The joys and sorrows of a beloved dog reverberate throughout a time of exile.
For some years after I arrived in America to study, when my mother called from Tehran every fortnight on Friday no matter what, illness or shortage or war or bombs, I would tell her to put the phone down and ring the outside doorbell of our house so that I could hear my dog, Lady, bark in response.
The calls came very early in the morning. Alone and in the dark, I would listen to the voices on the line: my mother, my very young sister who was eleven when I left, my grandfather who had moved to Tehran after the death of my grandmother, family friends and relatives if they were there, and Lady.
I imagined the living room. A modern one, or Irooni-passand—to the liking of Iranians, as we say—with gleaming, speckled marble floors, wallpapers of intricate green-and-pink-and-white designs, and large, colorful rugs from Tabriz and Kashan and Isfahan. I saw glass everywhere, with tall windows opened to the front balcony upon which we sat mesmerized by the small scalloped blue fountain with water spouting out of the open mouth of the duck statue at the top, and chandeliers, large ones, gaudy ones, with hundreds of crystals reflecting light from a dozen bulbs within.
Bright, bright, bright, I imagined my family, bathed in Iran’s rainbow of colors as they congregated around the phone, passing the mouthpiece around, and as I lay in bed in my darkened, single room, just awakened by the harsh ring.
I left Iran at sixteen, by coincidence only months before the 1978 Revolution. I first flew to Oklahoma City, which I did not like, and then to San Diego, where I lived alone and went to a public high school some miles away from my apartment.
It had become fashionable in our social circle for teenage sons and daughters to go on summer language and culture trips to Europe and, then, America to study. We were well-to-do Jews and Christians of Tehran, many of whose parents had become successful through study and hard work during the liberalizing years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
In the manner we begin to remember the best of what is far in time or place and smooth the sharp edges of our own history, I idealized my childhood and our family during those phone calls. In reality, Jews in Muslim Iran were on the verge of upheaval and my parents did not get along. It was not long after I left, in fact, that the Revolution succeeded, my parents divorced, and my father moved out of the house.
Our Own Home, as my mother calls it to this day, over thirty years later, had a yard, a spacious basement garage, and two stories above ground. We lived on the first floor and rented the second to a succession of families with young children, often foreigners in Iran on business or diplomatic assignments.
Our Own Home did not come easily. I do not mean financially—though that too—but the actual construction of it. During the post-OPEC-embargo growth and inflation years of the mid-70’s, many houses were built by developers, called besaaz-o-befroosh in Persian, meaning “build-and-sell,” a phrase with a shyster-like connotation, as the developers were rumored to overcharge and cut corners. My parents, both doctors and not business savvy, had great trouble with the builder of our house. One day we would find Plexiglas used instead of glass for all windows, the next a cheap heating system, the third dangerous and substandard electrical wiring, and the fourth something else, and so we had to bring in relatives and friends, the other side of the family with useful skills, appliance merchants and architects and traders, to fight and cajole on our behalf, the way negotiations are done in the Middle East, with argument and threats and sweet talk and calling each other “Muslim brother” and giving each other tea with sugar cubes and swearing up and down to Imam Ali and prophet Abolfazl, that I will walk away, that I cannot afford any more, that I will go to the Ministry, that I will tear up the contract, that I will break your legs, that “Muslim brother, do you not have shame, do you not have a mother and a sister? Would you have your own mother and sister tremble in the midnight cold of winter or slave in the noon scorch of summer, shielded only by a sheet of Plexiglas?”
And somehow, after all, when we came back the next week, we would find the Plexiglas replaced with half-centimeter-thick glass panes and the wiring fixed and the heater now a high-quality German one.
A colleague of my mother from the hospital gave Lady to us not long after we moved in. She was one-and-a-half years old. A dachshund, more black than brown, she had short legs, a sausage-like body, a bottle nose, and a pointy tail always poised for the wiggle. Her bark was loud. When the doorbell rang, she went mad with excitement. From behind the intercom, a thief would surely fear the worst: a very large guard dog with canines the size of elephant tusks, ready to attack. At least that is what we imagined.
I went to school reluctantly in the mornings and hurried back to spend more time with her. In school, I thought and talked about her often, as I imagine my sister did. At nights, Lady went from lap to lap as we watched television, even though we had been warned against it by family friends.
“You don’t want a lapdog inside the house, do you?” they would say, perhaps a residue of the Muslim belief that dogs are najes—impure—seeping through despite the secular circle of our family and friends. I took her for walks, or rather, not knowing how to control and discipline her, for huffing, dragging runs as she pulled at the leash in all directions and zigzagged with abandon. Lady, like all dogs, had no sense of her own dimensions and so, outside the house, attacked all comers small and large: other dogs on leashes, strays who had grown to be naturally fearful of everything, and dogs several times her size that, we joked, could make a breakfast morsel out of her with a bite.
In Our Own Home, she ran around guests, wiggling like a comma, almost tripping them up, slapping their ankles and shins at high frequency with her muscular tail.
Najes, meaning “unclean” or “ritually impure,” is an important concept in the Islamic theology and culture, particularly the Shiite denomination dominant in Iran. So much is considered najes (pronounced na-JES) that the religious Iranian spends quite a lot of energy protecting himself or herself from contamination: urine, feces, sperm, corpse, blood, dog, pig, unbeliever, wine, liquors, the sweat of camels and those who eat impure things.
There are two kinds of najes elements. Ein najes are those that are intrinsically najes and can never be purified; they include blood, unbelievers, urine, and the like. The other kind of najes is that which has come into contact with ein najes but can be, with appropriate action, cleansed: a solid object having touched the hand of an unbeliever or the snout of a dog can be washed; feet that have, inadvertently, stepped into feces can be purified. On the other hand, fluids touching ein najes, say rain water that has rolled off the skin of an unbeliever, become ein najes themselves and can never be cleansed and, so, must not be touched by the believing Muslim.
As with all faiths, there are Muslim thinkers who go beyond the simple acceptance of commandments. They explain, for example, that dogs, even domesticated ones, are, by nature, hunters and consumers of sperm and blood as well as carcasses of dead animals. One source (www.balagh.com) explains that they “are not particular about where they leave their excrement and have been known to even relieve themselves on human legs.” For Shiites, especially fundamentalists, there are rituals of avoidance and cleansing—rituals that, when internalized, render the outside world a collection of threats to be fended off and the inner sanctuary of home a place of only temporary refuge.
When the door to the yard was left open inadvertently, Lady would run away, chasing smells and phantom objects and movements in the street. We would send out search parties, running ourselves in all directions, mad with fear and foreboding, our hearts pounding through our throats, until she was caught, grabbed, picked off the ground, and brought back while still flapping joyfully, and was yelled at, kissed, tickled, belly-scratched, caressed, yelled at some more, and fed, the house door now locked and double-locked and checked even more carefully to ensure that she remained safe inside our high walls.
The guilt I felt about not doing my duty often enough by taking Lady on the walks she loved so desperately was amplified by her escapes and the sight of her exhilaration when free, even though our house was clearly more loving than what awaited her outside.
As a Jew growing up in Iran, privileged though I was, I still had occasion to become aware of my own najes-ness, as when a third-grade teacher, in my mixed-religion elementary school, singled out a Jewish boy for a scolding.
“Look at this,” he said, holding up a tattered notebook and flipping through its scratched-up pages. “Are you not ashamed, so dirty and messy with bad handwriting and full besides with writing on both sides of every page? They say you Jews are dirty and cheap and this is why.”
The treatment of Jews and Christians as najes has a thousand-year history in Iran and, indeed, well into the 20th century, there were rules instructing Jews not to go out in the rain lest they dirty rain water that might come into contact with a believer or enter the aquifer; not to ride horses or build houses taller than those owned by Muslims; to wear yellow or beige ribbons, called vasleh johoudi or Yid-patches. Closer to the present time, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual guide of the Revolution and the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic until his passing in 1989, declared that the “entire body of the unbeliever is unclean; even his hair and nails and body moisture.”
I have a dear friend, a very religious Iranian Muslim, who has no qualms about shaking hands or greeting me with the traditional Iranian kiss-on-the-cheeks or being in the swimming pool with me. As with all matters of belief, I have learned to be grateful for inconsistency, that wonderful, civilizing human trait that allows us to live together in peace, principles be damned.
In America, after my own dash for freedom, now with leave to do as I wished, I was of two minds —at first cherishing the distance from Iran and my family and then, when the reality of loneliness and insecurity descended, hiding in my own mind, pushing emotions aside, inside, deep into quiet. I took refuge in dry abstraction, in reason and logic. I wielded them like cold surgical knives, gradually tearing at all true human connection, particularly with my family, as if fighting off septic foreign bodies.
I came to resent my mother’s calls. They prodded. They excavated and brought sadness up to the surface for a few minutes every two weeks, ten or fifteen at the most, after which I was left with the dial tone and the dark and a day’s worth of burying and stomping all that remained back into its former nondescript grayness.
The calls reminded me of home, generating memories that came at me like a swarm. A painting, by a patient whose life my father had saved, based on an Omar Khayyam poem that represented Khayyam as an old man in profile, a young beautiful muse on one arm, a chalice in the other, both seated at an arched windowsill illuminated by a far, bright moon. The felt 1970’s-style poster in my bedroom of a horse rising on its hind legs beside a cliff, its mane fluttering in the wind, its nearly psychedelic colors fluorescing in the dark every night as I fell asleep. The black-and-white photograph of Theodor Herzl, in profile and bearded as was Khayyam, that hung in our dining room and from which my psyche constructed many a nightmare over the years.
In that room, sitting by an oil heater with the soot-filled pipe that plugged into the wall, my sister and I would listen to my mother, who, never too tired from her labors as a doctor and professor, read philosophical poems by Khayyam and political ones by Eshghi—whose name, meaning of love, was delicious to our ears.
This is what I relived during those phone calls, with the most joyful of memories prompted by the sound of Lady’s loud barks. As I listened to her scream with abandon, I wished she would never stop. I could almost feel her fur rubbing against the phone; her long, wet nose extended through the mouthpiece and pressed at my face; her nails, uncut for weeks, snapping at the bare floor.
I finished high school and started at a local junior college in less than a year and suddenly found myself poor because of the Revolution and the resulting cutoff of my allowance. I moved into a small one-story house in San Diego owned by a young, guitar-playing mechanic. He had two rooms for rent. The other was taken by Doug, a free spirit of a man about whom all I can remember is his curly hair and the time he, tentatively and awkwardly, asked if he could hug me when I was in tears over my first American girlfriend leaving me.
Living in such close quarters with Americans made me feel even more like a foreigner. My English, just fine in the school setting when discussing laws of geometry and physics, became broken and tentative on the living-room couch. When my roommates had guests, I felt like an exotic showpiece. I took to going for long drives or, at best, standing in a corner during keg parties.
I longed to fit in and find friends, ones to whom I would automatically be acceptable, no questions and explanations about my accent and my birthplace or my wavy hair and dark complexion. During drives, especially at night, I took to giving rides to hitchhikers, wanting the company, knowing that being at the wheel now put me in control, that in my car, in the dark, this was now my land and the hitchhiker, solicitous and grateful, the stranger.
The concept of najes is, in some ways, the nasty cousin of the gharibeh, or stranger. In conversation and by instinct, a gharibeh (pronounced gha-ree-BEH) can be feared or loathed. One should hide one’s valuables from him, even one’s family. (What if he is a spy, a government agent, a competitor, or from the wrong political or religious persuasion?) In a restaurant run by a gharibeh, one might not be served the choicest of foods. (My father: “Hotel Laleh’s restaurant? No. I will take you to another place. The best in town. The owner, his children are my patients. They will tend to us very well.”) A gharibeh rug merchant might not show you the best rugs and will cheat you besides. In a gharibeh sandwich shop, one is sure to get food poisoning. So from a gharibeh we also hide, even though he is not najes, for fear of harm or being tricked.
The year of my stay at the house of the young mechanic, along with the anti-Iranian anger generated by the hostage crisis of 1980, made me feel even more of a stranger in America, all my efforts at assimilation notwithstanding (some admittedly misguided, like the cowboy hat and the Afro and the blue fishnet halter-top).
I fell in with a cultish group. Students, also Iranian, not Jewish, men and women from the very young to the middle-aged, mostly single but some married with a young toddler or two, they had organized into a communal life of study and cooperation and making a better world.
I first learned of them when I bumped into another student, named Hassan, in our college administrative office and he invited me to dinner. There was a large group in the apartment he shared with a cousin and others, young men unshaven, young women simply attired, arrayed irregularly around a makeshift drop-cloth with simple dishes, rice and steaming stews and hot flatbreads and plates of radishes and parsley and sliced onions and feta cheese. It was a noisy affair, people tearing off large pieces of bread and eating from shared platters, joking and laughing, and talking about Iranian and American politics in ways unfamiliar to me. In a manner that I had not known till then, whether in Iran as a Jew or in America as an Iranian, I felt simply accepted. Not long after, I agreed to move in with Hassan and his roommates, even though they lived many to a small apartment and miles from my college.
Back home in Iran, the war with Iraq, which began in 1980, made life, already full of hardships after the Revolution and the hostage crisis, even more difficult. There were crackdowns and shortages and rationing of essentials and savage warfare and, at some point, the mutual bombings of cities.
News of the war from Iranian or Iraqi government sources was self-serving, untrustworthy, and, at best, inexact. Not knowing much about what went on with my family during this period—only fifteen minutes’ worth of updates every two weeks, and even that filtered and softened by the normal lies and mutual half-truths we told to spare each other—I made up stories. Told about the mini-fortress set up in the old basement with mattresses and clothes and food and water and blanket-covered windows, and the move there when the missiles and the alarms began coming nightly, I painted my mother as a general leading the family troops to defend the domain, the motherland.
I could not acknowledge to myself that they were in mortal danger. When, in mid-call, alarms would sound, all I could think of was how interesting it must have been to be there. Years later, when my sister arrived in the United States, she told me about the paralyzing fear, not knowing if any given night would be one of darkness and hiding, of sirens and ominous anti-missile defense fireworks, with the whistles of the notoriously inaccurate Iraqi rockets and the muffled thud and shaking of the ground and creaking of the table legs and doorjambs, pieces of glass flying. They were all afraid: my sister, my mother, my grandfather, even Lady. “She would hide under our legs,” my sister said, “trembling like leaves of the willow tree in a storm.”
In San Diego, the group life with my new friends gradually enticed me out of the stony enclosure I had constructed around myself. I dressed in K-mart khakis or old, unfashionable jeans and cheap long-sleeves with tails untucked; I grew a beard. I began to read what my new comrades read, photocopied tracts or book chapters on politics and philosophy and economics, and began to use their phrases, peppering my sentences with bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie and proletariat, excitedly discussing the difference between a Revolution and an Uprising, between Feudalism and Capitalism, between Socialism and Communism.
We found the world brutal and confusing and, instead, dreamed of a world in which civilization counteracted the seemingly random effects of birth and religion and geography. Not having any perspective on history, we did not appreciate the obstacles involved, let alone grapple with the dark history of the search for Utopia.
Rarely did my Jewishness come up in discussion. I was more likely to be razzed for my grades, which remained high no matter how many political study sessions I attended or demonstrations I marched in. Once, as I drove a group to an anti-monarchy demonstration in Los Angeles, a new acquaintance remarked on how no Jews took part in the Iranian Revolution. He was, promptly, taken to task by one of my comrades, with how do you know; did you, personally, attend all demonstrations and struggles against the old dictatorship; how could you tell Jews apart from non-Jews; did they wear special garments or markings, perhaps, that only you notice? During all this, as the offender retreated and was cornered in the back seat of the car, I sat quietly, tending to the wheel and the road, listening, pleased at not having to defend or explain and, in fact, not being involved at all.
In Iran, open mistreatment of Jews and the stereotyping of them, rare in my childhood experience, made a comeback during the early post-revolutionary years. There were property confiscations and arrests and even an execution. As now, government mouthpieces were filled with veiled or openly anti-Jewish invective and misinformation, be it serializing The Protocols of Elders of Zion or branding anything they did not like as “Jewish.” One laughable example was calling the Smithsonian—at which, apparently, a learned conference on matters related to Iran had been held—a “famous Jewish institution in Washington.”
I remember reading an anguished article by a leader of the Jewish community in which he argued that Jews have the right to exist because of passages in the Qur’an stating that Jews should be discriminated against. From whom would the Islamic Republic collect the jizya—the tax on the unbelievers—if Jews were no longer to exist?
No minorities were spared. Bahais were the hardest hit, their faith outlawed, their leaders tortured and executed, their property confiscated, their children not allowed to attend universities, and their cemeteries desecrated and built upon by the government.
There were reports, from friends and family, about the private Jewish high school I had attended, one founded by Iraqi Jews who had taken refuge in Iran after 1948: that it was taken and subdivided, that the front portion with the large yard, the one we used to exercise in, and the newer buildings next to it were given to Muslims and renamed Quds (the Arabic word for Jerusalem), that the back section with the small synagogue reserved for “minorities” was assigned a succession of religious Muslim principals who led the students in forced chants of “death to America” and “death to Israel.”
There were other reports of incidents small and large: a young cousin whose Muslim friend wiped his hands on his trousers before shaking hands, lest he be sullied. (“In that environment,” my cousin tells me, “we were happy that they would even shake hands with us.”) The distant relatives kicked out of their flat by the owner, who lived downstairs, once he found out their religion: “What if water from your pipes leaks into our house?” Najes yet again.
Nor did animals do well in the Islamic Republic. According to the journalist Azadeh Moaveni, in 2001 Tehran’s police announced they had “seriously risen up against perpetrators of corruption,” including shop owners selling pets such as dogs. A fatwa was declared on poodles by an Iranian ayatollah who spent a portion of his Friday sermon condemning the evil of the lapdog. “Happy are those who became martyrs and did not witness the play with dogs,” he had bellowed, referring to those killed in the devastating eight-year war with Iraq and spared the trend.
This is what had settled in my country of birth during those same years I searched for my place in America; a certain adolescent mean-spiritedness, the kind that jams the face of the weak and the defeated into the ground, the kind that issues fatwas against animals, the kind that forces Jewish children to participate in “death to Israel” chant-fests, the kind that builds large, soulless structures atop the lone Bahai cemetery in Tehran.
Years passed. Years of revolution and zeal and warfare during which my family members, as Jews, were not easily allowed to leave Iran.
For nearly twelve years, my mother was only a dark voice, whispering into my ear for fifteen minutes every other week. A voice that, as the years went by, I could no longer connect to a physical being that existed in the normal dimensions.
She sent pictures. Of gatherings and birthday parties with their gradually diminishing circle of friends and family—those left behind, those still alive. Sometimes it was just them—mother, sister, grandfather, Lady—sitting on the couch, posed with frozen smiles. Sometimes they looked into a distance, their eyes refusing to reflect the light of the flash.
They no longer took Lady out for walks. What would happen if she barked at someone or blocked their path or, worse, if she touched a man’s trousers or a woman’s flowing, tent-like, black chador? I shudder, even now, at her world, a protective brick-and-mortar life sentence, some square feet of yard with tall, thick walls.
In the manner that most human endeavors, if not checked by reality, tend toward radicalism, our group of Iranian students in San Diego, our little cult of the young striving for perfection, became more ascetic with time. Led by one or two charismatics, we began to separate by gender and developed rules forbidding alcohol or smoking or sex or frivolity. All manner of complaints were resolved by additional restriction. A female distracted by too-hairy an arm of a male resulted in the banning of short-sleeves and shorts; unexpected bare breasts in a film led to the avoidance of most movies.
Our study sessions, once joyful explorations of the novel, became serious, dark affairs. I was taught that there were workers—real people—and the owners of capital, freeloaders, those who pampered their children in houses of soft carpets and chandeliers and small televisions in their own room, those who held delicate pets at the end of colorful leashes as they strolled about in manicured parks. I learned that what makes humans superior to animals is that we have a soul while they do not. I learned to care for some people and to hate others, people in the abstract, people as groups, people none of whom I knew or had met, people who were, by virtue of their birth into wealthy families, reactionary.
It was during this period that I stopped asking to hear Lady’s bark. Perhaps it was, at first, embarrassment of being found out for my childlike routine, or my way of letting my mother know that I had grown away, but eventually I came to believe that attachment to animals, aside from that of a farmer to his productive herd, was a sign of my birth into a reactionary class, the class whose sight was trained on the West, adopting its devious and corrupt habits.
Families also became less important. Letters were not anticipated with any excitement, went unanswered, and were, in some cases, not even read. I remember the mailman asking us to empty our mailbox after we had not done so in weeks, the letters wedged in and crumpled and torn in places, ones from my mother among them.
I marched and waved flags. I shouted slogans and fought. Always in need of a logical ideology, I constructed complex, self-contained theories about the future and technology and the human mind and body and about love, love pure, undiluted by the physicality of the flesh. I lived a life of the abstract.
In Tehran, bombs fell. In Tehran, my mother was forced into the veil in order to keep her job as a pathologist and a professor.
In Tehran, there were killings of government leaders and executions and the crushing of dissent. My sister was harassed in the streets for wearing makeup, and my family was arrested for attending a wedding, kept in jail overnight, and given lashes on their hands. Others, more distant relatives, great aunts and uncles, were tortured and had possessions taken for being Bahais, primarily their houses, as they were not wealthy.
In Tehran, my loved ones grew somber and fearful and old.
Over a decade passed, and Lady, too, grew old and then sick, and then the end. “Tuberculosis,” my mother says. “She could not jump even as far up as the couch. We would lift her and let her sleep, her head on our laps, for hours. Her lungs were full of holes, you know,” my mother says quietly and with sadness every time she repeats the tale, leaving me the image of Lady with many holes on her body too, her black-and-brown coat mottled by bullets.
It had been some years since our doorbell routine, years during which I taught myself not to care about so many things, least of all a dog. I remember the telephone call about Lady’s death prompting an expression of sorrow on my part, but it was formal and false, the kind you are supposed to have to demonstrate that you care. Perhaps my habit of hiding, acquired over so many years of aloneness, came into play. Or worse, perhaps, at that moment, there was no sorrow to hide.
Many years later, after my mother was allowed to leave Iran to attend a conference and to visit me, I picked her up from her day at the conference site and asked what she had had for lunch. “A muffin,” she said with unusual assurance in her voice, proud of the English she had worked on in preparation for the trip, “with cream cheese in the middle.”
“A muffin?” I asked.
She hesitated and straightened a bit of wrinkle in her coat, careful and exact, as always. “Muffin. You know, with raisins and hole at the center.”
“Bagel,” I said. “It is called a bagel.”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment and said, “So that’s it. When, in Iran, newspapers used to talk about ‘beagle-eating Jews,’ this was it?”
“Bagel, Mother,” I said, correcting her pronunciation.
“None of us knew what a beagle was and how we Jews were supposed to eat it.” She seemed slightly deflated, her voice a bit lower, her neck no longer proud erect, the joy of learning, that which has been much of the basis of her life, as a doctor and teacher, now modulated.
“Bagel, Mother, not beagle. Beagle’s a dog, a noisy one,” I said, “like Lady.”
My involvement with the cultish crew did not last very long, two years at the most. What was required for my break were a few sobering events—arrests in Iran and betrayals by the group’s leaders—as well as time, age, and a bit of wisdom. I studied hard and accumulated several degrees—practical ones, all in engineering—and went to work, trying to be productive, searching for happiness and normality, as we all do.
Over a decade passed before my family could leave Iran and, gradually, one by one, they came and tried to build new lives. Even my grandfather came, spending the last few of his 99 years in Los Angeles. Into the crevices of his grave, I squeezed a fistful of dirt harvested from my grandmother’s in Tehran, so that something of them would ultimately be together.
Many things hurt when I look back at those years of loss when I first came to America. The distance. The emptiness and solitude. The phone calls. The letters opened late or not at all. The letters not answered. The years themselves.
And Lady. I feel sad that at some point I stopped thinking of her, that when I decided to save the world, when I decided that some beings were more worthy than others and that animals were without souls, I stopped caring about her, stopped asking mother to ring the doorbell, stopped listening for her muffled voice through that long wire connecting us across the continents.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Unclean in Tehran, Adrift in San Diego
Must-Reads from Magazine
Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.