Wednesday, July 30, 2008

“Wild, Wild, West”: The Right Hemisphere of Islamic Republic.

Eye opening , if not shocking, Serge Barseghian’s interview with the producer of the controversial film The Execution of Pharaoh baffled me more than the even the news of Photoshopped photos of missile tests.

Barseghian introduced the producer as one of the so-called students who climbed the American Embassy’s wall and “fell on the right side of the Islamic Republic’s political arena.” Indeed it was a good analogy, this division of the Republic’s right and left side. But as to the nature of its “right side,” Barseghian, a highly professional journalist, skillfully gives the interviewee a chance to portray it better than any of us could imagine.

Thanks to Serge, the interview took me to the imaginary “Wild Wild West” (if anyone is old enough to recall that popular late sixties TV western serial) where I found myself in view of the Islamic Republic’s right hemisphere which, oddly enough, in spite of all its anti-American diatribes, is politically modeled America’s own neocons. The interview revived the memory of the early days of the Revolution when independent groups led by self-appointed sheriffs took the law in their own hands and, with their private armies, were about to rule the way they wanted. Many of those sheriffs survived and indeed have been promoted to high offices.

Foruz Raja’ifar, one of those promoted sheriffs, is the producer (compiler?) of the controversial series, The Execution of Pharaoh, a derogatory title for a film on assassination of Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt, who had given refuge to the Shah after the revolution, by an Islamicist named Eslamboli. Apparently a street in Tehran is named after “Shahid Eslamboli” either in simple appreciation of his religious bravery to kill Sadat or to get even with Egypt’s naming a street for Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi or purely as an act of provocation. The government of Egypt, after some deliberation, responded to the Iranian demand to change the name of the street and probably as a good will offering, changed it to something even worse in the eyes of Islamic Republic, Dr. Mosaddegh Street, and demanded the Islamic Republic reciprocate. The second city council, with an overwhelming fundamentalist majority, voted in favor of this, though it never took placed due to a strong protest from a staunch fundamentalist Islamic group, the Organization for Honoring the Martyr of the International Islamic Movement, headed by Foruz Raja’ifar, who generously offered, “One street named Eslamboli? All of Tehran is nothing but Eslamboli.”

As why a film with such an inflammatory title should be made in such sensitive times in Iran-Egypt relations, the country which apparently had been instrumental in Iran—American relations, without the permission of the government, was answered by Raja’ifar, “Making this film was publicly announced. As a civil organization we are not obliged to obtain permission from any governmental institutions. Indeed, the government agencies knew we were making the film and they should have pursued it, and if they needed some clarification, we would have answered if they would have asked.” And her reaction to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which announced that the film does not represent the Iran’s official position? “Hearing this, I thought I was dreaming. Did not the Imam say that this Eid-e Ghorban is more holy and cheerful since Sadat has joined Pharaoh?”
Barseghian tries to argue that if the government, a fundamentalist, and not a reformist, tries to established relationship with Egypt, it must have had the support of the Supreme Leader, and the making of a film as such expresses the opposite of what she and her group advocate. It is more a display of conflict with the government they claim to support. To that, Raja’ifar is very blunt: “I need to hear it directly from the Supreme Leader. Then we would be the first to comply with his wishes” She continued, “We asked the government about the establishment of relations with Egypt and why it was happening. Has anything changed? Have we changed? Has Egypt changed? They have not responded yet, and we are still waiting.”

Raja’ifar seems to have a full autonomy in her own domain, with her own rules and laws. She questions the legitimacy not only of the institutions of the presidency or the foreign ministry, but those of the city council, Islam (Is opening a grave permissible in Islam?), the constitution, all the Iranian traditions, and human decency. She is still demanding the extradition of the Shah’s skeleton. (What does she want to do with few pounds of bones?) She had collected 60,000 signatures from the various protestors who were ready to get involved in “martyrdom operations” abroad. (The mission was never accomplished due to some considerations she prefers not to discuss!)

Perhaps this provocative film has been made with the knowledge of the government official. Otherwise, it is one of those secrets that we won’t discover any time soon, and probably not in my lifetime. But judging from the last thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s affairs, I’m not surprise at the emergence of these self-appointed guardians and spokesmen ever so conveniently exercising their right of freedom of expression. I’m not so sure as to the production of a film with such a scope in this stage of our history would be just a mere coincidence or the simple documentation of an historical event; but it certainly resembles many of the coordinated political events occurring in the Iran, as parts of an ongoing Islamic Republic political maneuver, and their way of sending a message and communicating their diplomacy with other nations.
If that is the way the Islamic Republic is managing its affairs, so be it. I can even desensitize myself to the emergence of these autonomous ringleaders, and their activity. But it is difficult to ignore their effect and its reflection on us all. A film as such portrays us, the Iranians, as Raja’ifar intents, as hateful, aggressive, wild, unbridled horsing around a lawless land. It is interesting that the government officials who are so sensitive towards “protecting the public order and social stability” turn a deaf ear to all this rowdiness.

Raja’ifar, in her interview not only takes us to that other side of the Islamic Republic, to the wilderness in which no one is accountable to any one else anymore, a primitive wilderness in which a chief rules by virtue of his power and nothing else. She asserts her chieftainship as well when she claims that it is the government that should respond to her regarding foreign policy! I wish we all had so many rights! Wow! Such a respect for democracy, for people, for law, for government! Such a distinguished model of citizenship!

Oddly enough, Raja’ifar is not alone. There are whole range of these wild ringleaders in the country who do whatever they want and say whatever comes to their mind, and all are under the umbrellas of the “revolutionary zeal” and “devotion to Imam Khomeini and the Supreme Leader,” while in reality they might very well provide a cover and shelter to the government to get away with many of his wrong doing by claiming, “Well, it is not our position and these are private citizens expressing their ideas!”

It is interesting that as the result of this film, which, even though it is not being distributed, has found its way to Sadat’s family, the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated; the soccer game they had been scheduled to play has been cancelled, the diplomats have been recalled, and still no one is questioning anybody regarding this film. In part of her interview she said that, “The Egyptians are not free in their country to say what they want and do not understand that in our country there is the freedom of speech and we can express ourselves freely.” Truly, I did not know that either. I bet lots of journalists and activists in jail do not know it either, but we all know it now. Yes, we have freedom of expression in our country, but just in the right the side, remember!

Still, there is something more to this interview. It legitimizes the use of pronouns “they, them, and you” not according to the rules of grammar, but as opposites to “us.” I confess that I have used the pronoun “you” and “they” here and there occasionally in my articles non-grammatically, and I should admit that drawing that line never came easy and it won’t be easy now either. However, the pain of being part of the wilderness and lawlessness is much too strong to stop me from continuing this practice.

Furthermore, a film as such, even if it is necessitated and sanctioned by the Islamic Republic’s diplomacy, still bears bitter results. A film, like a book, is an artifact which remains forever. For years to come, there will be “Iranians” making an insulting film about some other country’s leader, there will be “Iranians” who demand such a barbaric request as to extradite the skeleton of a man who died years ago and happened to be a dictator in his life time, oddly enough very much like the current regime but a little less murderous and a little more lawful.

But really, who are these people who dare to talk in our behalf? Who are these Raja’ifars who equate our cities to a terrorist? And who are these people who are so immersed in the pool of hatred and revenge as to demand the skeleton of a man who died thirty years ago? And who has given them that authority?

What sort of civilization do they represent? Is it that of Islamic civilization? Surely it is not Iranian. We all come to the world, live for a while, and go. Whatever our relationship with each other in this life and in this world, when we die our body is respected regardless of how sinful our souls and how malicious our relationships were. The body should be disposed of with respect, whether it be the Shah’s or anyone else’s. Raja’ifar and all her 60,000 signatories could portray themselves as evil as they want, but they should leave our nation out of it. We do not demand anybody’s body for better or worse. Not us, we do not wish to be included in this wild, wild world, although we are included if we do not separate ourselves, the last remedy left to us.

In the absence of any wisdom to remind these fellow “wild” and “free” citizens that every inch of Iran belongs to all Iranians, Moslem or otherwise, and Khaled Eslamboli has no right to any of it, we, the residents of the left hemisphere, have to remind them that at some point their reign is going to end, just as it did for all who invaded this great country of ours; and what would remain of them is what has remained of others, just a name. The only difference would be that there would be left more records of the Islamic Republic than that of the Mongols, or even Pahlavis for that matter, thanks to professional journalism and multimedia. If the past history is registered just with scattered references to terror and violence, the Youtube abundantly spices the Islamic Republic’s violence with a bitter and sad laughter and holds them all afresh and intact for ever. Though I’m not sure that the generations coming, long after we all are gone, will be able to have even a sad laughter at these dark pages of history.

To read the rest, click here.

Just Stay Aside and Be A Viewer

[The following is a translation of an essay by Bijan Safsari.]

In his memoir, Bozorg Alavi, the famous Iranian writer, recalls:

Ostad Dehkhoda would come to visit us occasionally. During the summer, we would gather together in one of the cafés in Lalehzar Alley. The café was inside a large garden. There was a little path in this garden leading to a little pool. An assortment of geraniums planted in clay vases was placed all around this pool. One night, we were sitting together ten feet away form this scene and nagging. We thought we could straighten out the whole world. Ostad listened to our conversation, our criticism, or our fault-finding, and, realizing that we were all unhappy with the current situation, looked at the pool shimmering under the light cast from a lamp above, and said, “What’s the matter with you guys? Why you are so sad? Look at that scene under that light and see how it emits beauty and freshness. Just try to enjoy it. Why do you want to go closer? Each one of these mosquitoes and insects carries thousands of malaria, cholera, and hepatitis germs in them. Let them do their job and you sit aside and watch the beauty and charm.”

This anecdote is very similar to the story of some of our friends and colleagues who unnecessarily expose themselves to the dangerous and deadly mosquitoes of the world of politics without being aware of the political guile, with the hope of regaining lost opportunities. They may nurture a vague idea that if they succeeded, they would leave a good name behind and would be remembered as a savior and a hero in the struggle for freedom. What they are not aware of is that in this chaotic market of politics there is no commodity but lies, deception, and tricks, and what may appear as freedom and liberty in this desert is none but a mirage.

Many might criticize the writer of these pages and object, how could one gain freedom without struggle since it is an ancient proverb that “Rights must be taken” and in the entire history of struggle for justice among the nations, people had never gained any liberty, freedom, or independence by sitting idle. Iranians, too, have never done any different than this ancient wisdom.

In my humble opinion, while agreeing with these words of wisdom, we have to note that what we have all read and learned about struggling and fighting for freedom and justice belongs to the time which today is considered ancient history and old legends. Our time is not the same as our ancestors’, nor are we ourselves the same as our forefathers. There is an anecdote that once [Prince] Zell ol-Soltan visited one of the stables of one of the Bakhtiari tribe’s khans. After the khan showed all his horses one by one and bragged about their breeds, Zell ol-Soltan, nostalgically, said “Khan, what happened to horses like Rakhsh, Samandar, and Shabdiz? Why we do not have those breeds anymore? Where did they disappear to?” The khan answered, “Your highness, those horses where ridden by men like Rostam and Parviz and are gone with them.”

Now why are we neither like our ancestors nor our time like days gone by? I can see only two reasons for it.

First: Thirty years has past of what we mistakenly called a “revolution”, and we are still dreaming and longing for what seems to be impossible. Since a century ago, we, the people of this old country, have faced and borne the wounds of swords, daggers, and bullets in our chests in order to have a house of justice, a house of the people, but alas, no law and no justice obtained. After any change and movement in the system or even the governments in our old history, it took us at least half a century to live in injustice just to find out:

I expected to find a trace of the Kaaba
But found that all roads lead to Turkistan.

And that is while our ancestors were not as we are today. They never gave in to injustice, nor did they ever leave a day’s work for the day after. They were not delusional, waiting for a hero or savior.

Second: in our vernacular, this is the age of treachery, and as a matter of fact, this term connotes politics. What has passed to us these last thirty years is testimony to this claim. From the time that they witnessed the picture of the beloved in the moon to today, where they are wheeling and dealing behind closed doors, when every passing day by revealing some crime, the foundation of the nation’s trust is shattered so badly that it has become difficult to differentiate between friend and foe. For instance, have a look at the figures indicating that American exports to Iran has grown by a factor of ten after they labeled us “terrorist,” and this while the whole world, on America’s insistence, is barred from having any economic or commercial relationship with Iran. In addition, our statesmen, in spite of calling the United States an enemy of Iran for the last thirty years, have make a deal with this “Great Satan” behind the scenes. During the last few days on Saturday, July 12, in the Voice of America which has become a major source of news for many Iranians in Iran, in an interview with a retired official of the United States State Department, the secret meetings (as well as some open ones) between the Iranian and American high officials were revealed. Though, it may have been a political trick to embarrass and discredit its rival; still the quick and easy shut down of the opposition’s broadcasts and agreement reached regarding the final part of the program, lead us to put aside our optimism and believe our statesmen’s claim that the possibility of the US attack should not be taken so seriously.

Now, given it all, shouldn’t we take Ostad Dehkhoda’s advice and just sit aside and be a spectator?

To read the rest, click here.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good Hejab by Choice

One of the first questions raised by Iranian women when Khomeini first appeared was if the Islamic hejab was going to be mandatory. Imam Khomeini’s answer was a blunt, “No.” I think he kept his promises and never issued any order in that regard. However, a year later, when the regime established itself and no one would dare ask such questions, his son-in-law, Ali Eshraghi, who has gone to Khorramshahr to investigate the oil worker crisis, came back with the solution of mandatory hejab! Of course, before that some ministries, such as the Foreign Ministry (of which Ebrahim Yazdi was in charge) had placed big boxes of rupushes and maghnes at its entrance for free to encourage modesty.

Prime Minster Mehdi Bazargan, more experience in politics and more familiar with Iranian culture than anybody else around in the government, disagreed with the whole issue. It is well known that he told Eshraghi, “Don’t wake up this sleeping elephant. If you let it out, you can never get it back into his cage. Do not touch the women’s hejab.”

Well, the hejab became mandatory, women protested, but demonstrations were brutally crushed. I heard from several women that during those days of protest, if it had not been for the generous help of shopkeepers or families along the way, they would have been killed.
With the start of the war and its escalation, the hejab, along with other women’s issues, became secondary issue and gradually turned into law without being challenged. But as soon war ended, women, the younger generation in particular, started their own innovative ways to express their dissatisfaction with hejab as well as other issues, forming a variety of associations, publications, NGOs and online institutions.

Some thirty years later, this piece of cloth over a woman’s hair has turned into a major tenet of the Faith. It is no longer a sign of discriminating believer from infidel, its original intention in the time of the Prophet Mohammad, peace upon him; it is not the sign of modesty, as interpreted by the clerics in our neighboring Islamic country Pakistan, with over a hundred and thirty million Muslims; it is not incorporated into our traditions and customs, as has happened in South Asia and Africa; and it does not even indicate piety, since it has been used by a wide variety of women, including those of ill repute. Instead, it seems to have become a weapon as well as a shield: a weapon in the hands of the ruling authority to curb the most active, united, and organized population in the country, of course with minimal success, and a shield for many women who think covering themselves in this fashion would bring them the reward of a few inches of room in the assembly of the holy, with no greater success.

However, I have known quite a number of pious and religious women before and after the revolution who wear the chador, not to show off their religiosity, but as a modest covering simply to draw less attention and somehow be invisible. The sincerity and honesty of their intent always aroused our deep respect for this article of clothing. I do not know of any Iranian little girl who has not been drawn to this fanciful, cozy device at a certain age. It was a natural stage of life without the interference of any police chiefs or basij officers!

What brought me back to this piece of clothing was a report from Paris and few photos from Oslo. The report from Paris was that of Fakhr os-Sadat Mohtashamipur, a reformist and a women activist, participating in a conference of women scholars. She had delivered her talk while covering herself in a black chador. Noticing the oddity of the situation (credit to her), she felt obliged to explain it to her audience. Apparently, prior to her trip, one women friend half jokingly told her, “No one will listen to what you say if you appear in that outfit,” referring to her chador. To prove her wrong and also, as she said, “being hurt emotionally by all the debates of these last few months regarding the superiority of chador over the scarf (she indicates she has chosen the chador of her free will), she decided to vent her frustration as well as to prove that “people would listen to ‘just words’ even if one wears a chador,” using the platform provided to her by Association of Women Researchers. (It is interesting that since last year, when the ruling authority started to abuse their power to brutally treat women who are “bad hejab”, we hear more about the complaints of women who are “good hejab by choice”—lets call them GHBCs. They are upset because they are considered by those “bad hejab” not as friends but as foes. The unkind looks and sometimes hostile glares of the “bad hejabs” became very hard and unbearable for these GHBCs!)

I do not know what sort of reasoning she used to convince herself, but to my ear it is most incongruous and odd. If a friend makes a joke, one can either take it lightly or answer it in kind. Why should she take it so seriously? Also, what possessed her to think that we who dwell in the West and are educated here pay any attention to appearances one way or the other, or place the same importance on them that the mullahs do in Qom? Most of us receive our information via radio or internet or books, and most of the time we do not know what the speaker or writer looks like or what he or she wears. How did she manage to form such a superficial impression of us?

But given all this, how did she come to the conclusion that she achieved what she was after? What evidence does she have that we, the audience in West, were not overwhelmed with her appearance and listened to her “right or just words?” We might not have! Indeed, we may have been so turned off by her arrogance and her self-righteousness and not by her chador as she expected, that we said to ourselves, “The hell with it, lets take a nap!”

But really Ms. Mohtashemipour, what did you achieve? We here have a life to run and frankly we do not give a fig how you appear on a panel discussion, and it does not matter if you want to cover yourself in hundred layers of chadors voluntarily or otherwise. When you appeared on stage with that outfit, you appeared mostly as a confused, immature woman who did not know what is appropriate. Your further remark and explanation, as it was posted on your blog, embarrassingly enough, confirmed that you cannot even separate your emotions from your work or at least set a priority. Ironically, it was you who placed such importance on your appearance that you forgot to do your homework right and began with a statement like, “Women stepped into the social arena with the founding of the Islamic Republic.”

Let’s imagine that you had used your platform to say the following instead:

My choice of cover is the chador, and that is what I have worn voluntary all my life, but today, as a sign of solidarity with millions of my sisters back home who are forced to wear it against their belief and will, I would like to present my talk with my head uncovered, first to express my sympathy to those who are doing what is painful to them and second to tell those pious Moslem that fresh air touching my hair does not take the least away from my piety and religious zeal, though I feel pained by doing so.

Let me assure you as to what would have happened: You would have ended up jobless upon your return, if not in Evin Prison. Needless to say this would not have been for displaying your hair, but for your solidarity.

(There is one issue I can not resist mentioning. In our Western education, we have learned that choice is meaningless if there is no freedom and liberty and if variety is not provided. Choosing the only option “imposed” on us is in fact a psychological trick to deliver ourselves from the pain of humiliation caused by the helplessness of being forced into a situation. The Christian doctrine of “turning the other cheek” based on the above-mentioned principal was advised when the Christians were under Roman occupation and enslaved. It was meant to ease the pain of the torture and hardship they were suffering. While millions of women in Iran are forced to wear a dress that they resent without having any other option, “chador is my dress of choice” is either a euphemism, tinted with manipulation, or just giving up the shirt when our jacket is stolen, just to relieve ourselves from the pain.)

The second jab came from photos of Masumeh Ebtekar, who was sitting next to former president Khatami in a conference in Oslo. It seems she wore two or three chadors, one on top of the other. Here in the United States we have an expression: “Converts are the worse kind.” I think it is true about Ms. Ebtakar. What is the meaning of those chadors and scarves which recently have extended to cover her hands as well? Do these yards of black fabric (exactly eight and half yards make a chador) have any spiritual function or is it just a statement? Clearly being devoid of any piety, it must be the latter, but what is it? That how virtuous we, the carrier of that black tent, are? That we are better than the others, purer, more pious, more clean? Or does it indicate that Masumeh Ebtekar can sit on a panel of significance with this odd and out of place black cloth wrapped around her, indifferent to the surrounding norm? Then what? Suppose that the entire audience nodded their heads as an assent to her existence as such. What is achieved by all this? Where does she want to go from there?

In every society, more or less, there is a sort of standard of appropriateness for dressing in public. Islam’s bar for body covering might be higher than some other cultures. But Iran is not an Islamic country per se; we are Iranian and have our own culture. Even our Islam is very much Iranianized. Thirty years is too brief, next to null, to establish such a bizarre institution in our society. Of course, women should choose their clothing freely if there is any option. If one wants to cover herself completely to be invisible, it is her choice and is respected. I do not deny the force of brutality, I do not deny the fear of physical pain, I do not deny our limits in tolerating humiliation, and I do not encourage anyone to challenge the ruling authorities since I don’t confront them myself. However, it is the least to expect from our reformist friends who claim to be the torch bearers of progress and civil society not to submit, leave alone cooperate, with the ruling establishment in implementing their invented institutions. The chador, even if it is a pure Iranian invention as some have claimed, has never been institutionalized as such in our country. Indeed, its primary purpose was a way of protecting the dignity of the poor and humble who could not travel with the trappings of the rich and haughty. It was never meant to protect the outsider from the evil emitted from our hair.

A century and a half of the dark ages of the Qajar dynasty followed by the totally different era of the Pahlavi dynasty is a good indication that even if the Islamic Republic lasts for a century, still the institutions, which do not fit our culture, won’t take root in Iran. I would like to call those GHBCs’ attention to the pictures left from the parties thrown in various clubs on Women’s Day in commemoration of the abolition of female veiling. It is interesting to see how so many women were ready to leave harems and hejab altogether and grasp the freedom, even if it was just a superficial aspect of freedom. Please go to the family albums and look at the faces of grandmothers and grand-grandmothers, proud and happy in their western cloths with those pretty hats. Even better, look at the pictures of early women’s associations and high school graduations and see how confident and determined those women looked in their western apparel and their new self-image looking forward to their new horizon.

Ms. Ebtekar, Ms. Mohtashamipoor and other GHBC ladies, you can appear in any outfit of your “choice” anywhere as individuals, without any justification, explanation, or apology. However we all should keep in mind that millions of us do not approve of that black cloth and that it means nothing but a cruel means of suppression and domination, and, ultimately, punishment. No, we do not accept it by “choice,” as you may have noticed, and not even by force. You GHBCs, you are not one of us, not because we do not believe you, you really might have “chosen” to be clad in that black shroud quite willingly, but just because you are unhelpful. Do you understand? Precisely when police were arresting innocent women and beating them in public for few strands of exposed hair and “their choice” of dress, you choose selfishly to stick to your favorite piece of cloth, which, incidentally happens to be what the rulers try to impose on everybody. And even worse, you get upset and hurt when those women, while beaten with clubs by another GHBC police woman, with blood pouring out of them, look at you with disgust and resentment. No ladies! “Choice” is not the right term. “Betrayal”? That might do. “Self serving”? A little better. “Opportunist”? Bravo! You said it right.

But sisters, hold on tight to your chadors while climbing up the ladder of your choice, but be careful not to fall off. Remember up there everybody is like you yourself, self-serving and self-righteous. One might have one more layer of covering than you, and that will do! I’m warning you, it is very lonely up there! And lonely down there! Watch out! But still, good luck to you all, if that is all you are and that is all you want and that is all you can offer.

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