Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran
by Afshin Molavi
New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002. 315 pp. $25.95.
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
No book compares with Molavi's Persian Pilgrimages to give a feel for contemporary Iran. A young Iranian-American who has reported on Iran for The Washington Post and Reuters, Molavi has a master's degree in Middle East studies. He spent more than a year traveling in Iran on his own. He thus has the professional training to be a neutral observer while fitting into the social scene. He has made full use of these advantages to write a book simultaneously engaging and profoundly depressing.
Molavi shows that the Islamic revolution has been a disaster for Iran via scores of facts and hundreds of anecdotes. He describes the intellectual and cultural repression in great detail. He brings to life the crushing weight of the severe social restrictions on women and young people. He documents the collapse of what had been a promising economy. Noting that more than 200,000 young Iranians emigrated in 2001, Molavi joined the "visa pilgrimage," as it is called, to the Canadian embassy in Damascus. He quotes one of his friends, "Our best minds are lined up outside the Canadian embassy like common beggars. If you are an Iranian nationalist, you should cry at the sight."
To make matters worse, the prospects are dim for change within the context of the Islamic Republic. Molavi explains the traditional Shi‘ite clerics' distinction between the religious elite (khawas) and the popular masses (‘awwam). He quotes powerful hard-line Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi: "It doesn't matter what the people think. The people are ignorant sheep." Molavi demonstrates how this view underlies the hard-liners' concept of how power should be shared between the elected and nonelected leaders.
Molavi (wisely) stays away from offering advice for U.S. policy. But his account brings home how the Bush administration's policy is pro-Iranian because it supports the people's desire for freedom. Those calling for better relations with the mullah-run government are profoundly anti-Iranian because they would do nothing to end this regime, which undermines a great nation and deprives its people of hope.
Related Topics: Iran | Patrick Clawson | Winter 2004 MEQ
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