This is a book about chasing down mavericks in order to touch the freedom that they carry in themselves and spark in others.
Mavericks matter; they kick-start stalled cultures. They’re our necessary mongrels because societies – just like dogs and individuals – need a bit of the dirtbag in them, a bit of the feral, if they are to be lean and adaptable and keep life juiced up with a visceral dose of liberty.
Necessary mavericks may be, but they’re also far too rare – as we’ve become a species bred for show, to conform, all groomed and mannered to follow routine and please others. The result of this is that we stagnate and degenerate, sapped of our most liberating power: imagination.
Without a strong and supple imagination, we can’t escape the stalemates and dead ends that plague everything from our habits and relationships and spirituality through to international politics; trapped within repetitive thought and action, unable to be truly free, we’re unable to become what we are.
Mavericks, however, are wise to this. In their blood, they know that society is a thief, seeking always to steal any raw sense of freedom and limitlessness left over after childhood’s glory fizzles out.
Imagination and instinct are fused in the maverick realm. They know that life could be very different. They know that screwing up to realise their vision is not the worst way to live or die; they know that we only become ourselves by shoving back against the routines that would place us on autopilot, and even by pushing things too far.
Rebelling is at its most obvious, most literal, when people confront dictatorships or take up arms against their rulers, and some people in Running with the Blood God do just that. The urge to live larger and be freer than society condones or allows, however, troubles the whole world, cooking away not just under grim, repressive regimes but even in smiling consumer wonderlands.
But what is at its heart and where does it lead? To find out, I roamed the world of free spirits, finding a gutsy singularity of spirit in circumstances as disparate as the religious totalitarianism of Iran, the delusional wretchedness of the democratic Philippines, the historical hangover of punch-drunk Serbia, and on into one of the most free-wheeling corners of the ‘Land of the Free’. All kinds of rebels fill these pages, from women haunting bamboo forests with M16s to men wreaking gloriously peaceful havoc with little more than bold ideas. This is not a book that seeks to tell its readers what to think, so do not expect lectures about this or that person I encountered being good or bad, someone to be approved of or condemned. These are real people that would have as much right to judge you as you them. Or perhaps more, for mavericks are people for whom imagination has consequences, and not all have survived.
Yet, whether or not we have the mad courage to pinch ourselves out of the communal slumber, in a matter of decades all of us will be dead. So perhaps there is a kind of high-voltage liberation in the message of an Iranian maverick who tells a startling tale of his 6000-year-old culture being in the grip of a blood god, a supreme being whose love hinges on us meeting our fate with open hearts.
To realise this, to sense it deep inside, is to know that the only path to run is the one leading to the end: our end.
In the Realm of the Blood God: Iran
Le bourreau qui jouit, le martyr qui sanglote;
La fête qu’assaisonne et parfume le sang;
Le poison du pouvoir énervant le despote,
Et le people amoureux du fouet abrutissant
The executioner relishing his task, the sobbing martyr;
The festival seasoned and perfumed with blood;
The poison of power unmanning the despot,
And the people in love with the stultifying whip
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Voyage’
It is hard to know where trouble begins or ends, but one clear centre of it is dead ahead within the intensifying crush of soldiers and riot police.Security forces have blocked the roads on this cold, late-autumn day during the crackdown of 2009. They turn away central Tehran’s endless throngs of honking cars and vans, but nothing stops the motorcycles. Great streams of them peel onto the footpaths and through the crowds. Many ride towards the tumult, but a motor- cycle carrying three men races away down what is meant to be a closed street. A policeman lunges, wrenching the handlebar back and lurching the bike to the side. The driver’s leg kisses the asphalt but he steers hard over and his passengers heave up to help swing the bike out of a crash. The driver grins as he stabilises and revs the trio to freedom, leaving the cop rubbing his hand.
Every Iranian I’ve spoken to since arriving in the country said to stay in the hotel today. When asked why, most smile uneasily and say that the traffic will be terrible. But the few who know I am here for more than a holiday look sick as they explain that their government is a monster that knows no limits in what it will do to repress a civilian population that rejects its legitimacy. Government forces beat people’s heads with clubs and shoot them dead in the street, I am told. They run over protestors in cars. They arrest them by the hundreds, trucking them to prisons where they face torture, rape and crippling or even lethal beatings. I am also told that the regime considers all English-speaking foreigners to be enemies of the state, and if I’m snatched during a demonstration then it will not matter what passport I’m carrying or what reason I give for being here; I will be taken away and so will everyone I name. ‘And you will name us,’ a woman said. So I don’t know surnames or where people live, and I’m under instructions not to tell one contact about another.
Yet here on the east–west sweep of Enqelab Avenue, close to Tehran University and Enqelab Square, where students are rallying in defiance of the crackdown, people in this busy area just talk and walk as normal in the cold, fumy air and don’t pay much heed to the security operation. Sirens pierce the standard hubbub of car horns and rasping motorcycles, ambulances are allowed through the road-blocks, but I don’t see anyone craning their necks to look at what’s going on ahead. Not civilians, anyway. Soldiers and riot police finger their clubs at vantage points all along Enqelab. I’m heading west towards the trouble, passing printing shops, diners and a clothing boutique where a young man inspects the collars of dress shirts and chats with the sales assistant. It is bright in there but on the streets, at a little after five on a December afternoon, the sun abandons what has been another grim, grey day. I’ve been hiding my blue eyes but now I pocket the shades, pull my woollen cap low, and keep my head down, trying to appear as blandly uninterested as everyone else even as I walk faster and faster, hurrying into a situation I can’t read. ‘Hello,’ says a thickset man standing by a motorbike parked in the broken-up gutter.
‘Salam,’ I say, meaning the same thing, and I accelerate, not wanting to draw any attention to myself, least of all by conversing in English. A group of police stands a stone’s throw away. The man calls again and he bangs his fists together and points ahead. It’s not a threat but a warning, it appears, for he’s not alerting the cops but just looking at me and shaking his head. He’s got my pulse up and I scuttle to another road-blocked intersection, this one where Enqelab hits Valiasr Street, one of the main routes into well-to-do northern Tehran. It’s only a few hundred metres now to the university, where protestors have chosen the annual Student Day to defy the government’s command to stop all dissent and accept the election result. The regime has killed scores in previous demonstrations, but today the rally has the protection of irony. Student Day marks the anniversary of the day three students were shot dead at the University of Tehran while protesting against the visit of Richard Nixon in December 1953. The US’s then–vice-president came to Iran four months after the CIA orchestrated a coup toppling Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised the oil industry. About 300 people died during the coup and when the Shah’s forces killed another three, the trio became symbols of resistance against unjust rule. As ham-fisted as members of the revolutionary government can be, the significance of shooting students today would not be lost on them, so there’s a good chance the goons will stick to beatings and mass arrests.
Blue eyes. A foreigner lopes past in identical get-up – woollen cap snug and low, hands buried in the pockets of a nondescript black coat. His stare is tight with the first fear I’ve seen. He looks like a blond Russian; is he a journalist or Western embassy staff? Iran’s rulers have outlawed reporting from protests, and information gathering about the volatile political situation is illegal. Earlier this year a twenty-four-year-old French teacher, Clotilde Reiss, was arrested and tried for espionage by Iranian police for emailing photographs of demonstrations. She was released from jail after reportedly posting 200,000 euros bail, and now sits in the French embassy waiting for a verdict. The Islamic Republic’s stiff and unrelenting defences have so far deterred the imperialists from launching an invasion, I read in the local press, so the pernicious enemies (the US and Britain in particular) have turned to cultural contamination – soft war – to weaken the nation’s integrity and self-confidence and thereby set the stage for conquest and exploitation. Patriotism thus requires the government to censor the internet, block the importation of all but a tiny handful of books, films and music, and refuse most local requests for permits to stage rock concerts or other manifestations of the West’s infectious, strategic disorder.
Noise blasts from behind. Dozens of riot cops start up motorcycles and rev hard in a theatre forecourt. Pillion cops climb aboard gripping batons, drop their visors into place, smack their plates of black body armour and bounce on the seats ready to go. I’m in their flight path and here they fucking come, throttles wide, sending me and a dozen others stampeding as bike after bike roars straight onto Enqelab and flies towards the university. Maybe the ambulances waved through were pre-positioned in anticipation of bloodshed. My heart pounds and legs shake with the urge to run, but that would attract attention and life in Tehran is about playing it cool, not standing out.
Soldiers who have massed at the Valiasr roadblock form wedges and head my way fast, eyeballing the locals who simply step to the side and keep chatting without even looking at them. Cursing, I get moving, dreading a yell or a flat-out charge. A young fellow told me yesterday that if the situation got out of hand I should sprint towards apartments. ‘People will open their doors for you,’ he said. ‘Iranians are kindly even if our government is hard.’ It sounded good at the time but here it is all shops and, regardless, the goons are so close they’d be through a door seconds behind me.
Men stare glassy-eyed through the windows of a smoke-hazed teahouse just to the left. ‘Salam,’ says the rumpled manager as I approach. He leans back from a desk, his thumb resting on a fat wad of rials. ‘What do you want?’
I point to a table beside us where coals blaze orange on the crown of a two-foot-tall water pipe as a man fills his lungs. ‘That.’
‘Ah, qalyan,’ the manager says, pronouncing the Farsi for the pipes as gal-yaan. He grunts at a pipe boy who cruises the room using tongs to turn or replace coals, and then resumes counting rials. The young aide asks a bench of smokers up the back to squeeze together.
‘Salam,’ says a paunchy middle-aged man as he makes room for me. ‘Have you had qalyan before? No? Very unhealthy, but –’ he runs a hand through his bushy grey hair and shrugs ‘– it’s one of our pleasures, and we don’t have so many.’ He gives an order to the pipe boy. ‘He will bring you orange tobacco. It fills the body with a sweetness that is lacking out there.’
We look out through the smoky air at streams of young people flowing east and west, away from or towards the hammering of protestors. My companion seems talkative and I have many questions, but the Iranians who called their government a people-eating monster also warned me that its informants are everywhere. There are many open-minded people in Iran, they said, but it is foolish to be both open-minded and open-mouthed. So I just smile and nod until the boy places a pipe on the bench.
Sirens shriek as the coals redden above and my lungs fill with citrus. Shouts crack out on the street and helmeted soldiers are at the window, the angry eyes of a young man in camouflage flashing across the smokers. I shrink behind the pipe, but before his gaze hits me he and his troops are gone. Heart pounding, I exhale into the room’s eye-stinging fog and let the burnt fruit linger on my tongue. ‘You must be very careful tonight,’ my neighbour says as his friend nods and puffs. ‘This is a difficult time. A dangerous time.’ He glances at the window. ‘We have had enough of all this. Enough.
How long have you been in Iran? Why did you come now?’ I shrug. ‘I’m a tourist. Thought it would be interesting.’ ‘A tourist? In Tehran now?’
I tap my Farsi phrasebook and grin. ‘What did you come to see?’
The visa application posed similar questions – what people or organisations did I plan to meet? – so I use the same answer. ‘Traditional Persian wrestling. I might go check it out later in the week.’
The man is dumbfounded. ‘With all this going on? And have you heard of Muharram? The Islamic month of grieving is about to start; this is not a time for wrestling exhibitions and tripping around. And you know of Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram? For Shia this is the most powerful day of the year. These are not times for tourists. Especially in the current situation.’ He pats his friend on the shoulder and they stand. ‘Be careful and enjoy the wrestling. We’re going to the revolution,’ he says. They walk west towards the university.
When my tobacco is spent I nod for a second pipe. Then, eyes low, I shuffle a kilometre or so south, past the fortified embassy of a state enemy, the United Kingdom, to the Hotel Hafez. The manager asks daily why I don’t leave Tehran. The crackdown is in force across the country, but at least in smaller, prettier, more historic cities like Shiraz and Esfahan it comes with lovely old bridges and mosques, cleaner air, and easygoing locals. Tehran, by contrast, is a charmless jumble of toxic smog and concrete with a daytime population of fifteen million.
The midnight television news turns to Student Day. Tehran University’s sea of youth – many covered in the head-to-toe black of a chador – are shown chanting ‘Marg bar Amrika’ (‘Death to America’) or, as the news anchor puts it, ‘slogans in condemnation of US hegemonic policy’. The students, he says, ‘expressed strong support for the Iranian government’ and ‘urged Iranian academ-ics to exercise vigilance in the face of plots hatched by enemies of the Islamic Republic’. The wildly patriotic mob waves pictures of the Islamic Republic’s founding Supreme Leader, the late, iconic, charismatic, black-browed, snowy-bearded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the man who succeeded him in 1989: the non-iconic, uncharismatic, but still black-browed and snowy-bearded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Something about the coverage, other than the laugh- ably skewed commentary, is wrong. Getting off the bed, I look more closely at the chador-clad students – not that I saw a single chador on Enqelab – when the penny drops: today the skies over Tehran were a leaden grey, as they have been since I arrived, but the heavens over the rally shown on TV shine sapphire blue.
Excerpted from Running with the Blood God by Matthew Thompson. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Thompson.
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