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As I meandered through the Falnama: The Book of Omens exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, I was reminded once again of the shared history between Europe and Iran, the East and the West or the Occident and the Orient. However and wherever the dividing lines are drawn, they obscure a history that is far richer in cultural and intellectual exchange than is often recognized or acknowledged. Among the paintings depicting events that are specifically Persian in heritage, there were ornate paintings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and, my personal favorite, Hippocrates riding the Simorgh.
The Simorgh is a creature of Persian mythology that symbolized, among other things, nearness to the Divine and wisdom. The image is evocative of the Simorgh carrying Zal to its nest. In Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh the Simorgh imparted some of its wisdom to Zal, including showing Zal how to perform a cesarean. What a perfect image then, the Simorgh carrying Hippocrates who is lauded as the progenitor of modern medicine.
The picture reminded me of a point made at a colloquium on Islamo-Christian civilization I attended some years ago. The speaker said that if you compared the total time that consisted of peaceful intercultural exchange between the East and the West is compared to the total time that was consumed by hostilities, the relationship is overwhelmingly defined by peaceful exchange and not by mutual hatred and mistrust.
Unfortunately, the media and academia are nearly always focused on the instances when communication has broken down. This presents a skewed view of history that sees current conflicts and tensions as the result of historical events, as simply the nature of things. For example, this attitude can be found in works such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.   
The truth of the matter is that internal conflicts, i.e. Christian vs. Christian or Iranian vs. Iranian etc., has been a far more regular occurrence than us-versus-them style conflicts. One great example is that at the height of its power Venice built forts along the Mediterranean coast ostensibly for defense against the Ottoman Empire. In reality, however, Venice had a fantastic trade relationship with the Ottomans, and was building the forts as a defensive line against the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, Venice often continued trading with the Ottomans, albeit surreptitiously, when other European countries had declared general war on the Turks.
I do not mean to portray an idealized past of perfect cooperation, but, instead, to point out the fact that there has been an enormous degree of cultural exchange between the East and the West. Cultures do not exist in individual bubbles isolated from the rest of the world. They are syncretic. They are the products of a continuous process of the borrowing and exchange ideas and beliefs.    
We would do well to think of the current tensions between Iran and the United States, or between the Muslim world and the West, as an interruption in a long tradition of exchange, and not as a continuation of historical practice. The blame for this break with tradition cannot be assigned to any one group. We are all responsible, and we should all work towards re-forging avenues of intellectual and cultural exchange.

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