The Revolution and the Ancien Regime1

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You have come to this place to day, most probably, to find some answers to certain questions you no doubt have about my country, concerning its recent past and present conditions. I cannot boast of any speciality I am afraid, but the friends who have organised this colloquium have assured me that I may talk to you and present matters in a personalised way. That is what I intend to do. Therefore, I address you simply as an Iranian, as a woman and as a writer.

All these three capacities have been denied me by the actual regime in Iran. As far as the mullahs are concerned, I have no nationality, I only have a religion. As a woman, they have reduced me to half a man, and as a writer, I have been strongly advised to break my pen (And when mullahs give advice, they mean it to be taken!)

Therefore, I have every reason to be grateful to you for giving me this opportunity to prove — at least to myself — that I have not been stripped of all the essential attributes that make up my existence.

I am an Iranian, but a very perplexed one. As I have been brought up in a Persian cultural background, nurtured on Persian literature and have imbibed Persian poetry, I can assure you there is no trend in that culture, no passage in that literature and no stanza in that poetry which is not anti-mullah. Don't you think I should be perplexed, then, when I witness the people of Iran — the very vehicle of such a culture — on a silver-plate offering their land to a mullah?

A thousand pities that most of you, present here to day, do not know my mother tongue. Had you known it, you would have appreciated the magnitude of my perplexity and the depth of my bewilderment. Had you known it, I could have quoted verse after verse of poetry full of sharp criticism of the clergy, page after page of caustic humour aimed at the Moslem ecclesiastics. So, to give you a picture of what happened in Iran, in a language familiar to you, I shall read you a short story by James Thurber. It is actually a fable called: The Owl who was God.

Once upon a starless midnight there was an owl who sat on an oak tree. Tow moles tried to slip by, unnoticed. "You!" said the owl.

"Who?" they asked.

"You two!" answered the owl.

The moles hurried away and told the other creatures that the owl was the greatest and the wisest of all animals, because he could see in the dark and answer any question.

"I'll see about that," said a bird, and called on the owl one night when it was again very dark.

"How many claws am I holding up?" asked the bird.

"Two!" said the owl.

"Why does a lover call on his love?" asked the bird.

"To woo!" said the owl.

The bird hastened back to report that the owl was indeed the greatest and the wisest animal in the world, because he could see in the dark and could answer any question.

"Can he see in the daytime too?" asked a fox.

All the creatures laughed loudly at this silly question, set upon the fox and his friends, and drove them out of the region. They sent a messenger to the owl and asked him to become their leader.

When the owl appeared among the animals, it was high noon and the sun was shining brightly. He walked very slowly, which gave him an appearance of great dignity, and peered about with staring eyes, which gave him an air of great importance.

"He is God!" screamed a hen and the others took up the cry: "He is God!"

So they followed him...till they came to a concrete highway. There was a truck coming towards them at high speed. The bird who saw it first and was very scared, asked the owl, "aren't you afraid?"

The owl, who could not see the truck, said, "Who?"

"He is God!" cried all the creatures again, and were still crying, "He is God!" when the truck hit them and ran them down.

Moral: You can fool too many people too much of the time.


Too many Persians were indeed fooled for too long a time to get themselves or others killed.

However, one question may be pertinently asked: what made the Iranians think they needed a "leader" to begin with? The reasons were abundant. I shall name a few at random:

The lack of vital individual liberties;

The incredible intolerance of the government Vis à Vis patriotic opposition;

Its incomprehensible softness towards the mortal enemies of the country;

The widespread corruption;

The massive migration of alienated old peasants and village youths to the capital;

A huge surplus of money in an economy, which could not absorb it all;

Sudden diminution of this flow of cash;

Mistaking innovation for reform;

Finally, the out proportioned and destructive criticism of the existing regime by intellectuals.

I am not going to ponder upon the faults and shortcomings of what my friends here have chosen to call the "ancien regime". I leave that task to all the ex's of that regime, namely, ex — ambassadors, ex-special representatives, ex-ministers and even ex-private secretaries to the Queen. I do advise you, however, to thumb through their books — oh yes! They have all written books since what again my Harvard friends call the "Revolution" — some in French, some in English, some in Persian and some in all 3 languages. Look through them and come face to face with a most morbid, ignorant, and tyrannical regime. Nevertheless, I do beg you, while going through the pages to remember one thing that the authors themselves seem to have completely forgotten, namely that they were all part and parcel of that very regime which they attack so mercilessly.

Please do not get me wrong — most of their harsh criticisms are well founded. The thing I find abject, however, is that they kept quiet while they were having their share of the cake and voice their objections now when there is no cake to share. At any rate too late — much too late.

In this respect, I am reminded of a story by one of our 14-century humorists and satirists: Obaid-e-Zakan. The story is about a man marrying a young girl whom he believes to be a virgin. On the nuptial night, however, he becomes, shall we say, wiser... The following day the new bride is nowhere to be seen. After a thorough search, the groom finally finds her in a shed sitting in front of a mirror serenely piercing her ears. "Your sense of time and place is totally wrong my dear," the groom says to her. "What you had plenty of time to pierce in your father's house you are doing now and here, and what on the other hand, should have been pierced here and now, was pierced long ago and elsewhere.»

Excuse the 14-century mentality of this story but I think it very apt for our ex-high officials. Their senses of time and place are indeed topsy-turvy! I personally would like to remind some of them what Æsop had said in 550 B.C.: "Only cowards insult dying majesty".

A little while ago, I mentioned that the friends who have made our meeting to-day possible have chosen to call the colloquium "The revolution and the ancien regime". To be quite honest, if I wanted to stick strictly to this title I should not be talking about the recent events in Iran at all. Forgive me if this sounds like a riddle. Bear with me a bit longer, and I shall make myself clear.

To do so, I shall have to take you back to the last decade of the l9 century and to the Royal Palace of Nasser-eddin Shah, who after his return from yet another extensive and expensive visit to Europe (on borrowed money from Russian Bankers by the way ), is having a state banquet in Tehran.

Nasser-eddin Shah, who was more of a minor poet than a major statesman, seated on the Peacock Throne, surrounded by his courtiers and feeling perhaps in a poetical mood, asks his entourage: "Why is it that we lag so far behind Europe? Two or three centuries ago, we were almost on a par. Going further back in time, we were even ahead."

"Your Majesty, the Mecca of the Universe," someone ventures to reply, "A handful of people think that the answer lies in the fact that the European states are in possession of codified laws. We can boast of none."

"Nonsense!" says his Imperial Majesty graciously, "What is law? Is it not I who is the law? »

"Aye Sire! Your Majesty is the fountain of law. Nevertheless, perhaps some cool sprays from such a bountiful flow of justice should be felt upon the tired faces of your Majesty's worshipping subjects! »

The lyricism of the answer apparently appeals to the Shah's sense of poetry. "Then go — all of you, go and study the laws of England, France, etc., and work out a 'House of Justice' for these deserving worshippers."

 However, the so-called "handful of people" the courtiers referred to did not actually want a "House of Justice" whose "fountain of law" would be the King. They in fact wanted a radical change; they wanted modern parliamentary democracy. They worked hard to elaborate such a system, fought for it and finally won their cause. Nasser-eddin Shah was dead and buried by then, and his son Mozafar-eddin Shah was approaching the end of his reign. This was in 1906 and that was a revolution.

That was a revolution in the sense the term is used and understood today by the majority of people; namely, the overthrow of an absolute dictatorship and its replacement by a parliamentary democracy.

We have an excellent word with which to describe the Iranian upheaval in 1979. The word is "Fetneh". "Fetneh" implies a concoction made up of sedition and conspiracy leading to a calamity brewed with wickedness, revenge and horror.

If by "revolution" this concoction is meant, then use it, by all means, to designate the 1979 catastrophe, use it copiously and generously with the Ayatollah’s benediction!

In this case, however, we must find, or if need be, coin another word for what is currently referred to as English, American or Persian constitutional revolutions. That would not be very difficult, I assure you. After all, Adolphe Thiers, who wrote 23 volumes on the French Revolution, after having witnessed the "Commune de Paris" in 1871, had second thoughts and decided that the word "people" should be changed to the word "mob" wherever used in those 23-odd volumes! Our task will be a lot easier, and more justified, I trust! Therefore, as long as the word revolution is synonymous with liberty, equality and fraternity then I'll continue to call the Ayatollah’s ascension to power a Fetneh or the mullahs' "coup d'État" .

Mullahs' "coup d'État" is perhaps just as apt. And this brings us to "ancien regime". Are you aware that in the 1906 revolution the single group whose losses were the greatest was the clergy? In the "ancien regime", the real one, the one prior to the 1906 revolution, the clergy was all-powerful, all influential. Ecclesiastics had the monopoly of the educational system and the judicial apparatus. They could make and unmake Vizirs. They could elevate or abase Kings. They had banned women from society and forbidden them even to learn how to write. Women were allowed magnanimously, however, to read, provided they only read the Koran. They were not permitted to be seen or heard in public. Polygamy was widely practised; fathers, brothers and husbands were encouraged to do away with any of their women-folk who dared to have an independent mind or a healthy constitution and a youthful heart.

What do you see in Iran of today? The very same picture. Only this time the mullahs are back with a vengeance. Even the most lucid observers are thrown off balance by the viciousness of their rule and the ruthlessness of their attitude, never witnessed on the same hideous scale before 1906. Therefore, what happened in 1979 was in fact the revival of the "ancien regime" and not a new era. The clergy had his revenge on the Iranian nation for having deprived him of his undeserving privileges in 1906.

Who, you may ask, gave them this opportunity? I believe at least three distinct groups: (a) the intellectual demagogues, (b) the extreme left, (c) the multitude of uprooted peasants — each group, needless to say, with its own different motives and goals.

Let me first tackle the intellectuals whom I always refer to in inverted commas, these "cauliflowers" that Mark Twain would have seen as "nothing but cabbages with a college education". Being anti-Shah and anti-regime had become so terribly fashionable and such a short-cut to fame, that it was enough for any-one with a runty artistic talent to write an article, or better still a book, composed of a string of ambiguous slogans and nonsensical symbols to become a celebrity. He or she would even become a national hero if through the stupidity of censorship or SAVAK— and both these institutions showed great aptitude for stupidity — the book was banned for a while or the author arrested for a few days.

This was true not only of writers, but applied equally well to film directors, painters, translators, poets, lawyers and even hosts or hostesses of literary "salons". In short, to be considered an intellectual, one had to be in opposition. Most of our so-called intellectuals had become, first and foremost, professional opponents. Hence, when the mullahs started their opposition to Shah, the first group to join them and the most vociferous was this one. These demagogues were shouting their heads off, knowing well that it is a general popular error to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare. They became ardent Moslems overnight. They were so busy turning their rosaries and paying homage to the clergy that they failed or chose not to grasp the excellent opportunity offered to them for a profound reform most Persians had wanted for a long time, namely the appointment of Shapoor Bakhtiar as prime minister. They remained true to their character: a bunch of professional opponents! They thought themselves perhaps too clever for the Shah, but they certainly proved themselves too naive for Ayatollah Khomeini.

Nothing can give you a better understanding of the situation than yet another fable by my beloved James Thurber. This one is called "The Fairly Intelligent Fly". Allow me to read it to you:

A large spider in an old house built a beautiful web in which to catch flies. Every time a fly landed on the web and it was entangled in it, the spider devoured him so that when another fly came along he would think the web was a safe and quiet place in which to rest.

One day a fairly intelligent fly buzzed around above the web so long without alighting that the spider appeared and said, "Come on down."

But the fly was too clever for him and said, "I never alight where I don't see other flies and I don't see any other flies in your house."

So he flew away until he came to a place where there were a great many other flies. He was about to settle down among them when a bee buzzed up and said, "Hold it, stupid! That is flypaper. All those flies are trapped."

"Don't be silly," said the fly, "they're dancing." So he settled down and became stuck to the flypaper with all the other flies.

Moral: There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else for that matter.


The other flies in whose number our "Fairly Intellectuals" sought safety were, as I have mentioned before, the uprooted peasants and villagers and the extreme left.

I am not going to give you an account of the land reform in Iran here and now, but undoubtedly, one of its most pernicious consequences was the mad rush of farmers and village-folk to big towns where they found themselves complete strangers. They herded together on the city outskirts, bringing with them only their religious superstitions, and adding to it only the envy of the glamour of city duellers' life-style. They felt nostalgic for their ancestral villages that no longer existed and begrudged the towns that could never belong to them. To this group one should add the youths from provincial towns and villages who had come to the cities hoping to gain admission to universities, thus bettering their lives and climbing the social ladder, but were often frustrated at being left out of the higher educational institutes and lived on the margins of a society too emancipated for their tastes. These people, to use an expression very much in fashion nowadays, had lost their identity and their sense of belonging and were desperately looking for something to cling to.

To stir up trouble, the extreme left could not have wished for an easier prey or a better hotbed than the aforementioned groups. They went to work double quick. If Lewis Carrol had wanted to describe their activities, he would have said, "madly squeezing a right-hand foot, into a left-hand shoe". And this is what emerged from it: a strange and dangerous mixture of a religious-minded group, indoctrinated with Marxist-Leninist ideology, i.e. the Mojahedin. Nothing was left out in their training: they became excellent terrorists, glib talkers, and brilliant propagandists. They still are. God only knows how many innocent youths they attracted to their fuzzy ideals and how many they sent to their premature deaths, both as the pillars and founders of the Islamic Republic and later –  when denied their expected share of power by the mullahs –  as the advocates of the Democratic Islamic Republic.

Of course, they do not like to be reminded of the invaluable help they gave Khomeini at the beginning. When they are, they answer like Burgess, the author of the "Purple Cow": "Ah, yes! I wrote the "Purple cow" / I am sorry now I wrote it / But I can tell you anyhow/ I'll kill you if you quote it!"

They were in fact very much the "Snowballs" of George Orwell's masterpiece "Animal Farm".

The resemblance of the characters of the book to the major actors of the Islamic Republic does not stop here, and is indeed striking:

We had our "Mr. Jones of Manor Farm", who locked the hen houses for the night but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. Moreover, when the animal rebellion started he fled and spent most of his time sitting in a taproom of the Red Lion at Willington, complaining to anyone who would listen of the monstrous injustice he had suffered in being turned out of his property by a pack of good-for-nothing animals.

We also witnessed other farmers sympathising in principle, but at heart, each of them was secretly wondering whether he could not somehow turn Jones's misfortune to his own advantage.

We, of course, had our own "Napoleon", the one and only pig, who after having got rid of "Snowball", the only other rival pig, became the undisputed and implicit leader of Animal Farm.

We had a few people resembling "Boxer" and "Clover", those 2 carthorses, most faithful and obedient disciples.

We even had our own cat that would vanish when there was work to be done to reappear at meal times, always having such excellent excuses and purring so affectionately that it was impossible not to believe in her good intention.

We also had many "Mollies" who very soon got sick and tired of a land where no sugar and no coloured ribbon were to be found and got the hell out.

We too had our "Minimus" who did nothing but create new glorious titles for the leader.

We had the exact duplicates of the "trained dogs" who were ever ready to jump at the throat and rip to pieces or slaughter any chicken, duck or piglet who had not said "hurrah" in time.

We had our own brand of "sheep" in thousands, who would be only too happy to interrupt any speech or gathering by their interminable marches and indefatigable bleating "four legs good, two legs bad!"

We had our "hens" too, who were the only group who raised a terrible outcry when they first heard the pigs were going to take their eggs away from them and made a determined effort to thwart Napoleon's wishes.

Finally, we had our "Squealers" whose duty was to go around and scare the underfed, tired, miserable animals out of their skins by telling them that Jones would come back if ever they complained.

Of course, there are some minor differences between the book and events in Iran as well. For example, at the beginning of the rebellion in Animal Farm we see at least a few who talk of their duty and loyalty to Mr. Jones, whom they refer to as "Master". In Iran, however, those who were supposed to be most loyal to the "Master" fled the country long before him.

The first harvest in Animal Farm after the departure of Mr. Jones was the biggest and with very little wastage, whereas in Iran, everything went from bad to worse from the very start and there was nothing but wastage.

The pigs at the end of the book start imitating human beings in order to bargain with them but in Iran, pigs remain pigs and ask human beings to emulate their behaviour if they wish to make a profit.

For someone who is not a Persian and who has not lived that grotesque tragedy of the "revolution" and wishes to grasp the situation, to read Animal Farm is a must. To understand what is happening today another masterpiece by the same author "Nineteen Eighty-Four", can prove of great help. To complete your reading list, perhaps it would not be a bad idea to add the "True Believer" by Eric Hoffer.

Well, the time allotted to me is almost up. I am perfectly aware that my speech has been, to say the least, unconventional. If I have called upon certain delightful satirists to help me draw a picture of the Greek tragedy of my country, it is because, as Beaumarchais has said, "Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d'être obligé d'en pleurer". (I force myself to laugh at every thing, for fear of being compelled to weep.) We Iranians have had enough of weeping, enough of "sentence first, verdict afterwards", enough of religious rigour, enough of Islamic fervour.

My conclusion will be just as unconventional as the rest of my talk: it shall not deal with either «yesterday» or «today» of Iran—, which is the subject under discussion— but I want it to be a sort of furtive glimpse into "tomorrow". Because my country cannot forget the past, will not come to terms with the present, but is looking forward to the future.

Something is sure and irreversible about this future: the life of any theocratic government, be it of the existing sort, or the softer or harsher shades which may come out of the actual regime, or that in exile with a word Democratic attached to it, has come to an end forever. It has been proved, once and for all, that the ecclesiastics, with or without turbans, despise the profane virtues of sincerity and moderation. This kind of regime may survive for a while by sheer use of force. The use of force, however, is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again — and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered. Another thing is also certain about our tomorrow, namely, that the future can never be planned by the past but it must be built by avoiding at all costs the mistakes of the past. What Samuel Johnson says is true and beautiful — I shall finish by quoting him: "Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advance us in the dignity of thinking beings".

The Iranians are in search of that "whatever".

Thank you.

1This lecture was given at the University of Harvard within the framework of a colloquium under the general title of: The Revolution and the Ancien Régime. (1984)