Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Question from Iran: "What Do They Know of Us in the West?"

Many Iranian readers come to MRZine, a webzine I edit. According to Alexa today, 7.8 % of all visitors to MRZine and Monthly Review are from Iran.


That's a really large proportion, considering that none of the pages has been translated into Persian and that Iran's population is merely 66 million out of the total world population of 6.6 billion. No other secular leftist publication has such a readership profile as MR's.

What are the Iranians who come to MR/MRZine reading? Noam Chomsky's criticism of American imperialism? John Bellamy Foster's thoughts on Marxism and nature? Samir Amin's world systems perspective? Economic analysis of capitalism by the founders of Monthly Review? Albert Einstein's personal statement on socialism (which is a perennial favorite among first-time visitors who come to MR through Google)? Many criticisms of politics in the Middle East, including Iran?


The most popular article for Iranian visitors to MR/MRZine, read by a majority of them, is "Iran's Quiet Revolution" by Deborah Campbell, with photography by Alfred Yaghobzadeh (10 November 2006). Some of what Campbell says is probably new to many Western readers, and Yaghobzadeh's photographs capture aspects of everyday life in Iran that seldom appear in the Western media. But neither the content of Campbell's observations nor Yaghobzadeh's photographs can be a revelation to Iranians. They must be familiar to them.

That very familiarity, I submit, is what makes this article attractive to Iranian readers.

Iran in the article is a country that is recognizable to them as their own, with its many contradictions, economic and cultural, and, even as Campbell takes note of the experience of Iran's dissidents, neither text nor photographs make Iran out to be a living hell unlike any other country, whose people either suffer or rebel against oppression by irrational fanatics, which is an impression one gets from much of the Western media, be they commercial or non-profit. All Iranians portrayed in this article, officials as well as common people, some liberals on both cultural and economic matters, others culturally conservative and economically populist, come across as ordinary human beings.

The writer's and photographer's love of the Iranian people is also well communicated in the article, which ends on this note:
Iran is a land of contradictions, and it's hard to imagine any country in the world where a Westerner would enjoy a more gracious welcome. To be in a shared taxi in any part of Iran is to have your sleeve plucked by someone who says, as an opening gambit, "I would die for you" (a standard greeting in the poetics of Farsi etiquette). And then: "Come to my home." In my six-month journey from the mountains of Kurdistan in the northwest to the bazaars of Kerman in the east to the oil regions on the border with Iraq, it is impossible to catalogue how many meals and accommodations were offered by strangers of a half-hour's acquaintance.

And as often as I attempted to interview them, they turned the tables: What do they know of us in the West? Do they think we are all terrorists?

What could I tell them in return?
What do they know of us in the West? Iranians ask this question, probably because they know that what the Western media typically do is to prepare the Western public for what the US-led multinational empire will do to a Third World country, in this case their own. Are leftists offering the public images, visual or verbal, that counter what the rulers of the empire would like all of us to think and feel, portraits in which ordinary Iranians can recognize their own country?


subtect said...

I just want to second what is said here. I was in iran about two years ago, and was overwhelmed by the civility, humanity, decency, the openness of dialog between strangers, the hyper-interactivity, not technologically mediated, but people talking, everywhere face-to-face dialog flows, people spending time together, urban parks are packed with families having picnics late into the night, and the families and groups talk, stories, politics, religion, hardly a mention of a TV show to be heard... most importantly, I found this all so noteworthy not because it contradicted my media-conditioned expectations, but because it was so far, and in so any ways preferable, to any social context I've known in north america.

Yoshie said...

Thank you for your comment. I hope you will write about your sojourn in Iran and publish it (please let me know if you would like to publish it in MRZine). There are many political commentaries on the US-Iran relation, and some of them are very good at criticizing government policy, but few of them convey how ordinary people actually live in Iran. Voices like yours can help Americans understand the Iranian people better.