Friday, April 18, 2014
The Israeli Republic of Iran
In February, 1963, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, a prominent Iranian writer who is credited for helping lay the groundwork for his country's Islamic revolution, visited Israel at the invitation of the Israeli government, along with his wife, Persian novelist Simin Daneshvar. His report of the trip, "Journey to the Land of Israel" was harshly criticized by the revolutionary clerics who had seen Al-e Ahmad as an ally in their struggle against the West, and against the Shah.
What upset the clerics so much was that Al-e Ahmad saw in the Israel of the early sixties a model for the future of Iran. Writing in eloquent Persian, the author stated that Israel was a velayat, or guardianship state, due to the fact that it speaks for not only its citizens, but also for the Jews of the Diaspora, who outnumbered the citizens of the state.
In Al-e Ahmad's report, he felt that the priorities set by Israel and Israeli society were very similar to his vision of true Islam. In his writing he noted, among other things:
* Israel's defense of the faith, exemplified by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann,
* The just redistribution of wealth and agricultural collectives of the kibbutz,
* The emphasis on universal education,
* The establishment of Hebrew as the common language.
All of this, the author wrote, was in sharp contrast with the leading Arab states of the day - Egypt and Saudi Arabia - which he criticized as being perfidious, hypocritical, and greedy. Even Israel's ceremonies and memorials, such as what he witnessed at Yad Vashem, were similar to the traditions of Shia Islam, the author felt.
While not openly stating his disregard for the Shah's rule in his home country, possibly in fear of immediate repercussions, Al-e Ahmad argued that "Israel's presence in the East is a means to return to Islam, a great wind that can sweep away the Arab … petro-regimes and waken those who have been lulled into the sleep of ignorance to the call of justice."
Translated from the Persian by Jerusalem-based Samuel Thrope, Jalal Al-e Ahmad's report of his trip to Israel has now been published in English for the first time as The Israeli Republic (Restless Books, January 2014). The author introduces Al-e Ahmad and gives background about his writing and political activism following World War Two.
Al-e Ahmad, whose fiction "depicts the everyday lives of Iranians left behind - or simply left bewildered - by modernization and Westernization" is best known for coining the term Gharbzadegi - variously translated in English as westernstruck, weststruckness, westoxification and occidentosis. In an earlier work published under that strange title, the author argued against how western technology was destroying traditional Iranian industries such as carpet-weaving.
The significance today
And what is the significance today of the report of an Iranian writer following his 1963 visit to "the reality of the Children of Israel's new country"?
According to Thrope, in his summation of the Al-e Ahmad's writing, "The significance of the book is that it gives the contemporary reader a vantage on the similarities between these internal struggles."
Thrope states that "Even today, with Iranian leaders labeling Israel 'a cancerous tumor in the heart of the Islamic world'" and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comparing Iran to Nazi Germany in preparation for another Holocaust, this book can show "despite this harsh rhetoric, in an important sense, Israel and Iran are not in conflict but in concert: both caught in long-simmering internal tensions that are no longer tenable and both, possibly, on the brink of tremendous change."
In his own words, Al-e Ahmad states simply that he wrote the book "not for publicity, nor as payback for free lunches that I have eaten there; not for the purpose of providing advice to Iran on its two-faced policy regarding Israel, or to vex the Arabs… [but rather so that the reader can] know the disposition, the words, and the 'yes, buts' of a penman from this corner of the world - and a Persian speaker - faced in this corner of the East."
Al-e Ahmad died in September, 1969, ten years before the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was deposed and replaced by an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While sympathetic to the need for religious leadership in the transformation of Iranian politics, it is not clear how Al-e Ahmad would regard his country's harsh stance against the State of Israel, which he saw as a model for his country's observance of Islam.
Described by its publisher as "vibrantly modern in its sensibility and fearlessly polemical, this book will change the way you think about the Middle East," The Israeli Republic should indeed be on required reading lists in both Israel and Iran.
Originally published on The Times of Israel.