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.