Thursday, January 29, 2009

'The Ayatollah Begs to Differ'

Many fans of Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd doubtless became familiar with him when he plugged his book on The Daily Show. During an amusing back-and-forth with host Jon Stewart, Majd outlined parallels between misperceptions of the U.S. abroad and of Iran in the U.S. and between religious conservatives in both countries. While Stewart riffed off the comparisons, Majd came off as funny, knowledgeable and urbane and, as is often the case, there for much too little time. The same can be said for his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.It's smart, funny and sophisticated; reading it is a pleasure. But it's a shame to finish it and wonder what else could be written.

Majd was born and raised in Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was a student in England during Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power, and he now lives in New York, where he has served as the translator for both former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami (he and Khatami are distant cousins whose families come from the same small village) and current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In sum, Majd is something of a native son and a western cosmopolite. He's fluent in both languages and worlds, in both liberal secular democracy and in Islamic Iran.

His background and current life seem to inform the structure of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. It's written in a breezy style that dips periodically into broader thematic aspects of Iran but mostly flits in and out of revealing — but not necessarily fully anchored and thematically explored — anecdotes. The reader can envision Majd the Raconteur, telling these stories while at table with a dozen Americans, holding a glass of burgundy and tilting his head back to remember detail.

This isn't to suggest the book is shallow; it's just a little loosely organized. Majd's two trips, in 2005 and 2007 blend together at times, and only after asides can the reader tell whether someone is in power, has lost power or is about to gain it. Sometimes an anecdote follows a mini-essay within a chapter, and it seems as if the anecdote is meant to illuminate that essay but in fact segues into a subsequent essay. While the periodic dips into story and explanation keep the book lightly paced and entertaining, it nonetheless makes it difficult for full arguments to cohere.

Which is fine: it's not meant to be a thoroughgoing thematic breakdown of the sociology and politics of a large nation. Differ tours Iran in such a way to highlight — as the subtitle tells us — "The Paradox of Modern Iran," and paradox is often best explored through anecdotal counter-examples. What's important, here, is that most readers likely come to the book knowing nothing of Iran and come away with a commendable understanding of the differing sociopolitical currents within it. The book works best as a primer — one, especially, for American audiences accustomed to monolithic and hysterical visions of Iran — and like all good primers, it's full of stories.

However, walking away from it, it's easy to see three main themes that Majd wants to advance to promote a balance in the western consciousness:

A Nation of Persian Gardens
The conception of privacy in the Islamic Republic, at least in the west, envisions the absence of it. The western perception of Iran always invokes stonings, women trapped behind the hijab and roving gangs of religious police measuring hemlines. Majd is quick to point out that the rules for the hijab are as protean in the hands of Iranian women as the rules governing skirt length are in the hands of girls who attend American high schools. A diaphanous scarf tied atop the head follows and subverts the requirement that all women be shrouded. Even Ahmadinejad, who when campaigning for the presidency vowed to restore the modesties of Sharia law, makes little more than token effort at enforcement of many public proprieties. As is the case with permissiveness in America: once permitted, never rescinded.

Public enforcement dwindled under Khatami's liberal presidency, and once accustomed to those rights, citizens will not relinquish them without punishing the parties who take them. Ahmadinejad, like any person who wants to remain in power, knows that shrouding his people means burying his political capital, and each summer's blossoming of bare arms and heads brings with it merely a few days of enforcement to maintain the polite fiction that enforcement exists, before it is abandoned.

But this mere pro forma approach to Sharia takes a backseat to the fundamental Persian notion of privacy, one that Majd elucidates via the metaphor of Persian gardens.
Persian culture, the culture Iranians of all races deem superior to all others in the region... places a remarkable emphasis on the home, privacy, and private life, and perhaps no other civilization has delineated public behavior from private quite as much. Traditional Iranian houses, with imposing walls surrounding them that afford absolute privacy from roving neighbors' and strangers' eyes, were built around gardens that Persians value as much as the homes themselves. Today in big cities such as Tehran, where houses have ceded much ground to apartments, Iranian sensibilities still exhibit themselves in the thousands of four- and five-story apartment buildings where every unit is occupied by either members of the same family or, at the very least, good friends.

Iranian society by and large cares very little about what goes on in the homes and gardens of private citizens.... Even in the early days of the revolution that brought mandated Islamic behavior to Iran, most Iranians felt secure enough in their homes to do as they pleased, whether it was Islamic behavior or not. Government or quasi-governmental raids on private homes where parties were being held and alcohol consumed were common enough in those days, but the truth is that the way the un-Islamic parties were known to the authorities was that they were loud enough to be heard on the strets or by neighbors, and not because the government was actively spying on the private lives of its citizens.... Today, despite a deeply conservative government in power, there is no shortage of alcohol- and even drug-fueled parties in metropolitan areas, and there are, despite persistent fears of a crackdown, practically no attempt by the government to breath the walls of the Persian home.

The walls of the Persian garden are, in their figurative sense, movable. Anywhere there is privacy, a Persian feels surrounded by his walls and therefore at ease. (173-4)

Other than liquor raids in the early days of the revolution by overzealous komiteh or Basij members, intrustions into privade life are extremely rare, and Iranians have no fear of expressing their opinions in what they deem private space, their "movable walls" if you will, which can include a café table or a taxi and which would have been unthinkable under the so-called progressive last Shah. (116)
Majd describes a state that mandates public propriety while also granting almost total private liberty. Whatever you might think of the hijab, an Iranian woman at home watches illegal foreign satellite TV, surfs any part of the internet via proxies (whose addresses citizens frequently text to each other, in an act of rebellious but common solidarity) and can drink herself stupid. As can an Iranian man. Prostitutes are numerous, and premarital sex isn't uncommon — a fact Majd relates via an amusing story about trying to donate blood and having to admit that he committed a crime by being unmarried and, recently, laid.

The foundational element of private permissiveness does much to explain political conditions in Iran. For one, as said, once something is permissible, its removal presents a great liability. For another, a society with freedom at home necessarily has less need to agitate in public, because freedom already exists. The Iranians as Majd describes them are a nation committed to or swept along by gradualism.*

* — This common belief in gradualism and privacy in the home also explains why the Shah earned so much enmity from the Iranian people. Because the Shah's authoritarian regime insisted on change right now, forcibly removing the hijab from women who chose to wear it, it failed to recognize choice while allegedly enforcing it. To be sure, many women probably left the home in the hijab at the insistence of male relatives and thus had no choice in the matter themselves, but the polar and absolutist gesture made no allowance for choice and thus was just as noisome on a personal liberties level as mullahs' insisting on the hijab in the first place. More importantly, the Shah's regime relied on domestic intelligence — the SAVAK — that intruded on people's homes, eroding the sovereign sense of security within one's own walls. While we might condemn the Islamic Republic's demands on its citizens when they enter the public sphere, it is impossible to discount that the Shah also placed public demands on his citizens while enforcing them in private as well. Combined with his authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption, it's easy to see how his dual public/private enforcement of policy proved volatile.

In the Islamic Republic, the private space is virtually immutable, while the public confines inexorably erode. This explains the absence of an ardent revolutionary element as well as the tacit acceptance of things as they are: because the certainty is that things as they are own nothing but temporary purchase on the Iranian people, while nothing supersedes the right to self-determination within the home's confines.

Death to America and Other Pleasantries
Both Farsi and Arabic possess an innate and structural poetry alien to the ever-edited and expanded English of the western world. A frequent reader of news about the middle east will eventually pick up on that, but Majd takes care to educate even the unfamiliar about the flowery involution of Iranian verbal customs. The most obvious caution that he offers is that, of course, "Death to America" does not literally mean "DEATH to AMERICA." This is, after all, a language where the most common expression for surprise — Khak-bar-saram, "May I be covered with dirt" — isn't about being knocked over with a feather but rather about being killed and buried with dirt by whatever the revelation was. The Koran itself is a fiery and poetical document — similar to the Old Testament in that regard — and when combined with the social and tactical finery of Persian tradition, Iranian discourse becomes much less literal than tabloid headlines can even grasp.

One such Persian social tactic that Majd outlines is that of ta'arouf, a kind of ritualized self-humiliation. Anyone who's ever attended a dinner party they dreaded and said, "It's a pleasure to be here," knows something of ta'arouf. It's an exaggerated politesse that depreciates oneself in service to one's companion, often to mutual benefit. The person who hates attending the dinner party compliments it with grace, and the host (who himself knows the pain of obligation in attending) says, "No, indeed, it is my shame that you had to come to such an uncomfortable and unfitting home. You honor me by deigning to visit." But it's also a compensatory gesture for a people accustomed to autocracy or imperial exploitation. Consider, as Majd describes a probable origin:
If a nobleman who had to genuflect and demean himself in the presence of royalty met a fellow nobleman, what better way for them to wash away the bitter taste of their servile behavior in their king's presence, even while seeking some political advantage over a peer, than to engage in a little ta'arouf with each other? If a merchant met a fellow merchant, what better way for them to alleviate the humiliation of daily reminders that they were servants of the nobility? (108)
But this kind of conversational formality not only aids in lubricating social relationships but also plays a part in business and diplomatic strategy. The idea of self-limbo, of seeing how low one can make oneself go, effects a kind of bargaining point. For example: you depreciate yourself; your interlocutor does the same, but who stops? Because he who lets you go further and then pulls up short essentially wins.

Interestingly, this strategic humiliation of ta'arouf informs Iran's position as regards the Holocaust. Majd is quick to point out that most Iranian intellectuals do not deny the Holocaust and that the perseverance of disbelief about it amongst the population owes more to a lack of education about a period of European history that didn't involve Iran than to any actual malice. More to the point, Majd notes that many European Jews were rescued by Persian expatriates in Paris, who arranged for their safe transport to Iran — which is still documented in Iranian archives — where they currently comprise the largest ethnic Jewish population in the middle east outside of Israel. Obviously, then, denial of the Holocaust can only be ignorance or artifice.

But here is where Majd advances a pernicious and fascinating understanding of both ta'arouf and the Holocaust as it concerns the West:
I thought of Fuad, my Jewish-Iranian friend from Los Angeles who had explained to me his perspective on Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial with no small measure of admiration for what he saw as the finest example of Persian ta'arouf one-upmanship. Ahmadinejad, Fuad reasoned, had in effect said to the Europeans (and, in a letter to Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany) that he couldn't believe that Europeans had been or could be such monsters (and this at a time when Iran was being portrayed as monstrous). "You're not monsters," Ahmadinejad was saying. "Surely not? Surely you're a great civilization," a sentiment that could only compel the Europeans, and particularly the Germans, to respond in effect, "No, no no, we were. We really were monsters. The very worst kind." And by further asking why Israel had had to be created by them, he was essentially getting the Europeans to admit that they were entirely capable of genocide again. It didn't matter, Fuad suggested, that Europeans by and large didn't squirm, for Iranians and Arabs got the message, if only subconsciously. The Westernized and West-worshipping Middle Easterners whom Ahmadinejad loathes with the same passion as Khomeini did could hear the civilization they so admire shout, loud and clear, "Yes, yes, we committed the very worst genocide in history. Only a few years ago, and who knows, we could do it again." And Ahmadinejad must have, Fuad said, derived enormous satisfaction in hearing Europeans indignantly insist that their fathers were mass murderers. (p. 43)
In engaging in this ta'arouf of ignorance, Ahmadinejad begs Europe to explain the illegitimacy of Israel. It then becomes a state carved out of an existing people in service to the guilt of a murderous European population. It evinces both a European proxy hegemony while putting the perpetual and palpable evil on a non-Iranian people. It's a fascinating concept, because it tacitly makes Israel an illegal state — which, arguably, it is — produced by the illegal actions of mass murderers who now pretend to lecture the Iranian people about decency, racial tolerance and the sanctity of culture.

As Majd indicates, Death to Israel and Death to America are both figurative and poetic expressions. But by this tacit interplay of ta'arouf, Ahmadinejad makes the European powers complicit in the act of legitimizing those declarations. Israel — and its strongest supporter, the United States — perpetuate an illegality predicated by an illegality. Iran's (or, really, Ahmadinejad's) repudiation of the Holocaust is easily cast as a rhetorical maneuver that enables it to reject Israel's hegemony in the middle east because Israel was "war-crimed" into existence. The penance for Europe's sins, then, cannot be paid by Iran's sacrificing its interests or subjugating them to Israel. Perhaps it's mere sophistry, but ta'arouf makes an argument that demands a clearer response.

A Nation of Rights
The dissimulation of ta'arouf and the sanctity of privacy in Iran both relate to the third concept Majd advances, that of haq. It is a word loosely defined as "rights," because to Iranians, "rights" are loosely defined.
Iranians, like all other people, have differing ideas of what their rights are, what consistutes haq, but they do generally agree on the most basic. Thomas Jefferson may have declared that our rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the French Revolution may have given France the motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," but the Iranian motto, if there were one, might simply be "Don't trample on my rights," without defining what those rights are. (119)
This loose definition of rights fits nicely with the notion of an impregnable privacy for the people, but it also explains the hostility toward foreign presumption in the affairs of Iran.

Despite millennia as an independent kingdom, Persia/Iran has spent the last few centuries as a pawn in The Great Game between Britain and Russia and as a sometime proxy for the interests of the United States. Haq in Iran may take many forms. It might be the Khatami supporter who advocates a liberalism of conduct in the public sphere. Or it might be the Ahmadinejad supporter who responded to his quasi-socialist populism that demanded lower consumer prices for all and an assurance of quality of life for even the poorest Iranians. (Ahmadinejad's populist message was combined with social conservatism, but, as Majd points out, his election resonated more on the socialist than the religious level.) But internationally it always assumes the right of Iranians to dictate Iranian interests. It is an anti-colonial stance, one well earned by hundreds of years of manipulation. The evocation of Iran's self-interest, however bombastic, has at its core a demand for the ability, and the right, to be self-interested.

There's a great deal of fun to be had in reading Majd's book.* He gets high on opium and has to lie down for a while and try not to freak out. He gets buggered about by guards who, despite being in place to protect government representatives, don't seem competent enough to know who he would even be trying to see, let alone assassinate. He has a fun conversation with a woman cabbie and then gets screwed on a fare by an upper-class male cabbie. These are great vignettes.

* — The online response to the book is even more fun. Go to the Amazon or Barnes & Noble pages about the book and read the reviews. Majd points out how Iranians, both exiled and resident, have always been prone to conspiracy theories. (Especially the exiles, who tend also to be virulently classist, racist and contemptuous — and thus entirely unaware of how unsympathetic they sound.) On just one message board, of which I am a member, I have seen Majd described as an agent of the Islamic Revolution, an agent of the CIA, an agent of Britain's MI6 and his book a tool both designed by the CIA to manipulate the American people but also one commissioned by the Islamic Republic to do the same. All these charges were made by the same Iranian exile. He not only didn't seem to understand the contradictions — nor answer any questions about his assertions — but rather took each statement as reinforcement of the next. It's like saying Popeye is president because water feels like Boron because ham smells like gamma rays — connect the dots!!! 

I would much prefer Iran to become a secular democracy, but I have to say that my sympathy for Iran as it currently exists is dramatically expanded by reading the oligarchical dismissal of human beings so often promulgated by Iranian exiles. My experience is not broad and is not definitive, but what I have experienced has been so loathsomely classist, racist and nakedly economically self-interested that it obliterates any sense that the Islamic Republic is exploitive and predatory. It is, to be sure, but replacing it with the people most invested in hating it seems like getting rid of a kid who's a little too goth and replacing him with someone who is an actual bloodsucking fucking vampire.

Majd ably describes the paradoxes of Iran. He accomplishes as much just by being himself: Iranian, American, bi-lingual and bi-national, muslim and secular. He does so too in enlightening vignettes with mullahs and ministers. Even his cabbies don't all agree. His book can't be taken as a comprehensive exploration of Iran, but it presents a dynamic culture and government to an American audience that likely perceives only one voice and one people. It exults in the multiplicity of Iranian ideas and the multifariousness to which those ideas are put to work. It also excellently challenges our preconceptions of liberty, diplomacy and justice in a way that advocates the Iranian people's needs and worries without dismissing the international worries engendered by the same. Its only drawback, besides anecdotes and timelines that don't seem to flow naturally from one to the other, is that there's not more of it.

Rating: 4
Highly recommended for those with no familiarity with Iran or Iranian/Persian culture. Moderately recommended to those with a grounding in the same and also a grounding in the tenets of Islam. There is no "not recommended" group for this book, unless that group involves Iranian and Islamic experts. The book's drawbacks include a lack of focus to time and linear progression and also to a deep explication of sociopolitical ills within Iran. The first is easily overcome by attentive reading. The second is something the book does not intend to achieve and cannot within its constraints. While it would improve with more essay content from Majd, it is nonetheless a good book.