A few days ago, I interviewed the brilliant Israeli writer Benjamin Kerstein — who also happens to be my friend — at a café in central Tel Aviv. We talked about, among other things, what outsiders often don’t understand about Israel. The list of things is a long one. We also discussed, as people in Israel so often do, the danger posed by Iran’s Islamic Republic regime.
“Iran used to be secular, open, and friendly to Israel,” Kerstein said. “It once was pro-Western. Jews were at least nominally tolerated. It was seen as a place where there was a certain degree of cultural development. Persian culture used to be recognizable to us like Lebanese culture is. The Iran that is currently ruled by the theocracy is alien and threatening to us. We see it as a cold and hateful place. It’s a place that hates us.”
I know what he means about a culture being “recognizable.” Lebanese culture is indeed recognizable from an American and even an Israeli perspective. Beirut has more in common with Tel Aviv than with any Arabic city in the world. That recognition, so to speak, is sometimes reciprocated. Some of my Beiruti friends are fascinated by Tel Aviv and how it is, in many ways, a Hebrew-speaking sister city of theirs.
Iran’s Khomeinist government — and, by extension, its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon — really does, by comparison, seem as though it’s from another planet. Everyone I know who has been to Iran lately, however, says the country is totally different at street level — where real life is lived and culture is shaped. I believe them, and I believed them before millions of Iranians screamed “death to the dictator” from the rooftops last year.
Take a look at the music video by Blurred Vision, an Iranian exile band based in Toronto. The song is a remake of “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, updated and changed ever so slightly to apply to Iran in 2010 rather than to Britain in the 1970s. A culture that produces this is perfectly recognizable. And it’s hard to imagine anything like it emerging from any other country in the region aside from Lebanon.
It’s an electrifying piece of music video art, especially the scene at the end where a Persian woman steps into the light and removes her state-mandated head covering. And the scenes where Iranians battle it out in the street with state-security thugs weren’t shot on a film set in Canada. They’re real and were shot in Tehran.
Perhaps the Middle East hasn’t yet made me sufficiently pessimistic, but I strongly doubt that a radical Islamist regime can rule indefinitely over the kinds of people who produce this sort of thing. When, for example, Palestinians flee Gaza and make these kinds of videos, I think it will signal that something important has changed.