Saturday, March 19, 2016

Children Of Paradise: The Struggle For The Soul Of Iran

Even in a small world (getting smaller all the time) there are still countries that elicit a sense of mystery and foreignness. Iran is such a country to those brought up in the West. Iran, that seemingly eternal power in the Middle East, presents to the world an unwelcoming, stern faced Islam. Children of Paradise by Laura Secor is an unflinching look at this enigmatic country.

The book describes events following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This is a history book but more than just a history. Ideas thread through the whole of the narrative informing much of what the actors do and how the action unfolds. And the actors are the main thing. The major portion of the narrative revolves around personal stories of honourable individuals struggling heroically to guide Iran towards a flourishing, open and just society. Opposed to these voices of reform is the establishment of conservative forces. The upholders of conservative values grow in power as the story unfolds.  The corollary of unchecked power consolidated in the hands of a few is the blight of repression.  Armed with a rigid understanding of Islam and ablaze with fervour for forming a just society—justice defined on their own terms—the conservatives see themselves as at war with the reformers. The battle is expertly described and the book is well organized. The various parts of the book have titles that all begin with the letter “R”: Revolution, Rebirth, Reform, and Resistance. These terms give, I think, a sense of the sweeping quality of the narrative. Not a lot of dates to remember, rather the work unfolds with snippets from the lives of Iranians caught up in the events of their times. On offer at any moment is, for example, a journalist endeavouring to uncover corruption in the government, and then a poet-philosopher stitching together various threads of ideology to create a coherent system of political thought, and then a social worker defending the rights of the marginalized. The work proceeds in this fashion. It makes for good non-fiction reading.

One common theme in the book is the restless desire on the part of the Iranian powerbrokers to unfettered self-determination. This is often juxtaposed by the idea of westoxication, which is defined as the hostile cultural influence of the West. What could possibly be hostile about western culture? Well to the authoritarian leaders of Iran things like liberalism, the rights of women and minorities, a free press and the like are deemed “untraditional”, that is, hostile to their total control of all facets of Iranian life.

The contest between these two forces, the reformist and the traditionalists-conservatives, is fascinating. It is fascinating and also strangely familiar. All the countries of the west, Canada included, have had some experience of resistance to reform. This seems to be the way of things in robust societies; change is constant as is the reticence to change. The difference between a country like Canada and Iran is the means to the end. Transformations can come hard and cause untold disruption and sometimes destruction or change can come soft like velvet. A vibrant society can modernize (adapt may be a better term) without the convulsion of violence. The cultural world described in Children of Paradise seems to this reader one teetering always on the edge of violence because it is having such a hard time dealing with change. Repression sows violence—it is unavoidable. All repressive regimes, whatever the time and whatever the place, have that similar taint of ugliness.

There may be hope for Iran. Hope that change can come without violence. This hope springs up like green shoots on many pages in this work. If you are curious about what has happened in Iran to bring it along on its present course then Children of Paradise is the book for you.

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