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Iranian Cultural Attache Seyed Mohammad Khalili is working to keep alive an ancient heritage of Thai-Iranian cooperation

Diplomacy and trade may feature prominently in bilateral relations, but cultural interactions are crucial for creating mutual understanding and friendship between two peoples.

In the case of Thailand and Iran, the roots of the cultural ties date back 400 years to the time when Sheikh Ahmad Qomi, an Iranian scholar, travelled to Ayutthaya for business and later was appointed to a very high position in the Siamese Court.

The life and times of Sheikh Ahmad Qomi were the topic of an international congress held in Bangkok in December last year - part of ongoing efforts by the Cultural Centre of the Iranian Embassy in Bangkok to strengthen Iranian-Thai cultural and academic cooperation. The person behind these efforts is Mr Seyed Mohammad Khalili.

"When we organised an Iranian cultural exhibition at Silpakorn University last year, a Thai academic told me he greatly appreciated the works of art that bore similarities to traditional Thai paintings," said the Iranian cultural attache.

"I told him that knowledge is the key to better understanding. By learning about each other's culture and way of life, we can eliminate misconceptions and appreciate our shared values."

In his opinion, the philosophies of Islam and Buddhism are not so different; both call for mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. Both peoples follow the teachings of their religions, which give them the spiritual foundation to be humane, tolerant and firm in spite of difficulties.

Not surprisingly, historical evidence indicates that most of the traders who came from abroad to Siam (the old name of Thailand) were Persians (as Iranians were then known).

The most renowned reign of Ayutthaya was that of King Prasartthong, who introduced great changes in Thai society. Sheikh Ahmad Qomi came in this period, which saw several Muslims holding important posts in the Siamese Court, the army, navy and civil service.

As a result, Ayutthaya became a place where mosques were located near Buddhist temples and many Muslims married Buddhists. These persons became the ancestors of many respected Thai families.

Sheikh Ahmad, for example, was the ancestor of the Bunnag, Singhaseni, Siphen, Chularat and Bunyaratklalin families, said Mr Khalili.

Persian influences are also discernible in the Thai vocabulary. Modern Thai does contain several words of Persian origin which are in current use, such as the Thai words for kulaap ( "rose", from Persian golaab), or kalam plii ("cabbage", from Persian kalam).

The Persian influences over Ayutthaya also cover architecture, arts, food and sweets. The arches in the old buildings in present-day Ayutthaya are Islamic pointed arches. Bricks are laid so that the weight is transferred down to the walls on both sides. This type of arch can be seen in the front gate of King Narai's Palace in Lop Buri, and at Wat Worachettharam temple in Ayutthaya. The pagoda at Wat Yai Chaimongkol temple in Ayutthaya was also built in the style of the Persian dome.

Mr Khalili said more progress can be made in Iranian-Thai relations if people in both countries concentrate on the positive aspects of the two cultures, the moral values and the rich historical heritage that remains in evidence today.

As he pointed out, Thailand has always shown a liberal and friendly attitude to people of all races, religions, and nationalities. The Siamese Court always had foreign advisers and counsellors, so it was never trapped in an inward-looking philosophy. If Thai people can maintain their cultural identity, he added, they can live happily in the globalised world.

Academic cooperation

Although he obtained a Master's degree in political science, Mr Khalili's career in the civil service has mainly involved research on cultures and religions. The knowledge and experiences gained have stood him in good stead since he took up his post in Bangkok in January 2005.

He is happy with the level of academic cooperation between Thai and Iranian universities. Agreements on academic exchange have been signed between Teheran University and Chulalongkorn and Silpakorn universities in Bangkok.

Last year, Silpakorn University lecturers embarked on a one-month inspection tour of Iran, and Mahidol University lecturers will follow suit this year. Students from Srinakharin University are attending cultural and religious courses in Iran.

With these academic exchange programmes, Mr Khalili hopes to see good progress in the relations between Thailand and Iran. Now there are permanent embassies in both countries, the one in Bangkok, established in 1956, being the first between Iran and any Southeast Asian country.

The Cultural Centre and its library, located in Ekamai Soi 10, are open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. from Monday to Friday. There are books, journals and magazines in Thai, English, Arabic and Persian. Videotapes and CDs are also available for those interested in learning more about Iran.

Mr Khalili enjoys going to the beach, attending cultural events and visiting national parks around Thailand. He greatly appreciates the craftsmanship of Thai artisans, and their "eye for detail".

Building on their strong cultural ties, Iran and Thailand can work together on other matters of mutual interest, said Mr Khalili. "When our ancestors came to Siam, they did not take anything away from this land," he added. "Instead, they contributed to the well-being and progress of the country."


Mr Seyed Mohammad Khalili was born in 1958.

He has a Master's degree in Political Science and completed a preliminary course on religious education.

He has a strong background in research, particularly on East Asian and African peoples. His essays on literature, history, culture and politics have been published in Iran and several foreign countries.

Prior to his arrival in Thailand in January 2005, Mr Khalili has held various high positions in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran, including Director of Media and Communication for Culture, and Chief of the Asian Regional Control Office.

He was Director and Cultural Attache of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Hydar Aubad, and Director of the Cultural Centre of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Peshawal.

Mr Khalili is married and has two children.


NewsSource: Bangkok Post newspaper
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