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.