Friday, November 2, 2012

Differing Ayatollahs, Part 2

If writing a book is like horseracing, then I'm in the backstretch of my first draft of After Her Death. I've got about 10k to 15k words left depending on how the last few scenes go. I might even get another 20k out of the story! Point is, I'm SUPER excited to be wrapping up the first draft and bundling it off to an editor friend of mine for a sharp critique, after which I get to start the revision process.

The primary theme of After Her Death is family identity, but a lesser, albeit just as important element in the story is Iran. The idea of the story came to me in a dream (sounds so cliche, I know, but it's true), and in the dream, there was nothing international about it. But as I sat down to shape the dream into an actual story, it begged to be something more than a typical adoption story. Enter, Iran.

I'm not saying much more as I don't want to give away the story. Suffice it to say, I've done quite a bit of research of late on Iran and want to share some of my impressions. At first, all I found was information on Iran's political side: the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the oppressive state of governance since then; the diaspora of Iranians who fled to the US either as supporters of the deposed Shah; and current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's outrageous rhetoric calling for the extinction of Israel (and sometimes America). After encountering a bunch of rather inflammatory and frankly not helpful solutions to Iran's nuclear crisis, ranging from the "nuke them til they glow, then shoot them in the dark" attitude to the "every country has every right to have a nuclear industry for peaceful, domestic purposes" camp, I'm no closer to an opinion on the issue than I was before. And while this was all very interesting, what I really wanted to know was more about the culture and the temperament of the people who live in Iran. What is life in Iran like? What do Iranians think about their current regime? What is their ethnic and religious make-up? Do they like Americans, despite the rhetoric? Are Persian cats really from Persia? And what in the world is an ayatollah?

As you may have gleaned, modern day Iran is ancient Persia. So all the stuff in the Bible about Persia like the histories detailed Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and part of 2 Chronicles occur, at least in part, in ancient Iran. Oh, and the whole reason Herod (and the Romans) freaked out over the Magi seeking the "King of the Jews"? Yeah, that was because of the Parthians, another iteration of the Persian Empire, and the only threat to Roman world dominance at the time. (The Magi weren't just three guys on camel back. They were part of the Persian ruling structure and probably entered Jerusalem with a heavily armed ensemble.)

Unlike the Greek and Roman empires, the Persians don't really fade into history. Well, they fade out if all you took is Western Civ in college. But in the history of the world, the Persians remain a strong force well into the middle ages. Granted, they don't ever conquer the world, but they stay the regional hegemon in the Middle East until the Ottoman Rule. And they still want to be the regional hegemon, despite the Shi'a/Sunni conflict. Reason being: unlike many of the Arab tribes, the Persians (who are not Arab and will be quite put out if you assume as much), retained a coherent culture down through history. Yes, the culture changed and absorped and adjusted to Islam in the late 7th century, but no more so than northern European culture adapting to the rise of Protestantism. If some writers are to be believed, Iran wants to be the regional hegemon because they want to be left alone. Others argue they are actually just power hungry.

So, my humble working theory is that today's Iranians (which are actually several different ethnic sub-groups) are still the Persians from yesterday in much the same way as the national character of the French, Russians, or Americans have stayed fairly constant down through the years. With one obvious difference: the influence of Shia Islam on the people groups who compose Iran has driven some public expression of their culture to become private. The pre-Islamic Iran described by many of great Persian poets still exists in a private, personal way. In the same manner that many of us often have a public face (who we are to strangers) and a private face (who we are to our friends), Iran's culture has the same.

As a midwestern, Christian American, I tend to be a "what you see is what you get" kind of person. I place a high value transparency and openness. However, this is due more to culture and personality than ethics. I didn't realize this about myself until after reading about Iran. When I first encountered this public/private divide in the Middle East (it's not just a Persian phenomenon), I thought it was hypocrisy. Outwardly, the people may adhere to public laws or customs, but in the privacy of their homes, but according to a number of sources I came across, nearly all Iranians own illegal satellites in which to watch TV--including "evil" western channels. Upon further reflection and reading, I found that they aren't any more hypocritical than us, per se. (Who among us doesn't sometimes say something nice about a person when we're thinking the exact opposite, because we don't want to be rude?) For modern Iranians, this divide provides a necessary barrier against their government (whoever's in charge whether Shahs or Ayatollahs) from interfering too much. The government "allows" what goes on behind closed doors as long as it stays behind closed doors. The real explanation is far more complex than that but this is my very American attempt to distill the concept of the "Persian garden" (ie, different public/private faces) into a blog post.

Next post I'll give some final observations along with some helpful resources I found on Iran.

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