Friday, September 15, 2006

Iran: Know Thine Enemy

Bill Berkeley's experience in Mashhad reveals something more about Iran than we can get from the normal sources. One of the most heartening things about his long article on his experience is that the Americans are still welcomed. This comports with what we have heard from others. (And with Liza Baron's report on her experience in Syria.) A member of the Basij militia was proud to have him in his home - and in one of the most conservative cities in Iran. He notes that there seems to be a "challenge of getting it right on Iran." Even though anthropologists were all over Iran in the 1970s they didn't see the Iranian Revolution coming. And again "few American reporters anticipated the election … of Ahmadinejad". We have tended to read too much in what Safdari had called "the gilded youth" who are scornful of those who voted for Ahmadinejad. Steve Coll points out in Ghost Wars to us that in the 1970s the CIA passed by the tables of cassette tapes of sermons by radical clerics all over the Middle East and went to talk to the elite who spoke western languages and paid no attention to what the ordinary public was reading and listening to. Owing to the new issues over nuclear power new concerns are being expressed about Iran, but "on the street" the picture is very different.

Iran: Know Thine Enemy
Published: September 14, 2006 (Columbia Journalism Review)

On a reporting trip to Iran in the spring of 2004, I visited the northeastern city of Mashhad. It's an important pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims, a sprawling, low-slung metropolis that fans out from a central plaza built around the gold-domed shrine of the Imam Reza. Imam Reza is believed to have hailed from the family of the prophet Mohammad. He was designated the eighth of the twelve sacred imams of the Shi'a faith, and is the only one buried in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of devout Shiites from across south Asia and the Arab world make pilgrimages to Mashhad each year to worship inside this splendid compound of aqua-tiled spires and arches, luminous chandeliers, and gushing fountains under two glittering domes.

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