My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008) by Robin Wright is a 464-page collection of historical and first-hand accounts up to 2007 of Palestine (and Israel), Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Morocco, and an Iraq influenced by the United States. What is fascinating is that several of these countries imploded into a revolution (Syria’s turmoil is still on-going) after this book was published. By reading Wright’s accounts of these hostile environments the reader can get a detailed glimpse into how history unfolded and how it is still being shaped today.
I was first handed this book by one of my best friends who gave it to me for a Christmas gift a few years ago. He knew I was working on my MFA thesis concerning Iran and he thought it would be useful. It was. Recently, though, I reread the book because I was finishing up my time at Southern New Hampshire University and my MFA thesis in Fiction. And I thought I would share some facts and perceptions from Wright about Iran that helped to shape my characters and my story set in Iran, 1974.
Most of the book’s chapters focus on an individual country and the timeline roughly begins after World War I (when the Ottoman Empire was dissected and reorganized into the turbulent Middle East by Great Britain and France) and ends about one year before the book was published.
The reason I took a great interest in Iran is because most people today do not quite understand what Iran used to be (pre-1979) and what Iran went through to become what it is today (post-1979). Since January 2011, I have researched the Middle East, especially Iran. I have taken courses at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro to aid my research, and two years of additional research with Southern New Hampshire University’s creative writing program. I owe both universities a thanks for allowing me to use their online libraries.
But now, to narrow down my research that ended up consuming eight pages for a Bibliography, I would like to share some excerpts that I thought were meaningful and insightful from Wright’s two chapters on Iran. A quick sidenote: Iran was previously named Persia until the mid-1930s when the king, or shah, changed it. ‘Iran’ comes from, or rather is a cognate of, ‘Aryan’ or ‘Ayria,’ meaning free or noble.
Most people, if asked about Iran’s revolution in 1979, might answer that the revolution happened because Iranians, or Persians, wanted to establish an Islamic state, a government and nation ruled by the Holy Koran. This is simply not true. Let’s take a quick look at what happened to Iran and how it went from a monarchy to a theocracy.
First, history is always repeating itself.
”The Constitutional Rebellion of 1905-1911 forced the weak Qajar dynasty to agree to Iran’s first constitution and parliament. Foreshadowing the 1979 revolution, the revolt was launched by the same powerful troika–the clergy, bazaar merchants, and the intelligentsia–that would come together again later in the century. Their goal was to curtail the monarchy’s power” (p 274).
The same troika would come again in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution that ousted Pahlavi, the shah since 1953. But the 1979 revolution was to stop the monarchy, which like some modern leaders today grew greedy and mad with power. Similar events have unfolded in recent years with Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
”The Imam–and many of the people who took to the streets to topple the shah–initially did not intend to create a theocracy or to see clerics rule. ‘Our intention is not that religious leaders should themselves administer the state,’ Imam Khomeini told Le Monde shortly before returning to Iran from exile in Paris. After a wild welcome in Tehran, he moved back to his modest home on a muddy side street in Qom. The first revolutionary government was led by secular technocrats. The Imam was consulted mainly to settle disputes”…Both constitutions [after 1979] called for a strong president. Both outlined a secular structure for the new state. Both borrowed heavily from Europe’s Napoleonic law. Neither allocated special roles for the clergy. And neither proposed a position of supreme leader” (p 287-288).
”Yet Iran’s new constitution [after 1979] did not create a theocracy. Even after it passed, Iran’s government was still distinctly split. Secular technocrats ran the traditional arms of government, while clerics dominated the religious institutions. The Imam even decreed that clerics could not run in the first presidential election, which took place a year after the revolution, in January 1980. The winner was Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a French-educated economist who had been twice imprisoned by the Shah” (p 290).
That’s right. The 1979 revolution was never meant to establish a theocracy (as it is now), but most Iranians desired a democracy with a constitution and an elected president while religion and clerics would be left out of politics. For a brief time, Iran was looking to a bright future as a free nation.
So what happened? Greed. Lust for power. Chaos. The usual human characteristics. Iran had, and has, something everyone wants. Oil. Those who controlled the oil controlled the money. The U.S. backed Shah was gone. The U.S. then went over and began supporting Saddam Hussein, who immediately started an eight-year war with Iran, with both sides never gaining an inch of land. The Iran-Iraq war also led to President Reagan‘s Iran Contra scandal. After that mess, the U.S. had to go back into Iraq, twice, to get control of their old dog Saddam, who they provided military weapons to and basically let off the leash. It was and will always be about OIL.
But back then, no one was really in control. Most Iranians knew they wanted a democracy and a president to limit leadership powers, but that also meant oil revenues would be open for the taking. So the question was: who was going to stand up and seize the realm? That is greed, but greed runs the world these days. Immoral men and women are those often making critical decisions. Moral men and women seem to just look on and shake their heads at all the foolishness.
But in 1981, Iranians in different factions still fought for control, and as they were doing this a free Iran slipped through their fingers and into an oppression they could have never imagined.
”Internal spats escalated as revolutionary factions turned on each other. Amid crackdowns, arrests, and executions, the government’s secular technocrats and the clerics began to fall out too. Bani-Sadr…criticized the clergy for creating a climate of fear. He equated their tactics with Stalinism. He called publicly for ‘resistance to tyranny,’ while privately writing the Imam to caution that the regime was moving toward dictatorship. Once he dared to warn that the revolution was ‘committing suicide’…
”In June 1981, seventeen months after taking office, parliament impeached Bani-Sadr. The next day, the Imam used his absolute power to remove Bani-Sadr from office and order his arrest. Dressed as a woman, the revolution’s first president went into hiding. He eventually fled to France…
”In a four-month period in 1981, more than 1,000 government officials–including clerics, judges, politicians, and aides to Khomeini–were killed” (p 290-291).
From then on, Iranians had sealed their fate. After all, power once held is difficult to relinquish, no?
Nevertheless, some hope still remains.
”Three decades after the revolution, Iranians are increasingly derisive about the regime’s clerics. Iranians love to point out how many mullahs settled into the posh northern suburb of Jamaran. The Imam’s home and mosque were near the top of one of its scenic hills. Jamaran means ‘havens of snakes.”’ (p 298).
If we consider the recent changes that have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Iraq–not to mention what is happening in Syria–we can only wonder when will it be Iran’s turn.
Here are some other interesting facts I found:
”Islam literally means ‘submission’–to God’s will” (p 267)… Adapting Islam is a process known as ijtihad, or ‘interpretation.’ It is applying the essence of the faith–based on the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, known as the hadith–to new problems or a changing world. The word ijtihad derives from jihad. Jihad is today easily the most misunderstood word in the world. It literally means ‘trying’ or ‘struggle”’ (p 269).
”The Zoroastrians of ancient Persia founded one of the world’s first monotheistic faiths and heavily influenced subsequent Judeo-Christian thought. Their core ideas–about the devil, hell, a future savior, the worldly struggle between good and evil ending with a day of judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and an afterlife–had an impact on all other monotheistic faiths, and even Buddhism” (p 272).
”Many Jews opted to live in Persia rather than move to Israel after their liberation. So many settled in what is today Isfahan that it was once known as Yahudiyeh or Dar al Yahud, Farsi or Arabic titles both roughly meaning ‘haven of Jews.’ The majority have fled sporadic persecution since the revolution, although Isfahan remains the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel” (p 272-273).
Here is a modern account of Iran’s traffic, which is very similar to Vietnam’s traffic of today:
”To turn left on one of the capital’s leafy boulevards at busy rush hour, get in the far right lane–and vice versa. A red light means gun it… If you need to make a U-turn, wait until oncoming traffic is roaring toward you, and then veer wildly out in front of it. A two-lane road is actually three and possibly four–and, by all means, also feel free to move into a lane of oncoming cars” (p 285).
If you thought any of this information was interesting and/or useful, you will be surprised to find out even more about Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon in Wright’s book. A strong recommend.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 390,000+ followers