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.
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
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
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
is a battle not over control of territory but for the
soul of a nation.”
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.