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