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Insightful view of complex country
am 1. Mai 2000
From political leaders and dissidents to film makers, philosophers, housewives and teenagers, journalist Robin Wright conveys the outspoken voices of Iran in this timely study.
Readable and well-organized, Wright's book illuminates the impact of the 1979 revolution on ordinary citizens today as well as examining the root causes. She naturally focuses on Iranian/U.S. relations, explaining the long-festering feeling against the 1953 US/British-engineered coup that reinstalled the Shah's repressive regime. She shows how Ayatollah Khomeini seized on the almost whimsical takeover of the US embassy in 1979 to divert attention from domestic troubles and unite his people in heightened revolutionary fervor.
Iranians view the American people and their government separately and always have, Wright claims. At a 1999 demonstration, an Islamic clerical leader takes Wright aside. "'We shout death to policies, not to the scientists and thinkers of America,' he said, as if the difference were obvious and I had to be daft not to understand." One of the more outspoken of the original hostage takers addresses the crowd. " 'Today we invite all the hostages to return to Iran as our guests....Regarding relations with America, we must look to the future and not to the past.' "
The skeptical reader is reminded of terrorist attacks against ordinary civilians and the impossibility of American tourism in Iran, at least during the '80s. But, as Wright points out, the population of Iran has nearly doubled since the revolution, meaning nearly half of Iranians were born during Islamic reign. Things are different for them.
Comparing the classic stages of revolution to a fever - raging, convalescing and recovery, Wright traces events leading to revolution and the formation of a religious government (which even Khomeini did not originally intend) through a clerical reign of terror which "eliminated former partners - leftists, nationalist and intellectuals - from any claim to power."
Convalescence did not begin until the end of the Iran/Iraq war and Khomeini's death in 1989. While the clergy tightened their hold on power by opposing any relaxation of conservative Islamic strictures, people began to chafe for more freedom and dissidents, many of them former revolutionary heroes, clamored for more democracy. A joke making the rounds in 1992 called on Ayatollah Khomeini to describe paradise, which he does in terms of plenty of food, many pleasures, no tension. " 'So how would you characterize paradise?'... 'Well,' said Khomeini, 'it's very much like the time of the shah.'" But Wright is careful to make clear that nostalgia is not for the shah himself but for a time of prosperity and international importance.
The bulk of the book focuses on the "Islamic Reformation," epitomized by clerics like current president Mohammed Khatami whose philosophical leanings tend toward democracy. As government influences every aspect of daily life, Wright interviews people across the spectrum to illuminate their religious way of life and desire for more freedom.
One chapter focuses on the arts, the movie industry especially. With virtually all outside cinema banned, and with strict Islamic strictures in place, Iranian cinema flourished and developed along imaginative and ingenious lines. Ironically, cultural loosening threatens the burgeoning art form as American movies begin to dominate the few theaters.
Women are the focus of another chapter; one of the book's most interesting, as women try to reconcile Islamic piety with individual freedom, even feminism. Women have had the vote since 1963 and their literacy rate has increased greatly since the revolution. They have become a force for change though they hardly speak with one voice. One woman explains to Wright that education has become possible for religious women only since the revolution, as the Shah did not allow traditional dress in the classroom.
While rules about extra-marital sex remain rigid, every marriage-bound couple is now required to attend explicit sex-education classes where birth control is described in detail and as strongly advocated as large families once were. Iran is dangerously overpopulated and it's not until the book's end that Wright sheds her customary optimism to reveal just how dangerous a situation that is. Annually, 850,000 young people enter a job market which produces only 300,000 jobs. Iran's economy is in shambles and shows no signs of improving. Drug use has become a serious problem, due at least in part to boredom and a sense of hopelessness for the future. Many young people say they will never be able to afford to marry. Seventy percent of Iran's unemployed are its young.
Wright humanizes Iranians for her American readers. She converses at length with intellectuals and ordinary people, allowing their personalities and passions to emerge. Anecdotes are humorous, quirky, reasoned and fanatical. She gives the revolution a human face but at the same time exposes the ugly visage of the mob.
Though she clearly loves the place and its people and communicates her understanding well, the book's conclusion dashes much of its hope. It is difficult to see how Iran can progress successfully in the face of volatile economic and population pressures exacerbated by political divisiveness. It's not clear what the US can do but ignoring Iran does not seem a viable option.