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In the Shadow of the Shah

The Crowned Cannibals: Writings on Repression in Iran By Reza Baraheni Vintage Press; $3.95; 278 pages

By Gay Seidman

REZA BARAHENI has every reason to write angrily about repression in Iran. One of that country's best known poets and a former professor of literature at the University of Teheran, Baraheni was imprisoned and tortured for 102 days in Iran's notorious Komite because SAVAK, the Shah's secret service, believed his writings were subversive. Fortunately, Baraheni was well-known outside Iran, and international pressure finally forced SAVAK to release him. He is now living in exile in the U.S., trying to publicize the evils of the Shah's regime.

The Crowned Cannibals, a collection of essays and poems on Iran, is part of that effort. Baraheni writes of the repression of Iranian national minorities, of the repression of Iranian women, of the repression of Iranian intellectuals by the Shah and his secret service. He writes with a poet's eye, relying less on figures and statistics than on the impact of accumulated images, of individuals caught in a cycle of brutality.

The figures are there if one wants them. It is estimated that more than 300,000 people have been in and out of the Shah's prisons during his 19-year reign; an average of 1,500 people are arrested each month. Amnesty International reported in 1975 that "the Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief." But the figures alone do not convey the horror; Baraheni puts them in human terms, in the context of Iran. "Imagine tens of thousands of educated men and women in prison while 75 per cent of the whole nation is illiterate," he writes. "Imagine hundreds of doctors in prison when every 50 villages in the country have only one doctor! Imagine roads awaiting construction while engineers are rotting in jails! The number and extent of my government's crimes against its people have no end."

"Government" may be too kind a description for the Shah's regime. The present Shah is the son of an upstart colonel, who founded the present dynasty in the first decades of this century and who abdicated in 1941 because he was found to have collaborated with the Nazis. Following his abdication, a constitutionally-elected, reform-minded government came into power--until 1953, when the CIA sponsored the coup that put the present Shah in power. Baraheni does not go into the reasons for the CIA's support for the monarchy, but one sentence gives it away: the democratically-elected government had nationalized Iran's rich oil deposits.

Since 1953, the Shah's rule has become increasingly repressive. During the regime's first decade, opposition parties were allowed to exist, although the Shah controlled the country firmly. In 1963, the Shah's so-called "White Revolution"--including a token land reform program that has failed to change the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, and the massacre of thousands of members of the opposition--made Iran a one-party state, removing all traces of democratic government. Like every shah before him, the current Shah claims to experience visions granting him absolute authority over his people, and he has not permitted any challenge to that divine right. Guerilla activity has intensified in the last seven years, and the Shah's regime has become more and more brutal in its efforts to quiet the opposition.

As a writer and an intellectual, Baraheni focuses primarily on the effect of these efforts on the educated men and women of Iran, leaving the reader to imagine for himself the effect on the rest of the people. The Shah's agents--many of them trained by the United States and equipped with techniques and weapons developed in the U.S.--are everywhere in Iran; many of them operate overseas, giving SAVAK a global reach.

A number of American universities have been no less eager than their government to help the Shah polish his regime's veneer of respectability--which is ironic, given the Shah's persecution of Iranian intellectuals. Harvard, one of the worst offenders, has signed contracts worth more than $1.5 million with the Iranian government since 1974, promising to help the Shah with urban development, health and educational projects. Edward L. Keenan '57, the new dean of the graduate school, is also a member of the governing board of the university named after the present Shah's father, who was arguably even more brutal than his son. University spokesmen contend that the presence of free-speaking Americans in the institutions with which Harvard is involved will help Iranian students come into contact with ideas that would otherwise be banned in Iran. But Baraheni argues convincingly that Harvard's presence merely lends the regime respectability without altering its repressive nature. SAVAK's agents do not stop outside the classroom door simply because the professor is American; Iranian participants in Harvard's Iranian projects are as liable to harrassment as the rest of their countrymen.

The Shah's censors are strict in their refusal to publish anything that might be interpreted as subversive. Baraheni's allegedly subversive activities include two essays on Iranian history and culture, one of which appears in this volume, that carefully avoid any discussion of the current regime; but because he suggested that Iran faces major problems, he was subjected to torture.

The problem, as Baraheni points out in an essay called "Prison Memoirs," is that there is very little a writer can offer his torturers. He writes alone, so there are no names to give the torturer; his books are evidence of his crime against the regime, and he has no other acts to confess. The SAVAK's torturers demand that the intellectual recant, publicly renounce his work, deny the validity of his writing. Baraheni writes,

They get you on some small pretext; they torture you, and the only way they leave open as an alternative to death is recantation. You recant and you stay alive; you don't recant and you rot or die in prison.

Those . . . statements would mean the end of my political, literary, academic and public life, not to mention my life as a human being. How can one say that his poetry, his prose, his national identity, all have been a mistake? I identified with these aspects of my life more than I did with my own face, my height, my hands and feet. How could I say that my whole life was a mistake? One makes mistakes here and there, and when he does he may be willing to announce it to the whole world, but how can one make the statement that he himself, his entire identity, has been a mistake, thus recanting his own existence?

Baraheni's confrontation with his interrogators--like torturers everywhere, they called themselves doctors, professional technicians of pain--had a fortuitious ending. He did not recant, but was freed anyway because of pressure from American writers and intellectuals.

But Baraheni's memoirs of prison leave us wondering--as they are meant to do--what became of the others in the Komite. What of the women who sang to keep up the spirits of the other prisoners? What of the man under torture because SAVAK's agents found an unread copy of "The Communist Manifesto" in his room? Like Baraheni, they have nothing to confess, nothing to offer their torturers but a denial of their existence.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to The Crowned Cannibals, E. L. Doctorow suggests that Baraheni's experiences point to a new kind of poetry, designed for a world where human interaction has been reduced through technological advances to the rawest uses of power, to the crunch of bones and the smell of burning flesh. The United States has helped the Shah build up an apparatus of repression under which people can be interrogated without recourse to any legal process, freeing the Shah to spend his country's wealth without questions from the population.

In such a society, Doctorow suggests, it is not surprising that the images in Baraheni's essays on Iranian culture and images of brutality and atrocity, or that the images in his poetry are images of physical contact between bodies. In what is perhaps the most moving poem in this volume, two dead poets meet in the Julfa, a river that runs between the Soviet Union and Iran in which dissidents of both countries are rumored to have been drowned.

A dissident poet from Russia whispers to me

I whisper back

We smile. We depart

Soft pieces of ice pass between us

Sheets of wave cover us . . .

. . . but I wonder

Don't you think we had better forget

Both the Shah and Stalin, and let out

Grinding bones rest in peace?

Night is falling, tell me, or if you cannot,

Let's have another appointment,

Give our ankles another chance

To whisper each to each?

When Western writers speak of relationships, they do not generally mean the contact between anklebones; but perhaps, Baraheni and Doctorow suggest, that is the final relationship in a country where physical power is the only dynamic.

The Crowned Cannibals could not have been published in Iran; it is written for Americans, people accustomed to thinking of their nation as free of torture and repression. Baraheni's description of Iran shows the fallacy of that belief: our aid has supported the Shah throughout his regime, as our aid has supported so many other repressive regimes throughout the world since the end of World War II. If they do no more, works like Baraheni's should remind us of the price at which our freedom at home is purchased abroad.

And then I used to be so innocent

With the nightingales at my elbow

And the springs snapping their fingers

At the end of my arms

And an entire school of birds climbed above my shoulders

And there were women too

With armpits full of clusters of golden grapes

And with round mouths

Who blew their songs into the reeds of my bones

Making me sing and whirl

Round all the deserts of the East

Planting white villages at every rise and fall of my feet

And thoughts appeared in my mind

As fresh and warm as the downy heads of newly born infants...

...I used to be innocent

What happened on a September day in 1973

Is already an old story

But imagine a sieve, or rather, a screen

Placed in front of your memories

And everything passing through it

The faces of all men and women you loved

The children you saw and spoke with

The grass on which you slept

The stars you watched, the camels you rode

The rabbits you followed

Imagine all of them and other memories

Passing through the screen

And changing and changing, constantly changing

And becoming things which are unrecognizable

Imagine all love and beauty kept behind that screen

Or memories distorted, standing upside down

Or swollen like decomposing flesh

Imagine a hell you recognize to have been your personal paradise


I used to be innocent --From "I Used to Be Innocent,"   by Reza Baraheni

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