By Amir Taheri for Ashara Al Awsat
"A picture is worth a thousand words!" This is the proverb invented by an American photographer in the 1920s but ascribed to the Chinese for good effect. While not always true, like all other proverbs, it is surprisingly accurate on some occasions. No picture could replace a thousand words by Neffari or Roumi. But no number of words could replace the 1990 photo of an Afghan teenage girl with terror in her green eyes, reflecting two decades of war and famine.
Sometimes, however, words are needed to reveal the hidden meanings of a photo. For, on occasions, pictures disguise more than they reveal. This is why some editors attach as much importance to the art of writing captions as to the magic of devising headlines.
Last Saturday, 19 July 2008, Asharq Al Awsat published on its front page a news picture that offers a deep, perhaps unintended, insight into the current political mood of the Khomeinist rank-and-file in Iran.
The picture had been taken a day earlier during the Friday prayer gathering at the campus of the Tehran University, an important weekly political event in the Iranian capital. Attended by up to 20,000 people, the gathering usually lasts around three hours of which about 20 minutes are devoted to prayer. The rest is taken up by sermons and political speeches during which senior clerics and official spokesmen introduce the government's latest slogans and political guidelines. The occasion also provides the leadership for a weekly check on the mood of its most ardent followers. Photographers and television crews are always on the look out for the one moment that might translate that mood into images.
One such moment was captured last Friday in the photo splashed across five columns by Asharq Al Awsat its front page.
The photo depicts a corner of the congregation. One can distinctly see the faces of 22 men and one boy aged perhaps seven or eight. It is towards the end of the main sermon by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami when congregants are invited to wave their clenched fists and shout: "Death to America!", the signature slogan of Khomeinism.
But what do we see?
Of the 22 men, six have kept their mouths tightly shut, obviously wishing to show they are not shouting the required slogan. Another six keep their mouths moving, but are not waving clenched fists.
One man has raised both hands in a sign associated with surrender, and another is waving at the camera. Even those who seem to be shouting and waving clenched fists are doing so in a manner clearly designed to show that they are doing so reluctantly. With the exception of two individuals who seem camera-conscious and want to show their zeal, all others in the picture appear bored, tired and unhappy.
One young man is holding his chin in one hand, deep in his reverie as if he were all alone on a desert island. A middle-aged man is sneakily looking side ways, presumably towards the women's quarter, and ignoring what is going on around him. An older man stares into the camera and waves his hand as if to say "hello!" One man appears to be fast asleep in the middle of 20,000 supposed "volunteers for martyrdom".
Of the 22 men, only eight appear to be young, that is to say aged below 40, a sure sign that Khomeinism is no longer attracting the youth. Of the eight young men in this picture, four are clean-shaven, something unthinkable in the Islamic Republic even five years ago.
Over the past 30 years, Iranians have developed a new branch of semiology, the science of signs, known as "rish shenasi" (beard-spotting). This new science enables one to guess the social background and political tendencies of an individual from the form of his facial hair.
With the help of an amateur "rish shenas" (beard-spotter), we deconstructed the Asharq Al Awsat photo with some interesting results.
Of the 22 men in the photo, not one is sporting the mandatory radical style of beard associated with Khomeinist militants such as the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It is clear that nobody wishes to be mistaken for a Hezballahi, a species hated by most Iranians. Ten of the men wear traditional beards that have always been popular in Iran, especially in the countryside. Three have only moustaches, often associated with Iran with parties of the left such as the Communist Tudeh (Masses) or the Islamic-Marxists such as the Mujahedin Khalq. Two clean-shaven young men may well be mistaken for nostalgics of the Shah's regime. One could imagine them slipping into their designer suits and instantly feel at home at any middle class party anywhere in the world.
All the men in the picture wear shirts, four of them with short sleeves, something unthinkable a few years ago, and two more with sleeves rolled up. Needless to say, there is not a single necktie in sight, and only one of the shirts, a blue Yves Saint-Laurent one, looks expensive. Only one man is fondling a rosary, an object hat would have been almost universal in such a congregation only a few years ago.
The picture shows a congregation that is exclusively male, four-fifths middle aged or old, and, although appearances may be misleading, mostly from middle and lower middle class backgrounds. It does not represent a population that is 55 per cent female, 60 per cent young and 80 per cent urban working class and/or rural.
The Asharq Al Awsat's picture has a jewel right in the middle. This is the image of the young boy. We see him standing up and stretching one arm upwards with more enthusiasm than the old folk surrounding him. But what is he really doing? A closer look shows that he is trying to hang on to an imaginary object that would help him climb up. Why? Well, he is wearing an orange T-shirt showing the Spiderman, the American movie hero who climbs the highest walls.
The "Great Satan" is present in the inner sanctum of the Khomeinist religion, and, to make matters worse, by a young boy representing the future generation of Iranians.
Amir Taheri was born in Iran and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. Between 1980 and 1984 he was Middle East editor for the London Sunday Times. Taheri has been a contributor to the International Herald Tribune since 1980. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Taheri has published nine books some of which have been translated into 20 languages. In 1988, Publishers' Weekly in New York chose his study of Islamist terrorism, "Holy Terror", as one of The Best Books of The Year. He has been a columnist of Asharq Al Awsat since 1987.