New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 21 Sept 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Priest, the President and the Persian Peugeot


By Saif Shahin


The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

By Hooman Majd

Penguin, pp 272

3.5 stars


“If you want to know us, become a Shia first.” That is what Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, an ayatollah and a former president, told a foreign visitor to Tehran. But if the picture of Iran that emerges from ‘The Ayatollah Begs To Differ’ – journalist Hooman Majd’s travelogue-cum-reflections about his homeland – is to be believed, you could do a pretty good job of that by simply being an Indian.


Majd lives in New York, and he attempts to offer an affectionate glimpse of Iranian life to people who have for three decades viewed Iran as a mortal enemy. On every other page, he reminds his American readers just how vast is the cultural gulf between them and his compatriots, how difficult it is for them to sometimes even tolerate, let alone comprehend, Iranian social customs and practices. (Hence the need to be patient when dealing with Iranians – like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)


But to an Indian reader, many of these civilisational concepts – the good, the bad and the ugly – will appear eerily familiar. Take, for instance, the laat. He is the Iranian neighbourhood tough, not quite the Sicilian mafioso shooting his way around Chicago streets, but very similar to the dada who commands respect at knifepoint in the bylanes of many an Indian town and city. The laat can also be easily recognised in the formulaic hooligan-with-a-soft-heart roles played by countless Bollywood actors ranging from Amitabh Bachchan to Sanjay Dutt in the 1970s and 80s.


Or take ta’arouf, the Iranian style of interaction in which you keep on deprecating yourself in front of another, even a stranger, out of sheer humility. It guides all forms of social encounter, from a passenger begging his cabbie to accept the fare and the cabbie stubbornly resistant, to two people inside a lift insisting that the other step out first. Majd calls such “infuriating… small talk” a defining Persian characteristic, but it finds a perfect resonance in India’s Lucknowi pehle aap culture.


Yet another commonality is the penchant for disliking elected leaders. Just as Indians love to run down politicians of all hue and blame them for all their sufferings, so do Iranians pick on their chosen representatives.


You can even compare some of the political leaders of the two countries. President Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, comes from the underclass and still lives in a lower-middle class neighbourhood. “His style,” writes Majd, “the bad suits, the cheap Windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut, a style he proudly maintains well into his presidency is a signal to the working class that he is still one of them.” He drives no limousine but a Peugeot, and delivers his speeches in pedestrian Persian, the kind that is spoken on the streets and is understood by all.


Inasmuch, he is not a far cry from the Lalu Prasad brand of politician, who won election after election riding on his carefully cultivated rustic appeal, or even Mamata Banerjee, the railway minister who still lives in a lower middle class neighbourhood and drives to Parliament in a Maruti Zen.


But the similarities – at least political – end there. The contours of democracy in the Islamic Republic are decidedly different from those across the Arabian Sea, or indeed anywhere else. Majd, the grandson of an ayatollah who has himself been an adviser to the conservative Ahmadinejad as well as the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami, uses his reach to bring the inner workings of the velayat-e-faqih, the ‘rule of the jurisprudent’, to light.


The velayat-e-faqih is the politico-theological foundation of post-Revolution Iran. One of its fundamental facets is the division of labour between the President, the executive head of the nation, and the Supreme Leader, who is technically a sort of guardian but in truth wields real power. Majd details how his office works to maintain the deceptive distinction between his exclusively spiritual public persona and the reality of his near-absolute control over everything from oil business to the import-export market, exerted through the Revolutionary Guards.


Although the book was written well before the wide-scale protests in Iran following Ahmadinejad’s re-election two months ago, it still offers clues to understand this summer of discontent – and why it was short-lived. Ahmadinejad entered office in 2005 on the promise of filling up empty stomachs, but his fixation with non-issues like the Holocaust didn’t really help. The protests, thus, were not as much in favour of his rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi as they were against Ahmadinejad and his unfulfilled pledges.

However, the President also strikes a chord with all Iranians when he defies Washington and fights for Iran’s nuclear rights.


His stance props up the ego of a proud people tired of being relegated to the sidelines, yearning for a reason to feel good about themselves once again. There is a paradox here: Iranians take to the streets against the braggadocio who wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth instead of building his own country; yet they press him to their hearts for a display of mardanegi (macho behaviour) in the nuclear standoff.


Such paradoxes lie at the heart of modern Iran. That is another reason why Indians, no strangers to contradictions themselves, should easily understand – and empathise with – their civilisational cousins.

Saif Shahin is a senior Assistant Editor with Mail Today, New Delhi