Journey into evil bogged in flourishes
there were smart stores and neon signs, and movie houses with names such as Chattanooga and Moulin Rouge. It was a close tie, so close that it became suffocating: Nafisi found her teenage diaries being read and used in evidence against her. As a result she withdrew from her mother and retreated increasingly into a private space of the mind.
With her father, the problem was different, in fact opposite. It was absence, as he was arrested on trumped-up political charges and thrown in jail for four years: years in which he too turned to books and writing, falling in love with such diverse authors as Socrates, Buddha and Voltaire.
He also worked intensively on the Shahnahmeh, as Nafisi discovered when she read through his prison narratives after his death: ‘‘ I loved Ferdowsi from the start,’’ her father wrote in his diary, remembering how he had read those tales to his children. ‘‘ No one teaches humanity, kindness and goodness better than he does. Ferdowsi’s heroes were all God-fearing and humane. He never praised a tyrant and did not bestow any evil traits on his heroes.’’
It was this world of dreams and legends that Nafisi left, repeatedly: first for boarding school in provincial north England, then for studies in the US, and marriage, before returning to Iran, where she endured the revolutionary years, waiting for reform; waiting in vain. In 1997, she, her husband and children at last decided to break with their homeland, the land of epic poetry and romantic rose gardens, now in the grasp of a theocratic regime.
The pattern of bold, principled rebellion had been with her since her childhood’s first reading days: the women of the Shahnahmeh are full of courage and bravery, above all the lovely Princess Rudabeh, the daughter of King Mehran.
ON July 22 1979, Iraq’s new president, Saddam Hussein, convened a meeting of Baath Party officials in a Baghdad auditorium. In the grainy, black-and-white video of the meeting distributed over the following days, Saddam is smoking his trademark cigar as a list of names is read out by a lieutenant. The list is of senior Iraqi officials accused of involvement in a plot against the party. On hearing their names, the accused stand up and are escorted from the hall by security officers. Sixty-eight men are denounced in this way and, of them, 22 are sentenced to death. Perversely, ‘‘ innocent’’ members of the assembly were ordered to join in the executions.
It is, I think, this latter detail that goes to the heart of Saddam’s regime and of totalitarian regimes in general. As Hannah Arendt famously argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism , autocratic regimes consolidate power by wiping out all opposition ( that, of course, is what Saddam was doing; it’s highly unlikely that there was any plot).
But totalitarian regimes go further: they seek to control the individual, to control his mind, not just his movements. One of the principal ways they do this is by collapsing the distinction between victim and perpetrator, creating a new class of perpetrator-victims: people who are not evil themselves but who are implicated in the evils of the regime. The American psychologist Philip Zimbardo called this phenomenon the Lucifer Effect: the process by which good people turn ‘‘ bad’’ when subjected to pressure from those in authority and provided with a legitimising ideological framework.
In The Weight of a Mustard Seed , Wendell Steavenson presses both Zimbardo and Arendt into service in an attempt to better understand what she calls the ‘‘ how-why’’ of Saddam’s regime. Steavenson is a freelance journalist who spent about eight months in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. In that time she conducted a series of interviews with people either related to or connected with general Kamel Sachet, a brave and purportedly famous soldier who served in both the Iran-Iraq war and the invasionannexation of Kuwait.
It is through this man and the various agonies, physical and spiritual, that he is forced to endure that Steavenson attempts to tell the story of Iraqi society over the past 30 years, with particular reference to the concepts of guilt and individual responsibility. ( Hence her rather picturesque title, which is taken from Chapter 21 of the Koran and refers to the notion that on the Day of Judgment every fragment of goodness or badness, no matter how small, will be brought
‘‘ It was women like Rudabeh,’’ writes Nafisi, ‘‘ who planted in my mind the idea of a different kind of woman whose courage is private and personal. Without making any grand claims, without aiming to save humanity or defeat the forces of Satan, these women were engaged in a quiet rebellion, courageous not because it would get them accolades, but because they could not be otherwise.’’ Nafisi understood, of course, that men were the overt heroes of classical Iranian literature, but women had a persistent way of stealing the limelight.
‘‘ Look at these magnificent women,’’ she thought to herself, ‘‘ created in such misogynistic and hierarchical societies, yet they are the subversive centres around which the plot is shaped.’’
So it is in Western literature, and with the female poets of modern Iran, whom Nafisi describes in these pages in words of admiring intensity. ‘‘ Perhaps,’’ she muses, ‘‘ it was exactly because women were deprived of so much in their real lives that they became so subversive in the realm of fiction, refusing the authority imposed on them, breaking out of old structures, not submitting.’’
Books, of course, echo life and have their consequences: no surprise, then, three decades after the Islamic revolution, that women of just this stripe, like the human rights lawyers Shirin ‘‘ to account’’.) To this end she talks to his wife, Um Omar, and those of his children who are willing to be interviewed. She also talks to the men who knew him, in a professional capacity and from a spell in jail ( an unremarkable circumstance in what has been dubbed ‘‘ The Republic of Fear’’). Particularly interesting are two psychiatrists, Dr Hassan and Dr Laith, who more than anyone in the book reveal the absurdity of life under Saddam, required as they are to formally witness essentially arbitrary executions and report on the psychological state of frontline troops in the Iran-Iraq War in a way that neither annoys the president nor leads him to suspect that he’s being mollified.
Indeed, I think Steavenson missed a trick in not making one of these men her focus. After all, you don’t study field marshall Rommel if you want to understand Nazi Germany, but the doctors and the bureaucrats.
The real problem with this book, however, is that it is trying too hard to turn journalism into literature. Needless to say, Steavenson is possessed of more than a mustard seed of courage. But her style is a crazy salad of infelicities. By turns portentous and novelettish, she attempts to shock and awe the reader with inappropriate poeticisms (‘‘ His dark eyes were limpid like unfathomable pools of poetry’’), irritating internal rhymes (‘‘ F16 jets glinted like silver in the high-drawn dawn’’) and the kind of imagery that makes you wince: ‘‘ Saddam had gathered all his might and swollen pride into a great wave that crashed, shattering its kinetic tumult into spurts and spray of white noise, fizz and confusion.’’ An unfathomable pool of poetry, indeed.
Still, and for all its stylistic atrocities, The Weight of a Mustard Seed does complicate a picture in desperate need of complication. Steavenson is good on tribal politics and the ways in which the parties of God are colonising Iraqi minds, and on the necessary doubling and ‘‘ slippery prevarications’’ that characterise the perpetrator-victim.
Certainly there are things one can learn from this book. It’s just a shame that it’s written in a way that makes you wonder if you’ve forgotten how to read.
Richard King is a Perth-based reviewer . Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar, have come to form the front line of moral protest in Iran. And reading the verse tale of Princess Rudabeh it is hard not to think also of Nafisi, who by the mere act of writing a quiet book about reading and speaking in Tehran did as much as any oppositionist to change Western perceptions of the Iranian regime.
But to write with such freedom, Nafisi had to leave home, past and parents behind. She did so and absorbed, with the pain of parting, new lessons. She would soon lose her mother, she realised, but ‘‘ loss presupposes ownership’’.
It was her mother and her father who had given her something to lose.
Nafisi had come to her books through her parents. There were other gifts to look back on as well: ‘‘ I learned that what my father had given me through his stories was a way to make a home for myself that was not dependent on geography or nationality or anything that other people can take away from me.’’
Both her parents, in their different ways, had handed down to her a realm of stories, ‘‘ a portable home that safeguards memory and is a constant resistance against the tyranny of man and of time’’. Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer on The Australian.
Inheritor of stories: Azar Nafisi