North Africa, West Asia

To become a bit more human: Review of Belén Fernández, “Letter from Iran”

In “Letter from Iran” Belén Fernández reminds us that we—people everywhere—are not Washington cyphers but flesh-and-blood human beings who must keep being defiant in order to retain that status.

Julie Wark
13 December 2017

Esfahan, Iran. Picture by Nick Taylor / Some rights reserved (CC BY 2.0)As a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman represents the acme of establishment journalism. As the man who came up with the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, he might better fit W. B. Yeats’ depiction, viz. “There is nothing in [journalists] but tittering jeering emptiness.” Yet Friedman is actually much worse than a hamburger purveyor since, as Belén Fernández has scathingly demonstrated, he is The Imperial Messenger, complete with guerdons, garlands and garbling. Friedman’s Iran is only scantily parodied in the clever spoof The New York Times Op-Ed generator as a country where “a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. […] If corruption is Iran’s curtain rod, then freedom is certainly its faucet.” What might a curtain rod and faucet have to do with Iran? Meaning here is overridden by function, something Karl Kraus warned of. A Friedman-style journalist “kills our imagination with his truth, he threatens our life with his lies”. One reads his rubbish and a desire to smack him red-mists any rational imagining of what he is actually saying. But the message being drummed in is that America must impose its “mindset” on those who are foreign to it, with nuclear weapons if necessary. He literally threatens everyone’s lives.

Belén Fernández is another kind of journalist, more like that described by Marguerite Duras. “Every journalist is a moralist […], someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees […].” This journalist isn’t after establishment awards but offers a gift that only asks in return a response in the same coin: that we see ourselves and others as members of the same species, with the same rights, feelings, wishes, and dreams. Her journalistic standpoint is clear in her recent review of Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World in which she writes that the self-critical Hansen “does the field of journalism a great service with her humility, introspection, and willingness to defy the establishment line.” Much the same could be said of Fernández who, a practitioner of what she preaches, finishes her review saying that the aim is “to become a bit more human”.

"Letter from Iran" is much more than good journalism. It’s literature in the sense of lasting artistic merit.

Defiance means putting herself on the line and renouncing a stable home so in the first part of her travelogue she writes, “Having fled the US in 2003 in search of more hospitable lands that didn’t give me continuous panic attacks, I continued to eschew a fixed residence in favor of roaming” (and maybe the best kind of travel writer is a rootless one). She takes risks when traveling to “spots from Honduras to Kazakhstan” in order to discover what life is like for people in danger zones. She is footloose but not fancy-free, confirming again and again that if the Pentagon doesn’t distinguish between terrorists and goat herders and therefore kills 1,147 people to get 41 men they have targeted (in the sovereign soil of another country), ordinary people from south Lebanon to Colombia can tell the difference between the American government and American citizens. “People opened their doors to me despite having had family members and property obliterated by US-backed military outfits—in these cases, the Israeli and Colombian armies.” 

Her three-part “Letter from Iran”—“To Lebanon and Back”, “Red Shi’ism at the Underground Bookfair”, and “Under the Shadow of the Assassins’ Castle”—is much more than good journalism. It’s literature in the sense of lasting artistic merit. Rather than pushing any policy line, she’s telling macro and micro stories through people who embody history. Giving dignity to journalism she brings humanity to travel writing. People tend to travel to tell a story, often about “finding” themselves in strange lands. But traveling is also related with a human impulse that goes deeper than just gazing at strangers or using them as background in the selfie mirror, trying to identify who we think we are (or are not) because it’s one response to the great human question: who are we? If we have the empathy of a Belén Fernández we will discover that our humanity, the most valuable thing we have, may be found in abundance in a chance conversation with a stranger.

Google-News Iran and you’ll find sanctions, Iranian warships heading for Mexico, expanding missile range, foreign prisoners… nothing friendly. So how does Belén Fernández talk about her experiences in Esfahan? To begin with, she doesn’t come on as an expert and is always respectful, letting the people from the country speak and reading its writers, weaving past and present together with the result that her account is not just anecdotal. With her gifts of observation, she “comes across” things. In other words, she recognises the value of what she sees, whether in the form of people or objects. She finds a “handy volume” called “Esfahan: A Tiny Earthly Paradise”, by Mahmoud Reza Shayesteh who argues that an expedition to the “half-world” requires a “quest for the second half of this world inside one’s self through a spiritual elevation… perhaps enabling one to embrace a world of perfection.” Fernández sees the city and its history through his gaze so, while half the world carries on about subjugating America-hating oil-rich lands with missiles and Golden Arches, she steps into the other half after all the trials and tribulations (involving a “short breakdown” in the Iranian embassy in Beirut) of getting a visa, and “[All] I got from the immigration official was a ‘welcome’. I got another one when my elderly taxi driver telephoned his daughter to have the sentiment translated into English.” 

History has a bad habit of repeating itself where valuable resources are concerned.

Setting off to Naghsh-e Jahan Square, pride and joy of the Safavid era (1501 to 1722), she starts populating her chronicle with cameos of Esfahan’s inhabitants. Her nationality is a good talking point. On learning that he was talking to an American, one scarf merchant “burst into hysterical laughter and required several minutes to regain his composure, after which he asked how much my Asics sneakers cost in the U.S. and said he could procure identical ones for a fraction of the cost.” At Vank Cathedral in New Julfa, Esfahan’s Armenian quarter, a man refuses to believe she is American but then finds a satisfactory explanation: “You must be from one of the Minor Outlying Islands or something”. In an ice cream shop where she asks for tea there is no tea but the attendant excuses himself and comes back later with tea in a paper cup. He will not hear of her paying. In the bazaar opposite the Imam Mosque in Naghsh-e Jahan Square she acquires “a mound of turmeric and a tube of mascara” and, pondering what she has discovered in a book by historian Ervand Abrahamian about the enduring “vital link between mosque and bazaar”, pithily comments, “Unsurprisingly, the shah’s effective war on both of these institutions in the 1970s did little in the way of securing him in his post.”

In Part Two of her travelogue, Fernández goes to buy a headscarf, meets the vendor’s friend Hadi, a bookshop owner, thanks to whom she discovers a second-hand book market in an underground car park on Taleghani Avenue. It is named after Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, supporter of Mohammad Mosaddeq who was overthrown in the 1953 American (“Operation Ajax”)/British (“Operation Boot”)/Anglo-Iranian Oil (now part of BP) coup because nationalised oil in Iran wasn’t the imperial plan. The response then is all-too familiar now: a blockade, cutting off exports of vital goods to Iran, freezing hard-currency accounts, and lobbying in the UN for anti-Iran resolutions. History has a bad habit of repeating itself where valuable resources are concerned. 

Still guide-less, Fernández introduces, in the third part of her travelogue, a young man called Hussein and his friends. They are all engaged in the illegal business called “couchsurfing”, which is to say “they and their couches or spare rooms hosted foreign visitors to the land”. One of Hussein’s friends, Hamid, has abandoned his former career as a volleyball player because of the sanctions which had severely cut funding for sports teams and, worse, caused the number of families living in poverty to rise from 22% to more than 40%, rocketing food prices, and a severe shortage of medicines and health supplies. Hamid has plenty of expletives for the Iranian, American, Russian, and Australian governments (“the last on account of the recent self-immolation of an Iranian refugee on Australia’s preferred island-prison of Nauru”), as well as for western Iranophobes who, he declares, would be much safer in Iran than in their own countries (except when crossing the road).

At the Esfahan martyrs museum, Fernández is welcomed with gifts—a box of candy, a notebook featuring troops marching through sand against a starry background, a tiny book with a gold cover featuring the museum logo, and an imported “cocoa-coated biscuit”—by a warbling curator who lets her wander round alone. The museum offers remarkable English translations in the photo captions. One, for a man lying in a pool of blood, prompts her to wonder “whether there hadn’t been some deliberate acts of sabotage during the translating process” since it says, “Bloody prostrate: Visiting that ‘Single friend’ is much more pleasing in this position.” Hadi, the bookseller, is no fan of displays of martyrdom, seeing it as an imposed reminder of war when life should be lived without the constant presence of death. Yet he allows that it’s not just government propaganda because death has a “relative centrality” to the Iranian landscape.

Some politicians want all of us to be the children

The generous Hadi presents her with books and takes her to Soffeh Mountain, once site of the Assassins’ Castle, said assassins being members of the eleventh-century Shiite Nizari Ismaili sect. On the way, she learns something that most westerners would never have a chance of discovering in Iran. About Iraq. “[…] Hadi received a text message from a friend currently on a walking pilgrimage to the Iraqi city of Karbala […who] reported that the Iraqis he had encountered had been most hospitable, offering free accommodations, food, and in some cases even massages to the travelers.”

At the end of her stay in Esfahan, Fernández honours her promise to the travel agent who waived the must-have-a-guide rule if she agreed to contract one for just a day. She then travels to the ancient Zoroastrian village of Abyaneh, famed for red clay architecture and its distinct language and dress. It is in the Natanz region which “occupies a special place in rightwing and Zionist lexicons, having been effectively contorted into a synonym for impending nuclear Armageddon […] in an attempt to add the Islamic Republic to Washington’s growing list of regional military targets”. The guide, Masoud, says that Donald Trump is a “loulou”, a bogeyman invoked to frighten children into obedience. Some politicians want all of us to be the children, although obedience to the now incumbent President of the United States wouldn’t bring peace and quiet. As the Iranian novelist and journalist Amir Ahmadi Arian writes, citing Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump is bent on annihilating Barack Obama’s Iran deal legacy, aided and abetted by his anti-Iran ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. They present Iranians as treacherous cheats, a stereotype with long roots going back to racist colonial caricatures. Arian suggests that one explanation for the origins of present-day Manichaean depictions is the myth of “Aryan” race. And Trump is the ultimate Aryan warrior who could lead the world into war on the basis of a colonial fabrication.

Fernández ends her travelogue with the words, “As the U.S. strives to perfect its estrangement from human reality, at least we’ve still got the other half of the world”. Anyone reading her could add: as the press touts war-justifying bromides about devious Iranians, at least we’ve still got Belén Fernández who takes the trouble to enter the other half of the world and remind us that we—people everywhere—are not Washington cyphers but flesh-and-blood human beings who must keep being defiant in order to retain that status.

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