Friday, April 9, 2010

The Naked Lady by Hugh Pope

If ever I believed that I could easily decipher the Islamic Republic of Iran, that hope was put to rest by the scandal of the mullah and the naked lady.

It was back in 1986, and times were bleak. Glorious reports from the war front with Iraq barely concealed the reality of a bloody stalemate. Food was rationed and foreign travel was hard. The nation was tiring of the young, awkward Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the oppressive shah seven years before. Then the naked lady came, and she offered a sweet moment of escape. Tehran's rumor mill flashed the news of her arrival around the city. Within hours delighted whispers had spread to a giggling conclave in my office in north Tehran. I'd understood that this female apparition could be found nestling in the beard of the mullah in question.

"I've heard it's a fox," countered my assistant Mohammad, who now wore the quiet smile he reserved for the most satisfying paradoxes.

I turned to Rahmati, the office manager, whom I'd sent out to obtain the evidence. Back then I was one of the only Western correspondents in Iran and was eager to impress my bosses at Reuters with such an extraordinary scoop.

"Where is she? Is there a fox? Can you see anything? I asked.

"No!" said Rahmati, bending gleefully yet uneasily with the rest of us over the evidence. My willful twenty-six-year-old's inability to understand the niceties of submitting to revolutionary regimes, combined with the demands put upon Rahmati's life by government agencies of all sorts, were turning him into an ever greater bundle of nerves. "She'll be very hard to find!"

We were looking at Iran's smart new purple one-hundred-rial banknote, printed in Britain and just issued by the government. One side featured the doleful countenance of Ayatolah Seyyed Hassan Modarres, a religious grandee and politician who had died in one of the shah's jails in 1937. But, as all Tehran knew, an ingenious engraver had woven a luscious nude into the curls of the thick growth on his chin!. Everyone wanted to admire this cheeky revelation of what everyone had long suspected to be on the mullah's mind. Within a day the banknote soared to a premium against other notes, 20, 30, 50 percent above the face value. We pored over the newly minted bill, fingers pointing here and there. There the naked lay was, we eventually all agreed, in a sensuous recline. Amazing! Or was she? Could it be a fox? A national psychosis swept aside all such questioning. Soon people were describing snakes in the mullah's turban and a calligraphic swirl in the note's geometric surrounds that spelled out "Death to Khomeini," the revered leader of the Islamic Republic.

This proof of all the wildest conspiracies that any Iranian could ever dream up made the nation positively tipsy. The regime reeled under the onslaught, so much more dangerous for being completely outside the tightly controlled public media. To regain control it withdrew the banknotes. Several days later, after a public holiday, the Islamic Republic newspaper splashed the counterstrike across the front page. A plot by the little Satan, Britain, had been crushed!. A certain attempt to meddle with the currency of the Islamic Republic had been foiled! The victorious government would now reissue the cleaned-up banknotes!

To me, the bills seemed unchanged. The same long-faced ayatollah looked ponderously out at the world. But now Iranians acted surprised when I suggested that a naked lady had ever nestled in his bushy beard. We all went back to our routines.

Yet as I traveled to Iran over the years, the problem posed by the naked lady kept surfacing. What you see in Iran is not what you get. I felt it most deeply when I arrived in Tehran in January 2001. My editors at the Wall Street Journal were interested in the typical bill of fare: Iran's nuclear ambitions, its rabble-rousing rhetoric against Israel, its oil, and the latest round of brutal suppression of "reformers" by "conservatives." I slogged up and down the traffic-clogged expressways of the sprawling metropolis to report these matters in the fashion of the day. Thanks to the ascendancy of roughshod revolutionary thugs as the dominant class, my stories once again reinforced the idea that Iran was the mortal enemy of civilization.

But I knew this was far from the truth, and my role in perpetuating this myth began to upset me. Being a bit crazy didn't make nations wholly mad and bad.

The sophistication of Persian culture had made my heart soar when I was a student at Oxford. Many Iranians I admired were clever and amusing. Their literary talents and fine taste made me count them among the most civilized people in the Middle East. I became determined to write something to show that everything in Iran was not as it appeared in the sterile rhetorical cockfight between the U.S. spokesmen and Iranian hard-liners. At a deeper level, too, I wanted to explain that no Iranian ever took anything at face value, so we should be wary of doing that ourselves when dealing with them. Indeed, the naked lady had proved how the extraordinary vitality of the Iranian imagination meant that the country might actually be lost in a mental maze of its own devising.

But how to explain this uniquely mercurial country to the fact- loving readers of the Wall Street Journal? I searched for inspiration by flicking through the Iranian channels of television in my rented apartment... Aha, I realized what is was! I would travel to Shiraz, the city of poetry and roses. There I would write about the one person I knew who gave voice to Iran's full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings.

I telephoned Bill Spindle in New York to give him the good news. He needed me, as usual, to find a strong newsy front-page story.

"We have to explain everything at once, right? I said. "What better subject than a poet!

Spindle's sigh turned to rebukeful protest when I added that the poet I had in mind had been dead since 1389... I could feel him leaning back skeptically in his swivel chair.

"People should understand that "Death to America!" sometimes means, 'Please, America, show me more love!', I insisted. "I'm also fed up with writing about Islamic this, Islamic that. We treat the whole region as if nobody goes out-of-doors without consulting the Koran. Well, the fact is that in Iran today, the poems of Hafez may well outsell the Koran. It's a secret counter-culture- for me, actually, it's the main culture of Iran. This Islamic revolutionary nonsense is the counterculture. And six hundred years old or not, a new Iranian pop group is now using his lyrics as a form of protest!"

Spindle heard me out patiently. He allowed that this all might be the case but predicted it would be hard to get onto the front page, the holy grail of all our efforts, a process with as many stages as the mystic's path to union with the godhead.... Surely I could persuade the Wall Street Journal to publish a story that presented Iran as a game of puzzles that no Iranian wanted to end. Ultimately I did, but it didn't make the front page.

1 comment:

  1. Dining With Al-Qaeda; Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East" by Hugh Pope; Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, N.Y. 2010