Signs of life

By the looks of the brownish hillocks and buttes and the parched jagged mountains that flanked it, one hardly could believe that this place was only a few years earlier the site of the Winter Olympics. All the whiteness that was covering it now, in mid-October, was salt. I had come to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a conference dedicated to the examination of the issues confronting Central Asia and the Middle East, but my secret purpose for attending this assembly was to connect with the human geography of an area about which I had read some and understood little. After this academic pilgrimage, I continue to be ignorant still, but at least I now know why.

One cannot go to Salt Lake and not experience organized religion at some level — whether it is in the form of the Star of David set in glass in the upper portion of the window of side-entrance to the Mormon Assembly Hall, or the replica of Jerusalem in the North Visitor Center, or the relief of the martyred Smith Brothers, each no less holy to their faithful than are two other brothers beloved to the Shiites.

The parallel in the institution of polygamy among the Mormons and Moslems was all too obvious, but what emerged for me from a tat more thought was the way in which each practice influenced the architecture and structure of the family habitat. The segregated quarters of the different wives along a narrow corridor, and the large kitchen and dining area, usually in the basement, of what is now quaintly referred to as the polygamist houses, provided the Mormon household with the requisite amount of distance and proximity necessary for communal living. The notion of the inner sanctum and outer perimeter in the traditional Iranian households offered an interesting comparison across this cultural divide.

In Salt Lake one can have also mystical experiences of an unorganized sort, which comes from being at the mercy of the mountains and the inviting steep climb that connects them to the pedestrian life below. One afternoon, I took to the hills at the recommendation of a friend who, as if to give meaning to her Persian name which translated into “Libertine,” had freed up from a career in engineering in the cacophonous Los Angeles in order to pursue a degree in the field of communications in the quiet of Utah.

For some time I had been desperately stuck on the image of a desperately-stuck zipper of a parka in order to visualize or communicate my impression of the state of US-Iran relations — a zipper, which neither went down, nor came up and yet was holding together ever so briefly but stubbornly the two sides of the jacket, where some narrow common interest interlocked by happenstance. There was a way to fix this, I would say: either one could align and jam the uncooperative teeth of the zipper into each other, or one could tuck and pull the tab with great labor and force in one direction or another, or simply one could disconnect the mechanism and cock it anew — Begin from the start, as it where.

In the age of the elaborate buttoned-down cloak of the clerics in Tehran and the snappy Velcro mentality of the American policy-makers in Washington, no wonder why nobody seems to remember how a zipper operates anymore. The tying of shoe laces has slowly become an ancient art form.

From the heights, the valley below looked covered in a haze, an inversion that hurried to mind the images of a polluted Tehran and Los Angeles. In Salt Lake, as I learned, the coal-burning power company often added little something extra to the suffocation. In the off-hours, when the population was asleep, I was told by my cabby, it burned the cheap, smelly coal in order to save money.

Zipping along the horizon, my eyes caught the sight of two tall robust-looking hills, facing off, apart by a few miles, separated by a distance which seemed incapable of being bridged. I called one “US” and the other “Iran” and what followed was obvious — an ideal analogy to replace the tired zipper. These admittedly proud and distanced structures, whose summits stood so far apart, were nonetheless joined in the valley which they shared — in the area of their lowest common and only denominator, I thought, here was where the work of bridging US and Iran can go on.

The biology resident in the adverse climates and inhospitable topography is a marvel of existential experience and Salt Lake offered plenty of it. I heard about a man — an Iranian — who arrived there decades ago in the futile search of a missionary who had taught him English when in Iran. He stayed on, however, took a janitorial job at a university, studied, became an engineer, saved his money and bought year after year a little piece by a little piece of the desert, to a point where he became the most successful captain of industry in the field of nuclear waste disposal in the most scientifically advanced society in the world. To his detractors, he had not gone far — once a garbage collector, always a garbage collector. I, for one, celebrate not the heights scaled by him but the rise itself.

Saltair is a meaningful toponym — a few minutes of wandering along the barren and homeless shores of Salt Lake will leave one's lips with a strong measure of its significance. In this element, where only sailboats dare to ply — because the salty air damages any outdoor motor if left exposed for too long — I was told by a local, nothing lives but the brine shrimp, a tiny crustacean not fit for human consumption but excellent as chicken feed and food filler. Even in the most unlikely of places life thrives in its own way.

The hour was getting late and the breeze brought forth the echo of the message from my most hospitable and efficient host to report back to the conference center on the earlier side. I started down. If the climb up had been hard on the lungs, the descent was equally tasking of the thighs. The pain left the memory as my thoughts once again began swirling about in the cavity squeezed between my sweat-drenched throbbing temples.

Ahead of me lay an expanse of some dozen square yards of absolutely barren-looking slope covered with gravel and no sign of life, except for a large juicy spider negotiating the stones like in the pictures of the rover that flowed over the Martian landscape a few years ago. In a split of a second I caught glimpse of a two-to-three inch twig sticking out of the ground, sinuous and contorted, looking dry as a bone, with two or three tiny brownish-green springs passing for foliage. Like checking the identity of a lost puppy in the wilderness, I bent down and scrutinized the handwriting on the small tag dangling freely from this marvel: “native,” it read and who was I, an immigrant, to quarrel with that claim to priority and lineage.

I had finished marveling at the life that groped to survive when I heard a faint cooing sound as if it said there was no more here in the nothingness of the moment to impress. To the contrary, a white pigeon came out of the brush, bouncing about, rocking foot-to-foot, with its neck bobbing. It drew closer: my awe of it and its fear of me melded in the uniqueness of this hillside encounter, more for me than for it, though. Out of place, perhaps, but not inexplicable, I thought. It was probably a survivor or progeny of the hundreds of birds which were let out as a part of the Olympics ceremonies. It was not “native” but equally at home. I could relate.

With the picture of the pigeon still fresh in my mind, I reached the paved road and hurried to my lodging, where I received word about a post-conference get-along at a Turkish professor's home and a song-and-dance nightcap later at a Bosnian disco.

I washed away the clay dirt, suited up and met up with my newly-acquainted colleague — a gentleman-journalist of Tatar origin, who worked for a big broadcasting company. We walked across the Unity Bridge that connected the two sides of the university grounds, heading to our respective late-afternoon sessions. A staunch follower of the Ahmadiyyah branch of Islam, he spoke of the disservice that the closing of the gates of reasoning had inflicted on the progressive development of Islamic thought. One day, we fancied, we shall sail down the Volga River from Kazan back to Kazan in a tour of the Caspian Sea — where, too, much is dead or dying, but some life still persists.

The next day, I went back into the hills. In the morning, I went to the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine at Magna, the site of the deepest and widest man-made excavation. It is owned and operated by Kennecott, an American company, but all the cupreous trinkets in its small gift shop were made in China! That irony alone was worth all the gold and silver contained at the site, yet it also drove home the realization that globalization, which is being vilified by the rabid left in the industrial countries, could not be what it is without the participation of the cheap-labor exporting countries like China and others which by virtue of their “developing country” status get an ideological free-pass from sharing the blame for this rampant exploitation.

In the afternoon, I went back into the hills to take in the delicious offerings of a first rate botanical garden at Red Butte. There, in the meandering walkways of this little paradise, I took up where I had left off the day before with the resetting of the course of relations between my adopted land and birthland, to begin the bridging of the gap in the low valley — where the basic meet.

In the barren landscape of US-Iran relations, where mutual mistrust and disdain rule, it is utter folly to speak of peace models that are based on incremental and basic confidence building measures. In the fields of mistrust, one should be planting seeds that thrive on mistrust, where mistrust is not the bane but the fertilizer — much like the sprig in the Utahic saltland or the shrimp in the brine of the Salt Lake.

No aspect of human endeavor is as basic as maximizing one's self-interest and no interactive human venue offers the greatest possibility for that than the market place where buyers and sellers of goods and services strike mutually advantageous deals. The contract that memorializes the transaction is a sociological phenomenon in which people talk to one another from across the divides of mistrust and cunning, they negotiate, they agree and disagree and learn how to resolve their disputes by need; they learn to overcome doubt all in order to make a profit.

What if the United States lifted all its trade and investment restrictions with Iran, unilaterally without precondition, I thought. At first, the Iranian government will issue a series of gas-bag vituperative proclamations about self-reliance and having no need for the arrogant one's wares. But the tradesmen and financially savvy among the population will begin to stir when prospects of making a profit becomes clear.

The human contact being necessary to contract, the process will inevitably serve as a conduit for one-thousand-and-one other conversations which will spring. It had been like conversations in the 1950s and '60s which paved the way for the political changes in Iran in the 1970s. Naturally, nothing will be more conducive to the perpetuation of the current political situation in Iran than the American reluctance to lift its conversation-stopping self-imposed limitation on Iranian trade and investment.

The recent Iranian cooperation with the United Nations atomic agency demonstrated one undeniable fact about the moderating influence that trade and finance has on the Iranian decision-making process. The leverage which the EU-3 foreign ministers exercised in Tehran recently was due to the EU's trade and investment posture with respect to Iran: Iran purchases near-billions in goods and services from the EU-3 and other EU countries; neither they nor Iran can afford to see that stopped by some United Nations sanctions regime, which was threatened over Iran's nuclear disclosures.

The sanctions would have frozen also the near-billions which the Iranian officials and their dependents have on deposit or invested in real estate property and instruments around the world. Because the United States has no trade and investment leverage with Iran, Washington's only currency with Tehran remains force — and the use of force has been losing value fast in recent months both with the international community and many Americans as well. It is a folly and self-deluding to think that the Iranians buckled over the nuclear issue because of America's forceful stand.

In early November I found myself in Paris, the self-styled European capital of rampant anti-Americanism, where the Frank, who deplore Mr. Bush and his unilateral and illegal ways, find themselves in perfect agreement with the Arabs and Moslems amongst them, who blame the United States, rightfully, for pursuing an unbridled pro-Israeli foreign policy which has resulted in greater anti-Semitism worldwide and global terrorism. I, for one, believe peace will not be restored between the Moslems and Jews in the Middle East — and elsewhere — until Israel in made to withdraw to its pre-June 6, 1967, borders, the occupied territories are turned over to the Arab countries from which they were taken, and the question of the Palestinian statehood becomes an intra-Arab project.

When in Paris, I visit Jardin du Luxembourg because there is always something extraordinary that goes on there [See: Give this republic a chance]. On this particular afternoon, I emerged from the metro to be greeted by the scent of roasted chestnuts purveyed by a gypsy at the entrance to the park. Peeling and savoring the nuts, I walked halfway the outer circle of the park before turning right onto a long path to the Liberty tree. I have come to gauge the state of Franco-American relations on the basis of botany — and from what I perceived, the young oak, which was planted there in the name of the people of France in January 2002 in the memory of the ones perished in 9/11, the state of Franco-American relations continues to be robust and just fine. The tree, now devoid of its green cover, nonetheless, stood three feet taller and a full inch, if not more, thicker and healthier than the last time I visited it. As I dispersed the fallen leaves under my feet, I began to murmur to myself,

one day young,
soon to grow old;
one day green,
another time, gold;
clothed and next nude,
cold and needing food;
unbowing to the mighty wind,
yet swaying to the breeze;
hard to bend, mostly immovable,
then so easy to please;
but never without shade,
how can such friendship ever fade?

I regained the peripheral walkway where I had digressed and continued to enjoy the sight and sounds of the park. The massive statue that obstructed my path had not been there in my prior visits to the park. By the time I had finished admiring the effort that had gone into carving this huge block of wood, a tree, really, into an eye-pleasing sculpture I was assaulted by one sculpture after another in rapid succession — surrounded, I surrendered to the sensational artistry of the exhibition which validated the work of Coskun, a Turkish-born French sculptor.

Later that evening I took to the podium at the American University of Paris in order to share my views on “The US Foreign Policy in the Middle East” with the faculty, students and staff. It proved to be a wonderful evening of give-and-take, argument and discourse. Controversial, to be sure. I spoke about the sounds and sights of America's war in Iraq and the struggle against al-Qaedaism in terms of the echoes and reflections from this country's own past and long-forgotten episodes — and I gave the hope that we shall overcome all this too and everything will be fine once again.

I set aside as overworked and useless the comparison of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the sacking of District of Columbia during the War of 1812. To me, I explained to the audience, the sights and sounds of 9/11 were reminiscent of the explosion that rocked Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886, by which was ushered onto the American life the violence of the international Anarchist Movement, at its time a movement — not necessarily just an organization — as unapologetic and militant as the al-Qaedaism of today.

I also dismissed as disingenuous the comparison of America's war against Iraq with America's military participation in World War II against Germany and Japan, or in Vietnam. The war against Iraq was about as useless and unnecessary as the one that America had talked itself into in 1898 — the war against Spain. That war left the United States in charge of the Philippines, where the U.S. then lost 1,000 American lives before it could bring it to terms, pacify it, as it were. If there was any historical American lesson to be applied to Iraq it should be from the U.S. administration of the Philippines. Chief among them was to signal unambiguously its intention to remain in possession of the country as a colonial power and govern it as a colony until conditions for independence are met gradually, no kowtowing to the politically-correct notion of native wishes.

The way in which the industrialized West eventually stamped out violent Anarchism offered an apt model for the present-day struggle against al-Qaedaism. The governments which fought against Anarchism — from Russia to Latin America — viewed it as an international movement. While oppressive police measures at home succeeded in dismantling the organizational aspects of national anarchist cells, the war against Anarchism was won on the ideological or doctrinaire front. Many of the Anarchist slogans were espoused also by the Communists, Socialist and Labor Unionists, which showed that one could be anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist without resorting to mass killings and gratuitous violence. In the same manner, locally, later the Socialists and Liberal Democrats de-fanged the Communists in every country where Marxist-Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism dared to appear.

When it came to fighting al-Qaedaism, the United States has made the amateurish blunder of thinking that it is fighting an organization and the dismantling of it would suffice. In as recently as during his visit to London in November, President Bush wowed the international press corps with his grasp of American corporate structures when he likened the al-Qaeda to an entity and its leadership to a board of directors and officers, but he demonstrated profound ignorance about the morphology of international political movements.

As I queried my audience in Paris, where is the American administration's understanding of al-Qaeda as a movement and who is preparing the ideological antidote necessary to counter it? In his division of the world into an “us” versus “them” camps President Bush has deprived the American side of the natural alliance with the “near us” and the empathy of the “near them.” Whether he intended it or not, this is now a war between America and Islam, with militant Islam calling the shots for now.

There was a time when robust nationalist state ideologies — with a tolerable level of anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism — stood in the face of Communism. To combat al-Qaedaism, the United States should be seeking the alliance of the moral equals of yesteryear's national bourgeoisies in the Islamic world in the likes of the Shiite nationalists of Iran the Sunni nationalists of Malaysia and elsewhere. To be sure — these countries, regardless of their religion, by virtue of their nationalism alone are anti-American, anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist, but unlike al-Qaedaism which is bent on armed struggle, they are most capable of rational discourse. It is ultimately an American choice if it rather lose recruits to al-Qaedaism.

The author wishes to dedicate this essay to the memory of Kristopher Kolumbus, for whom a periplus was more than a narrative and a voyage greater than the distance traveled.


Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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