By A.J. Cave
I have been thinking to myself, "Wow! 30 years has passed already? Really? Has it been all that long?" It feels as though it has only just happened last year. Or maybe the year before. But 30 years ago?
Yes. The year was 1979. Between February 1 to February 10, what has been referred to as the "Ten-Day Dawn": a constitutional monarchy died and a theocratic republic was born.
From the start of the Islamic Republic of Iran, many fingers have furiously pounded keyboards writing about why the monarchy fell and how the republic took root and branch.
My fingers are no more insightful than the rest.
Volumes have been written on how for years, most of the oil revenue was being siphoned out of Iran due to large concessions made to the western oil companies in return for a western-backed coup to return the Shah to power after he was exiled by his popular Prime Minister who had nationalized Iranian oil in the early 1950s. What was left funded a lavish lifestyle for the royal family without much improving the life of the ordinary Iranians. Life was not just good at the top, it was fabulous. The trickle down economy had not trickled down much beyond the very rich and the rich. No domestic project could have received timely approval from the government without a very generous gift to one of the numerous members of the royal family. By early 1970s the 'White Revolution' of almost a decade earlier had failed miserably. Hereditary feudal lords who had provided land, seed and agricultural tools and seen to the proper workings of water channels for generations had all but disappeared. Masses of farmers unable to survive on their own without the support of the government, were abandoning their farms and trekking to the major cities in search of work. And there was no real work for the masses of the poor and the uneducated who were flocking to the cities, just menial labor, and even that just every now and then. Proud rural farmers had become humble city beggars.
My father's land, bought with his life's savings, was not taken during the White Revolution. It was taken years before, when the Shah had fancied to build himself a royal luxury hotel-casino by the Caspian Sea to rival Monaco's Monte-Carlo Casino. There was no asking just taking and no payment. Who in their right mind would have dared to rudely question the royal 'favor'? My father was 'most honored' to 'gift' his humble land to His Majesty, "Our land is your land." There were many others who were so deeply honored by the Shah and his royal family. My father used to say: "Shah's son would never become king."
The unrest that eventually humbled and tumbled the monarchy in 1979 had started a few years earlier on the campuses of the major universities in Tehran, in response to the brutal crackdown of influential thinkers, popular writers and political activists by SAVAK, Shah's secret police.
The ultimate goal was to create a true democratic government.
Now while many have said that the universities were the natural breeding grounds for the intellectuals seeking freedom and democracy, that is only half of the story. The universities were the places where "the robber meets the road," so to speak: they were the first real places where we all came face to face with the way the other half lived. Until then, we all had lived pretty sheltered lives, growing up in our own neighborhoods with kids who were more or less like us. All of a sudden we were thrown into these amazing melting pots with kids from all walks of life from all over the country who had triumphed over grueling university entrance exams to join a select elite, characterized not by virtue of class or religion or wealth, but by scholastic excellence and sheer determination.
There was immense pride in being among the first generation of many families to go to college. But there was also guilt and shame: guilt for realizing some of us had been given so much more than the others and the shame that came with that knowledge. University was free, living was not.
I was a big-city girl, who had only prepared a few months for the university entrance exams, mostly during the last months of my senior year in high school, who never had to worry about where my next meal would come from. But many were country boys who had studied for years in small towns and villages while working, sometimes holding down couple of odd jobs, to help feed their families. Some of the kids owned no more than the clothes on their backs, literally, and lived in small modest rooms on the outskirts of Tehran with distant relatives or total strangers, commuting by buses or bicycles. Some even walked for miles.
There weren't that many of us back then: about 23 women in a sea of 3,000+ engineering students. There was a cluster of small rooms in the maintenance building on campus that was collectively called the "Girls' Room" - probably an afterthought since girls were not expected to attend an engineering school in those days. We usually gathered in the Girl's Room when we didn't have a class. We brought our own food and swapped sandwiches and magazines and homework during the lunch hour. Those who were more religious than the rest of us prayed on small prayer rugs that were neatly folded afterward and left in the room for the next time.
There was a small tea house in the basement of our building, a tiny hole in the wall chai Khoneh with no more than 5 or 6 small chairs, operated by a sweet childless middle-aged lady, married to one of maintenance workers who lived on site. Not too many students knew about it or cared much, since there was a bigger and more convenient cafeteria in the middle of the campus. But for the girls it was our own little place to sit around and talk and have a cup of hot Persian tea [a strong mixture of Darjeeling and Earl Grey infused with spicy cardamoms] for no more than a few cents. And once in a while we were treated to home-made Persian sweets with our tea. After a month or so, a few boys cautiously found their way to our almost private tea house, mostly upper classmen, first for inexpensive tea, then to help us with our class assignments and eventually just to talk.
We talked a lot those days. Our words were mixed with hope and determination and a true desire to change the way things were, to make it better for all. It was a life altering experience. Many of the early activists were university women, even though most were veiled and forgotten later.
Soon the list of the students and the intellectuals opposing the Shah and the government, who were arrested, tortured and killed or exiled, started to grow long. Cautious hope was replaced with constant fear. Even our own shadows became suspect. Just mentioning the name of 'Shah' in any context was becoming grounds for 'being grabbed' by the police. Usual rivalries among various universities gave way to a spirit of solidarity. We were all in it together. News that another student had been arrested in the middle of the night would spread like wild fire across all universities. "Remember so and so?" someone would whisper painfully, "Dee-shab Ge-ref-ta-nesh!" [He was taken last night] And no one knew who could be next. Conversations had turned into whispers and whispers had turned into angry shouts. Universities were shut down regularly to suppress constant student uprising. We started to hear of unlikely alliances, unthinkable even a few years earlier, that were made among various political camps, as the situation started to grow more desperate. It soon turned into 'do or die'!
It probably never occurred to the Shah that his old western allies, the Americans and the British, would not come to his aid when the storm of angry protest started to turn into a tsunami. And the Americans and the British probably thought that the Shah was becoming unmanageable, starting to believe in his own greatness; maybe they thought they could more easily bargain for a better price paid for a barrel of crude with a bunch of illiterate 'natives'. When the perfect storm finally made landfall, it did not recede as expected. Theocratic Islamic players proved to be astute students of earlier crusading Christian nation-makers of the Middle Ages.
Who could have guessed?
We were so young and so na´ve.
Those who have not, want; those who have less, want more; those who have more, want all; and those who have all, do whatever necessary to keep.
30 years later, much has changed in the Islamic Republic and much has remained the same.
A whole generation apart and born and raised under two different forms of government, it seems to me that modern Iranians see themselves much in the same light as the older generations did: educated and literate, heir to a long and proud history, grounded in a rich and poetic culture, restless and eager to experience a bigger world beyond superficial political boundaries. Today, some of the best engineers in the world are coming out of Tehran's Sharif University, formerly Aryamehr University - renamed after a student who was killed for the cause a few years before the Islamic Revolution.
Most Iranians remember the older times when the ancient Persians used to rule most of the known world. They still read Ferdowsi's incomparable epic of Shah Nameh [Book of Kings] written in the early 11th century and celebrate the Festival of No'rouz at the start of the Iranian New Year in March, an ancient Rite of Spring stretching back some 2,500+ years. The most honored cultural object of the entire nation is the Cyrus Cylinder dating back to the Achaemenid Persia which is revered as the first proclamation of human rights. Any deviation from the 'Persian Gulf' to 'The Gulf' or 'Arabian Gulf' unleashes angry words and petitions, even among the most jaded. While the country has become 'Iranian', the cat, the carpet, the food, the gulf, the language and the poetry has remained 'Persian'.
Over half of the Iranians have a mobile phone and nearly one-third have access to the internet and proud of being the fourth blogger nation in the world, and disheartened by the way they are seen by the western media and portrayed in western films. I hear that some of the popular TV shows in U.S. like 'Lost' have a big following in Iran. They are buying and watching Korean historical dramas more and more. I love Korean drama too!
Do you know who is Ali Daei? You should. He is one of the most popular figures in the Islamic Republic and a graduate of the Sharif University. I bet if he runs in the next national elections, he might just become the next President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not because he is a great engineer, because he is head coach of Iran's national football team. We call Iranian football soccer and Iranians call our football, American football. Football is not just a game in Iran, it is a national obsession. Right below the political news, there is always something about a football game somewhere. Daei used to play himself when he was younger. Iran's National Team lost in the World Cup 2006 and Daei was mercilessly pounded by the Iranian news media for being too old to have played. He was 37 at that time. Imagine being too old at 37! He got married in 2005 to his old university sweetheart and broke many hearts. Unauthorized pictures of his wedding were posted all over the internet by his fans. He was criticized then too. The pictures were not Islamic. Now he owns a sports clothing manufacturing business and does charity work along with David Beckham, the other football super star, for UNICEF. He says Iran will beat South Korea in the upcoming games. They better! I love Korean drama but this is football and I am rooting for the home team!
The new generation of young Iranians, mostly born after the revolution, also struggle with more or less the same problems that our generation had to deal with back then. Despite public appearances, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been able to control the modern Iranians any more than the Shah was able to control our generation. There was opposition then and there is opposition now. It was absolute monarchy then; it is absolute theocracy now.
Our high school principal used to meet and greet us every morning at the entrance gate of our high school and eyeball our skirts and when in doubt measure the skirt length with a ruler to ensure it was no more than a fraction of an inch above our knees. 'Short' skirts were either ripped on the spot or the offending student was sent back home. Once inside, we all rolled the waistbands of our skirts a few times turning them into mini skirts and skillfully avoided any further encounter with the principal during the day. When it was time to go home, the waistbands were unrolled and we all looked respectable again. Covers of polite literature, such as 'War and Peace' were ripped and strapped to blocks of coverless impolite literature we were all dying to read. Forbidden books were stuffed in the bottom of our book sacks and covered with algebra and physics books, warm sweaters and left over lunch. We promptly read the books, wrote own our comments along the margins and quickly exchanged it for another one. What we were allowed to read was not the same as what we did read.
Now we hear that Iranians are fed up with their current government. So, what else is new? Has anyone invented the perfect government yet? Is there anybody who is perfectly happy with their not so perfect government? Quite frankly, if we could round up all the world politicians and their groupies and send them to the Arctic, the entire sea ice would melt over night by all the hot air they collectively generate, giving a new meaning to 'Climate Change'. It might just allow some cool breeze to circulate around the warm globe for a change.
Let's face it: the net impact of the various U.S. policies, actions and alliances in the Middle East over the last 30 years has done more to solidify the position of the Islamic Republic than anything they have done themselves. Our current views are limited by our short biblical life span tampered by our limited knowledge of our own if not of the world history. And don't even mention world geography. Some people talk as if the earth is flat and the United States is in the center of it all.
I shudder when I hear that dreaded sound bite: "They are Islamic Fundamentalists!" as if referring to something contagious that is inherently illegal, immoral, or worse: fattening. Would His Holiness, Pope Benedict himself not like to see all the Christians peacefully reunited under the standard of a Catholic Christendom, if the rare opportunity ever presented itself?
If history is a guiding light, left to its own devices, in time the Islamic Republic could very well moderate and mutate just like any other known form of government. Is the magnificent city-state of Vatican, one of my favorite places on earth, not a pale shadow of the vast armies and territories the Christian Popes of the Middle Ages used to command?
Remember the old Iron Curtain? Berlin Wall? McCarthyism? Russian Revolution? ... George W Bush, the elder and the younger?
Things do and will change.
There are no magic bullets and no moral absolutes when it comes to political governance and there is no reason to keep the Islamic Republic of Iran to a higher political standard than other nations. China, India and Russia are ancient cultures who have formed complex relationships with Iranians for over 2,000 years. They will not sever their ties with the Islamic Republic on account of the United States. It simply would not serve their national and regional interests. Many own Persian carpets that are older than the history of the United States. These powers would, however, engage in artful diplomacy with Iran to ensure a mutually agreeable and profitable outcome.
We are talking politics here not sainthood.
It is no longer practical to fight a 30-year old battle. We simply cannot afford it anymore, to be perfectly blunt. What matters now is to look to the future and do what must be done to break the impasse between the Islamic Republic and the United States and move forward.
But what would that be? And who would decide?
Well, while the U.S. and the IRI have not spoken formally in 30 years, and various letters from the President of the Islamic Republic to the President of the United States have gone unanswered for whatever reason, why not just take advantage of some recent publicly made comments by both sides.
To President Obama's statement: "We will extend our hand if you unclench your fist," Mr. Larijani, speaker of Islamic Republic's Parliament has replied: "First, unfreeze Iranian assets and release Iranian diplomats held in Iraq."
As an old camel-trader, this seems to me a reasonable negotiating position to start with. These 'diplomats' would soon be replaced by others, so why not return them to Iran while they still command a value in the bargaining process. And quite frankly, in our current economic melt down, Iranian assets, liquid or not, are not worth very much and with so many legal judgments pending against these assets, it would take years if not decades for the Islamic Republic to untangle the American legal knot. I doubt they would even try. The act would be more or less a symbolic gesture of good faith on our part and a step in the direction of the art of diplomacy.
You might ask: "Aside from our mutual strategic interests in flow of oil, global peace, regional stability, war on terrorism, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on discrimination, clean energy, nuclear energy, clean air, clean water, human rights, economic recovery and interfaith dialogue... soccer and the price of our daily bread, what else could we possibly have in common with the Iranians?"
That is a very good question.
For the sake of argument, let's consider the humble topic of 'pants'. A rather useful piece of clothing, wouldn't you say? I bet most men [and some women] in the western world own a pair or two - some even more. Have you ever wondered who invented pants? Well, nobody knows for sure. But while the western world considers their civilization to be rooted in the ancient Greco-Roman culture, their western pants come from some ancient place in the East. Some costume historians trace it back to ancient Medes, Persians or their neighbors, Scythians, all legendary horsemen, whose early nomadic cultures revolved around their horses. It was for the love of more comfortable horseback riding that practical pants were invented. Ancient Greeks considered wearing pants unmanly and mercilessly ridiculed the ancient Persians, their political enemies, for wearing pants. In the words of the ancient Greeks, Persians were 'uncivilized' for wearing pants and for covering their bodies with clothes, like women. It was the heroic male nudity that was admired by the ancient Greeks.
Now which one has been of more
practical use to mankind since its inception: Greek philosophy or Persian
pants? Who knows? But maybe if the Greeks were not so averse to wearing
Persian pants, they might have come up with something a lot more useful than:
"Know thyself." Maybe even something more enigmatically prophetic, like:
About the author: A. J. Cave is a San Francisco Bay-Area Iranian-American writer. Her first novel, Roxana Romance: Roshanak Nameh [Book of Roshanak] was published in 2008.
Roxana Romance is the story of Roxana who married Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, who defeated the last Great King of the first Persian Empire. They say it was a love match.
The third chapter of the novel: 'Axis of Empire' is about the horror of burning of Parsa [Persepolis] by Alexander. It puts Achaemenid Administrative Archives in context of time and place. It is provided here by the author in pdf format.
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