IRAN - A RESTLESS NATION
A brief look at the Iranian modern history and Marjane Satrapi's book "Persepolis. The Story of a Childhood."
The Montreal Review, December, 2009
In November (2009) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a plan to build 10 new nuclear facilities. The decision was broadly condemned in West, it would constitute a dramatic expansion of Iran's nuclear program and would inevitably fuel fears that Iran is attempting to produce a nuclear weapon.
It is not a coincidence that Marjane Satrapi's famous book "Persepolis. The Story of a Childhood" is a story of a family and a nation. It is so, not because Satrapi is the great-granddaughter of the Iranian last emperor, but rather because the life of families and the life of the nation are always connected. Satrapi's story is a tragic tale. It shows that when families are destroyed and terrorized by tyrants and revolutions, when they suffer, emigrate, live in poverty and despair, the whole nation suffers... and no easy recovery in sight.
Satrapi's story of Iran during the 1979 Revolution is one of the most successful tales depicting motherland as an unhappy destiny. "Persepolis" is a powerful and sad tale told through the very unusual form of non-fictional comics.
Reza Khan, a colonel, entered in the Iranian politics in 1921with the help of 3000 soldiers. Two years later, he deposed the old Qajar dynasty and proclaimed himself a king of the oldest monarchy on earth. His regime was secular and reformist, but only in the social sphere; he tried to "westernize" Iran through the example of Ataturk's Turkey. His regime was authoritarian, militaristic, based on coercion. Iranians during the Reza Khan's rule did not enjoy any form of democratic governance. Because of his sympathy to Nazi Germany, under the pressure of the British and Russians in 1941, Khan abdicated in favour of his son Muhammad Reza.
Reza Shah preserved his father's authoritarian political style, but was forced rule under the pressure of rising and heterogeneous foreign interests and influences. Three foreign powers were active in Iran during the 1940s: Soviet Russia supported the biggest reformist organization in the country, the Tudeh (Masses) Party. It was a Marxist organization insisting on labour and land reforms. The British were concerned with retaining the power of monarchy and the status quo oriented groupings as the large landowners and the powerful tribes. The Americans settled a close ties with the Iranian armed forces and backed any fraction opposed to the Soviet ambitions (Cleveland, pp. 289).
In the most part of the 20th century, Iran was an economically dependent country. As William Cleveland says in his History of Modern Middle East, "cultural disrespect, economic domination, and imperial manipulation" characterized Iranian relationships with the Great Powers during the first half of the century (Cleveland, p. 290). British controlled its oil recourses. Russian engineers designed its buildings and facilities. The Americans advised the army and supported the military base of the regime. Unfavourable economic concessions kept the country dependant, poor and underdeveloped. The national wealth was in the hands of the shah and the foreigners.
In the end of the 1940s, Muhammad Mossadiq, a charismatic leader with good European education, succeeded to organize the National Front. This political movement was against the monarchy, it was pro-democratic and nationalist. It easily won the support of the Iranians and Mossadiq was elected Prime Minister. In 1951, he called for cancellation of oil concessions, and the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, passed legislation for nationalisation of the oil industry. This was a blow against the interests of Britain. In response to the nationalization, the British and the United States boycotted the export of Iranian oil. The country was in a desperate economic situation, Mossadiq attempted to limit the power of the shah putting the military under the command of the government; he also started land and tax reforms aiming better distribution of wealth. It seemed that Iran was heading toward independence and democratization. However, this process was disrupted. The National Front started to disintegrate, the right conservative groups were against the secular direction of the reforms and left the coalition. This and the economic troubles gave a chance the communists from the Tudeh party to re-emerge as the most influential political organization. At this point, the United States got heavily involved in the Iranian domestic affairs. It was 1953 - the time of the "second red scare," the Truman doctrine and the all-accepted idea of containment of communist Russia. CIA organized a successful coup against Mosaddiq, and after 1953, Iran fell under the royal dictatorship of Reza Shah.
This regime has became popular with the political repressions, with the shameless lavishness of the ruling class (the clients of the Shah), and with its corruption. Reza Shah continued the strange form of "westernization" of the Iranian society uprooting and replacing the Islamic culture with an invented mix of Old Persian tradition and selected western social practices that were far from the western liberalism and democracy. The regime had been military and financially supported by the United States, the geopolitical strategy of America dictated Iran must stay close ally against the expansion of Russian influence in the Middle East.
In the 1970s, the political and economic situation in Iran become unbearable, the Shah's secret services SAVAK terrorized and suppressed every political opposition. In Persepolis Satrapi remembers her family friends, the journalist Siamak Jary and the communist "revolutionary" Mohsen Shakiba, who were both political prisoners under the Shah's regime and victims of torture. She called them "heroes" and they actually were for the most part of the Iranian people before the revolution in 1979.
The blatant economic and social inequality, the political repressions, the foreign interference in Iranian affairs, and the coercive change of the traditional Islamic values with unfamiliar western norms led to the mass protests in 1979. Unfortunately, the leader who emerged from this popular discontent was Ayatollah Khomeini. I say "unfortunately", because he was the next possessor of the final truth who believed in his absolute right to lead the nation. Like Mao, Stalin and many other dictators from left and right political spectrum, Khomeini was deeply convinced that if those who oppose his and his supporters views are unable to be "cured" through "guidance," deserve destruction with "the same fist that destroyed the Shah's regime." (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, The Uprising of Khurdad 15, 1979). He claimed his God given right to rule with visions about the superiority of Islam, he believed that an Islamic republic is suiting best the Iranian culture and it is only capable to resolve the social inequality. Khomeini insisted that the word "hakam" or "mediator" (the clergy is a mediator between lay people and God) has the same root as the word "hakim" which means "ruler."
Satrapi started her memoir Persepolis with a picture of herself, covered with an unfit for a 10-year-old girl black veil, and with face too seriousm but still curios. It was 1980; the Shah had been already removed from power. She was already a little witness of the revolution.
Children never fully understand what is happening around them, but their observations are always unpolluted and frank. Satrapi's choice to present Iran in the first years of the Revolution through the innocent eyes of a child does not seem accidental. A child easily says the truth. And the truth was that the Islamic Revolution was not the revolution that Iranians deserved and wanted.
Satrapi's tale is simple and effective as every child's story. Her heroes, the political prisoners of the former regime, were liberated by the new power, but soon imprisoned again, expelled from the country, or killed. Satrapi's uncle Anoosh, who was her favourite among the "heroes," was a communist that stayed nine years in prison during the Shah's regime. After his release, he believed that the 1979 revolution is not an Islamic social movement, but people's one, and hoped that the religious leaders will retire from governing and return to their natural domain of influence, which is the religion (Satrapi, p.62). Of course, he was wrong and soon he was imprisoned and executed as many others (p.70).
The Islamic regime continued the practices of the old one. Satrapi narrates about manipulated elections (Satrapi, p.62), persecution of the political and social dissidents (Satrapi, p.65, 66), she speaks about the state control over the family, about returning of gender inequality (p.74), about rewriting and revision of the national history, and formation of a new social hypocrisy serving the interests of the new power - over a night many became relatives of martyrs and observing Muslims (p. 44, 75). The SAVAK was replaced with non-formal revolutionary vanguards controlling the life of the ordinary people. Iran slid once again into a state of repression. "All the former revolutionaries, says Satrapi, became the sworn enemies of the republic." (Satrapi, p.67)
Satrapi was from a well-to-do family, yet she was convinced that the revolution was a result of the differences between social classes (p.33). It really was. But in the new republic social stratification and class division did not disappear. The new Islamic regime did not resolve poverty and social tensions.
The revolution was followed by a bloody war with Iraq in which the children of the poorest families were sent first to the front lines; they were manipulated with stories about afterlife and self-sacrifice. "The key for paradise was for poor people. Thousands of young kids, promised a better life explode on the minefileds with their keys around their necks. Meanwhile, I got to go to my first party," writes Satrapi (p.102).
Ten years after the revolution the social unrests continued. People from the war regions and the province moved toward the cities hoping to find job and security. In the mid-1990s Asef Bayat, a professor from the University of Cairo, wrote an excellent article entitled "Squatters and the state: Back street politics in the Islamic Republic." He explained the silent movement in the outskirts of the biggest Iranian cities. During the 1980s, thousands of people populated the suburbs of the cities, creating shabby informal settlements. The reason for this trend, according to Bayat, was the shortage and misdistribution of urban housing, the high rents, and the desire for an autonomous life free of state regulations and landlords. The government was not able to control this movement. The occasional measures of the state consisted primarily of destroying the slums and in dispersion of people. These measures led to the large-scale urban-unrests in Iran in the 1990s. Why was Iran the same unhappy family ten years after the revolution? Bayat suggests a simple answer that I share completely: the existence of poverty and the lack of institutional mechanisms people to express demands and grievances.
In 2009, 69 people were killed during street protests in Iran after the last presidential elections; many others were detained and put in jail. It is a familiar story for Iranians. The protests were provoked by doubts that the election results had been forged by President Ahmadinedjad's Interior Ministry. This would never have happened if Iran were a real democracy. Iranian electoral system is wrong and this is a barrier to creation of a just political system where every citizen can exercise his right to vote and expect his interests to be fairly represented in the state institutions. The Interior Ministry conducts the elections in Iran by law. The Ministry is part of the executive power. There is no real division of powers in Iran, and this is an open door for the ruling party to manipulate elections, economy, and justice. At the polling stations in the last Presidential elections in Iran there were no domestic and international observers, there was no independent national election commission, the counting of the ballot-papers did not occur at every polling site. The opposition wanted new elections, but in such electoral system, the voting could be repeated a hundred times and the results will be the same as well as the doubts.
In Persepolis, before Satrapi's immigration to Europe, her grandma gave her an advice. She told her that Satrapi should never react to cruelty with cruelty, "because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance" (Satrapi, p.150). I think that this was the advice that the Iranians needed before the start of the revolution. Peace and compromise is the only way for a person, family, or a nation to keep its dignity and stay true to its best yourself.
Mariane Satrapi, Persepolis. The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004
William L. Cleveland, A History the Modern Middle East, Westview Press, 2004
Asef Bayat, Squatters and the state: Back street politics in the Islamic Republic, No.191, Middle East Report (Nov.-Dec., 2004)
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini speech: " The Uprising of Khurdad 15, 1979 "