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Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present, Richard Foltz (Oneworld 2013)

This book reminded me of a line by one of Saki’s characters: “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Similarly, the people of Iran make more religion than they can consume locally. Much more. That’s part of why Iran is such an interesting place. I knew enough about Iran not to think it was Arabic-speaking or inhabited by Arabs. This book has taught me some more, but it deserved more time and attention than I’ve been able to give it.

As “Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada”, Richard Foltz is the sort of scholar who turns up regularly in the New York or London Review of Books. And he probably has done exactly that. Fortunately, his prose doesn’t sink to the levels of pretension and posturing you can often find in the NYRB and LRB. He has some illuminating things to say. But perhaps “irrigating” is a better description of this example:

The “Pool Theory”: Possibilities, not Essence

My own approach to the notion of “religion”, which sees the term as being, for practical purposes, almost synonymous with “culture” and not a separate category, places less of an emphasis on providing a description as such, than on identifying a pool of ideas and behaviour from which communities and ideas may draw in constituting their particular worldviews. I call this approach the Pool Theory: it posits that religion/culture is best understood not in terms of essential features, but as a set of possibilities within a recognizable framework, or “pool”. (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

The Iranian pool is unusually deep and broad: the region has been creating, influencing and absorbing religious ideas for millennia. Who were the magi of the New Testament, for example? Priests from ancient Persia, that’s who. The new religion of Christianity was drawing on the prestige of a much older religion, that of Zarathustra or Zoroaster, whose life can’t even be given a fixed millennium, let alone a century. As Foltz says: “Among the founders of the world’s major religions, none is more shrouded in mystery than Zoroaster. Basic questions, such as where and when he lived, remain unresolved.” (ch. 3, “In Search of Zoroaster”, pg. 32)

But perhaps if Zoroaster had been less mysterious, he would also have been less influential. Zoroastrianism has also shaped and inspired Judaism and Islam. It’s no longer the dominant religion in Iran, but it’s the part of the cultural pool where Iranians still swim. So is Manichaeism, a religion that appeared in Iran in the third century AD. It’s much less-known than Zoroastrianism, but may be even more interesting: after all, it was “perhaps the most maligned religion in history”. Its founder Mani “died in prison in 276, presumably tortured to death, at the age of sixty” (ch. 10, “Manichaeism”, pg. 138). His eclectic and eccentric religion was known for centuries “only through the polemics of its worst enemies, such as Augustine of Hippo and the various heresiographers and historians of Islam”. (pg. 137)

Manichaeism was eventually driven out of Iran to become an official religion among the Uighur Turks of Central Asia, then die far off and long later even further east: “The last Manichaean community appears to have survived in southeastern China until the seventeenth century, when it became unrecognizably absorbed into popular Buddhism”. (ibid., pp. 143-4) What inspired the enmity that began this exile? Modern scholars like Foltz aren’t able to explain that fully, even now that they have original Manichaean texts from “the widely separated deserts of western China and Egypt” (pg. 142). But Manichaeism, while retaining its own doctrines, seems to have borrowed too readily and adapted too flexibly to other religions. That is, it was a chameleon, so its rivals could never be sure whether their own adherents were truly as orthodox as they seemed. Augustine knew it from the inside: he “was a Manichaean for nine years before converting to Christianity.” (pg. 137) As Foltz notes: “his interpretation of the latter faith was greatly influenced by his rejection of the former”.

So an Iranian religion influenced Christianity again. But Manichaeism influenced Judaism and Islam too, “if for no other reason than that its proselytizing success and extreme doctrinal positions forced apologists for other faiths to refine and strengthen their own views” (pg. 137). And the contrarian spirit of Manichaeism lives on. Iran is today the centre of “Shi‘ism” (sic), the branch of Islam that very roughly corresponds to Protestantism in Christianity and that was born in southern Iraq in opposition to orthodox Sunni Islam. When rebels become rulers in Iran, rebellion doesn’t cease. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

[…] the Qajar dynasty was brought to an end in 1921 by an ambitious soldier called Reza Khan (born 1878) who seized power and assumed the title of Shah in 1925. Reza Shah, as he was now known, made a conscious effort to recall Iran’s pre-Islamic greatness by calling his new dynasty the Pahlavi [after an ancient Iranian language]. […] Reza Shah’s modernizing agenda favored those among the traditional clergy, Shariat Sanglaji for example, who showed themselves pliant and willing to preach a reformist version of Islam compatible with the king’s goals. At the same time, his nationalist policies encouraged a celebration of Iran’s pre-Islamic identity. This included a replacement of Arabic words and place-names with Persian ones. Many among Iran’s intelligentsia were attracted to the national reawakening taking place during the 1930s, which sometimes portrayed Islam as an alien religion that had been imposed through force by a culturally inferior people. (ch. 14, “Shi‘ism”, pg. 205)

The dynasty founded by Reza Shah lasted until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to create “The Islamic Republic”. Foltz discusses the republic in chapter 18, but he’s understandably cautious in what he says. He has an Iranian wife and I assume he visits Iran regularly. As he says in the previous chapter, discussing the tribulations of “The Bábí Movement and the Bahá’í Faith”: “Those Bábís who survived [in Iran] adopted the age-old Shi‘ite practice of taqiyya, dissimulation of one’s true beliefs to ensure the survival of the religious community” (loc. cit., pg. 235). In some ways, Bahá’ísm is Manichaeism reborn: hated and persecuted in its land of origin.

But we don’t need to wonder many centuries later whether the hatred and persecution are in any way justified: we can see for ourselves that they aren’t. Like Ahmadis in Pakistan, Bahá’ís aren’t officially recognized except as enemies of the true faith. Like Ahmadis, many have left the country in which their religion took shape. History is repeating itself as tragedy, not farce, but the tragedies of Iranian history are part of what makes the country so interesting and you can see another side of the Islamic Republic in another chapter: “…Zoroastrians in Iran enjoy a number of privileges denied to Iran’s Muslim majority.” (ch. 19, “Iranian Zoroastrians Today”, pg. 258) For example, like “Iran’s Christians and Jews, they can make and produce alcoholic beverages”.

Persecuting or tolerant, innovative or heresy-hunting, Iranian religion is both fascinating and important. You can get a good idea of its depth and complexity in this book, whether you paddle or plunge into the millennia’s-worth of ideas, stories and personalities that swirl and mingle here.

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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

I first read this as an old paperback picked up in a charity shop. It was a book-of-the-film with a photograph of Peter Ustinov as the protagonist on the back cover. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the film and I wasn’t expecting much from the book. Why should I have been? It was just another cheap paperback bought out of idle interest.

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read. The first-person narrator is Arthur Simpson, a neurotic, devious tourist-guide and petty crook living in Athens. He’s in his fifties and has bad breath and a paunch. He bears grudges, steals from his clients whenever he can, and has no redeeming qualities except his candour. But the more he reveals about himself and his past – from the anonymous notes he sent to get teachers in trouble at school to the indigestion he suffers whenever he foolishly gets himself into trouble again – the more you’re on his side. He’s a highly flawed but sympathetic character. You’ll finish this book not just wishing him well but wishing there were more books to read about him (according to the introduction, he appears again in Dirty Story, 1967).

He reminds me of two other flawed but sympathetic characters: George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman, a cowardly Victorian war-hero, and Anthony Burgess’s Nabby Adams, an alcoholic policeman in British Malaya. Flashman cheats and scampers his way through a long and entertaining series. Adams appears in only one book and like Arthur he leaves you wanting more. Burgess intended him to stand for the human race: he’s like our sinful, suffering forefather Adam, who is a prophet, or nabi, in the Muslim tradition. But Nabby lives to drink; Arthur isn’t sure why he lives at all:

I have often thought of killing myself, so that I wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember any more, so that I could rest; but then I have always started worrying in case this after-life they preach about really exists. It might turn out to be even bloodier than the old one. (ch. 7)

He muses like that half-way through the unwanted adventure that takes him from life as a tourist-guide in Athens to life as a criminal conspirator in Ankara. He’s being blackmailed, you see, by a tourist he tried to cheat and rob. The tourist, who’s going under the name Harper, turns out to be much cleverer and more dangerous than he seemed. He catches Arthur in the very act of stealing traveller’s cheques from his luggage, beats him up a little, then forces him to write a confession for the Greek police. Unless Simpson follows orders, the confession will put him in jail.

The orders are that he must drive a large American car to Ankara on behalf of a Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, who will meet him there and pay him for his work. Of course, he suspects that he’s being used to smuggle something into Turkey, so he carefully checks the car before he tries to cross the Turkish border. He finds nothing and tries to cross the border. That’s when his unwanted adventure really turns unpleasant: by the end of chapter two, Ambler has skilfully brought a petty crook into a big criminal conspiracy.

Or rather: he’s skilfully brought the reader into realizing, with a sudden shock, that the petty crook is in a big criminal conspiracy. Arthur was entangled as soon as Harper caught him with the traveller’s cheques at the end of chapter one. Ignorance, deception and self-delusion are important parts of this book: that’s why it’s called The Light of Day. Arthur often reveals more than he means to about himself, but he stays sympathetic. So do the other characters in the book: like Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959), you understand why everyone acts as they do. And like Passage of Arms, exotic cultures are brought to life for English-speaking readers. Ambler seems to know Turkey and Greece from the inside.

And Egypt too. That’s where Arthur was born, as he reveals at the beginning:

My correct name is Arthur Simpson.

No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British. (ch. 1)

No, he’s not British to the core: he’s selfish to the core. But you understand why and you sympathize with his rootlessness and his failures. After his father dies an army charity pays for his education in England, then he returns to Egypt to work with his mother in the restaurant she apparently owns. Things go wrong and he ends up in Athens, married to Nicki, an attractive younger woman who he thinks will leave him sooner or later. She’s attractive by his standards anyway, but not by Harper’s, as Arthur learns when he takes Harper to the club where his wife is still working as a dancer:

They have candles on the tables at the Club and you can see faces. When the floor show came on, I watched him watch it. He looked at the girls, Nicki among them, as if they were flies on the other side of a window. I asked him how he liked the third from the left – that was Nicki.

“Legs too short,” he said. “I like them with longer legs. Is that the one you had in mind?”

“In mind? I don’t understand, sir.” I was beginning to dislike him intensely.

He eyed me. “Shove it,” he said unpleasantly. (ch. 1)

Arthur’s dislike helps explain why he decides to try and steal some of Harper’s traveller’s cheques: as he says elsewhere, he always likes to get his own back. He also needs money because he’s struggling to pay the rent on his and Nicki’s flat.

But he badly underestimates Harper, which is why he ends up in Ankara. The conspiracy under way there is to steal jewels from the Topkapi, the museum in the old Sultans’ palace that gave its name to the film version of this book. The conspirators – Harper, his lover Fräulein Lipp and a boorish German-speaker called Fischer – are staying in an old house on the Bosphorus while they complete their plans. Arthur, who has acquired another and worse blackmailer by now, persuades them to employ him as a driver and guide to Ankara. They think the signed confession keeps him safely under their thumb. In fact, he’s under someone else’s thumb, which is why he has to spy on them.

But while he’s spying on them, he’s also observing the other servants in the house: an old Turkish couple called the Hamuls, who work as caretakers, and a Turkish-Cypriot chef called Geven. After Arthur himself, these three are in some ways the most interesting characters in the book. Like Evelyn Waugh, Ambler could make characters live and breathe on the page. But Waugh wouldn’t have been interested in Turkish-speaking servants in Ankara. Ambler definitely is and so is Arthur, partly because Geven, although “a good cook”, also “gets drunk and attacks people.”

Arthur doesn’t want to get on Geven’s bad side. He knows about Geven’s prison sentence for wounding a waiter before he meets him, but Harper and Company don’t. All the same, Harper guesses, with his usual perception, that Geven has been upset by Fischer’s high-handed treatment of him and is not cooking as well for his employers as for his fellow servants: “I’ll bet Arthur eats better than we do. In fact, I know damn well he does.” Arthur is eavesdropping as Harper and Fräulein Lipp are in bed together, making “the beast with two backs” (ch. 8). He’s already frightened of Harper; now he’s jealous too, because Fräulein Lipp is very attractive, with “long legs and slim thighs”.

In the end, it will be Harper who wishes he’d never met Simpson, but Arthur isn’t counting his blessings on the final page. He’s too neurotic for that and too full of resentments and grudges. I didn’t think the final page works. Nor does the climax of the book, as Arthur unwillingly joins the jewel-robbery. What worked for me were the glimpses into both the high politics and the low culture of Turkey: the importance of Atatürk, on the one hand, and the boozing of an unstable Turkish-Cypriot chef on the other. Arthur knows little Turkish, but Geven speaks English because of his time in Cyprus:

He drained the glass again and leaned across the chopping table breathing heavily. “I tell you,” he said menacingly; “if that bastard says one more word, I kill him.”

“He’s just a fool.”

“You defend him?” The lower lip quivered.

“No, no. But is he worth killing?”

He poured himself another drink. Both lips were working now, as if he had brought another thought agency into play in order to grapple with the unfamiliar dilemma my question had created.

The Hamuls arrived just then to prepare for the service of the evening meal, and I saw the old man’s eyes take in the situation. He began talking to Geven. He spoke a country dialect and I couldn’t even get the drift of what he was saying; but it seemed to improve matters a little. Geven grinned occasionally and even laughed once. (ch. 8)

The country dialect isn’t enough, as Geven shortly demonstrates. But Ambler has created a world that lives on the page. Like Burgess he was interested in foreign languages, not just foreign cultures, and he could use them to heighten the realism of his stories. Arthur is a hybrid man who’s always on the outside of what he’s observing, because he doesn’t truly belong anywhere: not Egypt, not England, not Greece or Turkey. He starts this sentence like an Englishman, but the memory he reveals isn’t at all English:

The day Mum died, the Imam came and intoned verses from the Koran: “Now taste the torment of the fire you called a lie.” (ch. 10)

Ambler knew about Islam too and in some ways The Light of Day is even more relevant today than it was when it was first published in 1962. Turkey is still a land of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, but the balance of power has shifted drastically. Arthur is told something that Atatürk is supposed to have said shortly before he died: “If I can live another fifteen years, I can made Turkey a democracy. If I die sooner, it will take three generations.” That was in 1938 and three generations have passed now. Atatürk’s dream is dead: Islam has re-asserted itself and Atatürk is no longer a Turkish hero.

So there’s even more irony in The Light of Day than Ambler intended. I think he would have liked that. History and human beings are complex. There isn’t just one world: there are as many worlds as there are people. Lives and cultures are both separate and interwoven. At their best, Ambler’s books convey all that better than any other books I know. And this may be the best of the best: The Light of Day is a very clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. As I said about Passage of Arms: it’s good that this edition was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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