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

What has distinguished Iranian bazaaris from those in other fast-changing societies in the Islamic world is their close links with the clergy, or ulama, a relationship that developed during the nineteenth century under the rule of the Qajar shahs. As Nikki Keddie writes,

Ulama and bazaaris often belonged to the same families; much ulama income came from levies paid mainly by bazaaris; the guilds often celebrated religious or partly religious ceremonies for which the services of ulama were needed; and piety and religious observance were among the signs of bazaar standing or leadership. (Even today respectable bazaar shopkeepers and moneylenders are often addressed as "Hajji," whether or not the speaker knows if the addressee has made a pilgrimage justifying this form of address.) Entry into the ulama through study was an avenue of upward social mobility and entailed more respect than entry into Qajar service. Mosques and shrines [located close to the bazaar] were a major area of bast (refuge) for individuals and groups

But the bazaari looks at religion from a businessman's point of view. As one Iranian acquaintance explained, "The bazaari is willing to bend the rules of religion for the sake of finance." The so-called hypocrisy and corruption of the Iranian clergy sometimes stem from the bazaari backgrounds of many of the mullahs.

"Describe a stereotypical bazaari," I asked a longtime foreign resident of Tehran who speaks Persian. He answered, putting it in the form of a caricature, "A bazaari is a fat guy with meaty hands and fingers like kebabs, with gold rings on them. He sits in his shop and sips tea. He trades. He makes a lot of money and he prays several times a day. He comes home at night to a big, expensive house with nothing of taste in it, where he has a wife who slaves for him."

"Yes, I am a bazaari ," a vendor in the Tehran bazaar told me. "I buy and sell things."

"In other words, you are a thief," interjected the vendor next to him, laughing.

Vahid, the son of a mullah in Tehran, told me, "A bazaari will say to himself, 'I am a man of God who prays very often, so if I say that such and such a carpet that I wish to sell to you is worth so-many rials, that is the true worth of the carpet, since a religious man like me would never lie.' Because the bazaari is religious, he believes that he is always right." He went on, "The word for 'beard' in Persian can be pashm, which also means 'wool.' The bazaari, while stroking his beard, will say to a customer regarding a carpet for sale, 'Yes, this is made of very good wool.'"

The bazaar where Rafiqdoost grew up is the quintessential bazaar in transition: a labyrinthine world of corrugated iron roofs, brick archways, and plate glass in the midst of a poor working-class region of South Tehran. It lacks any trace of beauty—save for the eighteenth-century Imam Khomeini Mosque (formerly the Shah Mosque) at its center—and is filled with every manner of goods, from chadors and carpets to pots and pans to radios and television sets to American candy bars.

Rafiqdoost grew up as not just a bazaari but, more specifically, a meydani ("person of the square"): someone who worked in the fruit-and-vegetable market and therefore had few business connections with Westerners or their companies—of the sort that, for example, a seller of expensive carpets or electronic goods would have had. Yet Rafiqdoost's clan is not unsophisticated: members of his extended family include doctors and engineers. Rafiqdoost's brother used to run another of the handful of large revolutionary foundations established with money confiscated from the Shah.

"I was born in South Tehran, near the bazaar, to a very religious family close to the Imam," Rafiqdoost told me. "I was always pro-Imam. I am a self-made man. I was not allowed to enter university, because I was expelled from high school in 1953, when I was thirteen, for pro-Mosaddeq activities. [Mohammad Mosaddeq was the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalized Western oil companies in 1951 and was subsequently overthrown in a 1953 coup organized, in part, by the Central Intelligence Agency.] Anti-Shah sentiment was something I learned in my home growing up. In 1976 I was jailed for political reasons. Four months before the revolution, in 1978, I was released when the people stormed the prisons [as part of the series of demonstrations that culminated in the Shah's downfall]. Immediately after leaving prison I became a contact point for anti-regime people, and for distributing the Imam's decrees from Paris. I was also hiding people from the Shah's police. When the Imam decided to return to Iran, a revolutionary council was organized. I was given the task of logistics and personal security for the Imam. That's when I decided that I myself would be the Imam's driver." Though Rafiqdoost is not now known for violence, his past leadership of the violent Revolutionary Guards demonstrates to all in Iran his capacity for it.

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.

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