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Chardors, Pepsi, and the Great Satan: A History of Modern Iran
April 19, 2000
Our translator Karoosh, a.k.a Louie, lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years. How different it must have been for him when he moved to California.
Whoah! That was only twenty-one years ago. What happened to make such a big change?
At that time, the Ghajar dynasty, a ruling family of Turkish descent, was in control, but was strongly influenced by Britain. Even though Iran was never colonized, Western powers did whatever they could to influence them...some things never change!
But the Iranians didn't like that the British had so much power in their government, and soon after the war the Ghajars were overthrown in a coup d'état by a Persian man named Reza Khan Pahlevi. Even though he wasn't a puppet to the British, he believed that modernization and westernization were the keys to success.
Remember Ataturk from our time in Turkey? Both he and Shah Reza Khan ruled over poor, underdeveloped countries after WWI, and both of them looked to the West as a model of development, and also of culture. Just as Ataturk outlawed the men's traditional hat called the Fez, Reza Khan outlawed traditional Persian clothing, including the chador. He also made it illegal to take pictures of camels, because he considered them a sign of backwards-ness!
How confusing! The Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed the law from making it illegal for women to wear the chador, to making it illegal for women NOT to wear the chador. Geez, was this a fashion revolution? Why is women's clothing so important to the government of a country?
As we've seen from the art and tilework, the amazing architecture, the historic sites and the music, Persians have a rich culture, and they're very proud. The chador, and other outlawed clothing, is a big part of the culture, and their religious beliefs. Even if it wasn't a foreign power, such as the British, the people did not like being told what they could and could not wear. I mean, it's not my style, but if they want to wear a big black sheet in the hot, blazing sun, what right does the government have to force them to change?
Anyway, during WWII, Reza Kahn kept Iran neutral. But being neutral doesn't mean that the warring countries ignored them. Instead, Britain and Russia divided Iran up into what they called "spheres of influence," a popular post-colonial euphemism of the time which meant, "we stick our nose into the business of other countries and tell them it's for their own good." Most of the Middle East, during this time, was divided into these "spheres of influence" by the colonial powers.
One main goal of the British was to keep the Axis powers out of Iran. So when Reza Kahn got a little too friendly with Germany, he was "influenced" right out of the country by the British in 1941. He was replaced by his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, who was comfortably in the pocket of the British.
The US also wanted in on the action, and, in 1953, the CIA staged a coup to overthrow the Iranian premiere Mohammed Mosadeq. The reason the US didn't like Mosadeq was that he wanted to nationalize the oil companies in Iraq. Before then, most of the oil made money for oil companies from the West, and didn't help the Iranian people.
Soon, the people started to protest the government. They felt that the Pahlevis were selling out to the Western powers, their culture was being belittled, and their natural resources squandered. Because 98% of the population is Shi'ite Muslim, the Muslim clergy became leaders in the revolution. One man, high up in the clergy (an "Ayatollah") from the town of Khomein, was particularly vocal in criticizing the Government. The Ayatollah Khomeini, which means Ayatollah from Khomein, was exiled from the country in 1963, and didn't return until after the Revolution.
I barely remember when the Islamic Revolution happened in 1979, because I was only seven years old. But I do know that, in America, it was highly misunderstood, and the new government was looked on as a menace and an enemy. Being here, learning about it, and seeing the proud people of "Islamic Republic of Iran" firsthand helps me understand what happened and why. Here's a recent quote I read from Robert Kaplan's book, "The Ends of the Earth". It comes from a man who supported the Revolution, which clearly shows the mentality behind it:
Clearly, these days, the Revolutionary intensity has died down. Reformists control the Presidency and the Parliament, and Americans like us are able to visit the country. But an even clearer sign is the little bits of American consumerism and culture that leak through, even though, technically, there is a trade embargo between the two countries. I can find Coke and Pepsi here, most people know American movies, and I see Nike and Tommy Hillfiger on the boys in Tehran. Despite the chadors, Iran is not so different, after all.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian - Persepolis: Sacked, Hacked, and Packed
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