People’s Revolution: Fact, Fiction and Memory

Reading ‘Snow’, a novel by Orhan Pamuk, in these days of unrest in Egypt interestingly brought back the memories of my childhood spent in post revolution Iran. I am no political expert neither can I claim to understand the ongoing political situations in all their intricacies yet in recent developments there are some  issues which have caught my attention and which need to be put in a certain perspective.

‘Snow’, a brilliant work of fiction which does more than a formal report on Turkish politics and culture to both enlighten as well as fire the curiosity of the reader deals with myriad issues. It’s through Ka, a poet protagonist, virtually an alter-ego of the author himself that the novel is revealed. Like Pamuk, Ka hails from the Turkish middle class and is torn between tradition and westernization. The book talks about Post Ata-Turk Turkey, the ongoing battle between the Islamic and western cultures and most importantly the dilemma of the people caught between these two extremes. The rise of radical Islamic groups and their adherents forms an important subplot in this multifaceted novel. The story of headscarf girls who wore the scarf as an act of revolt against the westernized establishment and who got fired from various educational institutions is dealt with throughout the book, But mainly the book talks about human motives and emotions behind such movements. It talks of the Islamic high school boys who epitomize Kadife the leader of the headscarf girls and look upon her with great awe and respect while harboring secret passion for her. The novel beautifully brings out the difficulty of being a human as well as the dilemma of not believing completely in what one is doing. It is in the end that Kadife’s ulterior motives are divulged which is to win the affections of her sister’s secret lover, a radical Islamist. The cause is just a curtain behind which one gets to hide the real motives usually triggered by human instincts.

The characters portrayed in Snow, torn between modernity and tradition remind me of the Iranian people with whom we interacted during our stay there. I particularly remember a young friend of my mother who once told us that Iranian women never got any freedom. During Shah’s reign they were forced to wear short skirts to school though some of them were quite uncomfortable and with the coming of Khomeini the women were supposed to be covered from head to toe. “No one lets us live in peace” is how she concluded her narration. Today her turmoil reminds me of a play written by Ibsen the famous Norwegian playwright called ‘The lady from the sea’ which talks of a woman who wanted nothing but the freedom to decide. In the end though her decision was the same as her family’s but the fact that she got to choose what she wanted made all the difference and made her accept the situation wholeheartedly. Probably that’s what a people’s revolution aims at…to be able to make their own decisions…but only time will tell whether this can be attained. In hindsight the Iranian revolution can possibly show how a people’s revolution can be manipulated.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 just like the Egyptian one started as a people’s revolution. It was powered mainly by Leftists who called themselves Mujahidin e Khalq (saviors of people) and liberals and the main prototype was the revolution against Czars in Russia. Gradually the revolution took an Islamic overtone especially because of an exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini who saw this opportunity to come back to Iran and instigate people against Shah. After the ouster of Shah the government was formed jointly by Leftists, Democrats and Clerics and was headed by a puppet king Shapur Bakhtiar. The high point of post revolution gatherings were the fiery speeches of Khomeini and passionate cursing of America, Israel, Britain etc. It didn’t take long to sideline and also eliminate the leftists as well as liberals. Soon the revolution was overtaken by Hezbollah the god’s party. The movement started against Capitalism soon became a religious one. Iran was declared as the Islamic Republic of Iran and Khomeini as the leader of the people.

The sporadic upsurges being nipped in the bud that we have been witnessing in various universities in Iran for past few years is the voice of these liberals and leftists which is trying to surface. The new facebook generation has made the maximum use of the internet to externalize their plight yet they have a long way to go. The drastic difference between the public and private life in Iran initially surprised us a lot. The same happy go lucky and warm people, so full of life and vitality in their homes assumed a serious and dull appearance when in public places. No efforts from the government could make people give up their traditional practices of ‘Charshambeh Suri’ (fire ritual, reminiscent of their Parsi past) or celebrating ‘Eid e Nowruz’. The baggage of rich culture that these people carry from the past has survived in the country despite all odds. Though there was a strict ban on dance-music I hardly remember a party bereft of such music. Everything banned was easily available including latest Michael Jackson videos to bollywood flicks which I had to painstakingly translate for my Iranian friends.

The fear that Egypt can become a second Iran is the one generating all the anxiety in the international circuits. The Muslim Brotherhood, a group started in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna was banned in Egypt but recently many of its members have joined politics and fought elections as independents. The popularity of the brotherhood can be gauged by 20% seats won by them in 2005 elections. The fact that Iran has welcomed the change and is already hailing the Egyptian revolution as an Islamic one has created more anxiety today. I was reading in the papers that post Hosni Mubarak’s exit the army has assured that the treaties sighed with allies will be maintained and respected but how long can that go on one has to wait and watch.

Geetika Kaw Kher

A research scholar pursuing a doctoral degree and teaching MFA students in Delhi College of Art for past 3 years. Have been engaged in freelance writing and editing too.

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