Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making Sense of the Other

On a Sunday afternoon in June, 1984 in Rome, I went for a walk.  My girlfriend at the time and I lived in the first of two places where we stayed that summer.  Somehow, though both of us sympathized with the left politically and she had leftist friends there, her contacts had found us apartments in  neighborhoods she considered neo-fascist, one a legal sublet in a working-class area, one illegal and on a famous and tony boulevard, the Viale Parioli, behind the embassy district.  The first apartment occupied part of a floor of a modernist apartment building in the so-called "quartiere Africa," so-named because all the streets and squares memorialized the "conquests" of Mussolini's troops in the years before World War II:  Viale Libia, Viale Eritrea, Largo Somalia (where we lived).

On weekdays I made a point of buying the Communist Party's newspaper, "L'Unita," probably more to make a point--the vendor had it on sale, after all--than to make a serious attempt to decode the notoriously byzantine politics of Italy, irrespective of the lens through which one views them.  I learned that the center-left "La Repubblica" did the decoding better.  This Sunday afternoon, though, I headed up the hill, across the viale, and continued on absent-mindedly for a few blocks in the relative cool of a late Roman afternoon.  I knew there had been some obscure neo-fascist terrorist activity, a kind of pushback to the operations of the Brigate Rosse and smaller terrorist organizations of the left.  A young man had been killed, a neo-fascist hero-martyr, and the neo-fascists seethed at the way the Carabinieri (think hybrid of State Police and FBI, but operating with the run of cities) had handled the matter.  This about covers my understanding of the background.

Suddenly, a block downhill from me to my right, I saw a group of thuggish-looking, working-class young men standing in front of a building, just feet from the curb.  They maintained perfect silence:  no signs, no gestures, no proclaimed manifestoes, though I may have missed that part.  Their anger felt palpable, but also magnetic.  One had no idea exactly what it meant, though a vague idea of at least one of the references involved, their dead comrade-in-arms.  I stood watching them for several minutes, then, intrigued, began walking downhill toward them.

All around me the silent chorus had drawn in an audience.  On Sundays afternoons, after all, every couple in Italy goes for a "passeggiata," a leisurely, sociable, often rather voluble, generally well-mannered walk.  Some of the strollers kept right on strolling, but some stopped. This evidently worried the Carabinieri, because suddenly they started buzzing around in their Lancias at speeds a great deal higher than indicated either by circumstances or the tightness of corners on those side streets, even in the modern Africa quarter.  One, filled with three or four young carabinieri, with whom my girlfriend had warned me not to risk contact owing to their reputation as a reckless law unto themselves, suddenly slowed down fifteen feet from me.  A young carabiniere looked at me, asked me what I thought I was doing there, I said I was an American, and merely watching, and with a gesture at once dismissive and threatening indicated that I should move away from there, back up the hill.  Shaken, I did just that, looking back, Lot-like, just once.  Nobody had turned into pillars of salt just yet.  

Political theater, especially somebody else's, can easily contain that combination of vaguely understood motivations, obscure if riveting actions, and glowering authorities reminding outsiders to stick to fights in which they have, if not a dog as in the old phrase, then at least an interest, which says the same thing less colorfully.  Make no mistake, the streets and courtrooms with show trials and backrooms of mullahs and stadiums filled with faithful for Friday prayers in Tehran and throughout Iran, even the courageous speeches of some opposition parliamentarians in the majlis represents political theater at a high level. The intensity, the bloodletting, the thuggery of the Basiji and the brutality of the Revolutionary Guards, contrasted with the humane restraint of some police, has captured the imagination and sympathy of many of us in the West.  At least one of my friends chided me on Facebook for the degree to which I'd fallen prey to the drama of it all, the inhumanity of it all.  The zenith, of course, came with the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, videos of whose death went viral on YouTube almost two months ago and within hours of the event.  That day I had either my computer or CNN on almost non-stop from mid-afternoon past midnight.

I must admit I've begun walking back up the hill a bit, though no Basij has gotten close enough to bully me into such a posture.  We've known from interviews Mir Hossain Mousavi gave before the election that he insits on Iran's right to its nuclear program.  Clearly, one can negotiate far more easily with him than with Ahmadinejad, but to what conclusion?  Some reading in "Foreign Affairs," "The Guardian," some academic conference papers, and other sources suggests both a situation more complex than even some of my Iranian expatriate Facebook friends seem to understand, and a quagmire of no rapid solution.  For all that our hearts go out to people chanting "Allahu Aqbar" (God is Great) in sinister imitation of the Islamic Revolution against the Shah, some of those people remain faithful to that revolution, but feel betrayed by its current flame-bearers.  Some, possibly not even among the chanters, seek by means none of them have succeeded in making clear to me the overthrow of the entire system itself, replaced by some sort of vague--and disappointingly provincial-- projection of Iran into full membership in the Muslim world, as though the rest poses merely an incovenience, gnats like Sarkozy, horseflies like the International Atomic Energy Agency, mosquitoes like Obama.  A writer in another thread took Iran's right to possess nuclear arms as a right.

The provincialism and narrowness of that vision, as expressed on a Facebook thread the other day, turned me at least partway back up the hill, though from this distance I have the leisure to turn around at will.  Marxism gets invoked in various ways, some almost pathetically--one wants to say hilariously, were the stakes not so high--call for the Americans to intervene, though some more sensibly recognize the absurdity of Obama riding into Tehran and Qom on a white charger to do--what, exactly?--as patently absurd.  A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, who recognized that America has no role to play here, pointed out that the younger generation does not know the horrors of what he saw in 1983.  Otherwise one repeatedly comes up against expressions of Persian pride in ancient empire, the fissuring of a theocracy which will not unravel easily, if at all, and the aspirations of youth to live in the modern world, not the medieval one of strict adherence to the Q'uran and Shariah, or Islamic Law, without any clear glue to hold it all together.  One of my Facebook friends all but calls Moussavi a stooge, a placeholder, as teh next generation surges by him to a wildly abstract declaration of their aims.

If any of us have expected anything permanently relieving to come out of all this, the time has come, for me, anyway, to plead guilty to naivete.  I will continue to look at YouTube links on my Iranian Facebook friends' pages--including Moussavi's and his wife's.  I saw a remarkable argument put forward on a video of a televised round-table the other day, urging the necessity of engaging the west, though I could not tell where the forum took place; I hope the speaker has stayed out of prison.  I will even check in on the occasional thread.  But part of my fascination that Sunday in Rome amounted to a recognition that here I saw something I didn't know and could only partly identify, which held my attention not because of anything attractive about it--like the insistent faith and anger of those who chant "Allahu Aqbar"--but precisely because it frightened me.  It just happened that on that Sunday they chose a form of protest that contained in immobility and silence the violence one feared, in marked contrast to the then-recent bombing of the Bologna train station.

Iran has reversed the equation.  The violence, even the non-violent and at times silent marching shows a courage to take on a system we fear, and we have taken heart from that fearlessness.   The technical advances of YouTube and Facebook fool us into forgetting that all the empathy we may feel in this time of struggle will mean little to at least some of the strugglers in the unlikely event they achieve their aims.  The genie has gotten out of the bottle, and those aims seem a lot harder to characterize now than two months ago. We can do nothing for the defendants in what a tv commentator a couple of evenings ago referred to as essentially a re-run of Stalin's show-trials of the 1930s.  We need to prepare ourselves for the moment when we walk up the hill, turn the corner, and support a process of diplomacy that will of necessity get very aggressive, and inflict hardship on those we have watched on YouTube.  Let us only hope this remains a diplomatic struggle.


1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to me to go from the bear to the Italian men and wonder how it is that you are not afraid to find yourself in places that could only be described as tenuous at best.

    I wondered how different our world leaders might be in their insights into the world if they could do the same, if they could leave their security detail and happen upon encounters that both scare and inform them.

    I hope you can do the same in Chapel Hill and Durham. There is so much here that is not quite right and in need of eyewitness. It strikes me you have the courage to do so.