"This is a book about Iran and Iranians"
September 28, 2002
From the introduction to Afshin Molavi's Persian
Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran, (W.W Norton, 2002). Molavi has reported
on Iran for Reuters and the Washington Post. His articles have also
appeared in The Nation, Foreign Policy and Businessweek. He lives in
Washington, DC. The author welcomes email
correspondence from fellow iranian.com readers who, he says, "have
enlightened me over the past few years about the Iranian mosaic with their diversity
of viewpoints, literary talent and wide range of passions." He will donate a
proceed of sales to Iranian.com and several Iranian charities.
This is a book about Iran and Iranians. For a year,
through late 1999 and 2000, I traveled across this old and sophisticated and tormented
land to observe, listen, discuss, think, and write. I logged thousands miles and
visited more than twenty cities and villages. In all my travels, I had one simple
request of the thousands of Iranians encountered: "Tell me your story,"
I asked. And they did.
The stories were edifying, enlightening, maddening, exhilarating, tragic, triumphant,
sad, wonderful, and terrible. At times, I felt overwhelmed, submerged, almost drowning
in a sea of voices wanting to be heard. Often, the interview subjects contacted me.
"I hear you are a journalist and have come from America," one anonymous
telephone caller said. "Well, perhaps my own story may interest you."
These voices formed the heart of my narrative; Iran's colorful and tormented 2,600
year history formed the backbone. I began my journey with a pilgrimage to the tomb
of Cyrus the Great, the 6th century BC Persian king that founded the Persian Empire.
I ended the journey with two modern pilgrimages, to the shrine of Iran's war "martyrs",
the nearly 300,000 young men killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and to the Canadian
embassy in Damascus, Syria, site of the Iranian youth "visa pilgrimage",
an almost ritualized pattern of exit for young Iranians frustrated by the lack of
job opportunities and the Islamic Republic's restrictions on personal and social
The war martyrs shrine, located in a scraggly dirt plain on the Iraqi border, is
a haunting testament to a lost generation of Iranian youth. The visa pilgrimage shrine,
especially the brain drain of Iran's young professional elite, displayed vividly,
in Lenin's famous phrase, "a people voting with their feet."
In between, I visited the shrines of saints, poets, clerics, and fallen political
figures in an attempt to understand the Iranian history that so colors the present.
Understandably, the history presented in the following pages is not comprehensive.
A land with nearly 3,000 years of continuous history cannot be encapsulated in an
account of one traveler's journey.
Still, any attempt to understand today's Iran without
a look back at yesterday's is fruitless. In the following pages, I attempt to bring
you a flavor of that history, particularly those moments that hold some resonance
in today's Iran. Just as importantly, I also explore Iranian perceptions of their
own history, which animated a great deal of 20th century Iranian political discourse.
A recurring theme of modern Iranian politics has been an attempt to define Iranian
history to fit political agendas.
My journey was organized around a series of pilgrimages across the country, pilgrimages
of my own choosing. Iranians are frequent pilgrims, visiting shrines of saints, poets,
clerics, and even fallen heroes of politics or culture like Mohammad Mossadeq, the
late popular Prime Minister overthrown in a 1953 CIA-supported coup d'etat or Gholam
Reza Takhti, a champion wrestler buried in a Tehran cemetery.
Some of the pilgrimages I chose were obvious because of their religious and cultural
importance to all Iranians; others reflected a certain aspect of Iranian history
or culture that I felt important to explore. Terence O'Donnel, a perceptive American
who spent 14 years living on a farm in Iran in the 1950's and 60's, wrote this of
the Iranian pilgrimage (In 1980, amid the fury of the revolution's early days):
From all that I know of the Iranians, I believe that in time the fanaticism of
the revolution will pass. I can think of no better support for this than the nature
of the Iranian pilgrimage and the shrines which are its object. Iranians are much
prone to pilgrimage, for though they love the flesh, they love the spirit too --
perhaps not quite the contradiction that some in the West might think.
And they certainly have much opportunity for pilgrimage since Iran is covered
with shrines, everything from little wayside places to the great edifices in the
holy cities˝some of the latter among the most dazzling buildings in the East. Not
one of these thousands of shrines honors a soldier or a political figure. All are
dedicated to either saints or poets. In the end, these, rather than the bullhorns,
are the voices that Iranians heed and venerate.
I first began traveling to Iran as a journalist in 1997
to, in a sense, cover "the bullhorns" -- the politics and the public debate.
It was an exciting moment in Iran's history: a charismatic cleric calling for democracy,
the rule of law, and increased freedoms captivated the country. President Mohammad
Khatami -- who won overwhelming election victories in 1997 and 2001 -- was treated
like a rock star, his public appearances marked by cheering fans and banner-waving
Meanwhile, a new breed of Iranian journalist probed the politics of the land,
tackling subjects that were formerly taboo. Their pens blistered the still entrenched
ruling conservative clergy (to the delight of readers) and promoted heady ideas of
democracy, freedom, and civil society.
Iran's university campuses -- dormant since playing a critical role in the thundering
1979 revolution -- sprang alive once again, agitating for more social and political
freedoms, student protests becoming a familiar feature of campus life. In the protests,
many of the students wore pictures of Khatami on their chests as they waved their
newly beloved newspapers in the air. It seemed, for a moment, that the "bullhorns"
had become interesting.
Today, there is considerably less political excitement
in Iran. Those tantalizing days have given way to a more sober reality: Iran's anti-democratic
conservative ruling clerics -- the real holders of power -- are in little mood for
change. A series of effective conservative-led assaults on reformist supporters of
Khatami has left journalists in jail, newspapers shut down, Parliamentarians groping
to remain relevant, and Khatami's once shining star darkening.
As a journalist, I watched the politics closely. As a traveler and writer and student
of Iranian history, I followed the culture trail. Although politics has the capacity
to dominate the present, culture is a better guide for the future.
The history of Iran is full of failed political enterprises; its culture is far
more enduring. Indeed, the student of Iranian culture emerges with a different view
of the land than the student of politics. Often, he is more optimistic, hopeful.
After all, the student of culture can bask in the glories of an ancient civilization
that has produced some of the world's most gifted poets and thinkers, stunning architecture,
The student of politics has a more grim view. With rare exceptions,
he has seen short-sighted, venal, and brutal leaders. He has witnessed exploitative
and violent foreign power meddling. He has seen a colorful gallery of false messiahs,
rogues, pretenders and despots, with only short periods of respite from a generally
gloomy political picture.
In 1997, when I first began traveling to Iran as a journalist to write about the
politics, it became easily apparent to me that there was far more to the Iranian
universe than the reformist-conservative power struggle that captured world headlines.
Unfortunately, my three-week visits felt hurried, unsatisfying, somehow artificial.
Rushing from appointment to appointment, I had little time to linger over a cup of
tea, get lost in the twisting bazaars, develop meaningful relationships with new
I met many officials of the Islamic Republic, but I found my conversations with
taxi-drivers, the butcher, the baker, or the trader more interesting and, indeed,
more revealing. After each visit, I returned home to Washington or Dubai more perplexed
than before, grasping the politics, but failing to comprehend the seismic shifts
taking place in Iranian society, hints of which I culled from my conversations with
So, in the middle of 1999, I decided to leave a settled position with an international
news agency and head to Iran. It was a homecoming of sorts: I was born in Iran, but
moved to the United States at a young age, several years before the revolution. My
memories of the land were hazy -- soccer in the streets, saffron flavored ice cream,
a boy named Abdollah and his motorcycle rides.
As a university student, I traveled to other places:
Europe, East Asia, the Arab world. As a journalist, I covered Arab lands and sought
Arab truths for seven years -- in Riyadh, in Cairo, in Dubai. It was, I felt, time
for me to return to Iran, to experience the land of my ancestors, to tell an Iranian
story, to seek Iranian truths.
It was a moving experience for me personally, but the following pages are not devoted
to my own interior personal journey. They are devoted to a description, as best I
could represent, of the history of this old civilization, of the current Iranian
predicament, and, most of all, of the lives, fates, and hopes of Iranians I met along
Chapter I: Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Pasargad
-- The Sleeping Guardian of the Islamic Books
-- Notes on a Pilgrimage: Cyrus the Great
-- Currencies and Passports Aboard Iran Air Flight 76 to Shiraz
-- What is the name of this street?
-- Persepolis: Celebrations and Revolutions
-- The Zoroastrian Stamp
-- Colonial Markings
-- Ancient History and Green Cards
-- Pilgrimage to the tomb of Cyrus the Great
Chapter II: Mashad, Tous
-- The Imam and the Poet: an Introduction
-- Mr. Ghassemi's Funeral
-- Islam and the Iranian Accomodation
-- Mohammad's Melon Truck Tour
-- The Sunni/Shia Schism
-- Mourning and Miracles
-- Pilgrimage: Ferdowsi the Poet
-- Imam Ali or Rostam?
-- "Global Arrogance" and Green Cards at the Nader Shah Museum
-- Pilgrimage: Imam Reza Tomb
Chapter III: Tehran, Neishapour
-- The Politics of Personal Appearance
-- A "Blasphemous" Play
-- Dance Party
-- Campus Politics
-- Hard-liners and Green Cards
-- Elites and Masses
-- The Road to Neishapour
-- Notes on a Pilgrimage: Omar Khayyam the Poet
-- The Spice Men of the Bazaar
-- The Pilgrimage: Omar Khayyam
-- Mohsen the Student and Hassan the War Veteran
-- Martyrs Cemetery
Chapter IV: Tehran, Shiraz
-- The Silenced Satirist
-- Red Lines
-- Why a 14th century Poet Speaks So Eloquently to Contemporary Iranians
-- The Pilgrimage: the Tomb of Hafez the Poet
-- Mrs. Teimouri's wedding
-- The case of Akbar Ganji: journalist, pro-democracy advocate, prisoner
Chapter V: Tehran, Isfahan
-- Islam and Democracy
-- The Shi'atization of Iran
-- Sensual Isfahan
-- The Bazaar and the Mosque
-- The pilgrimage: Mulah Mohammad Bagher Majlisi and the rise of the Shia cleric
-- Mr. Mohseni the seminary student
Chapter VI: Tehran, Kashan, Tabriz
-- Winds of Reform: late 19th century
-- A Murder in Kashan
-- Tabriz Student Protests, 1999
-- Iran's Fight for a Constitution: 1905-11
-- An American Constitutionalist in Tabriz
-- "The Strangling of Persia": a Constitutional Requiem
-- The case of Ahmad Batebi
-- The Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Chapter VII: Tehran, Rey
-- My Tehran
-- "The International Congress on the Elucidation of the Islamic Revolution
and the Thoughts of Imam Khomeini"
-- Mr. Hashemi and the pro-Khomeini "oppressed"
-- Reza Shah: forgotten shrine, remembered king
-- The Khomeini rise
-- The Pilgrimage: the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini
Chapter VIII: Tehran, Ahvaz, Abadan, Khoramshahr, Shalamcheh
-- My friend Hossein
-- Hossein's war
-- The War in the South
-- War Miracles
-- The Pilgrimage: Martyrs Shrine
-- Abu Torabi and the prisoners of war
Chapter IX: Tehran, Damascus (Syria), Tehran
-- Storming the Gates with the Software Engineers
-- Children of the Revolution
-- Visas and billboards in Tehran and Damascus
-- "In Damascus, I Can Breathe"
-- The Canadian Embassy Visa Pilgrimage
-- Farewell Iran, for now
Early book reviews of Persian
Whither Iran, asks Washington-based Iranian journalist Molavi in this tour of
the country's past and present. Molavi, who lived in the US since his youth, returned
to Iran for a year of journeying through the provinces to gain a sense of what Iranians
were feeling about the course of the Islamic Republic. What he hopes to reveal here,
by considering Iran's current state of affairs in light of the country's past, is
just how complex a place it is, not at all like the one imagined by Iran's authority
figures, the conservative clerics, "who constantly demand black and white."
For Molavi, shades of gray are best exemplified by Iranian writers, from the chronicler
of Kings, Ferdowsi, on through Hafez's ambiguities (though his "seize the day"
attitude towards living holds particular resonance for contemporary Iranians, be
they devout or sensualists) to the satirist, parodist, and allegorists of today,
many of whom are in prison. Same as it ever was, might say those who remembered the
like treatment such writers received under the late Shah Pahlavi. But ambiguities
abound, sloshing over the "complex lines between private and public spaces in
Iranian society," between the behavior that is expected from an autocratic clerical
state and the desires of a population who have long been familiar with the greater
Molavi does well in explaining the fluid nature of Iranian politics, the obscure
opening and shutting of democratic opportunities, the rise of the reformist clergy,
and the evolution of youth who are "less idealistic than their parents generation,"
thirsty for choice and opportunity, grounded in the real- though that real must perforce
take its cue form a government under the control of an entrenched, conservative,
and quixotic clergy. A welcome and - in the best Iranian tradition -- subtly shaded
journey through a country that once commanded US attention and then seemed to drop
off the radar.
Journalist Molavi begins the chronicle of his year-long journey through a land
in perpetual turmoil by saying, "This is a book about Iran and Iranians."
In the midst of America's war on terrorism and as America is faced with the very
real possibility of a second war with Iraq, this is a timely read. Reflective and
at times deeply personal, Molavi, who was born in Iran and now lives in Washington,
D.C., poignantly reveals Iran and its history through the voices of the people he
interviewed, including merchants, students, feminists, traditionalists, children
and revolutionaries, as they speak on such subjects as poetry, campus politics, personal
appearance, democracy, religion, war and the West.
In addition to his descriptions of landmarks and monuments, Molavi makes comparisons
to other writings on Iran. He takes readers much further beyond the scope of magazine
and newspaper articles, leading them through his own discovery of his homeland. In
the end, he leaves Iran a conflicted man, weighed down by his new knowledge of the
people and himself. "Surely, it would not be the last time I visited Iran, but
somehow, I felt melancholy... Had I seen everything I needed to see? Had I talked
to enough people? What was this sense of loss I felt?" Not only a portrait of
a country and people, this is also a personal journey into a man's past and his future.