"We would welcome your troops with flowers"

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"We would welcome your troops with flowers"

Postby Liberator » Thu Feb 09, 2006 10:08 am

Subject: 'We would welcome your troops with flowers...'
Source: Telegraph
Date 08-02-2006


While Iraq has been grabbing the headlines, Iran, its once tempestuous neighbour, has been relatively quiet - or has it? John Casey spent two weeks in the country and found that a new generation has tired of the claustrophobic rule of the old mullahs, so much so that many people envy the invasion of Iraq

Wednesday April 9 was an interesting day to be an Englishman in Teheran.

That morning, I had visited the British Embassy, which was expecting a demonstration shortly. Demonstrators had broken windows a few days before. And, earlier, a car laden with drums of oil had crashed into the front of the building and burnt. (The Iranian authorities insisted it was an accident.)

After a while, I noticed that some quiet discussion was going on. Everyone was so notably calm that I guessed something must be up. They had received warning of a possible rocket attack on the Embassy, where it faces the main road.

Would I mind leaving by the back door? But since I had left my Cambridge University Library card as my means of identification at the front, I went out that way. The demonstrators had not bothered to show up.

I was out all day, out of touch with the news, and in the evening went into a popular restaurant in south Teheran. On finding I was English, waiters rushed to shake my hand. Others gave V for Victory signs. "War is over. Saddam finished! Saddam hiding in Russian Embassy."

They were wildly excited. To my astonishment, one of them began saying "Pahlavi! Pahlavi!"

I said: "You mean the Shah? He was good?" "The son of Pahlavi - very good!" He was talking of the soi-disant Crown Prince, Reza Pahlavi, heir of the late Shah, Mohammed Pahlavi. Another said, with particular emphasis: "We are Iranians, Iranians." I said: " 'Persians' even?" "Yes, Persians - Cyrus the Great, Darius."

I then realised that the excitement was not just over the destruction of Saddam - a man universally hated for the eight-year "imposed war" that he fought against Iran, in which half a million died and many thousands were gassed - but over the prospects the war might have for Iran itself. Another said: "This government is worse than Saddam Hussein. You cannot be serious. But yes - if the Americans and English come and land at the airport with their troops, Iranians will throw flowers at them. Please tell them this in England, please, please, please!"

Does this represent Iranian opinion? Is their antagonism to their own government so intense that they would actually welcome foreign invaders? Well - I don't know. This was a sentiment uttered in the excitement of the moment - even though I heard it later more than once. Iran has known emotional convulsions in the past - such as the one that brought down the Shah. An enormous nostalgia for the days of the Shah has now built up, along with a yearning for a state not ruled by the clergy.

But I wanted to hear both sides of the argument, to talk to religious conservatives as well as liberal secularists. After all, the people who brought about the astonishing revolution of 1979 must still have something to say in their own defence.

A chief paradox about Iran is that the President, his government and the Parliament (Majlis) in effect constitute the Opposition. The regime is the religious authorities, especially the Supreme Leader - the Ayatollah Khamenei - and the essentially clerical Council of Guardians. They have an ultimate veto over candidates for the presidency and for the Majlis, and even over laws enacted by the parliament. They control the army and the security forces.

This is the regime referred to universally in Iran as "the mullahs". Everyone I spoke to was convinced that if it came to street protests that might seriously threaten the regime, the demonstrators would be mown down without compunction.

The friends I made in Iran regarded my interest in talking to the clergy as well as to the opposition as an amusing eccentricity. "Why on earth do you want to waste your time?" In fact, I came to respect most of the mullahs I talked to - as men with a serious and genuinely held philosophy.

But my first day in Iran drove politics out of my mind, as I discovered something that deserves to be reported. How many people know that the Persians are the world's champion picnickers? I arrived on Sizdah Bedar - the 13th day of the Iranian new year, when it is unlucky to stay at home. So they all leave their houses for the day and have picnics.

It was an enchanting introduction to Iran, a picture of civility. The Laleh park was packed with thousands of picnickers sitting demurely in neat, orderly groups - almost as though they were consciously arranging themselves to convey a picture of civic pleasure.

They sat on carpets, with primus stoves and kettles, or samovars, eating cakes and fruit, and even hot food. There was no litter. They were consistently cheerful - and without the benefit of alcohol, which is, of course, strictly forbidden. Everywhere, people were playing handball or badminton - including women in chadors and girls in "manteaus" - a popular alternative to the chador among the young, worn over trousers and not much longer than a skirt. Some played football.

Since the park is divided into hundreds of small squares of box or privet, there was hardly any room for vigorous games, and it was fascinating to see how, as people might be playing handball or badminton within a few feet of each other, they never got in each other's way.

Meanwhile, passers-by would negotiate their way among the players with equal dexterity. The picnic parties sat in the little squares of box. I was reminded of a description in Alice Through the Looking Glass of the chess-board landscape. Later, I visited the Martyrs' Cemetery, where the dead of the Iran-Iraq war are interred. Families were sitting around the graves, laying flowers, pouring water and eating cakes and fruit.

Even there, they disposed themselves picnic-style. My taxi-driver from the airport had pointed out the old street names: "That was Eisenhower Street - after your President."

"I am English."

"Oh - there was also Churchill Street, and Elizabeth Street." I said: "Churchill once came to Teheran."

"Will he be coming again?"

His complaints about the regime began immediately: "The Basijis [the street-enforcers of the regime, who used to rough up women who showed too much hair from under their scarves] stop you - they say 'Have you been using alcohol?' - they smell your breath - off to prison.

"You are in your car with a girlfriend. They ask: 'Is she family? What is her father's name? Her mother's name?'

You say: 'She's my girlfriend.' Off to prison."

The road to Isfahan

On the drive to Isfahan we stopped in Kashan, and went to look at the Friday Mosque. Friday prayers were going on, and I wanted to look into the prayer hall.

I asked my driver, Reza, if I would be allowed to do that: "Certainly - you can go right inside." I was shown to a place on the carpet with the other worshippers.

I sat down cross-legged (having correctly left my shoes outside), and was soon hemmed in on all sides by a packed congregation. What I did not know was that Reza had failed to observe a notice which said: "Non Muslims strictly forbidden."

The Imam of the mosque had already been preaching for some time. Suddenly I realised that the prayers were still to come, that I had not the slightest idea how to join in even if I wanted to, and that I could not leave without picking my way over dozens of worshippers.

So I stayed put, and decided that I would stay sitting cross-legged on the carpet, hoping to be inconspicuous - probably a vain hope, since I was the only person in a white linen suit carrying a panama hat. Prayers began.

The congregation stood. I sat tight. But they stood for a long time and I felt more and more uncomfortable. Eventually, I got up, at the very moment when they dropped to the floor for the prostrations.

I sat down, vaguely inclining my head in what I hoped was a respectful way. Then they rose. I rose. They salaamed - and I inclined my head. All this was repeated three times.

My discomfort would have been hugely greater had I realised that I was forbidden to be there at all. The Imam brought the service to an end with a final invocation uttered in a deep, gentle voice. Then he was transformed.

There was a rise in decibels so sudden that I jumped - his voice turned into an enraged scream. It was the political sermon. I caught the words "Saddam" "Iraq" "Israel". Then came a triple invocation, each slogan beginning "Marg bar" - "Death to".

"Marg bar America!"

The congregation (or about half of them) punched their fists in the air. "Marg bar America!"

"Marg bar Isray-el! Marg bar Isray-el!" (Oh God, wait for it!) "Marg bar Inglis!" The fists punched the air as the congregation dutifully called for death to England.

As I emerged with the vast congregation, Reza seized me by the arm and propelled me rapidly outside. But the people packed close to me had not once glanced at me, neither when I failed to join in the prayers, nor during the slogans.

You could put this down to their being lost in their devotions. I ascribe it to exquisite Persian courtesy. Isfahan is the supreme achievement of Persian architecture, and one of the finest cities in the Islamic world.

The domed chamber of the Lutfullah mosque has a claim to be the single most beautiful room in the world. There is a famous 16th-century saying, dear to the inhabitants: "Esfahan nesf-e jahan" - "Isfahan is half the world."

To be the Prayer Leader of Isfahan under the Islamic Republic is to hold a very grand office and to be a power in the land. The current Prayer Leader is the Ayatollah Tabatai, successor to an Ayatollah Teheri who is said to have retired - or been retired - after becoming a dissident.

On arriving at Ayatollah Tabatai's headquarters, I was frisked for weapons by a soldier. Reza protested vigorously at this indignity - and the soldier was extremely apologetic. But I was glad, because I felt it meant I was meeting an important member of the regime.

We waited in a small lobby and, after about 15 minutes, everyone stood up respectfully as a dapper man with a briefcase-case arrived. He was Tabatai's son, and spoke good English. He, another official, a Mullah who assisted the Ayatollah and I conversed in English.

I prompted Reza to tell the story of my experience in the mosque at Kashan, which he did in Persian with fine dramatic touches. At "Marg bar Inglis! " they roared with laughter - mixed with embarrassment: "No, no - of course we do not feel like that."

The Ayatollah arrived. He was a large, grave man who, with his turban, robes and dignified carriage, somehow filled the lobby. I sat in a small adjoining room - his meeting room - with the door open as he conducted mid-day prayers, his forehead gently striking the ground, parallel to where I was sitting, the rest ranged behind him.

I was struck that they should do this in such a small space - until I recalled the Muslim genius for making almost anywhere seem a suitable place for praying. Prayers completed, he came into the little room, arranged himself on the carpet, and our conversation began, with his assistant, Dr Habib, acting as interpreter.

I said: "How do you justify having an Islamic republic at all? Why is it legitimate - is it through the will of God, or the will of the people?"

The Ayatollah was frank: "We are in fact the masters - and masters in an Islamic society. Islam is not just a religion - as perhaps Christianity is just a religion - it is also a way of life. Hence it required its fulfillment in politics. Our religion is from God, so if we follow our religion, we will be successful."

I said: "We tried the experiment. In the 17th-century: we had the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell. That convinced all of us that politics and religion do not mix, and that we never want to live under a theocracy."

"But what is your definition of politics? Do you simply assume it is something apart from religion? Since Islam is a way of life, it controls our whole life, our society."

I said: "Well, Aristotle defined politics as practical wisdom. You cannot learn politics from religion or science. I keep hearing Islamists say that Islam has the answer to the sickness of modern life - but I don't see how you can get these answers from any religion."

"But all men must find two things of supreme importance: social justice, and freedom of speech and writing. Yet all these human rights really come from religion. Secularists may have forgotten this, or may deny it, but without religion, they would not even have the idea of these rights."

I realised that the Ayatollah was drawing on central Shia traditions. For Shi'ite Islam has this special feature - its Twelve Imams, men sent by God as guides to mankind and kept by God from all sin. The first Imam was Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, Mohammed.

He became the fourth Caliph of Islam, but was assassinated five years later. The Shi'ites are "the partisans of Ali". After Ali, the third Imam, Hussein, was betrayed in the Battle of Kerbala and murdered.

He is buried in Iraq, at Kerbala, and Ali is buried at Nejaf. Public, intensely emotional mourning for the death of Hussein during the period of Moharram - comparable to the Holy Week ceremonies in Seville - is one of the great spectacles of Shia Islam.

Indeed, one sometimes has the impression that Shi'ism is above all a religion of regret and mourning. Shi'ites see their Twelve Imams as divinely guided, authoritative intrerpreters of the Koran and religious traditions.

The Twelfth and last Imam is said to have disappeared into a cave in the ninth century. But he is not dead - simply "in occultation". He is called the Mahdi, and will one day reappear when, along with Jesus Christ, he will initiate a reign of peace and justice upon earth - what we would call the New Jerusalem. Only his reign will be a truly legitimate government - all present governments are at best shadows, more often hideous perversions - of what is to come. So Shia Islam - like English Puritanism - has powerful utopian, Messianic elements, and is viscerally suspicious of secular rulers.

And the secular rulers whom it has encountered have always been the shahs. This was behind everything the Ayatollah said. I returned to the question: "But I still don't understand whether you think this Islamic republic is the will of God. Suppose a settled majority of the population, say in a referendum, voted to return to a secular state - would you accept it?"

Again he was frank: "It is not the people whose votes we should respect - but only the religious people. Ours was not just any sort of revolution - it was an Islamic revolution." Next day, Dr Habib got in touch with me.

My interview with Ayatollah Tabatai had gone well, and doors were being opened - literally. He took me to visit a couple of the madrassehs - theological colleges - founded by Shah Abbas, which are not open to visitors.

We walked through a bazaar under one of the colonnades that surround the huge Maidan, or central square of Isfahan - measuring 1,674 feet by 540, seven times the size of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and once a polo ground - and he opened a door into a 16th-century courtyard, and another world, of strolling clergy, bearded, in robes and white and black turbans, sometimes surrounded by students, sometimes passing the time of day.

Around the courtyards were teaching rooms and rooms for living in. In some of the teaching rooms a Mullah was seated cross-legged on the ground surrounded by his pupils. Within minutes, I was surrounded by Mullahs and students. Where was I from? "Inglis."

"Good. Why are you here?"

"I am interested in religion and politics in Iran."

"What do you think of Islam? What do you think of our Prophet?" ("What think ye of Christ?")

I said that one of the things I wanted to talk about was clerical government. "It is right for Iran. It is not clerical government, it is simply Islam. Islam is the complete, the final revelation. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is the seal of the Prophets. God spoke through earlier prophets, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ - but Mohammed's was the last and complete revelation.

"If you study your Bible you will find that it predicts the coming of Mohammed - it mentions him 25 times. When Jesus said he would send a Comforter, he was referring to Mohammed."

"Islam gives us the principles of human government. It is not we, the clergy, who devised the Islamic republic - it is inherent within Islam, and within Shi'ism itself."

I said: "But Iran has been a Shia country for about 1,300 years - but never before has it been ruled by mullahs. So how can you say that an Islamic republic is part of your religion?"

"But we have been waiting all this time for a truly Islamic government to emerge. And then, with Imam Khomeini, it finally happened. We do not claim that God Himself brought about the change in the government. It required human agency. This is the first time Iran has been ruled by people who will truly bring social justice."

I am certain that this was said with sincerity, and that I was talking to people with a genuine philosophy. This is the inner toughness of the regime, what gives it the strength to face down, if necessary, the present extreme unpopularity of the Islamic republic.

And unpopular it certainly is. I was often told that so disliked are the mullahs that people in the ''shared taxis'' of Teheran will never allow the driver to stop to pick up one of the clergy, and even that mullahs will take off their turbans when riding in taxis, lest people shout abuse at them through the windows.

I was also told confidently that one never sees a mullah walking through the Teheran streets for the same reason - although I did see two or three. There is an impasse - a well-educated, assertive clergy, confident in their right to guide the country, and a discontented majority who will hear nothing good about them at all. I felt torn. I liked these men.

I felt that they represented a tradition that was serious and coherent and had deep roots. And they all had what you might call a classical education - classical Arabic and Persian, jurisprudence, logic, mathematics, theology.

Talking to them is to have the nearest experience you can imagine to talking to Mediaeval scholastics. At the same time, it was impossible not to be influenced by the seething anger of nearly everyone else one met. I sometimes felt as though I was the only person in Iran willing to put in a good word for the mullahs. Dr Habib took me to meet another of the clerical teachers.

His room was essentially a monastic cell - exactly the sort of room an ordinary Oxford or Cambridge don would have inhabited in the Middle Ages. There were some books, a primus stove, a rug and some cushions.

One of his students made tea. (The custom seems to be that you are brought a glass of tea - taken with sugar but without milk - and when you finish it, another is produced. If you leave that untouched it will be replaced by another full glass. As far as I can see this goes on indefinitely.) We squeezed on to his tiny balcony.

He taught Islamic philosophy and Jurisprudence, and wanted to know about Western philosophy. We talked a bit about Kierkegaard's faith in God. "And Kant and Hegel - is God in their philosophies?"

Again, I brought up the question of the Islamic Republic: "There was a famous English historian, called Lord Acton, who said: 'All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Why should that not be true of your clerical government?"

"That is indeed the temptation. We teachers are loved by our students - when we are loved - for our humility and simplicity. That is why we teach sitting on the ground - it is a sign of humility. So power is a danger for us.

"The clergy are supposed to live a simple life... I am often called upon to say prayers for the municipality of Isfahan, and they send the Mayor's car for me. It is a grand car - far too grand. I say, either send a small car, or let me walk. I am a poor man, I live in a tiny rented house. People misunderstand - they do not realise that it is only about a hundred mullahs who are in government. The rest of us are poor."

I said: "All governments become unpopular over time, and they become corrupt. Are you not afraid that the unpopularity of the government will in the end rub off on to the religion itself?"

"Yes - of course. If this government is corrupt, the people will hate the ayatollahs, they will hate Islam, and they will do so for years and years. But whatever our current difficulties, we cannot give up our ancient hope. The Islamic Republic has revived our ancient Shia dream of a just society obedient to the laws of God.''

I could not reconcile the abuse so many Iranians heap on their clergy with what I found here. The clergy struck me as high-minded, living lives of genuine simplicity, devoted to their students. At the same time, they are supremely confident in their faith.

But something was emerging that was never stated, only implied. The ruling clergy are a tiny minority - it does not even include all the ayatollahs. People say that between them and the ordinary mullahs and teachers there is bitterness.

The analogy might be the ordinary parish clergy of France before the Revolution, who did not feel any identity of interest with the rich and powerful prelates of the Church, and many of whom actually sat in the revolutionary Assembly.

I do not believe that the clerical establishment in Iran is monolithic.

Qom, where ayatollahs are pin-ups

Qom is the second holiest city in Iran, after Meshad. It attracts Shia scholars and students from all over the world.

Qom centres upon t he great H azrat-e Msumeh shrine. Qomis regarded as the Vatican of Shi'ism, the nerve centre of the only major Shi'ite Muslim country in the world. It is renowned as the ultimate centre of religious conservatism in Iran.

The streets abound in mullahs who seem to be energised and have a spring in their step as all priests have when they near a centre of clerical power. Every sing le woman I saw in Qom wore t he complete chador. Ayatollahs and grand ayatollahs are the kings of Qom. They are even pinups. You can buy big photographs of the most celebrated of them in stalls around the shrine.

We had an appointment to interview a very grand ayatollah - Saanei - and Reza considerately bought photographs of him for me to enjoy and distribute to my friends. Saanei, too, had been a student of Khomeini.

We started with the first four centuries of the Islamic era, and the basis for religious rule: "The Twelve Imams were enabled to lead society because they actually had enough science and experience to be able to govern in every single field. But after the Twelfth Imam, 1150 years ago, it has become a different story."

I put to him Ayatollah Tabatai's view that what mattered was not the votes of the people, but of "the religious people" - with the assumption that this meant that the Islamic Republic could not be ended by a mere democratic procedure.

"No - if the people vote for secularism, we are obliged to accept that decision. Any government not acceptable to the people is contrary to Islam - Khomeini thought that, too."

I felt that Saanei wanted to recruit Khomenei for his own brand of secular-sounding democracy-with-an-Islamiccolouring. Not only must governments receive the assent of the people - rulers must be regarded by the people as friends.

And Khomeini? "That is how he was regarded. When he returned to Teheran after the Shah fell, five million people welcomed him on his drive from the airport. Eleven million attended his funeral. People all invoke Khomeini. He did rule with the consent and friendship of the people."

We talked about whether there could be a cultural and intellectual revival to accompany the world-wide religious revival in Islam. The Ayatollah thought there could be. And what of scholarly, scientific criticism of the Koran - as there is of the Bible in the West? He seemed to misunderstand me.

"Criticism? No - the Koran cannot be criticised - Mohammed forbade it, and the people would never allow it."

I said: "I mean, can it be studied freely like any other text? In Europe the Bible has been studied as a text among other texts, subject to the same analysis, and even 'deconstruction'.

This is part of our idea of modernity - or of postmodernism - that you can play with all texts. I think this is what Salman Rushdie was doing with the Prophet and the Koran, not aiming to insult them but to subject them to the play of imagination."

This was too much: "No - Rushdie did intend an insult to Islam. There can be no question about that. Anyway, the Koran is inexhaustible in its depth and beauties - it is not simply one text. Let me tell you about most beautiful thing in the Koran. There is the passage on the right of revenge. Suppose there is a victim of murder. The son, say, of the dead man is permitted to forgive his murderer. He may, for example, accept money in compensation [blood-money]. But he may equally take revenge. Even in its legal system, Islam respects the right to private revenge.

"However, it is better to forgive - that is the teaching of the Holy Koran. And if the man forgives, the government, the legal system is prohibited from taking revenge, exacting its own punishment."

I said: "That is different from the Christian teaching, which holds that one must always forgive. When Jesus told St Peter that he should forgive, not 'seven times', but 'seventy times seven' this was his injunction of total forgiveness."

"But to say you 'must' forgive is against human feeling. It is different from saying that it is better to forgive. I say that the Muslim doctrine is better. And the Koranic verse expressing this doctrine is the most beautiful in Islam."

As I was about to leave, I tried the Acton remark about the corruption of absolute power. Do the regime understand that it could happen to them? "You had better go and ask them."

I put in a telephone call to Ayatollah Khalkhali, the hanging judge. Immediately after the revolution, he had presided over the Revolutionary Court. Thousands of the Shah's regime were executed. One of these was the Shah's Prime Minister for eight years, Hoveida.

After sentence had been passed, pleas came in from all over the world, from presidents and kings to spare his life. It is said that Khalkhali was told by telephone to stay the execution, and that he said he would go and find out what was happening.

He then went to Hoveida, shot him, returned to the telephone and said: "I am sorry, but the execution has already been carried out.''

While my interpreter was making the call to Khalkhali's house, I was told another story about him. An 11-year-old girl had been picked up by the komiteh walking in the street in Qom at 11pm at night, arrested and taken to a prison.

Some people were due to be executed in the prison the following morning, and the girl had somehow got mixed up with these condemned prisoners. She was taken out and executed as well.

Later, it was realised that a mistake had been made, and the guards went to Khalkhali to say "What shall we do? We have made a mistake."

Khalkhali said: "No - she was (sexually) corrupt - put her down as corrupt." And he signed the paper.

A little later the body was washed and examined by the prison doctor. She was found to be virgo intacta. My interpreter returned to say that Khalkhali's wife had said that the Ayatollah was very sick, too ill to see me.

In search of the opposition

Iran has a lively opposition press. The conservatives keep closing down reformist papers - but others start up. I spoke to the founder of one of the most influential reformist papers.

He too, was pessimistic, but he found the seeds of disintegration within the regime itself - even, perhaps, within the Basijis. Everyone hates the Basijis: "They are uneducated young men, on huge salaries, with all their food provided free. They are the strong-arm men of the regime - they have carried out assassinations - along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. They do what they like - and they can count on the courts and the judiciary.

"Yet the Basijis may be losing interest in the clerics. In the end, they will want to preserve themselves. They may themselves bring about revolution.

"What you have to realise is that many of the clergy themselves do not like the system at all. Only a tiny minority of them are part of it. Many of the rest deeply resent the ruling clique. Also, they are aware of their unpopularity, they are deeply troubled that it will bring Islam itself into contempt. They also cannot help realising that their own livelihoods are at stake.

"They had been deceived. Everyone was deceived. I heard Khomeini's first speech after he returned to Iran: 'I promise you all that no one will be charged for oil, gas, electricity or water.' It was then I realised that he was a stupid man.

"The reformers lack courage. If someone is sent to prison, they simply will not get out and demonstrate. Khatami merely smiles and makes promises. Peaceful change is impossible. But realise one thing: the average man in the street loves the British and Americans because of the war in Iraq."

A dying regime? It is impossible to be sure, but I find it hard to believe that the current antagonism against the clergy goes to the depths of the Persian soul. The clergy are and will always remain an important part of society, and it is reasonable to guess that if they can devise an intelligent withdrawal strategy, there could just be a democratic Iran, governed in accordance with Islam, but not ruled by the mullahs.

Although many are disappointed in Khatami he may, in a subtle and indirect way - indirection is typically Persian - be altering the psychology of politics in that he has openly said: "Don't look to me to solve your problems."

That is a new idea, for the Iranians do traditionally look to a ruler to solve their problems. There is certainly an intellectual revival in Iran. The country produces many excellent scientists and there is plenty of scholarly and scientific collaboration with the outside world, including the West. In all this, Iran is well ahead of the Arab world.

You have a much stronger sense of being in a westernised society in Teheran than you do in Cairo. You could find grounds for optimism. There are signs of a development of a ''third way'' between government by tenacious mullahs and violent anticlericalism, and that is in the revival of Persian secular nationalism.

This partly takes the form of a romantic rediscovery of pride in the ancient past - the Persia of Cyrus the great and Darius. (Oddly enough, this was one of the late Shah's preoccupations - it helped get him into trouble when he attempted to replace the Islamic calendar with an ''imperial'' one.)

The great figure of Persian nationalism is Dr Mossadegh - who fell foul of the British when he nationalised Iranian oil and was eventually imprisoned by the Shah. But you can go further back than Mossadegh - to the old Qajar Constitution of 1906 that envisaged a Shia state with parliamentary institutions.

If the younger generation are coming to reject the idea that their essential identity is that of a militantly religious state, a leader in the Islamic world, then a return to the old secularism could be an attractive option.

A discovery in the mountains

Teheran has one great natural advantage - the Alborz mountains that surround it from the north.

Perhaps they help trap the smog that hovers over the city. But their peaks - still snow-capped this spring - give a dramatic back-drop to an otherwise featureless city. Every Friday many thousands of young Teheranis trek into the mountains.

Why do they go? For years, one of the main reasons has been to meet each other away from the eyes of the authorities and the Basijis - for boys and girls to meet each other, and to do things frowned on by the regime. I went on the trek with two Iranian friends on my last Friday in Iran. The slopes were swarming with people.

They were nearly all young. After an hour or two we were level with the snow-line, and stopped for a rest. I noticed a group of eight or nine young men who had established themselves on a little pebbley plateau that they had laboriously levelled with the spade that they had carried up the mountain. They were sitting on a carpet, they had a fire nearby, and were clapping and singing while one of their number did one of those pelvis-grinding Levantine dances that always strike me as rather lewd. We asked if we could join them and were warmly welcomed. They were all from south Teheran - the poor part of the city - and were a group of friends who lived in the same neighbourhood.

They were obviously not well-off. None of them spoke any English. They had interrupted their singing and dancing in deference to our arrival, so I urged them to resume it. One young man did a vigorous, comic dance depicting a drunkard getting more and more inebriated until he sank to the floor. It was traditional and pretty realistic. Some spoilsports on a higher slope began calling at them to make less noise. They probably disapproved of the dancing.

"Why? We have worked hard to level out this platform." (They waved the spade.) But they were abashed and became quieter - after all, dancing is officially disapproved of by the religious authorities. Then one said: "Manchester United lost to Real Madrid, 3-1. They were pretty upset."

I noticed they had brought a football with them - although it must surely be impossible to kick it around those slopes.

He went on: "I am McManaman." Another said: "I am Owen." These were boys in their twenties. They had all left school at 18, with their leaving diploma. I asked them what their jobs were. One was a garment worker; one worked in an oil refinery; one was a chauffeur; one a shoemaker; one a baker; one a waiter; one a lorry driver.

It turned out, to my surprise, that "McManaman'' and ''Owen'' were actually professional footballers, and played in an Iranian first division club, the Eagles. But they are paid a pittance, and have to take second jobs.

They began calling for everyone to sing. One of the people I was with began singing a song that had apparently been popular 30 or 40 years ago, and which to my ears had a certain subtlety, and was a popular classic.

They all immediately fell silent and listened intently, applauding when he had finished. He sang two or three songs, listened to with equal attention and applause. One of them asked me: "Have you read Iranian poets? Have you read our modern poetry?" I said I had not - and he recited to me some verses of a contemporary writer, which one of my companions translated. Another then asked: "Have you read Hafez?"

Hafez is, I supposed, the most famous Persian lyric poet. I said that I had a volume of Hafez in English, which I often read. Another asked: "What do you think of his imagery of love and wine?"

I said that - subject to his own greater knowledge - it seemed to me that this might be symbolic or mystical, having something to do with the love of God, with wine as some sort of image of religious inspiration.

He nodded in vigorous agreement - "That is how I read him myself. Have you anything like that in English?"

I said: "Well, not in English poetry exactly. But in the Bible there is something called the Song of Songs, by Salaman. It is a poem full of erotic imagery, but it is traditionally interpreted by Christians in a mystical way as being about Christ's love for his Church."

We went on to talk about this, about the Sufist mystical tradition in Islam. We talked of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I said that we had a famous translation of that into English - and was able to please him by quoting a couple of stanzas, which my friend translated back into Persian.

I asked him to remind me what his job was. He was the lorry driver. Having declined to sing a song for them, I offered instead to recite a sonnet of Shakespeare. They listened in rapt attention; my friend translated it, and they applauded. Could a conversation of this sort conceivably take place among footballers, waiters and lorry-drivers in this country? Among university students?

The Philistine tradition simply does not exist in Persia. Or, as one of my companions put it: "They don't take the piss."

That is true. Instead, they have a great wish to admire. One evening, a few days after my return from Iran, I was on the London Underground. A group of young men - students or sixth formers - were in the carriage. They were passing bottles of wine around, and were all drunk, shouting and swearing.

One of them began urinating in a corner of the carriage. I could not help thinking about the discussion in the Alborz mountains. The civility I found in my two weeks in Persia certainly comes at a price. But there is something to be said for it.
"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable" -J.F.K
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Postby Liberator » Thu Feb 09, 2006 10:10 am

I was out all day, out of touch with the news, and in the evening went into a popular restaurant in south Teheran. On finding I was English, waiters rushed to shake my hand. Others gave V for Victory signs. "War is over. Saddam finished! Saddam hiding in Russian Embassy."

They were wildly excited. To my astonishment, one of them began saying "Pahlavi! Pahlavi!"

I said: "You mean the Shah? He was good?" "The son of Pahlavi - very good!" He was talking of the soi-disant Crown Prince, Reza Pahlavi, heir of the late Shah, Mohammed Pahlavi. Another said, with particular emphasis: "We are Iranians, Iranians." I said: " 'Persians' even?" "Yes, Persians - Cyrus the Great, Darius."

I then realised that the excitement was not just over the destruction of Saddam - a man universally hated for the eight-year "imposed war" that he fought against Iran, in which half a million died and many thousands were gassed - but over the prospects the war might have for Iran itself. Another said: "This government is worse than Saddam Hussein. You cannot be serious. But yes - if the Americans and English come and land at the airport with their troops, Iranians will throw flowers at them. Please tell them this in England, please, please, please!"

Does this represent Iranian opinion? Is their antagonism to their own government so intense that they would actually welcome foreign invaders? Well - I don't know. This was a sentiment uttered in the excitement of the moment - even though I heard it later more than once. Iran has known emotional convulsions in the past - such as the one that brought down the Shah. An enormous nostalgia for the days of the Shah has now built up, along with a yearning for a state not ruled by the clergy.

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable" -J.F.K
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