Monday, October 31, 2005

Stepping back: cultural signposts

To better present what might be at stake with these latest huffs and puffs coming out of Iran, I thought I should start with a bit of a background.

The culture of Iranian chattering classes, as it exists today, suffers from a number of maladies that become debilitating when dealing with political matters.

One is what can be categorized as the plague of our superficial, Condescending Gaze.

Let’s consider an illuminating visual exemplar in an apolitical context to better sense what I am driving at. A famous Iranian singer, Googoosh, recently went to California to give a concert. Among the fans, there was a man holding a sign.

This simple WELL COME BACK sign then began to be widely circulated among some Iranian bloggers as proof of the illiteracy of Iranians in California. Everyone shared in on a good laugh. A very routine practice, I might (needlessly) add here.

The issue is not whether the Iranians in California might indeed be in need of lessons in English. The missing component is that requisite hesitation or self-doubt and some consideration of whether or not the space might actually have been intentionally placed so as to not only Welcome the singer, but also invite her to Come Back at some later date.

The expressed attitude here, of course, means that in any given day, instead of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, or working collectively and honing our skills or improving our abilities with a team spirit, we Iranians are perpetually busy belittling each other.

It might be over the clothing we wear, our educational achievements, or the type of work we do and the way we look or the way we speak or walk, and how we earn our living or the car we drive, and our family background… you get the message.

Uncompromising and unforgiving, indeed!

Now amplify this by a magnitude of thousands due to a political fragmentation and an outrageous degree of polarization; all the civil strife, and the radical insecurity of life under bullies or our competing views of the past, present and future coupled with years of authoritarianism and assorted foreign interventions and intrigues and a siege mentality or the mind-boggling ethnic diversity as well as the Islamic regime’s unpopularity and you can thus begin to appreciate how those omnipresent charges of incompetence, stupidity, provincialism and silliness leveled at the ruling class originating with their fellow Iranians might actually be slightly exaggerated.

Obviously, the folks in power are relatively young-- as ruling classes go-- with about 27 years of experience in power max. And they are radical, obnoxious and murderous, no doubt. But there is such thing as a learning curve and the ability to formulate lessons learned from the past mistakes, etc.

What I am trying to communicate here is that while I might be perfectly willing to tolerate a certain sense of superiority on a personal level--for people are fully entitled, I think, to feel and do as is necessary to have that advantage to survive--when it comes to politics, underestimating one’s adversaries can be deadly. Especially when dealing with such ruthless creatures as the Iranian ruling regime.

A couple of generations have had to learn the hard way. And we continue to ignore these lessons at our own peril.

This weakness, I suppose, is what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he accused Iranians of suffering from “an exaggerate sense of self importance.” We are all of us the best in whatever it is we do—and oh yes, there is also our exceptionally unique edge to consider-- and everyone else is naturally an idiot. (In case you’re wondering: yours truly too suffers from his fair share of this charming disposition!)

Some of you have probably guessed what the other side of the coin might be. Yes, that annoying Adulatory Gaze.

The one that seeks perfection, innocence and infallibility and inevitably always succeeds in locating them where there is none. And then the sheepish praises, false hopes and the almost perpetual disappointment in the aftermath along with feelings of betrayal.

In the vernacular, we call this Ifrat va Tafrit. Wild mood swings of extremism with no middle ground whatsoever.

The other aspect of our life that is so terribly intolerable is what is routinely described as that notorious “kaleidoscopic” politics of Iran. Mr. Pollack again offers a nice summation:

Every person has his or her own unique perspective; it is rarely the case that individuals, let alone groups, share identical perspective, and every time you change the circumstances of an issue—or switch to a different issue—it is like twisting the kaleidoscope: all of the pieces immediately realign in a different fashion.

To better see what might lie at the root of this sort of politics, I am going to elicit the help of one of my favorite readers, Craig. For if we Iranians had a fraction of his refreshing honesty, who knows where we might have been!

Although I must say, I also half suspect our present misfortunes to have begun exactly with his attitude some day long-ago in our past.

In reacting to the news of the alleged desecration of Afghan bodies, Craig comments:

OK, I don't like the burning of the bodies thing, on general principals. But to be honest, it doesn't bother me a great deal. It's illegal and probably immoral but it's not like they burned those guys alive, you know?

Anyway, the MOTIVATION for doing that was to provoke an attack. That's according to the journalist who released the story.

Perfectly natural when the issue is one of existential threat! But now consider this: if the members of a given society come to perpetually feel threatened in this identical existential sense; then at some point moral considerations of right and wrong begin to lose all relevance in toto.

Now you can factor in the multipliers.

In a country such as the US, given that the routine and the mundane are hardly ever affected short term by partisan politics, the daily life itself does not immediately suffer. But in a country like Iran, with a history of authoritarian regimes which have always aspired to regulate private spaces, the effect on the polity has been disastrous.

Hardly anyone believes in anything anymore. There is no moral compass at work to guide anyone.

It has become all about catching other people’s hands in that proverbial cookie jar. And charging others with hypocrisy and smearing them or laughing at them. And, of course, a great deal of jealousy or envy and other negative passions come to play a role here given the degree to which the traditional religious mores and prohibitions which might have had a tempering effect have become so utterly decimated themselves as well.

Almost any nasty deed is a go nowadays since someone else and somewhere, at some point, is bound to have done even worse.

Iran has thus become a nation of millions of brilliant liars who do anything and everything just as long as it suits their purposes. And all our deeds are deemed different because naturally we must have meant well.

Practically everyone has obscene expectations now and is unlikely ever to be satisfied with much of any sort of offerings. So, it is hard to know where one stands these days and what could be accomplished. It has generally become a free for all in some grotesquely discombobulating ways.

This, my long winded way of saying: the Islamic regime in Iran stands on a very shaky ground domestically and some of it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what they can or can not do.

Nothing that it does now will placate or appease large segments of the Iranian population. And I am not quite convinced anyone else can either.

The moment they begin to lose control, the very foundations of that society would be blown sky-high and not much of any force can put it back together again any time soon.

And unless some fundamentals are altered—by way of reintegrating the Iranian economy into the global community—at a pace which would allow the Iranian regime to maintain control while enabling it to offer some level of enhanced comfort to an increasingly entitle population in order to buy their acquiescence, there shall not be much of a future for this ruling class.

A ruling class, mind you, which just like the rest of those it purports to lead, doesn’t seem to be interested in much of anything beyond wealth, power, status and prestige-- at whatever cost.

Now might have been as good a time as any for a good offense for the shrewd and the cunning!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A reasoned perspective

Mr. Trita Parsi, an Iranian scholar who is completing his thesis on Israeli-Iranian relations under Mr. Fukuyama at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has a new piece out in Open Democracy titled The Iran-Israel cold war which should be read very carefully.

His conclusion:

Ahmadinejad’s comments are irresponsible and repulsive, but there is little to suggest that they reflect a deliberate policy shift. Rather, the historic pattern of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry indicates that the former Tehran mayor committed yet another faux pas in the international arena.

Again, the ineptitude of Tehran has proven to be the primary source of Iran’s many problems.

I very much like what Mr. Parsi has done. My only (not so minor) misgiving is that I really do see Ahmadi Nejad’s offensive hot air as prelude to some well planned, concerted initiative to fundamentally alter the position of the Iranian regime long term.

The present status quo—and its centre of gravity, the deadlock of the nuclear standoff—can’t be maintained forever.

It is either stand back and allow the chips to fall where they may thus further threatening the very existence of the regime or try to break out somehow.

Was it prudent? A miscalculation, overall? Will it pan out? Who knows?

But I can certainly appreciate the extra hard work it might take for me to put together the case I want given how the decks are so stacked in favour of other interpretations!

It’s good to know, though, that at least the Evil One sees it my way.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Why the blunt threats? Why now?

It is difficult to make the case I’d want to in one sitting. So, it’s best to break it down into more manageable chunks.

I would like to start, though, on a personal note first.

Iran is an old nation, and like some other ancient people, we are presently stuck in one of our less flattering, way-too-prolonged moments. These past twenty seven years have been terribly trying. The revolution, civil war and the war with Iraq along with the ongoing strife, social fragmentations and a perpetual tug of war—these all have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian psyche.

So while there are no expectations that Iran and Israel would come to have a common outlook on the world they cohabit--any time soon that is, if ever-- there are quite a few Iranians who don’t share in the sentiments of the Islamic regime and their supporters.

And while it is also true that we have not been the most effective of oppositions overall, judging by the history of the fundamentalist reign in Iran, the unruly ones haven’t been exactly patsies either.

But look, when all things are said and done, no two nations are ever expected to be enamored of one another. All that has to be achieved, really, is an agreement to keep the scruffy paws off one another’s throats and to remain guardedly, critically respectful if at all possible.

And the additional good sense to want to avoid a pathological loathing might not exactly hurt either.

Remember, for instance, that even under the Shah, when technically there was no (acted upon) malice towards Israel, the Israelis showed no qualms whatsoever about having too cozy a relations with an unpopular regime and his notorious secret police, SAVAK, and willfully cooperated in some areas that even the CIA had overall proved reluctant to be involved in long-term.

The simple fact of the matter is that the mere existence of Israel in a region littered with pathetic, indefensible, corrupt and violent regimes should never blind us to how Israel has herself never lived up to the promise of being that “light unto nations.”

So, there will always be divergent interests.

Although, if it is of any consolation, there are enough Iranians who’d want to see to it that no genocidal war would ever come to pass in the accursed region involving Iran--even if some might be solely motivated by a desire for self preservation given the extent of rumored Israeli nuclear stockpiles!

That said, let’s go back and refresh our memories about the typical Western reaction towards the normal utterances of the representatives of this Islamic regime. Case in point, the approach usually exhibited when encountering official declarations coming out of Iran about their objectives in pursuing nuclear technology.

This is one issue we’ve broached in the past and are likely to revisit again soon. I am singling out the following two sources --with many thanks once more to our thoughtful, incisive blogger Sima for having initiated a dialogue about them--because they are illuminating:

Using nuclear energy to build huge economical projects proves that Iran aims for peace. Yet, the misunderstanding between Iran and the rest of the world comes from the traditions of the common Iranian character. Iranian personality believes in "El Takya" which means that person should hide his real feelings and appear to be well.

Or this interpretation from one of the publications of the European Strategic Intelligence & Security Centre(pdf):

Finally, in promising "moderation," Mr. Ahmadinejad gives an example of one of the favourite exercises of the Shiite clergy and its allies: Takiya. Takiya is an ancient practice of the Shiites, a Muslim minority long persecuted by the Sunni majority. The term could be translated as "precaution" and is a mixture of ruse, lying and dissimulation, which allowed Shiites to protect themselves and to prosper in secret. It is also a sectarian way of organising which allowed them to hold on to their beliefs while escaping persecution by making it seem they were good Sunnis.

These are mangled renditions of a practice known as Al-Taqiah. And yes, there is even such thing as Torieh which involves oaths. Do a search and you’ll find it an intrinsic aspect of the case against the Iranians in certain circles.

But it is worth asking: is it sensible to paint with such broad brushstrokes an entire culture when wanting to deal with a political dispute in the troubling world of international relations?

And if it is right to dismiss what an adversary says on such sweeping grounds, how is it then possible, all of a sudden, to insist on taking Mr. Ahmadi Nejad’s words at face value now? Why choose to see him sending the exact signals the simplest literal construction would imply?

This is especially relevant once we recall that, strictly speaking, there is nothing new in what this seemingly excitable fellow has uttered. His words—as loathsome as they are—appear indeed a restatement of some of Mr. Khomeini’s earliest positions on Israel which have been repeatedly heard since the inception of the Islamic regime.

I might yet live to regret this. But here is a collection of Mr. Khomeini’s more memorable gems about Israel in English, provided you with the caveat that they should not appear in the same paragraph as with the phrase “mushroom clouds over Tehran.”

Some of the loudest rhetorical excesses about Israel, of course, were heard during the war with Iraq. And then, as some of you might recall, the Israelis were prominent among the Islamic regime’s few best friends. There was a steady flow of Israeli supplied weapons pouring into Iran at the time.

Additionally, the usual prattle of the perpetually concerned international community of “civilized” nations listed as suppliers to Mr. Hussein’s Chemical, Nuclear, Biological and conventional weapons program notwithstanding, the Israelis, along with the Syrians, were some of only few countries that didn’t profit from the mass poising of tens of thousands of Iranians in the course of Mr. Hussein’s chemical warfare against Iran.

Something some of us are unlikely to soon forget, even when we fully understand that the Israeli position was mostly due to enlightened self interest, and/or a desire to have two potential adversaries further weakened!

So, I guess, the question I would want us to pose and think about again is how it might be that given the progressively increasing pressure the Iranian authorities have been under on top of the brittle sensitivities of the post 9/11 universe, Mr. Ahmadi Nejad, knowing well the full extent of the scrutiny he is subjected to, has chosen this particular moment to loudly announce this position and so openly?

And why such a rush by the establishment to back him and why the officially sanctioned defiance?

So I ask again, why the boisterous threats? And why now? And what could they really signal?

More later!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A belligerent President and Israel

So he is belligerent, offensive and provocative and chances are that Mr. Ahmadi Nejad is unlikely to get a posting to the Washington Institute anytime soon. And the Israelis are justifiably annoyed because of his diatribe.

Having said that, don’t you find it curious that those who make a living peddling the notion that there is not a single straight bone in an Iranian body are always the ones most inclined to want to believe every threatening statement simply a signal of actual intention?

What I intend to do, then, in this post and the next, is to argue that the representatives of the reigning imbecility in Iran are now ready to talk. They will want to directly engage the United States and short of regime change, everything will be on the table including the question of recognizing Israel.

It will involve some more posturing, but at the end of the day, it is time for some serious soul searching. It will be up to the authorities in the West to decide how they will want to tackle the problem. It is either talk soon and talk directly or there will be war.

The problem, of course, might lie in my assumptions. So I am going to outline them openly in this post first. And I am perfectly willing to reevaluate them. So if you have anything to say, don’t be shy about it.

Some of them have to do with my reading of the Islamic regime’s maneuvers in its negotiations with the Europeans. I have written before about why I object to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and what the authorities might have aimed to accomplish by their initial defiance vis-à-vis the IAEA.

So give it a read if the spirit moves you.

Some of the other assumptions have to do with our attitude as the opposition to the Islamic regime. If you think the Mullahs have been driving the international community mad, just imagine how frustrated some of us have been feeling given the past 27 years.

As a general rule, we tend to think ourselves highly intelligent, educated and cunning. And obviously our rulers are a bunch of low octane clowns who are provincial, dumb and superstitious! So with that attitude, try explaining why it is that despite our best efforts, they have managed to survive for so long.

And if you think that mere brutality has been the sole factor, then add up the numbers who have been killed or imprisoned in the last 15 years in Iran and compare to what goes on in some of the neighboring countries. Heavy-handedness alone has never guarantees relative stability for any ruling regime.

So we have been reduced in our approach to either overt humoring of those in power—nothing to be sneezed at, mind you, for it is therapeutic—from the shape of their noses to their beards, accents and clothing to their IQ’s and some of their sillier practices, or we see conspiracies everywhere.

Thus, we have proven constantly inaccurate in our prognostications about this regime. From day one, every little disagreement within the ruling class was a sign of its impending doom. Every one of the many power plays by quite the numerous factions that had a falling out was viewed as a harbinger of the regime’s impending implosion.

The latest example, of course: remember how we were seeing signs of a rift between the “Supreme Leader” Mr. Khamenei and that wily Rafsanjani? And then what happened? Ahmadi Nejad might now be reporting to the man he beat!

So there is more to these folks than meets the eye, I have concluded. This doesn’t mean that the regime is not vulnerable. It does not mean it can not be changed. But so long as we continue to deal with caricatures, they will continue to rule to exact a heavy price on us all.

So I am done with this confessional for now. In the next post, I’ll try to articulate why I see this latest talk of fire and brimstone as yet further signs of Iranian regime’s readiness to negotiate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The terrorists and their hit list

One of the Iranian bloggers I read directs our attention again tonight to the website of some clandestine Army of Islam-Terror Branch. (Shakheye Erhabe Sepahe Eslam).

On their site, which is actually based in Tehran, in addition to all the usual saber rattling and the normal bluster, we find listed the names of 210 journalists they claim they intend to liquidate. Hambestagi also ran a report on this a few days ago.

This is not the first time we hear of these bozos. A few months ago, Gooyanews did its best to introduce many of us to this very same shadowy bunch. And as early as last October, Abbas Maroufi had rung the alarm bells about these miscreants. (his Blog in German.)

Of course, the sad part about all this--or the irony of it, take your pick--is that the list itself is a cut and paste job of the names of the journalists who signed a letter of protest to the Ministry of Guidance a while back.

These goons—whoever they are—have orchestrated a campaign of intimidation which will in effect terrorize our journalists night and day. Their list aims to make life a living hell for the audacious souls who have gone on record defending their rights.

Every shadow has now become a de-facto threat. Every motorcycle, every fast moving vehicle, every “odd looking” pedestrian who passes too closely… and every knock on the door at night is now the face of death.

I think we should all become very familiar with those names and do what it takes to make the Government of Iran understand that it alone is ultimately responsible for the safety and the security of each and everyone of the men and women whose name appears on that horrible website.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

War and humiliation

So why Homer? And why the Iliad? What could it possibly offer us today?

I mean, for those of us who might have cut our teeth on a steady diet of American entertainment and the buffooneries of the likes of Limbaugh, Moore, and reality TV. shows or the grotesqueries of the Jackass or Jerry Springer, the Iliad must seem so terribly quaint.

If it weren’t for some cultivated desire to imagine oneself some heir to the magnificent Greek civilization, and given all the phobia of that which might initially strike one as “different,” and the propensity to see everything in the lousiest light possible, why should we bother with the Iliad, really?

After all, I think an old scholar might have anticipated the immediate reaction of a lot of us today when he famously quipped that the genesis of Western literature was due mostly to the adventures of a cuckolded husband, an errant wife and an overgrown brat. Or something like that.

But, let’s see if we can get a feel for the universe of my favorite book as I see it. That’s what reading is all about to me. We read, close our eyes and then try to imagine ourselves feeling as the characters might. So I am going to do a lot of quoting. You should read the book in full if you haven’t done so already. Particularly my Iranian readers.

I guess the best place to start for today is with Book 22. So much of the tension of the entire epic is in the anticipation of the greatest battle between our Horse-taming Hector and the Swift-footed Achilles. And when the time of the actual combat does arrive…well, see for yourselves the unfolding of the memorable, original Grandmother of all Wars:

But Achilles was coming closer, like Enyalius,
the warrior god of battle with the shining helmet.
On his right shoulder he waved his dreadful spear
made of Pelian ash. The bronze around him glittered
like a blazing fire or rising sun. At that moment
as he watched, Hector began to shake in fear.
His courage gone, he could no longer stand there.
Terrified, he started running, leaving the gate.
Peleus' son went after him, sure of his speed on foot.
Just as a mountain falcon, the fastest creature
of all the ones which fly, swoops down easily
on a trembling pigeon as it darts off in fear,

the hawk speeding after it with piercing cries,
heart driving it to seize the prey—in just that way
Achilles in his fury raced ahead.
Hector ran
under the walls of Troy, limbs working feverishly.
They ran on past the lookout and the wind-swept fig tree,
some distance from the wall, along the wagon track.
They reached the two fair-flowing well springs,
which feed swirling Scamander's stream. From one of them
hot water flows, and out of it steam rises up,
as if there were a fire burning. From the other,
cold water comes, as cold as hail or freezing snow
or melting ice, even in summer. By these springs
stood wide tubs for washing, made of beautiful stone,
where, in peace time, before Achaea's sons arrived,
Trojan wives and lovely daughters used to wash
their brightly coloured clothing. The men raced past there,
one in full flight, the other one pursuing him.
The man running off in front was a brave warrior,
but the man going after him was greater. They ran fast,
for this was no contest over sacrificial beasts,
the usual prizes for a race.
They were competing
for horse-taming Hector's life. Just as some horses,
sure-footed, prize-winning creatures, make the turn
around the post and race quickly as they strive to win
some splendid prize—a tripod or a woman
honouring a man that's died—that's how these two men raced,
going three times round Priam's city on their sprinting feet.
All the gods looked on.

Note that Hector has already confided in Andromakhe as early as in the 6th book, that “I know this thing well in my heart… that there will come a day when sacred lion shall perish,” (6.447-48) and he still goes on to fight hoping for victory. Even though he is petrified and he knows it.

Who could possibly forget how dreadfully scary Achilles can be, really? Even his shouts are the equivalent of our modern day “shock and awe” campaigns. Observe what happens after Achilles hears of the death of his friend Patroclus:

black cloud of grief swallowed up Achilles.
With both hands he scooped up soot and dust and poured it
on his head, covering his handsome face with dirt,
covering his sweet-smelling tunic with black ash.
He lay sprawling
his mighty warrior's massive body
fell down and stretched out in the dust. With his own hands,
he tugged at his own hair, disfiguring himself…
…Achilles gave a huge cry of grief.
He strode from the wall, then stood there by the ditch.
But recalling what his mother said to him,
he didn't mingle with Achaeans.
As he stood there,
he cried out. From far away, Pallas Athena
added her voice, too, causing great consternation
among the Trojans. As thrilling as a trumpet's note
when it rings clearly, when rapacious enemies
besiege a city
that's how sharp and piercing
Achilles' voice was then. When the Trojans heard it,
that brazen shout Achilles gave, all their hearts
were shaken. Their horses with the lovely manes
turned back the chariots, anticipating trouble
in their hearts.
Charioteers were terrified, seeing
the fearful inextinguishable fire blazing
from the head of the great-hearted son of Peleus.
For Athena, goddess with the glittering eyes,
kept it burning. Three times godlike Achilles yelled
over that ditch. Three times Trojans and their allies
were thrown into confusion. At that moment,
twelve of their best men were killed by their own chariots
and their own spears

Some shout, no? There is fear and dread and that acute consciousness of death and yet, they still persist in fighting. In one sense, there is a love of glory and honor involved, yes, but at a more fundamental level, it is indeed the recognition of death itself as the “strong destiny,” and the awareness of the inevitable, inescapable future of men in the detested doorway to Hades which animate them in battle. This is centuries before Bataille gave us his celebrated Tears of Eros. Let’s look at Achilles some more.

When his mother Thetis reminds him that all his wishes have been fulfilled, here is his answer:

"Yes, Mother,
Olympian Zeus has indeed accomplished
what I asked. But what pleasure's there for me,
when Patroclus, my beloved companion,
has been destroyed, the man I honoured
as my equal, above all my comrades.
I've lost him and the armour, which Hector took,
once he'd killed him,
My own heart has no desire to live on,
to continue living among men,
unless Hector is hit by my spear first,
losing his life and paying me compensation
for killing Menoetius' son, Patroclus."

And when Thetis tearfully reminds him that there are consequences:

My son, from what you've just been saying,
you're fated to an early death, for your doom
comes quickly as soon as Hector dies."

Our Achilles answers without hesitation

Then let me die, since I could not prevent
the death of my companion…
So now I'll go
to meet Hector, killer of the man I loved.
As for my own fate, let it come to me
…[f]or not even strong Hercules,
the man Lord Zeus, son of Cronos, loved the most,
escaped his death.

So even when there are taunts and heartless refusal to heed a supplicant’s cries for pity, there is beauty in anger, melancholy, and grandeur

"You fool,
don't offer me a ransom or some plea
… now not one of them escapes his death,
no one whom god delivers to my hands,
here in front of Ilion, not one

not a single Trojan, especially none
of Priam's children.
So now, my friend,
you too must die. Why be sad about it?
Patroclus died, a better man than you.
And look at me. You see how fine I am,
how tall, how handsome? My father's a fine man,
the mother who gave birth to me a goddess
Yet over me, as well, hangs fate
my death.

Contrast against our own modern day dread and anxiety or the denials and the silly delusions of immortality and those preposterous demands for unprecedented security and, of course, all the ensuing pettiness and the obnoxious babble.

So there is that recognition of the central place hope occupies in our universe along with death or the transience of all things which together engender an enchantingly erotic universe centred on fidelity, friendship, and community. And above all, there is a dazzling sense of responsibility rooted in reciprocity given positions of authority.

Contrast the grandeur of spirit manifest in this speech of Sarpedon against the attitude of our leading modern day citizens or politicians and the progressive weakening of our sense of civic responsibilities:

why are we two awarded special honours
with pride of place, the finest cuts of meat,
our wine cups always full in Lycia,
where all our people look on us as gods?
Why do we possess so much fine property,
by the river Xanthus, beside its banks,
rich vineyards and wheat-bearing ploughland?
It's so we'll stand in the Lycian front ranks
and meet head on the blazing fires of battle,
so then some well-armed Lycian will say,
'They're not unworthy, those men who rule Lycia,
those kings of ours. It's true they eat plump sheep
and drink the best sweet wines
but they are strong,
fine men, who fight in the Lycians' front ranks.'
Ah my friend, if we could escape this war,
and live forever, without growing old,
if we were ageless, then I'd not fight on
in the foremost ranks, nor would I send you
to those wars where men win glory. But now,
a thousand shapes of fatal death confront us,
which no mortal man can flee from or avoid.
So let's go forward, to give the glory
to another man or win it for ourselves."

This is too long a post and I know not many of us are patient readers these days. So I’ll cut this short. And do forgive this exercise in butchery. But I wanted to provide you with a glimpse of the Spirit of the Ancient Greeks that I so love and adore. We can argue about how I am misreading the text or about the features that I should look at more carefully. And then there is enemies and there are barbarian enemies, no!

Having said that, also note how there is no inkling of shame in losing here. There is no humiliation in being beaten, however badly. One fights. One wins or loses. In losing, one supplicates and gets to live and fight another day. Or one’s pleas are rejected and one dies that very day. Death is inevitable. We all die, sooner or later. And from hundreds of different causes!

So look at the book and tell me honestly that in all the babble which passes as commentary these days about our collective predicaments, and in all our prattle about our competing visions of future and those relentless demonization of the enemies (of day) we have gotten so accustomed to, is it possible to hear even the faintest echoes of this spirit from those loudest in staking claim to the heritage of the Greeks?

Now, is there any wonder that he doesn’t stand a chance? How could he? Who do you think is responsible for the premature murder of Homer, really?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

re(Thinking) humiliation

There is an old Western I have been thinking a lot about for a couple of days now. That and about Messrs. Karzai and Hanson.

In the movie Bandolero, Jimmy Stewart is having a chat with his brother who is a bank robber played by Dean Martin, and in dispute is all their killings in the past and how it affected their mother.

And Stewart-- in his quintessentially decent way—indignantly chastises his brother saying “war is war, but [what you did] was meanness.”

I know war itself is a terribly cruel enterprise--gore, butchered bodies, shock troops, and all. But in order to better appreciate why I think Mr. Stewart’s admonition remains particularly relevant today, we need to consider what Mr. Karazi has said about the latest alleged desecration of Taliban corpses by American troops in Afghanistan (via drudge):

Sometimes things happen in these sorts of operations, during war. Soldiers make mistakes," he told reporters in Kabul. "We are very grateful for the international community's assistance. ... Their soldiers have shed their blood in our country."

But he added, "We in Afghanistan in accordance with our religion ... are very unhappy and condemn the burning of the two Taliban dead bodies. I hope such incidents will not occur again."

Fair enough. The act of defiling bodies of the fallen has been rhapsodized about since our earliest surviving accounts of war. And it is only natural to expect to see some soldiers continue doing what soldiers have always done.

But at issue is how policy advocates might actually be viewing these conducts and I think what makes this latest case so infuriating for me is that, again, one senses that this desecration is not merely a matter of war time uncontrolled temper tantrum.

Just like much of the reported misdeeds of American troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq, it can be categorized as plain old boisterous meanness.

Meanness—cold, calculated and sanctioned from above—which remains part and parcel of policy. It is the practical expression of a particularly macabre vision and a plan that is expected to bring about victory if it’s followed to the letter, unflinchingly and without “ankle biting.”

These taunts, the torture and the incessant desire to humiliate, and to degrade and to demean strike me as that which many people have wanted to see and what many pundits effectively continue to demand from the troops in the field to this day.

And here is where Mr. Hanson comes in.

I am singling out Mr. Hanson because I read his writings with relish. Mr. Hanson (and Brooks to a lesser extent) is to me a more serious thinker who constantly reevaluates his own assumptions and conclusions thus forcing us to participate in that difficult journey we call thinking.

So regardless of how vehemently at times I might disagree with him about assumptions or policy, I read him carefully nonetheless. And more often than not, I understand what he is driving at. The one area I am at a loss is the gentleman’s fascination with humiliation.

An article of faith of sorts.

It is the one omnipresent meme that refuses to go away with him and it baffles me. It has flabbergasted me almost for as long as I’ve read his writings and I simply don’t comprehend it.

The following from his latest piece:

There have been three great challenges with the Iraqi reconstruction that would determine its success or failure — once the spectacular three-week invasion both falsely raised public perceptions of perfection in war, and posed the problem of how to rebuild an entire society whose pathological elements were never really defeated, much less humiliated during the actual conventional war.

The call for humiliation has become almost a signature with Mr. Hanson. It appears everywhere and at different times. Another example from last year:

We are confronted with the paradox that our new military's short wars rarely inflict enough damage on the fabric of a country to establish a sense of general defeat — or the humiliation often necessary for a change of heart and acceptance of change.

I can go on with the excerpts, but I think I have made my point. And I didn’t want you to think I am presenting you with a caricature of his position.

And since the title of one of his books is the apt question of Who Killed Homer? I am going to pick up next--in search of the roots of Mr. Hanson’s humiliation prescription-- with my favourite long-dead poet.

Perhaps the gods would reward us by pointing to the surprising principal culprits in the travesty that is our murder mystery as a bonus!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Meet Mullah Farah

Those rascally mullahs are really taking over. No escaping them anywhere. From Mr. Joseph Farah’s Christian wimps:

"We read credible reports – some from FBI agents – that prisoners have been stripped naked, sexually humiliated, chained to the floor and left to defecate on themselves," he writes. "These and other practices like 'waterboarding' (in which a detainee is made to feel as if he is being drowned) may or may not meet the technical definition of torture, but no one denies that these practices are cruel, inhuman and degrading."

Let me introduce myself: I, Joseph Farah, hereby deny that these practices are cruel and inhuman.

Before you react, though—if it’s not too late already, do experiment with this cool exercise and think about aspects of what we call seeing. Don’t forget to thank these guys for pointing to the cool link.

I can’t make up my mind about what’s more loathsome: torture, torturing or torture peddling. Which do you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Being there

The sensible lunacy of a vocal lunatic. Words of wisdom to live by brought to you, in a roundabout way, via the Emily Ministries and Quench Zine’s Femmehood, depression and appearance.

And a multimedia presentation: Amir Normandi, No Veil is Required

Via Payvand, the Christian Science Monitor's Female firefighters find they can take the heat in Iran!

And in this Seoul Times article, some Iranian fashion model in stewardess' uniforms and hejabs ! Via Payvand.

Also, Emilyzilch, now also a quenchista, invites you all to check out the site quench zine!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Graveyard

I found solace tonight with H.L. Mencken. I thought of him because my mood swings take me from despondency to fury before settling back being perpetually annoyed again. And I thought he might help.

And sure enough, he soothed me a bit.

So, the death toll has risen to 79,000 in Pakistan. And that’s only from a lousy quake. And wars too will escalate further devouring countries. Too many are dying everywhere. And many more will perish before this phase comes to pass.

How did Tolstoy put it?

Oh, didn’t we make a pretty finish!’ said Petritsky. ‘Volkov climbed on to the roof and began telling us how sad he was. I said: “Let’s have music, the funeral march!”

That last is the title of one of Mencken’s short essays which might allow us to indulge in the baseness of therapeutic Shaudenfraude:

Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of Huitzilopochtli?
All mighty gods in their day, worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to blind and loose—all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men laboured for generations to build vast temples to them—temples with stones as large as motor-lorries. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, cannons, deans, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against the infidels: villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died. And today there is none so poor to do them reverence.

I know it’s intemperate and frankly I do enjoy always imagining what my universe would have felt like with some other or more ancient gods presiding over it. But I want to have the pleasure –for a brief while at any rate--of looking at this blog and seeing a list of dead gods for a change:

Resheph................ Baal................... Anath.............. Astarte

Ashtoreth........................Hadad..................El................... Addu

Nergal.................. Shalem.................Nebo.................Dagon

Ninib ......................... Sharab.................... Melek.................... Yau


Ptah..........................Sebek....................Anubis ........................... Moloch?

Though a little different from my version, his essay in full to remind us again of the myriad gods now resting in their graveyard-- somewhere, everywhere!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Annoying but funny

Now that I get to linger on this blog without having to hurriedly post and vanish, I have noticed these little messages we send each other using all the varied tracking tools like the Webstates.

So, probably just like the rest of you, I get these suggestions to read particular posts or few polite nudges in certain directions and, of course, those occasional discreet insults.

But today’s message just wins hands down. Serendipitous or premeditated, the following is just way too funny.

Thanks for the reminder!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Winged Goddesses, disasters, dying birds and the Second Coming!

With an uncertain future and a present so bleak, the past, naturally, might offer an ideal refuge for the disenchanted. And a chance as well to re-evaluate our prevailing hip and oh so “sophisticated” views and attitudes. There have been many exciting discoveries of late.

So we have the news of another successful excavation which has unveiled ancient clay statuettes of fertile goddesses in Haft Tape which also point to the existence of a 3500-year-old temple in the vacinity.

This latest discovery comes in the heel of the recent excavation that led to the unearthing of four winged goddesses that flew over Iran some 3000 years ago—the first ever of its kind, never seen before, not even in Persepolis.

Add to these, the earlier DNA confirmation of the (now indisputable) existence of warrior women in ancient Persia and the ongoing work in what is known as the Burnt City, and we have here some electrifying tidbits that promise to revolutionize our view of a civilization some 5000 years old.

I am not holding my breath, though. What is so disheartening is that despite having everything in front of us, a key ingredient for serious work appears missing from our midst. I mean, if you thought I was crossed with intellectuals generally, you should hear what I really think about us Iranians in particular.

Read a few books and attend college for a few years, and judging by the babble, you’d think the universe owes us. So superior and condescending. As a general rule, never hesitant to belittle and demean everyone and everything that doesn’t tickle our fancy (of the moment).

And incessantly upset about being misunderstood by those “backward” and “unwashed,” millions. To top these already winning attitudes, we also have now the plague of Mammon worship which effectively means only one thing.

Instead of safeguarding and seriously engaging our heritage, there is massive, shameless plunder and destruction of our ancient artifacts.

So it annoys me. Everything has been annoying me lately.

And I read Iranian blogs and look at the reading habits of our trendy elites and I wonder about our future. Always ready to jump at the latest paradigm. Quick to translate—very poorly—the convoluted foreign phrases which make the already ornate Farsi prose that much more inaccessible.

And all without, in some sense, first attempting to appropriate in to the outlook those fundamental pre- prerequisites—awe and wonder—of engaging the world as is given us. As if a few modern gadgets and high-rises and fancy books offer us a way out.

Anyhow, the problem is not exclusively “ours.”

So I thought we might have at a couple of short, old readings tonight. You, of course, have probably seen the alarming talk about all the natural and man made disasters signaling the impending Second Coming of Jesus.

And all the rumored anxiety sort of moved me to go back and re-read my favorite historian Thucydides. Excerpts of his take on omens, disasters, plagues, and some of the social consequences of pessimism:

The same summer, at the beginning of a new lunar month, the only time by the way at which it appears possible, the sun was eclipsed after noon. After it had assumed the form of a crescent and some of the stars had come out, it returned to its natural shape. ..

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether…

But while the nature of the distemper was such as to baffle all description, and its attacks almost too grievous for human nature to endure, it was still in the following circumstance that its difference from all ordinary disorders was most clearly shown. All the birds and beasts that prey upon human bodies, either abstained from touching them (though there were many lying unburied), or died after tasting them. In proof of this, it was noticed that birds of this kind actually disappeared; they were not about the bodies, or indeed to be seen at all. But of course the effects which I have mentioned could best be studied in a domestic animal like the dog.

By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder; besides which, there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence. This was especially the case with such as made any pretensions to goodness: honour made them unsparing of themselves in their attendance in their friends' houses, where even the members of the family were at last worn out by the moans of the dying, and succumbed to the force of the disasters. Yet it was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion…

An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepulchres: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.

Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. Perseverance in what men called honour was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honourable and useful. Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Such was the nature of the calamity, and heavily did it weigh on the Athenians; death raging within the city and devastation without.

Do yourselves a favour and read the whole thing.

And in an old box recently, I found a fragment of ancient Hymn about the Second Coming. Sorry about the long post. But, a few lines for your viewing pleasure as I am sure none of us could feel truly fulfilled departing this good earth without at least having seen one genuine Manichean hymn as it appears to us today.

The opening lines of the hymn concerning the Second Coming (Middle Persian with Parthian words):

’w mn gw, šhry’r, ’ry’m’, ’wwm ’bhwm, pws ‘y fryhstwm, ’br

zm’n ‘yt ’mdyšnyh, k’ pd ’bdwmyh ’’yy, bwzygr wzrg, wcyh’gwm,

gw ’br h’n zm’n ’wš nyš’n’n.

[ō] to at in/ [man] ‘think’/ [gōw] ‘speak say’/[shahryār] ‘lord, king’/[aryāmān] ‘friend’ epitaph of Jesus/…/[abhum-] reveal/ [pus] ‘son’/[Ī] ‘who,which’/ [frihstom] ‘dearest’/ [abar] higher /[zamān] ‘time’/ [Ī]+suffix pronoun second sing./ [āmadishnih] ‘coming’/ [ka] ‘when, if’/[pad] ‘in, along, through, on account of’/ [abdomih] ‘end’/

[ay] ‘come’/[bozegar] ‘saviour’/ [wuzurg] ‘great’/[wizehag] Teacher/ [gōw]…/[abar]…/[han] ‘that’ ‘the’/ [zamān] ‘time’/ [ushi] ‘consciousness’/ [nishān] ‘sign’…

The following translation of the fragment from the Gnostic Society Library:

Hymn on the Second Coming of Jesus

- Manichaean Hymn in Persian with Parthian words.

Speak to me, Lord and Friend, and reveal to me, Son
of the most beloved, the time of your coming, when
you will appear at the end.

Oh great Redeemer, my Teacher, speak of that time and its signs.
The speakers, the righteous and chosen ones, who must live
in the Realm of the Lie, Do not accumulate herds and belongings.
Therefore they are persecuted.

Ha, this irate potentate! How long will he continue to rule?
How long will the poor and the Family of Peace be persecuted?
Tell me what reward the wise and righteous ones that are now
persecuted will have.
You of compassionate race, tell of the coming subjugation of
the sinners who are now exalted.
The strong and valiant Son of the Most Beloved taught me what
I asked him:

That time, the coming years and periods, will be different from now,
because of the ensuing battles.
For they (the years) shall flow like water in the rivers,
Now that time is near at hand.
The covetous heretics that now rejoice
shall you then vanquish, you Wrathful One.
They will be persecuted, as they have persecuted,
And they shall do penance for their offences.
Then shall those who have wept be joyful,
And those who now laugh weep.
He who is grieved and belongs to the Family of Peace
Shall be rewarded with prosperity and protection.
Then the righteous religion shall hold sway over the false teachings and nations.
Then shall the springs of Living Water open their mouths in praise.
Lament, give honor and praise, for the time is near,
Of which these are the signs.

... the anointed.
The vihidan(?) of the Ruler are called.
Persecution and suppression shall then be recompensed by eternal life.

And many more where this came from.

Needless to say, that we have access to these fragments and are able to decipher them is in no small measure due mostly to the tireless efforts of the likes of Mary Boyce; a Boyce whose single rotten strand of hair-- as one of our many flowery expressions go-- is worth the output of dozens of the rest of us, obnoxious, self-centred, full-of-it you know who!

See what I mean? This post itself is a perfect illustration of why even (and especially) I annoy me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

And the annoying propagandists

A while back, with fanfare and much criticism, the U.S. sponsored Radio Farda began its work of wooing the young and the restless in Iran with a pledge of

the same seriousness of purpose and adherence to RFE/RL's surrogate mission of promoting democracy, covering local and relevant international news, and living up to our Professional Code, embodying the highest journalistic standards of accuracy and objectivity, as have the programs of our Persian Service.

The problem of course is that there doesn’t appear to be such high standard of accuracy at work or much of a professional code.

Some months ago, quite a few of us were furious with the broadcasters for the role they played in throwing Arash Cigarchi to the wolves.

And it just seems to me that they have been unwilling-- time and time again—to present simple and elementary “facts” without shortsightedly spinning all for some perceived petty advantage. Let’s look at a discussion of death penalty as an example.

The headline of a recent broadcast reads:

نود و هفت درصد اعدامهاي جهان در سال 2004 را چین، عربستان سعودی و ایران به اجرا گذاشتند. مصاحبه با دو فعال حقوق بشر

97 percent of (world’s) executions in 2004 took place in China , Saudi Arabia and Iran. Interview with two Human Rights activists.

What you are seeing here, of course, is a free rendition of the Amnesty International Facts and Figures on Death Penalty.

Note what the report actually does state:

During 2004, at least 3,797 people were executed in 25 countries and at least 7,395 people were sentenced to death in 64 countries. These were only minimum figures; the true figures were certainly higher.

In 2004, 97 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Viet Nam and the USA.

In the world of today, it is not that difficult figuring out who is killing whom or what country has the highest prison population rate in the world (pdf). But that’s not the point here.

What we need now more than ever is a candid and probing look at a host of issues that will shape the future of our globalized life. We are facing many intractable problems. And mere spins or public relation campaigns are not going to make any of them disappear overnight.

So we can observe these wild mood swings at work if we look closely at some of the blogs or the many news outlets covering Iran (and to some extent the broader Middle East)

It is either you are a bunch of zombies/ terrorists/ automatons wanting to wage Jihad, or destroy and ruin [what’s left of the] Western civilization, or you are millions of highly talented, intelligent, educated saints who can do no wrong and are simply being deprived of an easy, opulent lifestyle by a bloodthirsty, irrational regime.

Now think about it.

It seems to me that Iran has become the one country in which all the rapists, thieves, murderers, hooligans and smugglers, drug peddlers or cop killers among a host of other mischief makers have vanished overnight.

No one is responsible for much of anything, apparently, since everyone is a glorious freedom fighter always being set up, and falsely charges, or the victim of concealed motives and a puppet in those hidden hands that perpetually frame the innocent.

It is terribly odd, given that for a society plagued by a crisis of legitimacy where it has become difficult for even family members to trust one another, it might be obvious that what is actually needed--more than ever-- is honesty and transparency in order to help overcome the obstacles in our path.

And that is not exactly the same, of course, as dangling illusions or further encouraging false hopes or merely validating obscene expectations.

Sober, judicious presentations of challenges ahead, I think, might actually do the trick. Democratic life, however understood or defined, is hard and messy and offers no magic solutions. There are no easy outs.

And every once in a while, it might be best to pitch truths for a change. It’s our last best hope long term.