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My favourite Iranian cultural target

January 7, 2020 Leave a comment

To offer a small antidote to the mutual incomprehension that feeds the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, here’s a favourite chapter from my book Dining with al-Qaeda. In Iran, it’s best for Americans to know that what they see and what they hear is rarely what they’ll get. Especially when it comes to the rich complexity of mediaeval Persian poetry, a cultural tradition that has deep importance even today.

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Chapter 6: The Drunken Lover

Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul

I veil my words in curtains, friends
Let balladeers tease out their ends

Hafez, fourteenth-century Persian poet

 

If I ever believed that I could easily decipher the Islamic Republic of Iran, that hope was put to rest by the scandal of the mullah and the naked lady.

It was back in 1986, and times were bleak. Glorious reports from the war front with Iraq barely concealed the reality of a bloody stalemate. Food was rationed and foreign travel was hard. The nation was tiring of the young, awkward Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the oppressive shah, or king, seven years before. Then the naked lady came, and she offered us all a sweet moment of escape. Tehran’s rumor mill flashed the news of her arrival around the city. Within hours delighted whispers had spread to a giggling conclave in my office in north Tehran. I’d understood that this female apparition could be found nestling in the beard of the mullah in question.

“I’ve heard it’s a fox,” countered my assistant, Mohammad, a precise mathematician who now wore the quiet smile he reserved for the most satisfying of paradoxes.

I turned to Rahmati, the office manager, whom I’d sent out to obtain the evidence. Back then I was one of the only Western correspondents resident in Iran and was eager to impress my bosses at Reuters with such an extraordinary scoop.

“Where is she? Is there a fox? Can you see anything?” I asked.

“No!” said Rahmati, bending gleefully yet uneasily with the rest of us over the evidence. My willful twenty-six-year-old’s inability to understand the niceties of submitting to revolutionary regimes, combined with the demands put upon Rahmati’s life by government agencies of all sorts, were turning him into an ever-greater bundle of nerves. “She’ll be very hard to find!”

We were looking at Iran’s smart new purple one-hundred-rial banknote, printed in Britain and just issued by the government. One side featured the doleful countenance of Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Modarres, a religious grandee and politician who died in one of the shah’s jails in 1937. But, as all Tehran now knew, an ingenious engraver had woven a luscious nude into the curls of the thick growth on his chin! Everyone wanted to admire this cheeky revelation of what everyone had long suspected to be on a mullah’s mind. Within a day the banknote soared to a premium against other notes, 20, 30, 50 percent above the face value. We pored over the newly minted bill, fingers pointing here and there. There the naked lady was, we eventually all agreed, in a sensuous recline. Amazing! Or was she? Could it be a fox? A national psychosis swept aside all such questioning. Soon people were describing snakes in the mullah’s turban and a calligraphic swirl in the note’s geometric surrounds that spelled out “Death to Khomeini,” the revered leader of the Islamic Republic.

This proof of all the wildest conspiracies that any Iranian could ever dream up made the nation positively tipsy. The regime reeled under the onslaught, so much more dangerous for being completely outside the tightly controlled public media. To regain control, it withdrew the banknotes. Several days later, after a public holiday, Islamic Republic newspaper splashed the counterstrike across the front page. A plot by the little Satan, Britain, had been crushed! A certain attempt to meddle with the currency of the Islamic Republic had been foiled! The victorious government would now reissue the cleaned-up banknotes!

To me, the bills seemed unchanged. The same long-faced ayatollah looked ponderously out at the world. But now Iranians acted surprised when I suggested that a naked lady had ever nestled in his bushy beard. We all went back to our routines.

Yet, as I traveled to Iran over the years, the problem posed by the naked lady kept surfacing: What you see in Iran is not what you get. I felt it most deeply when I arrived in Tehran in January 2001. My editors at the Wall Street Journal were interested in a typical bill of fare: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its rabble-rousing rhetoric against Israel, its oil, and the latest round of brutal suppression of “reformers” by “conservatives.” I slogged up and down the traffic-clogged expressways of the sprawling metropolis to report these matters in the fashion of the day. Thanks to the ascendancy of roughshod revolutionary thugs as the dominant class, my stories once again reinforced the idea that Iran was a mortal enemy of civilization.

But I knew this was far from the truth, and my role in perpetuating this myth began to upset me. Being a bit crazy sometimes didn’t make nations wholly mad and bad. The sophistication of Persian culture had made my heart soar when I studied at university. Many Iranians I admired were clever and amusing. Their literary talents and fine taste made me count them among the most civilized people in the Middle East. I became determined to write something to show that everything in Iran was not as it appeared in the sterile rhetorical cockfight between U.S. spokesmen and Iranian hard-liners. At a deeper level, too, I wanted to explain that no Iranian ever took anything at face value, so we should be wary of doing that ourselves when dealing with them. Indeed, the naked lady had proved how the extraordinary vitality of the Iranian imagination meant that the country might actually be lost in a mental maze of its own devising.

But how to explain this uniquely mercurial country to the fact-loving readers of the Journal? I searched for inspiration by flicking through the Iranian channels of the television in my rented apartment. Post-revolutionary TV was predictable. A mullah preaching in a monotone. A poet. An Iranian film director discussing a heart-breaking cinematic triumph. A lugubrious Persian poetry reading. A mullah preaching. A soulful film, another mullah. A new poet who began to declaim about roses, nightingales, the beloved . . . Aha, I realized, that was it! I would travel to Shiraz, city of poetry and roses. There I would write about the one person I knew who gave voice to Iran’s full complexity of inner truths and multiple meanings.

***

I telephoned Bill Spindle in New York to give him the good news. He needed me, as usual, to find a strong newsy front-page story.

“We have to explain everything at once, right?” I said. “What better subject than a poet!”

Spindle’s sigh turned to rebukeful protest when I added that the poet I had in mind had been dead since 1389. But my arguments were ready for turning our media spotlight on Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez, a poet of love, mystical paths to union with God, and lampooner of hypocrisy. Even in his own lifetime, this scourge of religious bigotry was well on his way to fame. The earlier Persian poet Omar Khayyam is more famous in the English-speaking world thanks to a felicitous translation, but it is Hafez who is Iran’s most admired source of literary wisdom.

Iran’s poetic tradition, I maintained, could help explain Iranian political rhetoric to the world. Understanding Iran was like deconstructing a magician’s tricks: The secret lay in the trick, and there was no underlying sorcery. One reason none of us understood what Iran really wanted was that there was no consensus on policy even within the Iranian regime. I gave Spindle the example of restoring relations with the United States, broken since revolutionary students seized the U.S. embassy in 1979 and held sixty-six Americans hostage, some of them for 444 days. Contrary to appearances, mainstream Iranian politicians and the public quietly supported reopening the embassy. But neither of Iran’s big factions could allow the other side to get the credit for it. The United States, of course, didn’t help. It was vengeful about its humiliation and allied with Israel in viewing Iran’s regime as uniquely diabolical. So the old American embassy became a high school for Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull.

You shouldn’t forget, I told Spindle, that Iranians consider straight talk vulgar, almost rude. When I asked an Iranian the way somewhere, he would often first try to assess in which direction I already wanted to go. Iranian clergymen reserved special debate for the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. In one of my two expulsion orders from Iran, only one of which was fully implemented, the ministry responsible formally charged me with seeing “the glass half empty when in fact it is half full.” Some Iranians would scold me about how literally the West took slogans like “Wipe out Israel,” and insisted they did not mean a new holocaust, just a change in Israeli policies. One friend who worked for the Iranian news agency IRNA said he and his bored colleagues deliberately sought out anti-West hell-raising by provincial mullahs, translated it, and published it to the world. Their purpose was not global Islamic revolution, as everyone thought. It was the opposite: to embarrass or trip up the Islamist regime.

The way to dissect this grand complication, I insisted to Spindle, was to dive deep into a poetic tradition that derived its power from a kaleidoscopic range of meanings. Every Iranian agrees, more or less, that Hafez is the paragon of this ancient and gorgeous art. His ghazals, a kind of sonnet usually of seven couplets, have a deep, resonant beauty and a sweep of Shakespearean majesty. Their apparently simple settings—usually rose gardens or wine taverns, perfumed by sweet breezes, nightingales, lovers, and wine bearers—disguise a vast complexity. Persian scholars can attribute several meanings to every word, weighing overtones of the mundane, the metaphoric, the mystical, and even the cosmic. Thus the phrase “That Turk of Shiraz” from one of his most famous poems can mean a Turkic tribesman from the Shiraz area; a pale-skinned male or female beauty; a face with a mole, in which the darkness of the mole indicates the mystical unknowable; the planet Mars; and so on. Hafez even mixes spiritual imagery with the wild-edged erotic:

With dishevelled hair and gleaming skin and laughing mouth and drunk

With shirt ripped open, singing sonnets and a wine jar in his hand

With a trouble-loving eye and a finger on his lips

At midnight he came and sat here by my pillowside . . .

Every generation of foreign Persian scholars tries its hands at translating Hafez, while disparaging the efforts of the last. In studies of Hafez, debate rages about which ghazals he wrote, when he wrote them, and whether certain lines in them are really his. Nobody can quite tell if the love of which he speaks is for boys, women, or God. Hafez at times clearly revels in earthly pleasures of wine and song, flying in the face of orthodox Muslim disapproval. And yet it could all be metaphorical and refer simply to his path to union with the divine essence. One thing is for sure: He hated religious authoritarianism, and a widely accepted tradition has it that the blinkered clergy of his day tried to prevent him receiving a Muslim burial. Biting verses like the following show why he is more popular than ever among dissidents in today’s Islamic Republic:

 

Preachers who boast of probity from pulpits and in the mosque

Behave quite differently when none other is on hand to watch.

 

I became so intoxicated with his idiom that when asked in my final exam at Oxford to critique the construction of a ghazal, I wrote out one that I had composed in honor of a lovely Persian woman in my college and duly discussed it with myself. I thought it wiser not to tell Spindle that last part. Still, to me the evidence that this was a story was overwhelming. But through the silence on the phone line, I could feel him leaning back skeptically in his swivel chair.

“People should understand that ‘Death to America!’ sometimes means, ‘Please, America, show me more love!’” I insisted. “I’m also fed up with writing about Islamic this, Islamic that. We treat the whole region as if nobody goes out-of-doors without consulting the Koran. Well, the fact is that in Iran today, the poems of Hafez may well outsell the Koran. It’s a secret counterculture—for me, actually, it’s the main culture of Iran. This Islamic revolutionary nonsense is the counterculture. And six hundred years old or not, a new Iranian pop group is now using his lyrics as a form of protest!”

Spindle heard me out patiently. He allowed that this all might be the case but predicted that it would be hard to get onto the front page, the holy grail of all our efforts. This was a process with as many stages as the mystic’s path to union with the godhead. First, a reporter had to write a formal proposal, an art form in itself that could take weeks to agree with an editor. Then it would be submitted to the front-page editors, who might dismiss the idea with a throwaway one-liner or wait silently for days. Then, perhaps, the story would be approved, plot, content, and all. After weeks more reporting, editing, coming and going, it might still be rejected. More often it would be published, to a satisfying e-mail cascade of self-congratulation that embraced all concerned. If a reporter didn’t manage that half a dozen times by year’s end, his last nightingale had sung.

This was a burden to bear for the Journal’s “fixer” in Iran, Afshin Abtahi. He despaired at the way his frustrated visitors ran from interview to interview, trying to wring quotes out of people that would flesh out and validate their pre-sold story ideas before their short visas ran out. The front page often lost interest when research showed reality was different from the story advertised. Nobody liked trying to switch horses midway through the reporting. Bill knew that a six hundred-years-dead foreign poet was unlikely to jump the first fence. Still, he gamely allowed me to pack my saddlebags and try.

***

The airplane carrying Afshin and me landed in the plain between the barren mountains around Shiraz just as the sun began to clear a soft morning haze. The air was fragrant compared to the brown smog that constantly dulls Tehran. A billboard-sized line of Hafez’s poetry in flowery calligraphy welcomed us at an intersection on the Shiraz ring road, the modern-day gates of the city:

You’re late, O drunken-headed lover!
I won’t let your skirt slip easily from my embrace.

I felt as if I was entering a liberated zone. The Islamic Republic was slipping into the background. As we continued, we saw a small crowd at a beaten-up brick building by a roundabout.

Aash!” whispered Afshin, reverently. Soup.

Making out the curves of a cauldron the size of a small car in the shadows of the shop, I begged our driver to stop. Here was a scene that could hardly have changed since the time of Hafez. Each person carried a pot or pan to receive dollops of steaming green goo from a man with a capacious ladle. Then they headed back to their homes with their family’s breakfast. We each took a portion of what turned out to be a broth so thick with lentils that our spoons stood up straight in it. I associated the taste with English pease pottage, a favorite dish, and felt at home.

I had fallen under the spell of the city sixteen years before, when the naked lady scandal was the only light relief and the national slogan was “War, War, to Victory.” Shiraz had shown its rose-tinted spectacles back then with little asides, like the local graffiti artist who awkwardly translated the war slogan into the poetic language of mysticism: “War, War, Until We Reach the Alley of the Friend [God] and Meet Him.” To get published in the local paper, young Shirazi poets struggled with the domineering spirit of the age. “My flower takes its scent from the Koran,” one had written. Another: “Come, take wing like a dove, let’s take up position in a front-line trench.”

Peace of a kind had come now, and off-duty soldiers, Iraqi refugees, and penniless Afghan exiles no longer thronged the public spaces. It was Friday, Iran’s official day of rest, but, as ever, still the regime’s day for show-and-tell at the weekly prayer ceremony. I set out for the Friday mosque, a building a thousand years old in parts. Hafez must have stepped through these arches too. During times that he was in political favor, Hafez was chief of Koranic instruction at the main religious college here, and his pen name, which means “he who has memorized,” honors his memorization of the whole holy book. At other times censorious rulers forced him to leave Shiraz, just as many of the most talented Iranians today are in France or America. I thought that if Hafez were alive now, he would probably be in exile too. The shabby crowd in the courtyard of the mosque was led by the kind of Islamic revolutionary bigots who enraged the conscience of Hafez as he penned the lines:

Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild!
Don’t copy those who make the Koran a hypocritical trap.

I was witnessing what Hafez hated. His old mosque was now an eyesore. Where were the subjects of his songs, the rose gardens, the nightingales, the wine shops, and the beauties? Maybe Spindle was right, and my thesis that Hafez represented Iran’s truer culture was too far-flung. I headed to the bazaar, where I hoped the covered warrens of shop-lined alleyways would restore my morale and determination to make the story work.

At least I was correct in one matter. I stopped in a bookshop where the bookseller, Abbas, confirmed that sales of the poet Hafez easily rivaled those of the Koran. Nothing else came close. Every family wanted Hafez on hand to be able to consult it for the occasional fal, the oracle that might point them in the right direction when a difficult decision or situation loomed. After all, Hafez reputedly composed the best of his poems in a state of divine inspiration, just as Muhammad had been in when he received the Koran from God. I opened up an ornate divan, or poetry collection, and let it fall open to find an oracle for me. The method is to choose the couplet on which one’s eyes first fall. I spied one of my favorites, close to the beginning, and it was certainly appropriate.

Tell tales of wine and song, and seek less the secret of the world.

This deep riddle will ne’er be solved by science and research.

I asked Abbas what he thought it meant.

“Hafez is right. Don’t bother digging too deep. People live with lots of meanings, because everything is hidden from us,” he said.

“That’s why I like Hafez,” I told him. “His poems seem to be able to bring all those meanings into an artistic whole. Why do you think people still like him so much?”

“We need him more than ever these days.”

***

Hafez would have quickly spotted the hypocrisy in one huge slogan painted on a wall in today’s Shiraz: the regency of the jurisprudent is the same as the rule of the prophet of god. At the time, Iran’s jurisprudent and supreme leader was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The word “jurisprudent” implies great wisdom, or at least authorship of many volumes of religious rulings on matters ranging from love and war to, say, dieting. Khamenei was, however, a hard-bitten revolutionary plotter whose religious claim to even the high title ayatollah was privately dismissed by some in the priesthood. After several loftier grand ayatollahs objected, he was forced to withdraw his claim to being the imam, or supreme religious authority of Shia Islam. Even the paintwork propounding the claim to divine sanction for his temporal role was bleached and chipped.

The slogan appeared on the compound wall of Khamenei’s representative in Shiraz, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, who kept his offices in a jumble of box-like concrete constructions softened by palms and eucalyptus trees. He also carried the traditional title of the senior mullah of the city, the Friday prayer leader. The joy of an outlying city like Shiraz is that a foreign reporter can sometimes ask for and win an audience with a local dignitary without much delay, and can use him as a proxy for the great and unreachable folk in the capital. I was soon ushered into a guest room with simple white walls and flat cushions around the edge. The ayatollah joined me in a swoosh of elegant robes and sat down behind a small writing table designed to be used while cross-legged. The axis of political conflict in Iran those days was represented by hard-line conservatives loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and reformists around President Khatami, also a high cleric.

I asked him to define these two men’s roles, but his account of Iran’s tangled lines of authority made things no easier for me.

“The leader protects independence and Islam; the president defends freedom and the republic,” he said.

The ayatollah was mocking my reporter’s need for neat categorizations, and he tossed his chaff into the air with a trouble-loving twinkle in his eyes. He clearly did not often have the chance to address “the West.” He moved to a subject close to his heart: Why, why, did America not realize that Iran was its friend?

Surprised at this turn in the conversation, I mumbled something about Americans finding it hard to think well of a country that kept saying “Death to America.” “Oh, Americans take all that stuff far too literally!” said the ayatollah, happily hitting his stride. “It’s just propaganda. We are at war, after all. The difference between Americans and us, though, is that we are only waging a war of words. How many Americans did we kill? None. But in our war with Iraq the Americans were helping the Iraqis use chemical weapons, you were selling the Iraqis Phantoms and Mirages.”

I could only nod. During my visits to the front lines of the 1980–88 war I had seen how Iraq enjoyed far more Western supplies than Iran, which could barely find spare parts. Washington also helped Iraq with satellite photographs of Iranian troop formations, knowing full well that Iraq was using chemical weapons to break Iranian advances. Toward the end there were U.S. military officers giving advice to Saddam Hussein’s men in Baghdad. One night after a major Iraqi offensive that the Americans helped plan in 1988, the United States, which was by then waging an undeclared naval war with Iran in the Persian Gulf, furthered Iraq’s cause by destroying half the entire Iranian navy.

“All the Americans want is for us to say, ‘Yes, sir!’ just like the shah used to,” the ayatollah continued, two false lower front teeth leaping out of their places as he became excited. “We don’t want to be good, obedient kids. We want to be independent with honor. But we are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”

“Well, what about the taking hostage of all those American diplomats?”

“We kept them hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. But the Americans kept our country hostage for forty years.”

The ayatollah’s rhetoric was exaggerated, but he had a point. The United States had kept a tight grip after it imposed the shah’s monarchy on the country in 1953.

“Why do you want to be friends with America now?”

He argued that the United States should join forces with Iran against the Taliban. In hindsight it made sense. This was eight months before September 11, but Osama bin Laden’s terrorists, protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan, had already attacked U.S. embassies in Africa and other American targets. Iran would have been a natural U.S. ally in this struggle, opposing the Taliban because of all kinds of religious, ethnic, and geopolitical differences. I couldn’t beat his logic on this point and gave up on the politics. I moved our battle of wits onto the mystery of Hafez. Soon his hands and teeth were flying in a dramatic recitation of one of the poet’s best-known ghazals in praise of Shiraz’s old natural beauty.

Bedeh, saqi, mey baqi ke dar jennat nakhahi yaft

Kenar-e ab-e roknabad o golgasht-e mosalara . . .

Pass the wine, cupbearer, because in paradise you’ll never find
The flowing banks of Roknabad or the rose gardens of Mosala . . .

I saw my chance. Surely, I pointed out to the ayatollah, this “wine” was not just a metaphor for the love of God, but Hafez clearly praising real alcohol that his government had so puritanically banned. After all, an earthenware pot has been found in Shiraz showing that wine production began seven thousand years ago, one of the earliest such finds in the world. Shiraz’s name is most famous as a wine-grape variety first brought to France’s Rhône Valley by a crusader knight returning from the Middle East. Grapes are still a leading Shirazi crop.

It seemed clear to me that Hafez liked both meanings. How else could we explain this couplet?

Whatever God poured into our cup, we drank it to the dregs

Whether it was intoxicating liquor or the wine of paradise.

The ayatollah laughed off my question without answering it, but this wine thing clearly bothered the Islamic Republican orthodoxy. When I later paid a call on the mayor of Shiraz, he presented me with a picture book introduced with a couplet from Hafez:

Just because I saw one drunken eye in this town

I’m now drunk, even though I don’t drink wine.

Or perhaps the ayatollah was pouring me a draft of the perplexing Shia doctrine of taqiyyeh, which allows dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to protect oneself from danger. The abuse of taqiyyeh is yet another reason why nobody can ever be quite sure who truly believes what in Iran. We tacitly agreed that there was no single answer. As I was taking my leave, the ayatollah produced a little porcelain ewer that looked exactly like the wine pitchers used by lovers in Persian miniatures painted in more tolerant times.

“Oh, no,” he said with a laugh, amused at the surprised look in my eye, “it’s just rosewater to pour over your hands.”

Mullahs chatting

Iranian mullahs chat in north Tehran as they wait for the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to make a speech. 1985. (Hugh Pope)

My fixer, Afshin, politely refused the ayatollah’s perfume. Later he explained that he loathed the smell because everyone used it during his years as a religious high school student. Although an accredited descendant of the Prophet, Afshin had stopped halfway on the path to becoming a mullah. Clerical life was too thickly stuffed with hypocrisy and too thinly supplied with naked ladies.

***

Journalism wasn’t much better in giving an Iranian a clean-cut life, mind you. To be allowed to work, some of our fixers said they had to give the Iranian secret service a plausible report about whatever their clients did. They also had to give a cut of their earnings to a man who headed a private “companionship office,” a supplier of translators and fixers for foreign journalists. This man had been nepotistically appointed by his brother-in-law, the head of the office in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that supervised the foreign media.

Still, Afshin was determined to find me the best advice on why Iranians seek refuge from corrupt hypocrisy in mysterious metaphysical poetry. For that, he proudly introduced me to a professor of literature at Shiraz University who specialized in Hafez. We met in the city center and drove to a characterless crush of cream-painted concrete buildings in a new development on the edge of town. The professor broke his silence.

“French built,” he intoned, as if, when it came to designing apartment buildings, nothing else would do.

When we reached the door of his home, a transformation began to take place. The professor shed his shoes among the neat pile in front of the door. Then he stripped off his trousers to reveal voluminous white long johns. Looking with pity at my tighter-fitting trousers, he offered me a change of clothing too. I demurred. He pulled on a black Arabian robe: a complete metamorphosis from a citizen of a drab Western-style apartment block into something far more exotic and Eastern. When I asked if I could cite him by name, he refused. Instead, he insisted that I refer to him as a rend, a term in Persian poetry that is officially translated as “wild, drunk, divinely inspired, reasonless yet deeply wise lover.” This was the soubriquet with which he signed his poems, he said.

The rend led us in his billowing gown into what seemed to be the playroom of his grandchildren and we cleared a space among the toys to sit on the Persian-carpeted floor. Above us was a poster of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and next to me was a cheap electric organ. The rend lit up a Kent Light cigarette and began by reminding me that Hafez was a universal genius, embracing the full history of Perso-Iranian culture. His poetry included references not just to Islam but to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Christian culture, and even Jewish synagogues. For the rend, Iran’s current-day practice of Islam had atrophied, and people just went on without much belief because it was what they were used to.

“Marriage can be like that too; people can’t enjoy it because the issues around it have hardened like stone,” he said. “Hafez, however, is after the heart of happiness in the core of the universe.”

He paused, as if allowing a student time to write down his words. I scribbled away.

“People have drawn closer to Hafez in the past twenty years as they have become more aware of their own culture, and because he speaks of a common pain,” he went on, using a euphemism for his opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. “Still, Hafez is above politics, and nobody can say why he said this or that. He never gives advice on what to do or not to do. The reformists might think themselves closer to Hafez in their rebellion against bigotry, but the conservatives are the people who know his poetry better.”

I wanted more clarity.

“You’ve studied Hafez for decades. Did he drink real wine or not?”

The rend folded up his thin limbs underneath his cloak.

“I believe he drank. It’s not incompatible with his way of thinking. Hafez had trouble in his own days, remember. Before Hafez became a complete person, he was an ordinary person.”

“Do you say that outright in your lectures?”

“I’m reluctant to teach at all, because the audience is not on the same wavelength as me. Sometimes, my pupils leave my class crying. Other times, when I feel that the audience doesn’t understand, it’s me who leaves. For instance, the idea that ‘dawn’ in Hafez also means ‘before creation,’ they just can’t get it. Actually, I feel like I’m a character in a Samuel Beckett play. Nobody understands me.”

Perhaps I was hoping for too much. After all, legend says that Hafez spent forty years on his quest for the truth, and even then achieved enlightenment only after sitting for forty days and nights inside a circle drawn around himself on the ground.

“I find everything in Iran hard to understand,” I said, hoping the rend could help me with a few words to define Iran’s approach to real meaning. “If I learned the whole mystic vocabulary, would that be the way?”

“Mysticism is at its core a mystery, and that is a secret,” he said.

“Can’t you explain a little more? What is the secret?”

The rend looked at me in mock horror.

“If I told you the secret,” he said, eyes bright with amusement, “then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

***

To further my quest for tangible keys to Iran’s mysteries, Afshin ended our investigations in Shiraz by convening for me a small debating group of poets, critics, and writers. We met in the offices of the small newspaper Asr, the Age, in a room so cluttered with desks that we all had to sit behind one, incongruously facing this way and that. The shoulder-length hair of some of the men—they were all men— and the slightly flared cut on some trousers gave me a sense that I was back in that part of Iran that lived in a pre-revolutionary 1970s time capsule. My Tehran apartment had been the same, a disorienting place whose big white blocks of furniture showed a design sense trapped in the past. After the Islamic Republic closed normal channels to progress and the outside world, the intellectuals who stayed on burrowed deep into history. It gave them hope. The spasms of strict Islamist rule that punctuate Iran’s long history have always passed, eventually.

The group’s leading light was Parviz Khaefi, sixty years old and the head of a study complex attached to the Hafeziyeh, the burial place of Hafez with a small park laid out in the poet’s honor. He took the part of the professor and chief spokesman, resplendent with flowing curls, a gray beard, and thick-lensed glasses. The discussion began with a comfortable ramble over well-known territory: how pleasant the climate of Shiraz was compared to hot and polluted Tehran, how minorities of Sunnis and Zoroastrians still lived harmoniously with the Shia majority, and how easygoing its population was.

I steered the conversation to the equally congenial subject of poetry. A chorus of voices echoed how it was an integral part of Iranian cultural life, how an elegantly turned couplet carried more weight than a book of boring prose, and how the verses of the great Iranian poets were engraved into children’s minds from their early schooldays. I then asked why of all Iranian poets it was Hafez who towered highest.

Khaefi cleared his throat.

“Hafez still speaks to us today because we are now under religious rule, just as in his times. We cannot solve all the problems of our own time on our own, so we need to rely on someone from the past. Hafez knew what to say about it, ahead of everyone else,” he said.

It was a brave start. Jamil Saadi, a contemporary Shirazi poet, continued the theme from a nearby desk.

“Hafez was against money, power, and hypocrisy. But we love him because there are so many meanings in his words,” he said. “He’s not a perfect human, but he is perfectly human.”

The group let out an approving sigh to honor this perfectly poetic phrasing. “That doesn’t mean anything!” I protested.

“I don’t think it’s a question of meanings. There’s no fixed meaning. It’s dimensions, lots of dimensions,” Khaefi said. Everyone’s eyes were on him now. “People see the words of Hafez as a mystery and then try to decipher them. So any group can use it to further its own ends.”

“Like people do with the Koran, you mean?” I asked.

“Every couplet of Hafez is different and distinct, indeed, just like the verses of the Koran,” chimed in a newspaper editor from the back.

“He reached absolute art, but you see only the surface of it in translation,” said Khaefi. “This is the secret of Hafez. He uses the same words as other poets, but Hafez has woven these words in a special way that can express the happiness and grief of a human being at the same time. He’s a symbol of a human being on earth, in all his pain.”

A satisfied silence settled on the room. Someone lit another cigarette.

I pushed harder. “You really think he didn’t choose sides between fundamentalism and hedonism?”

“I can’t say my own interpretation in this circle of censorship,” Khaefi said.

I looked around the room. Everyone seemed to be his friend. Perhaps this was yet another layer of meaning that I had missed. Or perhaps I had been typically Anglo-Saxon, seeking a vulgar black-and-white interpretation of the supremely uninterpretable. Even “hedonism” suddenly seemed a superficial word. Wasn’t Hafez, I wondered to myself, just a believer in unreason?

Khaefi recognized the confused and fascinated look of the seeker of the truth about Hafez. He politely helped me out.

“The God of Hafez is not just the God that Muslims see,” he said.

The editor underlined the point, noting that when Iran accepted Islam, it kept its original culture. He pointed to Nowruz, the pre-Islamic celebration of March 21 as New Year’s Day that several Middle Eastern Muslim peoples still celebrate with varying spring-welcoming ceremonies and a cleansing act of jumping over fires. Indeed, this was something that was always hard to get across to my editors and readers in America: Although Islam claims to be “one,” in practice it is no universal key to understanding the different cultures of the Middle East. Islam is different everywhere and is redefined by nationalism, ethnicity, tribes, rulers, and political parties.

“We are Muslims, but we are Iranians,” said another graybeard from behind his desk, one with a linoleum top. “And our poets are the ones who preserved our real culture. Every article I write starts with a couplet from Hafez and ends with another.”

The poet Jamil Saadi picked up the argument.

“When the Arabs conquered Iran, the violence they used to bring Islam is the reason why people wanted to stay Persian,” he said. “The Arabs didn’t understand the real Islam. They killed a grandchild of the Prophet.”

More people arrived, and the conversation drifted. Perhaps the circle of censorship had grown too wide. I accepted a whispered invitation to visit Khaefi at his office at the Hafeziyeh, the poet’s memorial, the next morning.

***

Hugh at Hafez's tomb

Me at the tomb of Hafez, fourteenth-century poet of the Persians and scourge of Islamic bigotry, in Shiraz, Iran. December 1985. (Nicole Pope)

Walking into the mausoleum of Shiraz’s most famous son felt like entering another world. Unlike the crowded, shabby boisterousness of most public spaces in Iran, here were sharply defined lawns, neatly kept beds of roses, and a reverent, modest flow of visitors. The tall cypresses looked as though they belonged in one of Hafez’s poems, where they stand for the slender stature of the beloved. I stopped to chat with a mother and daughter who had just performed a fal, or the consulting of Hafez as an oracle.

I joined the mother in puzzling over the ambiguous couplet they had chosen. When I looked up, I saw that Afshin’s ever-wandering eye had alighted upon the pretty daughter. The “sweet breeze” had brought a “message.” Sure enough, the nightingale and the rose began to chatter. I asked the mother what she thought the fal meant.

“It depends. The couplet is like a mirror to your heart.” “What about the rest of the poem?”

“It’s like subsidiary advice.”

“What did you consult Hafez about?”

The mother and daughter looked at each other and didn’t want to say. What I understood of the couplet would have allowed them to decide anything. Subtly, I tried to test the line of thinking that the poetry of Hafez was an alternative to the Koran.

“If I respect Hafez, it’s because he memorized the whole of the Koran!” the mother protested, looking quizzically at me. She had told me that she was a teacher, and she clearly did not suffer fools. I soldiered on.

“Do you think the Koran set cast-iron laws that must be literally obeyed?”

“We have certain rules. But we are not under pressure, like people say,” she rebuked me.

My time was up. Unknown journalists with notepads were not worthy of the truth, even in this lovely garden in southern Iran. In fact, much better to make something up.

”We love the Islamic Republic. And especially the mullahs. Write that down!”

She spat the words out shrilly. We were standing right by Hafez’s tomb, and I turned away, sadly feeling that we had all betrayed his legacy. We said good-bye and, with a small bow, Afshin presented the daughter with his card. We took a seat in the teahouse. I wished it was a wineshop. We had to make do with a hubble-bubble pipe decorated with a hand-painted early nineteenth-century prince in colorful robes. At least he had a little wine jar in his hand. Parviz Khaefi soon joined us.

“She’s just unloading her complexes on you,” he said when I told him of my last encounter. “This is not the Iran that Iranians want. Our society is waiting. The government feels under pressure because people are watching satellite TV from abroad. People are stressed because the young have no recreation, no hobby. Many of our youth are using opium and even heroin. Widespread depression has overcome everyone. People are migrating. If they had wings, they’d fly out.”

This plain speaking was something rare to savor. I sipped my tea.

“Why does the government not change, then?”

“They’re at a dead end. The clerics know they have to change, but every time they feel threatened, they cling together and nothing happens. The people can’t accept that such a government is durable,” he said. “The trouble is, if the regime goes, everything will go, because, unfortunately, there’s no other organization to replace them. So the world goes one way and we go the other, stuck with all this petty and meaningless time wasting.”

Khaefi took his leave. Afshin’s cell phone rang. It was the mullah-loving teacher’s daughter. As Afshin billed and cooed, I studied the tabletop furniture. Surely I could persuade the Wall Street Journal to publish a story that presented Iran as a game of puzzles that no Iranian wanted to end. Ultimately I did. But Spindle was also right. It didn’t make the front page. Already, I felt a twinge of disappointment. My exploration of Hafez had produced no moment of mystical ecstasy. I might be in the Hafeziyeh, finding signs of Iran’s alter ego of ease and poetic blooms, but the rose in the little tabletop vase was artificial. And the dewdrop on its petal, that essence of heaven in Hafez’s poetry, was a blob of blurry plastic.

From Russia, with some manufactured love

December 14, 2019 3 comments

Having my old Soviet mechanical watch smoothly ticking on my wrist feels like a reunion with an old friend. This one is especially sweet to see back in action. Firstly, it was an inaugural repair job for me by a talented apprentice watchmaker, my nephew-in-law. It is also a gift from the great, late Bill Montalbano, chosen as we went wandering about the quaysides of Istanbul nearly three decades ago.

Not least, though, it is a survivor of the underestimated world of Soviet manufacturers. When Bill gave it to me, the Berlin wall had only just fallen. Many Turkish cities had what was called a “rus pazarı”, a market where the flotsam and jetsam of the Soviet Union beached up on rough trestle tables attended by thickly clad traders from Georgia, Tataristan or any of the 1,001 points of the exotic ex-Soviet compass.

New Doc 2019-12-15 12.11.59_2 (1)Bill was always my ideal of what a famed foreign correspondent should be, a larger-than-life, roving American writer for the Los Angeles Times who for several years took me under his wing as a translator and fixer in Turkey and Iraq. He was not just unfailingly generous with his gifts and commissions to a struggling freelance reporter, but he also taught me much about how to see the world – and foreign desk editors – from unexpected angles during our many shared adventures.

Bill loved to shop as well, and our visit to the rus pazarı was probably my attempt to keep him away from another foray to enrich the silver-tongued salesmen of the Grand Bazaar carpet shops. I preferred the ex-Soviet novelties and on one trestle table I was surprised to see a timepiece named a Komandirskie, or Commander. It was made by the a manufacturer called Vostok, and was graced with a tiny picture of the legendary T-34 tank, presumably to appeal to officers in Soviet armoured divisions. I loved it straight away. Wikipedia says the tank “possessed an unprecedented combination of firepower, mobility, protection and ruggedness.” The watch seemed the same, minus the firepower. But after many years’ service, it started gaining 10 minutes a day and I folded it away into my large box of not-quite-so-active timepieces.

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A few months ago, however, when I heard that my Dutch nephew-in-law Robert Stephenson had become an apprentice watchmaker, I asked him to take a look. I just got it back. It’s running sweetly as a nut, and as spot on time as any of my watches ever seem to be. Robert reported that after a few decades the insides needed a service – some dried oil on the 17 ruby jewels – and he judged the mechanics as good and slightly simpler than any Western watches he’s been practicing on. He had to buy a new Vostok movement to find a replace cogwheel or two, but that was easily available, inexpensive and little changed from my 1970s or 1980s model. A bit like a Land Rover. What other Western manufacturer, committed to rapid redundancy, would have allowed that to happen? Certainly not Longines or Breitling, whose representatives throw up their hands at the idea that my 1980s treasures can be revived.

Gazing admiringly at the red second hand scooting round the black Vostok watch face also made me think of the Western scorn of the Soviet Union and Russia, which for me surfaced memorably during a mid-2000s geopolitical talking shop in a fancy Italian villa. A British grandee who was leading a panel discussion of East-West relations suddenly and airily asked the audience: “After all, who has anything made in Russia in their houses?”

I was so astonished I failed to reply. The speaker clearly meant it as an illustration of his argument that Moscow led a nation of losers. But I immediately thought of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, which is a Soviet product that I knew well from decades as a Middle East correspondent. It is beloved by guerrillas and some armies because it is good at keeping going in messy, dirty, adverse circumstances, that is to say, real life wars. And you can replace bits of it from any factory and any decade of manufacture. Of course, I didn’t have a Kalashnikov in my house. And by the time I’d thought through a witty enough response to the clever British lord, the discussion had moved on.

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So I had no chance to mention the bone-handled, silver-alloy set of Soviet cutlery I bought in Kyrgyzstan. The robust Russian binoculars that I use for star-gazing in Turkey. The fine drinking bowls made of Abkhaz black clay, bought in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Soviet-era noodle bowls from Baku, whose pretty hand-painted design remains as vivid as the day I bought them. And a rugged micrometer in service in my workshop. All are more than three decades old, and still going strong. As, now, is my watch, even if it very occasionally needs a good knock on the table to get it going.

The Russians have proved equally resilient, bouncing back from their early 1990s breakdown. Back when Bill bought me my tank commander’s watch, we felt sympathy for the straitened circumstances of the ex-Soviet traders. We would never have thought that 30 years later I’d be doing podcasts on “Russia’s Winning Streak”, as I did last week for my employers at the International Crisis Group.

20191110_170843This is not to say I have many illusions about the Soviet Union. After Moscow gave up on the Cold War and we started reporting in ex-Soviet states, I well remember the dead-beat apathy of Azerbaijan, the environmental catastrophe of Uzbekistan and the empty streets and shops of Turkmenistan. But that was never the whole story. I hope that after all they’ve been through, the Russians and other ex-Soviets are now enjoying at least a few of what Bill would have called “personal indignity points”. These were personal treats, like fine meals, charged to newspapers to punish editors for, say, not recognising the full value (to us) of a hard-won story. Or, perhaps, the endurance of an overlooked watch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay in our Mount Olympos getaway

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

After years of hesitation, in September 2019 we finally started letting out our mountain escape in Olympos, Turkey. What were we waiting for? It’s so nice to know it is being enjoyed, and when I saw our first guest’s feedback on AirBNB I was as happy as when I got my first book review! Five stars, compliments on everything and what comments! “We felt ourselves unbelievably good, really enjoyed every second … Great to be cooked for, the food was fantastic … A real paradise in the mountains!”

 

It really made me wish I could be there too, but I am stuck most of the time working away in Brussels. So if you’d like to try it, you can find more here on AirBNB or here on homeaway.com. Or if you’d like a more virtual experience, I am in the process of preparing an account of the adventures we had building it, so watch this space.

If had to count the reasons that draw me and other there, I’d start with the expansive sense of silence, or rather absence of urban noise and shudders, apart, of course, from the frogs croaking in spring or the pulse of cicadas in high summer. Then there’s the swimming in our unique, soft natural pool, a wonder of the world built by my wife Jessica JJ Lutz and probably the first anyone tried to build in Turkey. Then there’s the seclusion, since the nearest paved road is a mile (2km) away. We love the delicious village food, and you can engage our housekeeper to cook for you.

Favourite expeditions include sparkling days out on the water, inexpensively chartering a small boat or joining a group leaving from a nearby beach (Adrasan or Cirali). There’s also much classical antiquity to enjoy, with the ruins of many ancient and beautiful Lycian cities within range (Olympos 10 minutes, Phaselis 25 minutes, Myra 1 hour, Arykanda 1-1/2 hours, Termessos/Aspendos/Perge 2 hours, not to mention the fine museums in Antalya and Demre). There are also, naturally, long dinners to be in restaurants on the various nearby beaches. But above all, there’s the two acres all to oneself to enjoy, your own Olympian Heights in the midst of the Bey Mountains National Park.

Categories: Uncategorized

‘Amateur’, my father’s memoir

January 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Happy New Year! I’m delighted to share an intriguing and often funny memoir of mid-20th century life, ‘Amateur’, written by my father Maurice Pope. Just follow this link to a downloadable PDF:

https://bitly.com/AmateurByMWMPope

‘Amateur’ spans pre-war and World War II schooldays in England, a journey by flying boat to become a professor of classics in Cape Town, his career in South Africa cut short by apartheid, archaeological expeditions to the Near East, multiple treks across north America, and, in between, flashes of Europe and an account of camping in the Soviet Union.

Here’s one comic description of vocational training in a Royal Navy demobilisation camp:

There was one moment, however, when we might have been involved in a court-martial. It was my fault, and once again, the trouble was my ignorance of spoken English.

The word the petty-officer used was perhaps “nutter”, but I now forget. In any event, I misunderstood. I took it to be the name of a trade in civilian life and asked if he was one. But whatever it was I said, it greatly annoyed him.

“Are you taking the mickey?” he asked.

This was another phrase I had never heard.

“No, where is it?” I answered quite innocently.

He swelled, turned purple, and would, I am quite sure, have knocked me out then and there, if it had not been for the distinction of rank.

My father always called himself an ‘amateur’ because he feared being seen as a dull professional. Indeed, one of his guiding principles was that he would always teach himself how to do things, not be taught – a philosophy with both its ups and downs, as this book relates.

My siblings and I polished up my father’s manuscript and turned it into a book for my parents’ recent 60th wedding anniversary. The link below is to a printable PDF. If you’d like a nice printed version, which would require the printing and postage costs, do message me.

Here’s one of the pictures from the book, showing one of the world’s first underwater archaeological expeditions in 1955, of which my father was a leading light.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. In this keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace on 9 December 2016, I look back on the highs and lows of two decades of change.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

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Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What went right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama’s demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

Originally published on Crisis Group’s website on 16 December 2016

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Waking Up to the Brussels Bombs

March 23, 2016 2 comments

The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.

In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.

Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.

 

Soldiers

Soldiers have become an everyday sight on the boulevards of Brussels since the November 2015 Paris attacks were traced back to the suburb of Molenbeek.

Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.

After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).

But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.

Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .

Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.

Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.

Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.

In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.

Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.

It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.

The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.

For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.

I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.

The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:

DWAQ 4

The Turkish Tortoise and the Middle Eastern Hares

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment

A belated posting of a talk that I did in Istanbul in May, trying to explain in a TED Talks lookalike why after 28 years in Turkey I felt that somehow the country will likely always do better – and more slowly – than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Turkish Review also published a cleaned-up text of the speech.

TR Talking 2

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