Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Westoxication" a National Illusion

Gharbzadegi is a coined phrase popularized in Iran by Jalal Al-e Ahmad referring to a perceived “national” problem of intoxication or stricken by the Western values – Westoxication. Al-e Ahmad a renowned writer in his book, Gharbzadegi, has diagnosed Westoxication as the national disease. “We have not been able to preserve our cultural-historical character in the confrontation with the machine and its inevitable assault. We have disintegrated.” For him the “machine and its inevitable assault” is the summation of the Western influence. His thesis was stringing together a set of half truth geo-political and historical events, which as a leading intellectual is only indicative of the shallowness of the knowledge among the learned at the time.

This was the banner for a wave of return to our roots movement for the national salvation, against the conspiracy of the “imperialist” west and the “communist” Soviet Union. Every day one could hear about the new miracles of the “national identity”, mainly in rumors. The rumors went from Mohandas Bazargan’s (first prime minister of the 1979 revolution) discovery of the principles of thermo-dynamics from within the pages of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, to a new conspiracy by the west to steal the secrets of Sheikh Bahai’s bath in Isfahan. The rumors were that this bath was heated by a single candle. In the rush for the preservation of this cultural miracle the rumor portrayed it as a regular candle stick. As all miracles do not have a traceable track the trace of this miracle was wiped out by the western heathens. The rumor was, in their “conspiracy” for stealing this secret westerners destroyed Sheikh Bahai’s system.

Eventually this whole trend was popularized by Dr. Shariati, through a series of lectures and books, focusing on the religion as the source of national inspiration against the Shah’s rule. He compiled and recreated a mythology of religious characters through which a new national identity was to arise. The “Westoxication” tended to move us away from learning and understanding the West toward wrapping ourselves in an illusion of “national” identity in opposition to the West.

The Shah’s rule did not leave much room to expose those illusions and it became an excuse to pile up on them. Here and there you could hear a joke that highlighted the hole that we were digging ourselves into. One that stuck in my mind goes like this: An Iranian comes to the US for a visit; his host takes him out into the Arizona deserts and points to a spot and asks a laborer to dig a hole. The laborer digs and goes down about a foot. The American host puts his hands in the dirt of the shallow pit and pulls out a bunch of old wires. He turns to the Iranian visitor and tells him: 150 years ago we had wired communication; we had telegram in this country. The Iranian gives a sarcastic smile and says “this is very good, very interesting” and he invites his host for a visit to Iran. The American host takes up the offer and goes for a visit to Iran. The Iranian takes his guest to the deserts around Isfahan and points to a spot and asks a laborer to dig down. The laborer digs and digs. He digs some more and goes 2500 feet down. The Iranian host brings his American guest on the top of this deep hole and says look down. The American looks down the dark hole and wonders what is going on. The Iranian with great pride tells his American guest, do you see 2500 years ago we had wireless.

The Iranian revolution as a gauge of national identity proved our ankle deep culture, but if one wants to stretch the depth of it then we certainly had wireless first.

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