Letter from the Road #35

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


Looking for Iran


The Rally for Ahmadinejad
This morning Rabia and I walked out of our small hotel in Esfahan, Iran, and were immediately swept along by a boisterous crowd filling the street—chanting, waving banners—all heading to Imam Square to hear President Ahmadinejad who was due to give a public address there within the hour. Loudspeakers blared and crackled from the back of pickup trucks, shouting party slogans.

Our guide and interpreter, Abbas, seemed uncomfortable, perhaps because some of the slogans were anti-American, but the twenty thousand-plus people in the square showed no signs of hostility. Those who noticed us and asked what country we were from expressed only delight when we told them.

Two young basijis—volunteer paramilitary guards the regime uses to enforce its domestic policies—tried to make conversation with me, smiling broadly when I told them I was American. Even though they had been raised on slogans of “Death to America!” they each earnestly shook my hand, saying “Iran, Amrika!” and pointed to our clasped hands, meaning our countries should shake hands just like this.

This disparity between hatred toward an anonymous enemy and kindness toward a specific person—even if that person is technically numbered among the enemy—is one form of a complicated Iranian cultural trait known as ta’arouf. Ta’arouf shows up in many ways. For example, Iranian drivers may curse each other as long as they remain anonymous in traffic, but as soon as there is shared eye contact they defer to the other.

Some forms of ta’arouf are quite similar to styles of Western etiquette in which we express self-deprecation or minimize our efforts for someone, saying: “No, don’t thank me, it was really nothing, nothing at all.” However for Iranians ta’arouf has evolved much beyond this into an elaborate and nuanced dance for determining social interactions.

It’s possible to see this ta’arouf style of social positioning and cultural identity playing out in the context of politics and religion. Seeing it in this way we may get a glimpse beneath what often appears to be Iranian bravado and posturing on the world stage.

Ahmadinejad himself is a prime example of this sort of bravado. At the rally he careened into the square on the back of a truck, waving to the crowds, and then gave a speech that was equal parts compassionate populism and equal parts rhetorical outrage against Iran’s enemies. It was a pattern of argument we hear repeated from many Iranians: “We as a people have been attacked and exploited by outside forces for untold centuries, and we are true defenders of social justice.” On the one side anger, on the other side righteousness.

Martyrs and Heroes
Of course, they have a point. This strategic swath of land between East and West, South and North, has been invaded, conquered, and resurrected as a seat of empire countless times over the past three millennia. It is no wonder that paranoia and suspicion of foreign intentions have become central to Iranian identity.

The Arab conquest of Persia nearly 1400 years ago is mentioned frequently in conversations as an example of Iranian victimization by their neighbors, notwithstanding the fact the invasion brought with it the gift of Islam. Traces of the light/dark nature of ta’arouf again: Iranians deeply revere the Prophet Mohammad (an Arab), but racist comments about Arabs in general are common among Iranians. We often ask the simple question: “What would you most like Americans to know about Iranians?” and the most frequent answer is, “Tell them we are not Arabs!”

This deeply rooted trait of xenophobia-in-general coupled with courtesy to the stranger-in-particular is underwritten by the Shi’a narrative of the good and just Hussein (the Prophet’s grandson and the third Imam of Shi’ism) who was martyred by the overwhelming force of the evil Yazid, the Ummayad caliph from Damascus. The sorrow of this martyrdom is vividly kept alive by the yearly Shi’a commemoration of Ashura, the re-enactment of Hussein’s death.

It is sometimes referred to as a David and Goliath story in which Goliath always wins. Its repetition every year reinforces the identity of Iranians and Iranian Shi’ism as the prototypical David—good, just, caring for the individual—hopelessly victimized by the various tyrannical Goliaths—among them the Arabs, the Ottomans, the British, the Iraqis, and now most of all the U.S.-Israel alliance. As one Iranian-American writer put it, Shi’as are “always the underdogs fighting for a just cause in an unjust world.”

Even a cursory knowledge of the past 60 years of U.S.-Iran relations gives ample evidence to justify Iran’s distrust of the American Goliath. The CIA-engineered coup against the democratically elected prime minister in 1953 (because he nationalized their oil industry), the subsequent U.S. support of the tyrannical Shah who ruled Iran until the Islamic revolution in 1979, U.S. support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (including not objecting to the Saddam’s poison gas attacks on Iranian populace), U.S. military bases encircling Iran—these and many other facts corroborate Iran’s suspicions of our intentions. We are the current evil Yazid (hence the Great Satan) threatening to martyr them. No wonder almost all Iranians we meet—conservative and reformist alike—defend their country’s determination to develop nuclear technology—for energy or for weapons.

The Ayatollah’s Fear
One morning Abbas told me of a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini soon after the revolution: “If the day comes that we shake hands with America, Iran will disappear.” That is, if David shakes hands with Goliath, David will no longer have an identity. If Hussein shakes hands with Yazid, the Shi’a narrative of being an underdog fighting for a just cause in an unjust world will be made irrelevant.
I think of Obama’s recent overture to Iran and the Iranian Supreme Leader’s cold rebuff. Obama called for “a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce… a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.”

A number of Iranians we have spoken with expressed embarrassment for the Supreme Leader’s suspicious reaction, perhaps because Obama’s personable style and directness brought him to the intimate side of ta’arouf—not as a representative of an anonymous enemy but as simply a real person. But the Supreme Leader may well have known the bind Obama was putting him in, and chose to risk ta-arouf rudeness rather than enter the unknown field in which both David and Goliath put down their old story of who they are.

I think of the young basiji soldiers shaking my hand at the rally, saying “Iran, Amrika!” Perhaps they were messengers of something completely new stirring in human relations. Perhaps their gesture signified the possibility of no longer defining ourselves in opposition to the other, of no longer needing to shout “Axis of Evil!” or “Death to America!” at each other. Perhaps that handshake even was a way of saying “Life to America!” and “Life to Iran!”

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