Tying-up loose ends
Aftabeh, democracy and terrorism
July 22, 2005
It is almost the end of July. I take inventory of a few loose
ends that I need to tie up before taking a break from writing during the month
of August. And so I beg your indulgence in stringing along a number of seemingly
un-related topics. But are they? Here are my thoughts about the glory of the
Persian language, as embodied in the words aftabeh and abrizgah, the fallacy
of democracy and Western delusions about wicked terrorism.
In the diaspora many cling still to ritual of the Aftabeh --
the tradition of ablution by that funny looking gooseneck contraption
innocently resting by the toilet. To many unsuspecting souls, it
is just an innocuous and out-of-place watering can. While the hyper-purist
among the faithful still own the heavy clunky metal model, most
manage with a plastic substitute. It is not uncommon to find in
some households an aftabeh with a short snout, sawed down in order
to minimize the danger of poking out one’s eye.
The other day, I was marveling once again at the beauty of the
Persian language and found evidence of that in the word “aftabeh” itself. “How
many among us,” I thought, “know the etymology of a
device that we have acquainted so intimately with our private places?” The
word “aftabeh” derived from the Old Persian “ap” for
water and its variants “ab,” “av” and “af” in
other forms. The word “tabeh” came from “tav” or “tab”,
meaning to throws forth or project. Therefore, as one can see,
the contraption that an Iranian holds so near to places where the
sun don’t shine has nothing to do with aftab (sun) after
The genius of the aftabeh is in its portability, a product most
suited to a population on the go! The Western civilization that
copied the concept of ablution by water from the Persians (who
else?) never got this aspect of it right. Quite literally, the
French translated aftabeh as jete d’eau and that is the word
that they use for all manner of fountains - including the miniaturized
one located in the center of the bidet -- which originally was
used by the French women to clean their privates before frolicking
with a male consort. Iranians who encountered the bidet in European
hotel bathrooms looked at it as an ingenious Western invention
to tickle and clean their bottom. Marhaba!
No thought or talk of aftabeh is complete without some reference
to the beauty of the associated Persian word abrizgah, a word meaning
literally the place where one throws or pours water - figuratively,
however, the term refers to a place for taking care of No. 1 and
No. 2. The abrizgah in my primary and high schools were holes in
the ground with two foot-places for squatting astride the hole.
The common Farsi word for abrizgah is mostarah, which really derives
from the Arabic “rahat,” meaning rest - hence the notion
of a rest room in the Western vernacular?!
When I was a kid I could not do my thing and get out of a public
abrizgah fast enough. A number of factors accounted for the reluctance
to linger. First the stench of the place made the experience unbearable.
Second, it was usually dark with flies buzzing around. Third, the
pressure on the squatting knees was crippling. Fourth, courtesy
required that one vacated the throne for another, especially if
the guy outside kept uttering “Ehem.” Fifth, there
was the innate fear that a snake will crawl out of the get you.
With the advent of the Western-style accommodation (amenity) one
has been reluctant to give up the throne so readily. The introduction
of the toilet or water closet into my culture is the work of Western
and Zionist imperialist toilet salesmen and the treasonous Iranian
architects who incorporated their ware into our private space.
Just like “aftabeh” has no relation to the word “aftab” --
democracy has no relation to good government, it only seems that
way. Lately, there is a lot of talk about spreading democracy in
the Middle East, as if it is some kind of jam. The President of
the United States is on the record as saying that the spreading
of liberty and freedom, presumably fair elections and market economy,
is the antidote to the appeal and spread of “terrorism.” Wrong!
The brand of democracy that Bush and his sidekick Rice espouse
tends to produce chaos and disintegration - Exhibits 1 & 2:
Iraq and Afghanistan. And long before the U.S. intervention in
these two countries, the “democratization” process
-- opening and restructuring, they called it -- claimed the Soviet
state, which “withered” as Engels had predicted would
come when nirvana and workers’ paradise was attained. What
the “transitional dictatorship of the proletariat” left
behind is a dismal, chaotic, corrupt, inefficient, and disintegrated
society called Russia. Bravo!
My lingering thoughts about the treacherous nature of democracy
and the imbecilic naïveté of the people who espouse
it as an article of faith took a nasty turn last weekend when I
was seated on the throne reading The New York Times Magazine (July
17, 2005). Usually on such occasions a copy of Iranian Studies
would do, but since I no longer subscribe to it, I read instead
about Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian-born “philosopher” and
human rights activist from Harvard University, who was invited
to Iran by some Iranian academic to lecture to a bunch of Iranian
students and “intellectuals” on democracy and human
rights. What I gleaned from his patronizing commentary was that
he had something for Iranian girls and that Iranian students are
bright. Apparently he was invited arguably in part because he is
a follower of the “philosopher” Berlin. “We are
Berliners,” he wrote of himself and his host. Please!
Contrary to the Madison Avenue merchandising of the concept,
democracy has nothing to do with good government. What the proponents
of “democracy” do not get is that democracy at best
is the means to good government, and that good government does
not depend necessarily on democracy. To paraphrase one of Ayatollah
Khomeini’s gem, if “economics befits donkeys” then “democracy
is an ass.” Democracy is mob rule with some lip service to
rules and often than not the rules are what the ruler says they
are, everywhere. As a process, maximal or minimal democracy is
capable of cruel results. Hitler, Sharon, Ahmadinejad, George W.
Bush and countless others are products of “democracy” in
action and none necessarily can claim to have advanced the cause
of good government.
That is so because the judgment of the “mob” that
is the bloodline of a democratic system is whimsical and faulty
-- the same “mob” that supported Mohammad Mossadeq
one day sat home the next when he was being arrested; the same “mob” that
welcomed the Shah back from Rome in 1953, saw him off in 1979.
The same “mob” that brought Khomeini to power will
one day propose an anti-thesis to the established order. The same
mob that elected William Clinton has produced George W. Bush. It
matters not one iota to the cause of good government if “mob” rule
is called democracy, monarchy, theocracy, republic, velayat-fagih,
or transitional (or not so transitional) dictatorship (of the proletariat
What the advocates of democracy need to understand is that democracy
is not a goal, it is at best the means to something else. That
something else should be good government and if it can be achieved
in absence of democracy so be it. If good government is the one
true objective of political thought and theory then the question
ought to be asked of the governed “What do you consider to
be good government?” If the majority of the governed choose
orange marmalade as their preferred jam, then Bush and Rice should
stop supposing that if the selection process were fair and open
the public could have had a chance to mark its preference for plum
jam, even if by a minority. Is it not in a democracy that one cares
little about the wishes of the minority?
Among the rituals that father dictated was to have my sister
and I learn French proverbs. Among the dozens that we learned one
summer two come to mind on this occasion. One adage said that the
gilded rein did not chance the nature of the donkey; another saying
meant that colors and tastes were so subjective that best not argue
about them. The same goes for democracy. Winston Churchill used
to say that democracy had a lot of faults, but it was the best
from of government one had. He was right as to the first part of
his observation, which made the veracity of the second part of
the statement a matter of subjective preference and national circumstance.
Democracy is as bad as all other forms. The best form of government,
if there ever can be one, is good government. The debate among
Iranians ought to be about “How one defines good government,
how one obtains it and how one keeps it?” “Is an enlightened
unelected governor necessarily worse than an elected imbecile?”
Just as “aftabeh” has nothing to do with “aftab” or
democracy with good government - terrorism has nothing to do with
terrorists’ dislike for the values and freedoms of the West.
The Western establishment media and opinion makers are fixated
on the psychology of suicide bombers, whereas the action of a suicide-bomber
is better understood in reference to sociology. A suicide bomber’s
ultimate act destroys himself and the other around him with whom
he may have no personal beef but who nonetheless are apart of the
world he seeks to destroy. Not unlike the hero who brought down
the temple even though he ended up being buried in the rubble.
The news of suicide-murders that make the pages of the newspapers
in our towns convey the same notion of ending it all, not just
the self. The murder-suicide model explains the actions of the
killer in reference to one of the three causes of murder-suicide
-- vengeance, anger or denial (if I cannot have it then nobody
should). The suicide-bomber’s mind -- be it a single individual
or an organization served by a theory - finds its own cause for
and sets about it as a deliberate and calculated project. There
is no psychosis here; it is self-help with extreme commitment.
Yet, the President of the United States and his buddies keep insisting
on an inaccurate motivation for the actions of suicide-bombers,
whom they call “terrorists” because they tend to look
at the effect of the act and not the impetus behind it.
Many reasons can motivate people to kill and destroy property.
Police and armies do it in the name of domestic and international
state interest. The Zionist underground -- Irgun -- did it against
the British in Palestine. In Nicaragua and Afghanistan the freedom-fighters
fought to overthrow the established order. In France partisans
killed and died to free their land of foreign invaders.
The Western media and politicians need to be debating “What
was so bad in the life of the murder-suicider to make the ultimate
Another monumental lack of perspective on the part of Bush and
Rice relates to the Iranian electoral scene. During the Iranian
presidential election last June much was made of the elections
being a joke because not everybody who wanted to run for president
got on the ballot. This was a correct statement, but it was not
entirely a fair criticism. Nowhere in the world anyone who wants
to get on the ballot gets on it without meeting certain requirements.
A good government would have a set of neutral criteria such as
a preset number of verifiable signatures and a filing fee in order
to qualify a candidate. In a bad government, the whimsy of a commission
sorts out the candidates even further according to its whimsy.
Or as the case was a few years ago in an unnamed “democracy” with
a bombastic self-righteous view of itself, a commission excluded
whimsically a third-party candidate from the presidential debates.
While the advocates of “democracy” often demand to
have “choices,” they need to appreciate that one cannot
hold as synonymous the choice required in the political arena with
the notion of variety demanded of a supermarket.
Bush and Rice are mistaken to think
that change of regime in Iran will bring “democracy.” There
is absolutely no evidence of this Winnie the Pooh wish. If anything,
quest for good government -- might on the other hand produce a
change in the regime. In order to minimize chaos and disintegration,
process of establishing good government in Iran must begin with
the government that one has. One place to start -- the Velayat-Fagih
and/or members of the Guardian Council should be directly elected
by the mob.
See you back here in September.
Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation
since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy
Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's
College of Arts and Sciences (BA),
Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston
College Law School (JD). He is the author of A
Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features