Monday, December 01, 2014

In Praise of Idealism

"At the dawn of Islam, when the realism, rationalism, pragmatism of Islam were hatching in proximity of our land, the voice of Mansour Hallaj echoed in the market place of Baghdad running out (more likely nude) from bath and screaming “I’m God, I’m God.” Centuries later, when Islam saturated Iranian life and its reality became almost undeniable, another Sufi master wrote, “Let’s cut through the sky and design a new world there.” I do not know if any of these two Sufi masters were worried about reality, rationality, and pragmatism. "

To read the rest, click here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dog Sweat

Screen play by Maryam Azadi

In the opening scene, a few young boys are having a casual party, drinking and debating the quality of Johnny Walker Red vs. Black or Gold label while what they have access to is only a poor local vodka commonly referred to as dog sweat.
The boys’ party breaks up when one of them is called by his uncle to rush to the hospital to attend his mother who had been hit by a car on a bridge. He leaves the three other to weave the tapestry of Iranian youth and their problem for us.
The next scene is of their female counterparts. The girls, who will later each become connected to these boys, are preparing themselves for a party, putting make up on each other, having short chats about the boys, dropping remarks and even flirting with each other. And then we met all the characters of the film in a loud mixed party just for a second or so which ends quickly with a sombre, slower life.
The complex of the youths’ relationships with each other, with their preceding generation, with society’s normal and abnormal is portrayed and narrated freely by the youths themselves. Simple friendship, the cornerstone of Iranian society and culture, developed into incongruous phenomena. Sexuality emerged even more confusing without proper rules of conducts. Giving in to the expectations or following one’s will and ideas leads to indecision.  Finally, fitting into society and letting one’s identity be shaped by it or changing it to one’s desires, or simply letting go of both and submitting to whatever goes glues all these confusions together in a thematic series short episodes. 
The setting is the streets or parks of Tehran, dotted with only few scenes inside which we meet a pair of the opposite sex. Though the film gives us a chance to visit Tehran with all its noise and contradictions, it seems that the outdoor life has also been selected quite purposefully for this film, where the private and inner side of youth are closed to us as well as to themselves.
Not long into the film, I felt that I had an urge to scream, “Say something for God’s sake!” when immediately the facial expression of an actress shuts me up, saying, “What is there to say. Don’t you see?”
No, I don’t see if there is no talk, no laughter, no crying, no discussions, no debates, no complaints, no questions, no answers, not a single complex sentence. But why?
“We are in strange land my dears, where language has gone through a massive transformation.  Language as the medium for communication has lost its function where communication has lost its place in the society and culture, where the efforts are made to hide rather than reveal, where one must divert rather than to direct, where one has to misguide rather than to guide; then words are better forgotten if one has to lie,” I’m whispering to myself.
Lips do not kiss, hands do not touch, gazes are afraid to connect. It is not restraint but hiding. There is no need for censorship since there is not even any desire for of any sort expression. There is still an outcry for an “empty nest,” an empty room, a dangling key to an empty apartment. It seems that finding “that key” is the ultimate goal, though I’m not so sure that there is anything but darkness behind the closed door. Even passion is absent …
‌But little by little, I learn to hear them. I learn their language. It is very simple, their facial expressions, sweet faces with bitter and sad expressions, tell us of boredom, aimlessness, hopelessness, very gently and good-naturedly.  But beneath those bitter expressions on those faces, those cold faces, those deadly silences, one can see the residue of some drive, of some hope and some faint and colorless shadow of something that might once have been a dream or fantasy. 
They narrate their own story, as if the film were a documentary and had been made spontaneously, with actors and actresses, without script, on stage thriving to tell their stories. It seems they have something to say only if they find someone to listen, if they feel safe, if they find privacy, if they know how.
The story is also about a lonely generation which has to live an unexamined life, a life without serious challenge, without tough critics, without interaction and even without a given, the clash between two generations. A tale of living in two worlds with no connection in between, the worlds of young and old, public and private, openness and dead tradition. The story of a generation which is even deprived of the unity that should exist naturally within the family. It seems that this dual existence has crept under the skin of life permanently and has given each a double self.
Sexuality is confusing, as is expected, though there are not only heterosexual relations but gay and lesbian ones. It seems it is the main preoccupation of our young generation, torn between tradition, the mainstream, avant-garde fads or even sometimes biological needs. Gay couples that do not even dare to admit it to themselves, naively thinking that they can have it both ways, a heterosexual marriage and a supplement of homosexual relationships in the guise of a regular one. Confused, wondering why it fails...
Tradition and modernism clash with each other quite often and the youngsters, as well as parents and older generation, learned to get around it or pass by it without being affected by it or even without trying to get their point across. No, we do not hear the cliché of my generation, “You don’t understand me.” They simply assume the barrier is impassable. They are resigned to it.
And yes, resignation! It comes in all forms and shapes. A gay couple finds no other way but to give in to their parents’ demand for a conventional marriage. To make her mother happy, a girl consents to marry a gay man and give up her dream to become a pop singer, only to find out shortly after that she had made a mistake;  her mother’s real happiness lies in the tomb of a martyred imam in Najaf. 
Disillusions, failures, and disappointments all come one by one as one may expect. Kathy, our lost soul, separates from a lover, her cousin’s husband, and does not know what to do with the proposal of an admirer who appeals as a last resort to attract her “an apartment in Dubai and a car there waiting to make her happy.” This is tempting enough to drag her out bed to move out of the house let herself be picked up by the third or fourth car that stops by, “Hey! Let’s have a little fun!” Her smirk betrays her. She does not believe in having fun either, but she sits in the back seat impassively.  In a car behind her, the boy is watching her wondering if she didn’t care for the “apartment in Dubai and a car waiting” or she didn’t believe it.
And, yes, parents, the generation that in their youth witnessed all their values and learning turned into nothingness over night, are not even prepared to face the kind of problem their children may face, leave alone know how to deal with it:
A mother notices his son is gay and suffering in his new role as a married man and she cries!!
Another finds a condom in her daughters room, slaps her on the face and locks her in.
A religious mother does not know what to do with her daughter who sings underground and pushes her to marry the first suitor who comes along.
And where are the fathers? All absent. One is making money somewhere. The rest are dead, or martyred.
Even death seems incapable of bridging the gaps between these two worlds. Upon the mother’s death in the hospital, our young character, torn between the mother’s siblings, pushes him for revenge and the guilty driver and his wife beg his forgiveness. He turns away to free himself from the burden of executing this justice. “What is my right? Who has any rights in this country?” In pain and agony, in need of love and support, he is offered only the opportunity to revenge. He submits to it, thought, avenging himself. He gets into arguments with three Basijis in an isolated place in the middle of a dark night and gets killed.
Yes the movie moves quickly from one episode to another just to hastily depict the scenes of loneliness, despair, resignation, and hopelessness. It is indeed gloomy and dark, the life of generation of victims whose name we never learn.
But all through they all remain good-natured kids who simply want to live, just simple living, the only thing they do not have a right to.
Mariam Azadi and Hussein Keshavarz did marvels in this film. They both took us into the heart of young Iranian society.  I assume their personality, their passion for their profession, and their dedication has contributed to the actors and actresses in this film offering their best. Not only have they provided a safe and private place for them to narrate their story, but they carried it safe and sound to us in this part of the world to listen to their outcry. Indeed, their story came right across and sat in our heart.  So many thanks to them both for the wonderful job they did.

To read the rest, click here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Iranian Third

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you? 
T. S. Eliot

Really, who is that third who is always walking beside us Iranians in the Diaspora? Who is that “Iranian” who appears in our minglings, in our workplaces, in our parties, or in our daily meetings here and there who is not like us but has a much stronger presence than us, that invisible Iranian who is like none of us but is like all of us? Where has it come from and who created it?
The American Embassy inTehran was taken over by Iranian students during my first year of teaching in college.  Overhearing my conversations with faculty members, my students learned that I’m not American and my home is somewhere else; though, I had no idea why my accent had not clued them in! In any case, in one class, students asked me where I’m from. “Guess,” I said. After a wide range of guesses, ranging from South Africa to Sweden, we got closer to “somewhere in Middle East.” I asked them where in the Middle East. Surprisingly one of them said “Somewhere like Africa!” I finally told them I’m from Iran. “Wow! But you don’t look like one!” “One of whom?” I asked. “Those in the street in front of the Embassy.”  I’m not sure if I would have felt better or worse had he said, “Oh, we thought so!” But the fact that students who thought that Africa is somewhere in the Middle East already had formed a fixed image of us within a few days certainly made quite a difference in my life, I learned that there is another “me” walking besides me that I must make sure does not overshadow me.
I was still struggling with that image when Betty Mahmoodi returned from Iran and wrote the famous book NotWithout My Daughter. Very likely her best bet was that it would become the bestseller that it became, but none of us imagined that she would create a genre in Iranian contemporary literature and model for Iranian characters as she did. Since then, I have heard that some books are rejected by publishers because “the men aren’t abusive” or “none of the women are abused,” or “the women in are very strong and independent, not fitting our readers’ expectations.” One author was rejected for years because there was not a single villain in his book. One publisher suggested to an author, “Could you change the persona of the father in your book. He is too soft for a Middle Eastern man.”
And then arrived political about us stories with all the characters either confirming the images of the American Embassy occupation or testifying to the truth of Betty Mahmoodi’s experiences: all men unpredictable, brutal, and irrational and the women, desperate, helpless, betrayed, and beaten up in their private lives, if not tortured, raped, and, in many cases, executed in prison. These stories left nothing more for the characters to do but to defy and turn “defiance” not only into the main theme of our contemporary literature and art, but as an epithet for us, a caricature of being Iranian.
This mode of characterization spread soon to all other branches of art. An art historian, from Spain shifted her study of the history of photography from contemporary Iranian photography to the early nineteen century just to free herself from the expectation of explaining the veil and chador in modern photography or the significance of calligraphy inscribed on the body. A few painters complained that they are all expected to exhibit political painting. It seems that contemporary Iranian art is nonexistent if it is not Islamicized or politicized.
In reality, however, we write a book and create a work of art to tell the world our stories, how we experience life and how we deal with it. Through our art, we try to record history—our identity—to leave a trace for the next generation, for them to know how far we have come to get here. Our artifacts testify to the life we have lived, something to speak for us and tell our tales when we are gone. Undoubtedly life, and our experience of it, is much greater than a few symbols and traits “describing” us over last few decades. Why should this temporary passing phase take precedent over our history? And why should we create a false image, base on a slippery ground of a political page of history, instead of presenting our reality?
This is by no means to deny the emergence of a new culture during the last three decades, the regime’s brutality, the security forces’ violence and lawlessness, or even disorders among civilians. Of course there is no doubt about recurring rape, torture, murder and executions in prison, as is the nature of a dictatorial regime. An alarming amount of domestic violence can also be seen. However, literature and art are about the wider spectrum of life and not only a display of our anger and frustration towards certain period of history. Neither are the territories of our nation limited to the span between Evin Prison and Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery.
Even though the roots of many of the country’s current problems are the malice of the dictatorial regime which has created a suffocating climate for all, many of our concerns could be discussed meaningfully from different perspective. Gay and lesbian citizens are not all executed, though they still face huge amount of obstacle in their way to happiness and fulfillment in Iran’s traditional society. Women are not all facing the threat of stoning, but the local custom and the family relations and lack of communication between man and woman which allow a man to testify against his wife to be stoned in more damaging and of greater concern. If the laws of censorship stop authors and journalists from expressing their thoughts, unwritten habits of talking in metaphors, general terms, obscure references to vague ideas, and reference to unidentified entities are more detrimental still. If artists, artisans, thinkers, intellectuals, and writers do not step up to change these habits, removing censorship will be of little help.
The community of elites in the Diaspora should be more held to account in spreading these stereotypical images than any anyone else. Could we not pay more attention to human needs in a humane society? Could we not promote and emphasize the positive characteristics of our culture that has older tradition than those imposed laws of sharia which have emerged during the last few decades? Could we not contemplate a bit over the virtues we share with the community of nations and build a bridge to them as a passage to a global village rather than focusing on petty eccentricities that divide us and lock us forever in our local tribes?
While many elements may have contributed to forging this kind of model, each of us bears a still greater responsibility. It is up to us to keep the balance between the images we present to our host countries about ourselves, our nation, and our character traits. It is so unfortunate that society has become so sluggish that clichés have an easier time to register themselves. It is so unfortunate that we, as refugees, political or otherwise, sometimes have to exaggerate our grievances in order to be heard. It is even more unfortunate that we sometimes come into competition with so many that we have to turn to the most remote and the most eccentric aspects of our customs and traditions in order to catch some attention. But there are still so many of us that enjoy a kind of security and peace to be able to focus on the more meaningful aspects of our existence.
Why don’t we discuss our problems as they are? Why don’t we present ourselves as we are? The image we have created not only won’t help us to pursue our happiness in our adopted country, but will give a false identity to the next generations. Why don’t we want to take a measure against this falsehood? If we do not do it now, our children in future will have to pay much higher price to do the remedy.  

To read the rest, click here.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Ayatollah and I

47th Street was not as crowded as it used to be around this time of year. The Iranian–Canadian Human Rights Defender and Ashraf Dehghani’s leftists had their stage set at the entrance to the 2nd Ave. table.  The HRD’s dances and comic performances appeared even more avant-garde against the Dehghani group’s outdated leftist flyers published in 1975, five years prior to the Islamic revolution! All I could do was to say hello to my friend Shabnam Assadolahi and run to “Ayatollah Khamenei” to fix his costume.
A little further, in the middle of street towards First Avenue, the People’s Mojahedin had already started their act. John Bolton, speaking to the rally, was projected on a large screen. There was enough room for us to set our stage and wait for them to finish so we could start ours. Monarchists with pretty umbrellas decorated with Iranian flags and the Lion and the Sun emblem on them were gathering little by little. Their rally was scheduled in the interval between Mojahedin and us, the Special Committee to Protest Against Ahmadinejad’s Presence in the UN.
 I started quickly to fix Ayatollah Khamenei’s outfit. It went quicker and better than I expected. It turned out to be even more elegant than Khatami’s tailored robes! But there was a little problem wrapping the turban around his head. The fabric was slippery and resisted puncturing by safely pins. But it was done.  I was so proud of myself that I could make such an aba and ammameh and I walked Mohammad, the first volunteer to pose as the Ayatollah, into the cage. (Not to tire him, few friends each took turns posing as the Ayatollah!) We were not sure which of his hands were crippled, but Mohammad correctly used his right hand and placed it right over his chest exactly as the Ayatollah himself poses. Perfect! All of a sudden, everybody rushed to take photos of him and with him. Oddly enough no one abused him. There were no insults, no beatings, no tortures, no interrogations, and no confessions. Only one gentleman came and posed as if trying to strangle him very gently and softly. We made sure he got plenty of sunshine and fresh air. We even helped him dress and undress. And since it was too hot under all those garments, we gave them cold water every so often. But very soon we noticed that Ayatollah seemed to be enjoying himself behind the bars and was smiling! Oops!
Artoro, a musician from Spain, who plays flamingo guitar, started the program. One of our friends, Fawzy, read Majid Tavakkoli’s letter of from prison addressed to Khamenei. Alan Koushan played the santur. Dr. Sedarat talked about the political prisoners and I mentioned Bahareh Hedayat and Atefeh Nabavi, but since there were not enough people to read the biography of each women prisoner, most of them went unmentioned. The program ended with Sadra and Mary, the masters of ceremony, singing the old fedai song, “Winter is over and tulips are blooming all over the mountains.”

We stayed until five and then packed to go for dinner and chat with our friends Enayat and Marmar who took the trouble to come from California and from Atlanta, Georgia. (No, she was not from Nicaragua (see previous post), she is pure Persian, from Luristan no less!) We went to a Turkish restaurant owned and staffed entirely by Kurds, including a young and handsome waiter serving at our table. Oddly enough, as much as we insisted that they are Kurds with a Kurdish identity and should be very proud of their ethnicity, they refused our generous offer. Our handsome waiter, with a smile, insisted that he is a Turk and Turkey is his country.  Some of our leftist friends jokingly tried to provoke them by saying they are brain-washed, but that did not work either.  I bet later on they would regret not accepting our offer. I do not think they would receive such offers anymore. Well, at least, we did our best.
Back at home checking the television and web site reports, I could not find anything about this action. It seems that the Mojahedin won the trophy of “the only opposition with organization.” The HRD were criticized for being too much of a carnival, too festive and celebratory. We were not mentioned at all, as if we didn’t exist. The monarchists were mentioned only on the Islamic Republic’s press the way they are always referred to. It seems that no one noticed that they were the largest group, well assembled and quite orderly. However, there was no conflict among the participating groups. A few Mojaheds and monarchists stayed for our rally.  We all smiled at each other warm-heartedly, and I was introduced to one of the Mojahedin’s supporters, who immediately showed me the picture of his young handsome brother who had been killed in the recent attack at Camp Ashraf. She insisted that she was not a member of Mojahedin but only a supporter. We shook hands, and Heaven knows nothing happened.
The next day, while I was searching You Tube to see if I might have overlooked something, I stumbled on our 2009 rally, in which four thousand people from all over North America and even from Europe gathered to create such a memorable event. Joined in hope, cheerfulness, energy, passion and optimism, we marched while chanting “freedom, independent, and Iranian government.” I watched the clips of those films again and again, wondering if we had failed. Our humble, sober, and calm crowd this year did not have the slightest resemblance to that monument of desire for change of the post election year. But my dry eyes surprised me. Nostalgia? Yes, indeed, but no tears. In fact, I felt I missed all those gatherings of the past several years, the hunger strikes, the demonstrations, the marches and all, but had no hard feelings or regret over failure. Yes, it is true that those exuberant days are gone, but they left us something more valuable.  Indeed, those days were the turning point in our history. In those crowded gathering, in the midst of the excitement we all found a magical sense of belonging, something that was buried deep under the pain of being in the Diaspora for long. We all came together knowing we belong together. We are walking quickly from those days but holding fast to our sense of belonging to our homeland and to each other through it. 
This year we gathered together in silence and not in a large crowd, but we were at peace. We had come not united, and without any “organization”, or color-matched apparel, for that matter. Indeed we were colorful and varied, but our sense of belonging, conducting  so well, made us act with rhyme and harmony. Walking the Ayatollah in and out of his cage without any disagreement bears witness to our victory.

To read the rest, click here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who Tolls the Bells?

I finished the ayatollah’s costume and rushed to see the Mojahedin when I remembered I had left my camera behind. To tell the truth, I simply had not thought about it. I’m not in the habit of taking photographs. Indeed, with all the Iranian journalists around, who needs my photographs? Anyhow, I walked across the fence that had separated the demonstrators from the passers by. I saw the faces that did not have that familiar Iranian look in them. With whole range of light black, brown, and white, some with some trace of Latino-Oriental in them, it was much harder to guess their ethnicity. (Last year it was less confusing, with some 98% black, a majority of whom were kids from elementary school to junior high, plenty of elderly men and women who appeared like homeless people right from the shelter, and lots of anti-abortions signs on their chest, sleeves, and backpacks, one could easily locate their Catholic Philadelphia or Baltimore base.) A huge man wearing yellow jacket with a big laminated placard hanging over his bulging big belly was walking outside the main crowd as if guarding them from outsiders. Shyly I tried to see what was on the placard besides Maryam and Massoud and that famous while liberty bird, without appearing to look at his big belly, when with a thick Spanish accent he asked: “Where are you from”

“From the moon. Where are you from?” I answered gravely.

“I’m from Nicaragua,” he said

“Did you come from Nicaragua for this demonstration?“

“No, I came from Atlanta, Georgia, but I’m Nicaraguan.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

He turned the placard to show me the other side, which had a picture of Daniel Ortega with a ban sign over it, and said, “Do you know him?”

“Yes I do. Daniel Ortega! What about him?”

“He is the worse! I hate him. I’m against him,” he declared furiously

“But what are you doing here?” I asked again not knowing what the relevance was.

I’m against all of them, Sandinistas, Communists, they all are fascists,” he said, with a few Spanish words and turned the placard back to its original position where I could see Maryam and Massoud triumphantly gazing back into eternity.

All the benches on the two sides of the street were occupied by rows of elderly men and women wearing yellow jackets and carrying the same laminated placards. None of them was Iranian, though. The main body of the crowd, in the middle of street, were mostly younger and middle aged, with the same sort of outfit, waving a huge yellow flags towards the screen that showed John Bolton talking.

A little further away, Ahmad Batebi was standing and talking with few people. I patted him on the back and asked him if he took any photos of these Nicaraguan friends. He said he takes photographs of everyone. Then he said that he is just a journalist and takes photographs from all, just making sure that I knew he is a journalist and takes photographs of all. And that I did; of course I knew that he is a journalist and should take photos of all. I also know that once he was a student courageously waving the bloody shirt of his friend at the camera, and placed his life in danger and made himself so famous. Yes indeed, he is a journalist, and I bet a good one, and doing his job just fine.

Late at night, I rushed to the TV news, VOA and BBC Persian to see the coverage, to see my Nicaraguan friend protesting against Sandinistas, and fascist, and for the Mojahedin, cheering for Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. Alas, there was nothing of the sort. All the comments indeed mentioned that they are the most organized, the most established opposition group. I have no idea what they meant by being organized or established. If it means busing a few hundred people to one place under false pretenses, yes they are the most organized opposition group, otherwise they are hardly any opposition, let alone well established or organized.

This quasi-political masquerade happens every so often with a display of color matched vest, shirts and scarves, recently supplemented by hats and other flashy apparel, chanting slogans and waving flags, balloons, and streamers, and throwing confetti. A few bankrupt politicians, such as Giuliani, John McCain, Patrick Kennedy, and John Bolton, practically nobodies, give reactionary speeches to an organization that is placed on the terrorist list by presidents from their own parties. Well, how organized are they? What do they do? What they have achieved so far? What advantages they have gained by these colorful rallies? And what is their goal anyhow? Their base supporters change from one rally to another, and from one year to other. How could a group with fluctuating participants as such be organized?

Of course no one expects clarity and transparency from such dubious shady characters and groups. However, it is reasonable to expect the media, VOA or BBC Persian, would provide some information about these rallies and their purpose. Even considering their positions as American and British governments sponsored media, we still expect them to act as media should, provide some information to the audience. Am I the only one who ever notices the presence of hired participants at these rallies? Is that not interesting at all to the media that this so called “most organized opposition” operates this way? What is the meaning of such  rallies when the participants are totally irrelevant to the cause that the demonstrations are about?

But the worse is the absence of our own independent journalists even here in the United States or in Europe. We never hear from these demonstrations and their constituency. We hear the numbers, mostly inaccurate though, but never the breakdown of the groups. And how hard could it be if a reporter attends one of the rallies and interviews the participants as who they are, and what they stand for, and why they are attending any particular demonstration? Should not we know what each individual raising his/her voice for?

As far as I’m concerned, political groups are free to bring thousands of Martians to their rallies if they can afford to. However it is our rights as citizens to know why and how Martians became interested in our cause. While we appreciate the sense of orderliness and organizations of our Martian comrades, we would like to know how we are supposed to pay them back. Does an air or a bus ticket and a tour in the capitals of the world suffice their labor?

But seriously, what is the purpose of these fake demonstrations, fake opposition, and ultimately fake government and fake democracy? What about those seventy five million real people back at home? Shouldn’t we break the news to them?
To read the rest, click here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Aboard the Democracy Train

The following is a review published in The Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-language daily of a book by my dear friend Nafisa Hoodbhoy. Ms. Hoodbhoy was a journalist in Pakistan for about a decade, where she fearlessly pursued the wealthy patriarchal powers in the country, often at great risk to life and limb.

PAKISTAN has been described as a dangerous country for journalists. Since January 2010, 15 journalists have lost their lives here. But more than that, it is not a country easy to write about. So riddled is it with contradictions and so strong are the emotions it evokes that a writer must have superhuman capacity to be dispassionate and write without social, political and ethnic biases.

Aboard the Democracy Train — a title borrowed from Benazir Bhutto’s campaign by train for the 1988 election — is an
account of politics in Pakistan through the experiences of a female reporter, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, working in a predominantly male environment. As a Dawn staffer from 1984 to 2000, she had access to people and places which gave her a ringside view of politics in Pakistan. It goes to her credit that she put her knowledge to good use. What has emerged is a remarkably readable and anecdotal account of events in Pakistan.

For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a journey down memory lane. By skilfully weaving in the story of her own life in journalism — the society she grew up in, her westernised upbringing in an elite and privileged family, her English medium school education and her disconnect from her Sindhi linguistic antecedents — Hoodbhoy provides an excellent perspective to a foreign reader of life in Pakistan when, in spite of many dichotomies and contradictions, people co-existed in relative harmony.

Hoodbhoy puts forth her opinion on why Pakistan failed to develop as a stable democracy: “the over-indulged state had, since the creation of the nation, taught political leaders one simple lesson: when they fell out with the military, they could be shaken down like dates from a palm tree.” The period covered in the book was a unique era of transition from press controls to relative freedom that came with the abolition of the hated Press and Publications Ordinance.

Those too were not easy times for journalists who faced the hazards of physical violence. The focus shifted from institutional control to a system that tried to keep individuals on leash. Hoodbhoy gives a thrilling account of how she narrowly missed being attacked twice when her reporting angered the wrong people. On one occasion she had to leave Karachi for a few weeks to allow tempers to cool. In the section “News is what the rulers want to hide” she gives a graphic account of the intimidation of the press and its members.

The forte of Aboard the Democracy Train is its rich repertoire of anecdotes and quotable quotes. The author is strikingly objective when reporting the politics of Pakistan’s first female prime minister. There is no attempt to idealise Bhutto or gloss over her weaknesses.
Take this passage for instance: “I had misgivings about Benazir’s ability to lead. Watching her make small talk, with her manicured nails and matching make-up, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she would be no different from the westernised elites who live in a cocoon in this deeply class-divided country.”

Although the realities of the power structure in Pakistan are pretty well known — the army has wielded power even when a civilian and seemingly constitutional government has been in office — told in Hoodbhoy’s racy style, politics assumes an exciting dimension.
Two chapters — “Where Have All the Women Gone?” and “Uncovering a Murder” — should initiate the uninitiated into the
dismal status of women in Pakistan. They clearly establish how doubly disadvantaged women from the economically depressed classes can be and how winning justice is more difficult for a woman in Pakistan than a man.

The book also discusses Sindh’s ethnic politics which shocked the author. She describes the Hyderabad massacre of September 1988 that led to the murder of hundreds of Mohajirs, an “audacious attack” reeking of conspiracy. The retaliatory killing of innocent Sindhis in Karachi touched “a raw nerve,” says Hoodbhoy.

But she appears to have difficulty in getting to the roots of the ethnic problem. For instance, the impression conveyed is that the MQM was a party of the Mohajirs with which the entire community identified itself. Her account also hints at a degree of polarisation between her Sindhi-speaking and Urdu-speaking colleagues in Dawn which is far from true. The fact is that the MQM did not draw all Mohajirs in its fold. Many intellectuals as well as politically astute Mohajirs chose not to throw their loyalties with the party. The book fails to take note of how two Urdu-speaking journalists from the Dawn media group came under attack, allegedly by MQM supporters, in 1991. And in one case, the party blocked the distribution of the paper for three days.

Hoodbhoy left Dawn in 2000 when she moved to the US. The tone of the last two chapters dealing with post-9/11 years is different from the rest of the book. Hoodbhoy’s account of the ‘war on terror’ and politics of the Musharraf years lack the intimacy and personal narration of her earlier writing. Many journalists have covered this period from closer quarters. But for a reader not knowledgeable about Pakistan, these chapters should be educative.

The reviewer is a former Dawn staffer

Aboard the Democracy Train:
A Journey through Pakistan’s
Last Decade of Democracy
By Nafisa Hoodbhoy
Anthem Press, London
ISBN 978-0-85728-967-4
236pp. £14.99

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mousavi, Saint or Sinner?

As an Iranian growing up in a culture that is rooted strongly in cosmological dualism, I always took polarization as a given. It came quite natural that pop music stands opposed to classical music, new wave poetry to classical, the Theater of the Absurd to classical acting, and abstract painting to realist painting. Dualism was carried on to all aspects of life where the modern was counterposed to the traditional. It was quite natural when we placed two individuals in opposition to each other, no matter how fundamentally similar they were. However, our undemocratic political arena did not provide with grounds for such polarization of the political characters. We never had political figures to stand up against each other. We had one Dr. Mosaddeq standing alone by himself who was pushed back to exile by the Shah without finding a chance to compete with any real opposition. (If only the Shah had known this little, he would not have need the CIA’s help!)

If this trend went into hibernation during the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, it emerged fully in its third decade, though in a different guise and domain. It was when a popular personality such as Khatami emerged who charmed 22 million fans while some millions called him traitor, liar, etc. This duality of character was soon carried over to the reformists in general, and then to the reform movement itself. A movement that appeared to many to be the way to salvation was considered an intentional device to perpetuate the Islamic Republic’s tyranny.
Mousavi, an old-timer politician, reentered the political arena as a reformist candidate. Once the fundamentalist prime minister of the reign of terror, when Islamic Republic sought its survival in war, mass executions, and serial murders, boasting about supporting terrorists, suicide bombers, murderers and extremists, suddenly emerged a born again peace lover and supporter of human rights and became the candidate of reform movement, and, later a central figure in the leadership of the Green Movement.
His first speech upon his nomination stunned many of us. He said a fundamentalist in essence is nothing but a reformist and a reformist in essence must be a fundamentalist. This speech should have given us a clue as what to expect; instead it made some of us giggle, while his staunch supporters thought of it as genius.
His double messages soon multiplied. His constant deference to Imam Khomeini, the sublimity of the Revolution’s unfulfilled goals, and his commitment to the regime, the Supreme Leader, and the Islamic Regime’s ideals alarmed many of us. But for a variety of reasons, chief of which being President Khatami’s backing, he stayed immune from the scrutiny of potential voters and so came ahead of Karoubi in the polls taken during the campaign and later on in election.
It was only after the fraudulent election that he found himself in the spotlight in need of something more significant to say besides those election attacks or appeals to his wartime government record, which little by little turned into a liability for him. He was criticized more and more as the upheaval continued. Above all, the mass executions of 1988 turned out to be his Achilles’ heel.
However, the most serious damage done to Mousavi did not result from his alleged involvement in the Islamic Republic’s crimes during his term as prime minister, but from the most certain and widely-witnessed matter, namely his speeches, written and recorded. It was in this domain that he became most vulnerable.
His ambiguity, imprecision, sweeping generalizations, contradictory statements, false assumptions, taking stands on behalf of the people whom he very openly admits are not subject to his leadership, and finally flip-flopping and twisting statements became his trademark. These problems appeared in his messages to the people or the authorities, causing them to require as much interpretation as the oracles of the sibyls of Delphi. Oddly enough, those who had come to his help, mostly his journalist and blogger friends, not only failed to clarify his words, but added to their ambiguity and therefore to people’s frustration by declaring them to be pearls of wisdom.
Pages in Facebook are crowded with comments referring to Mousavi as Gandhi, a hero, a genius, a phenomenal politician, a superb manager of the wartime economy, and a political savior. He is also referred to as a murderer, a traitor, a terrorist, pawn of the regime, a liar, a cheat, and an incompetent. Although, it is not too difficult to make a bridge between savior and a murderer (as in To Kill a Mockingbird), but seeing all these contradictory characters in one person is a little incongruous to many Iranians. Sometimes I think Mousavi, being the collection of opposites, is either a bad book that is not worth a read, or is like a laboratory culture that has everything in it from extreme good to extreme evil and is therefore a good breeding ground for whatever we wish to cultivate, one of which might be democracy. Sometimes I think the man who has passed through horror very likely knows how to survival better than those who have no such experience. After all, the Islamic Republic’s style of repression is so unique to itself that only its architects know how to access its facilities. But, sometimes I think, more likely, he is a religious man who simply modeled himself after a monotheistic God who is capable of good and evil simultaneously as the situation requires, a God who punishes severely and rewards generously in this little earthly life with impatience, as if there is no after life as He has promised in the Holy Book.
Mousavi has repeatedly issued statements of his unshaken loyalty to Khomeini (who has long lost his esteemed aura among Iranians), his idealization of his premiership (based on his eight years of office in wartime), his commitment to combining theocracy with democracy, and his definition of freedom based on Khomeini’s “the people’s vote is the criteria”, as well as his constant references to “the regime’s interest.” Oddly enough, none of these, with their contradiction to his promises of reform, has become a serious topic of discussion within his camp, as if they all are political and social norms. The absence of analysis, explanation or any sort of dialogue regarding these issues has added to the fog and mist of ambiguity around him. We are all awaiting that miracle to come and clear it up.
Being ambiguous might have been part of Mousavi’s nature. It may be part of his style to be so mysterious, as many artists like to be. It may be the political nature of our country that calls for his statesmen to not be so revealing. It may very well be his way of being clever. It may be an old-fashion style of leadership modeled after Khomeini, who did not believe in dialogue or criticism. He might be a bit more modern than his model in his communications, but only in technological terms. After all, Khomeini’s idea of communicating with his followers was through a one-sided flow of cassettes from him to them. Mousavi may even think of himself as a Khomeini’s legitimate heir, in spite of his humble mode of speech. He may not even believe in being challenged. He may even be the very simple pious man he appears to be. Or, he may be an old-fashioned politician on the verge of an early retirement who was enticed to return to politics and did not refuse out of politeness.
His words, spoken (very rarely) or written, could lead us to all the above. But ultimately, Mousavi remains as unknown to us as his fate is at this stage of the game. A man who came from a fog, brought with him a fog, continues living in fog and promises even more fog. If paradise is this foggy, he is surely an angel, but if what appears to us as fog is nothing but a thin smoke, I think he is the Prince of Darkness coming from Hell. I pray for him to be the former.
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