Among the Believers

Moslems were part of the small Indian community of Trinidad, which was the community into which I was born; and it could be said that I had known Moslems all my life. But I knew little of their religion. My own background was Hindu, and I grew up with the knowledge that Moslems, though ancestrally of India and therefore like ourselves in many ways, were different. I was never instructed in the religious details, and perhaps no one in my family really knew. The difference between Hindus and Moslems was more a matter of group feeling, and mysterious: the animosities our Hindu and Moslem grandfathers had brought from India had softened into a kind of folk wisdom about the unreliability and treachery of the other side.

I was without religious faith myself. I barely understood the rituals and ceremonies I grew up with. In Trinidad, with its many races, my Hinduism was really an attachment to my family and its ways, an attachment to my own difference; and I imagined that among Moslems and others there were similar attachments and privacies.

What I knew about Islam was what was known to everyone on the outside. They had a Prophet and a Book; they believed in one God and disliked images; they had an idea of heaven and hell—always a difficult idea for me. Islam, going by what I saw of it from the outside, was less metaphysical and more direct than Hinduism. In this religion of fear and reward, oddly compounded with war and worldly grief, there was much that reminded me of Christianity—more visible and "official" in Trinidad; and it was possible for me to feel that I knew about it. Its doctrine, or what I thought was its doctrine, didn't attract me. It didn't seem worth inquiring into; and over the years, in spite of travel, I had added little to the knowledge gathered in my Trinidad childhood. The glories of this religion were in the remote past; it had generated nothing like a Renaissance. Moslem countries, where not colonized, were despotisms; and nearly all, before oil, were poor.

The idea of traveling to certain Moslem countries had come to me the previous winter, during the Iranian revolution. I was in Connecticut, and on some evenings I watched the television news. As interesting to me as the events in Iran were the Iranians in the United States who were interviewed on some of the programs.

There was a man in a tweed jacket who spoke the pure language of Marxism, but was more complicated than his language suggested. He was a bit of a dandy, and proud of his ability to handle the jargon he had picked up; he was like a man displaying an idiomatic command of a foreign language. He was proud of his Iranian revolution—it gave him glamour. But at the same time he understood that the religious side of the revolution would appear less than glamorous to his audience; and so he was trying—with the help of his tweed jacket, his idiomatic language, his manner—to present himself as sophisticated as any man who watched, and sophisticated in the same way.

Another evening, on another program, an Iranian woman came on with her head covered to tell us that Islam protected women and gave them dignity. Fourteen hundred years ago in Arabia, she said, girl children were buried alive; it was Islam that put a stop to that. Well, we didn't all live in Arabia (not even the woman with the covered head); and many things had happened since the sixth century. Did women—especially someone as fierce as the woman addressing us—still need the special protection that Islam gave them? Did they need the veil? Did they need to be banned from public life and from appearing on television?

These were the questions that occurred to me. But the interviewer, who asked people prepared questions every day, didn't dally. He passed on to his next question, which was about the kind of Islamic state that the woman wanted to see in Iran. Was it something like Saudi Arabia she had in mind? Fierce enough already, she flared up at that; and with her chador-encircled face she looked like an angry nun, full of reprimand. It was a mistake many people made, she said; but Saudi Arabia was not an Islamic state. And it seemed that she was saying that Saudi Arabia was an acknowledged barbarism, and that the Islamic state of Iran was going to be quite different. (It was only in Iran that I understood the point the woman with the chador had made about Saudi Arabia. It was a sectarian point and might have been thought too involved for a television audience: the Arabians and the Persians belong to different sects, have different lines of succession to the Prophet, and there is historical bad blood between them.)

It was of the beauty of Islamic law that I heard a third Iranian speak. But what was he doing studying law in an American university? What had attracted these Iranians to the United States and the civilization it represented? Couldn't they say? The attraction existed; it was more than a need for education and skills. But the attraction wasn't admitted; and in that attraction, too humiliating for an old and proud people to admit, there lay disturbance—expressed in dandyism, mimicry, boasting, and rejection.

An American or non-Islamic education had given the woman with the chador her competence and authority. Now she appeared to be questioning the value of the kind of person she had become; she was denying some of her own gifts. All these Iranians on American television were conscious of their American audience, and they gave the impression of saying less than they meant. Perhaps they had no means of saying all that they felt; perhaps there were certain things they preferred not to say.

IN August of 1979, six months after the overthrow of the Shah, the news from Iran was still of executions. The official Iranian news agency kept count, and regularly gave a new grand total. The most recent executions had been of prostitutes and brothel-managers; the Islamic revolution had taken that wicked turn. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reported to have outlawed music. And Islamic rules about women were being enforced again. Mixed bathing had been banned; Revolutionary Guards watched the beaches at the Caspian Sea resorts and separated the sexes.

In London the man at the travel agency told me that Iran was a country people were leaving. Nobody was going in; I would have the plane to myself. It wasn't so. The Iran Air flight that day had been canceled, and there was a crowd for the British Airways plane to Tehran.

Most of the passengers—the international mishmash of the airport concourse sifting and sifting itself, through gates and channels, into more or less ethnic flight pens—were Iranians; and they didn't look like people running away from an Islamic revolution or going back to one. There wasn't a veil or a head-cover among the women, one or two of whom were quite stylish. They had all done a lot of shopping, and carried the variously designed plastic bags of London stores—Lillywhites, Marks & Spencer, Austin Reed.

We made a technical stop at Kuwait, to refuel; no one left the plane. It was dark, but dawn was not far off. The light began to come; the night vanished. And we saw that the airport—such a pattern of electric lights from above—had been built on sand. The air that came through the ventilators was warm. It was 40 degrees centigrade outside, 104 Fahrenheit, and the true day had not begun.

Tehran was going to be cooler, the steward said. It was an hour's flight to the northeast: more desert, oblongs of pale vegetation here and there, and here and there gathers of rippled earth that sometimes rose to mountains.

After all that I had heard about the Shah's big ideas for his country, the airport building at Tehran was a disappointment. The arrival hall was like a big shed. Blank rectangular patches edged with reddish dust—ghost pictures in ghostly frames—showed where, no doubt, there had been photographs of the Shah and his family or his monuments. Revolutionary leaflets and caricatures were taped down on walls and pillars; and—also taped down: sticky paper and handwritten notices giving a curious informality to great events—there were colored photographs of the Ayatollah Khomeini, as hard-eyed and sensual and unreliable and roguish-looking as any enemy might have portrayed him.

The airport branch of the Melli Bank—rough tables, three clerks, a lot of paper, a littered floor—was like an Indian bazaar stall. A handwritten notice on the counter said: Dear Guests. God is the Greatest. Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bits of sticky brown paper dotted the customs notice boards that advised passengers of their allowances. The brown paper did away with the liquor allowance; it was part of the Islamic welcome.

The luggage track that should have been rolling out our luggage didn't move for a long time. And the Iranian passengers, with their London shopping bags, seemed to become different people. At Heathrow they had been Iranians, people from the fairyland of oil and money, spenders; now, in the shabby arrival hall, patient in their own setting and among their own kind, they looked like country folk who had gone to town.

The customs man had a little black brush moustache. He asked, "Whiskey?" His pronunciation of the word, and his smile, seemed to turn the query into a joke. When I said no he took my word and smilingly waved me out into the summer brightness, to face the post-revolutionary rapaciousness of the airport taximen, who after six months were more than ever animated by memories of the old days, when the world's salesmen came to Tehran, there were never enough hotel rooms, and no driver pined for a fare.

The colors of the city were as dusty and pale as they had appeared from the air. Dust blew about the road, coated the trees, dimmed the colors of cars. Bricks and plaster were the color of dust; unfinished buildings looked abandoned and crumbling; and walls, like abstracts of the time, were scribbled over in the Persian script and stenciled with portraits of Khomeini.

My hotel was in central Tehran. It was one of the older hotels of the city. It was behind a high wall; it had a gateman's lodge, an asphalted circular drive, patches of lawn with shrubs and trees. It was in better order than I had imagined; there were even a few cars. But the building the driver took me to had a chain across the glass door. Someone shouted from the other side of the compound. The building we had gone to was closed. It was the older building of the hotel; during the boom they had built a new block, and now it was only that block that was open.

A number of young men—the hotel taxi drivers, to whom the cars outside belonged—were sitting idly together in one corner of the lobby, near the desk. Away from that corner the lobby was empty. In the middle of the floor there was a very large patterned carpet; the chairs arranged about it appeared to await a crowd. There were glass walls on two sides. On one side was the courtyard, with the dusty shrubs and pines and the parked hotel taxis; on the other side, going up to the hotel wall, was a small paved pool area, untenanted, glaring in the light, with metal chairs stacked up below an open shed.

The room to which I was taken up was of a good size, with sturdy wooden furniture, and with wood paneling three or four feet up the side walls. The glass wall at the end faced North Tehran; a glass door opened on to a balcony. But the air-conditioning duct was leaking through its exhaust grille, and the blue carpet tiling in the vestibule was sodden and stained.

The hotel man—it was hard, in the idleness of the hotel, to attach the professional status of "boy" to him, though he wore the uniform—smiled and pointed to the floor above and said, "Bathroom," as though explanation were all that was required. The man he sent up spoke about condensation; he made the drips seem normal, even necessary. And then—explanations abruptly abandoned—I was given another room.

It was furnished like the first and had the same view. On the television set here, though, there was a white card, folded down the middle and standing upright. It gave the week's programs on the "international," English-language service of Iranian television. The service had long been suspended. The card was six months old.

It was not only Ramadan, the Moslem fasting month; it was Friday, the sabbath; and it was an election day. Tehran was unusually quiet, but I didn't know that; and when in the afternoon I went walking I felt I was in a city where a calamity had occurred. The shops in the main streets were closed and protected by steel gates. Signs on every floor shrieked the names of imported things: Seiko, Citizen, Rolex, Mary Quant of Chelsea, Aiwa; and on that closed afternoon they were like names from Tehran's past.

The pavements were broken. Many shop signs were broken or had lost some of their raised letters. Dust and grime were so general, and on illuminated signs looked so much like the effect of smoke, that buildings that had been burned out in old fires did not immediately catch the eye. Building work seemed to have been suspended; rubble heaps and gravel heaps looked old, settled.

In the pavement kiosks there were magazines of the revolution. The cover of one had a composite photograph of the Shah as a bathing beauty: the head of the Shah attached to the body of a woman in a bikini—but the bikini had been brushed over with a broad stroke of black, not to offend modesty. In another caricature the Shah, jacketed, his tie slackened, sat on a lavatory seat with his trousers down, and with a tommy gun in his hand. A suitcase beside him was labeled To Israel and Bahama; an open canvas bag showed a bottle of whiskey and a copy of Time magazine.

Young men in tight, open-necked shirts dawdled on the broken pavements. They were handsome men of a clear racial type, small, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted. They were working men of peasant antecedents, and there was some little air of vanity and danger about them that afternoon: they must have been keyed up by the communal Friday prayers. In their clothes, and especially their shirts, there was that touch of flashiness that—going by what I had seen in India—I associated with people who had just emerged from traditional ways and now possessed the idea that, in clothes as in other things, they could choose for themselves.

The afternoon cars and motorcycles went by, driven in the Iranian way. I saw two collisions. One shop had changed its name. It was now "Our Fried Chicken," no longer the chicken of Kentucky, and the figure of the southern colonel had been fudged into something quite meaningless (except to those who remembered the colonel). Revolutionary Guards, young men with guns, soon ceased to be surprising; they were part of the revolutionary sabbath scene. There were crowds outside the cinemas; and, Ramadan though it was, people were buying pistachio nuts and sweets from the confiseries—so called—that were open.

Far to the north, at the end of a long avenue of plane trees, an avenue laid out by the Shah's father, was the Royal Tehran Hilton. It was "royal" no longer. The word had been taken off the main roadside sign and hacked away from the entrance; but inside the hotel the word survived like a rooted weed, popping up fresh and clean on napkins, bills, menus, crockery.

The lounge was nearly empty; the silence there, among waiters and scattered patrons, was like the silence of embarrassment. Iranian samovars were part of the decor. (There had been some foreign trade in these samovars as decorative ethnic objects; two years or so before, I had seen a number of them in the London stores, converted into lampstands.) Alcohol could no longer be served; but for the smart (and non-Christian) who needed to sip a nonalcoholic drink in style, there was Orange Blossom or Virgin Mary or Swinger.

The pool at the side of the hotel was closed, for chemical cleaning, according to the notice. But the great concrete shell next door, the planned extension to the Royal Tehran Hilton, had been abandoned, with all the building materials on the site and the cranes. There were no "passengers" now, a waiter told me, and the contractors had left the country. From the Hilton you could look across to the other hills of North Tehran and see other unfinished, hollow buildings that looked just as abandoned. The revolution had caught the "international" city of North Tehran in mid-creation.

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