The sto­ries of Per­sia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

he Amer­i­cans have never re­ally un­der­stood Iran, its Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion in 1979, or its sub­se­quent evo­lu­tion. How, in the first place, could its peo­ple over­throw a ruler such as the shah, a rel­a­tively benev­o­lent despot by Mid­dle Eastern stan­dards who had mod­ernised his coun­try, vastly im­proved the ed­u­ca­tional level of its pop­u­la­tion and gen­er­ally raised the coun­try’s stan­dard of liv­ing?

But it must be ad­mit­ted that the Ira­nian peo­ple them­selves were also con­fused, and few of them re­alised that they were hav­ing an Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion un­til it was too late.

And yet, de­spite the op­pres­sion of re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism, the shah’s work in the fields of education and in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment has con­tin­ued, re­sult­ing in an in­creas­ingly mod­ern, ed­u­cated and sec­u­lar pop­u­la­tion — and a young one — that has lit­tle at­tach­ment to head­scarves and chadors.

In many ways, Iran would be a much bet­ter ally for the US than Saudi Ara­bia, which, like the Gulf states, rep­re­sents a dis­taste­ful com­bi­na­tion of crude ma­te­ri­al­ism and hyp­o­crit­i­cally en­forced fun­da­men­tal­ist piety. Ad­mit­tedly, Amer­i­can Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ism has found its own way of rec­on­cil­ing gross ma­te­ri­al­ism with re­vival­ist re­li­gion, so per­haps there is a nat­u­ral fit be­tween the two.

Iran has suf­fered many vi­cis­si­tudes over the cen­turies, but it has a far longer his­tory and a deeper cul­ture than the Arabs; in­deed, Arab cul­ture is al­most en­tirely made up of what the Arabs learnt from the Greeks and the Per­sians fol­low­ing their con­quests in the sev­enth and eighth cen­turies AD. The Arabs were a tribal peo­ple, sud­denly oc­cu­py­ing lands where re­mark­able civil­i­sa­tions had flour­ished for a mil­len­nium and a half, and in­deed far longer if we go back to the Bronze Age.

The great­est hand­i­cap of the Per­sians — and ul­ti­mately the root cause of their in­abil­ity to con­quer the Greeks in the fifth cen­tury BC — was that they had never de­vel­oped the ideas of the rule of law or of re­spon­si­ble govern­ment, in the broad­est sense, which un­der­pinned the life of the Greek po­lis. The law re­mained at the whim of the ruler, and be­cause the peo­ple had no say in who the ruler was, they had no com­mit­ment to the state.

All of that is what the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ist move­ment of the early 20th cen­tury was try­ing to change: the mod­ernisers in Per­sia, as it then was, re­alised that they could never be­come a mod­ern na­tion un­til they were able to build the in­sti­tu­tions of civil so­ci­ety. But on the other hand the great ad­van­tage of Per­sia was a deeply hu­man­is­tic yet also spir­i­tual tra­di­tion em­bod­ied by its great po­ets, and a pro­found ethos of com­mu­nity, man­i­fest in re­mark­able in­fra­struc­ture, es­pe­cially the un­der­ground water con­duits or ghanat that make life pos­si­ble in the desert, and un­fail­ing cour­tesy in pri­vate re­la­tions be­tween peo­ple.

To­day, the po­lit­i­cal life of Iran is a work in progress: it is a semi-democ­racy, in the sense that the peo­ple vote for the elec­tion of a pres­i­dent as well as for mem­bers of par­lia­ment, but from lists of can­di­dates vet­ted by the clergy, who reg­u­larly dis­qual­ify any­one they con­sider too rad­i­cal.

De­spite this, the drift has been to­wards more pro­gres­sives in par­lia­ment. Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani is a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate, a cler­gy­man who re­alises that the sys­tem must adapt if it is to sur­vive; the ul­ti­mate leader of the coun­try, how­ever, re­mains the supreme Ay­a­tol­lah, who is more con­ser­va­tive but has been will­ing to sup­port Ro­hani in some of his re­forms.

The two most im­por­tant things that are of­ten mis­un­der­stood about the Ira­ni­ans are first, that they are not Arabs at all, but Indo-Euro­peans (Per­sian is re­lated to Latin, Greek and Ger­man); and se­condly, that they be­long to the Shia branch of Is­lam, which ad­heres to the di­rect line of de­scent through the Prophet’s daugh­ter Fa­tima and son-in-law Ali, and which was usurped by the Umayyad caliphs and their suc­ces­sors the Ab­basids, who sys­tem­at­i­cally mur­dered all of the right­ful heirs, known to the Shia as imams.

The first of these facts ex­plains their dis­like of Arabs in gen­eral — and their ha­tred of Saudi Ara­bia and its prox­ies in par­tic­u­lar — and the sec­ond ex­plains the unique cult of mar­tyr­dom that per­vades Shia re­li­gious life in a way that far ex­ceeds the cult of the mar­tyrs in the Catholic Church. The sep­a­ra­tion of Shia from Sunni was sealed by the killing of Ali’s son Hus­sein at the bat­tle of Kar­bala in 680AD, and to this day the an­nual com­mem­o­ra­tion of that bat­tle, the most im­por­tant time in the Shia year, is held in Septem­ber or there­abouts, de­pend­ing on the lu­nar cal­en­dar, and lasts for a month.

These fac­tors are im­por­tant if one is to un­der­stand the ethos be­hind the Mu­seum of Holy De­fence in Tehran, which opened in 2012, although parts of the vast site are still be­ing de­vel­oped. The mu­seum com­mem­o­rates the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which Sad­dam Hus­sein took ad­van­tage of the dis­ar­ray into which the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion of 1979 had thrown the shah’s pow­er­ful armed forces to in­vade Iran and seize parts of its ter­ri­tory.

The plan was ini­tially suc­cess­ful, but the Ira­ni­ans re­grouped and fought back, and grad­u­ally pushed the Iraqis out; peace was re­stored in 1988 af­ter a war in which hun­dreds of thou­sands of young men died and no ter­ri­tory was gained on ei­ther side.

For the Ira­ni­ans, the aw­ful re­al­ity was over­laid with his­tor­i­cal echoes, the first of which was that the Iraqi in­va­sion re­called the Arab in­va­sion of 651AD, which ef­fec­tively put an end to Iran as an in­de­pen­dent state for about 850 years, although the Ira­ni­ans re­sisted the cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism of Ara­bic and re­tained the Per­sian lan­guage.

Even deeper were as­so­ci­a­tions with mar­tyr­dom and Imam Hus­sein as pro­tomar­tyr. Every young man who died in the war was re-en­act­ing the sac­ri­fice of Hus­sein in the face of bar­barism. This is the theme around which the mu­seum is

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