A Bazaari's World

To understand Iran—and perhaps even the future of other parts of the Islamic world—one must understand a man like Mohsen Rafiqdoost

February 1, 1979, was the most important day in the life of Mohsen Rafiqdoost. On that day the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran by plane from a fourteen-year exile imposed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had left two weeks earlier. Khomeini's plane arrived from Paris. The route from the airport to downtown Tehran was lined with adoring millions. Rafiqdoost pulled his car up to the plane. He was to be Khomeini's driver and the chief of Khomeini's personal-security detail.

"What kind of car was it?" I asked.

Rafiqdoost's eyes flashed. His face exploded in a self-satisfied grin. "A Chevy Blazer," he said.

I met Rafiqdoost during a visit to Iran not long ago, and we spent more than two hours talking in his Tehran office. He seemed every bit the bodyguard. Energy and aggression rippled from his compact, slightly stocky physique as he sat on the edge of his chair, tapping his foot and banging his thigh with his fist, and nodding his head whenever he had a point to make. Rafiqdoost has a short salt-and-pepper beard and thin straight hair that is only now, in his mid-fifties, showing signs of receding. His profile is vaguely feral, in a way that makes him look menacing without making him ugly. His small, beetle-shell eyes radiate a playful dangerousness.

During our meeting Rafiqdoost straddled the line between suave and sleazy. He could almost have passed for a nightclub bouncer. He wore a designer-quality striped shirt, a well-tailored black sports jacket, and gray slacks. His beard was neatly clipped. On his feet, though, were rubber beach thongs—a high-quality brand like the kind sold in L. L. Bean catalogues. Rafiqdoost apologized for the thongs. "I forgot that a visitor was expected. They are more comfortable to work in."

He was quite serious about the work. Around his desktop computer was a clutter of notes and documents, upon which lay a pair of reading glasses with fashionable frames. Iran, somewhat like Turkey, and unlike most places in the Third World, is a place where office desks are used for real work rather than merely for the display of petty bureaucratic power. The desk and the office managed to be impressive nonetheless, with fashionable olive-gray chairs and a Sony television set.

Rafiqdoost is definitely a man of parts, and a dynamic one at that—as talented and dangerous with his computer as he is with his fists. That is why I wanted to see him. For Rafiqdoost had not only been Khomeini's chief bodyguard. He also played a key role in forming the Revolutionary Guards that brutally crushed secular moderates and members of the leftist Mojahedin-e Khalq (People's Holy Warriors), among other supposed enemies of the Islamic Revolution. Rafiqdoost now controls something called the Bonyad-e Mostazafan (Foundation of the Oppressed), Iran's largest holding company. The Bonyad is made up of some 1,200 firms, and was established with money confiscated from the Shah's family and from prominent industrialists who fled the revolution. One Iranian, no fan of Rafiqdoost's, calls this foundation—ostensibly an operation to help the poor—"the greatest cartel in history." Rafiqdoost is, in all probability, worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

When I entered his office, he offered me his hand as if from a podium. He had little modesty. He knew his importance.

How Rafiqdoost happened to be behind the wheel of that Chevy Blazer the day Khomeini returned to Iran, how he took control of a substantial part of the Shah's fortune, and how he converted that fortune into an even bigger financial empire—these are things for which a Marxist would have a ready answer: they are the result of Rafiqdoost's socio-economic class. In this case the Marxist would be right. Rafiqdoost is a bazaari, a member of the class of people who helped make the Iranian Revolution.

Ironically, the Marxist probably never would have identified the bazaaris as a social class in the first place. This is because Marxists see classes only as they relate to the means of production, not as they actually function. As Nikki R. Keddi has pointed out, in Roots of Revolution, bazaaris don't fall into any of the usual categories.The worker in a hole-in-the-wall shop in the bazaar is certainly in a position different from that of a big moneylender in the bazaar. But both the laborer and the moneylender are bazaaris. They are both involved in petty trade of a traditional, or nearly traditional, kind, centered on the bazaar and its Islamic culture. At least, that has been the usual definition of bazaari.

Bazaar is a Persian word that means "market." Westerners often use it interchangeably with the Arabic word souk for markets throughout Muslim North Africa and the Near East. The bazaar is often the first place tourists head for, in order to lose themselves in serpentine alleys lined with shops, sometimes built under picturesque archways—as in Tunis or Jerusalem—conjuring up the cliché of the "fabulous East." Although Western goods are sold in the bazaar, and bazaaris sell souvenirs to Western tourists and smile before their cameras, real Westernization—supermarkets, department stores, machine-made goods, large banks—threatens the bazaari's livelihood. The smile before the camera, therefore, is often a deceptive one.

But bazaaris are not simply the men behind the stalls in the picturesque Oriental market. According to a relatively new definition that has taken hold among academics and journalists in the past few decades, bazaaris as a social class can exist only in places where the society is in the midst of an awkward modernization; where the bazaar is in some stage of transition between the world of A Thousand and One Nights and that of the suburban shopping mall; where the welder's sparks singe the classic image of turbaned men inhaling tobacco smoke from hubble-bubbles.

Bazaaris, therefore, though age-old in the historical sense, are relatively new in the political sense. The Muslim Brotherhood—the Ikhwan—in Egypt is heavily backed by bazaari types. Although that organization, so dangerous to pro-Western regimes in the Near East, consists largely of narrowly educated men of peasant background, it is the better-educated sons of traditional bazaaris, like Rafiqdoost, being a slight step up on the social ladder, who often lead the narrowly educated men in trying to topple an established order.

In other words, bazaaris constitute a sort of newly established Islamic petty bourgeoisie. They must compete with more-experienced Christian and Jewish merchants, both in and outside the bazaar. This competition quickens the bazaaris' resentments, which are often similar to those that were in evidence among the petty bourgeoisie in Europe during the age of industrialization.

The Near East at the end of the twentieth century is, of course, a region in great social turmoil and economic transition, as Europe was throughout the nineteenth century and in the twentieth until the Second World War. Bazaari types are increasingly significant politically, as the case of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests. "Rafiqdoost," an Iranian friend explained, "is an absolute bazaari through and through": a boy of the streets who learned math with a scratch pad at his father's fruit stand. In the Muslim Near East, especially in Iran, only a bazaari could assume the roles of both bodyguard and financier.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In