he office has sent round a powerpoint — “How to Survive a Heart Attack Alone” — which includes an animated gif of an irregularly palpitating heart. It asserts that, “You have been trained in CPR, but not how to perform it on yourself! Do not panic! Start coughing repeatedly and very vigorously. The cough must be deep and prolonged, as when producing sputum from deep inside the chest.”
As one does.
Required post-holiday reading (or rather, the office in question being the United Nations, at least a meeting) for those contemplating the long flight back to “the field.” Especially when “the field” in question means a veil, tapped phones, monitored emails and a daily fear of earthquakes. Or an air strike by the U.S. On a scale of probability the last two are equally matched, which doesn’t give much cause for optimism as there at least five to ten quakes every week somewhere in Iran. Most are in the desert, but, like San Francisco, Tehran is overshadowed by the immanence of “The Big One.”
And of course provocative statements likening Israel to a tumor and denying the Holocaust only hand the U.S. more excuses for another violation of international law and help to foment a worrying and lazy anti-semitism at home amongst a population sophisticated enough to know better but currently too inert, cynical or drugged to care. It also leads to a complacent belief that the world’s fifth largest economy is being led by a joker — in the casino sense of wild card — whose words can be dismissed with an editorial sleight of one hand while the other presses the button to annihilate a civilisation that shimmers with history.
But Ahmadinejad in his ill-fitting suits struts the international stage with the consummate skill of a jester, his loop’d and window’d raggedness a reproach to the plump Saville Row hypocrisy that spawned — and bankrolled — Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The latest in a long line of visionaries stretching back to the dawn of recorded history (which in Persia pre-dates Western notions of heritage by millennia) Iran’s current president has lured the imagination of the mainstream media with sound-bite chimeras ranging from an epiphanic moment at the UN to the assertion that the mission of Iran’s Islamic revolution was to pave the way for Imam Ali, who disappeared thirteen centuries ago and is said by some to be hiding in a well near the holy city of Qom.
Cut to Bush, with his gaffes, his fundamentalism and his little-boy-in-headlights bonhomie, and you have the obverse of the self same coin. Not since Carter’s avuncular crinkles met Ayatollah Khomeni’s raptorial charisma has there been such a photogenic bipolarity as that of the two colossi bestriding, somewhat awkwardly, the New Year. But although both men see their struggles in black and white — Church Militant versus Suicide Bomber for the one, Shi’a Islam versus Zionist Terrorism for the other — theirs is just one form of dualism baseborn of ancient Persia, an illusion of clean breaks and eschatology that belies the complexities of our non-linear world.
This notion of monolithic new beginnings premised on the destruction of Evil inspired three revolutionary cults of the region now known as the Middle and Near East — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — and derives from a twisted interpretation of the Persian religion of Zoroaster. This was brought, bowdlerised, to western audiences by Nietzsche in his book, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” as a faith predicated on the identification and annihilation of the Other by a heroic figure freed from the shackles of morality and law. In this world view, Operation Enduring Freedom and revolutionary suicide are one and the same and there are no charcoal landscapes or shades of grey.
The press calls such intransigent posturing “Manichean” with the same self-assured ignorance as those who refer to Iranians in the same breath as “Arab-speaking terrorists.” But Mani, a native of Iraq, envisaged a world where good and bad structured the world of spirit as much as that of flesh and neither could exist without the other. Polarities for him were specious, a conjurer’s trick in pursuit of meretricious glory and destruction and he sought to unite all belief systems in a tolerant, harmonious whole. In around 270 AD the then Shah of Persia had him crucified, flayed and stuffed for his temerity, calling him a sorcerer and a charlatan — a “magos,” a name which originally referred to the Zoroastrian priests of the Persian empire. But almost three centuries after wise men converged on Bethlehem it had acquired a derogatory edge.
That long ago epiphanic moment in the stable, like Ahmadinejad’s more recent one in New York or Bush’s on his Axis of Evil, has also been recorded in stereotype and used to further a narrow, bipolar view of the world. Perhaps it is time, between Yuletide and Now Ruz, the Persian new year in March, to resolve in grey, blur the lines, and welcome the gift of charcoal.
— The American will publish semiregular reports from Koorosh, the assumed name of a writer who is all too authentic.