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."

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani

“Do not cut the head of religion except with the sword of religion” – Jamal ad-Din al Afghani

It's always fascinating to tease the threads of the past from ‘contemporary’ ideas. From Iran’s reformist Islamic thinkers of today like Abdul Karim Soroush and Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, we can draw a line to Ali Shariati, 40 years ago. If we follow it further, it will ultimately lead to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (born 1838/39) , the charismatic, indefatigable Iranian who packed several lifetimes into his nearly six decades on earth.

Jamal ad-Din was as creative a self-inventor as he was a thinker. His biography has always been a challenging tangle of facts and fabrication. A sayyed (descendant of the Prophet) who donned the black turban at the age of twelve, Jamal ad-Din rewrote his life story to serve whatever his needs were at the moment, so in Afghanistan he claimed to be from Istanbul, and in Istanbul he took the name 'Afghani', which concealed the fact he was Shia in a largely Sunni world. (Jamal ad-Din himself rejected the Sunni/Shia split, believing it was a tool used by kings to divide people.)

Although his place of birth is still contested, Keddie says, with some documentation, that he was from Iran. No place seems to have served as his home for long: “I am like a royal falcon for whom the wide arena of the world, for all its breadth, is too narrow for flight."

His anti-imperialist message (which at this time meant being largely anti-British) , was not, essentially, anti-Western. He recognized that the west had surpassed the Islamic world in teaching, science and reason and urged that its model be followed but in an Islamic context.

"My brothers: Open the eyes of perception, and look in order to learn a lesson. Arise from the sleep of neglect. Know that the Islamic people were the strongest in rank, the most valuable in worth. They were very high in intelligence, comprehension, and prudence. They faced up to the most difficult things with respect to work and endeavor. Later this people sank into ease and laziness..."

Jamal ad-Din doesn't blame Islam, the Prophet or the Quran for the plight of Muslims, but rather felt that the religion had been twisted into a tool of oppression by monarchs and a means of control by mullahs who hewed to a blind, narrow and flawed interpretation.

The meanings of the Quran are infinite, he argued, and encompass all of philosophy. He scolded clerics for spending their time immersed in trifling, “imaginary essences”, adding, “…you spend no thought on this question of great importance, incumbent on every intelligent man, which is: What is the cause of poverty, indigence, helplessness, and distress of the Muslims…”

Nikki Keddie's 1972 book, "Jamal ad-Din 'al-Afghani', A Political Biography" is the most comprehensive account we have of this fascinating figure whose intelligence, charisma and theatricality quickly won him followers and audiences with powerful figures wherever he went.

His ideas helped give rise to Arab nationalism, the pan-Islamic movement and, it could be argued ultimately, to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Yet a reading of Keddie's book reveals that 20th century Islamic thinkers who draw inspiration from Jamal ad-Din may be reading him selectively. In fact, Afghani comes across as the too unorthodox for most, animated both by a profound skepticism about religion and a conviction that Islam is the only means of uniting the people of the Muslim world in the face of western encroachment. In Keddie’s words, “It was Afghani’s genius to be able to adapt Islam to radically new needs and conditions and to introduce modern ideas without renouncing or breaking with those with a more traditional outlook.”

Afghani was never entirely successful. He had difficulty staying his tongue, and an uncanny knack for stepping beyond what his powerful patrons would countenance, turning them against him. He was expelled from India, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.

In Keddie’s portrayal, Afghani is a man in constant motion: In his writings and speeches he exhorted Muslims to resist taking refuge in traditionalism and arm themselves with knowledge in order to rise up against imperialism.

He was Zelig-like in his approach to those in power, claiming connections and influence where he had none, in order to gain audiences with state leaders – Yet his reputation as a speaker and writer was such that no one could be dismissive of him. He adapted his message to suit his audience. In Britain he spoke as a modernist, downplaying his anti-British tone. In the East, he spoke as an Islamist, railing against imperial England.

Afghani’s message also changed with time and circumstance. In his early travels in Muslim countries he emphasized nationalism over pan-Islamism. In fact, in India and Egypt he encouraged people to draw inspiration and strength from their pre-Islamic history.

His embrace of science and his liberal, rational approach to Islam as a means to independence from foreign powers appealed to intellectuals, his emphasis first on nationalism and, eventually, on pan-Islamism appealed to a more religious and conservative populous.

“After Jamal ad-Din,” Keddie writes, “the practice of reinterpretation of koranic texts by modernist intellectuals became very popular.”

But Afghani saw religion – any religion – as only a necessary stop along the way in man’s development: A way station between barbarism and enlightenment. Syrian writer Salim al-Anhuri who knew Afghani wrote that Jamal ad-Din had studied religion until he was no longer a believer, having concluded, "that the belief in an omniscient Prime Mover was a natural delusion that arose when man was in a primitive state of's intellection capacities progressed after that, however, until they reached the knowledge that all these [beliefs] are kinds of delusions and confused dreams, originating from man's fear of death and his desire for immortality."

There were many who thought Jamal ad-Dean an atheist or heretic, but Keddie concludes that while he took an evolutionary view of religion, he was not a non-believer: "There is evidence that Jamal ad-Din saw himself as something of an Islamic Luther, and was moved by a conviction that religious reform was the only way to introduce material reform and self-strengthening into the Islamic world.

After he left Iran as a young man Jamal ad-Din returned on two brief occasions and his appeal and reputation was such that here, as elsewhere, his visits attracted a circle of like-minded modernizers. It’s ironic that after all his exertions in India, Afghanistan and Egypt to mount an opposition to Britain, he would be most successful in Iran.

He tried at first to win favor with Nasir ad-Din Shah, who ruled Iran for the latter half of the 19th century. But Afghani’s anti-British fervor unnerved the Shah. In the early 1890s when Nasir ad-Din secretly granted the British government complete control of all Persian tobacco, Jamal ad-Din’s supporters in Iran, at his urging, circulated placards denouncing the Shah and making threats on his life.Jamal ad-Din stirred the pot, but the mullahs and merchants brought it to a boil and in early 1891 there were mass demonstrations throughout Iran.

Afghani wrote a famous and impassioned call to action addressed to a leading cleric who had been banished by the Shah to Iraq for his opposition to the tobacco concession: “…if thou wilt not arise to help this people, and wilt not unite them in purpose, and pluck them forth, by the power of the Holy Law, from the hands of this sinner, verily the realms of Islam will soon be under the control of foreigners…”

It was this mullah, Hajji Mirza Hasan Shirazi, who called for Iranians to boycott tobacco (“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Forgiving, today the use of tonbaku and tobacco in any form is reckoned as war against the Imam of the Age…” which led to the cancellation of the concession to the British.

Keddie writes that the tobacco movement was a decisive victory for Jamal ad-Din’s approach to resisting the west. It showed that reformers could recruit clerics to their cause and arouse the masses. Keddie adds, “Thus an alliance of ulama, merchants, modernizers, and the city populace had for the first time in modern Iranian history engaged in a coordinated movement that shook the foundations of the government and forced it to change course.”

Jamal ad-Din barely took the time to draw a breath from his fiery tirades against the British tobacco concession before he was off to England and pleading with the government there to help the oppressed Iranian people. He wrote feverishly, publishing articles denouncing Nasir ad-Din and composing letters to the ulama of Iran exhorting them to rise up and depose him. By now Jamal ad-Din was perhaps more interested in overthrowing the Shah than he was of ridding Iran of the British, and the Shah complained bitterly to the English that they should silence him.

On May 1, 1896 a follower of Jamal ad-Din shot and killed the Shah of Iran. Jamal ad-Din was to live less than a year longer.

Despite his exertions, it seems Jamal ad-Din was not optimistic that his views could prevail. He wrote, “Science, however beautiful it is, does not completely satisfy humanity, which thirsts for the ideal and which likes to exist in dark and distant regions which the philosophers and scholars can neither perceive nor explore.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

که اذانش را باد گفته باشد سر گلدسته سرو

“The Muezzin of wind sounds 
the call to prayer on the minaret of cypress.”

From The Sound of the Water's Footsteps by Sohrāb Sepehri

Saturday, June 7, 2008


“Whenever I have a lot of money, I have the overwhelming desire to go to a prostitute.”

We were sitting on a bench in a small park in Tehran. A moment earlier, I’d discreetly slipped Afshin a thick fold of bills. What I paid him for his services was a lot of money – about two months’ salary in his government job. Was he making a joke about visiting one of the city’s prostitutes, or just trying to shock me? There was nothing in his voice or his expression that gave me any clue.

For three weeks I’d been trying to make sense of Afshin. At 26 He embodied a fascinating blend of sincere religious sentiment, pride in his country’s pre-Islamic history, and enthusiasm about many things modern and relatively new to Iran – from shaking hands with women to text messaging. His knowledge of Tehran’s history and his ability to find glimpses here and there of 19th century Qajar-era architecture kindled in me an appreciation of a city that had, until then, seemed charmless.

I doubt that Afshin has ever visited a prostitute. After I paid him we went to an orphanage where he donated some of the money. He told me he was fulfilling a promise he’d made to God as a sort of penance for his recent divorce.

Afshin disapproves of his country’s leaders, but he admires their perseverance in the face of international pressure and sanctions. He boasts of the Iranian ingenuity that created the valiant little eggbeater of a car, the Paykan, which chug-a-lugs the country’s most precious natural resource like there’s no tomorrow. He's proud of their nuclear program, but he invariably refers to Iran as a Third World country.

He confides in me that he wants to visit Israel, the nation his government so bitterly denounces. He wants to read the forbidden book, The Satanic Verses, whose author was marked for death by Ayotollah Khomeini in a 1989 fatwa. I admire Afshin’s desire to see these things for himself and make up his own mind, but as a resident of the Islamic Republic of Iran, neither his travel nor his literary tastes will be easily satisfied.

When we leave the orphanage Afshin opens a fresh pack of French Gitanes, letting the cellophane wrapper flutter to the ground and I tap a tiny cigarette from my pack of Iranian Bahmans. As we stroll along the shaded sidewalks of Vali Asr Boulevard, Afshin casts appreciative glances at the young women we pass.

Flirting and romance are everywhere in Tehran - in the parks, streets, sidewalks and tea houses. In a culture and political system that discourages, sometimes forcefully, the mingling of unmarried young men and women, public courtship is carried on with a subtlety that can only be marveled at. A grazing touch carries the heat of a caress. A quick glance passes for a smoldering gaze.

Once Afshin made an admiring comment about the figure of Khanom Jamshidi, the friendly and efficient young woman who works at a government office we visited. Like all government employed women, Khanom Jamshidi dressed rather severely and I could only venture a guess as to the beauty or lack thereof beneath her shapeless manteau and the rusari that covered her hair and framed her pleasant face. I laughed at Afshin’s suggestion. “No,” he protested. “Believe me, one learns how to know these things!”

One evening we rode in a car across town with two young women acquaintances. Afshin made a point of squeezing into the passenger side front seat with one of the woman. For the duration of the ride he proceeded to flirt with her in a surprisingly profane way that belied his natural politeness and his sly charm. I had the impression that flirting in such an overt way was something unfamiliar and novel to him.

His neatly trimmed beard gives Afshin a rakish look. In Iran a beard is a statement. It marks a man as religious, conservative and likely a supporter of the government. The beard is a turn-off for secular minded women, who, naturally, make up the larger part of Afshin’s potential girlfriend pool. Yet he keeps it. I joke with him that he can kiss President Ahmadinejad, but he can’t kiss the girls on Vali Asr.

He did, in fact, kiss Iran’s president.

They met at a public ceremony of some sort. Afshin shook the president’s hand and asked if he could kiss him Middle Eastern style. As their cheeks brushed Afshin whispered a quick prayer in Ahmadinejad’s ear. Before he moved on, Ahmadinejad said to Afshin, “I hope we will meet again.”

Afshin has a girlfriend with whom he is intimate. Because he’s having sex outside of marriage he feels the need to square himself with his religion. To do this he avails himself of a unique aspect of Shia Islam called the sigeh, or temporary marriage. It’s essentially a contract between a man and a woman. It can last a day or many years and is entered into with a series of vows and a promised dowry from the man. Afshin gives his girlfriend a flower as a symbolic dowry. Typically their sigeh lasts for six months and they renew it by mutual agreement. The sigeh contract can include any conditions agreed upon by both parties. Afshin also gives his girlfriend 10 percent of his earnings.

Last year, Iran’s Interior Minister encouraged sigeh as a way for Iran’s young people to satisfy their physical needs because the cost of getting married is so prohibitive. I suspect he was talking strictly about a man’s physical needs. There’s still a premium placed on virginity and the double standard of many Iranian men is such that they’ll look for a more chaste woman when it’s time to get married. The institution of sigeh is also abused by some men who take advantage of impoverished women, essentially paying them for sex.

Sigeh is not common. When I tell Iranian friends about Afshin’s sigeh, they react disapprovingly. They say he's cynically invoking a religious justification in order to clear his conscience and satisfy his sexual needs. But Afshin is an observant Muslim in many other ways, too.

“This is where I was standing when the bullet hit.”

We were just inside one of the gates of University of Tehran, Afshin faced me and pressed his back against a stone pillar. “Here.” He indicated a place on the pillar just a few inches to once side of his temple. “It was a rubber bullet, but imagine!” he says, shivering as he recalls the incident.

I thought of what Afshin had told me about the student demonstrations he took part in here in 1999. Tear gas, billy clubs and rubber bullets. The students had barricaded themselves behind the rolled up carpets that thousands of prayer-goers knelt on every Friday. They had, Afshin said – lowering his voice as if to brace me for the shock - even burned posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Afshin had been 19 at the time. It’s hard to imagine that he would participate in anything of the kind today.

He introduced me to a friend who is a member of the morals police known as the Basij. This young man would have been among those who helped storm the university, beating students like Afshin, and ending the demonstrations.

The melodramatically polite language of Persian conversation, which seems so over-furnished and indirect to Westerners, spills over into Afshin’s English. He lavishes me with praise, and declares his undying friendship. Yet in spite of this effusiveness, his words always seemed measured. For all his warmth, there’s a guarded aspect to Afshin. Somewhere, beneath the excessive greetings and leave-takings, the ‘gorbanet shoma”s (I sacrifice for you) and other ritualistic courtesies of Iranian social and business intercourse, an individual’s true nature and intent lie obscured.

Thinking of his friendship with the Basij, his kiss on the cheek of Ahmadinejad, his student protest days, his secret sigeh, his beard, and his desire to visit Israel and read Rushdie’s banned book, I sensed in Afshin a chameleon. He's equipped with all the cleverness and instincts necessary to survive in a culture where advancement is a matter of who you know and how much you genuflect to authority - and there's always a feeling that someone might be watching, listening. I think of the words of the late Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou:

They smell your breath
lest you have said: I love you,
They smell your heart:
These are strange times, my dear.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Travels with Herodotus...and Kapuscinski

"The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it."

In his final book, "Travels With Herodotus", the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski ponders a life spent thumbing through "The Histories" while his work took him to Africa, Iran, India and China.

Both books are a reminder, especially to Westerners, that there is a world out there - and it has things to teach us.

Kapuscinski writes only briefly about his time in Iran probably because he devoted an earlier book to that experience. But Iran - Persia - is always in the background as Kapucinski considers Herodotus' chronicle of the war between the Greeks and the Persians and the nature of those two powers.

In Kapuscinski's view the Greeks prevailed because Greek life embodied a semblance of self determination and popular representation, unlike the all powerful monarchy of the Persian Empire (albeit an at times benevolent one under rulers like Cyrus the Great). His argument is essentially that a free people will prevail because they're motivated to fight for what they have:

"On one side from the East, comes an immense powerful steamroller, a blind force subject to the despotic will of a king-master, a king-god. On the other side sprawls the scattered, internally quarrelsome Greek world, rife with disputes and antagonisms, a world of tribes and independent cities without a common government to bind them..."

We are reminded by Herodotus and Kapuscinski, as we are time and again when we read everything from Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" of the lessons of history: That power corrupts not only those who wield it, but those who are subjected to it. Self-preservation and cynicism replaces citizenship. We have nothing to say in defense of anything, we are only against something. Our compassion is flickering, our desire for retribution abiding.

One passage in Kapuscinski chilled me as I read it. He was writing about the Third World. I was thinking about the world I live in:

"At any moment and for whatever reason, these people, to whom no one pays attention, whom no one needs, can form into a crowd, a throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything, and would like to participate in something, mean something.

All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. They don't even need to maintain an expensive army of full-time policemen. It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some significance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Personal Journey: Begin at the Beginning

“Little know the pampered children of the West – they who ride on the wings of steam, and slumber as they ride – of the pains and penalties which attend beyond the Hiddekel and the Araxes” - Edward Backhouse Eastwick, “Journal of a Diplomate’s Three Years’ Residence in Persia”, 1864

The village of my ancestors lies against the Zagros Mountains several hours drive west of Tehran. My cousin and I set out early, driving his Iranian made Peykan. Until production stopped in 2005, the Peykan or “arrow” was Iran’s national car. Designed on the 1960s British Hillman Hunter, it remained virtually unchanged for forty years. It was the brunt of many jokes (Question: What is found on the last 2 pages of every Paykan owner's manual? Answer: The bus schedule), but the little Peykan seems indestructible. It is the brave sheet metal gladiator of Tehran’s mosh pit streets. Dented, shorn of mirrors, windows stuck, doors sprung, the Peykan rolls on.

Despite its polluting and gas guzzling ways the Peykan is a source of pride for many Iranians - a symbol of Iran’s industrial self-sufficiency in the face of the long standing American embargo and the reluctance of other countries to invest in Iran’s economy.

We turn onto a divided highway heading east where, free of the crowded crawl of Tehran streets, drivers race to their destinations. Engines strain and whine over the rhythmic scraping and tapping of parts unaccustomed to the exertions of the open road. There are many broken down vehicles along the highway: a bus with its engine resting on the pavement behind it, a Peykan missing a tire, its wheel propped up with rocks scavenged from the roadside.

A reliable donkey and rider plod past them along the highway shoulder.

We reach the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, on the arid outskirts of Tehran. It's more impressive in its scale than its beauty. Four super-sized minarets and a series of blue tiled domes surround a dull gold central dome. Expansion of the shrine is ongoing and my cousin acidly points out that a group of old family mausoleums is being destroyed for the sake of the construction. Here there is none of the beauty of the old mosques of Isfahan and elsewhere. Even the ornate Quranic script that once decorated everyday objects from water pitchers to pen boxes is missing.

There is something barren about this place. Where is the garden with pale roses and the low hedges of lavender and rosemary? There are no cyprus trees with their slashes of shade. Where are the teahouses of the poets' tombs? How does a pilgrim take his rest? In keeping with the Khomeini’s aestheticism and severity, there is nothing in this desert spot to comfort the visitor – only reminders of life’s harshness, deprivations and suffering.

It's quiet on the day we visit. There are few pilgrims praying inside the cavernous hall where the tomb of Khomeini and his son are protected by an enclosure of criss-crossing bars. Supplicants rub their hands on the smooth metal and push money through the bars. My cousin exclaims under his breath when he sees the large pile of worn bills that has accumulated in a pile.

Outside, we walk past a row of shops. A young man sits quietly in one, gazing over counters displaying baseball-type cards and key chains that bear Khomeini's photograph.

There is no business today. The thin trickle of people who take the train from Tehran, to this, its last stop, are poor. They bring only prayers for relief and perhaps a one thousand rial note, worth less than 15 cents, to push through the bars.

The Imam's chilly visage stares down from framed portraits in shops and huge murals on the walls of buildings throughout Iran. Khomeini once remarked that the revolution was not about the price of watermelons – in other words not about anything as profane or worldly as economics. It seems ironic that his is the only face that adorns Iran’s currency. In 2005, when the government issued the first-ever 20,000 rial notes there was controversy because the portrait of Khomeini was thought to be too "soft". There is just a hint of benevolence to his expression. The bills were withdrawn. In the replacements, Khomeini's eyes are in shadow and the temples and creases of the elderly face are darkened to bring back the familiar look of admonishment.

Once in an orphanage in Tehran, I saw a poster of Khomeini, a grandchild on his knee and a smile on his face. It was a wonderful smile, especially for someone who must have had little practice. Apparently, though, it was reserved for grandchildren.

As we leave the tomb an old woman approaches the car and waves a smoking incense burner through the window. She is burning 'aspand' or rue to ward off the evil eye and earn small tips from passersby.

We drive on. There is green on the desert mountain from the spring rains.

In the midday, families stop to spread blankets at the edge of the road, enjoying lunch and tea, unbothered by the traffic that speeds by only a few feet away.

Along the highway a few red poppies bobbed among the weeds. I wonder if they're left over from a time when opium production was part of the agricultural economy.

From a distance the villages of Zagros foothills seem pressed from a mold. They look like collections of neatly arranged cubes the tawny color of the surrounding desert.

Closer, the beauty gives way to dust and poverty. The unfortunate villages that rest hard along the highway are there in service of it. Lines of dark, oily garages face the road, their maws cluttered with metal and machinery. Men sit in the debris, smoking cigarettes and waiting to go home to the small mud houses that hunch in the background, set against the panoramic backdrop of the desert mountains.

I pray that my ancestors village isn’t one of these places whose history seemed to begin with the arrival of the internal combustion engine. I’m hoping for something more...pastoral.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Visit with Poet Simin Behbahani

My Iranian friend was nervous. She had agreed to accompany me as a translator for my interview with Simin Behbahani, but now I suspect she was regretting her promise.

She was afraid there might be trouble if she were to go with a journalist to visit the well-known activist and poet. It was still early in my visit to Iran and the fear of running afoul of authorities that lurked like a low-grade fever on the brows of many of those I met had yet to rub off on me.

We brought a bouquet of rose-like lisianthus. They were in season in August and could be found in all the Tehran flower shops.

Behbahani’s son met us at the door and invited to take a seat in the ornately furnished apartment. One wall was covered with photos of the poet. They documented a lifetime as an artist and a voice for human rights. As I was looking at them, the poet herself appeared from an adjoining room. In her late 70s, Behbahani is still a handsome woman.

English translations of poems by Hafez, Rumi and Khayyam abound. But the giants of contemporary Iranian poetry, like Behbahani, Forookhzad and Shamlou remain largely unknown to non-Persian readers - with few English volumes available.

Perhaps it's because poetry doesn’t occupy the same lofty spot in other literary traditions that it does in Iranian literature. After all, few people make pilgrimages to the graves of American poets.

On an earlier trip to Iran I had visited Hafez’ tomb in Shiraz. It was a Thursday evening and the dome over the poet’s tomb at the center of a garden was lit in an emerald light. People streamed from the busy street to crowd under it.

A man knelt and rested his forehead on the tomb. People ran their fingers across the poet’s words inscribed in the stone. A young man opened a small volume of Hafez and began to sing. Onlookers lit sparklers and listened appreciatively.

Poetry is more than literature to Iranians. It is a record of Persian culture, philosophy, and history. Behbahani told me, “Basically our people's lives are mixed with literature. Even the poor and illiterate people are connected to poetry. Therefore, poetry can have a significant impact on society."

Behbahani's own work has had an impact. Within the sweep of her verses lie delicate metaphors and stark, chilling images, portraying the human toll of the hardships and realities of life in Iran. In the words of Farzaneh Milani, director of the women and gender studies program at the University of Virginia, and a translator of Behbehani’s work, "Simin Behbahani is really an historian, albeit the medium she uses is poetry. Take the last three decades of Iranian history. I sincerely doubt you will be able to find a more detailed, exquisitely written, judiciously depicted representation of everyday life in Iran."

Milani says one of Behbahani's great accomplishments is her revival of the traditional the quazal form of Persian poetry, which was, historically, a short lyrical love poem written by a man for a woman. Milani says the simple fact that Behbahani was a woman writing the quazal was significant:

”Bring me the palatte,
my beloved wants me green,
when he comes thus,
he will find me green,
from brain to skin.
Make me a pond
My beloved wants me cool;
what pleasure to wash this fire
from my soul.
What shall I say, If he doesn't care for my washed out colors,
even if this dove
is as articulate as a parrot?
What can I do, if he can't stand
my self-immolation,
even if he knows he is the cause
of my conflagration

O incredulous heart,
how quick is my pulse.
In my breast there is a turmoil again,
created by love.
Again my body is burning, hot.
Again my eyes are lit.
Again my heart is a garden.
Again this garden is paradise.

Love has come, I greet it.
It has come, defiant, and bold.
It has come with love-killing lateness,
the antidote.

Kill me or burn me:
Have I ever begrudged my life?
Whatever my friend commands
I will obey."*

But Behbahani wasn’t content to write love poems. “In her post-revolutionary Iran poems,” Milani says, “the country has become the beloved."

By adapting the ancient quazal form and writing about war, repression and poverty, Behbahani reinvented it, infusing it with modern themes. Behbahani herself talks about the change she brought to this traditional style as if it was an imperative in which she had no choice: "I don't want to have this pain, but I feel it anyway. As much as I want to get away from the pain, I can't. When I see the hunger, the misery, the dead, the war, it seems as if all these disasters are happening to me. With any poem that I have written, I have ripped a piece of my heart."

In the 1980s, one of Behbahani's students was killed in a government crackdown on Iranian dissidents. In "12 Fountains of Blood", she describes the dead student's body.

"On her shirt flowed the blood from twelve fountains of blood.
In the dust of madness laid her twin jasmine braids.
streams of blood ran down her body as if not from wounds.
her mouth was open, as if an angel had made her smile.
It was as if her clothes were not sprinkled by a tyrant’s lead,
but the sky had sprinkled starts in the cup of her body.
She who sat in my class, politely, for a year, has fallen.
She does not mind me anymore.
What would Ahriman want from an angel so pure?
His kiss and death have branded her breast,
even though the two buds there had not yet blossomed.
Who has the heart to surrender to a shroud
a body like porcelain, once accustomed to wearing silk?
Her presence will never again light up her father's eyes.
Brothers, what happened to her shirt in the thick of the night?

What was her sin? Tell me. It must be asked.
Don't keep it a secret, if you hear anything about it." (1985)

In the Diaspora that followed the revolution, many writers left Iran to write in freedom elsewhere. Although she had traveled many times outside her country, Behbahani always returns. She’s never considered living elsewhere. She told me that when she is away from Iran, “I always check my flight tickets at the end of the day to see when my return date is.” When I asked her why she hasn’t left, she answered, “Maybe others can continue their work abroad, but I cannot work only by listening to news. I have to be in the heart of the events.”

“You leave, I’ll stay. You leave, I’ll stay.
I swear, I cannot endure being separated from my homeland.
Til my last day you will hear in my bones
the same tale of the reed.
Though sparkles and light may fill the nights of exile,
they are of little use to me, since I am not happy in exile.
From the agitation of fire and molten metail
the sky above me is as turbulent as my mind.
When one must cover the light in a lamp,
I would rather extinguish the flame
than let my ears be pierced by the policeman's orders,
'lights out!' 'black out!'
Where will my heart escape,
if this house and its shade collapse on my head?
In these dark ruins we remain:
the children, the old people and I,
and our sad cares and thoughts of absent, brave warriors.
I will not forsake this unruly corner to beg for affection
in a land of self-serving calculation.
Even if this sky is dark and unsmiling,
it belongs to me and my fellow countrymen.
This canopy is not on loan.
Hoping for a better day,
I take one step, then another,
towards something I believe.
You leave, I'll stay." (1980)

Behbahani eschews political poetry as artless. “People don't like the political poetry; they don't want slogans in poetry. The poetry should be really an art and not politics.” Yet, her poetry is “political” in the sense that it deals with how outside forces affect the lives of people.

Under both kings and clerics, the Iranian censor’s pen has always been poised over the poet’s work. Like other artists, Behbahani has learned to express herself in spite of the constraints. “Under these restrictions, we always have to adapt ourselves to the circumstances, meaning that if we cannot speak openly, we speak in metaphors. During the previous regime, my poetry always involved metaphors.”

Oppression, poverty and human suffering know no season. In the Shah’s time, Behbahani wrote,

“O you who earn your bread
like morticians from the dead
don’t decorate your chest and shoulders
with their backbones.."

In the post-revolution crackdowns on dissidents and artists, Behbahani has spent only one night in jail. Many other writers haven't been so fortunate. Behbahani reasons, “Because of the persistence and the assertiveness that I've had in poetry, I have the feeling that nobody wants to dispute with me. They, to a large extent, try to avoid confrontation with me.”

Now the Internet gives Behbahani a freedom she's never known. She says, "Twenty six years ago, we didn't have the means to justify ourselves to the world. Today, if a word is said here, the whole world will hear it."

Behbahani has received numerous literary and human rights awards. In 1997, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Age hasn’t quieted her voice. She is a familiar presence at rallies and demonstrations in Iran.

Health problems and unsuccessful eye surgery have left Behbehani struggling to write. She showed me how she uses black markers to write in blocky letters on large sheets of paper.

Sitting in her Tehran apartment, Behbahani grants a request and with difficulty, reads a poem entitled "Necklace" about an Iranian mother mad with grief over the death of her son in the Iran-Iraq war.

"Anxious, agitated, sad
her face uncovered, her head unveiled,
not afraid of arrest or policeman,
oblivious to the order to cover and conceal herself
Her eyes two grapes plucked from their cluster,
squeezed by the times to fill a hundred barrels with blood,
mad, really mad, a stranger to herself and others,
oblivious to the world, beyond being awakened even by the deluge
a particle of dust adrift in the wind, without purpose or destination,
lost, speechless, bewildered, a corpse without a
carrying around her neck a necklace of curses and tears,
a pair of boots tied together belonging to a dead soldier.
I asked her: what does this mean?
She smiled: my son, poor child, sitting on my
shoulders, hasn't taken off his boots yet." (1988)

My friend translates the poem for me and when she finishes I see there are tears in her eyes.

Behbahani lowers her voice and says softly that with her eyesight failing, she's afraid her life's work may be at an end.

*translations are from "A Cup of Sin" (selected poems of Simin Behbahani, 1999, Syracuse University Press.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr

Even in condensed form, Louis Massignon's (1883-1962)description of the 10th century milieu that produced Al Husayn Ibn Mansur al Halla, known as Hallaj - 'the carder of consciences', is exhaustive and exhausting. But I was fascinated by this story of the man some regarded as a saint and others considered a heretic or madman.

Herbert Mason's "Hallaj - Mystic and Martyr" (1982, Princeton University Press)is an abridged English translation of French Islamologist Massignon's landmark four volume, 1500 page, five- decades-in-the-writing work "The Passion of al-Hallaj".

The book requires more interest about this period of Islamic history and more patience for long, abrupt departures from the narrative than many readers possess.

Massignon's prose is at turns ponderous and breathless. pass by in feverish half-page sentences littered with parenthetical and bracketed asides. Explanations about arcane and esoteric aspects of religious life mix with details of the Caliphate's annual budget. Over this backdrop Massignon's Hallaj moves like a bright comet.

For all it's scholarship, this is a very personal work. It was a verse attributed to Hallaj that first captivated Massignon: "Two moments of adoration suffice in love, but the preliminary ablution must be made in blood." It was Hallaj, Massignon contended, who helped guide him in his darkest hours, leading him from agnosticism to, of all things, Catholicism.

Hallaj was born in the Arabicized south of Iran at a time when Islam was still spilling across Asia. His grandfather, in fact, had been a Zoroastrian. He was drawn at a young age to the mystics and to 'the spiritual exile' of Sufism - which he would later abandon, "worn out by spiritual dryness and by the hypocritical fraternal correctness of those hermits who cultivate their perfection sealed off from reality."

After spending time in prayer and self denial in Mecca, Hallaj began to write and preach publicly, wandering and gaining followers. In each region he visited, he was called by a different name: "The aesthetic", "the nourisher", "the enraptured", "the dazed".

His travels took him through much of Iran, to India and into the Turkish areas where he is credited with helping to introduce Islam. He drew crowds by performing what many considered to be miracles (producing food out of thin air, increasing his physical size, etc). Apparently Hallaj made no claim to being a miracle worker. He said he performed his tricks in order to attract people to his message.

Hallaj's home was in Baghdad and Massignon creates a fascinating picture of the city teeming with the sacred and the profane: preachers holding forth in front of mosques and markets and vying for influential converts in high society, slave traders with troupes of performing women, "dream-like creatures, supposed to stimulate people's desire for aesthetic diversion...only to destroy through the lure of the feminine face..."

The rivalries of Islamic sects, the economic discontent of the masses and the political intrigues of the court combined to make Baghdad a city thrumming with tension. It was into this atmosphere that Hallaj stepped.

In Massignon's description, Hallaj preaches like a man possessed: "He cries out his joy at having reached, and having in his possession, 'the One who is at the heart of ecstasy'..."

Hallaj tears the veil of secrecy from the Sufi's lonely communion and shows the masses a man who has lost himself in God. What others preached as theory, Hallaj made real. He aroused awe and excitement among the displaced people who lived in the squalid margins of Baghdad life.

He interpreted Quranic verse and Islamic traditions in a way that puzzled some and infuriated others. Despite his denials, his followers believed he could raise the dead. His ecstatic behavior, was, to them, a sign that God spoke through him. He himself said, "Who is it but God who writes, since I am no more than the hand that serves him as an instrument?"

Hallah's most dramatic and famous proclamation was "Ana'l Haqq" - "I am the truth" (or "I am God") - a statement meant to express his oneness with the creator.

For his accusers this was enough to condemn him for "encroaching on the rights of God."

Religious leaders considered his popularity a threat and political leaders saw him as a catalyst for the people's discontent and a threat to the social order. Others withheld judgment: "What should I say about a man who in jurisprudence knows more than I do, and who in mysticism speaks a language I do not understand?"

As Reynolds Nicholson wrote in "Studies in Islamic Mysticism", Hallaj's crime was, "in actively asserting a truth which involves, religious, political and social anarchy."

Hallaj sought not adulation but condemnation and death at the hands of those who disagreed with him: "A man who is zealous for his religion is dearer to me, and dearer to God also, than a man who venerates a creature," he said. "What will you say to yourself...on the day when you see me hanging on the gibbet and killed and burned? Yet that will be the happiest day of my life."

Despite this claim, Hallaj fled when he was first ordered arrested. Later captured, he was imprisoned for eight years - but still allowed to write and receive followers.

Massigon describes how Hallaj's fate was decided in the "piestic riot" of his religious detractors and the political machinations of the Caliph's court. In a brief retrial, "this same aesthetic who had preached in vain that God must be loved first and foremost, that the holy war of the Law against idolatries must be waged against our own consciences, making us abandon all of our riches" was sentenced to death by lashing, dismemberment and decapitation and finally burning - his ashes scattered.

His execution in 922 AD was a public event accompanied by much interest and tumult. It's said he was led laughing to his death. Near the end he uttered the words: "Here I am now in the dwelling place of my desires."

There are two lives intertwined in this book: Hallaj and Massignon. After a half century of delving into his subject's story, Massignon wrote, "Not that the study of Hallaj's life yielded to me the secret of his heart. Rather, it is he who fathomed mine and who probes it still."

Friday, February 1, 2008

"In Iran everything is possible and everything is impossible."

-Woman in a restaurant

It's someone's job in Iran to go through every magazine sold here and black out offending photos. I looked through a copy of National Geographic the other day. A photo of a person standing naked in a wash basin with their back to the camera was covered in black magic marker. For some reason a photo on an earlier page featuring bare breasted women in body paint wasn't. A big sticker was placed over the cover photo of a yoga magazine to hide a woman who was wearing a bathing suit.

An Iranian friend of mine was arrested once for wearing a short sleeve shirt. He spent a night in jail. He was arrested twice more, both times for wearing bright colored shirts. The way he dressed was considered un-Islamic. That was many years ago. "Now change is happening so quickly in Iran," he told me, "The best man of today is the worst man of tomorrow." My friend is a very modern, enlightened person and he's not a devout Muslim, but when he weighs Iran's social or cultural changes, he views them through the prism of his religion.

My friend told me about something he witnessed just recently as he walked past a mosque in Shiraz. A young woman was standing on the sidewalk outside the mosque. She was wearing a tight manteau that revealed her figure, her scarf was worn back and her hair was exposed. A man came out of the mosque. He'd just finished praying. He said to the girl, "We will kill you."


One night I attended a concert of Persian classical music, Sufi spiritual music as it's described to me.

Several hundred people stand outside a central Tehran concert hall called Tawlareh Vahdat waiting for the performance to begin. The show is sold out. The people are beautifully dressed. Women with their long hair gathered under colorful scarves, their makeup accentuating their dark features. Some of the men have long hair and neatly trimmed beards. Others are wearing sharp sport coats. There is laughter and the murmur of happy conversation. People greet each other in the warm Iranian way; a handshake a slight bow, maybe a hand placed over a heart. Women shaking hands with men in public - that's something relatively new.

When the gates swing open, though, the men and women must separate. They aren't permitted to enter through the same gate. The women, for some reason, have their bags checked. My companion is concerned about the camera she carries in her bag, so I take it through the men's entrance. On the other side of the gate, only a few feet from where we'd been standing together before we entered, couples, families and friends reunite. The brief separation feels like an odd ritual from a past that no longer exists.

We walk under tall pines, past boxes planted with dusky lavender and into the concert hall where a domed ceiling rises high, glittering above the three-tiered balcony.

When the lights dim and the curtains open, there are twelve musicians and eight singers on stage. A man and a woman sit in the center. She is dressed in white. The musicians wear black. There is a small violin section on one side, and on the other side a group of soloists, including a violinist, an oud player, and a man playing a tar - a stringed instrument with a small body and long, slender neck. There are two men playing round flat drums called dafs. They hold them aloft in front of them and beat with their finger tips. The drums seem to float as they play.

The man and woman in the center are the lead singers. Women aren't permitted to perform solo in front of mixed audiences in Iran. The music is transcendent and cinematic. The instruments and voices rise and fall together, with long instrumentals - frenetic string work dissolves into meditative solos.

At the end of the concert the musicians and singers all take up dafs. Another group of daf players rises from the orchestra pit. The drumming fills the hall and you're transported. Here for a moment, with these amazing performers, there's a feeling of pleasure and happiness beyond trouble.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shariati - An Islamic Utopian

Ali Rahnema's excellent biography of Ali Shariati (An Islamic Utopian, 1998, I.B. Tauris) deftly portrays the fascinating and complex man who is often called the intellectual father of Iran's Islamic revolution.

Shariati grew up religious and poor. His political development began in Iran, but his time as a scholarship student in Paris helped to crystallize his world view. He condemned the excess and materialism of the west, but he also sensed that there were ideas in play that were absent in his own country. "I wish I had never come here and tasted the meaning of freedom," he wrote, "I should have stayed back there and read about it only in books."

Events in his own country, like the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and the 'westoxication' of Iran under the Shah also shaped his thinking.

It's clear from Rahnema's book that there was much spirited debate and political activity among Iranian students and intellectuals even under the Shah's repressive hand. Among those groups and individuals, Shariati was a religious star in a largely secular universe. His faith tended toward Sufi mysticism, seeking annihilation of self and union with God. Among his claims at one point in his life were visions and the ability to summon spirits. But Shariati eschewed the quietest style of Sufism for an activist approach that permitted him to express himself politically.

Shariati often seems not so much anti-western, as someone who wanted people to think for themselves - without uncritically accepting either the values of the west or those of Iran's religious hierarchy. He felt exiled between "the two barren deserts of mullahs and modernists." Shariati's deepest instincts were religious, but westerners influenced his philosophy and he creatively bent their ideas and those of Shi'ia Islam to fit his own beliefs. In the case of French Islamologist Jacques Berque, Shariati learned how the meaning of words can be adapted to reflect time and circumstance. Rahnema writes, "Berque had ignited something in Shariati. He [Shariati] took each commonly used term in the vocabulary of every Muslim and reinterpreted it until gentle lullabies became electric currents. Words and concepts resonating with resignation, fatalism and self-pity in the historical memory of Iranian Shi'i, were suddenly transformed into forceful and dynamic concepts for action."

Shariati achieved notoriety as an unorthodox and brilliant lecturer at Mashhad University, but it was in a series of lectures in Tehran at Hosseiniyeh Ershad that his vision of an Islamic Democracy came into focus. Initially he was convinced that no nation could be just, classless and free unless it's people were intellectually and politically mature. At one point he espoused an interim 'guided democracy', led by an enlightened and virtuous individual: an Imam chosen by religious leaders.

Rahnema tells us that Shariati's militancy grew in the early 1970s in response to the armed struggle of the Mojahadin in Iran. Shariati moved away from his belief that enlightenment of the people had to precede revolution. In his final lectures at Ershad, he maintained that 'a group of responsible intellectuals' or a 'conscious and alert individual' could accelerate the revolutionary process. He no longer believed that popular awareness must precede actions - he wanted to wield the message and the sword together. He still believed that a new government must be led by a deeply inspirational and religious figure, but now he contended that this person should be popularly elected.

Shariati's writings and lectures excoriated religious leaders as 'polytheists' and oppressors who legitimized the monarchy. At one point he wrote, "I feel more distant from them than from enlightened atheists." He saw them as adherents to what he termed "Safavid Shi'ism", subverting the religion of Imam Ali. In his view they had replaced the religious concepts of justice, protest and personal belief and interpretation with empty ritual, blind imitation and unquestioning subservience - rendering people resigned and harmless.

His lectures and writing elicited condemnation and alarm from the mullahs. (Interestingly Khomeini, at the time exiled in Iraq, refused to back his religious brethren in Iran. "I studied the cases referred to," he said in response to requests to read and condemn Shariati, "none of the reprobations or criticisms were valid.") Eventually some progressive members of the clergy came to Shariati's defense.

Shariati increasingly armed traditional religious concepts with revolutionary significance. It was the language of empowerment in a form all Iranians, even the least politically aware and engaged, could understand. For example, he used the traditional Islamic commandment to do good deeds to exhort people to political action. Shariati said that action, not longing and mourning was the proper religious response to Iranians' plight - and it was the only response that was true to the example and spirit of Imam Hossein's uprising at Karbala. It was, Rahnema writes, "the magic wand, awakening the dormant, subjugated and the unenlightened."

Rahnema tries to answer critics who accuse Shariati of lacking the courage of his convictions when brought before SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. In Rahnema's view the government saw Shariati as a religious figure and a helpful counter to the secular Marxist movement in Iran. Eventually it became clear that Shariati was calling for armed overthrow of the government and he was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months.

Afterward, in a series of controversial articles published in the government newspaper Kayhan, Shariati made critical revisions in some of his ideas. He retreated from his call for armed struggle. He returned to his belief that personal development and popular enlightenment, not resistance and struggle, were necessary to bring about change. He took up the cause of nationalism, which he had previously equated with Iran's dynastic rulers. For the first time he declared that a capitalist system was inevitable, but it must be tempered by a moral, Islamic system of government.

In Rahnema's view, whether Shariati's change of heart was due to a genuine evolution in his thinking (perhaps a product of 'conditions on the ground' and the deaths of close friends who had joined the Mojahedin and taken up arms against the government - or the closing of Ershad and his absence from it's charged atmosphere), or pressure and threats from the SAVAK, will never be known.

Interestingly the name of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei crops up a number of times in Rhanema's book. Khamenei was 6 years Shariti's junior. Both came from Mashad. Rhanema never gives us any details about the relationship between the two men, but they continued to see each other and it seems reasonable to think that Khamenei must have been in agreement with the basic tenets of Shariati's philosophy.

Shariati's death in England in 1977 was officially ruled a heart attack. Rhanema makes no mention of the theory that Shariati was murdered by SAVAK after he had slipped out of Iran. He died just over a year short of the beginning of Iran's Revolution. Rhanema doesn't dwell on how Shariati would view the Iran of today, simply writing that 'Shariati was a romantic, not a practitioner of revolutions'.

In an eloquent summary of his subject's life, Rhanema writes,in part, "Shariati was the unexpected rooster who took pride and pleasure in his own nocturnal crowing...He woke up the inquisitive, the inquisitors and the executioners..."