Searching For Truth By Taxi
by Afshin Molavi
W.W. Norton & Company, 308 pages
review by: Melinda Barnhardt
disordered -- shifting between cities and conversations (with
the butcher, fruit seller, student, war veteran, and taxi
driver) -- this insightful account of a year’s travels through
present-day Iran maneuvers around its own deficiencies.
In a country in which indirectness is a customary
response to exploitative regimes, an investigative approach that
meanders and doubles back on itself like the route of an ancient
bazaar is likely to succeed.
In short, to get to the bottom of things, there must be
time to linger over a cup of tea.
Molavi alerts us to anticipate something other than conventional
reporting, calling his travels "pilgrimages.” Iranian by
birth, but raised from an early age in the United States, he
forgoes subjectivity. The
object of his pursuit is the real motivation of Iranians, beyond
the glib formulas (“conservatives vs. reformists,”
“religion vs. the monarchy,” “democracy vs. Islam”).
Educated in the West with a master’s degree in Middle
Eastern studies, he recognizes, after a series of brief,
highly-scheduled visits, that grasp of his native country’s
underlying dynamics will come only by patiently working through
its everyday intricacies.
consists of a series of separate journeys – each a
“pilgrimage” to a site influential in the country’s 2600
year-old history. Molavi’s
central insight -- which should become mantra to Iran watchers
-- is that the country’s resilient, living culture continues
to interact with the lives of its citizens; that the real
conflict in Iran involves the struggle between its culture and
an authoritarian, repressive regime.
His sacred sites in this context are both secular and
religious – located throughout the country, and dedicated to
saints, poets, kings, reformers, and war veterans -- each
representing an influential moment that reverberates in the
If the protagonist is the
country’s culture, its struggle is articulated through the
voices of its citizens. An initial
pilgrimage to the tomb of
Cyrus illustrates. Representing
Iran’s first king, who in Plato’s words “gave his
people the rights of free
men,” the silently poignant site alludes to a glorious past.
In the nearby city of Shiraz,
its present relevance emerges
in ongoing wars over the names of streets:
Walking down Towhid Street (a
signifying “the oneness of God,”) Molavi asks where he can
buy film, and is told to
continue down this street, as
“Darius Street has everything you need.”
Surprised by the reference to Cyrus’s
most prominent successor, he
repeats, “Darius Street?”
“Yes,” comes the quietly rebellious answer, “you
now on Darius Street.”
hasty, nutshell evaluation, the encounter epitomizes the book:
the insistence of men (mostly, because of access) and
women (to the extent possible) in the street – and not
insignificantly, in the taxis -- on a national identity that
includes all of Iran’s past, not merely those portions
acknowledged by its ruling clerics. The refrain echoes
throughout -- along with the complaint of a devastated economy.
For readers clever enough to take a cue from Molavi’s
experience and slow their own pace, however, the conversations
build steadily in meaning. Asking informed questions about
politics, freedom, religion, everyday life – even poetry,
Molavi elicits stories which add layers of understanding; whose
repetition, when it occurs, tends to be incrementally dazzling.
following the visit to the royal tomb, he sets out on a second
pilgrimage to its apparent antithesis:
the shrine of Imam Reza, in the northeastern city of
Mashad. The tomb of
an eighth century Shi’a Muslim leader, for Molavi’s purposes
it provides the occasion to reflect on the arrival of Islam in
Iran a century earlier. Not
surprisingly, getting to the shrine from accommodations in the
city involves the usual litany. (“These mullahs are killing
us! I have to work
eighteen hours a day driving this damn car just to make ends
meet… .”) This
time there is an added twist:
a natural piety on the part of the
pilgrims that coexists with distaste for the clerical
regime and pride in a royalist past.
The views of a working man, Haji Agha, express the
conundrum best. “Khomeini
was a great man,” he says, but his successors were thieves.
“Their religion is different than mine.”
Then, entirely without irony, “I go to Khomeini’s
tomb on pilgrimage every year in Tehran… . I would also like
to visit the Shah’s tomb [in Cairo] one day and say a fateheh
side trip to a shrine in nearby Tous helps to clarify.
Home of the nationalist poet, Ferdowsi, author of the
beloved Shahnameh, or “Book of
Kings,” Tous attracts Iranians of all types. Musing over the
popularity of the tenth- and eleventh-century writer who
preserved Iran’s language and history in the aftermath of Arab
invasion, Molavi recalls the words of a Tehran intellectual, Mr.
rescued our Iranian identity when the Arabs tried to swallow
us.” Perhaps the
poet’s greatest achievement was his ability to synthesize –
to reclaim the past without sacrificing the present.
His lament was over invasion, Molavi points out, more so
than Islam. In Tous,
the appeal of such an approach is apparent when a
taxi driver newly returned from Mecca proves able to
recite at length from one of the epic’s heroic scenes.
the man may be pleased, Molavi
tells him of Ferdowsi’s inspiring the British Victorian
Matthew Arnold to produce an English version of the same story.
The response is one of annoyance:
“Those English steal even our poetry.”
Iranians, Molavi shows, resent incursion upon cultural
identity by external power or authoritarian regime. (“Whether
the Arabs or the Turks or the Mongols or the British, someone
was always trying to control Iran,” Mr. Ghassemi says.) The
sentiment resonates through numerous conversations touching on
relations with the West. Weaving his own knowledge of historical
fact with the memories of people he meets, Molavi highlights the
chain of events that continues to generate indignation today:
British control of Iranian oil in the early twentieth
century, the British-led embargo of Iranian crude in response to
Prime Minister Mossadegh’s nationalizing the oil industry, the
resulting devastation of the Iranian economy, and the rise of
the Communist Tudeh party.
Then, the final icing on the cake: America’s role in
toppling Mossadeq and reinstalling
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Leaving the northeast, Molavi
doubles back again to Shiraz.
The centerpiece of a chapter on present-day
incursions by the regime is a
visit to the tomb of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez. Even
today, the country’s
top cultural icon may be this
elusive figure who is confined to neither side of the ruling
equations, but moves
“I am a reciter of the Quran in one gathering, and a
drinker of wine in another,” he
Through conversations about Hafez in widely-varied areas
of the society (authors
who have learned to “write
between the lines,” a psychologist, a literary scholar, his
friend Davoud, a female
fan of Milan Kundera, a taxi
driver, and businessmen drinking bootlegged whiskey), Molavi
identification with the poet whose different faces match complex
situations, and outwit the
paradox and the thinking person’s sense of ambiguity, Hafez
insists upon “shades of
gray in a world where
authority figures constantly demand black or white.”
breed of reformers pushes for open discussion of the shades of
such as Akbar Ganji, and student activists -- even war veterans
and dissident clerics -- insist that Iran must adopt the democratic
principles of the rule of law, a free press, and a civil
including Ganji, assert their religious faith. (“I consider
myself a devout Muslim,” one student says, “but I do not
fear the effects on our religion of a minor student play.”)
The central question of religion’s relationship to the
state remains; Molavi believes that it must withdraw to the
private space. His
greatest concern, however, is the need for the voices of dissent
to engage in dialog to discover what it is they are for.
(“It seemed, at times, as if Western journalists were
the only ones talking to all sides.”)
Even so, he is betting on the culture to prevail, and
finds hopeful indications in the conversations about protests
and politics in partially sheltered transitional places –
around samovars, and in taxis.
is significant, lively work, not to be casually dismissed over a
case or two of minor details repeated between pilgrimages --
seven, to be frank. (The
value of a topical approach in bringing Persian history to life:
often writes with the wit of the miniaturist, with the
miniaturist’s shading and nuance:
An attendant sprays the air near the shoe rack at the
Imam Reza shrine. And
even the “basijis” – the infamous “morals police” –
are not uniformly fanatics.
He provides an incisive account of events that led to
revolution in 1979, though, with a slight error in fact.
(Per the Harvard Oral History Project on Iran, Khomeini
was spared in 1963 because General Hassan Pakravan, then head of
SAVAK, persuaded the Shah to exile the cleric, not the other way
did not return the General’s favor, years later.)
Above all, he has the humility to listen:
“You will go home and make your conclusions,” a
conservative cleric and former prisoner of war tells him.
“That is fine. But
most of all, you listened.”