What will Bush make of 'Kandahar'?by Mark Cousins / December 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is exhilarating to have such ambiguous political bearings. In Esfahan a few days ago, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei spoke to a crowd of tens of thousands on Emam Khomeini Square. Our hotel was only a few metres away but when we tried to stand at the door to watch the throngs arriving, a policeman ushered us back in the nicest possible way. In Tehran none of the young people have any time for Khamenei. A taxi driver openly told us of the “death to Khamenei” chants on the streets after the recent Iran-Emirates football match. Everyone we talked to preferred-even adored-President Khatami and cheered when the European Parliament passed a resolution supporting him.
Back in our hotel in Esfahan-a city a bit like Paris in the desert, a jewel of Safavid architecture, where “Down With America” is neatly painted on the walls-it is a different story. Late on the night of the Khamenei speech, our young, trendy concierge Ali offers me tea and tells me how important the spiritual leader is. His deep study of the Koran is, for him, a rudder in secular times. The chief threat to the Islamic republic, he says, is that its young people do not know their history and culture: they aren’t even aware that Persians are Aryan not Arab. By chance I am reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana on this trip. First published in 1937, Byron relates an almost identical conversation.
Even ardent Ali is ambiguous about the west. He is learning English from what he calls a “book of poems.” When he fetches this it turns out to be a collection of Beatles’ lyrics. He opens it at Strawberry Fields Forever and is very surprised when I tell him that it is a song, with a melody. I am, alas, obliged to sing it for him in the lobby. Ali asks about the metaphors in the lyrics but when I offer to send him a tape of the songs themselves he declines at once, suddenly incurious. Later we hear that in his speech Khamenei denounced those who argue that Iran should extend the hand o…