Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Clash of Civilizations

What are you going to do with a book that has no argument in it? I assume I can call it a My Bit Fat Statement. And then what do you do with a Big Fat Statement? I assume we can make a movie out of it and call it “My Big Fat Statement.” I thought about it but it did not work. The book did not have any visual potential. I discussed it with few others and we decided to dismiss it, but how do you dismiss a big fat statement by a Harvard professor? A biologist would say never leave a single cell or bacteria in an environment in which it breeds very rapidly. If not as a thinker or scholar, as a green peace advocate I feel oblige to give some response to it. I am talking about Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.

The book is about 321 pages and contains absolutely no arguments. Statement follows statement, datum follows datum. We go from the fishing industry in Alaska t to a Buddhist monastery in Burma. Who would ever go over those facts and figures? What would they prove? That they are wrong? The book talks about everything and nothing simultaneously in pursue of vanity, but the Harvard stamp entices me to go after it.

With a great effort I managed to come up with a few semi-arguments:

  1. Originally there were twelve civilizations. (I assume the rest have been eliminated in the battlefield of civilizations.) Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Cretan, Classical Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Middle American, Andean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Islamic, and Western.
  2. The first seven are dead
  3. Last five are surviving.
  4. At present, they are reduce to four.(Some combine Chinese and Japanese together as Far Eastern civilization, and some do not include Japanese at all.)
  5. All these civilizations are somehow based on religions. (Christianity, Islam Hinduism, and Confucianism)
  6. Since there are differences among them, there must be an everlasting clashes between them.
  7. At the present time, the immediate clash is between Islam and Western, or Christian, culture.
  8. If the West eliminates Islam, then it would be down to the West and China.
  9. As a result of clashes among the Civilizations, their number is reduced to fewer and fewer.

Does Huntington want to conclude that the surviving is the fittest? Not at all. He thinks the surviving is the one which must be the fittest, the one with the greatest will to survive, yet does not accept Darwinism. In the chapter on shifting the balance, he argues that Islamic fundamentalism is taking over, at least partially, because the West has neglected its aims and has become sluggish in fighting for its interests. The West must be the fittest. Why? Just like that!

Considering religion as a core of civilization is an outright error. Unfortunately one cannot argue on this issue with Huntington. He very conveniently has put aside whatever contradicts his theory. For example, pre-Islamic Iran is not even considered among the dead civilizations so one cannot argue that Iran at its peak of civilization, namely the Sasanian period for three centuries, as the greatest empire on earth, did not enjoy one unified religion. It was such a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious empire that people in the west of the country could hardly know the language and customs of the people in its east. Probably that was one of the most important reasons of the fall of the Sassanid Empire after the Arab invasion.

Here is another case of how he cherry-picks his examples to fit his theory. Rather than discuss India’s Gandhi, Huntington prefers to talk about Pakistan’s Jenna. He argues that Pakistan became independent as a result of a clash of civilizations among a bigger civilization based on religions, knowing full well that Jinnah was a secular man and used religion as a mere tool to justify his cause (his own wife was not Moslem). So even though Pakistan and India’s clash appeared to be based on religious, we all know it was not and religion was artificially introduced into it.

Sometimes Hungtington is flat-out wrong, as when he refers to Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia and says that Iran supported Azerbaijan because of their shared religion. The Islamic Republic supported the Armenians due to Azerbaijani’s agitation inside Iran.

Huntington uses the same methodology when using the data. The strongest argument he presents in the book is the relation between population growth in a civilization as a sign of its cultural hegemony. He gave various data to illustrate his point, but again, each data could be answered with a counterexample. When he tries to tie the powerful and influential to the religion or population numbers of that religion, the counter-examples repudiate his arguments and he ignores them. (In all the cases anywhere in the world the number of secular people grows much faster.)

Another argument Huntington gives to support his theory is that big civilizations either vanish or fall apart due to the clash between their minor civilizations. For this there are two sets of counter-evidence. One is historical. The big civilizations were not created as big. They become big by being taken over each others or by joining each other. One civilization defeats the other one and grows at its expense, or one allies with the other through dynastic marriage or for joint defense against a common enemy. In all these cases there is a primal resistance which leads to eventual tolerance. The adjustment of one civilization to the other is not caused always due to the superiority the superiority of one over the other. For example, when Iran was taken over by the Mongols, it was the Mongols who converted to Islam and not the other way around. Even when the Arabs defeated Iran, Islam up to a great extend became Zoroastrianized to be palatable to the Iranians and Shiism was born. Another good example is the victory of Greece over Iran and the period ruling of Parthian which resulted in which the birth of various Zoroastrian sects and the adoption of some pagan gods into the Zoroastrian circle of archangels, which persist up to today. Above all was the entering of Greek philosophy into Iranian culture as well as the influence of Iranian dualism into Western culture. A superior and victorious culture might very well be affected by the minor and defeated one.

Another counter-argument to Huntington is the fact that the collapse of big civilization is often simply due their size. Roman, Sasanian, and Soviet Russian are all examples of big civilization yielding to the natural and unavoidable rule of oversized unmanagble scale beyond the means and the power of the governments of their time, which were therefore bound to collapse.

In his chapter titled “The Global Politics of Civilization,” Huntington argues, “Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilization is tribal conflict on a global scale. In the emerging world, states and groups from two different civilization may form limited, ad hoc, tactical connections and coalitions to advance their interest against entities from a third civilization or for other shared purposes. Relations between groups from different civilizations however will be almost never close, usually cool, and often hostile.”

This repeated thesis of Huntington is neither based on any established theory nor is it supported by any relevant data or evidence. He repeats again and again that wars and conflicts are the results of differences in the values and culture. There might be validity to his argument if we consider a very broad concept of value and culture. For example, the desire for independence is a value and like everything else (for example, taste in music) could be part of the value system of that civilization. But is it not shared by other civilizations? Is it not desired by any country, Moslem or Christian? Once again Huntington insinuates his thesis as a theory which does not need to be proven by any means.

Another way to understand Huntington is to define civilization simply as a set of structural systems devoid of any content or meanings, i.e. the physical aspects of nation, population, military powers and economical means. In that case, when there is a disagreement, a clash is unavoidable. However it remains to be proved that if we could define the civilization as such.

Huntington’s aim in writing this book is clearly to provide a justification for United States military aggression towards other nations with economical resources which incidentally at this particular period happen to be Islamic countries (Iraq and Afghanistan). These two wars took place independent of any reason or justification, just like Huntington’s theory. Otherwise our generation can recall almost all the conflicts, uprisings, and revolutions which have taken place at least in last fifty years to have been geared to the conflict between modernism and repression which tried to either exploit the nation or keep it backwards. The progressive nature of these struggles, successful or not, contradicts all of Huntington’s claims. The greatest conflicts of our age were

  1. Iran as the greatest and the last revolution of the twentieth century. In spite of its Islamic form, it was an anti-imperialist revolution and a massive protest against an undemocratic semi-military state which was brought into power not by the will of people but by an American coup. The degree of it success or its failure remains to be seen. But present trends indicate that it is precisely its Islamic aspect which will bring it down eventually.
  2. South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement was not a religious movement. It was a racial movement and by and large was a successful one.
  3. The Soviet Union’s disintegration was not a religious uprising in spite of the Huntington’s claim that Moslem portion of its population was high. Moreover, none of its Moslem successor states appealed to religion for its independence and none of them have any sort of state-established Islamic institutions, let alone an Islamic government.
  4. World War II though was so racially motivated hardly could be called a clash between religious civilizations.
  5. In the twentieth century, there have been a plethora of conflicts between nations with the same religion, e.g. the Sunni Kurds and the Sunni Iraqi and Turkish states, the Sunni Taliban and other Sunni Afghan factions, to counter Huntington’s claim that conflicts are always a clash of civilizations or cultural values. Most conflicts are simply over access to the means of progress or wars of independence.
    Moreover, reducing a civilization to religion and religion to its apparatus and ritual, leads Huntington to see nothing but the clash among them. There is no civilization, big or small, which does not include a philosophical or ideological underpinning beneath the surface of all its practical means of productions, economic and political systems or even arts and sciences. In any conflicts among the nations, all these apparatuses might become subdued but the philosophy and ideas which are axiomatic in that culture enjoy the freedom to be only enriched further either by being influenced or influencing others.

    Sayyed Mohammad Khatami, the head of the Institute of the Dialogue among Civilizations, challenges Huntington’s argument. He believes that even a religion, significant as it might be, is only one aspect of civilization. In his book Philosophy and Thoughts Held Captive by Ruling Forces, he says, that “political powers might employ religion and use it to advance their aims without even being interested in the religion. What they use is in fact the superficial and structural aspect of the religion which they can use as any other institution to promote their needs and desires.” He claims that civilization as well as religion has two aspects, the structural and philosophical and the inspirational aspect. While the structural aspects might be used in various manners to pursue various purposes, the inspirational and philosophical aspects are immune from abuse and are the only developing and flourishing part of the civilizations and cultures.

    The problem of Khatami’s argument is the other side of the Huntington’s problem. Where Huntington fails to see the philosophical and inspirational aspect of religion and civilizations, Khatami ignores the power of all the practical and pragmatic necessity which is required for a civilization to survive. Oddly enough, his personal and professional experiences as a two term president of Iran in a very turbulent time has not allowed him to realize that his idea of a peaceful dialogue among civilizations even as a way out of the most trivial problems fails when it faces any reality. Even within his own country, even among the same civilization and culture, the dialogue has never worked.

    With all our interest in a peaceful solution to the various problems and the unwanted wars and man-made troubles all over the world, it is difficult to embrace Khatami’s well-intentioned proposals of the dialogues among the nations fully. His theory is unpragmatic and impractical.

    Khatami tries to make up for its lack of impracticality by advocating civil society and the rule of laws. Unfortunately, this solution has the same defect as the original dialogue solution. Two terms of the United States Presidential elections and the subsequence frauds and other scandals show that even in a democratic society the rule of law is not infallible. Our two theories fail to provide a meaningful explanation or solution to the problems that they trying because of their overly-ambitious scope. Talking about a grandiose subject such as Islam or Chinese civilization is so beyond the scope of our imagination and control that one tends to dismiss it. Dividing the world into four segments and using this to analyze war and peace would definitely not make it easy for a scientific approach. Science fiction might have a better chance.

To read the rest, click here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Nazeri, Parissa, and Siavash

Thousand of years ago when the earth was still flat and the world was a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end and very finite, Iran was the center of the world and surrounded either with mysterious mountains or rivers and few enemy across the borders. There was a king whose name was Keikavoos. He had a very handsome son name Siavash. He had promised his son that he would give up his empire and leave him to rule as he wished. The day arrived when his son came of age and claimed the thrown. Alas, his father was not ready to abdicate yet and he put off fulfilling his promise by requiring him to fulfill a task before he could assume the throne, and when the task was fulfilled he added another and so on an so forth.

Not only did that promise remain unfulfilled, but through further deceit and lies, he first banished the innocent boy and then caused him to die a horrible death. The legend says that where Siavash’s head got off, somewhere in the border of his homeland, a plant called Siavash’s Feather grows that up to this day Iranian use for medicinal purposes.

Iranians still mourn this loss, and the procession is called Soug-e Siavash, indicating the intensity of their grief. Many of us are still wondering why Siavash wanted to rule and why his father refused to give up his kingdom. What was he so afraid of? After all, he had done his job and it was his son’s turn. What was so difficult that it was worth a father to lose such son?

Many years have passed since then. We now know that the earth is not flat and that the world is not so simple. In fact, it is indeed very confusing and muddled. With the advent of the computer and the internet and all communication devices it seems that the infinity of the universe is extended to our world as well. And with this infinity comes uncertainty and a sense of being lost. Iran is not the center of this vast world anymore and to tell you the truth, I even doubt if we ever existed—after all, it only takes one person from Yale or Harvard to assert or deny our existence and that is all.

The theme of the rivalry between father and son is not so unique to the Siavash, but it emerges in various form, again and again, through our Epic. this repetition, indicating the battle of old and new, is well rooted in our culture like many other old cultures. That the old and decadent have not given themselves willingly to the young and new, that the old has always resisted and, an more so, eliminated the new, is a repeated story, thought, no one ever learned from it. No one learned that there is always a younger generation who wants a new world order, and there is always an old one who desperately hung to the old and rotten order.

Today our story is just a little worse. The young is fighting with ones who want to go back even to way before their own order. In 1997, when the new generation and a new gender (women) voted against the old world order in a landslide, the old not only resisted, but forcefully eliminated them. In 2002 when students in the universities demanded their rights, they were thrown out of the widows or slashed with knives. The deputies in the parliament who wanted reform and justice were forced to resign.
In the 2005 elections, the elimination took different forms. In Khordad 22, 2005, women who demonstration for equal rights were beaten by police. In Khordad 22, 2006, the same group of women was brutally harassed and beaten by police right in front of a thousand cameras.

Today, as in old times, any demand or movement for a world new order is confronted harshly by resistance and the violence of the old world order. Of course the only difference is its scale and and its method.

As Siavash were assaulted, so were Mazdak and Mani, Nezam ol-Molk and Amir Kabir and Kasravi, the Bab, Dr. Mosaddeq and Rouzbeh, Bakhtiar and Ghasemlou and Sarkouhi and Ganji and thousands of others such as those lying is mass graves, like the journals Salam and Shargh.

The old castles were simple to protect and so were the old towns and lands. Today, the infinity of life makes it difficult due to the existence of many other institutions. However, there are always other alternatives, tortures, jails, solitary confinements, loss of jobs and other privileges and above all breaking pens and leaving people in absolute darkness.

Siavash and his desire for a new world order is fully alive insofar as he is not alone anymore; we have thousands of them now and the old king needs an army of millions to kill them. I saw some of them last mount in Symphony Space in New York City. When Parissa appeared on stage with her ensemble, Dastan, I expected to listen to well-composed traditional classical Iranian music with all the dastgahs and goushehs in order, but when she started, I saw a tornado, a hurricane. I do not know what happened to that calm, reserved lady who appeared a few years ago on the same stage. She broke away from that old Parissa we knew. She went much further with a very strong voice, with confidence, with passion, and with real determination just to make sure everyone would hear her. She was not too shy to step out of the limits set for her by the previous masters or the traditions. She tore the hejab which was put around her by old rules; she even broke free from her womanhood, although she was free to be a woman. She was an authority unto herself to do what she wanted to do. She sang, and with her voice brought a sense of freedom to all of us. While she was singing I could hear a chorus of women singing with her. I could hear In Soroud-e Zendegi from every corner of the symphony hall. I heard Mansourehs, Noushins, Parvins, Shadis, Royas and Shahlas and others in every voice rising from the stage.
That night when we left, it was already late at night but none of us wanted to go home. We walked downtown from the Upper West Side. Along the way, my friend pointed at some large plums in the all-night grocery store and said “for years I wanted to grab one of these plums and eat it but I can’t.” While I was expecting some dietary explanation, she continued with an anecdote regarding a plum tree in her backyard which was raided by her brother against the arbitrary forbidding order of her father. She said that the scene which occurred when her father saw her brother bringing a bowl full of the plums into the room left her with such horror that she could never touch any plums. I do not know that I wanted to share her pain or if it was my own hidden pain which needed some company that I told her that a soccer game has the same effect on me when I remember how years and years ago, my brother was beaten by my father simply for playing soccer in a clay court in our neighborhood. He was beaten quite regularly, first for the crime of playing soccer with some 21 other boys whom my father could not run a background check on, and secondly for the crime of getting dusty after playing. I think it was the second crime which my brother could never defend or do anything about; there was no grass court in Tehran then.

Needless to say, it was not the first time that the two of us saw plums together or talked about my brother, but it certainly was the first time that both of us talked about the tyranny we both lived under, a petty tyranny within a system, within the government of a family, an institution which both of us cherish, the tyranny of a person that both of us respect and love and undeniably were both so in debt to. It was not these about which we complain, it was the tyranny, it was that unrestricted power, and it was the arbitrariness of their rules, that outdated mindless orders that we should follow without question. Later on, I was thinking what if one of us would have asked my father how one could avoid dust when playing in a clay court? Or how we should play soccer if there are not the right number of people playing? I was also thinking how my father would have responded to those questions. Could it be the reason that he would never let us to question was simply that he had no answer?
Last night I saw the Siavash Feather plant growing again, this time in the Asian Society.
Shahram Nazeri and his son Hafez performed their “In the Path of Rumi.” I know Nazeri’s work and his effort to raise the voice of Iranian music for the last thirty years. But last night’s performance was not in line with what he had done for Iranian music before. He seemed to have fulfilled the promise that was given to Siavash after so much delay. Nazeri did something that was more like magic. He submitted to the new order of music set by his talented son, Hafez, without any hesitation and without any force. I could not imagine in my wildest dreams that any master of Iranian classical music could sing along with a western ensemble. And the strange thing was that he was so comfortable, it was as if it was the most natural thing for him to singing along with a cello playing beside him. And believe it or not, nothing catastrophic occurred. The earth did not become flat again and the day after sun rose as usual from the east. The only difference was that some of the audience who were not familiar with our traditional music listened to it with ease and enjoyed it.

Another thing about this concert: it was an acknowledgment by an old Master that it was time to leave the stage to a new one and even help him to play his turn. Nazeri did this task gracefully as would be expected from a Master such as himself. It was the beginning of a new era. Here’s hoping that our old politicians in Iran would hear this music. I am sure it would be very hard for many of them to accept that either. Last night I felt like I had sipped a Siavash’s Feather concoction, only just thicker, stronger, and more effective, yet soothing, just like Balm in Gilead.

To read the rest, click here.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Mehregan in Miller's Theater

A celebration of the Mehregan festival was held in Miller’s Theater, sponsored by Iranian-American Society. This was the third program sponsored by this organization that I have attended.

The program consisted of two parts: A piano concert by Tania Eshaghoff and a vocal recital by Darya Dadvar. I was familiar with both of them.

I would like to reassure my nervous friends that I by no means intend to write about the musical aspects of this program for two simple reasons. One is that I do not know much about music and do not play any instruments. However music by nature deals with our senses and most of us rightly assume that a pair of ears with a little sense for harmony and rhythm and a little feel for melody is enough to listen to music and enjoy it. I think that much I can manage.

The other reason is that the program was consisted of two unequal parts. One part has the privilege of being vocal, which is more attractive, using poetry which has the double advantage of the magic of words and language combined with rhythm. If these rules are not universal, the are definitely true to my very primitive nature. So in short, it might appear that my ignorance and my bias disqualify me from writing this review. However, as I have promised, I do not intend to write about the music at all.

Instead I’m writing about the state of Iranian music in exile. In that respect, anyone who pays fifty five dollars for a ticket to a concert of two novice artists has a very legitimate right at least to say what was happening there. (We paid $45 for Parisa and Nazeri and Kalhor!)

In fact I feel obliged to write what I’m writing with the hope that those who know music (and I’m sure there are lots of them here) come forth and write and say what they must.

As it is, most of our young talented artists are left without a demand, challenge, and criticism, which undeniably plays the most significant role in the developments of any sort of art. Iranian art in exile particularly our music, is suffering tremendously from this want. I have twice been to Tania’s concerts. It is painful to me to see that her second concert was in fact few steps backward. Like the first, three years ago, she is simultaneously player, conductor, and composer. I am sure this is not unheard of in the world of music. However, like any sort of art, it takes time and experience to do what she is doing at this early stage of her life, without the necessary maturity and experience. Almost all the pieces she played (except one) was either composed or improvised by her. And the only piece which was composed by the beloved Iranian composer, Javad Maaroufi, fell into the abyss of improvisation after a few notes played. As far as I know, it is very unprecedented to give an entire stage to a novice to perform her own work; usually new talents are introduced gradually to the audience by performing small pieces within the programs of the more experienced and popular. The first performance of this young artist a few years ago in Symphony Space continued forty five-minutes over the time (one hour and half) given to her!

We Iranians have an expression which says every bride can enjoy her happiness for forty days. I think it is wise to think about forty-first day when the honeymoon of novelty and politeness and niceties are over. Then what? At some point, the audience wants a good piece of work whose ups and downs are in accord with their sensibilities and ears.

Not being a musician, I have no idea if this is a general state of affairs in this art form or is it only Iranian music in exile which is in such a disastrous state. We have Californian Iranian music which is so devoid of melody that one wonders how the performers remember to distinguish one piece form the other. And here on the East Coast it is improvisation which is killing us. Being involved and interested in the other sorts of arts, I do not know of anything which is allowed more free fall than Iranian music in exile. While it is easy to ignore Iranian pub music, with all its problem in the crowd of a wedding party, we can not ignore the defect of a music played in a concert hall.

I for one feel guilty that I am neither a musician nor a close friend or relative of these young artists or a member of their cliques or groups that organize such events to advise someone like Tania 1) to sit and play a nice pieces which are composed by known composers from beginning to end, 2) to keep improvisation and composition to a minimum until she establishes herself—these young artists should remember that the Art Masters first become masters then tried to change the course of tradition and not the other way around, 3). that those keys on the left side of the piano are there to be used and if she cannot bring up the sound which in required, the violin and cello will not make up for it, and 4) not all Iranians are from that generation that do not know good music from bad just because it is not tar or setar.

I’m here more critical of our fellow Iranians who are musicians (and I saw a few of them there in the salon) and definitely are in a position to write a review for this kind of performance so that these young artists can use their talent and energy in a constructive way. I hope that one day the Tanias and Halehs and Sousans will respect their audiences and not try to force them to listen to cacophony but to harmony. Creativity is not the same as chaos.

The other part of the program, the vocal by Darya Dadvar could be considered a good example of innovation mixed with passion and talent in a young artist who wishes to go beyond the boundaries which have been set for Iranian music for such a long time. Darya has studied in Toulouse. She has great love for Iranian music and makes her own adaptation of Iranian folk music and recently of some Iranian classical music. In her Mehregan performance, she performed a few classical pieces in Western classical style, which touched the heart of even the older generation in the audience. Her sensitivity to the emotional attachments of her audience is remarkable. This was shown when she performed the Iranian National Anthem Iran, Ey Iran! with her own interpretation without any distortion.

This performance by Dayra was less folkloric and less melodic than her previous one and the pieces were selected more from classical poetry and Iranian dastgahs, which lack that populists charm. Still, her performance mixed with her passion and her beautiful voice eliminated the gap which has separated Iranian Western music. Even the older people did not feel they were listening to opera because Darya made it easy for them. She simply sang from her heart and they listened.

I’m sure these young artists are able to reach whatever level of excellence that they desire. However, art is not just excellence. A good part of it is its soul, which comes from the artist’s very being. It is our responsibility to help them maintain that spirit and soul. As an audience we should attend. We should be present with all our senses and we should demand. As organizers we should make sure to arrange concerts so that they do not interfere with another, less expensive program ten blocks away with a giant name (Keyvan Kalhor) and an more titanic organizer (World Music). As some who have a share in this market, we should challenge and we should criticize. Let us be fair to our young artists; let them grow; let them to reach that excellence that they deserve. And as performers we should not think that the audience is just there to applaud. They are there to appreciate a good work. We should do our best to give them what they deserve, too. At this point, we are not doing our job as we should.

To read the rest, click here.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Witch Doctors

I remember a story I read in my third year elementary school textbook. It took place in a village populated by illiterates. All the jobs which required any sort of wisdom or knowledge were performed by a rammal, or witch doctor. One day, a man comes to this village and is amazed by what was happening there and starts educating the people. Little by little the rammal, losing his influence and power, considers how to regain his previous position. He gathers everyone in the center of the village and tells them that the new teacher is deceiving them and leading them to the abyss; and finally in order to chase him out of the village, he pursues the teacher to demonstrate his knowledge in front of the villagers and put it to the test, and the teacher accepts this challenge. The rammal asks him to write a snake, and the teacher very happily writes on the ground “snake.” The rammal, in turn, picks up a stick and draws a big snake on the ground and asks people which one looks like snake. The answer is sadly obvious. The teacher is kicked out of the village and the rammal’s position is restored.

I read that story almost half a century ago. At that time, I thought it was already outdated and better replaced by something more relevant to our time. In my wildest dreams I could not foreseen that half a century later, we would see plenty of those rammals everywhere, not only in remote villages, but in the capitals of the world in various positions: statesmen, clerics and intellectuals.

In our country during the last twenty-seven years since the Islamic Revolution, came a genuine rebirth of these rammals in every possible shape and form. We were told enough lies, we have heard so many unsubstantiated claims, we have seen so much of the pretences and we have faced so much shameless aggression under the cover of religion, ethics, and morality that they are enough to make us complete nonbelievers. In this week’s news, president Ahmadinejad in Tehran University encouraged the students to scream at the president who would allowed secular faculty to teach. This bewildered all of us. It could give the impression that he was encouraging freedom of expression and participation in decision-making, while in reality he was just fully engaged in a diversion. Purging the universities was not part of Ahmadinejad’s campaign and he very flatly denied rumors about it. However, all the expected restrictive codes have been implemented, only worse. The government is in the process of installing Basijis in every government and ministry office, something that was not done so openly during the Shah’s time or during the first purge of the universities under the Islamic Republic.

The ban on satellite dishes and Persian broadcast media outside the country, and occasional insults to any person out of the immediate clique of the government, and hypocritical attacks and counterattacks (such as Rajabi’s letter and Shariatmadari’s defense), in all this, he is saying one thing and doing something else, further weakening our already weak faith in whatever is happening around us.

Twenty-seven years after the Islamic Revolution, one can see a drastic shift in approaches to everything in the country. Today, we have reached the point that we do not know what is what anymore. With each passing day, this curtain of delusion and falsehood becomes thicker and thicker. One does not know what is behind it and if there is a reality at all.

Our president is every day in a new masquerade and charade of some sort; one day denying the Holocaust, the other day wiping the Israel from the map. One day defining a strategy to win the World Cup, the other day claiming a cure for AIDS, one day inviting George Bush to an uncensored debate, the other day chanting the slogan “Nuclear energy is our right!” to the villagers in remote areas. It seems everyday he is trying very hard to come up with something ridiculous just to keep us all busy.

However, the result is just the opposite and even more dangerous—annihilation. That is what we are facing. We are so lost in all these pretenses and falsehood that we hardly give a damn anymore about what is happening. We doubt if there is any truth to anything at all. After all, why should we? Could we not write a scenario about how we perceive each of these events? Could we not doubt that all is part of a bigger game? Could it not be a game that Khatami is here to make peace to help the Islamic Republic? Could it be that even Ganji is pursuing the same aim in different way? Could it be that all those letters and attacks against Khatami back at home is part of the same strategy? Could it be that the entirety of the last elections had been agreed upon by all of these clerics together just to stay in power? Could it be that United State is behind all this? And how far? And how much?

It is more nightmarish than Descartes’ meditation that everything is act of Evil to deceive him. Everything could be a pure deception and falsehood except his thinking which leads him to conclude that his existence, by the virtue of his thinking, is not false and therefore he exists. But where is our existence? I mean politically and socially? What certainty is there to make us believe that we exist at all? Where is the line that we draw between reality and all these falsehoods and witchcraft around us? Or should we continue to doubt to the end? And should we even doubt that truth ever existed or could exist at all? We live in that nightmare and even worse; falsehood is so well entrenched that we think it is a way of life. The Islamic Republic has created such a fiction and parody of life that I wonder why they need to have any jails. We all are living in jail when we do not know where the truth and reality are.

That there should be something that exists is beyond doubt. There is something there that makes all this mambo jumbo worth it for them. At least they need us to believe them, otherwise they would not need to play tricks on us to portray the falsehood as reality. There is something that they are afraid of otherwise they wouldn’t go through all this trouble to protect themselves. For sure we are the reality. We must be the truth. And no one can deny us except ourselves. The Islamic Republic has to dance around itself in vain if we don’t dance with them. Their music calls for doubt and despair, and we dance to it by giving up to despair and doubt. Not only do we not trust anyone else, we do not trust ourselves either. Let us change the music. Let us change the rules of game. Let them play our game for a change, let them know that not only do we exist, but that we are well aware of our own existence. And let them know that there are about fifty million of us. Which one of them does not need fifty million votes? Let them gain it and pay for it. Let us remember that in the next election we are needed. We may still not be able to have what we want, but is it not the first rule in every game to prevent the other side from winning if we are incapable of defeating them? In the last election, we defeated our own team, we abandoned our game and let them win. This time let us win, or at least not let them win. Let us remember we have the strongest weapon in our hands, our votes. Let us use it before it is taken away from us or before it becomes a forgotten relic.

To read the rest, click here.

Khatami’s Trip: A New York Perspective

Khatami’s arrival in New York was an event which surprised me. He arrived and received a red carpet reception, an unusual treatment in New York City for someone who is no longer a head of state. I had heard about it through the American press, but I was expecting to hear more details through the Iranian authorities or in Iranian online news.

I contacted the Office of the Iranian Delegation to the UN to find out more about Khatami’s schedule, but I never received a reply.

I have never seen such a degree of respect for any Iranian official here in United State except for that which had been accorded Sayyed Mohammad Khatami himself in his previous trip to New York. For those of us who live in this country, the gathering of twenty five thousand American for a speech, and not a baseball or football game, is very significant. And the fact that speaker is an Iranian substantially adds to the significance. In just a few days he captivated the people here. Great emphasize is placed upon the Muslim Americans. His respectful manner, his dignity, his knowledge and wisdom are not missed by observers from the media. In just a few days he explained Iran with all its complexity to Americans so well that one wonders what made the clerics back home a few years ago to stop his negotiations with the US. I’m not going to be surprised if the West comes to see him as the only hope for peace in the Middle East.

I felt that we all should go wherever he is and welcome him even if we do not agree with him totally. After all, he is here to portray us as we are: good people, intelligent, rational, with great sense of humanity and peace. I thought I wanted to be somewhere close to that message to wash off all the shames which had been brought to us by the declarations of the ignoramuses which were mostly only for domestic consumption but still got carried to these shores like dust.

I called the office of our delegation in the UN; the switchboard operator had no idea when Khatami would be coming to New York. He transferred me to another person who was not in his office. After a while, I called back naively thinking that the operator, being embarrassed, found the time and the place of lecture. Alas, he said I should leave a message and wait for someone to contact me with the information. I asked if there was someone else is in the office who might know about it. This time I was connected to a lady who did not know any thing either. She said it is not her job to know and was indeed surprised that an educated person who has been here and studied here and knows there is always a division of labor has such an unreasonable demand that a person who works in the office of Iranian Delegation in the UN might possibly know where and when Khatami is speaking! I was amazed by the lack of interest shown by our officials and those who are here to represent us. I do not believe that any thing could have had happened this week in the United State which could have been more important or interesting to us Iranians than Khatami’s trip besides the very matters of our private lives.

During the last five years that Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif represented Iran in the UN, many of us Iranians who live in New York City developed a closer relationship with our country’s representative. Those from my generation may identify with this feeling that under the Shah, many of us did not have this kind of affinity with our government officials for the simple reason that they were not our government. With Khatami’s presidency, this feeling changed drastically. When he came here the last time and was interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, when he very courageously and honestly, without the slightest manipulation, answered the questions without evasion, it was so refreshing that one could forget that he or she was listening to a politician.

Whenever Dr. Zarif appeared on TV for an interview, we could all breathe and not be worried about the common nonsense of the “death to America” variety.

I do recall one evening coming back from work and seeing several security police guarding the motorcade of our Foreign Minister, then Mr. Kamal Kharazi, in front of the local bookstore. I could not resist and followed him inside just to say hello. He left his books and came towards me. I thought he noticed how happy and proud I was when I wished him well in his negotiation in the UN. That night, I thought, was a turning point in my relationship with our country. And I fully came to know that yes, we Iranians have a respectable government now and have officials whom we are not embarrassed by. And even more importantly, they became part of Iran for me because they are us. But it seems that that’s over now. It seems that that was a dream. Our representatives now just do their jobs. Khatami does not bring them any honor or pride or anything of that nature. They are just busy doing their job, and Khatami is not their job. The lady from the Iranian mission with whom I had spoken said she had a job to do, it was not her responsibility to know where he talks. No, lady, and no, Mr. Operator, we all know where Mt. Alborz is even if it is not part of our job to know it. And we all have a few photographs of our loved ones somewhere in our homes even if we don’t have any direct interest in photography and every so often we listen to the news even if we have no material interest in the days’ events. Limiting our knowing to our jobs alone sounds more like an excuse to deny ourselves the most splendid gifts that human being could ever have: the ability to perceive and react to life freely and voluntarily beyond what is dictated to us by our paychecks and our employers. It is reducing ourselves to robots. That was the official reaction of Iranian delegation to the UN to Khatami’s trip.

To read the rest, click here.

Platonic Voting Rights!

Public opinion and its role or its relation to democracy is the subject of discussion in Tehran these days. While reformists insist on the importance of direct public vote, conservatives and fundamentalists do not believe that public opinion has anything to do with the legitimacy of government, but that it only strengthens it. The arguments given on both sides are worth considering.

The reformists’ camp, consistent with their last eight years governing, calls for a mandate for the people’s directly-expressed opinion. President Khatami, in his last three speeches, has stated that the Constitutional Movement has enshrined the people’s right to vote. In another speech he says that even Imam Ali would not rule justly without the people’s will. In his very last speech on the occasion of the opening of the office of the new newspaper, Ayandeye Naw, he argues that Imam Khomeini believed that the direct vote of the people is a necessity, particularly in a republic. Khatami said that Imam Khomeini very strictly demanded that the Islamic Republic and the Constitution be subject to a referendum, even though his popularity among the people was beyond doubt a mandate already. Khatami not only finds voting rights of great importance in a democratic political system, but also whatever secures it, such as a free press, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly.

From the other camp, that of the conservatives and fundamentalists, there is a stream of statements indicating that they see neither any connection between the people’s right to vote and the legitimacy of government or its necessity. Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, in his recent interview or speech (it is unclear on what occasioned this interview took place), declared very bluntly without any arguments or explanation, reasoning or clarification, that government does not obtain its legitimacy from the people’s vote. Badamchian, the chairman of the Motalefeh Party, is of the same belief, and so is Mesbah Yazdi of the Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Jenati, Tehran’s Friday Imam, recently said that the worst day of his life was when they were discussing woman’s rights in general, leave alone their right to vote. Ayatollah Khamene’i is totally oblivion to the entire issue.

The daily Sharq, following the above-mentioned statement of Sadeq Larijani, tried to explain his view. (I do not know who wrote the article, as it is unsigned.) Here is a translation of it:

This view of Larijani is not very unusual, that “a government oriented towards human perfection and with its goal the attainment of a maxim of moral behavior” is in fact the Platonic model of the Perfect Republic, which favors the ruling of the wise and the expert. This reflects the same opposition between Soroush and Mohammad Javad Larijani. Sorush says that it is only freedom that helps us to find the truth, while Larijani denies that. And it is from here that these theoretical discussions enter into the daily life of ordinary people. While Iranian reformists do not see any other way for the future of the Islamic Republic but democracy and freedom, fundamentalists prefer to evaluate the government with morality and justice. The idea gradually enters into the details of people’s life. (sic)

Well, there are several problems with what is being said here besides its irrelevance. These statements do not follow logically, and one wonders what happened to the rules of writing and logical connection between sentences. One wonders what school of journalism allows the reporter to come to the aid of those who are uttering such embarrassing statements and tries to justify them.

The reader might question if Ayatollah Larijani is aware that he is echoing Platonic ideas. Does he agree with this? Does he acknowledge this? Moreover, reducing Plato’s ideas and philosophy, even as adapted by Muslim thinkers, to a triviality as quoted above is beneath contempt. Plato’s philosophy, as well as Aristotle’s, is such a complicated and sophisticated system that it is rightly called the foundation of Western philosophy. It is still a matter of dispute how well his thought could have been understood by his pupils and thinkers of later generations. It is accepted in the West that Western philosophy is nothing but a footnote to Plato and Aristotle and that the complexity of Plato’s world of Ideas requires more contemplation and thought for a journalist to summarize it in one sentence, “Plato did not believe in the people’s vote but believed in the rule of experts.” It is not within the scope of this essay to explain the Platonic concept of a Perfect Republic. Suffice it to say that his Republic was ruled by a perfect, just ruler who had been raised to rule, along with many others, by an assembly of experts who themselves had been selected and trained and passed tests and who amounted to about one third of the population. This model of a republic is so idealistic that it is impossible to be applied to real life, and can only be approximated at best.

Sharq should perform its duty and responsibility in the field of journalism and should do its best to ask the right questions from the responsible parties. It is not the journalist’s job to come to the rescue of those who express whatever comes to their mind without respecting their audience and their readership enough to explain it or assume the responsibility and take the blame. It is not the newspaper’s job to justify errors with erroneous statements of their own. A few relevant questions regarding what the speaker thinks about the present Constitution and his position towards those who constantly urge people to vote will serve people like Larijani and the public better. Obviously those who care for Larijani’s ideas do not care if they are in accordance with Plato or not. Larijani is a good enough authority for them, and as for the rest, they don’t read what he says anyhow. But the issue remains that most of the problems we have at this point are due to that fact that the right question have not been raised at the right time, and when an outrageous statement should be exposed as such, it became hidden by namedropping and false justifications. In the course of our modern history, we have paid a high price for letting sloppy thoughtless questions and answers be dismissed and only when they turned into serious problems have we noticed them. Most of the catastrophes have been started by exactly the sort of thing that Larijani said. Watch it!

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Someone Who Is Like No One

“Someone who resembles no one” was a poem said to be by Forough Farokhzad. This poem was published a few years after her death. There is some question of whether she wrote it or not. However, I do not recall such questions or doubts about the authenticity of this piece ever having been raised. The poem prophesized the coming of a someone who does not resemble anyone, who will spread justice and maintain equality, who is kind and benevolent, who is a savior, like the Messiah or the Twelfth Imam. The poem was published more than any other of this poetess’ poems and indeed was very popular in early 70s. I personally thought that if this was her poem, it was a sharp departure of her style, which is very personal and sensuous. Well, this consideration was irrelevant. Given the political climate of the time, there was such a need for the appearance of a savior that literary authenticity has no place among the intellectuals. We all accepted it as authentic because it was the poem of our hearts and minds. We could not have welcomed anything more than a savior or the prophecy of his arrival.

Nor did it take long for him to arrive, on a cold winter in 1979, with millions of people welcoming him at the Mehrabad Airport. (It is very ironic that the poetess had prophesized that her own death would happen in a cold winter day too, and it happened).

We all thought he is the one who “resembles no one.” An American anchorwoman, Diane Sawyer, described him once after she interviewed him as follows: “He came like a wind and left like a spirit.” I do not know a wind or a spirit, but he came and left like all who come and go, only he left more of a footprint. He was not very kind the way we expected, nor was he that forgiving. He did not distribute equally. He did not like those that were not like him. He never smiled, nor looked happy. Peace was none his concern, but war? Hundreds of thousands were killed in a war which had nothing to do with us. He was angry and full of vengeance. Well, he resembled every one else who came and ruled this country of ours for a while. He just left a legacy behind: Private virtues. Still we are hearing from people who knew him in person that he liked honesty, equality, freedom, he respected human rights, peoples’ ideas, truth, faith etc., but none of these were heard by anyone else beyond a very few who are nobody and have no place in the system now. In fact he was like everybody else.

Years later another one came, smiling and pleasant, with lots of good words and good thoughts. In fact, he came from the desert city of Yazd, the land of Prophet Zoroaster, with the same good mind and good heart. But, poor man, he was given only few years to make up for 2500 years of shortcomings. He told people that no one is coming who “resembles no one,” do not waste your time and energy, you are the one, and you are not supposed to be very different to be good and effective. He said if you need change you must do it yourself. He backed this up with quotes from all twelve imams, all the prophets, all the thinkers, from Galileo to Kant to Brecht to Sartre. He told them that the one you are waiting for has come, and it is “you.” But no one believed him, people wanted him to be that “someone,” and if he is not, then he is a liar and traitor.

People gave up on him and that “someone” all together; though, young people found their savior in Mohseni Square or Azadi Square, gathering there after any events, either for celebrations or a candlelight ceremony. Being together to midnight and listening to loud music became a substitute, or maybe a refuge, from waiting for that “someone,” and for a while it worked.

Then it was someone else who “resembles no one.” She came with a big trophy, a Nobel Peace Prize. Millions went to the airport, with the banners and placards and greetings and hope. Alas, nothing came of that either, just a big Allaho Akbar. That one was not the right one either.

Soccer games and occasional midnight gathering and celebration kept filling the gaps between the arrival of the Promised Ones.

Then came the army of journalists. Mostly disillusioned from the first “coming of the someone who resembles no one.” They were promising. They were good because they were insiders who became outsiders. They knew everything and they were the ones to expose the regime’s secrets and discredit it. Then came the arrests and murders of the journalists and writers; one by one they had little time to be heros. Then came Ganji. In and out of prison and finally in and on hunger strike for three months, with all the press involved. Then came his manifesto. That gave hope that this time “someone” is really coming. But still he was in jail.

Then the latest “someone” came. No one had prophesized his arrival. It looked more like a coup. However, he claimed that he is the one. The Twelfth Imam has signed his CV. He was specially connected to him. He went with him to the UN and kept the other delegates from leaving the room while he was talking. And some of his friends even witnessed the halo around his head while he was talking. In fact I met him, not in the UN but in the Hilton Hotel. There was no halo of any sort around his head, just a big circle of basijis around him in the middle of a ball room chanting “This blood flowing through our veins is a gift to our Ahmad.” Listening to his speech, I realized why the delegates did not leave the room, if only there was a little resemblance between these two speeches. I had never heard such an empty, nonsensical and irrelevant speech in my life, aside from what comes from Bush's White House off and on.

And then Ganji came with a new manifesto. He held another hunger strike in front of the UN. We all went there, some 150, though the New York Times said we were only 50. It was nice to see all those old Confederationists and other leftists and National Fronters etc., all professionals, journalists, writers, university professors, and doctors. Ganji, however, said that he is not that “someone,” but we need “someone” to lead us. We need someone like Gandhi. It was great! But can’t you see, man? We are not like Indians. Even if Gandhi comes, we are not going to listen to him. We are not even interested in listening to his strategy to adjust ours to his. We are going to tell him what sort of Gandhi he must be. We won’t let him even be his own Gandhi. Moreover, no Iranian could be like Gandhi. Being with the people for the people among the people is too much for us. We have to do everything by ourselves, alone.

Well he has not gone yet. We love him, adore him, but listening to him is something else, we have to think about it.

However, the latest “one that resembles no one” finally arrived. It is a book called Iran Awakening. It really resembles no one, it was published by court order! It is in the bookstores, but not on their shelves or the window displays or tables, but in the back rooms or somewhere safe, under the shelves. One has to go to the information desk and ask for it.

It is a good book, but is written in a rush, there are enough unresolved law suits and cases that you would know it is the memoir of a lawyer from the Islamic Republic. It is a very good book; it does not promise any one coming at all. She tells you right away that things are indeed very hopeless; there is a lot of gloom and doom, blackness and bleakness. But the author is very optimistic, she is a fighter and very stubborn; and she promises that she will find a way to save at least some of us. I do not think anything will come out of that either.

I do suggest that we all should get good break for a while and leave that “some one” to come whenever is a good time for him or her. Meantime, we can read a few good classics, Willa Cater or George Eliot; go to the museum and see a few good paintings, some Brueghel or Vermeer; or the best of all go to a botanical garden to see if we can find some water lilies, and if not, just sit down next to the nearest water source, pick up a piece of stone, clean it well, and examine it very carefully while listening to the water. There are things written there far more meaningful than many words. For sure it will bring us more peace.

To read the rest, click here.

Cutting off Their Hands

Let’s set the record straight.

Today I read an article in Emrooz On Line by Mohammad Ali Abtahi. He wrote it after the Conference on the Anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, during which he found a chance to chat with Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi
Apparently the comparison between the current Constitution and the old one was one of the unofficial themes among the participants. So, after the conference, Abtahi asked Dr. Yazdi, who was a Cabinet Minister of Provisional Government of Bazargan, why they did not put the original draft of constitution, which had not been drafted by

clerical members of the Assembly of Experts and did not include the principle of velayat faqih in it, for a referendum, as recommended by Ayatollah Khomeini? Dr. Yazdi answered, “Well, see how much trouble we have even with this Constitution, could you imagine who would have accepted a more liberal one?” Abtahi, with his usual dignity, writes that this is not a good explanation. He suggests that Yazdi could have said something smarter like, “Well, we meant something else and what happened was not what we expected.” It was so nice of Mr. Abtahi to try to save an old friend and colleague from further embarrassment in the case someone asked him this question.

I would like to reassure Mr. Abtahi that nothing of that nature will ever happen. We Iranians are not famous for our accuracy, as you might know, and even worse is our lack of accountability, if not responsibility; otherwise things would not be this way. After reading this article, I did send Mr. Abtahi an email asking why he did not ask this question, along with many others, a little earlier or why he did not write about it before. I hope he comes up with a better answer than what Yazdi did, I’m waiting.

Also, speaking of Yazdi, he is very interesting fellow. Right before revolution, he appeared on the scene along with a group of people, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr, Sadeq Tabatabai, Mehdi Bazargan, etc. Unknown to the public like the rest of them, but Bazargan, he produced or forged a resume full of fictitious revolutionary deeds. He resided on a cabinet seat for a while and then served as an MP and then....

They all are gone, but he is still there. We still don’t know who he is or what he stands for. But one thing is for sure: he is responsible for the most famous expression in the entire brief history of the Islamic Republic, although he has gotten no credit for it: “cutting the hands of foreigners.” I do recall that day in Neauphle-le-Chateau, when an American TV reporter for one of the Sunday morning program (I think it was Peter Jennings), in response to a question by the reporter, Khomeini said in Farsi that his main goal for Iran is its independence, and that he would do his utmost for foreigners to take their hands off Iran. What he said in Farsi, (literary phrase cutting one's hand of something) was nothing strange at all. We use this metaphor in whole range of expressions indicating “to leave one alone” or “ to take hands off something.” Though, Yazdi’s misinterpretation brought such fame to this ordinary phrase.

What surprises me the most is that since that memorable time, Heaven knows how many times this phrase has been the subject of ridicule and laughter here in United States, Europe and even in Iran, but no one ever looked to see where it came from. Whatever we may accuse Khomeini of, speaking English is not one of them, so it was very natural to look for the right source, which we did not; and Dr. Yazdi, who knew very well that he had misinterpreted that phrase, possibly because he was over-excited, could have issued a statement and corrected it and put it to rest, but he didn’t.

We still hear reference to it. The last time I read about it was just two weeks ago in Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening, where she put it down to an awkward statement of Khomeini which would only serve to further offend an offended human rights activist. Moreover, the fact that all this time no one listened to Khomeini when he spoke Farsi is beyond my imagination, and that no one came to his defense or even questioned all this noise about an ordinary expression or why none of all those people who claimed to be his true followers cared enough to tell him what was being attributed to him or even that Yazdi’s son in law, with that impeccable English of his, did not notice it. After all this time, Yazdi still keeps quiet and does not come out with a simple explanation so that the poor Ayatollah could rest in peace.

To make a long story short, the next time if someone sits next to Dr. Yazdi in some conference or meeting, could he please ask him about that. And could he also ask him who he is and what is he doing there anyhow. And finally, why doesn’t he take his hands off the reform movement before someone cuts them?

To read the rest, click here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam and Kafan Siah

This was the third performance by this talented Iranian artist that I saw. The first one was called Bahram Gur and the Slave Girl and was performed in Symphony Space a few years ago. It was a bit less than 30 minutes and followed a long monotonous piano concert by a novice young Iranian pianist. Having rescued us from the boredom of the concert and its conciseness and flavored by the delightful angelic voice of Darya Dadvar, accentuated the dazzling performance of Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam, was very promising and we all expected to see him for years to come on stage. He danced and whirled so passionately that one was impatient for his female dancing partner to leave the stage so we could watch him alone with his soul.

The second performance was Zohreh and Manouchehr, an adaptation of a play by Iraj Mirza, a great Iranian satirical poet. Shahrokh was playing the role of Zohreh, the female character. His impersonation of the female role, performed in a cozy playhouse on St. Marks St., was charming and delightful. Meshkin Ghalam, with his remarkable wit and his graceful acting, conveyed Iraj Mirza’s satirical story very well. The impersonation was, in fact, quite effective and a very creative form for performing this particular play. This second performance created an even higher expectation in the audience. He is a new hope as a new breed of young Iranian artist that we had been deprived of, at least out of Iran.

Kafan Siah, his third show, was performed in the same play house in St. Mark Place. The set design was fuller than his two previous performances and the stage was used more effectively. It included a simple backdrop screen with slide picture of historical ruins which were supposed to have been the imaginary setting of the show. Custom design, as usual, was very elegant and beautiful, and above all the audience, which during these few years developed quite a love and admiration for him, was ready to praise him generously. The story was a social narrative poem of a famous Iranian poet, Mirzadeh Eshghi, a dissident political poet. At the turn of century, Eshghi, an advocate of reform and democracy, was killed by the order of Reza Shah for the crime of his sharp criticisms.

Shahrokh was introduced to us as the winner of the Iranian Oscar, the Gold Lion, and his permanent membership in Comedie de France, which added to our expectation. However we were disappointed to see that his performance lacked the quality we expected from him. The two most significant skill that Shahrokh is famous for, dancing and impersonation, were missing completely, and that left us with less than an hour of poetry reading, only with pretty costumes, for the price of $45 per ticket. I found the performance unprepared and hasty, devoid of any inspiration or even the passion which we were used to seeing in Shahrokh’s performances. Knowing what he could have created, I was so disappointed to see there was only his pretty costume and his elegance, for which we are still grateful. But I for one am quite willing to sacrifice that for good acting. What was even more disturbing was that there was not even an innovation in his reading of the poem to make the poem easier on the ears of a contemporary audience, especially for educated, sophisticated Iranian women. Shahrokh may not believe it, but many of us are too far from being dead, or wearing a burial shroud (kafanpush), let alone a black one, to appreciate the wisdom of the poet who troubled himself one hundred years ago to describe it. Many of us can not even imagine what that kind of discrimination might mean. Many of us have never been discriminated against to appreciate the sight of a black kafanpush women. The image portrayed by Eshghi is too far from our lives or even those of our mothers, if not our grandmothers. Of course, that does not diminish the value or quality of the poet, Eshghi, but this is the problem of certain subject matter, and the particular view points, which dies or fades away through time and even locality. It is the directors’ and artists’ responsibility to bring these dead textures into the fabric of our present life so that audience can relate to it.
I can imagine that this play could have been more relevant to our time if it would have been part of a bigger collection of performances, i.e. if it would have been followed by a contrasting theme to reveal the changes which have taken place or by a play with the opposite ending due to some incident, effort or pure luck, or even simply change of time.

I hope this is only an accidental lapse in the career of this talented artist and not a permanent slump, and I hope that the receiving an award of whatever nature and value would translate itself into more efforts towards perfection and the sublime.

To read the rest, click here.

Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening

“I inhaled a great breath and belted out the loudest Allaho Akbar I could mange. Everyone, from the airport crew to the thousand of citizens, froze in surprise.” Indeed, we all did. After all, for about 27 years, whatever pertained to religion has been monopolized by some very exclusive self-appointed emissaries of God. No one expected Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, to utter those words upon arrival in Iran after it was announced that she won the prize. This is from the last chapter and, to be exact, the last few pages of her book, Iran Awakening. This matches another anecdote in the beginning of the book. When she was a little child, she recalled:

One day that year I crept up to the attic to make a quite appeal to God. ‘Please, please keep my mother alive,’ I prayed, so that I could stay in school. Suddenly, an indescribable feeling overtook me, starting in my stomach and spreading to my fingertips. In that stirring, I felt as though God was answering me. My sadness evaporated, and a strange euphoria shot through my heart. Since that moment my faith in God has been unshakable.

These two anecdotes, punctuated by “carrying the Koran” in her graduation, “receiving the Koran” as a wedding gift and house warming present from the head of the supreme court, and her wedding picture exhibiting her husband kissing Koran, indicate the aim not only of confronting those emissaries of God, but of reclaiming something that once belonged to all.

Underlying these two stories is the story of a young woman who became a judge with the hope of making an impact. Like so many of us, she went through life preparing herself for a life with which she is familiar, for a kind of life in which a woman can be a judge, and all of a sudden one morning she notices that that world does not exist any more. It is more like a dream in early morning, in which one does not know what is reality and what is dream. But then she knows which one is dream: the one which was stolen and changed by a brutal reality. And she is determined to take it back, she is fighting for it. And she succeeds. She is victorious not in the sense of a real world victory, but in a sense that she revives her dream, she reclaims the greatest of all dreams: the one which, brutally, was taken away from Iranian: religion or better to say in Iranian terms, faith.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution, ironically, wiped out and destroyed an aspect of Iranian life which nothing could restore. It smeared faith by mixing it with the ugliest establishment in the history of the human race: politics.

Shirin Ebadi’s memoir is the embodiment of a struggle to maintain and sustain life in a land that no longer has any trace of hope or any open window in it. She had to find her way in dark, narrow alleys with no foreseeable end. She gives us an account of her struggles with the members of judiciaries who are not even willing to be challenged or even interested in listening. She recalls her meeting with the conservative parliament deputies over gender equality issues, and when she presented them with a direct quote from an Islamic jurisprudence book, she is simply thrown out of parliament. Or when she is defending her client and appeals for justice and asks for the punishment of a criminal who raped and murdered an innocent child, the case is thrown out window because a few strands of her hair were showing. As a reader, one gets frustrated to the point of madness, but that is not Ebadi’s way. Her compassion for people and her dedication to justice and law is her driving force. Apart from the books written by a few opposition members, I do not recall any book written by anyone who lives in Iran and has an active life there who writes with such daring.

She is very critical of clerical rule in Iran and her criticism even includes the person of Ayatollah Khomeini, even though this is fashionable in Iranian politics to refrain from criticizing Khomeini or the Supreme Leader, now Ali Khamenei. Critics write very carefully and cautiously not to offend anything or anyone in high office. Even President Khatami, while in office, when complaining of the obstructive elements who prevented him from executing his plans, referred to them as “those”, “they”, “reactionaries” or even more obscure terms “tahajor,” as if they are some groups from out of space who have invaded the country. But Ebadi very courageously points to the culprits and hold them responsible for what they have done.

Ebadi is concerned with judiciary malfunction, abuse of power, corruption, violations of human rights, including children’s’ rights, woman’s equality, prisoner’s safety and access to a fair trial as well as freedom of expression. After she was stripped of her judgeship, she advocated on behalf of the oppressed and abused parties of these cases pro bono. Ebadi in fact not only represents her client in court, she has to come with the materials to present to the court to demonstrate that there exist laws in favor of her clients, which indeed, is ruled out of order by the presiding judges without any argument or explanation. Almost all the cases she describes in the book, including none political cases, remain unresolved. Nevertheless, dismay is banished from Ebadi’s mind. She does not hesitate to recall her mistakes and her failures and even sometimes her fruitless efforts, which result in a much more human and living picture of her.

Ebadi talks about the role of various institutions in the Islamic Republic that operate as obstacles to any sort of reform in the judiciary and social justice. The Guardian Council, which overrules legislation and has to approve the candidate for the presidency and parliamentary election, is another obstacle on top of every other problem that exists in the Islamic Republic. The criticism of the unelected council which qualifies the candidates for elected office; and criticism of the authority given to another unelected office, that of the Supreme Leader, coming from an active voice within the country, gives the objection more credibility. She even questions that why seventy per cent of the population, namely the young generation, won’t come to the street to protest. Given the political climate in Iran, this encouragement is worthy of attention.

When Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, I felt so proud and honored as an Iranian woman. I thought this award was an acknowledgement for all Iranian women, particularly those who live in Iran and all woman activists. Ms. Ebadi in fact became the “collective Iranian women.” With that in mind, I read the book very eagerly. Although the book is a breath of fresh air in the suffocating political climate of Iran and deserves a hearty welcome at least for its sincerity and its courage, there are issues that one expected to hear more about. The solitude and singularity that colors the entire book is not what one expects reading a memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. One expects a kind of movement or at least some collective activity to be associated with the person. One expects to see some sort of institution or establishment initiated or the acceptance of some sort of leadership. Collectiveness and teamwork are all absent from this memoir.

The publication of book was simultaneous with Akbar Ganji’s trip and his hunger strike in various cities in Europe, US, and Canada, whose central issue was the violation of human rights in Iran. Both Ebadi and Ganji are very committed to this issue and they both are working so hard to do something about it. Yet in practice, they both are devoid of any solution. I do not know how long Ms. Ebadi wants to bang her head against the stone wall of Islamic Republic, and I don’t know how long Akbar Ganji could stay on hunger strike, I don’t know how long women could go to street and get beaten by thugs, and I don’t know how many more journalists will die in jail either on hunger strike or under torture. Sometimes, somehow, all this repression should come to an end, something should change. Ebadi argues that reform and lawfulness are impossible while unelected officials rule over the elected ones. On the other hand, since any change in law or the constitution should pass through an existing establishment, it seems we are in a vicious circle. And being trapped in a closed circle is far from the “hope” promised on the cover of the book. What slams shut any window of hope is that extremity of loneliness persisting through the book. One person is not enough to change a system, not even a very insignificant part of it.

Ebadi’s book recalls the speeches of Ganji in front of the UN when he said we need a Gandhi. It occurred to me that finding a Gandhi is not that difficult. It is more difficult to find a kind of Gandhi who believes that Gandhiness requires a movement, a Gandhi who believes in others, a Gandhi who knows for sure that in order to be a Gandhi, there need to be “others,” otherwise even hundred Gandhis won’t accomplish anything. This strong belief in a “single” hero, which characterizes almost all the activism in today’s Iran, and is so well reflected in Ebadi’s book, destroys any glimpse of hope in me.

To be sure, the book is a light on the dark horizon of Iranian politics, where everything is taking place behind closed doors with an iron gate guarded by religion. But even though Ebadi is breaking into a territory from which ordinary Iranians have been barred for least the last two and a half decades, there remains the depressing question of whether or not she won’t get lost there. After all, how could one fight against a system single-handedly? She is also walking through a hazardous road; she has to overcome so much hardship that the reader fears her metamorphosis. As the Iranian expression goes: One has devoured so many of snakes that one has become a dragon. I hope that this does not happen to our activist.

However, valuable this book is, there are a few missing pieces.Ms. Ebadi has claimed over and over again that human rights are compatible with Islam, but never presented any arguments except to appeal to the fact that we can interpret the Koran to harmonize with the civil laws if we want to. Of course this begs the question, what if we don’t want to? This is the case with the ruling clerics. The same with her claim about the equality of women: Obviously there is no such equality in any of the Islamic jurisprudence books; for their concept of equality itself is not the same as what we mean by equality today. However, that does not mean we have to abandon it completely; there are arguments which could be built in over the principles of Islam, such as justice. As far as I know, she has never come with any arguments for her claims except when appealing to interpretations which lead us into another vicious circle since, for any interpretation to find legitimacy, it has to go through the labyrinths of the complicated system and hierarchy of the Islamic clerical order, which requires the authority of exactly those people that we are challenging.

We, too, deserve an explanation from the publisher of the book about why a book of such importance, which was published by court order, should not have a Persian-English reader. (If there was one, it is not mentioned in the book) This would have taken care of several points which, while by no means harming the content of book, did make it appear hastily and carelessly written. Any Persian reader closer to Ms. Ebadi’s generation and culture knows that the Paykan automobile in 1968-1969 cannot be clunky: the first Paykan came to the market in 1967 and indeed was a simple, efficient, and nice car. Again, it is fair to assume that Ms. Ebadi would not have choosen to write that a certain religious dignitary “barks.” One assumes that she writes in a more harmonious and consistent language, too.

Along the same lines, I did not hear the voice of Ms. Ebadi at all through this book. Reading the book, what I had in mind was what would happen if we were to translate the famous speeches of Prime Minister Dr. Mossadegh in the International Court in the Hague and the UN into the language of a young East Village poet. I’m sure it would be appreciated by many, but it would be such an injustice to our hero. His elegant, old fashion tone of voice should be preserved as well as the content and eloquent facility of his arguments. So it is with Ms. Ebadi’s book. I wanted to hear her voice, as well as some of her arguments.

One also wonders why a book of such a magnitude has not received the publicity it deserves. What is the point of a book being published if people are not aware it exists? I had to go to my bookstore’s front desk and ask for the book in order to find it. There are much less significant books in the display window and new arrival desks and one wonders why this book is not featured up front and center.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ferdowsi ... and Azar Nafisi

I have two books in front of me. One is the galley for Dick Davis’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. The other is a much thinner book, designed for young readers and on its cover, above a Persian miniature painting of men on horses, is written in Persian: Selections from Shahnameh, by Ahmad Nafisi. In his introduction to this selection, my father mentions that the idea for this book goes back to the time he started telling stories from Persia’s classical literature, beginning with Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, to my brother and me when we were no more than three or four years old and later to our children. My father always insisted that Persians basically do not have a home except in their literature, especially their poetry. This country, our country, he would say, has been attacked and invaded numerous times, and each time, when the Persian had lost their sense of their own history, culture and language, they found their poets as the true guardians of their true home. Citing the poet Ferdowsi and how, after the Arab invasion of Persia, he rescued and redefined his nation’s identity and culture through writing the epic of Persian mythology and history in his Book of Kings, my father would say, we have no other home but this, pointing to the invisible book, this, he would repeat, is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.

No, this is not Nafisi’s tribute to her father’s book. It was meant to be a forward to Dick Davis’s translation of the Shahnameh. I think I should not judge an article by its first paragraph, even if that first paragraph is already one-third of the whole article which is only two and half pages. I continued reading with the hope of hearing something of Davis or the book, but alas the second paragraph is not that generous towards either one of them.

The second and third paragraphs are devoted to her father’s account of the conflict between Ferdowsi and the evil Sultan. She admits that Davis gives a factual historical account of the conflict, but she is more interested in her semi-fictional popular account of the conflict which demonstrates more her political views than her literally insights in this particular subject. This passage ends with “my father would say… we remember the king mainly because we remember the poet. It is the poet, he declare, who is the final victor.”

This is in fact Nafisi’s favorite theme: defying authority. It pops up in almost all her writings, and has become her identity badge, like the story of her own defying the Islamic Republic by refusing to wear a veil, leading to her being thrown out of Tehran University. (Of course later on she wore a veil and returned to university, but that is different story.) Here, Ferdowsi’s defiance has become his identity as well.

Ferdowsi’s conflict with the Sultan is the only story referred to and I’m puzzled why she takes nothing else from this remarkable book for which she is supposed to write a forward. However, she does praise the skill of the poet, whose simple and elegant style kept the book alive for centuries before the advent of printing. Nafisi is aware of his skill and says: “I paid more attention not just to the stories but also to the miraculous language and the poetry of Shahnameh, realizing that the poetry seemed so unobtrusive a supportive of the stories not because Ferdowsi was a lesser poet and better storyteller but because he was so skilled a poet that the poetry became the story.” I hope someone understands what this means and translates it. Or just let’s take it as a poetic expression and leave it alone.

The trouble is that for all this mumbo-jumbo, she does not have any credentials. She went to England when she was 12 and returned almost a year or so before graduating from high school. From all I know about the Iranian school system, one does not learn any literature. We all study Persian language, grammar and work hard on vocabulary and writing (dictation, not style), memorize lots of poetry, but we do not learn any literature. She had not been there to learn even that much. Her field of study is not Persian literature, she is not a medievalist nor is she in an even remotely field, such as art history. What makes her qualify to write a forward for the Shahnameh? What does she know about the work or the author, his style, his philosophy, his point of view? Apparently nothing. One can argue that she is recommending the translation, not the work itself. But does she?

She has foreseen this objection and is prepared for it. In the fourth paragraph, she explain how during the Iran- Iraq war, she gathered together with group of friends once a week and read classics of Persian literature. She mentions among them is well known author Golshiri. I think she knows, and we all know, that we do not learn any classical literature by just a casual gathering in the middle of war and revolution, blackouts, harassment, strikes, threats, food rationing, and millions other problems, particularly if one is a mother and a wife, and working, etc. If she does not know, we know that even ten Golshiris would not suffice. Persian literature, like any other discipline, requires systematic scholarship and apprenticeship, and she does not have it.

She moves on to the fifth paragraph which brings her to her main subject of Iranian national identity. She writes “I realize how right my father had been, for the Persians, the Shahnameh is like their identity papers, their conclusive evidence that they have lived.” It is interesting that all of the sudden all the university campuses are worried about our national identity, and all these academics are coming to our rescue to find us a home and identity once in Islam , then in fundamentalism, then in modernism, then in nationalism, and now in the Shahnameh and Ferdowsism. Please, please Miss Nafisi and Co., leave us alone. We are who we are. We know our identity perfectly well. Each one of us has a name, a family name, a certain property, a place of birth, and a pair of parents. We live in some place, and when it comes, we will die and will be buried with certain rites in some place. We all have a country called Iran and as long as the re-mapping with the help of political academics has not taken place, it is still on the world map, big and beautiful with the Alborz Mountain like a crown on top of it. Yes we had ups and down, just as others. And that is part of our identity as well and is enough for us, we do not need any induced identity formulated by Johns Hopkins or Harvard, thank you.

As far as Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh is concerned, one is a poet and the other is just a book. In fact I know for sure that there are some Iranians who place the Shahnameh next to their Gathas, but even those treat it like a book, they revere it and read it. That’s all you do with a book, really, what else? After all, what is the best thing for a world order? To put the things in its own place, is not it? Is not that what the Shahnameh is about?

Miss Nafisi finally says a few words about the Dick Davis. He “convays the unique poetic texture of Ferdowsi’s great epic.” And about the Shahnameh: “ ... it shapes and articulates those aspects of Persian culture that transcend time and space, defying limitations of history, ethnicity, nationality, and even culture. This book, like literary classics, captures and articulates passions, urges, aspirations, betrayals, joys and anguishes that are shared by individuals no matter where they live and what language they speak.” I hope someone tells me what is so significant about these lines. Can we not say all this about any other epics or classics? Is it not why epics are called epics? Is it not transcending time and space, the same as defying the limitations of history?

Could we say anything more trivial than this? I am sure Dick Davis and Miss Nafisi are both intelligent enough to know that much. The problem is they do not expect their readers pays attention to these details, or better to say, to read it at all.

It is so sad that a masterpiece of which we are so proud and whose appearance on the world scene has been so long awaited is so commercialized. It is so sad that Dick Davis could not find a qualified scholar to write a forward and introduce the result of his services to the reader. We write forward to a book because it needs one. There is a function in that few pages. It is not just a collection of pompous words that are either devoid of meaning or trivial and do not shed any light on the subject or the author or the translator who has spent 7 -8 years of good life to translate this massive work. Let us eliminate these two pages and a half and see what do we miss. What does it mean to have her name on the cover of the book? Even in her own field she has published only one book: Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her short biography, almost everywhere, she has to make up for this gap and says she is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabakov’s Novels as if it were the title of a book, although it is only an article. It is highly unusual to cite in a short paragraph of biography the title of an article or interviews. How sad it is that Dick Davis needs this flake to promote his work which is so great and for which we Iranian should be grateful.

Nafisi can do something useful instead. She can read her Lolita in Washington DC, among the neocons to at least redeem herself in the eyes of Iranians. That is what she is good at, so she had better stick to it and leave our classics to those who know it better. There are plenty of them around.

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