Monday, June 19, 2006

For Iran's Revolutionary Generation, Ideals Live On in Fading Murals

Bill Spindle, The Wall Street Journal:
Mohammed Reza Ghadery holds up a can of peach juice, noting with pride the bold design and bright colors on the label as characteristic of his work. In his gray slacks and pullover shirt, with two computers behind him, the 47-year-old father of four looks every bit the professional graphic designer that he is.

But Mr. Ghadery is also a one-time revolutionary, a veteran of eight grueling years in Iran's war with Iraq during the 1980s and one of the country's most productive muralists. Over the past two decades, Mr. Ghadery has painted hundreds of giant billboards and building faces in Iran with the country's martyrs -- tableaus of bloody defiance exalting sacrifice through death, taunts against the United States and threats against Israel.

The muralist's dual life -- one side domesticated and routine, the other animated by an idealistic revolutionary zeal -- is typical of a crucial generation of Iranians that has recently come into its own. They are the veterans of a conflict barely remembered in the West but crucial to understanding what is happening in Iran today. They help explain what to the West is the intransigence with which Iran's government has approached the nuclear issue, and the peculiar tension in Iranian society between fanaticism and the tug of the wider world. READ MORE

Numbering in the millions, members of this generation are now at the helm of many of Iran's most important institutions -- from the military and security services to the cabinet and on up to the president, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. They're troubled by the materialism, corruption and permissive social mores that have crept into Iranian social life over the years. But they have come of age in an insular political culture, a breeding ground for an ill-informed self-righteousness that worries many Iranians, not to mention Iran's friends and enemies abroad.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has used his new position -- which despite the title still brings him far less clout than the country's top clerics -- as a bully pulpit to try to rekindle the youthful energy and purity of purpose he and other veterans see lacking in Iranian society. That's meant a revival of the revolutionary rhetoric and slogan-mongering the West has found so repugnant.

I met Mr. Ghadery in Iran's capital a few weeks ago, after seeing the billboards he and others have painted in Tehran. They're impossible to miss, depicting the faces of hundreds of men -- I didn't see any women -- who were killed during Iran's revolution or in the decade that followed as the young Islamic Republic struggled to establish itself at home and make good on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's promise to spread its Islamic uprising throughout the Muslim world. Most of the murals are painted on the sides of public buildings overlooking the capital's traffic-clogged freeways and main squares.

The profiles are often set against a background of tulips or roses, as well as gory scenes of battle. Some extol the violent acts of Palestinians and Lebanese killed in suicide attacks against Israel. Still, as hard as it is for a first-time visitor to Tehran to miss these paintings, most Iranians, particularly the young ones I met, say the murals have been a part of the landscape for so long now that they hardly notice them anymore, much less draw inspiration from them. For Mr. Ghadery, though, they still capture an intense shared experience that continues to shape Iran and its place in the world.

Mr. Ghadery began drawing when he was eight years old, growing up in a working-class home on the east side of the city. As a teenager in 1977 and 1978, he sneaked over to his grandmother's house to draw pictures of one of her religious idols -- Ayatollah Khomeini. Neither told his parents, since the ayatollah was loathed by the shah's regime and his followers were deeply suspect at the time. Mr. Ghadery quickly was pulled into the revolutionary wave overtaking Iran at the time. After some friends were killed in a now-famous massacre by the shah's troops, he had another friend secretly print up 5,000 posters of his painting of the ayatollah and he put them up all over the capital. He remembers walking miles across Tehran to watch Ayatollah Khomeini make his famous return to Iranian soil after decades of exile. "I was so happy," he says.

As the revolutionaries took power, Mr. Ghadery talked the new government into letting him paint huge canvas posters of the uprising's fallen heroes. Soon he joined the Revolutionary Guard, the new clerical rulers' elite military force. Within months, Iraqi troops swarmed into Iran. Mr. Ghadery was dispatched into one of the infant Islamic Republic's mythical moments, as its under-trained and ill-prepared troops went to war against the armies of Saddam Hussein. For Iran, the struggle wasn't about gaining territory or mere defense of the country -- it was a test of Ayatollah Khomeini's promise that an Islamist revolution would sweep the Muslim.

Eight long years of war followed. "I considered myself a dead man," says Mr. Ghadery. "That's why I was able to fight with strength and courage." He expected to die a martyr. Instead, he lived to hear Ayatollah Khomeini accept a ceasefire that ended the war, an act the ayatollah likened to having to "drink poison from a cup." Mr. Ghadery was with his unit on his way back to the front as the ceasefire was announced, and he says he cried with despair. Like many in Iran, he blamed Western, especially U.S., support for Mr. Hussein for his country's failure to defeat Iraq. The war killed some 300,000 Iranians and injured at least another half a million.

After the war, Mr. Ghadery went back to painting full time. Cities and the national government paid him to paint huge murals of war martyrs. The theme resonated deeply with Iran's state-backed Shiite Muslim faith. At times working with a small crew of students, Mr. Ghadery could paint a 200-meter-square vertical surface in as little as four days. Today, sprinkled around some interchanges in Iran are as many as a half-dozen of his murals, their colors fading more than a decade since he painted them. "We believed the war was like a door to heaven. Those who died went through it. Those who didn't, failed. I'm deeply sorry at not being a martyr," he says.

There were 35 million Iranians at the time of the revolution, and more than 47 million when the Iran-Iraq war ended. Today there are 70 million. Of those, only about 15 million experienced the revolution and perhaps only half that number had any direct involvement in the war. But one of their own, Mr. Ahmadinejad, holds the presidency.

Mr. Ghadery shares a world view with Mr. Ahmadinejad and many other veterans. He buys the idea that the Holocaust might be overblown. He believes the U.S.'s Central Intelligence Agency, perhaps working with Israeli spies, staged the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington in order to provide a pretext for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Ahmadinejad, he says, is proof the revolutionary spirit lives on in Iran.

I accompanied Mr. Ghadery on his annual visit to the Imam Khomeini mosque on the anniversary of the ayatollah's June 1989 death. The sprawling grounds of the mosque were swarming with hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many of whom had traveled by bus from all parts of the country. While there were many true believers, it was also clear most visitors viewed the outing as a chance for a picnic and a day off work.

Indeed, for all his talk of revolutionary zeal, even Mr. Ghadery gradually made the transition to a markedly un-revolutionary life as the 1990s progressed. Eventually, interest in new martyr paintings and nationalistic propaganda writ large tailed off, he says. In the late 1990s, new technology allowed computers to generate building-sized images in place of the hand-painted ones that Mr. Ghadery specialized in. Meanwhile, Iran was going through huge societal changes, driven by a bulge of teenagers, the result of a post-revolution baby boom.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Ghadery gradually started taking on graphic design and advertising work as the huge, government-funded charities who had commissioned much of his mural work began focusing on other things. "There just wasn't that much demand for martyr painting anymore," he says. "It was difficult to make the switch to advertising. But I have a family to support. There's a time for everything."

Now about 80% of Mr. Ghadery's business is doing graphic designs for everything from juice cans -- "Jubalicious!" trumpets one label – to carpet ads. He's the manager of a semi-professional soccer league, working closely with the league sponsor, Korean conglomerate LG, to coordinate marketing plans and promotional events.

Some two-thirds of Iranians are 35 years old or younger -- too young to have had any direct involvement in either of the Islamic Republic's defining moments. These youths -- including Mr. Ghadery's own four children, ages 24, 19, 16 and 12 -- are tugging Iran away from the revolution and toward a consumerist, globalized world.

One of Mr. Ghadery's former students, 35-year-old Mehdi Moradi, is a case in point. Mr. Ghadery invited Mr. Moradi to meet with me when I asked about his students. Mr. Moradi, who is married and has an 11-year-old daughter, shares some of Mr. Ghadery's experiences. As an eager, idealistic 15-year-old, Mr. Moradi ran away from home to fight in what turned out to be the last year of the war -- defying his father, who was already on the front and ordered him not to come. Mr. Moradi says he now regrets having gone. The war didn't accomplish any of the grand aims that inspired him at the time. "The government couldn't meet our expectations," he says.

Still, Mr. Moradi says his brief involvement with the war at least allows him to relate to the martyr murals he once learned to paint from Mr. Ghadery. But the younger students Mr. Moradi now works with can't really even do that. "They connect with money, not with martyrs," he says. As for Mr. Moradi, he's starting up a business designing and painting backdrops for professional photo studios -- dreamy cityscapes, romantic moonlit avenues, outdoor scenes labeled with English names like "Mystic Glenn."

Despite his sympathies with Mr. Ahmadinejad's attempts to rekindle the revolutionary fervor, Mr. Ghadery seems to accept the era's slow slide into Iran's past. "We can't make the martyrs live in the lives of the people again and again and again," he says. "You can't inject your feelings into your children's veins."

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