- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

By Afshin Molavi
Norton, $25.95, 315 pages, illus.

Afshin Molavi is an Iranian born American journalist who makes a valiant effort to convey the character ofmodern day, theocratic Iran to an American audience. Since Iranians have a widely followed custom of going on pilgrimages, not only to religious shrines but to the graves of their national poets, the author felt that if he likewise made such pilgrimages he could capture more substantially the essence of the country of his birth. Thus the title of his work: "Persian Pilgrimages."
The reader's introduction, however, is not to a shrine but to the city of Tehran, where the author's family originated. We are flashed a series of brief anecdotes of casual encounters with a variety of different people. We soon learn that there is considerable resentment of the religious leaders who rule the country and virtually sanction corruption.
The taxi drivers of Iran, of whom we meet a great many, seem virtual stage prototypes, garrulous, cynical, and rather embittered. They complain constantly of how difficult it is to earn a decent living, and since many of them work at two jobs, their words carry weight. They complain about the endemic inflation which has eaten away the savings of the middle class, and the enormous gap between the ordinary working man and the rich who have become so through corrupt ties with the government.
Although all appear to be observant Muslims, they hate in particular the ruling mullahs who, they feel, have twisted Islam from its original purpose. Their disdain is so widespread that very few will stop for a Muslim preacher. All, however, would be happy to stop for a foreigner.
This innate distrust of the government is so pervasive that it affects attitudes on every subject. For example, the Iranian government is vehemently opposed to the existence of Israel and to what was once called the Arab-Israel peace process. It has given the name Palestine to many of its streets and squares, while government supported media continue to grind out anti-Israel propaganda. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the government agitation most Iranians call the streets and squares by their old names and keep emotionally distant from the conflict.
As one of the author's friends said, "Why should I worry about the Palestinians? I have enough problems of my own."
The extraordinary popularity of the United States, the Great Satan, among the youth of Iran is not fully realized in this country. It can be explained partially by the same kind of thinking, what the government is against, they are for. Another very important reason is that America is still considered the land of opportunity. A young educated Iranian has little to look forward to in his own country. The few jobs available pay very little: A college professor and a cab driver are at the same economic level. There is a tremendous urge among the educated young to immigrate to any place where there is some economic opportunity. Needless to say America is at the top of the list.
The author tells the story of encountering a group of young hardliners shouting a number of slogans, the paramount one being "Death to America." When the group discovered there was a Farsi speaking visitor from America among them a kind of dialogue ensued. Slogans were only slogans he was assured and should not be taken too literally. When the exchange of opinions was completed, one of those who had shouted the loudest took the author aside and asked him what the chances of procuring a green card were. This is an old story that has been told before in many places but still seems valid for Iran.
Music is yet another attraction. That which is most popular in today's Iran is recorded in Los Angeles by expatriate Iranians. However American popular culture is a two edged weapon. Reformers and hard-liners alike are repelled by the overt sexuality of so much that we export. American advertisements featuring girls in bikinis selling whatever give credence to hard-liner criticism.
Much of what the author writes was well known. As long ago as August, l997 this paper published a review highlighting Iranian popular discontent, and in October of this year an article described a poll showing surprising pro-American feeling. What the author does here is add convincing human experience and feeling to the statistics and underline the strong nationalist feeling that accompanies almost every action.The poets whose shrinesthe people visit were nationalists first, writing in Persian and not the language of their Arab, Mongol, or Turkish conquerors. That is one reason they are so revered.
The author makes no recommendations for American foreign policy. He is content to show us a picture of the country of his ancestors, a country he clearly loves. The majority of its population disapproves of its government and would like to see better relations with the United States. For our part, we too disapprove of the theocracy that rules Iran and would like to have better and closer relations with its people. How this mutually desired goal can be achieved is still, unfortunately, not at all clear.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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