Sunday, November 17, 2013

Divine Beauty

The spot of your mole cannot be stamped on vision's tablet
unless from the pupil of the eye we seek black ink.

With all its soul the heart desired a loving sign from your sweet lips.
With a smile of sugar your lips replied,  "It's a higher bid we're looking for."*

"Persian culture combines a sense of great refinement in almost everything with a sensuality that is at the same time spiritual.  This wedding between the sensual and the spiritual is usually not well understood in the modern West, where the two have become dichotimized into opposing categories and people cannot understand how someone can talk of the beautiful ruby lips of women, but be talking at the same time about the Divine Qualities..."

-Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "In Search of the Sacred"

*excerpt from Poem CCCLXI, "The Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz" translated by Peter Avery.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Fertile Ashes Of The 13th Century

"Strangely enough this period of the most terrible political disaster was, at the same time, a period of highest religious and mystical activity.  It seems as though the complete darkness on the worldly plane was counteracted by a hitherto unknown brightness on the spiritual plane.

The names of poets, scholars, calligraphers could be enumerated, but it is mainly the mystics who dominate this century.

The supreme figure is the Spanish-born Ibn 'Arabi; he developed a most consistent theosophical system, which was to be adopted by most of the later mystics of Islam.  His contemporary in Egypt, Ibn al-Farad sang highly refined poems to praise eternal spiritual love...Faridoddin 'Attar, who died in 1220, left a rich spiritual heritage of poetry and prose; in the same year the Mongols killed Najmoddin Kobra, the founder of an extremely interesting mystical order in Khwarezm. His disciple Najmoddin Daya Razi, like so many other scholars and saints, including Jalaloddin Rumi's family, fled to Anatolia where he composed his mystical work Mirsad ol-'ebad under the Seljuks. 

In India, Mo'inoddin Chishti introduced the Chishhtiyya order; from the long list of Chishti saints in 13th century India we may mention Faridoddin Ganj-e Shakar, Nezamoddin Owlya of Delhi and his faithful disciple and biographer Amir Hasan as well as his poet-friend Amir Khosrow.

Boha'oddin Zakariya founded a branch of the Sohrawardiyya in Multa, and in his presence Fakhroddin 'Eraqi, the mystical minstrel of overbounding love, spent twenty-five years of his life before his return to Anatolia.  There he found Sadroddin Quanavi, Ibn 'Arabi's foremost interpreter in Konya; a little while earlier Owhadoddin Kermani had died, a poet who had sung about the love of beautiful human beings and had written a mystical mathnavi jam-e jam

Anotolia was filled with groups of mystics striving for social and political changes.  Many of them had migrated from Eastern lands, fleeing from the Mongol threat...In short, in almost every corner of the Islamic world were found great saints, poets, and mystical leaders, who, in the darkness of political and economical catastrophes, guide the people towards a world which was unhurt by change, telling them the secret of suffering love, and taught that God's inscrutable will and His Love may reveal itself in affliction even better than happiness."

-Annemarie Schimmel, "The Triumphal Sun"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Soon it will be twilight.  But the clouds are still clear, the pines are not yet dark.  For the lake illumines them with its transparence.   

And all is green, a richer green than any organ blast at a recital.  Listen to it sitting close to the earth, arms tightly clasped, eyes closed too, as if asleep.

For you must not walk as if you are a conqueror.  You must not wish to give a name to things, to everything.  Things will tell you who they are, if you listen, surrendered to them, like a lover.  They will do so because, in the frictionless peace of this Northern Forest, the Earth came to you, for you, in the visible form of an Angel, who could be a woman, perhaps.  And in this apparition, this greenest and peopled solitude, yes, the Angel too is clothed in green, that is, in twilight, silence and truth.  Then all the sweetness present in self abandonment to an overwhelming embrace is in you. 

Earth, Angel, Woman, all this is in a single thing, that I adore, and that is in this forest.  Twilight on the lake, my Annunciation.  The mountain, a line. Listen! Something will happen, yes.  The waiting is immense, the air quivers beneath a barely visible drizzle, the houses with their red, rustic wood stretched across the ground, and their thatched roofs, are there, on the other side of the lake.  

Something will start this evening, something promised, something I believe in. Ah!   This evening?  When, this evening?  If it were really in a few hours, then it would never be, for it would end, and then begin again, and would end always, without ever beginning.  Do you know what it is to wait, and do you know what it is to believe?   

The Mystery of the Last Supper, into which you will be brought, where all beings will be present, yes, you can only speak of it in the future.  For at each moment that you really read, as you read now what is before you, that you listen to the Angel, and to the Earth, and to Woman, you receive Everything.  Everything, in your absolute poverty.  But as soon as you have read, and have received, as soon as you look, as you want to understand, as you want to possess, give a name and retain, explain and recover, ah!  There remains but a cipher and your judgment is meted out.”

-Henry Corbin, 1932, Lake Siljan Sweden

Thursday, April 12, 2012

آنکه غافل بود از کشت بهار
او چه داند قیمت این روزگار

He that was heedless of the sowing and the springtide
How should he know the value of this lifetime?

-Mowlana (Rumi)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We believe in cash, not in credit
So why narrate to us the story of paradise?

-Mawlana Mawdudi

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on Mowlana (Rumi) after reading 'Reading Mystical Lyric’ by Fatemeh Keshavarz.

“What do you know of the kind of bird that I am? And of what I am whispering under my lips in each breath? How can anyone come to own me? I am at times a treasure, and at times a ruin. The firmament is whirling for my sake. For this reason, I keep turning the firmament.”

In the west Jalal al-Din Rumi (b. 1207, d. 1273) has been swept up in the popular fascination with things exotic and eastern.

Details of Rumi’s personal history only intensify the interest. A teacher well-schooled in orthodox Islamic doctrine, his meeting in 1244 with his ‘soul-brother’, the cranky wanderer Shams-e Tabriz, changed his life. Shams’ mysterious disappearance unleashed in Rumi a torrent of love and lyricism.

Yet, the English speaking world has only third-hand knowledge of Rumi’s work: Fragments of loose interpretations rendered from translations of translations that have found their way onto greeting cards and calendars. Most are taken from the more than 35,000 verses of the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi.

The Rumi of the popular English interpretations (most are not really translations) is a comforting New Age presence. Yet the real Rumi challenges us, rattles us, whispers and taunts. He sings to us, enveloping us in a whirlwind, then he is suddenly silent. As Keshavarz points out we are only too eager to submit to someone who speaks to us like a caring friend: “This is a charming person, at times outspoken and harsh but always informal, loving and intimate. Often, we feel we know him well.”

It’s said that Rumi first whirled in the marketplace upon hearing the rhythm of the coppersmith’s hammer. Music helps inform his poetry but unfortunately the melody and cadence are lost in translation. Even without understanding, one can sense the musicality of his verse:
“Khamushid, khamushid, khamushaneh benushid!
Bepushid! Bepushid! Shuma ganj-e nehanid.”

Beyond the music there is his message. He dares us to abandon our preconceptions: “Do not build much, for I intend to have you in ruins.”

From a distance of 8 centuries he exposes the egoism of the popular notion of self-discovery: “You said you destroyed the idol of illusions; The illusion that you destroyed the idol remains.”

The self realization he speaks of is beyond the realization of self “When I am, I am not, and when I am not, I am.”

He challenges us to find unity in paradox: “Life is the harmony of contraries/death is the fact that war arose between them.”

He tells us speech is a poor substitute for understanding: “The tightfisted sea in its willful silence says: ‘I know nothing. I have not seen any pearls.’”

Words are limiting; they only cloud the vision and intoxicate the senses: “Be silent! Remove the thorn of existence from the foot of the heart/So that you may see the gardens within.”

To Rumi, silence is the dark matter in that holds the key to understanding the universe.

Rumi never lectures or hectors. He is happy to show us wonders, but he leaves the heavy lifting of comprehension to us: “By the true men’s soul, I beseech you to complete this poem!”

Keshavarz suggests that Rumi’s unconventional writing style, which to his critics is a sign that he is ignorant of poetic rules and lacks real interest in the art, is actually an expression of freedom and, far from flaunting the rules, he is reinventing them and extending the boundaries of the traditional qhazal genre.

Rumi breaks with the Persian poetic tradition and speaks directly to the reader at turns as the beloved and the lover, the bereft and the fulfilled. He invites the reader into his embrace – at once warm and chilling:
“The world is a moth flying around my candle; Now I give it splendor, not I take away its wings.”

Keshavarz makes much of the playfulness of Rumi’s poetry. He is both profound and lighthearted, full of fun and brimming with meaning: “Creating a playful poetic ambience is one of Rumi’s major achievements…the reader enters a gamelike relationship with the poet. As the walls between fact and fiction or wakefulness and dreaming crumble, we the readers grow more eager to accept the rules of the game in order to penetrate more deeply into this world…Rumi’s view of our childlike position in the game of love is not a poetic accident….after all, what does a creature separated from his origin resemble more than a child in search of a mother?” This approach also has the consequence of leaving us feeling buoyant and hopeful about our existence.

The late British translator Reynolds Nicholson said, “Sufism has few ideas, but a wealth and variety of illustration.” And so it is with Rumi. What is his message, ultimately? He prods us to discard orthodox thinking, but in favor of what? He keeps secrets from us. He offers no rules, no charted course. He opens the door and invites us to step into the void. Is this some terrible omission on his part? It is two things, I believe:

1. The recognition of the limits of language. “The mouth is full of words, but speaking is not possible.”

2. The knowledge that each person’s understanding of God is different and, more importantly that as individuals, as cultures, and as a species our comprehension changes and develops.

Thus, the nature of God remains elusive, ever reshaped by our comprehension. Caught between the pain and the joy of existence we are propelled ever forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between the fingers.

“If anyone asks you about the huris, show your face, say: like this!
If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say: like this!

If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance,

If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair [and] say: like this!
If anyone asks: “How do the clouds uncover the moon?” untie the front of your robe, knot by knot, say: like this!

If anyone asks: “How did Jesus raise the dead?” kiss me on the lips, say: like this!...”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

این جهان کوه است فعل ماندا
سوی ما آید نداها را صدا مولوی

"The world is a mountain and our actions a call.
To us will return the echo of our calls"


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sohrab Sepehri

This morning as I passed by two men talking on the sidewalk, I heard one of them say “life isn’t bad.” Immediately the opening lines of Sohrab Sepehri’s poem “Water’s Footsteps” sprang into my mind:

“I’m from Kashan/My life isn’t bad/I have a bit of bread/a little intelligence/and a pin’s head of talent.”

All morning long I couldn’t get those lines out of my head; until I was in a taxi creeping toward Tajrish. Then the driver played a tape of the song “Hotel California.” I have never been sure about the words of this song, because I am always distracted by the irritating and nasal keening of the singer. But, nonetheless, much to my chagrin and against my will, Sepehri’s words were replaced by the song’s lines looping in my brain:

“Welcome to the Hotel California/Wasn’t I surprised, bring your olive eyes.”

These words stayed in my head most of the afternoon but at some point they began to blend with Sepehri:

“Welcome to the Hotel California/Bring a bit of bread, I’m a pinhead."

I felt guilty mixing the words of a pop song with Sepehri’s sublime poetry. But, then I thought, “so what”. It’s nothing compared to the insulting way this man has been treated by the mullahs in this country.

I visited Kashan once and went in search of his grave, expecting to find a glorious tomb like those of Hafiz or Sa’adi. No such luck. His grave is a little piece of stone in a forgotten corner next to an imamzadeh. I looked down at the scuffed stone surrounded by brown weeds. I looked up at the glittering imamzadeh. Whatever mullah this monstrosity was built for, he is not worth the little finger of Sepehri. I mean, what did this akhund do for Iran? He force-fed us a religion concocted by some tribe of Arabs.

Sepehri, on the other hand, reminded us of our mystical nature, which separates us from the Arabs. See, he has one book called “Sharq Anduh”, “Pining for the East”. When this government wails about ‘Western influence’ – Westoxication – and the Leader warns of the ‘invasion of the miniskirts’, I say what about the invasion from the Arabs of the west?

Yes, we have Hafiz and Rumi, but we cannot live on handouts from the past. We must have our own voice – and that is what Sepehri gave us.

It’s strange that for someone who died less than 30 years ago, we know so little of this man. His mother and his sister nourished and guarded him. It seems he would talk to no one but them.

If you are coming to see me,
pray step gently, softly
Lest the thin shell of my loneliness
Should crack.

There is no interview, no autobiography or biography. Is there even more than one photo? I don’t know. It is as if we took away this man’s poetry and his paintings, he never existed.

But I think this is what made his poetry so beautiful, unsullied by the grime of daily human activity in all its vacuous and petty dullness. How else could someone imagine a garden lane greener than God’s dream?
How else could a man write:

My Ka’ba is at the edge of water
My Ka’ba is under the acacia trees
My Kaaba travels like the breeze,
From one garden to the next,
From one town to another

I feel a kinship with lines like:

I’m from Kashan
My lineage goes back, perhaps,
To a plant in Hindustan
To earthenware from the clay of Sialk
My lineage goes back, perhaps,
To a whore in Bokhara.

I say Better a whore from Bokhara than a princess from Baghdad.
Sepehri wrote only 8 books, he was only 51 when he died. Then they put him in that forgotten spot next to the imamzadeh. Now that I think of it, it’s probably what he would have preferred, rather than something grand. To lie among the weeds.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

One day, Sheikh al-Junayd set out on a journey and while traveling was overtaken by a thirst.

He found a well that was too deep to draw water from, so he took off his sash, dangled it into the well until it reached the water and set about raising and lowering it and squeezing it into his mouth.

A dervish appeared and asked him, "Why do it so? Tell the water to rise, and drink with your hands!" and the dervish approached the edge of the well and said to the water, "Rise, with God's permission," and it rose, and the sheikh and the dervish drank.

Afterwards the sheikh turned to the dervish and asked, "Who are you?"

"One of God's creatures," he replied.

"And who is your sheikh?" asked al-Junayd.

"My sheikh is al-Junayd, though I have yet to set eyes on him," replied the man.

"Then how did you attain these powers?" asked the sheikh.

"Through my faith in my sheikh," replied the man.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"For just a moment, just a fleeting second, I have this thought as I stand scrunched on the overcrowded Tehran metro, hanging on with my nose in some guy’s armpit as it lurches into Mirdamad Station. The thought being, “what’s the point of any of this?” Thank God the train stops just then.

I walk along the platform, feeling pretty uninspired until about the fifth person bumps into me, then the juices started flowing and I get in the swing of things, cutting off an old lady right as she’s about to step onto the escalator. The edge of her chador is wet where she grips it between her teeth. Going up the escalator, I stare long and hard at some guy on the down escalator. He stares back. Why the hell do Iranians stare so much?  Is it genetic?.

I cross the footbridge over the highway and squeeze into the last seat on the taxi to Vanak. I always kick myself for not getting my money out before I get into a shared cab, but I never do manage to remember. I start digging around in my back pocket for the 2,000 rials I need to pay the driver. It takes a lot of careful squirming, because I’m wedged so damn tight between two other passengers. Even as careful as I am, a woman sitting next to me gets the idea I’m trying to play grab-ass and she somehow manages to retreat an additional fraction of a centimeter by exhaling the last of the oxygen in her body or something, because there sure wasn’t any room to move in that back seat. She gives me an irritated- as-hell glance and I smell onion on her breath.

The traffic is so bad that some of the passengers start to bail out before we get to Vanak Square, figuring they can walk there faster. I stick with it, intent on getting my 2,000 rial’s worth. Once I get out of the cab, the next choice is, do I hop in another crowded taxi or do I walk up Valiasr Street? Some nights I take a cab, but tonight it’s not so cold, so I walk.

These strange things have been installed on the sidewalk along Valiasr. I can’t really describe them. They have two narrow yellow treads and a handrail on either side, and they don’t seem to have any purpose, other than to make people walk around them. I stand near one of them and listen to two guys speculate about what they’re for. One guy says, “They’re for people to exercise.” They do have a kind of treadmill look to them, but there are no moving parts. Anyway, who’s going to stop in the middle of a busy city sidewalk and start exercising? And why? Just to make sure you breathe in the maximum amount of polluted air? The other guy doesn’t buy it, either. He has his own theory. “They’re to keep motorcycles off the sidewalk.” For God’s sake, I think, motorcyclists could go right around those things. Maybe they’re for pedestrians to take refuge from motorcycles on the sidewalks. That I could believe. Actually, though, up here in the north of the city motorcycles don’t go on the sidewalks. They only do it down where I live. Where life is cheaper, I suppose. I’ll bet not even the guys who installed these things with the yellow treads and handrails know what they’re for. That would be typical for Tehran. Somebody somewhere knows about them, but that person has long been out of the loop. He got fired or shipped off to Ahvaz. So here they sit and no one knows what to do with them. That’s so Tehran.

I make my way up Valiasr and on the sidewalk right in front of United Colors of Benetton, there’s a young guy selling DVDs of new, first-run movies: One Khomeini each. I’ve bought them from this guy before and they’re the real thing, not something someone shot with a video camera from the back of the theater. I just can’t figure out how it works. How does someone get their hands on a movie that’s still in theaters (not theaters in Iran, mind you, but some faraway place like the Great Satan), make illegal copies, and somehow get them into this country and to the man on the sidewalk? All for one Khomeini! I mean, there must be half a dozen middle men. Is each of them making about a rial a piece in the deal? This is the kind of economics that only makes sense here. Maybe the government subsidizes the price of illegally copied movies just to shut us up and keep us distracted from all the crap happening around here.

So finally I get to the coffeehouse and I know right away there’s something wrong. It looks too quiet. I go around the corner and see two green and white vans. A couple of policemen are there with a couple of women dressed like they’re on the way to the mosque or something. It’s Gasht Ershad and they’ve already ruined everyone’s night, hassling people about the way they’re dressed and about whether the person the opposite sex that they’re sitting with is a relative or a date. It’s mostly girls who get hassled for wearing high heeled boots, slathering on too much makeup, showing too much hair, etc. etc. We guys don’t have a lot to worry about unless we’re trying to imitate Kid Rock.

I stand around for a couple of minutes and I’m almost tempted to mouth off to the Gasht Ershad people. I’m that pissed off. But I’m not up for that much excitement. I got myself all the way up here just to sit in a coffeehouse and look at girls. That’s about all you can do around here for thrills. And even that’s been taken away from me tonight.

I start to trudge back down Valiasr toward the cabs that run to Mirdamad Station. On the way I stop at one of the mystery contraptions they’ve installed on the sidewalk. I put my hands on the rails and lift myself off the ground, my feet moving like crazy like I’m running in air. Running fast and going nowhere. That’s so Tehran."

Sunday, February 8, 2009


When I first met Davoud five years ago, he smiled little and laughed not at all. He was quite religious. He spoke disparagingly of women who were pushing the limits of Islamic dress and expressed unhesitating support for his government. Since then he finished college with a degree in economics and did his two years of military service.

Eight months ago Davoud moved to Tehran from his small hometown. The traffic in Tehran still makes him so nervous that I had to help him cross the street. We took a long walk the other evening, Davoud with his perfect posture, me slouching alongside. Now he drinks a little alcohol and he’s become somewhat critical of his government. Over dinner he announced that he has a girlfriend. “I think you never would have believed I have a girlfriend,” he told me. To prove it he called her on his cell phone and asked her to speak with me. I could hear her say “Chera!?” (“Why!?”). Afterward he explained that he chose her after assessing several girlfriend candidates using a spreadsheet and a rating system. She scored the most points. “What about what your heart tells you?” I asked him. “Oh yes,” he said,”I awarded points for that, too.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Occidentosis, A Plague From the West

“We now resemble an alien people, with unfamiliar customs, a culture with no roots in our land and no chance of blossoming here.“

“Occidentosis; A Plague from the West” (English translation, 1984, Mizan Press) by Jalal al-i Ahmad was written in the early 1960s. The book popularized the term ‘gharbzadagi’ or occidentosis, westoxication or west-struckness.

It still stands up as a riveting piece of writing; an angry and frustrated cry from under the wheel of Western colonialism that grabs the reader from the very first sentence:

“I speak of ‘occidentosis’ as of tuberculosis. But perhaps it more closely resembles an infestation of weevils. Have you seen how they attack wheat? From the inside. The bran remains intact, but it is just a shell…”

Al-i Ahmad rages against the machine – the yoke of Western technology that transformed Iran. In the West, the machine evolved over time. In Iran it appeared overnight. No time for society to consider it or adjust to it. No opportunity to reject it or accept it Iran’s own terms. –The machine is a means of production and a means of destruction.

It’s important to read this book in the context of its time. Iran had never been an occupied country in the strict sense, but for a century and a half western powers – at first Britain and Russia and eventually the United States and the Soviet Union exerted a profound influence over Iran. As military powers they manipulated Iran for their own strategic advantages. As economic powers they treated Iran’s as a market to be exploited and considered its natural and agricultural resources their own.

At first the reader wishes Al-i Ahmad’s book were a machine itself – something that we could reach into to squirt a little oil to smooth out an argument here, tighten a bolt to correct a wobbly fact there, or shift gears to jump beyond a belabored point elsewhere. Eventually we settle in for the ride as Al-i Ahmad rushes on.

He argues that the West rapes a country twice: ravishing it for its raw materials, then returning to the scene of the crime to sell goods made from those raw materials, mass produced and sold cheap enough to idle mills and spinning wheels and ruin indigenous trade and industry. (Al-i Ahmad acknowledges that this work can be dissipating, but argues that if it, instead of foreign goods and technology, were supported by the government, the local trades and workers could thrive).

The result of the invasion of the machine and the values it represents is a culture obliterated:

“We have been unable to preserve our own historicocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught. Rather, we have been routed. We have been unable to take a considered stand in the face of this contemporary monster. So long as we do not comprehend the real essence, basis, and philosophy of Western civilization, only aping the West outwardly and formally (by consuming its machines), we shall be like the ass going about in a lion’s skin…so long as we remain consumers, so long as we have not built the machine, we remain occidentotic. Our dilemma is that once we have built the machine, we will have become mechanotic, just like the West, crying out at the way technology and the machine have stampeded out of control.”

The machine’s siren’s song drew villagers to the cities to work a full day for what amounted to an hourly wage in the west:

“A primitive man, having come to the city and been enlisted into the service of the machine, for all his thickheadedness, languor, and fatalism, must respond to and keep pace with the machine. This bibliomancer with his pocketful of lucky gemstones and bellyful of votive soup must now deal with a machine that know nothing of fate and refuses to run smoother or brake faster in response to his monthly sacrifices of sheep. So when these monthly sacrifices prove ineffective and he keeps getting into accidents, he comes to the end of his tether and forgets everything, turning into a criminal, a complete cynic, or an outright opportunist.”

The Iranian Shah’s fascination with Western technology leads him to unquestioningly embrace all things foreign. Al-i Ahmad describes a haphazard educational system where the religious schools are mired in ossified teachings and the government schools mindlessly imitate the west or engage in discussions of ideas covered in the dust of centuries.

The contagion was spread by an army of advisors, consultants and academics conducting seminars and producing 5 year plans all designed to keep the patient alive but tethered to the machine. “We know what is best,” they said. And no one from the Shah to the worker questioned it. The West made a mirror, imprinted it with a Western image and held it up to Iran’s face. Iran’s cultural inferiority complex deepened.

Al-i Ahmad’s presents pre-revolutionary Iran as a place estranged from itself:

“Go flip through our half-dozen so-called heavy literary publications,” he writes. “ What news do you see of our part of the world? Of the east in the broadest terms? Of India, Japan, China? All you see is news of the Nobel Prize, of the new pope…the Cannes Film Festival…If we aren’t to call this occidentosis, what are we to call it?”

On the government’s half-hearted mimicking of the emancipation of women, he writes:

“Do women and men now have equal right in all matters? We have contented ourselves with tearing the veil from their faces and opening a number of schools to them. But then what? Nothing. We believe women cannot be judges, cannot serve as witnesses, and as for voting or serving in the Majlis, the whole idea is idiotic, since even men have no such right, really…so we really have given women only the right to parade themselves in public. We have drawn women, the preservers of tradition, family, and future generations, into vacuity, into the street…What of work, duty, social responsibility and character?...Unless the work of men and women and their services to society are equally valued and paid, unless, alongside men, women assume responsibility for administering a sector of society (other than the home…) unless material and spiritual equality is established between the sexes, we will have succeeded only in swelling an army of consumers of power and lipstick – the product of the West’s industries…”

Jalal al-i Ahmad seems to have ambivalent feelings about religion, but it’s clear he saw the role of the clerics as the guardians against the west and bemoaned their failure to serve as a rallying point and unifying opposing force . For those reasons, his condemnation of their impotence is bitter. They have “drawn into their cocoons of fanaticism and paralysis in the face of the West’s onslaught.”

He reserves special criticism for Iranian men who are educated in the West – concluding that whatever passion they developed for issues like democracy and freedom while overseas, they quickly lose it once they return to Iran.

No detail of Iranian life in the 1950s seems to escape Al-i Ahmad. For example, he writes, “marriage to a European or American is one of the most acute symptoms of occidentosis.” He claims that those who go abroad and return with foreign wives contribute to the crumbling of the family structure. They spend so much time dealing with the internal problems that these families create that they have no energy to contribute to society at large. To cure this problem he suggests only sending students to Japan or India.

Al-i Ahmad is not a luddite – he is not sounding retreat’s trumpet.

In his view, the solution is to replace fear and wonderment of the machine with mastery of it. Don’t be consumers of the machine, he exhorts, be the machine’s builders! Why is what seems so obvious so difficult to grasp, Al-i Ahmad wonders. Why is there such apathy? For this he doesn’t blame tradition or backwardness. Instead, he says, the apathy, “is the outcome of our confidence in the permanence of our oil resources and in the uninterrupted flow of the machines we buy with our oil money and credits.“

The East’s subservience to the West and to the machine has blinded it to its own finer qualities: its arts and spirituality. Ironically the West grew increasingly fascinated with these things even as the East ignored them.

Al-i Ahmad doesn’t spend much time on prescriptions for occidentosis, other than to call for an educational system that will turn out original thinkers. “Please don’t ask me to go into details,” he implores the reader, “this isn’t my line or the function of this book.”

Al-i Ahmad was not a philosopher or social scientist – he was a teacher and novelist. He was politically active in the 1940s and early 1950s – times which permitted such activity in Iran. He died in 1969; ten years before the revolution. Although it was circulated in various forms, “Occidentosis” was not published in full until 1978.

All may not be well in today’s Iran but one accomplishment of the revolution – born partly from the necessity created by sanctions – is the evolving mastery of the machine. The Supreme Leader exhorts Iran’s youth to pursue an education in engineering and other scientific fields. (Indeed, every other college student I meet in Iran is studying engineering. Unfortunately, as things are now in the country they may well end up driving a cab.) Iran purchases outside technology where it can, then improves it. Advances in technology like liquid fueled rockets are clear evidence of this.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Once as I walked through Golestan Palace in Tehran, I was attracted to a painting in a palace gallery. It showed a turbaned man sitting with a worn book in his hand, speaking to two veiled women. Although the painting is of a fortune teller, the man reminded me of my grandfather, a village doctor. I imagine him dressed in this way, dispensing medical advice to two women from his village.

The painting was by Kamal-ol-mulk, an Iranian artist born in the mid-1800s. My grandfather was also born in that time, in that place. I have sometimes imagined that my grandfather learned his medical skills at Dar al Funun – Iran’s first modern university, established in Tehran in 1851. Kamal-ol-Mulk studied there.

My grandfather could read and write – and only a small percentage of Iranians at that time possessed those skills.

The name Kamal-ol-mulk is an honorific. The artist’s given name was Mohammad-Khan Ghaffari. One day, the Pivot of the Universe, Nasir ad Din Shah, paid a visit to the school and one of Kamal-ol-mulk’s paintings caught his eye. The Shah installed the painter at his court.

Disillusioned with royalty, Kamal-ol-mulk became an ardent support of Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1906. He died in 1941.

He is considered one of Iran’s most famous painters. His admirers consider his work sublime; his detractors dismiss it as ordinary. In a book of his artwork which I purchased in Shiraz, it says “Although born in times of deceit, flattery, injustice, treachery and despotism, Kamal-ol-mulk was an utterly honest man. He was a patriot, a liberal intellectual and a man of honor who refused to sell his art for gold even in times of need.”

Never at ease with the intrigues of the court, later in life Kamal-ol-mulk retired to a rural estate. He lost one of his eyes in an accident and eventually came to see his desert retreat as a cage, rather than the place of solace he sought.

"Become placeless, for to change this place of water and clay
is but to move from one prison to another."

-Mirza Muhammad Ali Sa'ib of Esfahan

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Past is Prologue

Signing of the Treaty of Turkmanchai

He was a man of letters, a celebrated playwright whose involvement in an illegal dual had led to his exile from Moscow. Now he found himself beyond the hinterlands, in the service of the Tsar in Iran, “this gloomy kingdom where one learns nothing and, worse still, loses the very memory of what one knew.”

Alexander Griboyedov first arrived in Tehran in 1818, a few years after the Russo-Persian War ended in the Treaty of Gulistan in which Iran ceded territory to Russia. Russian power was in ascension after Tsar Alexander’s victory over Napoleon and triumphant march into Paris in the War of 1812.

With France subdued, the Russians sought to rival the British, whose global reach encompassed the ultimate prize: India. More than one Tsar had ruminated over how India could be pried from English hands. Iran was strategically vital to the Russians as a possible invasion route and to the British as a buffer against such an attack.

Persian power, meanwhile, had been on the wane since Nadir Shah’s own invasion of India in 1739. Only the glittering Peacock Throne seized in Delhi remained of those days of glory. Qajar rule in Iran was weak and decentralized.

During the Russo-Persian War, the Qajar king, Fath Ali Shah, had appealed for help to the British on the basis of a treaty between the two countries. But the British had been allies with Russia against Napoleon and the Persian request was denied.

Russia’s commander in the region, General Yermolov, reflected his nation’s feeling of superiority when he refused to remove his boots as he stood for an audience on the Shah’s Persian carpets. Where the Treaty of Gulistan was vague and concessions might be made to Persia, Yermolov made none. The man whose place it was to deal with Yermolov was Crown Prince Abbas Mirza – the son of Fath Ali Shah and the Governor of Azerbaijan.

Finally, in July of 1826, the Crown Prince, fed up with Yermolov’s demands, led a Persian attack on southwestern Georgia. The assault was short-lived and before long Russian troops gained the upper hand. Alarmed that he would lose even more of his land to the Russians, Fath Ali Shah again appealed for help to the British on the basis of yet another treaty that had been signed only a year earlier. For the second time in 22 years, they declined to come to Persia’s aid.

Eventually the Persian troops were routed, losing even more territory to the Russians.

Griboyedov was sent to negotiate the terms of a new treaty. When Abbas Mirza tried to reinstate the territorial terms of the Treaty of Gulistan, the Russian made it clear there would be no return to the previous borders. In addition, the Iranians would be forced to pay a substantial amount of money. The Iranians cajoled, pleaded and stalled but eventually were forced to sign the Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828.

As the Tsar’s representative Griboyodov negotiated the humiliating terms of Persia’s surrender. He returned to Tehran in January of 1829. It was the holy month of Muharram. Emotions were high and the nation’s pride was bruised. Then two sparks were struck which would inflame the people of Tehran.

First, a eunuch of the Shah, an Armenian in charge of the harem’s treasury, asked for and was granted protection at the Russian Embassy. The Russians placed a priority of the repatriation of those they considered subjects of the Tsar. They realized the delicacy of providing a haven for someone in so sensitive position in the Shah’s court, but attempts to convince him to return to his duties failed.

Moreover, two Armenian women who were wives of a Persian military commander were also brought to the embassy. It was claimed they, too, wanted to return to their homeland.

On the 29th of January 1829, the women were seen being escorted to the baths adjacent to the embassy. Under these circumstances, the bathing ritual was viewed by the mullahs as a prelude to the seduction and dishonoring of the women. As word spread, a crowd of several hundred, armed with clubs, swords and firearms, forced its way into the embassy - killing the eunuch and carrying away the women. The Russian soldiers protecting the compound were outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed. Breaking into the ambassador’s apartment, the mob killed Griboyedov. Hours later two bodies, the corpse of the eunuch and a body thought to be Griboyedov’s (it wasn’t), were dragged through the streets and bazaars to shouts of “make way for the Russian ambassador, on his way to visit the Shah.”*

Griboyedov’s body was returned to Russia. Writer Alexander Pushkin wrote of encountering the wagon bearing his old acquaintance's coffin as it returned home. Griboyedov was one of the first casualties of the Great Game.

In addition to territorial losses, the Treaty of Turchmanchai included a bitter pill known as ‘the capitulations’, which put foreign nationals beyond the reach of Persian courts and exempted imported goods from tariffs. It can be argued that the anti-foreign sentiments of the Iranian populace were born at this moment in history, and nurtured by events that followed - most notably the 1872 Reuter Concession and the tobacco concession of 1890.

While the players changed, the dynamics of the Great Game – and the Western powers’ manipulation of Iran - continued into modern times. Only in the last 30 years has Iran enjoyed independence from foreign meddling.

*These details are taken from the book “Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran” by Laurence Kelly.

Peter Hopkirk offers a fascinating history of the great powers in central Asia in
“The Great Game, The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

ظالم آن قومی که چشمان دوختند
زان سخنها عالمی را سوختند

Cruel are those whose eyes are sewn shut
And with their words incinerate the world

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Clarification of a Question

Why aren’t there more autobiographical books by Iranian men?

There’s certainly no shortage of women writing about the period leading up to and following the Islamic Revolution. To some degree, that makes sense: Women’s lives represent the paradoxes of modern Iran. But men, too, have stories to tell. “Tales of Two Cities, A Persian Memoir” (published in 1996) by Abbas Milani* is one of them

Born in Tehran in 1948, Milani was one of many who went overseas to college at the behest of the Shah’s government. Milani found himself in California in the turbulent
1960s where Black Panther Bobby Seale held forth in the college cafeteria. Milani became one of the legions of Iranian students who, safe in a foreign country, earnestly formed groups to breathlessly debate the most abstract elements of Marxist and Maoist philosophy and vent their anger toward the Shah’s regime back home. Some were courageously willing to die for the cause – and did. Milani admits he did not have that kind of commitment or courage.

When he returned to Iran in 1975, four years before the revolution, Milani found himself living a kind of double life. By day he was a college professor and a member of a select group of academics chosen to advise the queen on the country’s reforms. In the shadows he kept company with people who were involved in the underground struggle against the Shah. Eventually SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, shone a light in his dark corner and Milani was imprisoned and interrogated. His chilling description of his confinement is the book’s darkest chapter.

Recalling his first encounter with one especially fearsome inquisitor Milani writes, “In the past eighteen years rarely, has there been a day or night in which the memory of his threats, his punch and the fierce look in his eyes has not haunted me.”

Milani is most compelling when he reflects on the phenomenon of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose power was such that many claimed to see his visage on the moon that hung over Iran just before he returned from exile. Milani’s is an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Khomeini that admits not a glimmer of humanity. “For me,” Milani writes, “the most chilling early manifestation of his disregard for human existence was the Ayatollah’s response to criticism about summary trials and executions in the Islamic regime. In a tone bereft of any emotion, he maintained that those executed by revolutionary tribunals were of two kinds. Most were guilty, and thus had met their deserved end. A few might have been innocent and wrongfully executed. In such cases, God would in recompense send the deceased directly to heaven…”

The conclusion to Milani’s book is a meditation on living in exile in the U.S. (“Exile is where you don’t read the obituaries because your dead die elsewhere”).

Near the end, Milani gives his answer to my question. “Iran's past was dominated by forces that discourage individualization. As a child, of all the stigmas one could suffer, few were as biting as being called por-ru, literally meaning 'someone with too much of a face'...Memoirs are all but absent from the rich Iranian literary legacy. It is only in the last two decades that they have become common as a genre. In fact, when talking to Persian friends, I still refer this narrative as a collection of essays about modernity. I beat around the bush. The word ‘memoir’ makes me uncomfortable.”

*Milani is Director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and has written numerous books and articles on the revolution and modernity in Iran.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Visit Home

A friend has given me permission to post these reflections from a recent visit home to Tehran:

"What is this love/hate relationship with Tehran? Whenever I leave I count the days until my return!

Once again in my life I felt what it means to live in a politically unstable country, a country that may end up in a deadly war any day. As a result nothing is for sure, no long term plans can be made. It’s either fear of war or dread of an earthquake when you talk to people.

Tehran was, as usual, both magical and miserable. Its contradictions seemed greater than ever.

Driving on the Kordestan Highway, North of Tehran, there are two huge billboards almost across from each other: one with the likeness of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and a slogan about the Islamic Revolution - the other with George Clooney in an advertisement for Omega Watches.

Who could afford George Clooney’s watch when there is so much misery, in addition to the fear?

Even the life of the middle class is disastrous. I know a lady my age who once won the “best nurse of the year” award from Tehran’s biggest heart center. Besides her nursing work, she was also a personal assistant to my uncle’s old and sick wife. I met her again this year. Now she works full time for my uncle’s. She reluctantly retired from the hospital. When I asked why, I was told that for an early retirement, the government pays the retiree a one-time chunk of money (let’s say about $2000-3000). She needed the money, not for herself but for her brother. The brother had lost his sight in one eye during a surgery (recommended by the sister!). A few months later, he lost the other eye in a car accident and now he’s disabled. How unlucky one can be? He accuses his sister of mistreatment and expects her to provide for him. The sister has now sacrificed everything, including her career to support both her brother and his wife. She’s the same age as me: One day she went out from the front door and I from the back door!. And now I am sitting at a top American university , surrounded by talented, intelligent people. Unlike her, I have never been the best in anything.

The sad stories are never-ending. One day I visited my other uncle’s family. For years now, a cleaning lady has been helping them a few times a week. When we met this time, her face was white. I asked if she was OK. She told me she has a tumor in her uterus! I asked her why she is not in a hospital. I wondered what she was doing there, with a tumor in her body, making tens of dishes to be put in my uncle’s freezer. She told me in a very calm voice that she couldn’t afford having days off (and this reminded me of some American lives!). She said she had been hospitalized for heart surgery once and then for breast cancer. Here a biopsy takes not few hours but a few days in which one must be in the hospital. She did the biopsy once but they didn’t take enough samples! She had to redo the test but she refused to lose another paycheck. In my naive way, I begged her to do the biopsy. Finally my mom told me to shut up because I was scaring the poor woman.

In the middle of all the sad stories, my cousin’s son Siamak who was communicating with a European university about a PhD position, got an interview date. He’s a smart student, did his B.S. and Masters in Chemical Engineering in Tehran University and has articles published. It is wonderful to know that our students are still among the best in the Middle East and still attract western universities. Not being able to travel (he hasn’t done military service yet and can’t get a visa from anywhere!), the poor boy was kindly booked by the selection committee at the university for a Skype interview.

He paid tons of money to register for high speed internet in Tehran, just for the sake of the interview. He rehearsed with me. Two days before the interview as to take place the internet was suddenly disconnected – one a week after it was installed! Neither the telephone company nor the internet company could fix the problem. Siamak was upset. The conspiracy theorists in my family were convinced that the government keeps track of all internet communications and disables them when serious connections are being made with western institutions. Other more logical people including Siamak believed that Iranian companies buy advanced technology from the west but can’t manage to support it. Anyhow after lots of discussion we decided to tell the university selection committee the truth: “Sorry, we arranged for high speed internet but it doesn’t work and in the gigantic city of Tehran and there is no authority who can help us fix it. Could you please do the interview by speaker phone?"

We were lucky that the committee was compassionate (maybe they even pitied us). I was at Siamak’s when they called. Despite all the technical problems, the interview went well. When it came to personal questions they asked Siamak about his favorite pastime: The movies. “You wrote in your CV that you love movies, but are there cinemas in Tehran??!!” Siamak explained that as a matter of fact there are very nice cinemas in Tehran. But he was embarrassed by the question. I tried to cheer him up and told him after the internet problem , it isn’t very surprising that they misjudge facilities in Iran… We were happy when after couple of days the committee called and offered him the position!

I was so proud of him that without considering the rate of inflation (26%!), I asked my cousins out to dinner to celebrate! (A few days earlier I had heard about a silent sitting protest against inflation, in Keshavarz Boulevard after the Friday prayers. My aunt had seen it. I didn’t find any public announcements about it. We heard 15 people were arrested in Laleh Park).

We went to a fancy north Tehran restaurant that my cousins selected, and after seeing the menu, I was so embarrassed that everyone recognized panic signs all over my face. I tried to stay calm but I couldn’t. I went to the bathroom and counted and recounted my money! I am not sure how long I stayed in the bathroom, but I was sure that what I had with me was not enough to pay the dinner bill. To make a long story short, it was an awful dinner and I had to borrow money from Siamak, the guest of honor!

That night, the food price was not the only surprise in that restaurant. The openly gay/transgender waiter was even more amazing! He was so gay that I swear to God I have not seen such a beauty anywhere: Beautiful tanned face, carefully tweezed eyebrows, eyeliners, nicely dyed hair. and a chic outfit. How for God’s sake in a country where homosexuality carries the death penalty, this guy can be so openly gay?? And I wondered what else would I see in this fascinating, harsh, sad country if I stayed longer?

That night, after the dinner, we went for a walk in Saei Park in the Vali Asr Street. There were still a few animals left at the park. I imagine at some point this had been a family animal park with Shah bringing lots of animals there. I saw female Revolutionary Guards (Pasdars) walking around looking for men and women with improper clothing or hair style. Contrary to my teenage days, there was no panic in the air. Nobody cared. A man passed carrying a naked female manikin in each hand! What was he doing with them? Probably he was moving them from his clothing shop. I would love to see how lady Pasdars would react to that!

On small pieces of grass, families were sitting, laughing, and having picnics. My cousins asked me if I were sad leaving Iran the next day? I took a deep breath of the somewhat cleaner air of the park and said yes, I was always sad leaving Iran."