January 31st, 2011

The revolutionary young

The situation in Egypt keeps conjuring up memories of Iran for me. This seems as though it might become relevant again. I hope not; I hope that as events unfold it will turn out there was no analogy after all.

But here’s an excerpt that might send a chill down your spine:

[Iranian exile and author-to-be] Nafisi married early, at eighteen, and attended college at the University of Oklahoma during the 1970s. Her plunge into political activism was as casual (and as literary) as it was leftist:

I joined the Iranian student movement reluctantly. My father’s imprisonment and my family’s vague nationalist sympathies had sensitized me towards politics, but I was more of a rebel than a political activist–though in those days there was not much difference between them. One attraction was the fact that the men in the movement didn’t try to assault or seduce me. Instead, they held study groups in which we read and discussed Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In the seventies, the mood—not just among Iranians, but among American and European students—was revolutionary. There was the Cuban example, and China of course. The revolutionary cant and romantic atmosphere were infectious, and the Iranian students were at the forefront of the struggle.

So, revolution was a mood, an essence, something infectious in the air—rather like bacilli, as it turns out. Nafisi describes the group as markedly Marxist in philosophy and in style, sporting “Che Guevara sports jackets and boots…and Mao jackets and khakis.”

For Nafisi herself, romanticism and literature seem to have been the primary motives, passed somehow through the alchemy of her homesickness and transmuted into political activism:

[I] insisted on wearing long dresses outside the meetings…I never gave up the habit of reading and loving “counterrevolutionary” writers—T. S. Eliot, Austen, Plath, Nabokov, Fitzgerald—but I spoke passionately at the rallies; inspired by phrases I had read in novels and poems, I would weave words together into sounds of revolution. My oppressive yearning for home was shaped into excited speeches against the tyrants back home and their American backers.

Once in Tehran, Nafisi…soon came to bitterly regret the mindless revolutionary zeal of her youth, and to realize that her revolutionary dream had turned into a nightmare, as they so often do:

When in the States we had shouted Death to this or that, those deaths seemed to be more symbolic, more abstract, as if we were encouraged by the impossibility of our slogans to insist upon them even more. But in Tehran in 1979, these slogans were turning into reality with macabre precision. I felt helpless: all the dreams and slogans were coming true, and there was no escaping them.

Although the revolutionaries back in Oklahoma and elsewhere had been decidedly leftist, the revolution they helped birth was a restrictive theocracy. One of the most interesting portions of the book describes how those leftists, at least in the early stages, managed to rationalize and excuse such clear signs that things had gone sharply awry as the imposition of the veil and the subjugation of women.

Nafisi was not one of those excusers, however; she describes her horror at the relentless approach of the suffocating clasp of the mullahs, a chill embrace undreamt of in her leftist days in Oklahoma.

And it got worse, much worse; there are many passages in the book that reminded me uncannily of what it must have been like for French revolutionaries to have watched the unfolding of the Reign of Terror (those who survived, that is), not to mention Stalin’s ex-comrades viewing the purges of their ranks:

In later months and years, every once in a while Bijan [Nafisi’s husband] and I would be shocked to see the show trials of our old comrades in the U.S. on television. They eagerly denounced their past actions, their old comrades, their old selves, and confessed that they were indeed the enemies of Islam. We would watch these scenes in silence…I turned and asked Bijan, Did you ever dream that this could happen to us? He said, No, I didn’t, but I should have.

No, I didn’t, but I should have.” What quiet words of chilling despair! And indeed, one wonders how it was that smart people could have been so dumb; by the mid-to late-1970’s, when Nafisi and her friends were supporting a leftist revolution in Iran, surely the jury was no longer out on the fact that this was a road that would lead to the revolution swallowing its own as well as many others. But we see such a phenomenon again and again, as history repeats itself in its winding, twisting path.

In Nafisi’s case, she seems to have been mainly a romantic, interested in literature almost to the exclusion of other topics—such as history, apparently. Unfortunately for her, she had to learn the lessons of history the hard way, from personal experience. And so, too, did her revolutionary Iranian comrades-in-arms, unfortunately for them—and for us, and for the world as well. They could never have guessed at the trajectory their lives would follow from those long-ago days of sartorial playing at being revolutionaries, sporting Che and Mao jackets, to their final moments in the executioner’s chamber.

6 Responses to “The revolutionary young”

  1. Genericson Says:

    Namazie went on to join Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others in this Manifesto against the “New Totalitarianism”


    That said, it is interesting that she remains a communist.

  2. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The ding-a-ling factor seems exaggerated by the sense of the ding-a-ling’s superiority.
    We’re so smart, we couldn’t possibly be wrong. Besides, all those rednecks think the opposite, and so we must be right, besides, who’d want to think the same as a redneck.
    Sounds like a college sophomore who never grew up, which was undoubtedly the goal of some of the professors.

  3. DirtyJobsGUy Says:

    The romantic thing is right on. As P.J. O’Rourke noted in his “Holidays in Hell”

    “Trouble is fun. It will always be more fun to carry a gun around in thehills and sleep with ideology-addled college girls than to spend life behind a water buffalo or rotting in a slum”

  4. SteveH Says:

    I think some are just born afflicted by the “grass is always greener” gene. All that’s needed is a bit of life’s discontent and suddenly the baby and bath water both need tossed for the possibilities of the unknown.

  5. Denise Says:

    As an American and a believer in democracy, I truly hope that the mass actions in Tunisia and Egypt lead to the democracy. This is my hope even if the short-term interests of my country suffer.

    As a student of history, however, I am not optimistic. I note that posters of Che were carried by some of the Tunisian activists. Hasn’t Castro been in power longer than the rulers of either Tunisia or Egypt? Do people see these contradictions?

  6. Dave Says:

    I personally look at anyone carrying a Che sign or wearing a Che shirt, as more than likely very misinformed. Che Guevera was a thug, a murder and a racist. Like the line in the song revolution “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao” or Che then I am likely to put you on mute.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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