During the 10th century, an open version of Islam appeared on the Alamute mountains of Northern Iran, between the Caspian sea and Alborz mountains. Its followers were called Ismaili and they were ferocious fighters living in fortified castles on Alamute vallues. They were destroyed military and, as this was not enough, a myth was created about them: It was said that they were intoxicated with hashish and presented in such state to maidens in secret gardens, made ferocious and ready to die, and then were sent to kill or kidnap – hash-ishiyun, “hashish-smokers” – or, as it would become know to the west, “assassins”
Returning from the ascent of Alamut castle and its 700 steps – a young Iranian hands over a set of postcards. Nothing unusual here – people selling postcards outside one of the ost touristsic sites of a country. But – wait, there is a catch – after insisting one, two , three, four , five times, the man refuses to receive any money… Iran is the first country I have been where one has to insist (again and again) to pay the taxi driver or the tourist shop seller.
There is a county where ancient poets are venerated more than kings or mystics. A country where everyone can recite by heart verses from the 9th century, a country where Omar Khayaam wrote of getting drunk on friendship and wine and love.
A country of soft, gentle people, who rarely talk loudly and carry on their shoulders the weight of a millennia – old nobility. This country is called Iran – this country we are visiting. The country that will be having elections in a few weeks
(Reading on the Kindle: All the Shah’s men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer / Collected Poems by Forugh Farrokhazad / Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski / The conference of the birds by Farid Attar )
All the Shah’s men – a gripping account of the CIA and MI-6 organized coup against the most popular politician in modern history in Iran – Mosaddegh. A story, recounted in the introduction of the film Argos, that is the key to understanding not just the Iranian revolution but modern Iran. An elderly Iranian female writer is quoted in the introduction in an outburst ”Why did you Americans do this terrible thing? We always loved America. To us America was the great country, the perfect country, the country that helped us while other countries were exploiting us. But after that moment no one in Iran ever trusted the United States again. ”. A foreign plot hatched by the archetypal Graham Green’s “quiet American”. Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt buying and manipulating the press against Mosaddegh, plan street demonstrations by paid thugs, push the Shah to add a fig leaf of legitimacy to the coup by blessing it and corrupted and finally buy pliable military officers to execute the coup itself. (In 1951, that was a trial run for the USA on how to removed a popular, elected government – the success of this coup provided the blueprint for subsequent interventions in Chile, Indonesia, Congo, and only a few years ago the attempted coup in Venezuela.)
Zoroastrism, the ancient religion of the Iranians is based on the freedom (indeed the obligation) to get rid of your king if he loses moral authority. When Iranians became (unwillingly) muslims following their conquest by the arabs, they twisted Islam to accommodate their ideals of social justice. Again, it was the revolt against the power of the state and its officials, all the way to martyrdom if necessary, as symbolized by the sacrifice of prophet Ali and Hussein, that became central to their identity. Shiite Islam was born.
Four observations on Islam in Iran
– This is the first Muslim country I have been where I have yet to hear the muezzin’s voice: The call to prayer is three (as opposed to the traditional five) times per day, and it is much less loud and obtrusive.
– Women (especially the young and middle class) wear the headscarf like a tiara – barely covering the back 1/5th of the hair.
– The association of western tourists with (generally perceived negatively) western policies in some Muslim countries is completely absent in Iran: We have never encountered anything but softness and kindness in our dealings with Iranians
– Men do not have an (occasionally manifested) predatory attitude towards western women and local women do not seem to have a cowered, subservient or passive look.
Παρκο , Tabriz, απογευμα
From Gaza to Morocco, from Xinjiang province to the Netherlands, Islam seems to be on the offensive: confident, dynamic, effortlessly inspiring loyalty…everywhere?
Well – not in Iran: Religion seems to be on the retreat – or so it feels:
First impressions in Tabriz: Young people playing a cat and mouse game with the moral police. Young women letting their headscarves in a gravity free-fall, leaving most of their hair uncovered – hijab slowly but inevitably mutating to a scarf and this mutating to a necktie… In the park a young medical student, big beard, a bit like a 70’s hippy approaches me, slightly awkward, pimples and all: “ I would like to change my religion, I do not like Islam”. Behind the mosque, couples are holding hands. Two young guys run around letting everyone know that police is coming; couples disperse and a few seconds later, the police arrives. Chuckles everywhere – policemen are not even hated, they are the butt of the joke..
And poetry raises its head again – the main street is Firdausi street, people cut their hair to resemble poets of previous centuries and everyone can recite the verses of poets long dead…
First impression: The true religion of Iran is poetry (and Islam only to the extend that it is poetic – not Islam that holds a measuring tape)…
A country where old men who hate women rule; a country where the religious elite is not religious any more resembling more a local mafia. Where bootleg alcohol is available at lower prices than in Turkey and where everyone below forty has been arrested at least once by moral police (alcohol, party, bad hijab) and either himself or his best friends are thinking of emigrating.
A country where you may walk for hours under the hot sun and not find a cafe to rest, a country where pleasure is forbidden, where women dressed as shadows roam the streets. A country cowed , hopeless , beaten into submission : form the Shah’s dictatorship to the Islamic state, from the reformist poet Khatami to Ahmadinejad, from green revolution back to the mullahs.
No one is expecting much from the elections – the dark shadows who rule will vet carefully the candidates in order to avoid any surprises , such as last time. Rafsanjani is out (allegedly because of his age – even though he is younger than Knomeini was when he returned to Iran).
And the men will continue to harass women in the trains and buses, and the word of a woman will be half of that if a man , and the words of the poets will mean nothing , as wine will become symbolic – and love and friendship will also turn into words …
People are describing a cleptocracy more than anything – (as in Gaza under Hamas) religion has all but disappeared and what remains is a system of control and a system of exploitation. Exactly as in Gaza under Hamas, social services are disappearing or privatized (Islam , like Christianity, believes in charity, not in social justice).
Two stories from current Iran:
A guy bought a used Land Rover. He did not have a lot of money so he is paying by instalments. He is crazy about it – he parks it outside his house, does not sleep as he keeps checking it every night, making sure that it is in place. One morning he wakes up to see that it has disappeared. He is inconsolable – he calls my friend, literally crying, he has not even payed all the instalments. A few months pass and one day, my friend (the first owmer of the car) sees his Land Rover, same marks, same colour at the traffic lights, Four peolpe are inside – they look like clerics bg white robes- two older ones i front and two young ones in the backHe runs to the traffic warden – asks him to stop the car. He is told that it is not his job, he must go to the police. He asks for a car, a motorbike to run after him. He is told to be patient – they are four in the car and he is one – what is he going to do? He records the number and goes to the police. Nothing happens – he is told there is no record of the car. He has a friend in the ministry of transport – he gives him the car license plate. He is taken aside “Can’t you wait a little? You will get you car – but after the elections..”. The high ranking clergy loves Land Rovers – problem is that with teh sanctions they cannot afford them any more, so, they “borrow” them.
Same person talking – “An old friend, member of Tudeh (the Iranian communist party, currently outlawed) had been in prison both during the Shah and during the Islamic revolution: He says “ At least during the Shah period they tortured you but did not break you, you could demonstrate and live to fight again – no one arrested by the Islamic police wants to fight again. They are much more successful in breaking your spirit than the Shah secret police.”
How much can you learn about a country in 3 weeks?
My feeling is that the country is at the verge of an explosion: The green revolution failed because it was supported mainly by the middle classes and the intellectuals – working class stayed at home. As the economy deteriorates and unemployment rises, the working class is feeling the pressure. Joining the intellectuals and the middle class of the green revolution will create an explosive mix.