have only been a handful of such leaders throughout history.  But Cyrus was the first, which makes him a truly revolutionary figure. 


DK: Having traveled for your film across the countries that were part of Cyrus' Empire how much of his historical legacy is still present today be it architecturally or philosophically? 


CK:  Cyrus's philosophical legacy survives today, more so in the West than in the country of his birth.  Cyrus's philosophy of 'benevolent power' may well have shaped America's constitution.  And since most of Western Europe modeled its constitutions after America's, Cyrus may well have helped shape Western civilization, as we know it.


Architecturally little remains of Cyrus's legacy.  Cyropolis (The City Of Cyrus) in northern Tajikistan, still referred to by locals as "Kurkad" (short for Kurosh Kadeh), is but a mound of rubble today.  We managed to film the last remaining brickwork visible on the mountain of dirt, which was once a massive fortress marking the northeastern-most border of his empire.


Furthermore the ruins of his capital city, Parsagarda, in southwestern Iran, are threatened by natural as well as man-made elements.  The humidity resulting from the Sivand Dam, due to be inaugurated this Spring is expected to cause irreparable damage to Cyrus's palatial ruins. 


Even worse, the dam will forever engulf the site of one of Cyrus's most historic battles.  The rumors that both Parsagarda and Persepolis will be submerged under water are false and only empower those seeking to activate the dam.  But the Tang-e Bolaghi will be lost forever and this will be a devastating loss to Cyrus's legacy. 


The entrance of Tang-e Bolaghi is the confirmed location where Cyrus won his decisive victory over the Median forces of Astyages.  Cyrus considered his victory at Tang-e Bolaghi so important that Nicolaus of Damascus, Polyaenus, and Strabo all tell us that Cyrus chose the site of Parsagarda, just outside Tang-e Bolaghi, as his new capital, to commemorate his victory over Astyages.  In other words, if not for Cyrus's victory at Tang-e Bolaghi, the Persian Empire would have never existed.  This sacred battleground will be lost to the Sivand Dam forever.


Imagine if the U.S. Government decided to flood Gettysburg, the hallowed battleground where the North won its decisive victory over the Confederate army of the South during America's Civil War.  Americans would be up in arms.  Yet Iranians, unaware of the historic importance of Tang-e Bolaghi, allow their heritage to be slowly wiped away in the name of "progress."


DK: Your film suggests that Cyrus' ideals may well have influenced Western Democracy, and even the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. Could you develop ?


CK:  America's founding fathers took ideas from many sources.  Aristotle probably provided the blueprint for America's democracy.  But democracy does not necessarily guarantee human rights.  In fact, it can lead to tyranny by the majority as it did in democratic Athens.


It is the U.S. Bill Of Rights, which makes America's democracy so powerful.  And I believe Cyrus had a direct influence on America's Bill Of Rights. 


Orson Welles Film Legend and narrator of Shahrokh Golestan's documentary
Flames of Persia directed in
October 1971 in Persepolis.


In the Bible and the Cyropaedia, two of the most influential books read by the framers of America's Constitution, Cyrus exemplifies how granting citizens basic, god-given rights not only won't pose a threat to government but will even strengthen it. 


But affording rights to citizens was risky business.  Most rulers played it safe and followed Machiavelli's ominous advice that "It is better to be feared than loved."  But America's founders broke with tradition and chose Cyrus's policy of 'benevolent government' for their new nation. 


I reached this conclusion when I discovered five copies of Xenophon's Cyropaedia at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C.  Two copies belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the U.S. Constitution (one in Greek, the other in Latin).  Another would have almost certainly belonged to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson's closest confidant and another framer of America's Constitution.  The curator told me that there were many more copies of the Cyropaedia before the fire of 1851, which destroyed much of the library.


But for confirmation we only need to look at the U.S. Constitution itself.  The laws which held together the Persian Empire such as the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and the right to life, liberty, and due process are virtually reincarnated in America's Constitution.  The similarities between the United States and ancient Persia are not coincidental and neither was their meteoric rise to power. 


DK: Your documentary must have required a great deal of research. Which experts did you consult on the subject and what were your sources ?


CK: I drew on many sources for my research.  First and foremost was Dr. David Stronach, who, despite his stature and fame in the field of Archeology, was the most generous and humble of scholars.  Dr. Maria Brosius, Dr. Cliff Rogers, Dr. Jennifer Rose, Dr. Kamyar Abdi, Dr. Mathew Stolper, Dr. William Sumner, Dr. Shapur Shahbazi, and many others played a significant role in helping me develop a clear and credible picture of the man who was Cyrus The Great.


My research was further supplemented by many books most noteworthy of which were 'The Cambridge History Of Iran,' 'Encyclopedia Iranica' and Pierre Briant's, 'From Cyrus To Alexander.'


DK: Several directors hope to make a feature film on Cyrus such as British director Alex Jovey and Iranian American Kayvan Mashayekh (The Keeper : The Legend of Omar Khayyam ). Given your knowledge on this historical figure which Hollywood actor or from Iranian Cinema could best encompass Cyrus' personality ?


CK:  Unfortunately I'm not familiar with any Iranian actors, many of who would undoubtedly do great justice to Cyrus's image.  But among Hollywood actors, I agree with my good friend Kayvan Mashayekh, who believes Clive Owen would capture Cyrus strong yet gentle nature.  My second choice would be Benicio Del Toro


DK: Your documentary is still in production, when do you hope it will be out and where will it be distributed ( Cinema or TV)  ?


CK: My film has languished due to lack of money.  I have, so far, spent over $250,000 to complete pre-Production and am in the process of raising another $400,000 to finish post-Production which includes editing, sound, music, special effects, etc. 


Once we raise the necessary funds, the film should be released within six months.  I'm hoping to broadcast it to the combined, worldwide audiences of PBS and BBC.  They are the most respectable outlets and offer the most reach since they are not pay channels.


I'm humbled by how many Iranians have rallied to our cause.  Every single one of them is recognized on our website  I am truly honored by the trust and hard-earned money working Iranians are investing in me and my ability to bring something significant to the screen.  I'm hoping a single wealthy donor will come forward to bring this project to a speedy conclusion. 


DK : What would Cyrus the Great think of Ahmaninejad's Comments on Israel being wiped out were he alive today ?


CK:  If we put politics aside and consider this question from a purely historical sense, it becomes quite clear that Cyrus recognized Judah, which is present-day Israel, as the Jewish homeland even 60 years after it had been destroyed by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, who burned its capital Jerusalem to the ground and deported over 40,000 Jews to Babylon to serve as slaves.


60 years later, when Cyrus conquered Babylonia, he freed all its slaves including the Jews, whose numbers had swelled to almost 200,000 according to Pierre Briant and David Stronach.  But it was what he did afterwards, which is in direct conflict with Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments.  Cyrus sent armed soldiers to escort the Jews back to Judah, and even paid to have their capital, Jerusalem rebuilt. 


In other words, Cyrus created a new Jewish state, where none had existed for over six decades.  Mr. Ahmadinejad's seems bent on doing the exact opposite.  He wants to wipe out a Jewish State, which has existed for almost six decades. 


As a student of Persian history, I've learned that being Iranian is about more than just being born on the real estate, which comprises today's Iran.  It implies a set of values.  The name Iranian by definition means "noble" or honorable.  In fact, pre-Islamic Iranians referred to those who behaved dishonorably as "un-Iranian." 


Therefore, as a champion of truth and righteousness, its safe to say that Cyrus would have considered Mr. Ahmadinejad's denial of the well-documented Holocaust and calls to wipe Israel off the map as lacking in honor. 



DK: Cyrus, before asking the following question I'd like to remind our readers that in October 1971, the late Shah of Iran proudly celebrated 2500 years of Persian Monarchy with hundreds of foreign dignitaries, Kings and Queens in Persepolis and delivered a historical speech in front of Cyrus' Tomb at Pasargadae. The ceremony was bitterly criticized in the Western Anglo-Saxon Press as a waste and was to some degree misunderstood in Iran dividing the intelligentsia between pro's and con's. Yet 27 years after the revolution the DVD of the film that was directed by famed journalist Shahrokh Golestan and narrated by the Legendary Orson Welles remains a favorite to this day as one of the best-selling Iranian films on that period. Recently the current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmaninejad (See article ) claimed to even want to rebuild the royal tents identically to what they were back in 1971.  Have Iranians and their leaders, during the past centuries, failed to see in Cyrus' Legacy, anything else than just a set of ruins rather than his humanistic message that could have maybe benefit them both ?


CK:  I'm no expert on Iranian politics.  But it seems to me that neither pre-revolution nor post-revolution Iranians ever understood the essence of Cyrus The Great.  Cyrus was the vehicle by which Iranian values were spread across much of the ancient world. 


The late Shah saw Cyrus as a means to showcase his monarchy to the world.  Yet by excluding the common people from taking part in the celebration, he defied the very values Cyrus stood for. 


Perhaps we are too critical of the late Shah because we expected more from him.  We don't expect much from Mr. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts other than to leave their Father's house standing while they occupy it.  Mr. Ahmadinejad, after all, is the product of a movement, which sought to level Persepolis and plans to surrender Tang-e Bolaghi to the deep waters of the Sivand dam.  One of its founding members, Mr. Khalkhali even wrote a book titled, 'Kourosh-e Doroughin-e Jenayat-kar (The False and Criminal Cyrus). 


So if Mr. Ahmadinejad is considering rebuilding the royal tents as they were in 1971, he should be commended for it.  If he stops the impending inauguration of the Sivand Dam, he might even realize a level of popularity hitherto unseen in post-revolutionary Iran.


DK: Given a quarter of a century of historical revisionism preached by the current Islamic Regime in Iran, do you feel that young Iranians today, particularly in Iran but also in the Diaspora, are aware of their pre-Islamic ancestry ?


CK: Today, most Iranians can name the wives of the prophets Mohammad, Ali, and Hussein.  But most cannot name the wife of Cyrus The Great.  Her name of course was Cassandana, and she bore Cyrus five children. 


It seems to me that Iran's pre-Islamic history is just as important as its Islamic history.  So why has Iran's Islamic alter ego never made peace with its pre-Islamic history?


History forms our identities.  Iranians are among the lucky few who can truly be proud of their history.  But they first need to know about it and understand the significant role their ancestors played in shaping human civilization. 


Our film is a small but important investment in future-generation Iranians inside and outside Iran.  Films make learning fun.  They're faster and more entertaining than books.  I believe a factual film about Cyrus The Great is important to complete the Iranian identity. 


DK: Thank you Cyrus for your time and we look forward to seeing your film soon.



Cyrus' Cylinder: Considered as History's First Declaration of Human Rights
in Ancient Times is today displayed at the British Museum.
©British Museum, London



Author's notes:


Recommended Viewing:
A well documented website on Persepolis and Coronation Celebrations created by Portuguese Web Artists.

Cyrus the Great Memorial created by Artist Lewis Batros in Sydney's Bicentennial Park, Australia.


Recommended Reading: Persia? Ancient Persia's virtual absence in Hollywood By Darius KADIVAR


Recommended Reading: Two opposite yet equally respectable views in their own right on the Persepolis Celebrations of 1971:

We are Awake by Cyrus KADIVAR 

Shah bee Shah by Jahanshah JAVID


Recommended Readings:
Iran to rebuild spectacular tent city at Persepolis by Robert TAIT (Guardian)

Ahmaninejad sets up international conference in Tehran to establish the Truth on the Holocaust by Robert TAIT (Guardian)



About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.


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