The following is the first excerpt from Afshin Molavi’s updated paperback, the Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom, first published in late 2002 under the title Persian Pilgrimages: A Nation's Journey to Freedom [excerpt: “Pilgrim“]. The book was nominated for the Thomas Cook literary travel book of the year and hailed by Foreign Affairs as “a brilliant tableau of today’s Iran.” It hits stores this month. For more on the book see: SoulOfIran.com.
In these pages, you will hear the voices of a wide cross-section of Iranians. In my search for Iranian truths, I learned quickly that reality depends a great deal on where you stand. So I stood in many different places: with war veterans, partying teenagers, clerics, merchants, the urban poor, middle-class professionals, young and old and middle-aged, religious and secular, conservative and reformist, democratic and antidemocratic. I stood with them in bread lines, in visa lines outside foreign embassies, in mosques, in universities, in student demonstrations, in hundreds of daily interactions that never make it to the news pages.
The foreign correspondent leaves too much in his notebook because it doesn’t fit neatly into a news story. I tried to offer here a full flavor of my notebooks, of Iranian life, of Iranian dreams, and Iranian truths. When I first envisioned this book, I wanted to write of broad themes of Iranian culture and history through travel. I felt there was far more to the Iranian universe than the politics that grabbed world headlines — revolution, hostages, terrorism, the reformist-conservative power struggle.
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 from that of the student of politics. Often he is more optimistic, more 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, and exquisite art.
Surely, such a formidable culture can weather the storms of politics, the culture scholar says. The student of politics has a more grim view. With rare exceptions, he has seen shortsighted, venal, and brutal leaders. He has witnessed exploitative and violent meddling by foreign powers. He has seen a colorful gallery of false messiahs, rogues, pretenders, and despots, with only short respites from a generally gloomy political picture.
But a funny thing happened on the way to writing a travel book focusing on culture: I wrote a political travelogue. Yes, I probed Persian poetry and explored ancient Iranian history and grappled with eternal Iranian truths, but in the end, my travels coalesced broadly around one theme: freedom. From the eighth- to tenth-century Iranians who resisted Arabization of their culture by Arab-Islamic invaders to Persia’s great medieval poets who chafed under the censor’s pen, to the twentieth-century struggle to rid Iran of colonial meddlers and the last century’s quest for representative government, the soul of Iran has revolved around a struggle for freedom that continues today.
When my publisher asked me to change my title (the book was originally published as Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran) for the paperback to reflect this reality, I resisted at first. After all, books are like children to their authors. Imagine asking a father to change his child’s name? And yet, when I sat down and reread the work, when I punched out the new material on my keyboard, I was astonished at how often the issue of freedom infused the themes of my travel, of Iranian history, of twenty-first century Iran. Freedom from bad rulers, foreign invaders, and stifling traditions. Economic freedom, social freedom, political freedom.
The term in Persian for freedom, azadi, has a mystical ring to it. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has sought to co-opt the word. The main square in Tehran near the airport, once named after the Shah, is now called Azadi Square. An early protest slogan against the Shah: Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhurieyeh Eslami (Independence, Freedom, an Islamic Republic) has “delivered” on two of three, but that elusive azadi remains unachieved.
In one way or another, Iranians have been engaged in a freedom struggle dating back to their earliest history, twenty-five hundred years ago when King Cyrus emerged to free Persians from Babylonian rule — and to free many other peoples, including the Jews, whom he instructed to rebuild their temple. Cyrus’s tolerant rule was altogether new for the ancient world, stitching together a vast, eclectic empire. Cyrus protected fallen leaders, issued a human rights charter, and displayed an extraordinarily progressive respect for other faiths. The cultural cosmopolitanism of the Persian Empire led the nineteenth-century German philosopher Hegel to describe Persians as “the world’s first historic people.”
Iran’s modern quest for freedom began in the nineteenth century when a group of intellectuals, reformist royalists, and bureaucrats, alarmed by British and Russian encroachment and frustrated by royal neglect, first flirted with Enlightenment ideas. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that movement struck upon a powerful idea: a written constitution and a representative parliament would ensure Iranians the dignity and prosperity they deserve. The Constitutionalists, as they came to be known, put up a gallant struggle but, ultimately, faced defeat at the hands of royalists, hard-line clergy, and British and Russian colonialists.
In 1951, the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq rose, fist pumping the air, proclaiming another chapter in Iranian freedom by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, booting out the powerful British, who had treated Iran like a wayside gas station. His movement — popular, indigenous, and secular — was precisely the kind of movement that the Bush administration seeks today.
But those were different times, and a Third World leader who challenged the West could be unfairly branded a Communist, as Mossadeq was. The Cold War had just heated up and the Central Intelligence Agency stepped in, plotting with their MI6 partners and sympathetic Iranians a coup d’etat to overthrow the wily, nationalist prime minister and resuscitate the young Shah. They proved “successful,” overthrowing a popular democrat, and sowing the seeds of anti-Americanism that bore bitter fruit in 1979 with Iran’s thundering revolution.
This book is a chronicle of an important moment in Iran’s quest for freedom. In these pages, I tried to remain neutral, dispassionate, and objective, but it wasn’t easy. After all, I want Iranians to succeed. I hope to see, in my lifetime, a genuinely democratic Iran that guarantees the political, social, and economic dignity of all Iranians. Despite recent setbacks, I’m bullish on Iran’s future. I’ve met too many bright, young, and democratic-minded Iranians to be pessimistic. In their eyes, I’ve seen the future of Iran.
But I’m not naive. I’ve also seen up close the eyes of violence and reaction: hard-liners who want to force the chick back into the egg, government agents who intimidate journalists, judges who sentence writers and professors to death, thugs who beat prodemocracy students. Authoritarian states rarely go quietly, and the Islamic Republic will be no exception.
This journey into the soul of Iran 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 had traveled to other places: Europe, East Asia, the Arab world. As a journalist I had covered Arab lands and sought Arab truths for several years: in Riyadh, in Cairo, in Dubai. It was, I thought, 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 the way