Two Books

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Ali Negahban:

When the Islamic revolution occurred in Iran in 1979, I was a kid in grade six. The school was closed for two months. I finally went back to school to find the principal was wearing a beard and a shirt with a loose collar with no tie. Our teacher, who used to wear a skirt and whose long blonde-colored hair reached her shoulders, was wearing a headdress and hijab. From the public address system of the school came a meaningless voice, like the one my father occasionally used to read from that yellow-leafed book. Girls were separated from boys and were sent to a newly established girl’s school.

Our books were changed. Among the new books, there was a book teaching us how to read that dignified book, the Koran, for we had to learn Arabic in order to read the Koran. The clergyman who taught us Arabic said, we couldn’t worship God in our language. Prayer must be practiced in Arabic. Gradually, we got used to reading it. The other book, which was written in our native language and which we used to read from so much, was taken out of the curriculum. From the Koran, we learned stories about people who spoke, ate, behaved, communicated, loved and hated differently from the way we did. We were taught more about hell and paradise than our country and our history. At the school, we learned how to talk to God. We could talk to God only in Arabic. I wondered whether he didn’t know our language or didn’t like it.

A referendum was held to determine what kind of political system people wanted to vote for. A majority of 98% voted for an Islamic Republic. I asked my father why he voted for the Islamic republic. He said because the Islamic republic would make our country like paradise, as it was described in the Koran. He believed that in an Islamic republic, leaders and other authorities wouldn’t hide themselves behind the walls of their palaces. People would be able to talk to the authorities when they came to get their groceries from the corner store. The Islamic leaders promised that they would reduce taxes and make public education, medical services, gas, electric and other public services free and available to everyone. After clerics took political control, none of those promises came true.

Which factors enable an individual to become a leader and a nation to become a follower? There may be many philosophical, sociological, psychological, or other kinds of theoretical systems discussing this question. According to my experience, there is only one way to make a nation follow you: talk to them in their language and make your message believable. There were so many parties and political organizations fighting for democracy and freedom in Iran during the revolution. They held meetings, published announcements, books and bulletins. They analyzed and criticized the tyrannical monarchy of the Shah. They introduced their own alternative political systems. They had plans and strategies for the future. There were communist parties, socialists, social democrats, Islamic democrats, liberals, monarchists, conservatives, nationalists and many more political parties.

Every party had its own terminology and vocabulary. They used their own particular terminologies to talk to people. They tried to communicate with people, using the concepts and codes that only in their specific ideological systems were meaningful. They were able, of course, to find their audiences and followers among university students and other well-educated layers of society. Yet they never were able to influence the public to go after them or vote for their proposed political systems. Their speeches, announcements, bulletins and books seemed to people nonsense and gibberish that had nothing to do with their lives. The intellectual leaders frequently quoted from Hegel, Sartre, Marx, Voltaire and other thinkers to convince illiterate, poorly educated people to support their political programs. They were very successful in university, but in the bazaar and on the streets, they were seen as xenophiles who were trying to pave the way for foreigners to plunder the country’s sources and treasures. People believed those political parties would destroy their traditions and religious beliefs.

On the other hand, there was a man who had no party. He recorded his speeches on audiocassettes, and his advocates distributed and recited his speeches among the public. His speeches were never grammatically correct. The audiocassettes were full of awkward sentences. He spoke like uneducated people. Thus he influenced the ordinary people and made them want to follow him. The man was Ayatollah Khomeini.

My father and mother listened to his speeches very carefully. They became more religious and started practicing every precept of Islam. My father referred to the Koran more and more, and gradually he forgot about the other book from which he used to read every night. He said Shahnameh contained stories about infidels and pagans whose behavior was far from our faith. He said we had been wrong before because we had used the Koran only on occasions, while we should have used it for all occasions, as it was a book containing precepts and strict instructions for every aspect of daily life.

Ayatollah Khomeini extracted his guidance from the Koran and continuously referred people to that text and no other sources. He translated those precepts to a colloquial language understandable to ordinary people. He had only one text, one prophet and one pattern, whereas the other political parties were wandering among many resources and ideologies that confused people. Khomeiney and his cleric followers unified people under the name of God and Islam.

Clerics were professional preachers and orators. Yet they didn’t have a defined manifesto. They politicized the Koran and applied it to the social and political issues that dominated the society. The Koran was, of course, a text capable of being interpreted in different, even contradictory ways. They skillfully used the contradictory aspects of the Koran to overcome their critics. If one criticized the Koran for implying rule by dictatorship, the clerics would refer the critic to some other part of the Koran that endorsed diversity and freedom of choice.

The way they interpreted the Koran before the victory was not the same as the way they did after the victory. Before winning the revolution, they described God as compassionate, beneficent and merciful. Thus they concluded that everyone could join them, even sinners and criminals, because God would forgive them. The political system they introduced was perfect. It guaranteed a peaceful happy life for the followers in this world as well as the world after death. Consequently, the absolute majority of people, even non-Muslims, joined them. Most of the political parties supported Ayatollah Khomeiney and his proposed political system — even socialists, liberals and nationalists.

My father, who used to run a small business then, closed his store for one year and dedicated all his time to participating in demonstrations, arranging public meetings, publishing newsletters and distributing announcements to serve the revolution. My brother, who was in the last year of high school, quit the school and registered in a religious school to become a clergyman.

Clerics didn’t have an organization. They used thousands of mosques countrywide as their bases to held meetings and invite people to support them. While political parties had a few offices in each city, clerics had at least one mosque in each neighborhood and could easily cover the entire country. Since Muslims usually go to mosque to practice prayer every day, this was a unique opportunity for clerics to catch the attention of those believers. When they felt they were powerful enough, they started criticizing the others. They criticized all the other systems, yet no one dared to criticize the Islamic system because the mullahs would accuse their critics of being apostates. Apostasy or secession is a crime that may result in capital punishment according to the Islamic decrees.

After clerics won the revolution, they described God as the almighty, the righter of wrongs and the punisher. They exactly inscribed those kinds of adjectives for God on top of their announcements and bulletins to attribute their acts to God’s will. The angry almighty God immediately launched his retaliation machine and started executing and imprisoning unbelievers. The mullahs resolved to make the wrongs right. They shut the offices of all other political parties and prohibited their activities. They called the other activists rebels and combatants against God. The followers of Ayatollah Khomeini arrested the critics and hung most of them in public.

When I was in the first year of high school, I saw scenes of hung men and women at the square next to my school. The Hanging-in-Public program usually was performed on Thursday afternoons when students were on the way home from school. The mullahs announced the program in the morning and invited people to watch the show. The authorities stopped traffic and directed all the vehicles out of the square area. People sat down all around the square and a crane was parked at the center of the intersection. Beside the crane, there was a van with covered windows and heavily guarded. The speakers around the square played martial marches and hymns and messages from Ayatollah Khomeini. Then one of the guards announced the sentence of death. Two policemen holding the arms of the sentenced person directed him towards the crane. The man was handcuffed and his face was covered. He walked calmly. One of the hangmen tightened the rope around his neck and tied his feet together. After a moment, he was twisting and winding his body in the air. In five minutes, he kicked the air three times. Ten minutes later, he was a still exclamation mark hung from the sky.

I remember the day that the students of my school were the special onlookers at the show. In the morning that day, the students were gathered up in the amphitheater. First, one of the students read some sentences from the Koran, threatening the infidels with the excruciating punishment ahead of them in Hell. Then, the principal talked about the necessity of remaining faithful to Islam and understanding the significance of that decisive period of time. He announced that two students from our school had been deceived and deluded by evil and were going to meet the definite consequence of their shameful deed. After the speech, all the students and teachers walked in ordered rows and lines towards the square. The students repeated the slogans in support of the Islamic republic and the great leader. The familiar crane and the van were waiting in the square. One of the students mounted the rostrum. He read a manifesto on behalf of the students, condemning the reproachful acts of devilish forces. The students were sitting on the ground like statues, not saying a word, nor even looking at each other. Not a soul dared to ask what the two devilish forces, our former colleagues, had done. The day after the hanging show, our teacher said in the class that the two hung boys had copied and distributed the manifesto of Marx-Engels.

The next evening, my mother put on her black shirt and hijab and refused to tell us kids where she was heading. Later I found out that she had been going to the secret funeral of one of the hung students, held by his father, an old carpenter.

After almighty God and his representatives started hanging, whipping, imprisoning and exiling people, my father retired from social activities and secluded himself in his room. He went back to his habit of reading Shahnameh and the Koran alternately, but he read them only to himself and never talked about them with the family. My brother quit the religious school after one year and emigrated to a country in the Persian Gulf region. Having given up the idea of being a mullah, he began to work as a mechanic in a car repair shop. After living a few years in seclusion, my father died of heart attack. I have found an asylum in the farthest possible part of the world and refuge in a third language, but I have never been able to write about something rather than what I have learned from those two books.

The two books on the wall unit still are there, but I am not sure if my mother has the heart to read them in her loneliness.

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