Friday, June 26, 2009

Azadi Square

"Azadi" in Pharsi and Urdu means "Freedom". A word so quintessential to our identity and well being, that without it one would be less human in every possible way. To not know what it means to be "Free" in mind, body and spirit, is to be denied ones humanity. So as Iranians spilled into "Azadi Square" demanding their vote to be ratified, they were most certainly demanding more than that. They were demanding their freedom. Freedom from 30 years of control both in the personal and public sphere. Freedom from status quo.

Iran by far is the most free thinking democratic nation in the Muslim world. Being the most literate and educated population in the Muslim middle east, it is not a surprise as free thought resides in the notion of being self aware. Even under an Islamic regime that asserts itself in draconian ways, and where real power rests with the clerics, the fact that they elect a president via an act of plebiscite, is admirable. So when this minuscule expression of people power inside a virtual Sharia dictatorship was taken away, everything was bound to come crashing down, and it did.

Two thirds of Iran's population is under the age of thirty. A manifestation of the massive human loss (1 million) suffered during its decade long war with Iraq. This demographic is desperate for change. Even though the regime has been overtly anti-American, the youth has been pro-American more so after Obama mystified the globe. And so they rallied behind Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the reformists, inspired by Obama's Cairo overture, hoping they would heed their call. One must not forget that Mousavi is no saint. He is part of the establishment that rules Iran and presided over the bloody war as Prime Minister while Ayatollah Khomeini sent young men, wave after wave, into battle. At this point in time Mousavi is dissenting along with other powerful "reformists" asking for change in the way Iran is governed. And that is seen as a threat to the establishment who want the old boys club to rule forever. Hence the stolen election and the aftermath.

If you have never traveled to Iran and have not kept up with the evolution of that nation, to understand what it is like to live in Iran and be Iranian, I recommend watching two films. Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece "Ten" and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis". In subtle ways both films explore the deep desires of a free thinking, modern society which is kept under wraps by an imposed regime which demands obedience to the limits of absurdity.

History has demonstrated time and again, when people rise up to reclaim what is theirs, blood stains the streets. Iranians have shed their fair share in these past weeks. The killing of Neda Soltani, a student whose gruesome last moments were captured on video and posted on "youtube" for the world to see, has transformed the nature of the uprising to more than just a stolen election. Her death has become a defining moment which will always symbolize this moment for posterity. Much like the image of the nameless Chinese man in front of a row of army tanks has come to visualize the Tienanmen Sqaure pro-democracy uprising. While a few foreign journalists with cameras were able to bring that image to the world in 1989, ten years later the uncontainable nature of the internet proved much more lethal. Demonstrating the true democratic power of this technology we have come to take for granted.

While the regime regains control and Iran drops out of the headlines overrun by Michael Jackson and Obama sets the tone for the world in dealing with Iran, one thing cannot be denied. A fissure has opened among the power brokers of Iran. While Ahmednijad blames Obama and the west for the chaos (his only defense), he cannot ignore the diversity of the demographic that filled the streets asking for the truth. When the dust settles my forecast is that Iran can go one of two ways. It can clamp down and become a militaristic reclusive regime like North Korea or transform into China. The power brokers could settle their disputes and offer just enough consumerism to their population so that their transgressions would be ignored. The question remains, if Iran begins to become China will the west sweep everything under the carpet and return to business as usual or will it still hold the regime accountable. So far Mousavi is not backing down and the world is waiting. My hope is for Iran to become the Poland of 1989 and not China. But, it is what it is.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Colbert in Baghdad

This past week fans of the Comedy Central TV show Colbert Report, saw its protagonist Stephen Colbert orchestrate his daily dose of political comic commentary from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. His live audience this time were the men and women of the United States armed forces. The show was sponsored by the USO (United Services Organization). The USO as their website states is a "private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the troops by providing morale, welfare and recreation-type services to the men and women in uniform." In its 67 years of service the USO has made America's warriors forget their killing, stress and drudgery for a moment and laugh it off with comedians, movie stars, rock stars and celebrities of every kind. The iconic actor/comedian Bob Hope, was a regular celebrity entertaining the troops since World War II till his death in 2003. This time it was Stephen Colbert's turn.

Being an ardent fan, I felt Colbert was an unlikely candidate as his edgy liberal political humor did not fit the bill. But to my surprise there he was on stage against a deliberate tacky set with a new opening graphic mocking the Army and Saddam Hussein's regime. He walked on stage dressed in a tailor made army camouflage suit and tie sporting a golf club on his shoulder. The golf club he revealed was an homage to Bob Hope who always appeared on stage before the troops with his trade mark golf club and cap.

So the jokes began in its trade mark fashion. Mini episodes packaged in the US showed Colbert at Army basic training camp and flying with the elite Thunderbirds. He poked fun at the Army and Airforce in subtle ways, and got the deserved laughs. General Ray Odierno was his first guest. He tickled him by saying he was intimidated by him not because he was a general, but because he looked like Shrek. Later the General got orders from none other than the Commander-In-Chief via satellite to shave Colbert's hair to make him look like a real soldier. This act spread like fire capturing headlines across America's ever hungry news media signaling the arrival of Colbert into the consciousness of the American public like never before. The next day he had John McCain via satellite saluting the troops and making a dig at Colbert. Wrapping it up on the last day of his stint in Iraq he had none other than George W. Bush via satellite applauding the troops for a job well done and poking fun at the time when he had to suffer through Colbert's much talked about and "youtubed" performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I think this was Bush's first television appearance since we last saw him take off from the White House lawn. What a way to return, saluting the very troops he lied to before sending them into battle. And to my surprise Colbert did not take this opportunity to use his wit which he is known for.

All in all it felt like Colbert had sold out. His edgy humor was reserved to current affairs in the US. He did declare that the war was over and America had won but that was as far as he went in being edgy about the politics of war. He came across more as the "Patriot" he so often mocks on his shows. Imagine if he had done this while Bush was president. It would have had a whole different taste.

These days Obama seems to be on television all the time. Since he became president we have seen him have burgers with Biden, taking Michelle out on a date, sitting across Leno, giving Brian Williams a tour of his "Crib" and now on Colbert Report. He is a popular president. America still goes dreamy eyed whenever he or his family are seen. Shouldn't he get off the air and devote his time and precious image to noteworthy causes? He could fall victim to over exposure. The change that he so fervently promised is slow and much too measured. There is nothing radical about it. And where ever you turn, from climate change, health care and economic reform and the war, what we need are bold and profound steps. The time for measured responses is long passed. What is stopping him? I hope the "Hope" that was promised was not "more of the same" in a new package. The Republican party is making sure he will be reelected for another term. He has the power to pull the plugs. So why the muteness? We will have to wait and see. But for how long?

On another note the fact that Colbert did not venture out into Baghdad to do his shtick, goes to show that the war is far from over. He could have driven that point home more in addition to declaring victory that he did to loud applause, but he did not. Even though Saddam is gone and he was an "evil" tyrant and all that, it was arrogant on Colbert's part to choose one of his palaces filled with American soldiers as a setting for his show. It was just in poor taste. And in conclusion there are people in Iraq who are suffering the loss and pain of their loved ones. Life is still miserable and dismal there. War is no laughing matter. A bombing in Iraq these days finds very little coverage in the American media. As far as America is concerned the war is over and it is only a matter of time when the "war machinery" will return to its barracks. The fact that a show of this nature was aired across the US, is an indication that there is a strong shift in the mood of the nation. Yes war is dreadful and one should be able to distance oneself from it and seek humor in order to find sanity and survive. Especially for those who conduct it. But to do it in a fashion so skewed is arrogant. It is what it is.