A Haus for the Islamic Republic
by CONTRIBUTOR in Hamburg, Germany
20 Mar 2010 22:26
[ opinion ] On March 14, a week before Nowrouz, the Iranian New Year, a conference was held in Hamburg, Germany, to commemorate a new cultural project, Iran Haus. Rahim Mashai, Ahmadinejad's adviser and former head of the Cultural Heritage Foundation, was a featured speaker. The event was held at the International Conference Center, within Hamburg Airport's Terminal 2. The airport, with its high security, was chosen as the site in order to prevent protestors from disrupting the conference, though a dozen nonetheless managed to assemble with green banners. It is worth noting that the last significant Iran-related event in Hamburg, celebrating the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, was held on a boat.
The Iran Haus project has been initiated by a group of Iranians with German citizenship. Under the banner of "maintaining a cultural dialogue with Iran," they aim to reaffirm Germany's economic ties with the Iranian government and to seek opportunities for strengthening trade relations between the two countries.
The notion of a "cultural dialogue" seemed like a good excuse for many of the evening's less predictable attendees. Some Iranians were intrigued and came on the strength of this marketing, though the event was largely devoted to asserting the sovereignty of the present regime and praising the solid leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After all, the project is largely dependent on the financial sponsorship of the Islamic Republic. Mashai himself stated that 24 million euros will be made available to Iran Haus and its members.
Among the Iranians who attended the conference were a number of individuals clearly supportive of the Islamic Republic, embassy workers who strictly upheld the Islamic code of the evening, which was marked by the recitation of Koranic verses before and after each speech. The wives and daughters of these men came in chador and headdress.
Another striking group consisted of wealthy Iranian businessmen, some accompanied by their spouses, who out of respect for the religious persons in attendance covered their hair in loose, transparent designer scarves. Most of these gentlemen are in the carpet business, of which Hamburg is a European hub. Their motivation was rather obvious -- to show support for the Islamic Republic in exchange for personal economic benefit.
Yet another group of people had come to ask Mashai for help in recovering seized property. Mashai, the genie of the evening, invited them with a warm smile and open arms to leave their personal information behind after the conference and promised to take care of their issues immediately upon his return to Iran. A young student was there to make sure that it was safe for him to travel back home for the holidays. He too was met with unexpected generosity by Mashai, who promised that not only he, but every single Iranian at the conference would be guaranteed a safe return to Iran, regardless of political orientation.
A handful of Iranians had come there just to see it for themselves. They exchanged glances and looked around with awe, as if not sure whether to laugh or cry. Most in this group walked out during the speeches, while others waited for the conference to end and then left the room shaking their heads in disbelief. One middle-aged man stood out from the crowd. He was the lone voice disapproving of the project being handed over to the government of Iran. He was the first to ask a question. He began by stating that he was unsure if he understood the true motivation behind the Iran Haus project. He wanted to know if the Iranian regime was a stakeholder in the initiative. He then said that he was obviously a dissident. Pointing down at Mashai and the other speakers and organizers who were seated behind a table decorated with flowers, he said that he was simply opposed to the regime and those who front for it.
A number of young Iranians were there, who otherwise enjoy a glass or two of vodka and Red Bull at the Persian parties in Hamburg. The sight of these young people was very disheartening.
Before Mashai took to the microphone, Sheihk Attar, the Iranian ambassador to Berlin, opened the conference with a short, ad-libbed speech. He began by reciting a quotation from "Dr. Ahmadinejad," the same lines printed on the large banner that hung behind the speakers: "The Iranians living outside of Iran are the true assets of the country. They are the ones who help build the country and together we are responsible to build Iran."
Mashai's speech resembled a poetry reading. Words such as "spring," "love," "beauty," "humanity," "purity," and "truth" were repeatedly invoked. His extended verse was embedded with subliminal political messages. He spoke of "building bridges between Iran and the Iranian community in Germany and strengthening cultural and economic ties." He talked of Nowrooz as the most beautiful of all Iranian cultural heritages, describing it as the "the awakening of love and beauty." He shared the Islamic Republic's Nowrouz resolution, which is "peace, truth, and love." He declared, "We are proud of having these Iranian traits." Every once in a while, someone in the audience would sigh with admiration and whisper "yes, yes" in agreement. The atmosphere in the room became increasingly elated as Mashai made an appeal: "Be jameh shirineh Iraniha bepeyvandid" -- "Come join the sweet Iranian crowd". The audience joyfully applauded. Soon came his crucial line of the evening, directed at America and Israel: "Siaasate zoor dar donya dige javab nemideh" -- "Forceful governance no longer resonates in the world". The audience cheered almost hysterically this time.
It was yet another case study in the same old sad reality that profit comes before moral integrity. As I sat taking it all in, I couldn't help but think we should stop blaming Siemens and Nokia for selling spyware to the Iranian regime, the way the regime blames America and Israel and brands itself as a victim while brutalizing its own people. When we blame others, we tend to disregard our own failings, which may be the most crux of the matter. Perhaps a more honest look at ourselves would prompt a reassessment of the importance of maintaining our affluent Western lifestyles by holding in power a regime that just recently sentenced six more protestors to death. Living with double standards is sadly common among some Iranians here in Germany.
So this is directed at you, my Iranian friend. Please remember on Nowrooz, when you find yourself in the midst of a heated debate at the dinner table, indulging in a sabzi polo va mahi and passionately talking about democracy in Iran, how just one week ago, you sat in front of Mashai, nodding to his every word. Remember, when you lift your champagne glass for a toast at the Nowrouz disco party, that the business transactions which make possible your affluent lifestyle are propping up a government that has no regard for life.
Nowrouz is a celebration of life and honors all of life's manifestations. It is your cultural heritage. Choose life over profit and let "peace, truth, and love" be the new year's resolution upon which you build the foundation of your next business plans.
Photo of Hamburg airport by datenhamster.org (via Flickr).
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