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Annals of resistance

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

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Extraordinary stories of how people banished from history in Teheran and Nador have wielded control over their destinies.

THE French revolutionary Saint Just famously warned, Those who make half the revolution dig their own graves. His warning went unheeded not only in his own time, and in his native country, in the emergence of the revolutionary despot Napoleon Bonaparte in 18th century France, but for most of the revolutions in the succeeding centuries, namely in Mexico, Russia and China. In West Asia, a similar outcome greeted the masses who participated in the major revolutionary upheavals in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Iran.

The upheaval in Iran was interesting from the outset because it was the first major one in recorded history occurring in the name of religion. Many on the Left worldwide rejoiced uncritically with the exit of the Shah and the enturbanment of Imam Khomeini, which the French deconstruction theorist Foucault enthusiastically christened the first postmodern revolution. Others fell victim to what the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher had earlier called the socialism of the fools, expecting and applauding a transformation where none had in fact existed. Asef Bayat, to his credit, does not succumb to the latter, because he not only participated in the enthusiastic revolutionary uprising that later became the Iranian Revolution but happens to owe his origins to a class which had great hopes from the revolution-in-the-making and was completely ignored and later victimised by the triumphant revolutionaries in Teheran the squatters and slum-dwellers.

Bayat's work is a unique social anthropology of the Iranian Revolution from a Marxist perspective. In doing so, he coins a new and important terminology to define the activities of those in the informal economy who are marginalised not only in social science discourse but also by the makers of the Iranian Revolution the quiet encroachment of the ordinary (page 7). Bayat defines this term as a silent, patient and pervasive advancement of ordinary people; a quiet, atomized, prolonged mobilization with episodic collective action.

The premier participants in this quiet encroachment are migrants, refugees, the unemployed, squatters, street vendors and other marginalised groups in short, those groups that have been brushed off from polite bourgeois society (one may also add sex workers to this diverse group, as Bayat later does as well). The aim of these informal marginals was twofold: redistribution of social goods and opportunities; and autonomy from the state and its strictures of control (page 10).

According to Bayat, slums, squatter communities and the informal economy are a result of Iran's successful if uneven integration into the world economy and the class hierarchy created therein (page 25). This happened with the rise in demand for West Asian and, by extension, Iranian oil in the 1930s and 1940s, and the top-down modernisation carried out by the ambitious Pahlavi Shahs in their quest for superpower status. The contradictions of these actions not only made Iran a subservient satellite of the West but eventually led to the overthrow of the dynasty itself in 1979 the rise of the oil workers; the prominence of the clergy; the formation of the Iranian social democratic and communist Left; and the massive pauperisation of the countryside, which led to large-scale rural-urban migration to Iran's cities.

Before Bayat, intelligent observers of Iran's political economy and history, such as Fred Halliday, Nikki Keddie and Ervand Abrahamian, had ignored the prominence of Iran's informal marginals as a result of the same process. They were not alone: according to Bayat, both the secular and Islamist agitators largely ignored the underclass in favour of students and the intelligentsia (page 43) when the conflict between the state and the poor clearly had a class dimension (page 15).

The unemployed poor took advantage of the confusion and chaos in the last days of the Pahlavi rule to carve out their own niche in Iran's unoccupied houses and thoroughfares. Amazingly, even when assisted by students, these communities displayed a remarkable talent for democratic self-organisation in the form of setting up revolutionary shuras and committees (pages 51-52; 63), which held elections at a time when the same were being denied not only in the Shah's regime but within the new revolutionary regime as well. In these pages, one can also detect the role played by the Left, that is, the Islamic socialist' Mujahideen-e-Khalq and the militant Left of the Maoist parties (page 66) and the women (page 66; 96) in mobilising the poor unemployed, squatters, housing rebels and vendors.

Revolutionary tradition

Iran had a rich revolutionary tradition, helped by the fact that it was a geographical neighbour to Bolshevik Russia and this enabled the evolution of the communist Tudeh Party as well as the more militant Maoists, the Fedayeen-e-Khalq guerillas led by Bizhan Jazani. The latter were breakaways from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which was an Islamic equivalent of Christian liberation theology. Bayat, who is very sympathetic to the Left, admits that the Left played an instrumental role in articulating and radicalising workers' demands (page 113). This is best exemplified by his depiction of May Day in 1979 (pages 118-119), when the Left, with its slogans calling for nationalisation of industry and banking, changes in labour law and the expulsion of foreign experts, was the largest organised force.

Yet, despite these organisational advantages, the Left could not affect the fate of the informals in any significant manner; the victories of the informals in taking over unoccupied housing, winning small concessions in the form of free use of electricity, land, street space and squatter settlements were largely by their own efforts. The reasons lay not only in the fact that the Left, wherever it was in a position of power, behaved in an elitist manner, far removed from the day-to-day concerns of the unemployed (page 94; see also the motives of the Left in occupying houses on page 64) but also in the negative perceptions shared by the Left about the unemployed, especially vendors (page 197).

Moreover, according to Bayat, the Left's main agenda in Iran was to undermine the Provisional Government and build support for itself rather than promise security to the unemployed (page 128). I also feel that the Left was deluded by expectations from Khomeini, which is why it rather opportunistically ended up praising Khomeini' in the May Day celebrations of 1979 (pages 118-119). The small victories of the unemployed were also damaged by the state, which proclaimed itself a benefactor and protector of the mustazifin and mouthed the rhetoric of land redistribution and nationalisation of water and electricity (pages 99), even for the time being approving the radical confiscation of homes and land for the homeless.

Bayat says this happened as a means not only to placate the radicalism of the lower classes but also to disarm the proletarian Left (page 43) in a strategy mimicked by social democratic or populist regimes throughout the Muslim world, from Iraq, Egypt and Algeria to Indonesia and Pakistan. The clergy also affirmed its commitment to the protection of private property by forcing evictions of houses occupied by the poor (pages 67-72) and often inflicting great violence to achieve its ends (especially in the case of squatters and vendors). Where these measures were insufficient, it invoked fatwas to ban outright squatting and vending or used clerics in Friday sermons to incite worshippers against the squatters and vendors (page 68; 149). It thus succeeded in turning the poor against poor (page 127).

This happened despite the fact that progressive clerics such as Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and religious organisations such as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq differed from the state's rigid interpretation of Islam. Despite the state's backtracking over decentralisation (page 91) and the failures of the Left, the informal poor did win some major victories: the state was forced to legalise and consolidate squatter settlements; the poor self-allocated some homes and influenced public housing policy, forcing the state to grant short-term loans as temporary relief (never paid back); and succeeded in winning a grudging recognition for the vendors.

There were also factory occupations and takeovers (page 128), foreshadowing what would later take place in many parts of Latin America in the wake of the debt crisis of the 2000s, notably in Argentina. In addition, in opposition to the puritanical state, the urban poor also created an underground, secular street culture (page 145), a direct precursor to the defiant youth who challenge the state in celebrating annual festivals like Nowrouz in Iran today.

What explains the resilience of Iran's poor in the face of opposition and repression is the ingenious resort to street politics whenever the state threatened them with intimidating force and the propensity to take matters into their own hands whenever the state appeared to be weak, in order to win small victories and force the state to tolerate them. Bayat includes a long list of factors in explaining why the social movements of Iran's poor weakened and then failed, but in my opinion what he does not address adequately is the claim that such movements, in contrast to the Gramscian notion of passive revolution (page 8), do not target state power; furthermore that such movements cannot afford to be ideological (page 159), which explains their attachment to informal primary relations and solidarities as the best form of protection.

Events in Haiti and Venezuela, in the form of the election and re-election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Hugo Chavez respectively, and the outpouring of Buenos Aires' slums following Argentina's debt default in the face of entrenched neoliberalism and authoritarian states clearly show what politicised slum-dwellers can achieve if and when they aim for political power. Furthermore, it was the support of slum-dwellers and shanty towns of Caracas that reinstated President Chavez after his ouster in a U.S.-backed coup in 2000. Inside West Asia, Muqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation movement draws strength from the slums of Baghdad as it attempts to change the face of post-occupation Iraq politically.

My own experience of mobilising the working class in Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan shows that the poor will support any ideology as long as it promises them bread, clothing and shelter. The Holloway thesis of changing the world without taking power is no longer valid if the communities Bayat describes are ever to have hope of redress of their grievances. The capture of state power is needed not only to challenge the depredations of neoliberal globalisation, which created the planet of slums in Teheran and elsewhere, but also to enact pro-poor policies. To paraphrase Bayat, the state does matter it continues to be the major political player (page 164).

Moroccan resistance

As with the case of the poor in Teheran, resistance and survival is also the theme of David McMurray's book In and Out of Morocco. Yet the nature and characteristics of this resistance in the border town of Nador imbue it with peculiar characteristics not found in Teheran. Nador is bordered by the Rif mountains, the scene of a ferocious if unsuccessful anti-colonial resistance against Spanish colonisers in the 20th century and later struggles against the authoritarian Moroccan monarchy in the 1950s and 1980s. In this perpetually insurgent land, resistance has now taken on variegated colours. McMurray depicts a town torn by the ravages of globalisation, bordering as it does the Spanish enclave of Melilla, one of the twin gateposts of Fortress Europe' (Ceuta is the other).

The logic of globalisation capital is free to move, while labour is not demands a peculiar form of resistance. Haddou (chapter 2) and others like him, faithfully devoted to the idea of making it good in Europe, cannot tolerate the small instances of resistance in their own families which they have left back home. Rather than being grateful dependants, the family members merely respond to the rather conservative mores instituted by the primitive absentee patriarch: whether it is Haddou's insistence on keeping a locked telephone in the family house in order to keep tabs on his wife and daughters in his absence or controlling the household's budget, his family encroaches quietly on his conception of patriarchal utopia to win their autonomy his wife utilising a bit of the money to help out her ageing mother; his youngest son, Morad, keeping small change for himself; an elder son, Hassan, taking his share for entertainment; and another son Driss dropping out of school and migrating to France where an uncle lived.

Then there is the symbolic resistance of the Nadori migrants in response to the absence of home and family abroad. They construct a golden past to remind themselves of what they have lost, which they hope to regain upon eventual return to the homeland: patriarchal rulers of docile, respectful families (page 43), an idea which seldom works in practice. The more enterprising among them find refuge in religion (page 45) as a response to not only what they encounter in Europe but the heavy hand of the secular but authoritarian Moroccan state.

McMurray wants to disprove the notion that these migrants are, like the poor in Bayat's Teheran, nothing more than pawns without any control over their destinies. Women such as Fatouche (pages 49-51) want to emigrate to escape the stifling social restrictions at home on account of their divorced status; people like Karim (pages 51-53) and Muhammad (pages 53-56) utilise their contacts and their pluck to migrate illegally to Norway and Holland a form of quiet encroachment very much like the one practised against the Iranian state in Bayat's book. Except that in the case of Nadoris, the migration is both international and illegal. In both cases, these actions test the patience of the states involved, whether Spain or Morocco, which devise brutal ways to desist the migrants, bordering on blatant violations of human rights (page 57).

Resistance also entails faking an injury to earn unearned worker's benefits (page 58) or challenging the dominant models of successful war veterans in the case of Ronald Reagan' (page 59), by not distinguishing oneself in work or war. Or of successful migrants returning from Europe early and lying around aimlessly, as in the case of the Belgian miner' (pages 60-62). Successful migration on the other hand leads to tensions between cultural capital, which non-migrants have in abundance, and economic capital owned largely by the migrants (page 65). It also leaves its mark on modesty seclusion being regarded as the price women must pay for sending their husbands, fathers or brothers overseas, not always with successful results (page 69).

McMurray's discussions on visual marks of distinction (pages 78-82) are interesting in that they not only show the tension between black skins and white masks, brilliantly portrayed by Frantz Fanon in the form of positionality of art (page 81) in a typical Nadori home, but also how postmodernism, midwifed by globalisation, dictates the cultural logic of capitalism by producing kitsch everywhere in the Third World based on the close relationship between mimicry and money. It is also interestingly reflected in how the white, non-native author discovers at his son's issm that the discomfort at the feast developed not around overt class-based differences, but around tensions between emigrants and non-emigrants (page 84).

This is the same sort of resentment on the part of the non-emigrants that leads shopkeepers and businessmen of Teheran's bazaars to collaborate with the state against the newly found informalised riches of Teheran's poor; in Nador the confrontation is not physical but more subdued.

McMurray also charts the process by which physical resistance by Abdel Karim in the early 20th century has given way to cultural resistance in the 21st, exemplified by the music of Walid Mimoun and the state's callous treatment of his music (page 102) and the tradition of protest music, both at home and in the diaspora. Protest music helps make sense of the world at a time when Nadori women are losing their men to the wiles of Europe and the charms of its women, while the political and cultural oppression of Berbers at home combined with their ethnic marginalisation abroad contributes to a hardening of that identity, also represented in protest music (pages 108-09). Parallels can be made with the Algerian Berber artist Lounes Matoub (whose assassination provoked riots in Kabylie for months) and the music now emanating from the Arab banlieues of France.

Quiet encroachment

Apart from the migrants, the other major segment of Nador which practises quiet encroachment is the smugglers (chapter 6), who smuggle between Nador and Melilla not only goods but hashish (pages 114-116) and, in doing so, have made Morocco the world's leading hashish producer. Mirroring yet another contradiction of globalisation, this hashish production and related industry is solely a function of demand and supply and can only be resolved by legalising the production and usage of hashish, not by subjecting the smugglers, which often includes women, to humiliating harassment at the border. The risks taken by these smugglers and the rapaciousness of the Moroccan state in dealing with them have made the smugglers Nadori versions of Robin Hood, who are not shy of making a good bargain at the expense of the authoritarian state and rewriting history in the process, as the anecdote about the Berber behaviour in the Green March attests (page 121). Thus these smugglers together with migrants constitute a vital challenge to state repression in the absence of any other significant alternative (the Left in Morocco, unlike in Iran, has not been very strong and even its social-democratic variants have been overthrown, exiled or tortured).

The model proposed by Michel de Certeau on the myriad local, spontaneous uncoordinated, opportunistic attempts by the population to avoid submitting to powers that be (page 127) sounds remarkably close to Bayat's model of quiet encroachment, though Bayat would call it amoral politics rather than opportunistic. It is a much more relevant model to describe cases like Nador's migrants and smugglers than McMurray would have us believe, except that to be really successful, the legitimacy of the state propounded by Mbembe (pages 128-130) would have to be replaced by the legitimacy of a state which would not require such ceremony and violence: again the question of state power becomes relevant, ignored here by McMurray as well as by Bayat.

Such a state would also attempt to replace the historical amnesia which characterises Morocco regarding its most important anti-colonial battle, waged by the Rifs against the Spanish the Battle of Anoual (1921). The fact that the site of this historic event is hardly marked by a suitable public monument serves to strengthen not only the historical amnesia in the population regarding its true heroes and martyrs but also official attempts to reserve that most serious of punishments for events and people who are deemed to be subversive to the interests of the state and its ruling elite: banishment from memory. It is doubly ironical that it is left to a white, non-native man to be the flag-bearer of this historic battle he named his newborn son Anoual' in its honour and to ask these questions of Nadoris in his midst while the latter cheerfully imbibe the images and work of Bob Marley and Charles Bronson from the West, or at best, portraits of the Moroccan King, a Franco-American client. Worse, it reinforces the image of Morocco as an oriental fantasyland without a past.

Therefore, whether it is the back-alleys of Teheran or the sand-spits of Nador, the people who have been banished or ignored from history and discourse must do more than quiet encroachment to jolt and puncture the amnesia, blindness and dumbness of the forgetful, the blind and the deaf in their midst.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 24, 2010.)

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