The Blind Man’s friend: Don’t suffer because of the past. You censored books for the sake of God. . . . What is
it you are taking?
The Blind Man: Valium. I’m taking it to forget everything, even God.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2003 movie script Faramoushi (Dementia) never passed the censors at Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the clerical regime’s gateway for all films, books, magazines, and newspapers. Makhmalbaf’s sarcasm and searing allusions often got him into trouble before he went into exile in 2005. His mordancy in Faramoushi, aimed at the rampant, crude, and at times comical censorship within the Islamic Republic, must have caused the censors particular unease: The intellectual journey of the central character, the blind censor, bears a definite resemblance to the evolution of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei’s strange life is worthy of a Makhmalbaf movie: The young Ali was a lover of books; Ayatollah Khamenei bans books he dislikes. Budding with modern curiosity, the young man much preferred the company of intellectuals and poets to that of holy-law-loving mullahs. He tried his hand at poetry and prose, and under the shah endured the humiliation of interrogation and imprisonment for love of the written word. As supreme leader, Khamenei imprisons and assassinates poets and artists to safeguard the republic of God against cultural pollution from the West.
What made the young cleric, an intellectual capable of considerable compassion toward atheists, turn into a torturer of dissident writers, poets, scholars, and students? It’s not an unimportant question. It was to Khamenei that Barack Obama started writing letters in 2009 in the hope of ending the rancor of U.S.–Iranian relations. The supreme leader and his praetorians, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, control Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
In Makhmalbaf’s script, the blind censor as a young man is a film aficionado, in love with Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina, in Fellini’s La Strada. He’s an admirer of Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. Above all, he is enthralled by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. When Saddam Hussein invades Iran, he fights for his country and loses his sight, a victim of Iraqi chemical agents. Returning from the front, the blind cinephile joins the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to continue the fight on a different front: safeguarding the purity of the revolution against the “cultural onslaught” of the West.
Childhood Misery and Books
Khamenei was born in 1939 into a lower-middle-class clerical family in Mashhad in Khorasan Province in northeastern Iran. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Khorasan’s aristocrats and poets revived the Persian language and culture, which had been submerged by the seventh-century Arab invasion and the rapid conversion of Iranians to Islam. By the time of Khamenei’s childhood, however, the province had become a cultural backwater. Most of Khorasan’s men of letters flocked to the more cosmopolitan and liberal Tehran. To judge by Khamenei’s autobiographical statements compiled in Hedayatollah Behboodi’s recently published Sharh-e Esm (The Elucidation of the Name), the land “where the sun arrives from” was wretched, backward, and religiously superstitious. In 1943, 4-year-old Ali and his older brother Mohammad enrolled at the neighborhood religious elementary school. It was hardly an Arcadian paradise: The teacher, a lowbrow cleric, often beat the students and tasked Ali to rub paper money against the Koran in the belief it would bring the teacher fabulous wealth. Ali was a seyyed, an alleged descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and thus capable of miraculously “blessing” the money of the miserly mullah.
In 1946 Ali enrolled at a secular school, but his agonies did not cease. Clothed in his father’s old rags and slippers, he was ridiculed by more prosperous classmates. Ali’s undiagnosed nearsightedness, too, made him appear dull-witted and prevented him from doing well at school. Passing by a secondhand store one day, Ali accidentally tried a pair of glasses, and suddenly “the world became clear.” His father, however, would not pay for them, or for “shoes with laces.” Ali’s father thought his son so attired would appear the dandy. A year passed before Ali’s loving mother squirreled away enough money from her food budget to buy her son spectacles.