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July 1981

Among the Believers
by V. S. Naipaul

On the pavement outside the Turkish embassy two turbaned, 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 … One showed a small peasant group … The other … a crowd raising rifles … 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.

Vol. 248, No. 1, pp. 28–48

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