On Iranian Cats, Mice, and Revolutions

June 12, 2009 was the date of the latest Iranian political crisis, a coup. This coup was special, however. Not only was this coup a military act to seize power, but it is also an act that completes the Iranian revolution in a very ironic fashion. The last remnants of those who began the revolution and developed its ideology have been wiped out. Thirty years after the revolution”s victory, the revolution finally ate all its first children.

The revolution”s generational consumption was completed in different stages. First, starting in June 1980, Marxists and political organizations with Marxist tendencies were massacred. Then the secular nationalists and moderate religious were banned and pressured. In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini”s designated heir, Ayatollah Montazeri, was removed from power, and a few months after Khomeini”s death in the same year, the newly-elected government of Rafsanjani eradicated from parliament (the Majlis) those who were considered “leftist” inside the political establishment. During the 1990s there was a fight for power within the right wing of the Islamic Republic. For the first time elements of the traditional religious groups who had no revolutionary background found their way into the government and held key positions. The revolutionary left came to power again in June 1997, and the years between that date and today were the years of political struggle between the last of the revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s and the new generation of rulers trained not in the battle with the Shah”s regime but in the military camps of the Iranian Revolutionary Army. With the defeat of the Reformists in this recent “election,” and their arrest for supposedly inciting riots, the revolution is complete; all her children have been consumed.

In my Iranian childhood in the 1970s, the most memorable mouse and cat characters were not Tom and Jerry -whom I used to watch on the “American” channel- but the characters from a short story for children written by the fourteenth-century Iranian satirist poet, Ubaid Zakani. My sixteen-page book of “The Mice and the Cat” was a reproduction of an old lithograph print, which gave it a unique look among my other books.

Zakani, as is customary among the classics, began his story reminding the young readers that by the end of the book they should pay attention to the moral of the story: “Be smart and mind the story of the cat and the mice. You”ll be astonished about what the story might teach you. Even you, who are wise and prudent, listen to the tale and let it be like a jewel earring on your ear.” The playful language of the story and its funny unusual rhyme scheme made it easy to memorize and a joy to read. But the ending was not quite what one might expect from a children”s tale.

The story, as the name suggests, narrated the tale of mice, powerlessly oppressed before the paws of a brutal cat. At some point in the story, the cat”s conscience appears troubled by what he does to the mice. Taking refuge in a mosque, he prays, cries, regrets his viciousness towards the mice, and becomes a “man of god.” A mouse hidden under the “manbar” (pulpit) sees the repentant cat and takes the news to the other mice. The news about the cat”s spiritual change spreads among the mice. The joyful mice decide to show their appreciation by offering food to the cat. So they send their leaders to the cat to deliver him a message of friendship with trays of food. The message delivery, of course, gets interrupted; the new cat of god eats both the food and the messengers. This makes the mice extremely angry, unites them, and motivates them to change the course of their miserable life once and for all. They decide to fight back against the cat. The mice organize a revolution, defeat the army of the cats, and capture the cat that ate their leaders.

Up to this point, we have a regular Hollywood-style movie plot where the little guy rises up against an oppressive overlord and seemingly wins; the good and the meek defeat the evil and the cruel. The last few lines, though, undo such a happy ending. The mice take the cat to the stake to hang him. In the last minutes the cat frees himself from the ropes, kills the mice around him, and forces the army of mice to scatter. Brutality wins. Life goes back to “normal.” The “oppressed” remain powerless, and the winner is the one who uses hypocrisy, brutality, and ruthlessness.

I remember being nine years old and reading that story in 1977. Iran was pregnant with a revolution. The Shah was widely despised by the educated, secular intellectuals as well as many traditional Shiite clergy and their followers. For many members of the newly formed middle-class families of the 1960s and the 1970s, Islam was the alternative to reform Iran, a country supposedly corrupted by Western ideas. In those decades, many Iranian religious intellectuals tried to create a socialist and Marxist inspired Islam, a “modern” Islamic ideology. To many of them Shiite Islam was considered an authentic “Iranian” alternative to Western radical ideas. They believed a reinvigorated political Islam could be the revolutionary solution that makes Iranians independent of Marxism or any other Western ideology. Many of these intellectuals were more invested in the power of the idea than in their own faith in Islam. They believed political Islam would mobilize the masses against the Shah”s dictatorship. Others, perhaps more faithfully, viewed Islam as the true solution to any problem, even though they never could define how the religion would digest modern values. For the secular nationalists, liberals, and Marxists, it did not matter how Shiite Islam would become a modern political ideology.

The year 1978 began with the first serious anti-Shah demonstrations. Massive protests continued for the rest of the year. By January of 1979, the Shah left the country. In February of that same year the secular and Islamic revolutionaries, united under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew the Shah”s regime. The Shah”s army could not fight back.

On February 11, 1979, at the age eleven, I witnessed the collapse of one of the most brutal dictatorships of the century. I was elated that the mice had defeated the cat, that the oppressed could finally live free. The moral of Zakani’s story seemed to be wrong.

Things didn”t go the way the mice had intended. The next thirty years witnessed a Zakani-style victory of the cat. The king was gone but the kingdom reincarnated in the Islamic dictatorship called “Velayate Faqih.” In 1979 the first constitution of the newly-formed “Islamic” republic institutionalized a new position above the government and the president to overlook the acts of the republic and “guide” them according to Islamic Sharia: “Velayate Faqih,” meaning the Jurist Ruler, or as it is translated into English, the Supreme Leader. The story of post-revolutionary Iran became the struggle of a nation with its self-invented monster.

Today”s fight in Iran between the reformists and the hardliners is the result of a thirty-year struggle within the nation”s mind, a battle between those who finally recognize the face of the brutal cat in their self-made system and those who do not. No one knows if the story must ultimately end as Zakani would predict, the cat”s brutality triumphing, leaving a status quo of oppression on the mice. I still want to believe, as I did on February 11, 1979, that Zakani does not always have to be right.

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