In Iran, 3: Imam Khomeini blinks?
Besides archaeology (see previous note), our busy second day in Tehran, Saturday, September 8, had included the Glass and Ceramic Museum (link below) and the Crown Jewels, safely ensconced in the Central Bank. See the link below for a ten-minute video of its treasures (it takes a few minutes to download), with an entertaining and poetic narrative.
However we, readers of The Nation and politically hip Americans, had not come all this way for timeless tourist sites. We wanted to understand what the 1979 revolution had meant for Iran and what it means today for the US and the world.
Thus it was with some eagerness that we visited a shrine that had briefly been the very modest Tehran home of the Ayatollah Khomeini, when that revolution had finally permitted his return from exile. A large hall (pictured above) allowed the Ayatollah to address worshippers and adherents from a platform, where his speech and gestures were recorded for television.
We also visited the nearby, equally modest apartment of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (25 August 1934 – 8 January 2017), an extraordinarily able politician and intellectual who was one of the religious rebels most responsible for the selection of Khomeini as Supreme Leader. He held important posts during the war with Iraq (1980-88) and subsequently, and was the fourth President of Iran from 3 August 1989 until 3 August 1997. To my mind, he is one of the most attractive, open-minded and apparently (from films and memoirs) good-natured of the leaders of the Islamic revolution. Qualities that brought him into severe tension with the more dogmatic elements, including the hyperenergetic populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who would be the Islamic Republic’s 6th president.
Rafsanjani’s very simple home had only recently been inaugurated as a museum (I believe we were the first foreign visitors to enter, and were duly filmed by a national TV squad); we were quite surprised to find the dead man himself quietly seated and smiling at us, not once but in two or three of the rooms, in amazingly realistic effigies. Had his more moderate, pragmatic policies prevailed, Iran would surely be a less tense place than it has been periodically since. He was evidence of the possibility of far greater openness and flexibility even in Shi’ite Islam.
That evening and in the following days, we would see more signs of a modernizing, open-minded Iran trying to break from from a fearful, repressive one. But we would have time for hardly more than glimpses, at the film museum and then that evening, at an art gallery, Aaran Gallery, featuring inventive, ironical works by young artists. For example, “Simorgh Recites” by Mohammed Eskandari. Click on the picture. Well worth a look. He is saying something that maybe, in such an anxiously but inefficiently policed state, can be said more effectively in images than in text: the desire to burst free.