Asia Scope

Safe in Beirut

By austing for

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Austin Mackell asks whether a new chapter in the troubled recent history of Iran is about to be written…

Everything really is relative. As I left Tehran, Beirut seemed like a safe destination, and this cup of machine-made airport coffee actually tasted quite decent (booze, drugs, girls and boys, I am told, can all be acquired in Tehran quite easily for the right price, but a good cappuccino is completely unattainable).

I didn’t really have much of a choice. My 10-day visa had expired and the ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance is refusing to renew the visas of any foreign media. Normally the punishment for an overstay would be minor, but things are growing increasingly unpredictable in the Islamic Republic.

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I felt guilty, though, for abandoning the brave people taking to the streets in the face of rampant government brutality and murder, and disappointed to be missing an incredible story.

In the hours since I left, a rally of massive proportions (probably the biggest protest since the 1979 revolution) was held – and fired on by government troops, with at least one death reported. There has also been an announcement by over 250 professors from two major universities that they will resign. Fellow academics from across the country are expected to follow suit, and tomorrow there will be a nationwide strike at campuses and in other industries.

I would be lying through my buck-teeth, however, if I didn’t admit to being more than a little relieved to be out of there.  

The last thing I did before taking the taxi to the airport was have lunch with a Canadian journalist called George McCloud, who in his few days in the country had twice been attacked by Iranian police. On the second occasion, he was taken to the basement of the Ministry of the Interior, subjected to an intensive beating then interrogated in broken English, before being released with apologies. This is typical of the current treatment of journalists in Iran.

Just before our lunch we had been in the Internet café of the Hotel Laleh, which had been functioning as a kind of communal office for much of the foreign press in Tehran in the last turbulent days, when the esteemed Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk came in to pass on the information that the rumours we had heard about the University of Tehran’s dormitories being stormed were true, and that the students were saying a ‘massacre’ had taken place. One of my contacts in the country has since emailed me saying that five people – three young men and two young women – were killed in the attack. Such reports are, unfortunately, in the current conditions, impossible to confirm or deny.

The situation is spookily reminiscent of incidents leading up to the overthrow of the Shah, and those similarities are not going unnoticed by the protesters.

On the plane, I finally finished reading Michael Axworthy’s concise and lucid history of Iran, Empire of the Mind. Axworthy discusses, amongst many other things, statements from Abdolkarim Soroush, a leading thinker and theologian at the time of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, that the combination of religion and government would ‘discredit religion in Iran and alienate the young’. In his book, Axworthy argues that ‘this is precisely what has happened’.

The book, a recent edition, covers Iranian history well into Ahmadinejad’s first term before closing with a thoughtful passage that read:

 ‘Since 1979 Iran has challenged the West, and Western conceptions of what civilisation should be. That might have been praiseworthy in itself, had it not been for the suffering and oppression, the dishonesty and disappointment that followed. Could Iran offer more than that? Iran could, and should.’

As I finished reading, a young Lebanese-Canadian boy called Ahmed who was sitting next to me asked, ‘Good book?’

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‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but it needs another chapter.’