Sunday, July 31, 2011

Robin Wright's "Rock the Casbah"

Robin Wright’s books include Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008), which The New York Times and The Washington Post both selected as one of the most notable books of the year. She was the editor of The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy (2010). Her other books include The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (2000), which was selected as one of the 25 most memorable books of the year 2000 by the New York Library Association, Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam (2001), Flashpoints: Promise and Peril in a New World (1991), and In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade (1989).

Wright applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, and reported the following:
Such an interesting idea. I have many other pieces to write but Ford Madox Ford’s concept intrigued me so I dropped everything to look at page 99 of Rock the Casbah. It begins with the description of a green scarf worn by the leading opposition candidate in Iran’s 2009 presidential election. Mir Hossein Mousavi wore it around his neck throughout the campaign. His wife also took to wearing green scarves. She was the first candidate’s wife since the 1979 revolution to campaign publicly with her husband.

Mousavi’s polling and millions of Iranians thought he had won the election. But the government hastily went on television to announce that hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had instead been reelected. The next day, millions took to the streets in a spontaneous outburst to protest—many wearing green. And the Green Movement—the largest opposition since the 1979 revolution—was born.

Page 99 chronicles the new movement’s “stubborn determination” to defy one of the world’s most brutal regimes. It describes how the young—in a region where roughly two-thirds of the population is under 30—led the way. Youth then mobilized other sectors of society—“shopkeepers as well as construction workers, doctors in white coats as well as taxi drivers in shirtsleeves, even government employees.” Females were also among the most visible members of the new opposition. Page 99 begins the story of Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old who became the other symbol of Iran’s uprising after she was shot during a protest by a sniper. A cell phone video captured the picture of her dying on a Tehran street.

Sound familiar? Iran’s 2009 election presaged the uprisings launched in late 2010 in Tunisia that then spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and beyond. I have Egyptian friends who told me that they were inspired by the noisy Iranian protests. They then played a role in forcing out President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power.

Page 99 is actually a microcosm of the whole book, which is about what I call “the counter-jihad.” It explores the many different sides of a new campaign across the Islamic world to reject both autocrats and extremists. Iran is but one small part (and one chapter) of it. The campaign has a cultural face too that includes rappers and comedians, playwrights and poets, YouTube sheikhs and comic book creators. Rock covers how they are all, in vastly different ways, trying to redefine political systems and rescue their faith.

Page 99 ends with the line, “On day four, a massive protest in Tehran ran more than a mile long.” Protests in many Iranian cities lasted six months before the government managed to quash them through mass arrests, torture and Stalinesque trials. Iran’s tactics are now being imitated in Syria and other Arab countries in an attempt to stop the largest pro-democracy movements in the early 21st century.

Yet anyone who knows the Middle East—as I have since 1973—also knows that the story of uprisings is only beginning. Political change is grueling and tough and deadly. Page 99 describes protesters demanding “Where’s my vote?” It’s the theme of the entire book.

So Ford was quite prescient!
Learn more about the book and author at Robin Wright's website.

--Marshal Zeringue