Jour­ney into evil bogged in flour­ishes

Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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