Resentment of the Jews or, earlier, of the Christian Crusaders, for the occupation of Palestine did not feature prominently in the history of Iran. Gaza had not figured among our concerns since its occupation by the Achaemenids. Nor were Iranians much involved with the Crusades; not even the Saljuq sultans of Iran offer much support to their cousins of Rum when the latter were fighting the Christian Crusaders in the Levant.
In the Shiite tradition of my own memory there was less reference (if at all) to Palestine or to Jerusalem than to Karbela, Najaf, Mashad and Qom. Most Iranians only became aware of Palestine after the Second World War, when they went there, not to pray at al-Aqsa, but to benefit from the medical proficiency of Jewish doctors who had immigrated from European lands.
To be sure, the pressure put on Palestinians by a Zionist state was bound to spill over into Shiite Islam, mainly as a result of involving the Shiites of southern Lebanon where the Palestinian camps were situated and where many of the revolutionaries of Iran received their training. The Lebanes Shiites had always looked up to Iran, including to the Shah whose portrait was in every Shiite home even before the revolution (duly replaced with that of Khomeini afterwards, of course). As the underprivileged of the Lebanon, they tended to lean on the one country that had proclaimed Shiism as its main national faith. Moreover, the Safavids had recruited their theologians from the Lebanon and Bahrain, so that the Iranian and Lebanese Shiite clerics had forged many marital links over five centuries.
But the crucial event, the turning-point, came when the secular leftist Iranian opposition in Europe was approached by the Palestinians – most of them still secularists in those happier times (if you are old enough, think of the first hijacker, Layla Khaled, a modern Palestinian woman who never in her life wore a veil). The intention was to pool their efforts to overcome their respective foes, the Shah for the Iranian opposition and the state of Israel for the Palestinians.
What the latter wanted – and the Iranians students and dropouts, who decided to join in their protest marches in the Paris of the early 1970s, were aware of that caveat – was to harness Iran’s oil money for their cause, especially after the steep price hikes of 1973. The Iranian opposition groups thought they could use the Palestinians and then discard them, leaving them thereafter to their oil-rich Arab cousins instead. They also thought they could use the mullas to get their message across to the common people, then get rid of them too. Thus, in their urge to succeed, they made two serious mistakes and ended up paying a high price for them.
I remember visiting an old childhood friend in Paris, a descendant of Ahmad Shah who had thrown in his lot with the opposition out of hatred for the Shah. In the mid-1970s he told me that they had decided to call on the exiled ayatollahs in Iraq. I warned him that they were making a serious mistake, that the mullas would grind them to mincemeat before anyone could unwind their turbans. ‘Let’s get rid of the crown, and then the turban’, they thought naively.
Having been out of touch with the realities of Iran for too long a time, they did not appreciate the structured strength of the network of Shiite clerics. Inevitably the Islam of that opposition, many of whom had never prayed before, coupled with that of mullas in exile, began to take on a colouring that was alien to Iranian Islam, and focused instead on the Palestinian cause with all its pitfalls.
This culture then spread to the slums of Tehran and other big cities, where uprooted migrants from the rural areas had lost touch with the traditions of their local culture and were thus open prey for emotionally charged preaching from the pulpit.
Even wone’s chadors underwent a big change, so that instead of the light flower-strewn cotton prints I remember, in came the layered chador and layered socks worn for pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Iraq. The closest thing I had seen to these multiple layers was when my mother’s wet-nurse used to come from Mashad, wearing a kind of wrapped turban on her head, not unlike the ones worn by Kurdish women, and over that, the chador, but that sort of headdress had a history going back all the way to Elam, and was not an attempt to denote additional modesty on her part (more probably it was meant to hide her unwashed hair).
On my Khorasan trip last spring, in Bastam, near the shrine of Bayazid Bastami (the 9th-century Sufi saint), I came across an old woman in a brown woollen chador, embroidered from head to foot with flower bouquets in ochre and beige (imaginative chadors were not uncommon until Manchester cotton prints began to replace handmade textiles in the second half of the 19th century).
In the courtyard of the shrine was a Baluchi man, who makes a regular pilgrimage to Bastam, coming all the way from Baluchistan in his impeccably white tunic and trousers, over which he had thrown an ochre handmade shawl. A handsome sight indeed. The keeper of the shrine, a jovial man, dressed in an old sardari coat with brass buttons going all the way up, was talking merrily about this and that, quoting Bayazid in Persian and the Qoran in heavily accented Arabic without any hint of fanaticism.
I had heard about the sheikh from an archaeologist friend who had spent many years on restoring the shrine. As we were about to enter the sanctuary, a guard, posted there by the Islamic regime, dirty and unkempt, with a grim look on his face, stopped us to make sure that we would not go inside without a chador, instead of the scarf and coat we had on. He was not worried about disrespect to Bayazid (allegedly buried in the courtyard of the shrine), but to the grave of a descendant of a Shiite Imam who is said to buried in the inner chamber. The sheikh himself would not have objected, but he was being spied on. Upon questioning him about how he got by with spies checking on him, he smiled and shook his head in a way that implied that he had indeed had his share of troubles. No wonder his sons had left him for the world of new industry.
The contrast between the government spy and the two other men, the Baluchi pilgrim and the keeper of the shrine, was striking indeed, so much so that my travel companions, a young couple from Tehran with no religious leanings, were thoroughly enthralled, and the husband, a successful dentist, gave the sheikh a voucher for a free set of false teeth. A US-trained doctor and his wife, who had spent time in Germany and had no sympathy for the mullas, suddenly discovered a hitherto unknown facet of their culture, an attractive facet to which they could relate without having had prior exposure. A forgotten atavistic attraction was awakened by their encounter with the Sufi shaikh of the shrine.
Why then are the revolutionary militants divorced from the traditional Islam known in Iran? The uprooted migrants to the slums, who composed the backbone of the Islamists, had found themselves in a cultural vacuum and were thus fertile ground for recruiting Bassijis and revolutionary guards who are holding holding some 70 million Iranians hostage to the cause of the Palestinians. Yet, when Saddam Hussein went to war against us, the Palestinians were mostly on his side. Ironically, some members of the government admit that if Palestine ever gains full independence, its people will probably turn their backs on Iran.
Then why sacrifice the future of our young people and the very integrity of Iran to a cause that they know will backfire on them? There are more drug addicts in Iran than there are Palestinians in the world, and more unemployed people in Iran than there are Israelis in the world. Surely there are more pressing problems at home, with air pollution and poisoned rivers (not even justified by a corresponding rise in economic output) choking off the land, the soil being eroded by a too intensive use and by deforestation, and a host of other ills, not the least of which is the isolation of the people and their leaders from the world. Having painted themselves into a corner, the people now at the top scarcely the functioning and needs of a world they do not undrestand and to which cannot respond in a way that might benefit the people of Iran. Who needs a nuclear attack, when the regime is doing the job of compromising the future existence of Iran?
For, in spite of an occasional decision to react, the damage due to over-ambitious and understudied projects continues. The fifty dams planned, in itself a good thing, could turn out to be a time-bomb, unless preceded by a thorough study of the potentially damaging environmental after-effects. Like their former allies, the leftists, the clerical parvenus of today are enamoured of technology, but usually they are a few steps behind the trends moving the the world and spend money on projects that are already outdated before they are begun. If it goes on like this, Iranians, instead of Jews, may have to bargain for a slice of Alaska to lodge the survivors of degradation – courtesy of a government of populists (educated not necessarily meaning cultured). By the time these people come to see the light instead of the green halo of their sick fantasies, it might be too late.
They do see some light, but it is a dim one, as dim as their own vision of the world. Thus, while literacy rates climb, reaching or even surpassing the levels of Western countries, the quality of education, especially in the non-scientific fields, has not only not kept pace but has actually regressed, so that history and literature are neglected except to the extent that they serve the ideology of the regime. Their history is limited to that of early Islam, onto which they are grafting, without any of the necessary intermediary steps, modern technology – not only nuclear, but genetic engineering and other unpredictable genii unleashed by the scientific world. As in the case of the Armaggedonites in the US, the combination is a lethal one that perhaps conceals deep complexes with an affirmed desire to master modern demons and put them at the service of older demons. And this with an arrogance that is only matched by their level of half-ignorance. A little knowledge is indeed dangerous.
Is it any wonder, when school education is not well rounded, that separatism should appeal to the young people who do not learn about the many ways in which they are bound up with the history of Iran? How can they be taught when the knowledge of those who rule over them is so skewed that one diplomat sent on mission to India was surprised at the length and the breadth of Iranian connections with that land – the origins, the language, the literature, the art, and even their Islam. No one had briefed him in advance simply because nobody knew or perhaps cared to know.
Another example is their man at UNESCO (he’s a Khatami man), who has not been able to present a comprehensive report for the registration of Nowruz as an intangible world heritage, nor felt the need to contact the other applicants for a ceremony in the celebration of which Iran should lead (even the Kirghiz have done a better job of presenting a report). In the meantime, it seems, qualified people in Iran have promised to make up for the shortcomings of the official representative of the Islamic regime and complete the report. But not being linked to the clerical hierarchy, they will never be given a post in Paris.
Nothing shows up the limited horizon of those at the top better than their belief that the Lebanese people are or Persian origin. Not only have they apparently never heard of the Phoenicians, but their take on history is limited to their links with the Shiite clerics of the Lebanon. Thus a few hundred clerics with family ties color (or rather discolor) the vision of the past and that vision is bound up with the politics pursued.
That is why they cling to the Palestinian-Israeli cause at the risk of seeing the fragmentation of Iran through the neglect of our extended heritage in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and further afield, in the vastness of the Indian subcontinent, while Machiavellian minds are at work rewriting history to break up Iran. But why did it have to get to this point? The country is not devoid of qualified people, within and without. It has history, culture and is generally not disposed to fanaticism except for a minority who cling to the wrong sort of Islam, one that is not only alien to the majority of Iranians but even to enlightened clerics..
Late last spring, after a trip to Khorasan, I was planning to write a travelogue, but was overtaken by events. In retrospect I realize a prophetic message had been delivered to me in Mashad. I was having lunch with relatives, a good-looking cultured second cousin, married to a seyyed of Bukharan origin, who, in spite of this background, is by no means a fanatic.Their three children are aborad, with one daughter married to a young Englishman, and another leading the life of a divorcée in Los Angeles.
As we talked of the Iranians in California, they mentioned the television program about flushing the turbans of the ayatollahs down a toilet. I am certainly no friend of the ruling mullas, but having read about that vulgar comment, I found it in bad taste. (I can hardly imagine a rabbi or a pastor letting that sort of cheap slur go by without reacting). Not only in bad taste, but dangerous, they said, for such programs werre shown to the Bassijis as a warning of what might befall them if the regime topples. “That is what they think of you and your faith” they were alleged to have warned the very people who have now reached the top. Many of them had fought in the war against Saddam but are otherwise qualified to do little else other than silence any opposition to their limited views.
I got goose pimples, but little did I think that the risk of a Bassiji coup was so imminent. Less than two months after that conversation, Ahmadinejad emerged from nowhere to become the president with promises that I thought the people of Iran had been cured of after the disastrous results of the 1979 revolution, promises of cash distribution, in the vein of ash-e khayrat or soup kitchens for the poor, with no hint of a sensible long-term economic planning to construct the post-oil era (except a hazy notion of exporting nuclear fuel, when the vastness of the Kavir could produce all the solar panels in the world). This is the view of populists with a lopsided view of the world.
Luckily there are those in Iran who know this, and try to keep things going as best as they can, agains the many odds, but their best is often not enough when official support is lacking. Obviously they are not the ones who voted for Ahmadinejad. Most of those who voted for him do not know the basics of economic good sense, indeed cannot be expected to know when they are only harangued with incendiary slogans with a juvenile logic that insults the intelligence of our nation.
The result is that the people who vote for a man like this one, tend to see officials in terms of those who steal and those who do not, regardless of the fact that the ‘honest’ may lack the tools to give them what they require the most, and are likely to be profligate in all the wrong ways. There are two kinds of theft: one is corruption, mostly in the fomr of using public funds for personal gain; the second type of theft, not regarded as such, is arguably worse, for abusing state funds – without consultation – on causes of little relevance to the masses, so that, far from helping to improve their lot, it discourages investment and bleeds the country of massive amounts, eventually leading to more indigence. And this at a time when oil when may be peaking.
While economic policy is what moves the country, political arrogance is what reflects on it abroad. This president has earned opprobrium for remarks that he thinks were waiting to emerge from his mind, and his government behaves like a bunch of thugs bent on angering the world. What the world may not know is that his drastic solutions are not limited to Israel, but extend to many groups in Iran. This is a man with infantile grudges.
Imagine a president who refuses to attend to the problems of a delegation from the provinces by telling them to go and complain to those they voted for. He has been called many names, few as appropriate as what a top Iranian scholar in Britain said about him: ‘an embarassment’, and indeed, he is embarassing and worse. He is a threat to Iran, so much so that even our neighbours, the Turks and the Arabs, who dip unashamedly into our cultural trove without reprimand, are actually beginning to worry about our future; they cannot understand why Iranians “fail to see the growing danger to their very existence as a nation”, as Dr. Farrokh of Vancouver quotes them textually.
The ayatollahs who brought this man to the fore, some of whom are aware of the fact that he may be pulling the carpet from right under their feet, cannot withdraw their backing for fear of undermining their legitimacy. For this we must pay. Never had we sunk to such pitiful depths. Never mind the looks that, like those of the petty spy of Bastam, do not inspire trust, and erase what little confidence there remained towards Iran. Never mind the incendiary oratory which is aimed at the lowest of the low. Look into his mind. He knows nothing of the world and prefers not to know for fear of revealing his inadequacy.
The brainwashing that man received as an underprivileged member of society in the throes of upheaval, followed by a devastating war in which he and his likes fought heroically (one must grant them that), still tend to dictate his world-view. Not his fault, of course, but a more astute man without complexes would try to use the knowledge of those better endowed with the required expertise. Instead he dismisses even the few who, having risen from the ranks of the unqualified, have learnt a little in some 26 years.
No other populist government, with the possible exception of Stalin’s, ever stooped so low. Mao Tse Tung had a refined aristocrat as his right-hand man in the person of Chou En Lai to teach him about the world and to refine his taste (the so-called Cultural Revolution with its disastrous results began only after Chou En Lai died). Even Ho Chi Minh was educated in France. Guevara was a well-bred and cultured Argentine of distinguished background. And yet none of these modern revolutionaries left a lasting legacy, contrary, for example, to the French Revolution.
What then can be expected for Iran which has inherited the cheapest of the cheap, so cheap that he boasts of using machine-made carpets in his home instead of promoting our greatest ancient craft (maybe just as well, his poor taste might further degrade the art of carpet-making). That the man himself is aware of his inadequacy was abundantly clear in his hysterical reaction to a parliament that thrice refused his nominees for the oil ministry “You have no right to treat your president like this!” he shouted out at them. Obviously he has never learnt about the executive being subject to the legislative.
We are back in the days before 1906, without even the few men of distinction and knowledge who, in those days, could still keep the boat from sinking. And just when the need to navigate us through troubled waters. It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism; it has everything to do with the inherent weaknesses of populists who usurp positions for which they were never cut out.
As already said, nobody can believe that Iranians are doing this to themselves. From Iranians, one hears that this man was hoisted to power through the machinations of the CIA or Mossad, so well is he playing into their hands. That’s a sign of despair. But the regime pursues its agenda as though there were no tomorrow, the only urge apparently governing their actions being to preserve their power with the help of the least qualifed in the name of a hazy Islam. The energies of the country, when not fixated on the lower abdomen, are channelled into unproductive negative pursuits.
Paranoia has become an endemic disease with all sorts of restrictions that hamper progress. Every foreigner is suspect as a potential enemy of Iran. The result is, of course, the hemorrhage of funds, and if visas were given more easily, there would be more hemorrage of brains. There is no shortage of capable people in Iran, but as soon as they touch upon subjects that extremists know little about or perceive as contrary to their concerns, they are deleted immediately from the election lists.
One of these, a woman, intelligent, knowledgeable, democratically inclined, recently gave a talk in London and impressed the listeners with her looks, her deportment, her dignity in the face of heckling, her effective oratory that stuck to essentials instead of harping on Islam and her willingness to answer any question. This lady got the boot from for daring to broach real problems and asking for the right solutions, when she was in the Majles. Nor is it limited to women like her. There are even clerics with open minds and broad knowledge and more importantly, who are aware that government should not be in their hands, but they too are marginalized and either become bookworms in Qom or Mashad, or end up in voluntary exile abroad.
The situation is serious. Signs of resistance are growing, but for now they lack leadership. Time may be running out, unless – and here I concur with Guive – something is done quickly, but not from outside. I have no magic formula, but one has to believe in miracles at times, and a potential miracle may be waiting in the aisles, unbeknownst to us all. From my experience of the new breed of Iranian women, I would venture to see salvation coming from their midst. Iran is the land of Gordafarid. The Amazons, after all, were an Iranian tribe and their genes are still there. >>> Part 1
About Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women’s University. See features in iranian.com