April 27, 2009

TOSSED ON THE BLACK SEA:

Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral (James Buchan, 12 March 2009, New Statesman)

The plan was to travel 25 miles south through town in an orderly procession, but the crowds had swelled overnight to several million. “From the north of Tehran to Behesht-e Zahra,” wrote Khomeini’s biographer Baqer Moin, “nothing could be seen but a black sea of mourners dotted only by the white turbans of some mollahs.”

The air-conditioned truck acting as a hearse could make no headway through the crowd, and neither water cannon nor warning shots from the Revolutionary Guard could clear a path. In the end, the body was transferred to a helicopter - another echo of 1979 – and brought by air to the grave that had been hacked with mattocks out of the stony desert.

Yet even here, the crowd surged past the makeshift barriers. John Kifner wrote in the New York Times that the “body of the ayatollah, wrapped in a white burial shroud, fell out of the flimsy wooden coffin, and in a mad scene people in the crowd reached to touch the shroud”. A frail white leg was uncovered. The shroud was torn to pieces for relics and Khomeini’s son Ahmad was knocked from his feet. Men jumped into the grave. At one point, the guards lost hold of the body. Firing in the air, the soldiers drove the crowd back, retrieved the body and brought it to the helicopter, but mourners clung on to the landing gear before they could be shaken off. The body was taken back to north Tehran to go through the ritual of preparation a second time. [...]

For the outside world, especially for non-Shia Muslims and Iranian émigrés, the funeral was, as Time put it, “bizarre, frightening – and ultimately incomprehensible”. Here was not tragedy but gruesome farce – idolatrous, makeshift, deadly and utterly lacking in self-control. According to Radio Tehran, 10,800 people were treated that day for self-inflicted wounds, heat exhaustion or crush injuries.

For the Iranians, by contrast, these astonishing events were evidence of what they prized above all things: unaffected sympathy, or what is known as del – “heart”.

After the funeral, Iranian society resumed its habitual good order, held together by piety, pride, a certain amount of government repression, opium, cheap bread and petrol, a ban on alcohol and segregation of the sexes. And it still holds together today. The revolutionary constitution, with its novel mixture of clerical dictatorship and liberal democracy, has proved more resilient than anyone could have imagined in 1979.

What remains in the memory of those June days 20 years ago is that same power of men and women en masse that haunted Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of the French Revolution of 1789 – something “violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful and effective”, which will certainly return to Iran one day, either to renew the Islamic Republic or to demolish it.


Our reactions to Iran are still shaped by such fright, but, in his book, Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz relates the following comical exchange:
One of the demonstrators peeled off to rest by the curb, and I edged over to ask him what the mourners were shouting.

'Death to America,' he said.

'Oh.' I reached for my notebook as self-protection and scribbled the Farsi transliteration : Margbar Omrika.

'You are American?' he asked.

'Yes. A journalist.' I braced myself for a diatribe against the West and its arrogant trumpets.

'I must ask you something,' the man said. 'Have you ever been to Disneyland?'

'As a kid, yes.'

The man nodded, thoughtfully stroking his beard. 'My brother lives in California and has written me about Disneyland,' he continued. 'It has always been my dream to go there and take my children on the tea-cup ride.'

With that, he rejoined the marchers, raised his fist and yelled 'Death to America!' again.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2009 7:21 AM
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