Iran Diary — Part 2
by Yoginder Sikand
No one is quite sure when the conference is to start. We have not been
supplied with a schedule of the proceedings. After a sumptuous
breakfast, I wait at the lobby for the other participants. Perhaps
they might know what is to transpire next. Slowly, some of them begin
to mill around in the lobby. I hear four different versions about the
time and venue of the conference. I also hear tongues, including my
own, click in irritation.
I step out to take a walk in the lawn in front of the entrance to the
hotel. The morning traffic on the road ahead is almost incessant. At
the equivalent of four rupees a litre, petrol is plentiful and cheap
in Iran, although under American-inspired sanctions Iran has been
denied oil refining technology, which means that it has to import most
of its refined oil in exchange for crude oil exports. Yet, despite
this and the recent rationing of petrol imposed by the government,
limiting it to a hundred litres per vehicle a month, traffic on
Tehran’s roads is heavy, but well organized. The smooth broad roads
ensure that traffic jams are rare.
I spot a board above the entrance of the hotel proclaiming ‘The
Revolution of Imam Khomeini Shall Continue Until the Arrival of the
Imam Mahdi’. I notice little of this revolutionary fervour among the
visitors at the Hotel Esteghlal, however, who arrive in their swank
foreign-made cars. Hardly any men sport the beard or stubble that was
almost mandatory during the heady days of the Revolution of 1979. They
are mostly in neatly starched suits or informally dressed in jeans and
T-shirts. Few chador-clad women are to be seen. Clearly, it seems to
me, on the cultural front, the advocates of the Islamic Revolution
have much to be worried about.
I walk down the boulevard to a shopping district nearby. The crass
consumerism that pervades all around strikes me in the face. So, too,
are the obvious class divides. Iranian Islamic scholars have penned
numerous tracts on ‘Islamic economics’, arguing for an economic model
that places piety, moral values and concern for the poor at its
centre. The overloaded and overcrowded shops that I see before me
indicate the difficulty of translating revolutionary ideals into
I buy myself a foot-long multi-flavoured ice-cream for the equivalent
of fifteen Indian rupees, which lasts me till I get back to the hotel
half an hour later. The organizers of the conference have suddenly got
their act together, and are herding the participants into a bus
waiting in the porch of the hotel.
The bus takes us to an enormous stadium-like auditorium a short
distance away. This, we are informed, is a hall used for international
functions organized by the Iranian government. The railings around the
auditorium are decorated with brightly coloured banners bearing finely
crafted calligraphic slogans hailing the twelfth Shia Imam, the Imam
Mahdi, on his birthday, with which our conference coincides. In
addition are giant pictures of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. A
bevy of guards stands at the gate, which swings open as we walk inside
in file, headed by Masoud Pour Sayed Aghaei, the director of the
organization that is hosting us, the Bright Future Institute. He wears
the uniform of a Shia cleric—a loose white gown and a black mantle.
The ponderous black turban that he bears on his head marks him out as
a Sayyed, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He has been bestowed
with the honorific title of ‘Hujjat ul-Islam wal Muslimin’ or ‘The
Proof of Islam and the Muslims’, indicating that he occupies a very
senior position in the Shia clerical hierarchy.
The guards salute the participants as they pass through the gate.
Suddenly, I feel important.
The Bright Future Institute is not a tutorial centre for school
students seeking a bright future, as its name might seem to suggest.
Rather, it sees itself charged with the very serious task of heralding
the arrival of the Imam Mahdi, who, in line with Shia belief, will
rally with Jesus Christ to put an end to the Anti-Christ and establish
a global government. The conference that we have been invited to aims
to discuss various aspects of the doctrine of the Imam Mahdi. My paper
is on a bizarre cult figure, a certain Pakistani maverick called Riyaz
Goharshahi, who made the pompous claim of being the Imam Mahdi of the
Muslims, as well as the Promised Messiah of the Jews and Christians
and the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus, all at the same time.
The conference hall is the grandest I have ever seen. It must have a
seating capacity of well over two thousand. I settle into a
comfortable reclining seat near the podium and watch people saunter
in. Most of them are Iranians, but there are a fair number of Arabs,
Indians and Pakistanis, some Africans and a couple of Europeans. There
are several Shia clerics, distinguishable by their graceful costume,
sitting together in front. They exude a certain aura and charm, with
their carefully-wound turbans and long robes and the black mantles
tossed around their shoulders. A young man sitting next to me, an
Iranian engineer who has prepared a paper on ‘The Global Governance
System of the Imam Mahdi’, informs me that among these are some very
revered Grand Ayatollahs. These include Ayatollah Jamaati, the head of
the Guidance Council, and Ayatollah Mahdavi Kanei, one of the leading
clerics of the Shia world.
The conference is inaugurated by recitation of verses from the Quran,
followed by a choir singing inspirational hymns. The chair for the
morning’s session mounts the podium and greets the participants, who
number more than five hundred. He announces that the arrival of the
Imam Mahdi will be heralded by the Shias, in particularly by the
Iranians, and that the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue until
the Mahdi establishes his global government. Meanwhile, he advises,
Shias must prepare for his return from his present state of
occultation which has lasted for more than a thousand years. For this
purpose, he stresses, the government, the media and the education
system must be pressed into service. The United States, he claims, is
conspiring to weaken ‘Mahdist teachings’ and has, he alleges, even
formed a team to research the subject. Shias, he warns, must be aware
of these plots. His speech is interrupted several times, as indeed in
the case of all the other speakers that follow him, by enthusiastic
cries from the audience offering salutations to the Prophet and his
family, whose descendants are held in particular esteem by the Shias.
A couple of other speakers, including some Ayatollahs, take their turn
to make broadly the same sort of appeal to the audience. Then, all of
a sudden, people get to their feet and a curtain of silence descends
on the auditorium. A handsome middle-aged man, dressed in a simple
grey suit, walks down the aisle to take his seat along with the
Ayatollahs. He is surrounded by a large crowd of admirers. I recognize
him from his pictures I’ve seen: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of
Iran. He is the chief guest of the conference. I’m elated, and feel
even more important.
Much reviled in Western propaganda, Ahmadinejad is clearly a
charismatic figure, admired by millions of Iranians. His austerity is
proverbial, so I understand from what many Iranians tell me. When once
asked by an American television station, “When you look into the
mirror in the morning what do you say to yourself?”, his reply, so it
is said, was , “I see the person in the mirror and tell him,
‘Remember, you are no more than a small servant. Ahead of you today is
the heavy responsibility to serve the Iranian nation’”. On becoming
President, he is said to have donated all the valuable Persian rugs
that graced the office of the Presidency to a mosque in Tehran. He did
away with the opulent lounge for visitors, replacing it with a simple
room with the barest of wooden furniture. He ordered that the
President’s special aircraft be converted into a cargo plane in order
to lighten the burden on the public exchequer, and he himself flies in
ordinary commercial airlines. On many occasions he has joined the
cleaning staff of Tehran municipality to clean the streets in the area
where is house is located. His own personal assets are modest by any
standards: he owns a car manufactured three decades ago and a small
house that he inherited from his father, located in one of the most
deprived quarters of Tehran, where he still lives. He refuses to take
his personal salary, saying that it actually belongs to the Iranian
nation. Clearly, leaders of other countries, particularly Bush and his
friends who have now mounted a vicious vilification campaign against
Ahmadinejad, can profit from his austere example.
Ahmadinejad looks firm but yet somewhat gentle at the same time. He is
an impressive speaker, and the audience listens to him in rapt
attention. His speech, delivered in Farsi, is simultaneously
translated into various languages. He talks of how all the many
prophets have all taught the same basic thing, worship of the one God,
the Ultimate source of all power. Imperialist forces, he says, are
working against God’s plan for humankind and would meet divine wrath.
The Imam Mahdi will put an end to their oppression. That is why, he
says, the imperialists are as mortally afraid of the Imam Mahdi as the
Pharoah was of Moses. ‘Apologists for imperialism claim that liberal
democracy and capitalism represent the end of history’, he says, ‘but
it is actually the history of the oppressors that is coming to an end,
to be replaced by the rebirth of humankind based on unity and faith in
the one God’.
The President’s speech is greeted with a passionate outburst of
salawats. As he descends from the podium he is surrounded by a swarm
of admirers, pushing and shoving each other to shake his hand or
receive his autograph. I join the crowd, trying to nudge my way
through, but I am forced aside by a bunch of excited women jostling to
catch a glimpse of the President as he makes his way out of the hall.
Once the President leaves, the crowd rushes towards the rows of tables
on which cups of tea and chocolate biscuits have been laid out.
The tea is over by the time I manage to get in, so I step outside for
a well-deserved cigarette.