Pushing Back the Night

By Melinda Barnhardt
Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of IranBy Elaine Sciolino
New York: The Free Press

Consider the mirror as symbol, as it has resonated throughout the long history of Iran:  In Islam, it conveys purity and divine light.  As Laleh Bakhtiar points out in Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest, for the mystic, the movement of its reflected light, radiating from the center, is like that of the soul moving outward from the eye of the heart.

New York Times  diplomatic correspondent Elaine Sciolino has chosen the mirror as powerful organizing metaphor for her penetrating analysis of post-revolutionary Iran twenty years after the end of the hostage crisis, Persian Mirrors:  The Elusive Face of Iran. Her brilliant stroke has been to give the mirror a post-revolutionary twist, developing associations which illuminate the present, while leaving hanging in the balance uncertain, yet still-real possibilities of continuity with the past.  The success of her analysis becomes apparent as she focuses the metaphor on one segment of the society after another, demonstrating via vivid first-hand accounts the distorted and inaccurate reflections prevalent in Western views. In place of the customary monolithic, rigidly-defined theocracy, she reveals an Iran consisting of many power centers which compete and shift.  Despite the attempts of hard-liners to portray an orthodox and repressive Islamic image in the mirror they hold up to the world, deeper acquaintance with people discloses vibrant personal expression and desire for freedom.  Behind closed doors -- and increasingly, in the public space -- debate wages over the inherent contradictions in an “Islamic Republic” -- between Islam and democracy.  “...A great battle is raging...” she proclaims.  “It is a battle not over control of territory but for the soul of a nation.” 

I listened one evening this past month as Ms. Sciolino told of her own difficulties in sorting out the difference between distorted reflections and reality during twenty years’ experience with Iran. (As a reporter still in her twenties, she was on board the plane that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979.)  The occasion was her lecture sponsored by the Middle East Institute and the Asia Society, in Washington, D.C.  Because of the hard-liners’ repression, she intimated, much of the struggle takes place in inner sanctums and shadows.  Despite this, she was determined not to use the word “veil” in her title -- so much a part of the terrorists-and-black-chadors stereotype as to be an image of untruth.  One day during a visit to Reza Shah’s 1930s Marble Palace she came upon the image that captured for her the real complexity of the land:  the thousands of tiny mosaic mirrors, also common in its mosques and shrines.  As she relates in her book, “The glittering fragments, sometimes set at angles to each other like facets on a jewel, reflect light and distort images at the same time.  In Reza Shah’s reception room, we could not look in the mirrors and see our faces whole; we saw them shattered in pieces.  For me the mirror-mosaics are emblematic of Iran... .”  She goes on, “Iran has lured me and invited me in, over and over, for twenty years.  But at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is still the country of the mirror-mosaics, distorting reality and reflecting only parts of itself at any one time.”

The book’s early chapters on separate segments of the society function like the separate fragments of the mirror-mosaic, each illuminating the respective segment’s hidden or partially concealed vitality. In “Getting There, Getting In,” about the early years after the revolution, even the old Inter-Continental Hotel, redecorated and renamed for the symbol of martyrdom, the Laleh (or “Tulip”) International Hotel retains the metal chargers and ashtrays with the Inter-Continental logo.  An unnamed waiter reveals a hidden cabinet full of dusty Inter-Continental brandy snifters.  “Just in case...,” he whispers.  In an ensuing chapter, people in effect are “Leaving the Islamic Republic at the Door,” indulging in unauthorized activities out of sight of the morals police. This and additional chapters contain a thorough account of the lives of women -- based on countless personal and private encounters.  They endure repression and depression.  Their suicide rate goes up.  Yet through numerous detailed portraits, many are shown countering repression in remarkably creative ways: opening a home aerobics studio, becoming more politicized than ever before, or turning a private home into a public auditorium -- as did the beautiful and heroic singer Pari Zanganeh.  Flexibility and improvisation in getting around the rules, and redrawing the lines become the unwritten anti-rule in nearly every walk of life.  The tension and contradiction prevalent throughout is personified not least in the “extraordinarily complex relationship” between Khatami and Khamenei -- the apparent tolerance and emphasis on the rule of law of the former in seeming contrast with the authoritarian character of the latter. (Here, again, she finds reality difficult to discern -- or perhaps sensitive to describe if she wishes to retain access as a reporter:  “At times they seemed to work together, one pursuing the cause of reform and the other struggling to prevent factional conflicts from spinning out of control.”)

However difficult the role of Khatami to evaluate, Ms. Sciolino considers his 1997 election in a landslide popular victory over the establishment-favored candidate a signal of the people’s desire for a freer, more open approach.  The series of chapters entitled “Open Warfare” traces the movement of the debate into the public arena, as ordinary people and the press begin to act as though politics really matters.  (The first issue of Jameah  appeared in January 1998.)  Yet the struggle to achieve democracy is confronted with unexpected waves of brutality and violence carried out by the Islamic Republic’s dark side.  The mirror dims, as the gains in openness and transparency are threatened, decreased. Ms. Sciolino relates the dynamics of these events with a texture and depth exceeding that of isolated articles in the Western press.  Vivid renderings of the reformist mayor of Tehran’s trial, the murders of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar and other dissidents, the repression of the reformist press, the brutal treatment of students during the July 1999 riots, and the conservative control of the judicial system gradually build with masterful effect.  The reader is led to overwhelming recognition of the significance of the book’s cover:  A night-time photograph of the entrance portal and reflecting pool of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan.  The view of the former “Shah Mosque,” its blue tiles familiar by day, takes on a strangely haunting appearance in the ruddy dimness of twilight (or is it dawn?).  The separate fragments of mosaic in its iwan are amplified by floodlight; its reflection in the pool, blurred.  A great battle is indeed being waged.  Democratic steps forward -- such as the reformist majorities in the February and May 2000 parliamentary elections -- are accompanied by repressive steps back.  Elaine Sciolino says that she does not yet know how the battle will end.

What she does know provides room for hope.  “Night is with child!,” she quotes from the great Persian poet Hafez.  “What will she bring to birth?”  The young, born after the revolution, have dreams of the future that do not include the sacrifices of martyrdom and war, and seem destined to lead the drive for change.  (An elderly gentleman in attendance at the lecture who had been in Iran the previous week nominated another group for this role.  The women of Iran, he said, want change, “and they are not going to stop.”)  Indeed, while the great majority seem to desire change, no one appears to want another revolution.  The distinctive trait of argumentative debate within the tradition of Shiite Islam offers some reason for optimism.  And the repression, she says, is not complete:  “...Iranian culture is simply too argumentative, too full of escape hatches....”  Perhaps even more important:  her encounters across the mirror-mosaic reveal a bond that transcends both sides of the struggle:  a common love for Iran, as culture, as language, as home.  To achieve their desire, Iran’s people will have to come out from behind their closed doors to an even greater extent than they already have, with the goal of a government of “transparency, coherence, and predictability.”  Whatever the outcome, it will need to be accomplished on their own terms, in their own way.  Will an Islamic Republic and the office of Supreme Leader exist ten years from now?  Elaine Sciolino believes that it is impossible to predict the outcome.

It is this reviewer’s hope that the Iranian people will define their own unique balance between public and private, allowing free and vital movement between the inner eye of citizens’ hearts and the wider expanse of democratic public discourse.  Potentially, they could provide a model democracy for the Islamic world, as Ms. Sciolino suggests.  They could at the same time hold up a mirror image to the West, demonstrating a positive use of inner reflection to energize the public sphere -- a phenomenon the outer-directed West often lacks.