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A Stream in the Sea of Revolutionary Ideas

A grandmother fish told her 12,000 children and grandchildren a story.

A little black fish that had never left its local stream grew curious about what existed beyond it. Despite the warnings of other older fish, the little black fish made the leap down a waterfall and along the length of the river to arrive at the wide open sea.

But just as it had found a school of fish like itself—fish that had also found freedom—a heron swooped down and swallowed it. In the heron’s stomach, the little black fish found another fish, tiny and scared. Without hesitation, the little black fish swam around the heron’s stomach, tickling it from the inside, so the tiny fish could leap out the heron’s mouth and save itself, but not without sacrificing its own life.

With the grandmother’s story finished, she and 11,999 of her spawn went off to sleep, but one little red fish lay awake. The little red fish could not stop thinking about the sea.

That story, one told in the classic children’s book The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, opens a new book by Laura Secor, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. Benraghi’s book, one banned in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution, inspired a generation of Iranian revolutionaries.

Pre-revolution Iran was a country connected by the streams of politics, economics, and religion that seemed to have their starting points in the West. Under a shah who allowed Western powers to all but rob its resources and make puppets of its leaders, much of what could be called “ordinary Iran” saw its culture and economy slipping away. And so a revolution came.

But while the environment of pre-revolution Iran was complex, the challenge of understanding how post-revolution Iran came to be wasn’t simple either. In a New America conversation with Stephen Heintz in New York, Secor described the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah and installed a returned Ayatollah Khomeini as “the convergence of many streams of thought and activism.” Indeed, what we in the West dilute to the harsh return of theocracy in the twentieth century was actually something far more nuanced: a turbulent and charged public transition that led to a new explosion of civic engagement concerned with what Iran should be.

Children of Paradise makes a sweeping political history of the Iranian reform movement, walking through the leadership of Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei; the rise of the Islamic Left; the surge of centrist and reformist leaders like Mohammad Khatami; a return to the hard-line policies of Ahmadinejad; and the response of the Green Movement. Just as significantly, though, it’s an intellectual treatise on how Iran’s political history is shaped in the first place—through the debates and disputes and deals of the most ordinary citizens grappling with the most extraordinary ideas.

Secor’s five trips to Iran and a decade covering Iran as an American journalist left her with a dozen profiles of both major and hardly known figures in the reformist movement. Those stories include the lives of Abdolkarim Soroush, a champion of the philosopher and open society advocate Karl Popper, and Ahmad Fardid, a devotee of Heidegger and more hard-liner positions. Soroush and Fardid waged a fierce rivalry of ideas that not only influenced the ruling regimes, but also played out in newspapers, town halls, and the streets.

The arc of the collected stories is religious, of course, but also secular. It’s about politics and identity, social strata and community-building, about “the forces that move history everywhere in the world. It is the story of individuals who have quested ceaselessly, pressing against seemingly impermeable barriers, for the open sea.”

The book’s climax comes with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009, a vote seen widely as rigged and the spark that lit the fire of the Green Movement, the largest wave of protests in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The regime, backed by an impatient electorate, clamped down, and the door of reformist progress was slammed shut. The same type of struggle continues today, and in their conversation, Secor and Heintz pointed out the pockets of parliament and ground-up reformers pushing beyond some of the lingering impacts of repression. In some sense, the revolution isn’t over.

Henry Kissinger once famously opined: is Iran a cause or a country? Of course, it’s both. The belief in an idealist, humanist vision of a just society is a deeply entrenched view of Iran inside Iran. At the same time, however, the dark currents of both past and present brutality, violent repressions, and abuses of power threaten to stain that image.

But in a post-nuclear deal climate, and after what are considered optimistic results in the most recent elections of more reformist parliamentary leaders, there’s reason for faith in what’s next. President Rouhani’s administration has and will continue to “bring the system together at the center,” says Secor. It’s a stabilizing move that serves a significant function in clearing the waters on what have been the murkiest moments in the reformist movement.

But in the ocean of change that’s sure to continue, there’s a tinge of sadness about what gets swept away. Reformist Iran wasn’t the black box much of the rest of the world made it out to be; rather, it was vibrantly churning network of streams of people close to checking out, but brought back in by the waves of hope.


Tyler S. Bugg is Associate Director for New America NYC, where he leads New America's operations and live programming initiatives across New York City.