Among the Believers

On the pavement outside the Turkish embassy two turbanned, sunburned medicine men sat with their display of different-colored powders, roots, and minerals. I had seen other medicine men in Tehran and had thought of them as Iranian equivalents of the homeopathic medicine men of India. But the names these Iranians were invoking as medical authorities—as Behzad told me, after listening to their sales talk to a peasant group—were Avicenna, Galen, and "Hippocrat."

Avicenna! To me only a name, someone from the European Middle Ages: it had never occurred to me that he was a Persian. In this dusty pavement medical stock was a reminder of the Arab glory of a thousand years before, when the Arab faith mingled with Persia, India, and the remnant of the classical world it had overrun, and Moslem civilization was the central civilization of the West.

Behzad was less awed than I was. He didn't care for that Moslem past; and he didn't believe in pavement medicines. He didn't care for the Shah's architecture, either: the antique Persian motifs of the Central Bank of Iran, and the Aryan, pre-Islamic past that it proclaimed. To Behzad that stress on the antiquity of Persia and the antiquity of the monarchy was only part of the Shah's vainglory.

He looked at the bank, at the bronze and the marble, and said without passion, "That means nothing to me."

We turned once more, as we walked, to the revolution. There were two posters I had seen in many parts of the city. They were of the same size, done in the same style, and clearly made a pair. One showed a small peasant group working in a field, using a barrow or a plough—it wasn't clear which, from the drawing. The other showed, in silhouette, a crowd raising rifles and machine guns as if in salute. They were like the posters of a people's revolution: an awakened, victorious people, a new dignity of labor. But what was the Persian legend at the top?

Behzad translated: "'Twelfth Imam, we are waiting for you."'

"What does that mean?"

"It means they are waiting for the Twelfth Imam."

The Twelfth Imam was the last of the Iranian line of succession to the Prophet. That line had ended over eleven hundred years ago. But the Twelfth Imam hadn't died; he survived somewhere, waiting to return to earth. And his people were waiting for him; the Iranian revolution was an offering to him.

Behzad couldn't help me more; he couldn't help me understand that ecstasy. He could only lay out the facts. Behzad was without belief, but he was surrounded by belief and he could understand its emotional charge. For him it was enough to say—as he did say, without satirical intention—that the Twelfth Imam was the Twelfth Imam.

Later on my Islamic journey, as difficult facts of history and genealogy became more familiar, became more than facts, became readily comprehended articles of faith, I was to begin to understand a little of Moslem passion. But when Behzad translated the legend of those revolutionary posters for me I was at a loss.

It wasn't of this hidden messiah that Iranians had written on the walls of London and other foreign cities before the revolution. They had written—in English—about democracy; about torture by the Shah's secret police; about the "fascism" of the Shah. "Down with fascist Shah": that was the slogan that recurred.

I hadn't followed Iranian affairs closely; but it seemed to me, going only by the graffiti of Iranians abroad, that religion had come late to Iranian protest. It was only when the revolution had started that I understood that it had a religious leader, who had been in exile for many years. The Ayatollah Khomeini, I felt, had been revealed slowly. As the revolution developed, his sanctity and authority appeared to grow and at the end were seen to have been absolute all along.

Fully disclosed, the Ayatollah had turned out to be nothing less than the interpreter, for Iranians, of God's will. By his emergence he annulled, or made trivial, all previous protests about the "fascism" of the Shah. And he accepted his role.

And it was as the interpreter of God's will, the final judge of what was Islamic and what was not Islamic, that Khomeini ruled Iran. Some days after I arrived in Tehran, this was what he said on the radio: "I must tell you that during the previous dictatorial regime strikes and sit-ins pleased God. But now, when the government is a Moslem and a national one, the enemy is busy plotting against us. And therefore staging strikes and sit-ins is religiously forbidden because they are against the principles of Islam."

This was familiar to me, and intellectually manageable, even after a few days in Tehran: the special authority of the man who ruled both as political head and as voice of God. But the idea of the revolution as something more, as an offering to the Twelfth Imam, the man who had vanished in 873 A.D. and remained "in occultation," was harder to seize. And the mimicry of the revolutionary motifs of the late twentieth century—the posters that appeared to celebrate peasants and urban guerrillas, the Che Guevara outfits of the Revolutionary Guards—made it more unsettling.

Behzad translated; the walls spoke; Tehran felt strange. And North Tehran—an expensive piece of Europe expensively set down in the sand and rock of the hills, the creation of the Shah and the large middle class that had been brought into being by the uncreated wealth of oil—felt like a fantasy. There were skyscrapers, international hotels, shops displaying expensive goods with international brand names; but this great city had been grafted onto South Tehran. South Tehran was the community out of which the North had too quickly evolved. And South Tehran, obedient to the will of God and the Twelfth Imam, had laid it low.

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