Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Journalism 037

From Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, 1982

"A Shiite is, first of all, a rabid oppositionist. At first the Shiites were a small group of friends and backers of Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed and husband of the Prophet's beloved daughter Fatima. When Mohammed died without a male hier and without clearly designating his successor, the Muslims began struggling over the Prophet's inheritance, over who would be caliph, or leaders of the believers in Allah and thus the most important person in the Islamic world. Ali's party (Shi'a means 'party') supports its leader for the position, maintaining that Ali is the sole representative of the Prophet's family, the father of Mohammed's two grandsons Hassan and Hussein. The Sunni Muslim majority, however, ignores the voices of the Shiites for twenty-four years and chooses Abu Bakr, Umar, and Utman as the next three caliphs. Ali finally becomes caliph, but his caliphate ends after five years, when an assassin splits his skull with a poisoned saber. Of Ali's two sons, Hassan will be poisoned and Hussein will fall in battle. The death of Ali's family deprives the Shiites of the chance to win power, which passes to the Sunni Omayyad, Abassid, and Ottoman dynasties. The caliphate, which Mohammed had conceived as a simple and modest institution, becomes a hereditary monarchy. In this situation the plebeian, pious, poverty-stricken Shiites, appalled by the nouveau-riche style of the victorious caliphs, go over to the opposition.

All this happens in the middle of the seventh century, but it has remained a living and passionately dwelt-on history to this day. When a devout Shiite talks about his faith he will constantly return to those remote histories and relate tearfully the massacre at Karbala in which Hussein has his head cut off. A skeptical, ironic European will think, God, what can any of that mean today? But is he expresses such thoughts aloud, he provokes anger and hatred of the Shiite.

The Shiites have indeed had a tragic fate, and the sense of tragedy, of the historical wrongs and misfortunes that accompany them, is encoded deep within their consciousness. The world contains communities for whom nothing has gone right for centuries--everything has slipped through their hands, and every ray of hope has faded as soon as it began to shine--these people seem to bear some sort of fatal brand. So it is with the Shiites. For this reason, perhaps they have an air or dead seriousness, of fervent unsettling adherence to their arguments and principles, and also (this is only an impression, of course) of sadness.

As soon as the Shiites (who constitute barely a tenth of all Muslims, the rest being Sunnis) go into opposition, the persecution begins. To this day they live the memory of the centuries of pogroms against them, and so they close themselves off in ghettos, use signals only they understand and devise conspiratorial forms of behavior. But the blows keep falling on their heads.

Gradually they start to look for safer places where they will have a better chance of survival. In those times of difficult and slow communication, in which distance and space constitute an efficient isolator, a separating wall, the Shiites try to move as far as possible from the center of power (which lies first in Damascus and later in Baghdad). They scatter throughout the world, across mountains and deserts, and descend step by step underground. So the Shiite diaspora, which has lasted till today, comes into being. The epic of the Shiites is full of acts of incredible adjuration, courage, and spiritual strength. A part of the wandering community heads east. Crossing the Tigris and the Euphrates, it passes through the mountains of Zagros and reaches the Iranian desert plateau.

At this time, Iran, exhausted and laid waste by centuries of war with Byzantium, has been conquered by Arabs who are spreading the new faith, Islam. This process is going on slowly, amid continual fighting. Until now the Iranians have had an official religion, Zoroastrianism, related to the ruling Sassanid dynasty. Now comes the attempt to impose upon them another official religion, associated with a new and, what's more, a foreign regime--Sunni Islam. It seems like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

But exactly at this moment the poor, exhausted, wretched Shiites, still bearing the visible traces of the Gehenna they have lived through, appear. The Iranians discover that these Shiites are Muslims and, additionally (as they claim), the only legitimate Muslims, the only preservers of a pure faith for which they are ready to give their lives. Well, fine, say the Iranians--but what about your Arab brothers who have conquered us? Brothers? cry the outraged Shiites. Those Arabs are Sunnis, usurpers and our persecutors. They murdered Ali and seized power. No, we don't acknowledge them. We are in opposition! Having made this proclamation, the Shiites ask if they might rest after their long journey and request a jug of cold water.

This pronouncement by the barefoot newcomers sets the Iranians thinking along important lines. You can be a Muslim without being an establishment Muslim. What's more, you can be an opposition Muslim! And that makes you an even better Muslim! They feel empathy for these poor, wronged Shiites. At this moment the Iranians themselves are poor and feel wronged. They have been ruined by war, and an invader controls their country. So they quickly find a common language with these exiles who are looking for shelter and counting on their hospitality. The Iranians begin to listen to the Shiite preachers and finally accept their faith."

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