No fun, no bread, no chance



TLS April 1, 2005


Masoud Banisadr


Memoirs of an Iranian rebel

473pp. Saqi Books. Paperback, £17.99.



                  The Iranian Revolution of 1978—79 was one of the great revolutions of the twenti­eth century.

                  As in all such mighty upheavals, designed in theory to bring justice, there was much injustice, many died, more were hurt, families were broken, fanaticism took hold on all sides, the claims of humanity were downgraded, the revolution began to consume its own, and many came to live in exile determined to overthrow the new regime.

Masoud Banisadr’s memoirs are primarily the story of his exile and of his contributions to trying to overthrow the Revolutionary regime. It is a powerful and illuminating record, but also a distressing one. From a well-connected background — his father was a highly educated official of the Shah’s regime and a cousin, AboL Hasan Banisadr, was the first President of the Islamic Republic — Masoud tells us what it was like to grow up in Tehran between the late 1950s and the early 70s to the point when he marries Anna, “the most beautiful girl I ever had seen and ever would see”. Through the eyes of the young couple we are given a vivid picture of the corruption and inequalities of the Shah’s regime, and of the impact of the great inflation of the mid-1970s. Then, after studying at the National University of Iran, now Shahid Behishti, Masoud, like so many of his genera­tion, went to do postgraduate work in Britain, first at Reading and then at Newcastle.

The Revolution drew Masoud and Anna back to Iran; he wanted to be part of the great changes in his society. After being beaten up by supporters of the mullahs as he took part in a demonstration run by the Mojahedin (described by the Shah’s regime as Muslim Marxists, but perhaps better described as Muslim Leftists), he decided to join the organization, and was told that he could best serve it abroad. Recalling his departure, he cries, as so many exiles have done, “How could I know that this was the last time I would see my beautiful country and have its warm air in my lungs? If I had known.  would I ever have been able to tear myself away? Never!”. From 1979, Masoud, Anna and eventually their two children, find their lives increasingly dominated by the requirements of the Mojahedin. In the United Kingdom Masoud raised money for the organization, attended demonstrations, planned propaganda and was a regular presence at Labor Party conferences. Subsequently, he was given a diplomatic role, operating both in Europe and the United States, where a regular achievement was putting together the coalition of countries which would support a resolution condemning human-rights abuses in IRAN. He did military service, being part of the Mojahedin force which in 1988 invaded Iran from Iraq. During the early 1990s he was the organization’s chief representative in the USA. Throughout, by his own account, which there is no reason to disbelieve, he was an enterprising, efficient and honest servant of the organization. When money was needed in Britain, he established a successful kebab business to generate it. When the Mojahedin wanted to establish a radio station in the USA, he knew how it should be done, and how funds should be raised.

Sadly, the demands of the Mojahedin were to drive Masoud apart from his family. By the mid-1980s, Anna, who had endured much for the cause, among other things fearing for its impact on her children, withdrew from active support. Then, the organization itself, aiming to focus the energies of its supporters increasingly on its purposes, began to target any alternative allegiances they might have. The organization knew that Masoud loved Anna deeply, though he saw her but rarely. Several times he was instructed to write her letters of divorce, which (it turned out) the organization did not deliver. Eventually, in 1995, Anna asked Masoud for a divorce, which, although it hurt him much, he gave.

            A year later, depressed by this and by the many failings of the Mojahedin, which were increasingly clear, he resigned. Although “I had indeed lost everything: parents and children, sisters and brothers, relatives and old friends, my youth and health... I have no regrets because I kept my dignity and honour and because I sincerely did what I could in the service of liberty and justice, those pillars of morality that make us human.

Masoud’s story tells us a great deal about the Mojahedin, and not all of it savory. The organi­zation had been founded in 1965 by followers of Engineer Bazargan, who was to become the first Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic. Taking note of the bloody way in which the Shah had put down the 1963 uprising, the Mojahedin decided that the old ways of oppos­ing the regime, strike and street protests, were useless and should be replaced by guerrilla warfare. In 1971, they conducted their first operation, which was to disrupt the overblown celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. Despite close attention from SAVAK, the Iranian secret police force, they were able to make a significant contribution to the eventual overthrow of the Shah, only to lose the subse­quent struggle with the mullahs. Now, an exile group, they came to depend on the several million Iranians who had fled the Revolution to settle in Europe and the USA.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became a particular friend, permitting them to build a political head­quarters in Baghdad and a military base on the Iranian frontier in Khuzestan. While the world feared the export of the Islamic revolution and welcomed Saddam’s willingness to help neutral­ize the threat, the Mojahedin found many political doors open to them. But, after the dictator’s invasion of Kuwait, and the mild rehabilita­tion of Iran, in European eyes at least, the Mojahedin found their popularity waning in dip­lomatic circles. “Look”, one Mojahedin joke went, ‘in the whole world we have one friend and he is a madman.’

The fantasies and military incompetence of the Mojahedin are made only too clear. In 1988, it would appear, Saddam Hussein delayed accepting Resolution 598, which would bring the Iran—Iraq war to an end, in order to give the Mojahedin an opportunity to invade Iran. Masoud’s description of the Mojahedin forces and their performance is worthy of Evelyn’s Waugh. Many of the soldiers had no training. Masoud commanded a battalion without ever having fired a gun. His men had tanks but did not know how to work them, so, as soon as they came under fire,, they leapt out of them to engage the enemy with small arms. As soon as his battalion had advanced over the Iranian border, he realized that he had not brought any bread for his men, so had to send back for it. The Mojahedin imagined, as Vice-President Cheney did in the case of the invasion of Iraq, that as soon as they got over the border, they would be welcomed by a cheering population. Quite the reverse: they were slaughtered. As Masoud admits, “we were disastrously, fatally, taken in by our own propaganda”.

Masoud’s descriptions of the workings of the Mojahedin reveal the extraordinary activities and mumbo-jumbo to which the intelligent, when ideologically driven, are prepared to submit. Every day Masoud’ s London unit would perform “matins”, gathering in ranks before pictures of their leaders, doing some drill, singing a Mojahedin song, and hailing the Mojahedin. The rules of the group give a sense of things: “no sex before marriage”; “total com­mitment to the organization” “no relationships outside the organization”; “no fun”; “no private time”; “no outside work”; “no private owner­ship”; even “no reading of material from out­side the organization”. Every full member had a masoul, or supervisor, whose word was law. Many supervisors were women, and Masoud makes clear the powerful psychological hold they gained over their supervisees. The organi­zation, moreover, was in a state of constant ideo­logical revolution handed down from above. At one point an “anti-bourgeois” phase was pro­claimed, which was directed particularly at those from outside Iran who had become Mojahedin. Members had to surrender all pos­sessions deemed “luxurious”. At the same time Masoud came under particular pressure for his “bourgeois” characteristics: “I had to examine myself and recognize my behavior including my ‘kindness’, ‘understanding’, ‘caring’ and ‘helpfulness’ as ‘bourgeois tricks’ to ‘fool peo­ple and keep them in my trap’. I had to try very hard not to show any affection towards any­body, even to make others dislike or hate me.

A later ideological revolution focused on sex. The leadership commanded all members to divorce their spouses, and hand over their rings. They were told that they were not yet full believ­ers in the Mojahedin ideology because, like everyone else in the world, they were mired in the “ideology of sexuality”: “The cure was to distance ourselves from our sexuality. The first step was to forget sex for the rest of our lives. Hence we had not only to divorce but to learn to hate our spouses, as love was based on sex and delivered us up to the ideology of sexuality at the same time holding us back from embracing the Mojahedin ideology”. Ideological revolu­tions such as these were accompanied by inter­minable sessions of self-criticism and mutual accusation. All were required to lay themselves bare, and if they did not have anything to con­fess, as was often Masoud’s case, the wiser path was to invent confessions. All was very intense; the atmosphere was that of a revivalist sect. “Every now and then, we were startled by a loud cry as somebody arrived at her or his revo­lution, following which the leaders would talk with the person amid sobs and tears.”~

Not surprisingly, the Mojahedin fostered a personality cult focused on its leadership. Rather more surprisingly the focus of the cult shifted from Masoud Rajavi, who was the major force in the organization in the 1970s and 80s, to his wife. To many outside the organization Rajavi’s marriage to Maryam in 1985 was a scandal. She was the wife of a fellow Mojahedin leader, with whom she was still in love, when, it was said, the politburo instructed the two to divorce so that Maryam and Rajavi could work together as leaders. There was, of course, a specific purpose in a revolutionary organization, which was challeng­ing Khomeini’s regime, having a woman at the helm. In his wedding address Rajavi instructed his supporters “to die and be reborn not from their mother’s wombs, but from Maryam”. Soon Maryam was announcing the “ideology of Maryam”; she was the “ideological mother” of the Mojahedin. By 1993, she had become “President-designate” of their intended regime in Iran. Such was the success of the cult of Maryam, and such too was her charisma, that Masoud came to worship her, treasuring any small favour she sent his way. For this reason, when he resigned he had to cut himself off from all contact with her for fear of being dissuaded.

The Mojahedin were always notable for the substantia1 role which women played in the organization. Under Maryam’s rule, however, there was a steady feminization of its concerns and its leadership. The language of her cam­paigns against male sexuality was worthy of the radical feminist movement of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Soon, women were declared to have greater revolutionary potential than men, and therefore to be ideologically superior. All men were given female supervisors. The Leadership Council came to consist entirely of women. The Presidential role of Maryam put the final piece in place. All came to learn that “we must forget our feet and walk with Maryam’s feet. Then instead of walking we can fly”. There are elements of Masoud’s description of the workings of the Mojahedin which recall, in part at least, those of some Sufi orders. The Mojahedin were required to extin­guish their “sense of self and replace it with love for ‘God’ through the leadership. One was to receive all confidence and esteem from the leader, depend on only him, love only him”. In this case the “Sufi” master became increasingly a mistress — Maryam.

There are two final observations to be made about this remarkable book. First, it should be read as a warning to all those who, driven by ideals, ignore the claims of humanity. Masoud cleverly indicates to us how small acts of human­ity on the part of others help him recover from his obsession with Mojahedin ideology. He also admits that he has had to go through his extraordi­nary experiences to learn again the lesson he Was taught at his grandmother’s knee: “that life is a rainbow, and black and white is another world where people only deal in the extremes.. . it is a world to be repudiated and despised”. Second, the book may be read as a confession of enduring love. In the way that Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family can be read, against the backdrop of the Turkish Revolution, as an elegy for a lost mother, so Masoud’s Masoud reads as a long letter of love, and of explanation, to the wife he has for ever lost.