Lands; of Chosroes and Pharaohs




Marde-i-Mi’ayid - Man has come! Allama Iqbal’s opening line in his Persian poetic treatise Zaboor-i-Ajam  (Zaboor-the old text, Ajam-non Arab, mostly applied to Iran) formed the slogan on banners, as well the headline in ‘Khayan’ and ‘Etilaat’ - Iran’s leading newspapers in early February 1979. Iran’s D-Day had arrived as Imam Khomeini drove from Tehran’s Meharabad airport to Hussainiya-i-Irshad, his downtown abode surrounded by swarming millions. Along with some Iranian friends, I was watching the triumphant movement from the balcony of the top floor of a high rise building. Prior to the D-Day, streets of Tehran carried the same tale as the TV screens these days depict of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Much has changed in the Islamic world over three decades though the western world’s perception of Iran and Egypt remains glued to the age of Iranian Chosroes and Egyptian Pharaohs. West has failed to perceive and accept the seminary in Qom in Iran or Al-Azhar in Egypt, and the Islamization of these ancient lands. Egyptology starts and ends with pyramids (Al-Ahram) or Persipolis (Takht-i-Jamsheed, the ancient capital of Cyrus and Darius) attract them much more than a study of post-Islamic Iran. Failure to register the change has led to much talked about civilizational conflict. West knows there is an Islamic world from Gulf to Nile; it would like to contend it, rather than know, understand and accept it. One wonders whether crusades have ever ceased!
Hussnain Heikel, former editor of renowned Egyptian daily Al-Ahram writes in his book on Nasser era that west would prefer to deal with ‘Bedouin’, the desert dwellers than with the growing middle class in Arabic world on equal terms. The desert tribal could be maneuvered to fit western designs, much as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ did to drive a wedge between the Turkic Ottoman’s and Arab Sheikh’s, who were rewarded with the kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan. Iraq got rid of the western plant through Ba’athist revolution, Jordan still lives with it, though of late getting to hear the music of the budding revolution. Lawrence of Arabia and Glubb Pasha - John Glubb, the Briton - the power behind Iraqi throne are western heroes, their exploits forming plot of Hollywood films.
Arab Sheiks warming up to west is a known tale; the men in Khaki and heads of single party states - Wahid Hizbi Doula - as Arabs sarcastically say, devoid of support of their own people did not lag behind. Lands to the west of Gulf-the Arab west - Maghrib, as the Arabs call it-  and the lands on banks of Nile, Euphrates  and Tigris depict the same tale. I have lived in these parts for three decades, seen young men with Islamic or liberal leanings vanishing never to appear again, and their parents saying ‘Min-Allah’ -call from Allah. Once I visited a neighbour whose son had disappeared. The security chief of the area, a patient of mine invited me for dinner, put in a quiet word to stick to my job and avoid visiting neighbours. I took the hint, and applied brakes on my Kashmiri propensity to visit a neighbour in case of a mishap!
The largesse of oil rich Islamic states to an extent ensures survivability, and the ones not blessed with oil wealth have the twin effect of poverty and denial of civic rights to contend with. However even oil wealth could not save Shah of Iran, which takes us back to the Iranian tale and its aftermath. As I got selected for an Iranian assignment in 1975, one amongst 162 doctors, as per Indo/Iranian cultural exchange deal, we were given a pep talk by Indian foreign office officials in Delhi’s Hyderabad house. ‘No political comments’ come what may, we were advised in unequivocal terms and to add spice to the talk, the added advice was to say ‘Gulf’ and not Arabic Gulf, as Arabs call it, or the Persian Gulf, as Iranians call it. Having the Kashmiri nose for affairs political, I could make out that we were supposed to pose like evasive and elusive Indian diplomats.  Post revolution, Imam Khomeini called it the ‘Islamic Gulf’ to bridge the difference, and had to face protests from pan-Iranists, a party dwelling in pre-Islamic Iranian glory. That brought forth, if ever a proof was needed of a plethora of differences across the gulf in Islamic world. I have known quite a few Egyptians, who would speak high of their Pharaoic past, especially in presence of our European colleagues, although the word ‘Pharaoh’ depicts the tyrant and ‘Pharoic’ tyranny in the Islamic lore.
As we settled into an Iranian life, amidst plenty, the night life on Caspian beaches in Gilan and Muzanderan, the glitter and glaze in north of Tehran, lop sided development was evident in South of city, in provinces and villages.  We could sense the stifle, of looking over the shoulder before a word of mouth. ‘Sazman-i-Itelaat Va Amniyat-i-Kishwar’ (SAVAK-Bureau of information and national security) was everywhere, the grapevine depicted it as Mosad trained. Shah had Israeli links, as well as diplomatic contacts a la Hussni Mubarak and Moroccan/Jordanian royalty gets added to that list. The well to do professionals resented denial of free speech in the confines of their homes, if only they were sure that you could not be a SAVAK plant. There were rumors that SAVAK has employed foreigners. My fluency in Persian made me more suspect. Once or twice I was questioned with an edge in voice, as to how I had picked up Persian so quickly! Skeptics, the ones who didn’t know me thoroughly, found it hard to believe that love for Allama Iqbal had got me into a high geared drive to learn the language, merely to get into his Persian poetry.
Post revolution Iqbal’s reputation soared, in Shah’s Iran he was considered too revolutionary for comfort. Ali Sharyati, Shah’s leading intellectual opponent was an Iqbal devotee, so the present ‘Rehbar’ - leader of the revolution - Ayatollah Khamnei. Both have written extensively on Iqbal. While Ayatollah Khamnei survived and became the ‘Rehbar’, Ali Sharyati was exiled and killed on a London street, allegedly by SAVAK gunmen.
As the revolution picked up, Shah of Iran tried change a la Mubarak. First, he tried changes within ‘Hizb-i-Shahi’, throne sponsored party, Rastakhaiz - Persian for renaissance. Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda was replaced by the anti-clerical technocrat-Jamsheed Amouzgar. He got replaced by Shareef Imami with religious orientation, that too didn’t work. Finally Shah hooked a liberal politician-Shahpur Bakhtair. The streets continued to fill up, the cry got shriller:
‘Bakhtair, Bakhtair; Nukar-i-bay’akhtair’, servant-without-authority. I thought we Kashmiri’s were masters in coining appealing, rhythmic slogans; Iranians are a step ahead- Bakhtair rhyming with bay’akhtair made a mess of the change, though Shahpur-the Francophile was willing to make ‘QOM’ the Muslim Vatican, it didn’t work. Qom, the seminary where Imam Khomeini had taught until sixties of 20th century before his exile to Najaf opted for total power and got it. Over a period of time, a liberal politician-Mahdi Bazargan, though with pronounced Islamic orientation was put in command. As I remember his fire side pep televised talk, sentiments overwhelm me. The sincerity of the lovable man was transparent. He bowed out, making out that the child delivered by two mid-wives has more chances of being born malformed, and a dish prepared by two cooks might get too salty. With that he declared his inability to work with clerics. Though clergy in Egypt is not as institutionalized as in Iran, in spite of its Al-Azhar, were Mubarak to opt out or be forced out, the worry would remain whether unity amidst diversity of thought could be achieved!
Sir Anthony Parsons, the British ambassador during Shah’s last phase notes in his memoirs, The pride and the fall - Iran: 1974-79, Shah’s doubt of a western conspiracy against him, with BBC instigating Iranian mass upsurge. Parsons accepts having contacts with opposition, however, denies a western plot to oust Shah.  Mubarak like Shah might be dreaming of plots, unwilling to accept that he had failed his people. Ironically Shah from the land of Chosroes is buried in Egypt-land of Pharaohs; he took earthenware of Iranian soil to be added to the place of burial. God knows, what lies ahead for Mubarak and his ilk in Muslim lands! Whatever might happen, it needs to be remembered that post revolutionary tranquility is more important than revolutionary fervour!
Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi
(Reunion is subordinate to survival)

Lastupdate on : Mon, 14 Feb 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Mon, 14 Feb 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Tue, 15 Feb 2011 00:00:00 IST

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