The sad exile of a romantic revolutionary

By Ali Jaafar
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, July 24, 2004


In "Masoud: Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel," Masoud Banisadr recounts the history of modern day Iran, from the days of the shah through to the Iranian revolution in 1979, increasing repression under Ayatollah Khomeini's rule, and finally a life of exile as a member of the anti-regime group the Mujahideen. The book is most valuable not as a lesson in this well-known history, but as a detailed account of how quickly a populist uprising can turn sour.

Born in 1953, the same year President Mossadegh was overthrown by a CIA backed coup, Banisadr initially creates an evocative depiction of Iranian society on the verge of revolution. It is in these early sections where the book is strongest. Remembering how people would interpret the government propaganda under the shah, he writes: "We had learned how to interpret the media: We knew if news was short it meant something very bad was happening. No news meant a lot of news. Conversely, a lot of news meant no news."

He breathlessly recalls the exhilaration of seeing Shah Pahlavi overthrown and the triumphant return of Khomeini from Paris: "Our joy knew no bounds. Tyranny had gone; freedom had come." More striking, however, is the speed with which their hopes are dashed by the emergence of another dictatorship. Banisadr joined the Mujahideen, a radical neo-Marxist group, to fight the shah; but "the unity of revolutionary forces disappeared with the departure of the common enemy." He and his group soon find themselves at odds with the other revolutionary groups: the Fedayeen, Hizbullahis and Revolutionary Guards.

Ostracized by the newly installed Khomeini regime, the Mujahideen find themselves in a life of exile, its members seeking shelter across Europe and America, and beginning a new campaign, this time working to remove the very same leaders with whom they had previously fought side by side. It is in these long descriptions of life in other places - Gateshead, Newcastle and London - where Banisadr's story falls flat. Devoting too much space to the inner workings of a relatively peripheral group, particularly in their first days where the majority of their revolutionary activity was limited to sending out newsletters, Banisadr is distanced from Iran. As he admits, when he meets Iranian POWs in Iraq, "speaking with them, I saw how much had changed, how vast was the gap between ordinary Iranians and ourselves. Even our vocabulary wasAlthough unconvincing in his attempt to present the Mujahideen as a genuinely important and radical force for change in Iran, Banisadr does give a fascinating account of life in a cult-like organization. Taking every word of Mujahideen leaders Masoud Rajavi and wife Maryam as gospel, the members of the group are forced to undergo bizarre rituals to prove of their devotion to the cause. The most memorable of these are the "ideological revolutions" they are required to undertake, rejecting family and loved ones in favor of life as revolutionaries. These revolutions soon become increasingly perverse and sexual. As Banisadr recounts, "I was shocked when Rajavi strode into the meeting room and asked, in front of Maryam, who had masturbated in the past few months ... Each individual then had to talk about his sexuality, his feelings and the way he looked at women around him."

Having finally left the Mujahideen, tired of their self-serving aims - "our main objective was no longer to install democracy in Iran but to guarantee Rajavi's right to lead" - Banisadr ends his book with the facile observation that "life is not black and white ... life is a rainbow."

Given Iran's demographics, where 65 percent of the population are under 30 years of age and an estimated 70 percent of the population are opposed to the continuing rule of the mullahs, it is a shame that he could not have come to this conclusion earlier and in so doing help shed some light on the nature of Iranian society in a way which is sadly missing from his book.


Ali Jaafar is a writer based in London with The British Film Institute. He is a regular contributor to the Daily Star.