Daily Archives: 9 August 2006

Impressions of Persia, c. 1920

The years 1918–20 represented almost as close to a global apocalypse as the world had ever come. Most of the important monarchies of Europe and Asia, having provided stability for hundreds of years, suddenly ceased to exist. The khanates of Central Asia were distant backwaters, but Lev [Nussimbaum, aka Kurban Said] was deeply struck by the spectacle of “those glorious old kingdoms,” collapsing one after another, as “the desert fell beneath the power of the red star.”… There was nowhere to flee but south, so the Nussimbaums joined a caravan of Russian and Muslim refugees heading for Persia.* (*The nation would become Iran only in 1935, as part of a Nazi-influenced name change. As some Iranians will still proudly tell you, they are more closely related by blood to the Germans than to their Semitic neighbors: Iran means “land of the Aryans,” a notion that pleased Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s dictator at the time, and founder of a dynasty that would end with his son’s overthrow by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978.)

The desert borderland between Bukhara and Persia was still quiet, and the caravan crossed into the nominal domains of the shah without incident. Like Turkestan, northern Persia was largely unsettled, but the culture was older and more civilized. The caravan traveled for days across the desert, coming occasionally upon luxuriant oases and the ruins of old cities and forts, dusty and lonely, like some sprawling string of elegant ghost towns. The inhabited cities were surrounded by walls six feet deep and twenty feet high, made of pounded clay; as in the Middle Ages, city gates were opened in the morning and closed at night. The walls could not withstand modern artillery but served to keep out tribes of marauding bandits and nomads. The Kurds were common raiders in northern Persia, but, along with the ethnic Azerbaijanis, they also provided the bulk of the Persian Army. The native Persians did not like to fight. In this class-bound society, they thought it declassé to take up arms….

Of course, Persia was full of life—its forests were filled with wolves, tigers, foxes, and wild boars, while lions roamed the deserts along with Persian horses, which were famed for their beauty, even if they were not as fleet-footed as the Arabians. The country was also known for its agricultural wealth—some of the world’s finest wheat, cotton, sugar, grapes, and tobacco. Everywhere Lev went, he smelled tobacco and hashish, as well as the famous roses of Persian love poetry that bloomed in so many varieties in the gardens and oases. The kingdom of the Qajar shahs seemed like a sanctuary from history, where the people lived among the fig trees and orchards, spending their time distilling roses into precious perfumes, weaving rugs, guarding harems, and composing poetry. In this literary graveyard of versifying tent-makers, he found a land yet to be set upon by the modern world.

The caravan’s journey through post–First World War Persia sometimes sounds like a swing through the American Bible Belt. “In Persia religion alone is alive,” Lev wrote, but it was a religion of many strange branches, sects, and secret societies. He encountered Ismailis, devil worshippers, Babists, and Bahaists, a sect of universalist Muslims who believed that a Muslim messiah had returned to earth sometime in the mid-nineteenth century—around the same time Joseph Smith found the Books of Mormon—and that we were living in a millennium when all religions could come together. Mainstream Muslims despised the Bahaists as blasphemers, and they often persecuted them.* (*Until the 1980s, in fact, anti-Semitism was uncommon in Persia, whereas anti-Bahaism was rampant. In the minds of many of today’s mullahs, the two seem to be merged, so that the disciples of the Ayatollah Khomeini have warned of Zionist-Bahaist-American plots.) Islam’s original triumph in Persia in the seventh century had represented the defeat and banishment of the local religion, Zoroastrianism, whose dualistic creed had prevailed in the Persian court for hundreds of years. But along with the Muslim conquerors came another kind of Koranic proselytizer—refugees, not conquerors—who called themselves Shi’Ali, “the Partisans of Ali,” or simply the Shiites. The Shiites taught the Persians not to trust the Arab conquerors, who claimed to represent the way revealed by the Prophet Muhammad.

The Shiites believed that the right to be caliph, or spiritual leader, of Islam should have fallen after Muhammad’s death to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Ali was chosen caliph for a short time, just four years, but then he was murdered with a poisoned sword. A few years after Ali’s assassination, his sons Hassan and Hussein tried to assert their family’s rights and were similarly dispatched: Hassan by poison, Hussein in a heroic last stand in the desert, near the town of Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, where, like Ali, he was killed by the Sunni warriors who opposed him. The martyrdom of Hussein, in which the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad sacrificed himself for the true message of God, was for his followers something like the crucifixion of Jesus was for Christians (though Hussein was not considered divine): in the eyes of the Shiites, Hussein’s death is Islam’s central tragedy. Shiite ideology was complex and kaleidoscopic, varying from place to place, but it all came down to one belief: the Prophet’s rightful successors were murdered, injustice ruled in the House of Islam, and the world would not be made right until the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah, arrived to implement the Divine Kingdom on earth….

Lev found Persia’s Shiite Muslims theatrical and seductive. It was Islam in its most intoxicating form—a self-sacrificial dance of outsiders and rebels. He loved the raw religious fervor all around him, which he had never experienced in Baku. Shiism’s encouragement of the underdog nurtured Lev’s view of Islam as a bastion of heroic resistance in a world of brute force and injustice.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 62-65

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