The Great King and the Dark Prince: On Keeping Things Persian in Persia

| December 6 2013
John Harris

When I met Peter and Bahar, they were perhaps not my only friends in the world—but it certainly seemed so at the time.  I had received a Bachelor’s degree at the ripe age of twenty; and then, in a disguised sort of retreat that would become the pattern of my youth, I ran back to “higher education” too soon, with too little forethought.  Though I really wasn’t cut out temperamentally for graduate school, I immersed myself in that world of arrogance and servility where I would eventually take two more degrees; for I have always been far more successful at studying and writing than at selling things.  That initial foray into the Ivory Tower’s slave quarters, however, so repulsed me that I left without completing a semester.  Desperate for a job, I jumped at a nugatory offer from a blossoming private school that had decided to balance its books on the backs of its raw recruits.  There was none more raw than I.

Adrift both in a strange city and in the labyrinth of life, actually on foot because I couldn’t afford a car, I had the good fortune to happen upon two generous souls who stood to gain no material profit from our acquaintance (for calculation, you know, is midwife to most friendships in this fallen world).  Peter was an established teacher in a department without connections to mine.  Bahar was the Iranian wife by whom Peter’s New England Puritan relatives were somewhat scandalized.  Maybe that’s why the two of them adopted me.  Looking back, I can see that they were probably as much outcasts as was I.  But at the time, I only noticed two very kind human beings.  I was possibly a little bit in love with Bahar’s dark eyes.

The strangest thing of all was that I, the most exploitable and naive young man ever to wander through the seventies, knew instantly somehow that my friends’ party to celebrate the Shah’s ousting in 1979 was itself terribly gullible.  How could I, of all people, have realized that something worse would follow?  But realize I did.  I knew nothing about the Ayatollah Khomeini: I just knew that dictators universally reviled for bottling up incendiary journalists always turn out not to have been as bad as the “people’s liberation” that drives them out of power.  (Witness North Africa for the latest examples.)  Whatever sensors taught me this much were probably the same as rendered me unfit for graduate school in my discipline.

The other day, having downloaded something onto my Kindle titled 35 Años, 35 Historias because it was free, I serendipitously happened upon an interview with the Ayatollah himself shortly before he returned in triumph from his exile in Paris.  Working on one’s Spanish by reading recent publications, of course, requires the same kind of nose-holding as graduate school.  The title’s thirty-five years refer to a self-gratulatory landmark arbitrarily raised by the liberal-left Old World journal El País.  All of the included epochal triumphs of reportage lean so far north that the view of everything is tilted a good ninety degrees: about the same vantage point as a drunken sailor’s.  I noticed the slant immediately in this piece.  Khomeini’s attendant is stereotypically dashing (for left-tilted reality is always stereotypical), a virtual Omar Sharif; and the female reporter—one Rosa Montero—verbally drools over him as he orders her to don suitable headgear.  The great man himself later remarks in her veiled direction, “Religion in the West… has no relation or intersection with daily life.  In Islam, however, religion intersects all human activities, whether political or social.  Islam holds precise opinions about what the governments of nations must be like.  In this sense, one cannot compare the religions of East and West.  Islam intervenes in every human undertaking and structures it in a progressive [progresista] manner” (my translation).

There you go.  Liberal intellectuals knew full well thirty years ago that Islamist regimes were all about the minute control of people’s lives: they reported on it and read about it.  They knew, in other words, that they could not themselves be liberal (i.e., friends of liberty) and also smile upon such despotism.  They knew that in Khomeini, they were substituting for a king who had imprisoned scores of subversives a tyrant who would imprison untold thousands of citizens guilty of blinking at the wrong time.  They recognized in this diabolical zealot the ghost of Stalin, the spirit of progressivism.  A deep yearning of the soul stirred within them: they were ready to cover their heads and bend their knees.  They had glimpsed their true god, and he had nothing of the liberal about him.  He would tell the masses, the chaff, the cannon fodder, what to do and when to do it—and he would scorch the earth beneath them if they hesitated.

The person who waits for this kind of god to appear, by the way, is a person who does well in grad school, where there are many such gods.

But my real interest in this discussion is Islam, and especially the Near Eastern variety.  Bahar always springs to mind when I think of things Persian, though I lost touch utterly with my friends long, long ago.  She puts a very sympathetic face upon the race, along with an elderly professor whose acquaintance I have made only lately.  Many of the Iranians I have known personally are mannerly, compassionate, insightful people.  Why, then, do they continue to allow Islam to ruin their lives?  (The professor, by the way, turns out to have converted to Christianity.  I don’t suppose he’ll be visiting the old country any time soon: every American should be aware of what the Koran says about Christian converts, even if he or she has never heard of Abdul Rahman.)

In his Lettres Persanes, Montesquieu by no means painted a portrait that was kind to the duplicitous, indolent, pretentious, and silly life of the French court, and the filter of his Persian travelers indeed seems to draw European vice out into the open with merciless accuracy.  Within these keen Eastern intelligences, however, courses a slow poison blended from having been raised amid polygamy, slavery, castration, and arbitrary rule.  Though the letter-writers are largely fictional, Montesquieu understood their real-life prototypes well.  He would later clarify in De l’Esprit des Lois the difference between the moral effects of monarchy and those of despotism.  A monarch may be overruled, he observes, by the unwritten code of honor, for that same code upholds service to him even while circumscribing his will.  Life under a despot knows no such bounds:

Abject obedience presupposes the ignorance of him who obeys—and presupposes it even in him who commands.  This latter has only to wish: there is nothing to deliberate, to doubt, or to reason out.

In despotic states, each household is a separate empire.  Education, which consists principally of living with others, is thus very limited: it is reduced to putting fear into hearts and providing spirits with the knowledge of some very simple religious precepts.  Wisdom would be dangerous in this context, ambition fatal; and as for the virtues, Aristotle refused to believe that there were any appropriate to slaves—all of which would severely limit education under such a government.

Education is hence, in a way, null.  Everything must be wiped away so that something may be given: one must begin, that is, by making a poor citizen so that one may make a good slave.  (Chapter Three, “Concerning Education in a Despotic State”: my translation)

Neither Persia nor Islam is explicitly mentioned, but the author of Lettres Persanes could scarcely have had anything else in mind.  In any case, what do we of the twenty-first century, three hundred and fifty years later, know that resembles this portrait as well as Islam?  The education of the madrasa has hardly varied for a millennium.

Is Islam solely or primarily responsible for this willingness to accept domination abjectly, and to practice domination brutally?  Or is it something in the water, or an effect of too much sun?  Herodotus writes in his seventh book that the megalomaniac Persian king Xerxes, having grown infuriated when a local king named Pythius requested that his eldest son be excused from military service, ordered the young man hacked in two and the army marched between his body’s halves (39.3).  I instantly recalled one of the opening passages of Oriana Fallaci’s La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, where Taliban thugs behead three women in a soccer stadium (for visiting a hairdresser, I think) and then invite the entire throng to trample their corpses into a red mud at midfield.

Is this frightful, inhuman cruelty Koranic, or has it rather inspired later interpretations of the Koran?  Slaves, certainly, were a familiar convention throughout the Mediterranean world before the arrival of Christianity.  Yet the Christian influence abolished that institution in the Middle Ages, whereas the Muslim influence appears to have transformed it into a growth industry that survives to this day (and that was responsible for the institution’s brief resurgence in European colonies).  The Barbary pirates who were raiding villages as far west as Ireland right up until the time of Commodore Decatur were the equivalent of today’s Mexican cartels that kidnap and ransom children or force young girls into a short life of filthy prostitution.  They were the scum of the earth, in short—and they took their marching orders from the Ottoman Turks, a crowd ethnically distinct from the Persians, but only as first cousins are distinct.  Where was the outcry in the Muslim world just yesterday—or where is it today—against slavery?  Who can doubt, after reading a few chapters of the Arabian Nights, that a profound racist contempt for black Africa does not undergird this tolerance?

Paradoxically, the Arabic world seems to regard A Thousand and One Arabian Nights not only as a foreign work, but as no less deserving of its contempt than negritude, or so I gather.  The incessant sexual adventures of the romance are indecent to proper Muslim tastes, and are attributed—again—to the corrupt influence of Persia.  Personally, I can’t disagree with the censorious condemnation.  I have found, in trying to wallow through this “classic”, that its constant celebration of rape, carnality, misogyny, and brutality demands long pauses for fresh air, and creates altogether an incredible memorial to levels of sociopathic criminal behavior that would earn for their authors the fate of Charles Manson in any civilized setting.  (I confess that my current pause has left me less than a quarter of the way through: I had to stop when the “heroic” king whose harem included a woman for every day of the year drugged his lovely Christian visitor, raped her as she lay unconscious, and stalked away burdened neither by “need” nor remorse.)

Here is my question for the prim and proper Muslim world, however: if you are so keenly sensitive to the purity of your womenfolk, why then do you look the other way—or even participate—when a young woman is publicly raped in a city like Cairo for wearing a short skirt?  How dare you style yourselves as guardians of decency and then perform gang-acts upon foreign journalists like Lara Logan and Catholic nuns within your ravenous reach?  Why, throughout the history of your “faith”, have your grandees from Baghdad to Islamabad felt the need to keep obscenely large harems (far beyond the three wives suggested by the Koran, by the way)?  Why do you tolerate, and even venerate, men who behave like animals?

And speaking of harems, whence this appallingly sick custom of castrating superintendents of the female herd?  A short prose work by Alexander Pushkin titled Journey to Arzrum, more or less literally transcribing the poet’s trek into what we call Turkey, tells incidentally of a military translator who knew the language and customs well after having been captured by the Turks, castrated, and thereby admitted into the intimacy of households for years.  What other society has ever performed such atrocities?  Did the Aztec eviscerating of young girls, even—a perverse sacrifice to a dark god—show one modicum as much indifference to basic human dignity?  (The offerings were, after all, supposed to confer honor.)  And this custom was not the arcane practice of a fanatical religious sect (like the ancient worship of Cybele, itself a Near Eastern cult) or a fairly brief habit confined to an eccentric community (like the castrating of boys in monasteries to create lifelong sopranos—a practice that crept into Europe through Muslim Spain by way of… Turkey).  The regular production of eunuchs spanned the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, was considered part and parcel of the slave owner’s rights, and endured until a few decades ago.  All because of an obsession among wealthy males that some vagrant might jump their harem’s wall and fish in their pond… would any real man not feel himself publicly and permanently disgraced to be tarnished with such torrid concupiscence and such squalid jealousy?

It might fairly be said, too, that a taste for castration persists in the African-Muslim rite of female genital mutilation.  I have never heard that the Persians, or their descendants, endorsed or endorse the practice; but the notion of preempting the sinful eye by cutting it out (a mere metaphor in Jesus’ mouth) has nestled deeply in Islamic culture around the world.  Even parts of Indonesia indulge in FGM; and the hacking away of a thief’s right hand, of course, is straight from the Koranic playbook.  How strange, that some of the same American progressives who deplore the New York City cop’s erstwhile license to stop and search suspicious characters applaud without reserve the Muslim efficiency at reducing crime by sawing off physical members necessary for trespass!

For years, I have tried to understand Islam, and even the history of the pre-Islamic Middle East (since many of the Koran’s most infamous strictures are in fact embedded in that history).  Yet the more I read, the less I understand—or the better I understand, rather, that I will never surmount my revulsion at this culture.  I do not say that Islam may never grow kinder and gentler; I believe it has done so in our own society, and has indeed sometimes put to shame the invertebracy and permissiveness of self-styled Christians.  But in its native environment, I despair of this faith’s ever vanquishing a kind of insanity that surrounds it.

We should leave these people alone to stew away in their mad broth as they have done since the days of Gilgamesh.  Our ways are so distant from their ways that whatever we may do to motivate a change in their behavior must almost always backfire.  This includes such tribalist strategies as “droning” bad guys in settings full of innocent bystanders and bombing the tar out of nuclear sites embedded in civilian populations—both of which have worked or will work about as well as stepping on a bed of fire ants.

As for my own suggestion of about a year ago that we might form common cause with Muslims to rein in some of our own cultural degeneracy (Hollywood, Miley Cyrus, NAMBLA, etc., etc.), I hereby recant, unless such reinforcement could come strictly from Americanized Muslims.  I see no realistic possibility that a “modesty” preserved by keeping women hooded, aching from girlhood mutilations, and in constant fear of divorce (the words pronounced three times) if they step out of line can ever masquerade as ally to the love of virtue.  The fanatics of the progressivist faith are far more correct to recognize in such practices the souls of coreligionists.  The Ayatollah Khomeini had it right all those years ago: the Islam of the Middle East intervenes in every aspect of every person’s daily routine, and its objectives are progressive—i.e., “fundamentally transformative”.

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