Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Paradox of Modern Iran




Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs To Differ
“This stylish, witty, and enlightening portrait of contemporary Iran brilliantly captures the too-often-misunderstood character of the people and their complex, paradoxical, and changing nation.” So says one of the book’s blurbs.

Hooman Majd introduces the book to us as a result of his personal experience. “In 2004 and 2005 I spent several weeks in Iran as a journalist, and in 2007 I spent almost two months in Tehran, working on what was to become the manuscript.” He, of course, has been in touch with whatever and whomever is marked “Iranian” to make sure he is as informative and as accurate and as objective as possible. In his book, and also a letter to his publisher (I have used the editor's copy of the book issued prior to its publication), he writes that his friends consider him 100% Iranian and 100% American which puts him in a unique position.

Being the son of a diplomat and the grandson of an enlightened ayatollah, Hooman seems pretty well connected to all sides, secular and religious, Western and Eastern, modern and traditional, all in one package. Knowing a little of his family, I’m sure that, if it would have been necessary or relevant, he could have pulled a few more social connections, in England for instance, in additions to one with president Khatami.

I liked the preface of the book. It was witty; it was concise; it was diverse; and all together interesting. But, either I was too taken by visualizing a young Iranian man, half aristocratic, standing at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, shouting until his voice was hoarse, the song of his liberation with his British accent, through an Islamic Revolution, or I missed the clue when his Jewish friend admired Ahmadinejad’s sincerity and patriotism. His encounter with the “Egyptian vendor in the vicinity of Ground Zero, full of admiration for Iran as the only country standing up for the Islam and Muslims, as well as the United States, which, by the way, is a dream land of his earthly opportunities,” did not alter what the title of the book suggested, that modern life is paradoxical and Iran is no exception.

Neither was I alarmed when, on page 12, he wrote on the subject of hijab:
“Let me tell you a story about hijab. ….Reza Shah made the chador for women and turban for man illegal in mid 1930s; he wanted, fascist as he was, to emulate turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, who not only had banned the fez and the veil but had even changed the Turkish script from Arabic to Latin, rendering the vast majority of Turks illiterate overnight to force his people into a modern, which he saw as European, would.”

“…during the early days of Islamic Revolution women were harassed and sometimes beaten and imprisoned for not wearing proper hijab, but the exact same things, for opposite reasons, occurred on the streets of Tehran less than fifty years earlier. In 1930s women had their chador forcibly removed from their heads…”

Was it my poor reflexes or the lack of a conspiratorial mind which did not allow me to go beyond the book's face value? When the author said,
“I refer to some of these failures whether they be the imprisonment of student protesters or feminist activities or the crackdown on civil liberties, but this book is not about the injustices of Iran’s political system or, more important, the sometimes outrageous abuses in that system which many courageous Iranians such as lawyers, journalists, and activists living in Iran, fight against every day. Rather, my hope is that this book, through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may ordinarily have the opportunity to see.”

I did believe him. It took me days to think why he omitted the mass executions, mass murders, chain murders, murder of prisoners, long jail sentences without any specific charges, from the list of these "failures"? Or why he used the word "failure" rather than "crime"? It took me even longer to think why talking about the hijab he has to bring about the names of two dictators (Reza Shah and Ataturk), twice repeating the word "fascist", and his choice of words such as"forcefully", "beaten", "rendering the population illiterate overnight"? (By the way, for Hooman’s information, it was by Ataturk’s forcefulness that the primary education became mandatory in Turkey, just as in Iran in Reza Shah’s time. Prior to that, the people were in fact illiterate. Illiteracy did not happen overnight with the change of script from Arabic to Latin. Indeed, the people were illiterate.) It was almost towards the end of the book that I figured out the answer to most of my bewilderment, though many remained still unanswered.

Hooman Majd is adamant that there is misunderstanding of Iran and Iranians which needs to be explained, and that he is uniquely qualified to do so. (These two words "understanding" and "misunderstanding" always send a shiver down my spine since the time President Carter tried to "understand" us.) Of course what needs to be understood is always the weird, antisocial, and irrational behavior of our beloved regime which does not translate to any social codes accepted by the international community.

He defined Iran as a “Muslim country, a Shia country and significantly a Persian country.” As Shiites, Iranians are marked with an inferiority complex, and are devoted to protect their rights (haqq). Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed by Yazid, has become the embodiment of haqq for Iranians and his death is still mourned by men and women in commemoration of his anniversary at Tashu`a and Ashura.

It is through the revival of this monumental wrong that Iranian will celebrate the Shia’s creed of crying for haqq. According to Majd, the understanding of this little word haqq is the key to understanding Iran's puzzles and paradoxes, from the emergence of the Islamic Revolution in the most secular nation in the region to the implementing the laws of the Sharia, designed for an uncivilized nation centuries ago, in the country which has a claim over to culture and civilization.
Majd argues further that even the nuclear issue is a misunderstanding of Iran’s obsession with its rights or haqq, the centerpiece of Shia dogma. For him, what appears as a confrontation with the international community is nothing but Shiism's pursuit of haqq and its persistence in not letting its rights to be violated.

The notion of pursuing haqq to the point of death, symbolized by Imam Hussein's martyrdom, is so embedded in Shiite Iran that it has become a model of conduct as well as part of the nation's language and thinking. Colloquial Iranian expressions such as “haqqam khordeh shodeh” (meaning ‘my rights are eaten’) and also khak bar sar kardan (meaning putting dust over the head) are taken as testimony.

However, his arguments are shorn of any merit. His examples of Ali the American who believes his rights had been taken away because he had not been born in the United States might be witty and humorous, but far from proving any point; and his example of dust and mud being heaped over the heads of the mourners in Tasu`a and Ashura suffers from misinterpretation of expression linked to it. The expression khak bar sar is used when some intense grief has befallen someone or when grief is wished upon someone against whom one has hard feelings. Placing mud or dust over the head is just a very old mourning sign, (it appears in the Hebrew Bible) and stems from a belief that soil-dust would cut off the emotional attachments one has towards a departed loved one. In burial sites, a pinch of dust is poured over the head of the mourners to relieve them. (The expression of khak bar sar indicates a wish for an intense grief as of a mourning for a dead one.)

I wish he would have clicked on Youtube for Shia’s mourning and seen for himself the kids, with drums and dafs and sometimes with other instruments doing raps for Imam Hussein, who do not appear to have any intention as of dying for anybody. They are simply participating in a ritual, nothing more and nothing less.

I do not know when and where this genre of writing became so fashionable among the Iranians. This is the second book (the first being Jasmine and Stars) of this nature in which the author tries to cherry pick the evidence to prove his/her point and ignore whatever does not suit his or her purposes, or to connect points without any causal relations between them, or reduce and minimize evidence to the contrary to almost null, or divert the real problem to a banality and then defend it, or, in short doing whatever makes an argument fallacious and delivering as if it is sound. I found Majd a smart, talented and educated enough to be able to avoid all these errors if he wanted so. But unfortunately he chose not to avoid them, if I dare say, quite intentionally and purposefully. Though it might be the political subject matter of these books that legitimizes the use of manipulations, or just that author's relying on and praying for the carelessness of the readers, or the book has different function unknown to me.

Hooman Majd, unfortunately, did not live in Iran long enough to notice that there is a vast majority, at least seventy percent of the people, who are only nominally Muslim. They are the vast majority of people who do not even perform their daily prayers (noticed by almost all journalists and observers who traveled to Iran.) He tries to maneuver his way in response to such obvious omissions by attributing them to the flexibility of prayer times in Shia Islam.

As a matter of fact, Iranians are notorious in being more lax in their religious rituals than any other Muslim nation in the world. “Do you mean there is prayer in this religion?” is a joke among Iraqi Shiites referring to this laxity. Had he stayed a few more years in Iran, not only would he not give that much weight to Iranian piety but he would have written his book differently.
The other enigma which has puzzled the world as well as many of us Iranians is the Islamic Republic's endurance despite its apparent extreme unpopularity owing to its abuse of its citizens' rights, returning to the Sharia (stoning, public lashing, execution without the trial), and setting the clock back at least to the nineteen century if not fourteen. Majd sees the magical factor in the perseverance of the Islamic Republic its ‘respect for privacy’!

Since the Islamic Revolution, the ruling clerics have been under attack both by foreign journalists and observers as well as Iranians for creating a double life for their citizens. Iranians were among the first to express their dissatisfaction over this dual existence, forcing them to tell lies to their children and behave differently in private than in public. Majd very cleverly turns the table around to the advantage of the Islamic Republic. He argues that Iranians were the first one who built walls around their gardens so they could separate the outside from their private domains.

Through a labyrinth of name changing to indoor gardens to paradise, Iran to Persia, Reza Shah's fascism, to Hitler's Third Reich and many more, he concludes that it is only in this private domain and inside this wall that Iranians need to be free and that the Islamic Republic is clever enough to respect this wall around the privacy of people and does not cross it as the Shah had. (I do not know why I have such an urge to say Jall al-Khaleq!) Numerous example are given from the parties in resorts of Shemshak’s ski ramps to those of northern Tehran, where people are free to have booze, music and dance, where people can express their ideas freely to each other without being worried that they are being spied on. Even president Khatami and Ambassador Javad Zarif and some other ambassadors (no names given, just in the case!) could sit in Zarif’s apartment and laugh at the fanaticism of those mullahs in Iran without being worried that anybody would spy on them while all these are taking place in their respected privacy! (another Jall al-Khaleq!)

Missing in this book is Iranian humanity. Majd’s view of Iran is devoid of any humanity, as if the country is populated by robots that just perform the way they are programmed to work. Two days holidays in a calendar, for centuries, would create a whole dictionary of meanings and associations around it which sometimes has nothing to do with the original intent of the holiday. Tasu`a and Ashoura are no exceptions. They are mixed with fourteen centuries of millions of people practicing it, adding to it bits of their compassion and modifying it to fit into their sensibilities and the surrounding norms. (I’m surprised he did not refer to the celebration of this occasion in New York City.)

Today, the ritual is simply a commemoration of a religious rite like any other rites observed and celebrated by other religions. Easter, Shavuos, Simchas Torah, Lag B'Omer, and various Saints Days such as St. Patrick’s Day and St. Francis' Day are just a few that brings people together in commemoration of a cause and ideas attached to each, and with people things does not stay static, never!

Shocking, however, is the degree of detachment that author exhibits not only from Iranian culture but from the people. Among dozens of books written on Iran, this book was unique as how the author perceive himself as a breed apart and how unimpressed he was by the life around him. I recall reading books, even highly critical of the regime or even the people, mostly by journalists yet one still felt how at one the author was with the people, if only for a time.

I recall reading books in which at least once or twice the author refers to the Iranian people's humanity which surpasses all mundane calculations, where the author bends his/her self to the love, compassion and humanity of the Iranians which goes way beyond political necessity or social pretence, when the author sees people with souls within them that sometimes react freely without any attention to what is required of them. I recall time and again reading simple pages of these books and being touched. Oddly enough, there was none of this in Majd’s book. Iranians in this book were a bunch of Islamic rational beings who responded to life exactly as the ayatollahs expected them to do, and as is convenient for Majd to summarize them.

However, my objections all lose their validity if we look at the book from a different angle, if we see it as a cover resume in an application for a position as consultant to the State Department or a liaison between the Islamic Republic and the United States. Majd, with his grandiose invitation, “Give it to me whatever mess you have, I’ll fix it the way you can not believe it was any mess at all,” pictures himself as magician who can put his hands in a hat and bring pulling out doves of peace. And, gee, he is a magician. In some 265 pages there is not a single mess, horror, shortcoming, abuse or mismanagement which is not somehow justified, evaded, or dismissed deftly. Well, hats off man, hats off!

Dear reader, I still recommend the book, though I call your attention to the usage of every anecdote. And I beg your opinion as if I’m wrong or somehow hyper-sensitive.
To those of my readers who are not very patient, I recommend they not miss the last two chapters of the book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and Fear of Black Turban. And be patient, be patient. It is just a book, just one person’s ideas. It is about just one person looking through a looking glass sorting out the jumble of masses entangled together and trying to put them into some order. It just happens that he looks for legitimacy and stability of a very shaky and illegitimate system which has nothing to do with us Iranians, as we know ourselves. The good news is that he is not the only one with a looking glass. We each have one too.