Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Among The Believers: An Iranian Guru In Israel

In the early 1960s, Jalal Al-e Ahmad was one of Iran’s leading literary celebrities, a writer whose works deeply impressed the dissident clerics who would go on to found and lead the Islamic Republic. Born to a devout family in Tehran in 1923, a boy in the bazaar, Al-e Ahmad had drifted away from the faith and eventually earned a degree in Persian literature. He flirted with the communist Tudeh Party of Iran in the 1940s but broke with it for being too pro-Soviet; then, he helped found (and later left) a workers’ party that supported Mohammad Mosaddeq, who was elected prime minister of Iran in 1951. After the 1953 coup that toppled Mosaddeq, Al-e Ahmad succumbed to pressure from the shah’s regime and renounced politics entirely, publishing a letter “repenting” for his prior participation. He returned to his roots and seemed to find his vocation, becoming famous throughout Iran as a novelist, essayist, and underground polemicist, especially for his 1962 book Gharbzadegi, or “West-struck-ness” (published in English as Occidentosis or sometimes Westoxification).

Gharbzadegi presented the West’s technology and individualism— which he saw as little distinguished from its consumer capitalism—as a kind of disease. This sickness, Al-e Ahmad argued, was being spread in Iran by the shah and his old colonial sponsors as they industrialized the country. The disease was all the more insidious for the way it fed on common ambitions—for enrichment, knowledge, and equality—in order to undermine traditional Islamic ways of life based on humility and family cohesion. For Al-e Ahmad, authenticity lay in the village, in rug weaving, in the mosque. “We have been unable to preserve our own historiocultural character in the face of the machine and its fateful onslaught,” he wrote.

Among his admirers were Iran’s revolutionary clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his disciple Ali Khamenei (Iran’s current supreme leader). Al-e Ahmad was skeptical of the clerics’ hierarchy and rigidity, but he thought their preeminence in Iranian society was natural and was pleased that they took Gharbzadegi seriously. He shared with them a view of Shiite Islam as carrying the moral prestige of perpetual insurgency: virtue in the face of corrupt materialism, steadfastness against imperial power. Iran could and should import machines, they agreed—piety should not block technology. But as for the freedom of inquiry that produced the technology, that was a different question: if it inevitably brought agnosticism, sexual nonconformity, and greed, then Iran would be better off refusing that part of the bargain.

As Al-e Ahmad’s literary reputation grew, so did his eminence and the censors’ attention. He made extensive visits to the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and elsewhere, which he chronicled in detail, and even spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard, meeting Henry Kissinger, among other luminaries. He died at age 45 in 1969, most likely from a heart attack, in his family village in the Iranian province of Gilan. (His brother, Shams Al-e Ahmad, speculated that he had really been assassinated by the savak, the shah’s secret police.)

A NOT-SO-DISTANT MIRROR
One of Al-e Ahmad’s foreign trips, chronicled in an article and later a book, was to the then-young country of Israel in 1963. Samuel Thrope, a Persian scholar now at the Hebrew University, has published a new translation of Al-e Ahmad’s account of this long-forgotten journey, an excerpt of which follows, below. It makes for fascinating reading, not least because it is strikingly positive. The travelogue conjures up a long-lost era of calmness and curiosity between Iranians and Israelis, as well as the naive yet potent Third World ideology so common in developing countries at the time.

But it is important for what it says, not just for what it represents. It suggests how the Iranian and Israeli leaders who feel such intense mutual hostility today actually mirror one another in certain ways, particularly in their foundational attitudes toward religious authority, political and economic populism, and the West. That a writer such as Al-e Ahmad, guru to the ayatollahs, liked Israel now seems touching. What he liked about Israel seems cautionary.

Continue reading at Foreign Affairs

1 comment:

Potter said...

This was wonderful! Thank you for your essay and the excerpt. Timely! Chag Samayach! Happy Purim.