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Love and hypocrisy in Iran

In Iran, they say, there are two books in every household  – the Koran and Hafez. One is read, the other is not.

To understand this joke you need do no more than join the millions who regularly throng the tomb of Hafez, 14th century poet of Shiraz and Iran’s national hero, as I did one recent afternoon.

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

The atmosphere was buzzing, happy and relaxed – Iran at its best.

Day and night the tomb, raised up on a beautifully decorated dais surrounded by its own fragrant rose gardens, water channels and orange trees, is crowded with devotees stroking his alabaster sarcophagus, declaiming his verses, relishing his clever plays on words.

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Hafez represents all the rich complexities of the Iranian identity. His brilliant use of metaphors in their native Farsi language unites them.

But there is another reason the tomb is so popular.

In today’s Islamic Republic it is hard to express resistance to the powers that be.

The ruling clerical elite has consolidated its grip on power. It uses the rhetoric of revolution while crushing opposition. President Rouhani’s smiling face has projected a new image outside the country, but inside everyone tells me things are worse, with more executions  and more oppression than ever before. Penalties are harsh as evidenced by the recent ‘91 lashes’ meted out to defiant women dancing unveiled on a YouTube video to the Pharrell Williams song Happy. A London woman is on hunger strike in an Iranian prison, jailed for attempting to attend a men’s volleyball match.

But dissent can be displayed in subtle ways.  Thanks to Hafez,  Shiraz is Iran’s most liberal city.

Women’s fashion is the give-away, affecting the whole mood of the place. While women are obliged by law to cover themselves from head to toe, in Shiraz the women dress almost outrageously by Islamic standards.

Iran women photo _78286186_hookah624getty

The compulsory headscarf is highly coloured and worn dangling precariously from the back of the head, hardly covering any hair at all; the young sport tight black leggings topped by close-fitting slinky mini-coats, each one daring the next to raise the hemline further.

Far from concealing the feminine curves as the rules dictate, the outfits flaunt them, and the lively groups both young and old, men and women mix freely, laughing and chatting together.

This is Iran at its least compliant, a far cry from the religious conservatism the establishment seeks to impose on its population.

A famous actor arrives to pay his respects and is mobbed Hollywood-style by adoring fans.

Iran Hafez Tomb _78399474_hafez-tomb-624-think

As the sun disappears from the sky and the illuminations come on round the tomb, the atmosphere becomes ever more festive. People start singing and reciting their favourite poems.

Children dangle their feet in the pools, giggling and soaking up their parents’ infectious high spirits.

The scene conceals the paradoxes of Iran, for thanks to the mullahs’ policy of education for all, there are some surprising changes afoot in Iranian society.

For years now, more women than men have been graduating from university. The birth rate has dropped so dramatically, to just one child per family, that the clerics, fearful of a ‘Japanese curve’, have introduced financial incentives for couples to breed more. Most refuse, saying it is still too expensive.

While the West remains obsessed with Iran’s nuclear enrichment, it is an open secret that the well-connected clerics and businessmen enrich themselves through sanctions-busting.

When I hesitate over buying a Persian rug through lack of cash, knowing western credit cards are banned from use inside Iran, the carpet dealer pooh poohs  my concerns and simply rings a friend in Dubai to seal the transaction.

Unfortunately for the mullahs, the mystic poetry of Hafez, besides lauding the joys of love and wine, also targeted religious hypocrisy.

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

“Preachers who display their piety in prayer and pulpit, ” he wrote, 600 years ago,

“Behave differently when they’re alone … Why do those who demand repentance do so little of it?”

With prostitution another open secret in clerical circles, especially in the ‘holy cities’, such verses strike a chord.

Bans apply to many things in Iran, including the BBC. Yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Instagram are all officially blocked. Rouhani is calling for internet restrictions to be eased, but the last word on such matters rests with the Supreme Leader who is so far unrelenting.

Small wonder the people of Iran comfort themselves with the poetry of Hafez. Even the mullahs cannot ban their own national poet.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, 2015 edition now available from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/190832399X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421401514&sr=8-1&keywords=9781908323996

My House in Damascus

With thanks for kind use of his photos to Richard Stoneman , fellow traveler on my Iran tour arranged by UK tour company Travel the Unknown http://www.traveltheunknown.com/tripfinder/Iran/1/to/21/days/sort-by/country/asc

First published http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29648166

The paradox of Iran and its links with Syria

Cameron and Rouhani

How fitting it is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  should have used his Twitter account to announce last month’s historic meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “1st meeting b/w UK & Iran heads of state in 35 years: 1 hour of constructive & pragmatic dialogue, new outlook #UNGA” the tweet boasted, attaching a photo to prove it, of the pair engaged in earnest dialogue. A week later the brief warming in relations was over, as Rouhani criticised Cameron for calling Iran ‘part of the problem in the Middle East’; Tehran headlines again referred to Britain as ‘the old fox.’

What is the Iranian leadership aiming for, in its apparent new accessibility, its seeming new willingness to talk and engage with western governments? How seriously should we take Iran’s ‘new outlook’, as the UK joins the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq (and possibly Syria in future), a fight in which Iran’s help will, sooner or later, almost certainly be needed?

In Twitter-silent Iran, it was the silence of the ordinary Iranian people that struck me most. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009 in which around 100 protesters were killed and over 4,000 arrested, most Iranians learned to be silent – unlike the Syrians. Ordinary Iranians admire the courage of ordinary Syrians. “We gave up when we saw how the regime reacted, but they continued.”

The gulf between the Iranian people and their regime is striking. Rouhani’s smiling face and his carefully managed tweets project one image of Iran to the West, but conditions inside the country tell a very different story. Far from opening up, Iran is busily clamping down on its own people. Since Rouhani took office in August 2013 executions have been on the rise, more than 400 in the first half of 2014 alone according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (to give perspective, Saudi Arabia managed a mere 79 last year). Two gay men were publicly hanged in August for consensual sodomy; in recent weeks ’91 lashes’ were meted out to unveiled Iranians dancing in a YouTube video, and a British-Iranian woman was charged with ‘propaganda against the Iranian regime’ for attending a male volley-ball match. Iran’s hard-line ruling elite back home is determined to suppress any kind of resistance, fearful that, were they to allow greater freedoms in Iranian society, a wave of dissent might rise up and engulf them. Rouhani recently declared his view that internet controls and tight restrictions on women’s headscarves do not work – but will the anti-reformist clerics take any notice?

Iran is not a particularly religious country, given the power of the mullahs. The call to prayer is muted – it took three days till I heard the first one – and mosques are places more to sleep than pray.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 032

Shrines on the other hand are crowded, thanks to a superstition that throwing a few notes or coins through the grille of a holy man’s tomb will resolve life’s problems. “We never did Islam the way the Arabs wanted us to,” grinned a helpful bystander inside the segregated women’s area, confirming what my Syrian friends in Damascus had always told me about the Iranian pilgrims who thronged the city in their all-black chadors. “They are pretending. Underneath they are just on holiday.”

Painted high on random buildings within view of the main highways the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei  smile down on their subjugated flock like a pair of benevolent dictators.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 738

Closer questioning reveals that maybe some 10-15% of the population is tied into supporting the regime for their own economic reasons. Iran is at heart a trading nation. Its entire history has been built on centuries of skilful bartering. Visit any Iranian city and the bazaar is the central nervous system, the driver of the economy. The bazaaris and the clergy were enabled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution to preserve the traditional positions of power threatened by the Shah and his corruption. They do not want to lose this power now through relaxing their grip and allowing Western influence and culture to take over. They rail against the evils of the Western model – drug abuse, family breakdown, immoral behaviour – yet the paradox is that these have all increased on their watch inside Iran anyway, thanks to unemployment, poverty and their own corruption.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 042

Iran is said to have one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world at 5% of the population, the divorce rate is soaring in the cities where most people now live and prostitution is so rife that even the regime itself mentions it as a problem. And the solution of the hardline clerics? More floggings.

Iran’s demographic is suffering from a ‘Japanese curve’. After 1979 Khomeini encouraged everyone to have many children, resulting in a baby boomer generation. But the middle classes of that generation, now in their mid-30s, are the ones most excluded from influence, struggling with unemployment and deprivation. The average birth rate has plummeted to one child per family, partly because of women’s education, but also for affordability reasons. Worried that this is not enough to sustain the aging population, the regime is offering financial incentives for people to have more children, incentives which are not working: couples say it is still too expensive.

Most Iranians now live in cities, meaning that traditional barriers are breaking down as different groupings find themselves living side by side. Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage is becoming commoner, much to the horror of the mullahs. In schools the clergy controls the syllabus, with Islamic religious education forming a bigger element of the day’s lessons than any other country in the world, leaving less time for other subjects. Iran’s brightest and best are leaving the country.

For those who stay there are subtle ways of showing opposition and Iran has these in abundance. The BBC is banned, yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched, while Iranian state TV offerings on religion and wildlife languish. Facebook is blocked yet 58% of Iranians circumvent the ban, gmail accounts were till recently banned yet 63% of Iranians use gmail as their preferred email address. Women, for the last ten years or so accounting for more university graduates than men, show passive resistance through pushing the boundaries on Islamic dress, so that in Shiraz, Iran’s most liberal city, the mandatory headscarf is worn tantalisingly far back to reveal a full head of hair, with figure-hugging brightly coloured jackets leaving nothing to the imagination.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 414

So how, in the face of such contradictions, has the political clergy of the Islamic Republic managed to retain its power and control? The answer lies in its ever-increasing dependence on its various law enforcement forces, above all SEPAH and the Basij – another parallel with Syria. SEPAH is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard set up in 1979 to preserve the Islamic nature of the revolution and to pre-empt a military coup or foreign interference, while the Basij is the volunteer militia under its control, numbering up to one million. To cement the loyalty of SEPAH and the Basij, the clerical elite has permitted them to enrich themselves through mafia-style smuggling rackets operating across the Straits of Hormuz to the UAE – shades of Syria again where Assad’s shabiha control the contraband routes through the ports of Lattakia and Tartous. A multi-billion dollar empire has grown up, transparent to ordinary Iranians who follow world affairs closely. Banned from Twitter, most use SMS, sending each other jokes by text message based on the news of the day. SEPAH and the Basij are particular targets, with messages like:  ‘How much do you think SEPAH will charge the mullahs for smuggled fridges? Reply: About five prostitutes a day for a month should do it,’ and ‘How many Basij fighters do you reckon are now in Syria? Reply: I don’t know, but a lot more than in Iran,’ and ‘Who runs Syria these days? Reply: Iran of course!’

The highly experienced Iranian commander of the Quds Force (special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Major General Qassem Suleimani, has since early 2013 been masterminding the Assad regime’s fight against its rebels, sending advisers into Syria, helping bolster depleted ammunition/weapons supplies and re-train Syrian government troops. With consummate skill, he created the 60,000-strong National Defence Force (NDF) in Syria, modelled on the Basij, ostensibly to protect local neighbourhoods, in practice to exploit them and run smuggling rackets.

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

President Bashar al-Assad with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.

Rouhani is an ace negotiator and will feign flexibility while holding tight to his position. He knows that time pressure is on his side: the West needs him now in its fight against ISIS and he has till 24 November to reach a nuclear deal. The conditions are perfect for extracting concessions from the West, and of one thing we may be sure: the Iranian governing elite will do nothing that rocks the status quo domestically, nothing that interferes with its ability to enrich itself. Embassies may open in London and Tehran, cooperation over ISIS in Iraq (though not in Syria) may be forthcoming when its own border region is threatened, but the Iranian regime, SEPAH and the Basij will remain umbilically connected, to each other and to the Syrian regime. Their collective survival is at stake and their loyalty to each other is not negotiable.

Looking back at Rouhani’s Twitter account, I am struck by the fact that, set against his 257K followers, he is only following six people, one of which is his own Iranian language account. The others are Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, his own Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his own Vice President and Environment Minister the heavily headscarved Massoumeh Ebtekar – not exactly a broad range of opinion. All of which confirms that however much Rouhani smiles abroad, at home he is beholden to his hard-line masters.

Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (Haus, 2014),http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/1908323647 has recently returned from an extensive tour of Iran arranged through Travel the Unknown www.traveltheunknown.com.

 

 

Shi'a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Shi’a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Related media:

http://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc/all (From Our Own Correspondent of 18 October 2014, starts at 17.25 mins)

PR battle intensifies as Geneva II dates approaches

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

The BBC’s Chief International correspondent Lyse Doucet has posted a heart-rending news item this morning about Syria’s battle for bread:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25397140

Reporting from a government bakery in Damascus the footage shows queues of men (food shopping is traditionally the domain of men, not women across the Arab world) waiting to be issued with their packs of  round flat thin bread, far thinner than what is sold in the UK as pitta bread. The price, because this is heavily subsidised by the government, is the same as it has been for 20 years, 2 Syrian pounds per piece (1p in the current exchange rate,  2.5p in the exchange rate of before the revolution). In private bakeries, she is told, the price is ten times higher, and in war-torn parts of the country, there is no bread at all.

The sub-text here, though of course Lyse Doucet is far too professional to say so because she has been allowed into Damascus on a government-sponsored visa, is that in rebel-held areas there is no bread because the rebels cannot organise the production and because distribution networks have been disrupted. Cereal production is down by 40% and what wheat there is is mainly controlled and distributed by the government. She phrases her words very carefully to avoid any suggestion of attributing blame to either side.

Next the footage moves to a distribution centre where UN aid,  food parcels and blankets are being handed out to women and families queuing in the freezing cold. The snow has melted in central Damascus but the temperature range is still 1-7 degrees Celsius, quite normal for the winter months as Damascus lies at an altitude of 700m. She interviews a lady  who assures her that all aid channeled in via the UN agencies goes direct to the Syrian people who need it – a reassuring message to all who have generously donated to the UN Syria appeals.

Again the sub-text  is complex. UN aid has to proceed through government-approved channels and the process is tightly controlled. By definition rebel-held areas will not receive any such food parcels or blankets. Such areas  have to rely instead on aid channeled in ‘illegally’ across the borders, raised by Syrian charities funded by individuals. The British surgeon David Nott, who worked for 6 weeks in and around Aleppo conducting operations on victims of aerial bombardments and sniper attacks, and teaching Syrian doctors how to conduct them in his absence, was escorted into the country by exactly such a charity, Syria Relief http://www.syriarelief.org.uk/syriarelief/.

The Syrian government agenda here is clear, in allowing a senior BBC reporter into Damascus now, in the run-up to Christmas, and more significantly, in the run-up to 22 January, the date just 5 weeks away set for the crucial conference dubbed ‘Geneva II’, aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis.  It wants to present its caring face to the world, to the international community who will be watching it at Geneva II. This government has learnt well the lessons taught it by the US and British PR firms it used to employ before the revolution to project its softer image across the world. Mindful of how this image has been damaged by the horrors of the country’s raging civil war, it is working hard on re-building it. As the date for Geneva II approaches, the government will almost certainly be intensifying its efforts to present itself as the only force in the country that can save Syria. And the biggest tragedy of all is that thanks to the vaccum left by western inertia, now increasingly filled by extremist Islamists funded by wealthy Gulf individuals, this assertion has probably become true.

Related articles

A House in Damascus

From Our Own Correspondent piece: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0368kp4  Radio piece 4 minutes

From Our Own Correspondent full text – Syria’s Silent Majority

Restored Damascene courtyard houseDamascus June 2011 061Damascus June 2011 041Damascus June 2011 023Damascus June 2011 027Traditional Damascene tiles used decoratively in house restoration

Since writing this piece the ‘peoples’ committees’ (also called ‘reconciliation committees’ or more accurately ‘neighbourhood militias’) have grown in number within the Old City, raising tensions among the residents. They fear that these militias, often very young and always heavily armed, far from ‘protecting’ the Old City, will only bring the fight closer into the centre.

The radio piece begins at 6 minutes in from the programme start and lasts 4 minutes.

Media’s unhelpful role in Syria

English: South facade of Church of Saint Simeo...

English: South facade of Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, Syria Français : Façade Sud de l’église de Saint-Siméon le Stylite. Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jon Snow at the BAFTA's

Jon Snow at the BAFTA’s (Photo credit: damo1977)

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: View of the main (and oldest) buildin...

English: View of the main (and oldest) building of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi or Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, Syria Français : Vue du bâtiment principal (et le plus ancien) du monastère de Mar Mousa, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Columns in Palmyra, Syria, 2009.

English: Columns in Palmyra, Syria, 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the notable exception of today’s Guardian focus on Syria and its refugee crisis, the UK media’s role in covering the Syrian crisis has been largely unhelpful, seeking out sensationalist but essentially peripheral aspects of the ongoing civil war. Their goal is evidently to sell more newspapers/get higher viewer/listener figures than their rivals, treating the war as a commodity for sale.

Particularly disturbing on this front was the recent coverage by Channel 4 News of British jihadi women in Syria. By showing these women, fully veiled in black except for eye slits, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, going to support the war against the Assad regime by marrying and looking after extremist foreign rebels, and then focusing on them as the first item in their hour-long news programme, Channel 4 gave prominence to a small group of women who are entirely insignificant on the ground in Syria. The main effect of this news item will have been to make most British people feel even more anti-Muslim than they already are, subconsciously or consciously associating veiled women on the streets of London with terrorism. Inside Syria these women are an irrelevance.

Another example is the ‘heart-eating cannibal’ story, pure sensationalism which has done great damage to the cause of the Free Syrian Army because of the way it has been covered. The BBC was culpable on this story, by giving prominence to such a one-off event, again irrelevant on the ground inside Syria. They even allowed it to run and run, with their further feature entitled ‘Meeting the heart-eating cannibal’ by Paul Wood.

Its main effect has been worldwide outside Syria to give the public an entirely misleading picture that all Syrian rebels must be barbaric savages, encouraging people like Boris Johnson to dismiss the idea of arming the rebels as tantamount to arming a bunch of lunatics and cannibals. On the strength of damaging labels such as these, the Free Syrian Army is in despair, feeling the world is against them, and that they are losing the PR war.

Sadly in today’s media dominated world, only perception matters, not reality. Meanwhile, while we enjoy our sensationalist stories and allow ourselves to be entertained by them, a country is being destroyed and thousands of lives are being lost. Is this entertainment?

Syria

Syria (Photo credit: Zachary Baumgartner)

English: Protests in Damascus by women demonst...

English: Protests in Damascus by women demonstrators against Turkeys annexation of the Sanjak of Alexanderetta in 1939. One of the signs reads: “Our blood is sacrificed for the Syrian Arab Sanjak.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who or what was the target of the Damascus Old City bomb?

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860.

The destroyed Christian quarter of Damascus, 1860. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Khar...

English: Ancient Roman triumphal arch (Al Kharab) on Street Called Straight, Damascus, Syria Français : Arc de triomphe romain (Al Kharab) sur la Rue Droite à Damas, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A greek Orthodox Procession

English: A greek Orthodox Procession (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world’s media is distracted by the build-up to Egypt’s 30 June showdown, so an important event was given only scant and even misleading coverage. On 27 June the BBC website reported what it called a blast from a suicide bomber in the Christian Quarter of Damascus’ Old City:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23086213

The BBC commentary went on to assume that the target was the Christian community, specifically the Greek Orthodox church of the Virgin Mary which was close to the blast, and then talked about how Christians have been targeted before and are being drawn into the conflict.

But the Greek Orthodox church of Miriamiye as it is known, is not really in a Christian part of the Old City, but beside the Roman Arch on Straight Street which marks the rough boundary between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. The church is directly opposite Naranj, a classy restaurant right beside the Roman Arch, known to be one of Bashar Al-Assad’s favourite dining places and often used by regime figures.

Closer examination of the facts reveals that the bomb in fact exploded not outside the church, but 50 yards away outside a Muslim charity where the suicide bomber was said to be queuing up for food with other residents. Four people were killed, many more injured and nearby shops damaged. But Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen newspaper put forward another theory – that the target was a nearby post of the National Defence Forces, a regime paramilitary force fighting the rebels.

About three hours after that blast, two mortar shells landed in nearby Al-Amin street, a mainly Shi’a area, wounding a number of people.

No one has claimed responsibility for these blasts, and local residents are confused. Was the target Christian, regime, rebel or Shi’a? No one knows except those who perpetrated the acts.

It tragically sums up what is happening increasingly now in Syria’s civil war – that very often no one knows anymore who is doing what to whom.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus.

Roman arch, Straight Street, Damascus. (Photo credit: jemasmith)

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