Monday, August 14, 2006

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This review makes me want to read the book. What can be done to get a copy? Or is the English version so far from the original Persian that it won't capture the wonder and awe inspired by the review?

Is the reviewer in a position to translate the book into English? Who is the right publisher to take up such a recommendation or proposal?