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 all.
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. Thanks!
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 or elite).
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 acting 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 sacrifice?”
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, democracy — quest for good government — might on the other hand produce a change in the regime. In order to minimize chaos and disintegration, the 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.
About Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk (trapworks.com). 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 in iranian.com