Image source: Corbis

Iran has been a focus of global attention for many years, and once again it ranks at or near the top of diplomatic agendas. After more than a year of uncertainty and procrastination, America has finally decided to renege on the nuclear deal that has so far kept Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s an important and troubling issue, and I have already discussed it in 2 older articles. But let’s step aside from the fixation with nukes for a bit and discuss something more fundamental: the ongoing contradiction between Iran’s government and society. It underlies a great deal of Iranian policy (and foreign policy toward Iran), even when it’s not immediately apparent.

As usual, a bit of historical background is necessary. Iran (Persia) is an ancient land with a coherent national identity and culture dating back to the 500s BCE. For most of that time, it was ruled by an emperor (or “shah”) with few limits on his power. Although Iran was modernized in the early 1900s by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah’s power was still pretty much absolute. A constitutional movement at the beginning of the century gave the country a legislature, the Majlis, but it was subordinated to the shah.

This continued under Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah (who is almost invariably referred to as just “the shah”). He offered very generous terms to foreign investors and suppressed opposition parties, enforcing his rule with a sinister secret police force, SAVAK. By 1978, a cycle had developed of anti-monarchist protests that were put down violently, thereby provoking even bigger protests, and so on. With even the legal political parties turning against him and military units switching sides, the shah’s power was untenable, and in early 1979 he left Iran for medical care, never to return.

This pattern of events is not unusual in revolutions, but what happened next in Iran is unique. Without the shah, politics in Iran dissolved into a messy struggle between factions with wildly different visions of Iran’s future (much like what happened in the Arab world in 2011) — and the Islamic Republican Party had the most public support. It wiped out its opponents and created a theocracy, or rule by religion. Muslims in many countries pine for a strong(er) role for their religion in government; in Iran the religious establishment actually took over.

In a system called vilayat-e faqih (“rule by jurist”), a Supreme Leader replaced the shah as the head of Iran’s government. This Supreme Leader was originally Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah (a high-ranking cleric within Iran’s Shi’ite sect of Islam); he has since been replaced by Ali Khamenei (not the same guy). Khomeini attained the position mostly by his charisma and fame and legitimized it by his knowledge of Muslim law and jurisprudence. The Supreme Leader has the final say in government policy, oversees judicial and military appointments, and interprets the constitution. Beneath him is the president, who is elected every four years by the people — the catch is that candidates must first be vetted by the Supreme Leader and Council of Guardians, which is entirely made up of clerics. The Majlis persists, and like the president its members are also popularly elected; also like the president, they are vetted by the Council. There is a Supreme Court and a Special Clerical Court (the latter of which watches the watchmen), and they are also composed entirely of mullahs.

دیدار رئیس‌جمهور و اعضای هیأت دولت

Iran’s government. Khamenei is in the middle, beneath a portrait of Khomeini, with Rouhani to his left. Image source: Financial Tribune

There are also the Revolutionary Guards. This corps was created during the revolution to “protect” (enforce) it by rooting out monarchist or secularist elements and jailing them. They are the regime’s enforcers and spy and crack down on protests or political dissent, not unlike their monarchist predecessors. Since students in particular are trouble, they are regularly hounded by the Basij, one of the Guards’ arms; another arm, the Quds Force, intervenes in wars in West Asia (Syria, Iraq, Yemen) to coordinate militias and advance Iranian foreign policy there. Analysts debate whether the Guards are controlled by the president or the Supreme Leader; in reality, they probably compose their own power center, and even if they enforce Islamic law, they act more like the paramilitary they are. They are definitely the single biggest economic force in Iran today after a major expansion under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), and own powerful companies in the oil, telecoms, car and construction sectors.

Iran has a rich stew of political parties, but politics there normally fragments into two factions. The “reformists” want Iran to lighten up: lift government controls of the economy, trim clerical control of the government, court foreigners more, and allow more freedom of expression. The “hardliners,” well, want the opposite. They defend the status quo and the spirit of the Iranian Revolution and rail against reform as backtracking and dangerous. They taunt reformers as gharbzadegi (corrupted by the West) and either call for continued focus on Shi’ite principles and austere piety or defend government domination of the economy as necessary for protecting the Iranian people, depending on their background and emphasis.

That being said, Iranian politics can be bewildering and complex, and it gives foreign analysts much to do to track the shifting fortunes and positions of its main figures. Ahmadinejad, for instance, was a bit of a rogue who challenged the elite and promoted populist economic policies while championing Islam, demonizing Israel and the West, and alienating the young. He was ultimately distrusted by the Supreme Leader and Council for being a wild card who relied too much on the Guards, but during the “Green Movement” of 2009, when protesters railed against his reelection, Khamenei sided with him and squelched the movement, reasoning that he was the lesser of two evils. Khamenei has given his presidents substantial latitude, especially compared to Khomeini, but he is as hardline as they come and is not above making subtle digs at them in sermons to keep them nervous and in line. President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) was somewhere in the middle, trying to open up Iranian society after Khomeini’s harsh austerity but without betraying the revolution; as usual for moderates, this just meant that both sides ended up angry with him.

In general, though, the central dynamic in Iranian politics is that the ayatollah is hardline and the president (including the current one, Hassan Rouhani) is reformist. This is no accident, since the president is popularly elected.

The Iranian Revolution was a grassroots movement. Tired of being oppressed, tortured and patronized for as long as anyone could remember, Iran’s masses poured into the streets in 1979 to demand change and a government ruled by mullahs. The ’80s were years of religious zeal in Iran, as women were forced to cover up and everyone was forced to abandon overt signs of Western influence.

But Iran hasn’t historically been a closed, suspicious society. Sitting astride the old trade routes between Europe and China known as the Silk Road, it absorbed foreign influences and the people who brought them while influencing outsiders too (see this article for some of the ways it influenced South Asia, for example). It is widely acknowledged as an extremely hospitable and generous country with a tradition of respecting guests. In the decades before the revolution, Western influences were widespread and tacitly encouraged by the shah — Western fashions in dress and hair, Western literature, European languages, and Western pastimes were trendy and tolerated by most Iranians.

This trend away from revolutionary fervor has been accelerated by demographics. The 2011 census revealed that 56% of the country is under 30. The 20-30 age cohort is easily the biggest (23% of the population). Most people do not remember the revolution and do not hold Khomeini in great reverence. Due in part to weariness at Islam’s relentless intolerance and conservatism (or at least, those of its followers), the young are increasingly turning away from the faith; details are murky, but there seems to be a thriving underground Christian community. While Iran’s great religious centers like Mashhad and Qom still attract crowds during holidays and pilgrimages (as do Iraq’s Shi’ite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala), many mosques are relatively empty during weekly services. Even many clerics only go through the motions, and there are plenty who are blatantly hypocritical in their own observance of Islamic law.

As a result, it is fair to say that contemporary Iranian society is fairly open and secular. As in many other Muslim countries, alcohol is freely sold and consumed despite Islam’s ban on it; a lot of people even struggle with alcoholism, catching the government off guard with how to cope with it. Teens feast on pizza, visit bowling alleys, and show off their skateboard tricks and souped-up cars. Strict censorship of un-Islamic entertainment is usually flouted; satellite dishes dot urban rooftops, and hit American movies and TV shows are downloaded off the Internet. Social codes are clearly sexist, but women have more freedom of action than in most Arab or African countries, outnumber men in universities, and mingle freely with men in public. Islam’s strict dress codes are followed, but with as much leeway as possible — women wear tight-fitting clothes, makeup, and hijab with their hair showing. Some have even taken the daring step of not wearing hijab altogether, which is liable to get you arrested.

The Basij take a nuanced approach to this. Accepting reality, for the most part they let the people do as they want, especially if they are rich or well-connected. But stepping too far will still land you in jail, and Iranians are skilled at knowing where the red lines are. Political debate is tolerated — presidential candidates hold debates around election time — but if the core precepts of Islam, the revolution or the government are challenged, authorities swoop in. Travelers are nominally welcome in Iran and are certainly greeted with open arms by ordinary people, but they are still liable to be watched, detained and questioned by the police. Journalists and unfortunate souls like hikers who stray across the Iraqi border or scholars studying the Qajar dynasty are jailed without cause or on trumped-up charges. Listening to foreign music is O.K., but uploading a video of a dance to Pharrell Williams is going too far.

In general, Iranians are used to this and take it as a fact of life or a quirk of their country. But it grates on them just the same. Being treated as a rogue state or part of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is frustrating, and most Iranians want more freedom. That is why they continually elect reformist presidents, from Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to Rouhani in 2013. That is why the reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked a massive uprising in Tehran in support of his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that was ultimately put down violently. That is why more protests burst out around (Western) New Year’s 2018, which originated from economic grievances (mainly high food prices) but soon escalated into demonstrations against the regime in general, and in cities across the country.

How will these contradictions and internal tensions be resolved? As in many things in Iran, it is unclear. Some analysts argue that the violent suppression of protests and continued sidelining of reformists will continue and ultimately reveal Iran’s democratic process for what it really is: a facade for military dictatorship with religious overtones. Others are more optimistic and see Iran’s government as a spent force, with the youth representing the new vanguard that will someday produce an Iran less hostile to its neighbors and more tolerant of social expression.  Given Iran’s ongoing relevance on the international stage as it bids for regional domination, outside interference and influence is another complicating factor. But it is unfair and overly simplistic to see Iran as simply another grouchy, zealous Islamic dictatorship determined to slaughter infidels and torture its people. There are a variety of political, economic and social opinions circulating in Iran, and although there are significant restrictions, Khamenei and his Guards let them circulate.


There are plenty of good books on Iran, but it’s hard to imagine any of them besting Marjane Satrapi’s comic memoir of growing up in the Iranian Revolution, Persepolis. (The animated version is masterful too.) Image source: Pinterest



Josephat Torner

Josephat Torner (see below) poses at an albino school. Image source: RT

Taken as a broad racial category, black people are arguably the most persecuted and oppressed on Earth.* Within their homeland, Africa, they face grinding poverty, ongoing civil wars and conflict, shoddy education, health care and other social services, intertribal rivalries and discrimination, endemic corruption, indifferent governance and brutal dictatorships. Outside of Africa, the large African diaspora deals with racial profiling, lynching, gang violence, a lack of acknowledgement for their contributions to society and culture, and basically the same problems as in Africa, but less acute. But in one peculiar context, white people actually face persecution at the hands of black people.

These “white people” are albinos, who are born with a genetic mutation that imparts much less melanin than normal. (Melanin is the pigments that give skin its color.) All kinds of animals can be albinos, and all kinds of humans too — but for some reason, albinism is most common in East and Southern Africa. Worldwide, it affects about .00005% of the population, but in East Africa, the rate rises to .0004% — 8 times higher. Tanzania is especially associated with albinos, since they represent .0007% there, or 1 out of every 1,500 people. It’s unclear why this region around the Great Lakes of Africa — encompassing Tanzania, Burundi, part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Malawi — has so many albinos, but it could be because of higher rates of inbreeding in local societies, where marrying cousins or other relatives is not considered taboo.

Albinos live hard lives. Melanin is a natural protection against the sun, so having little of it means it’s easy to suffer sunburns and skin cancer. What’s more, melanin helps you see, so albinos suffer from poor eyesight or even blindness. As a result, African albinos have a low life expectancy — only 15% survive past 40. But it’s unclear whether that life expectancy is due only to their physical condition or due to the persecution they suffer.

Humans discriminate against those who look different from them, and in an area with almost uniformly black skin and hair, people with white hair and skin stand out. Albinos in Africa have a hard time making friends and are bullied in school. They are called names — zeru (“ghost”) being the most common, but also nguruwe (“pig”) or just mzungu (“white”). Their own parents often forsake them, since albinism is considered a curse and having an albino around is unlucky. In the worst cases, albino babies are killed; otherwise, they are often separated from the rest of the family, eating outside, drinking from natural water sources instead of wells, and even getting buried outside of cemeteries. This discrimination means they don’t get much of an education. Employers snub them, since ghosts might just disappear after a few days. So albinos are forced to resort to menial labor where they can work apart from others (“pigmented” people). Menial labor tends to take place outside, with the grim result that albinos tend to die in their 20s from skin cancer.


Image source: Jacquelyn Martin

It’s a bad enough situation already, but it gets worse. The belief that albino body parts have special healing powers has gained currency in recent years, allegedly thanks to traditional Tanzanian healers (sometimes known as “witch doctors”). These healers are still popular sources of authority in rural areas, so plenty of people believe them. As a result, albinos are hacked apart, often in surprise break-ins at night. Sometimes the attackers only make off with an arm or a foot; other times, the albinos do not survive. Their family and neighbors may even be in league with the attackers. Albino women may also be raped, since the healers say that sex with them cures HIV. Needless to say, albino body parts are worthless, but since they can sell for huge prices (up to $75,000), there is ample incentive for chopping albinos up — particularly in rural Africa, where most people would never dream of seeing $75,000.

Albinos moan that they are treated like animals. And indeed, there are parallels to the plight of rare African animals. Elephants, rhinos, lions and other majestic African animals are also hunted for their body parts in the belief that they will impart virility or cure various ailments. These horns, claws and tusks sell for thousands of dollars and give poor Africans a strong incentive to poach despite the protection of armed rangers. But Africa’s animals are some of its most recognizable icons and something Africans are generally proud of across the continent; albinos are obscure, despised and treated as freaks and burdens.

But progress is being made. The UN and Amnesty International have publicized the problem and denounced public apathy to albino persecution and slaughter. Foreign albinos from richer countries, like Canada’s Peter Ash, have adopted their cause as something they can relate to. Local albinos, like Josephat Torner (profiled in this RT documentary), travel and give lectures to villages to fight back against the scurrilous rumors against them and just present an example of articulate, educated albinos to people who don’t know any better. They have also had some success in lobbying governments, particularly Tanzania’s, to take the albino problem more seriously.

In Tanzania’s Lake Victoria region, the area with the highest albino concentration, there are now schools (basically orphanages, since parents aren’t usually interested in raising albinos) dedicated to caring for albinos. There are safehouses where albinos can live in peace, and an entire island in Lake Victoria, Ukerewe, that is far enough away from the mainland for albinos to seek refuge from their tormentors. Donations to schools in Tanzania now include things like sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats to help albinos withstand the sun’s glare, magnifying glasses to help them see, and cell phones for them to use in emergencies. Police are cracking down on anti-albino murders, and there is a ban on traditional healers (even though not all of them spread rumors about albino body parts). Some albinos have even managed to succeed despite the oppression: Abdallah Possi is a respected professor of law and a deputy minister in Tanzania’s prime minister’s office; the Tanzania Albinism Collective recorded an album and toured in Britain; Salif Keita, a scion of Malian** royalty, is one of Africa’s most famous singers. If beauty pageants can be considered progress, a Miss Albino pageant was held in Zimbabwe, further south, in March with the aim of fighting against the stigma of albinism and redefining African standards of beauty; more pageants in other countries are planned.

Albino pageant

The pageant winners. Image source: Zimbabwe Digital News

But albinos still face an uphill battle. In Africa, official directives and laws don’t always translate into enforcement on the ground in remote regions. The vast majority of murderers of albinos get away with their crimes; official crime statistics seem suspiciously low given the climate of fear albinos live in. The price of albino body parts is as enticing to police as it is to everyone else, so it’s easy to pay them off. There is a strong likelihood that rich, influential people fuel the body part trade — there aren’t many Africans that can pay $75,000 for an amulet. The price is high enough that the bold will barge into safehouses or sail to Ukerewe, so albinos can’t really let their guard down anywhere. Skin cancer clinics are extremely scarce. The emphasis on Tanzania has come at the expense of other neighboring countries with similar persecution against albinos; in Malawi in particular, where superstitions about witchcraft are prevalent, albinos are almost hunted with impunity.

Albino campaigners are nearly unanimous in their recommendation: better education. Albino body parts do not really cure anything and have not brought fame and fortune to their possessors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t care about them. Albinos are humans and native Africans just like their neighbors; if more people knew that, they wouldn’t ostracize them. And if scientific explanations for albinism were integrated into the curriculum, there would be more concern for their well-being and less exposure to outdoor activities. Education can’t really eradicate superstition — there are many, many examples of old, discredited beliefs that still circulate even in well-educated countries — but at least it would cut back on the prevalence of the most dangerous and cruel misconceptions about albinism.


The Rohingya are probably the most persecuted specific ethnicity.


Mali is in West Africa.




Image source: Daily Sports Online

On April 5, Isao Takahata died. His is not a name familiar to most people. Even though he made films at the renowned Studio Ghibli, which has done more than any other studio to make anime (Japanese animation) respected and admired worldwide, he sort of flew under the radar. Hayao Miyazaki is more associated with Ghibli, and might even eclipse it in fame. This is fair given the quantity and quality of his filmography, but Takahata always seemed to get less credit than he deserved. Without Miyazaki, he would be considered a giant of the industry.

Takahata’s career stretches all the way back to the early days of the anime industry, or at least the period when it was reconstructing itself from the shakeup of World War II. He got his start at Toei, Japan’s biggest studio and the creator of movies like Legend of the White Serpent and Journey to the West that provided Eastern rivals to Disney’s fairy tale stories. His first film, Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968), was groundbreaking for its time, with excellent animation, violent action sequences, and political subtext to lure in an older crowd. But it flopped financially, and Takahata went on to work in TV for the next decade. That being said, the shows he worked on then — Heidi, Girl of the Alps, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Anne of Green Gables — were very influential and beloved by both Japanese and European viewers of all ages.

Grave of the Fireflies

Image source: Naze-no Chibenkaku

But ultimately, what Takahata will be remembered for most is Grave of the Fireflies (1988). This is one of those movies that’s on the short list of most Anime You Need to See Before You Die lists (even if it didn’t actually make it onto my own…). Based on the memoir of a World War II survivor, it recounts the struggles of two kids, a little girl and her teenage brother, to get by in the devastation of the war. It pulls no punches. While it is part of an unfortunate narrative Japan has embraced that portrays itself as a pitiful victim of a war it had started through its own imperialist aggression — indeed, it’s become one of that narrative’s central texts — it’s an incredibly powerful story, and a great way of getting a sense for what it’s like to live in a war zone, when any given day could be your last. Along with Akira, which also came out in 1988, it exploded the notion that animation is inherently childish and blew several unsuspecting viewers’ minds. While it will always be remembered for its tearjerker ending, it has a more sophisticated emotional range than just melancholy: the movie is really about the boy doing whatever he can to take care of his little sister. His love for her is touching, and he does everything from flips on monkey bars to firefly-catching to keep his sister happy and distracted from her grim reality.

Yesterday Yamadas

Image sources: So-net Blog and The Rising Sky

This is probably Takahata’s most enduring legacy: his penchant for making movies that draw out the viewers’ emotions and leave them deeply moved. Grave of the Fireflies is most direct in this regard — it makes you depressed — but his other movies usually aim for a more wistful, reflective tone. Only Yesterday (1991) languished in obscurity for decades because it’s not the kind of movie easy to market internationally: it’s about an adult woman reminiscing about her childhood while on a visit to the Japanese countryside to pick safflowers for a while. That means it’s too slow and emotionally complex for kids, yet too culturally and demographically specific for most adults. But it combines heartfelt reflection on the direction of your life with touching, often funny, anecdotes about childhood in Japan in the ’60s. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), a series of anecdotes about a mostly ordinary family, is more sitcom-like, but it’s still very sentimental in its portrayal of the Yamadas’ quirks and foibles, and its ending song, “Que Sera, Sera,” is a surprisingly wistful way of closing the movie. (Takahata also directed an obscure movie in 1981, Chie the Brat, which also portrayed domestic life in ’60s Japan comically, but with a darker edge since the family is more low-class.)

Despite Fireflies‘ reputation, I actually think my favorite Takahata work is his last, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013). Takahata never did any animation work himself and had a reputation for workmanlike art in his movies; Kaguya is basically him showing the world what he was capable of before dying. Based on a famous Japanese fairy tale, it looks like an old Japanese scroll come to life, with lines drawn sketchily and coloring evoking watercolors and storybooks. Some of its scenes depict emotional turmoil in a raw, evocative way live-action never could, and watching it is like watching a literal work of art. (This was before Loving Vincent took animated art to the next level.) The story is about a girl mysteriously found inside of a bamboo stalk by an old couple who grows much faster than usual. Despite her happy life in the countryside with her loving parents and kid friends, she is soon sent off to live in the capital and marry into nobility. But she can’t quite feel at home there and can’t shake the feeling that she doesn’t belong on Earth at all. It’s a poignant story, very weird, as most fairy tales are, and while you may be conflicted over how to feel about its resolution, it’s hard not to feel something, given how we’ve followed this girl’s life for so long.

Takahata’s movies were always less marketable than Miyazaki’s. Starving kids in World War II, a grown woman coming to terms with her own childhood, anthropomorphic tanuki (raccoon-like animals) scheming how to save their hill from human development, an idiosyncratic fairy tale with a meandering plot — these aren’t the kind of movies that bring huge crowds, and ever since Horus, Takahata’s films performed underwhelmingly. As a result, he ceded the limelight to Miyazaki, even though he was older and more or less mentored Miyazaki early in their careers. He took long breaks to do things like make live-action documentaries about canals. I’ve never heard someone gush about him or cite him as an inspiration or their favorite anime director. But Takahata’s movies deserve a prominent place in the anime pantheon. They thoughtfully portray life’s challenges, sometimes tragically, sometimes comically, often with great subtlety. They challenge the notion that animation is for action, wacky gags, epic spectacle or speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy). They tend to leave you lost in thought or even sobbing at the end. I couldn’t help thinking after seeing Kaguya that this was someone the world had drastically underrated and overlooked, and it was partly his fault: for all its charms, a movie like Kaguya is awfully old-fashioned for the 2010s. But it’s a towering achievement, as is Takahata’s filmography overall. Watching his films is a way to get a sense of a quieter, more mundane side of Japan, but with flights of fancy you don’t get in most live-action movies. With his death and Miyazaki’s decline, the sense that Ghibli has moved on from its glory days only grows more and more acute; and knowledge of how sensitive and moving his work was made his demise that much more painful.