by Kim Ghattas
Black Wave is an unprecedented examination of how the modern Middle East unraveled and why it started with the pivotal year of 1979. Check out an excerpt here.
Chapter 1: CASSETTE REVOLUTION
Peace died in the homeland of peace
When the City of Jerusalem fell
Love retreated and in the hearts of the world, war settled
The child in the grotto and his mother Mary are crying, and I am praying.
—Fairuz, lyrics from “Jerusalem Flower of all the Cities” (1971)
There is an irony lodged deep in the heart of the revolution that turned Iran from a Persian kingdom into an Islamic theocracy, a revolution cheered and organized by secular leftists and Islamist modernists. The irony is that the Iran of the fundamentalist ayatollahs owes its ultimate birth pang to cities of sin and freedom: Beirut, capital of Arabic modernity, once known as the Paris of the Middle East; and Paris, birthplace of the Age of Enlightenment. If not for the permissive freedoms in both, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—a patient man with a cunning mind—might have died forgotten in a two-story mudbrick house down a narrow cul-de-sac in the holy city of Najaf, in Iraq. The Iranian cleric had agitated against the shah of Iran for over a decade and spent time in prison in Tehran. He was sent into exile and arrived in Najaf in 1965, where he languished in anonymity for thirteen years, popular among his circle of disciples but shunned by most of the Iraqi Shia clergy. In Najaf, clerics stayed out of politics and disapproved of the firebrand ayatollah who thought he had a special relationship with God. Outside the cities that busied themselves with theology, there were those who saw in Khomeini a useful political tool, someone who could rouse crowds in the battle against oppression. Different people with different dreams, from Tehran to Jerusalem, from Paris to Beirut, looked to Khomeini and saw a man who could serve their agenda, not realizing they were serving his.
* * * * *
On the coast of Lebanon, on the terrace of a house overlooking the glistening sea, a trio of men animated by a yearning for justice talked late into the night, remaking the world and their countries. They were an unlikely assortment: Musa Sadr, the magnetic, turbaned Iranian cleric with green eyes, known as Imam Sadr; Hussein al-Husseini, the witty, mustachioed Lebanese politician, in a suit; and Mostafa Chamran, the Iranian physicist turned leftist revolutionary in fatigues. Only one of them would survive the crush of what their dreams unleashed.
The year was 1974. The antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela was in jail in South Africa. The Irish Republican Army was fighting the British, bombing pubs and telephone exchanges in England. In Vietnam, American firepower had come to naught. The fighting continued between the pro-American South and the Communist North, but all US troops had gone home. After nineteen years of war, the toll was devastating: two million Vietnamese civilians, a million and a half Vietnamese troops, and sixty thousand American troops were dead. President Richard Nixon had just resigned to avoid impeachment in a separate episode of infamy: the Watergate scandal. Men wore their hair long, neckties were wide, and Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band in the world. In April 1975, Saigon would fall to the Communists. That same month, war would erupt in Lebanon and the fire of the Cold War would move from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
But for now, in the summer of 1974, as the three men gathered in Husseini’s home in the tiny coastal town of Khalde, ten minutes south of Beirut, they looked back on a year of achievements. Their dreams crossed borders, their destinations were different, but their journey against oppression was the same. War was still only a murmur around them.
That summer, Joan Baez’s powerfully gentle voice had echoed from the east, farther inland, in the dry coolness of the fertile Beqaa Valley. The American folk singer and civil rights activist, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and onetime lover of Bob Dylan, strummed her guitar for the well-heeled crowd of music aficionados and socialites who had traveled from Beirut and around the Arab world to attend the International Baalbek Festival. She sang about freedom and answers blowing in the wind, at the site of ancient Heliopolis, the largest, best-preserved Roman city in Baalbek, a small rural town of barely ten thousand inhabitants. “How many years must some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?” asked Baez. Ella Fitzgerald, Rudolf Nureyev, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as Lebanon’s own ethereal iconic singer Fairuz and Egypt’s leading diva Umm Kulthum, had all performed in Baalbek under the watch of the towering columns of the temples of Bacchus and Jupiter. During the day, tourists walked around the famed ruins; in the evening, hundreds descended on the small town to attend the performances while the locals sold souvenirs and snacks at the entrance to the site.
As a town, Baalbek was an underdeveloped backwater. Some of its dwellings were less than salubrious—open sewage ran in some of the streets. There was no secondary school, but there were open fields of cannabis all around the city, which meant both money and poverty—and a lot of guns. This was a typical tale of neglect of rural areas, but here in Baalbek (as in other parts of Lebanon) there was more to the divide: religion. In this country of mind-boggling diversity for its small size, there were three groups: Christians, the minority to whom the departing colonial rulers had given the power to dominate; Sunni Muslims, the traditional bourgeois merchant class, city dwellers who also swelled the ranks of the bureaucracy; and Shia Muslims, forgotten and downtrodden, who tilled the soil for potatoes or cannabis in the Beqaa Valley or picked tobacco in the south. In the cities, Shias were the shoeshine boys, the newspaper sellers, the restaurant busboys. There were Shia landowners, but they, too, lorded it over the others. There were also Shia notables and politicians like Husseini, who had pushed through the barriers to become mayor of a small town at the age of nineteen. Baalbek had a mix of all three communities, but it was predominantly Shia.
The history of Lebanon’s Shia community is said to stretch back to the early days of Islam, the oldest community outside Medina, where, after the prophet Muhammad died, some had chosen Ali, cousin of the prophet and husband of his daughter Fatima, as the rightful heir. They were known hence as the partisans of Ali, shi’at Ali. Others believed that the prophet had named Abu Bakr, a close companion, as his successor and first caliph of the Muslim nation. The struggle opposed two visions for the succession: one religious, through a line of the prophet’s descendants known as imams (leaders of prayer); and the other, more earthly, centered on power, caliphs (literally, “successors”), chosen by consensus among wise men. The battle over who was to govern Muslims and levy taxes on the community would descend into civil war during the first decades of Islam and then settle into a theological schism. There would be Shia empires but, overall, the history of Shiism is the history of a minority in opposition, of sacrifice and martyrdom. In Lebanon, over centuries, the Shias amassed wealth and power and built the region of Jabal Amel in the south of the country into a center of Shia erudition. When Shah Ismail I founded the Safavid dynasty in Persia in the fifteenth century, he forced his Sunni subjects to convert to Shiism almost overnight. He brought over clerics and scholars from the holy Shia cities of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq as well as from Jabal Amel to teach and spread the new gospel. Under Ottoman rule, the Shias of Lebanon continued to maintain a defiant autonomy, but eventually they had to submit to their role as a minority in the Sunni empire. When modern Lebanon came into existence, the boundaries between Shiism and Sunnism were often fluid, from a religious and even an identity perspective. The divide was sharpest as a rural versus urban gap. Overall, Shias lived in harmony with their Sunni and Christian neighbors and accepted their fate.
Imam Sadr had come to wake them. He had moved to Lebanon from Iran in 1959 to shine a light on Shia dispossession and help establish schools and dispensaries, just like a missionary. Sadr’s ancestors had come from Lebanon, like all the al-Sadrs in Iraq, Iran, and beyond. He had now made the reverse migration journey. He wore the black turban, which signaled that as a cleric he was also a descendant of the prophet, a sayyed; the title Imam was an additional honorific bestowed on him by devoted followers. In the cold month of March 1974, he traveled to Baalbek to awaken Shia political consciousness. They came from everywhere in Lebanon to listen to the charismatic orator. They traveled from the orange orchards and tobacco fields of the dominantly Shia southern coast, from the small Shia villages in the Christian heartland in the north, and from the cinder-block slums of Beirut where they had settled after escaping Israeli shelling of their southern villages. They came by bus and by car, traveling for hours, some for more than a day, across a small country without a public transportation network. By the time Imam Sadr had reached the outskirts of Baalbek, the roads were jammed, forcing him to stop in towns along the way. Seventy-five thousand men, seemingly all with AK-47s and old World War II guns, had converged on Baalbek to hear him speak. He barely managed to reach the podium as the crowds lunged to touch his gown; he even briefly lost his black turban. The clatter of celebratory gunfire was deafening.
“I have words harsher than bullets, so spare your bullets,” he told his audience. Imam Sadr blasted the government in Beirut for its neglect of Lebanon’s Shias and rural areas in general, for the unpaved roads, the lack of schools and basic rights like water and electricity. In a country with eighteen different sects, the Shia community was one of the three largest, and yet they rarely rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy; they were passed over for promotion, shoved into lesser jobs. The speaker of the house, always a Shia according to Lebanon’s unwritten constitution, had little political power—that rested mostly in the hands of the country’s Christian president. Lebanon, modern and cosmopolitan, was also a country of fiefdoms and clientelism, and the Shias had never had anyone speak up for them or lead their battles. Now they had Imam Sadr.
“What does the government expect, what does it expect other than rage and revolution?” he warned, speaking to the crowd. He rattled off a list of all the ways in which the Shias were being wronged. He had made some headway during his time in Lebanon, helping to found the Higher Shia Council to lobby for the needs of the community. But progress had been too slow. It was time to raise the tone. “Arms,” he told his followers, “are the adornment of men.” Sadr was not calling for armed struggle but he understood the feeling of empowerment that came from merely carrying a gun. He wasn’t a military leader, but then neither was he a traditional quietist cleric focused on theology and the matters of his parish. He was an activist, and though his focus was the Shia plight Sadr spoke up against dispossession and injustice across all communities. The Baalbek rally marked the launch of the Movement of the Disinherited, which Sadr had recently founded with his friend Husseini, a multi-confessional movement that was the result of more than a decade of work.
A towering six foot six, Sadr was unlike any leader that Lebanon had ever seen, a country where people stayed within the confines of their sectarian identity. Although he was Iranian-born, in the holy city of Qom, his ancestors had come from Jabal Amel. He was a modernist, a rare cleric who had studied not only in religious seminaries but also on the benches of a secular institution, obtaining a degree in political science from Tehran University. He had family ties extending across borders and ethnicities, blurring the lines between Arab, Persian, and Turk, with cousins everywhere. The holy city of Najaf in Iraq was the hub where all ties converged. Sadr crossed boundaries of the mind too, opening worlds onto one another. In Tyre, he bought ice cream from a Christian whose business was suffering because his Shia neighbors believed anything made by non-Muslims was unclean. Christian women swooned over him, and though clerics were not supposed to shake hands with women, he occasionally made an exception out of politeness. He taught at Sunni schools, gave classes in Islamic philosophy at the St. Joseph University in Beirut, and prayed in churches all over the country. The imagery was striking as he stood behind the altar, beneath Jesus on a crucifix, facing a full church with his black turban denoting lineage traced back to the prophet Muhammad. He once drew huge crowds to a small church in a tiny Christian village on the border with Israel. He arrived half an hour late, and when he finally appeared behind the pulpit the anxious crowd of Christian worshippers called out Allahu Akbar, God is great, a cry of relief, as though Christ himself had arrived.
Sadr understood his different audiences. He spoke with melancholy to the priests and nuns and the flock gathered in a church, paying homage to Christ as an apostle of the oppressed; he thundered in Baalbek to the men with guns, rousing them from their sorrow with imagery of Imam Hussein, son of Ali and Fatima, grandson of the prophet, killed in battle in Karbala in the year 680. The party of Ali had largely accepted that the prophet’s successors would be caliphs chosen by wise counsel. Then one caliph passed the reins to his son, Yazid. There was wide discontent with this act of nepotism, and Hussein rebelled against the injustice, facing off with his followers against the army of Yazid. His death helped crystallize what was still a nascent Shia identity. He was killed on the tenth, ashura, day of the Muslim month of Muharram and became a tragic, exalted figure, buried near the site of the battle. For centuries to come, Shias would incant “Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala.”
But as with every historical event, there were different interpretations. Some historians dismissed Imam Hussein’s endeavor as a tale of failure; some saw a battle between two fallible men each seeking power; others described Hussein as a rebel standing up for justice against tyranny. How had he gone into battle: seeking martyrdom and riding willingly to a sure death? Or clear-eyed, weighing his options, and still hoping for the best outcome? Ayatollah Khomeini would later deploy the narrative of the willing martyr. In Baalbek, Sadr gave his followers a rendition of Imam Hussein stripped of sorrow, a story not of victimhood but rebellion against injustice. And so Sadr urged his followers not to seek death, but to rebel with courage like Imam Hussein.
There was much to rebel against, especially in the south of the country. The dominantly Shia south of Lebanon, dotted with Sunni and Christian villages, was caught in the crossfire of a regional conflict. Lebanon was home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, stateless since the end of the British mandate over Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 on parts of the territory. Among the refugees, since the 1960s, were Palestinian guerrilla fighters running amok with their guns, launching attacks against Israel just across the border, in the hope of liberating land they had lost to the new state. Israel’s military superiority was felt on a regular basis as its planes raided Palestinian camps in south Lebanon and shelled villages, and Israeli tanks crossed into Lebanon. The Lebanese army was no match for Israel’s Defense Forces, and the weak Lebanese state had no authority over the Palestinian guerrillas. Villagers, Muslim and Christian alike, resented the Palestinian fighters for attracting Israel’s wrath onto them and ruining their world and livelihood.
Sadr chided the state for leaving its citizens defenseless but said nothing about the Palestinians. Along with his friends Husseini and Chamran, he wrestled with an impossible paradox: how to protect the community from Israeli retaliation, while staying loyal to the Palestinian cause, that of lost Arab land, and to Jerusalem, a holy city now out of reach for most Arabs after Israel had gained control over the whole city during the Six-Day War in 1967.
There was an added complexity: the Palestinian camps in Lebanon were a training hub for every revolutionary of the era, from the Japanese Red Army to the German Baader-Meinhof group but also the Iranians who wanted to get rid of the shah. One of those was Sadr’s friend Chamran. Training in Lebanon was a rite of passage for revolutionaries of the period, and even before the civil war weapons were readily available. You could buy them from fat men with worry beads sitting in tea shops. If they had run out, you could go to their neighbor or competitor, the barber or the grocer around the corner. Beirut was a playground for playboys, spies, and gun dealers.
Inspired by the success of the Cuban, Algerian, and Vietnamese revolutions and insurgencies, Iranian opposition groups of all political stripes, from Marxists to nationalists, religious fundamentalists to Islamist modernists, were exploring the option of an armed insurgency against the king of Iran. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been on the throne since 1941, when his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had abdicated. The Persian empire was 2,500 years old, but the Pahlavi dynasty was young. In 1925, with help from the British, Reza Shah, a brigadier general in the Persian Cossack army, had put an end to two centuries of Qajar dynasty. Both father and son had faced challenges as they tried to force the rapid modernization of the country. In 1963, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had launched a wide program of reforms he described as a White Revolution. Khomeini and other clerics denounced what they saw as the Westernization of Iran by a despotic ruler. They were particularly incensed about the greater rights granted to women, including the right to run for elected office and serve as judges. Spurred by the clergy, leftists, antiroyalists, and student activists also took to the streets, each for their own reasons. The shah crushed the protests, killing dozens. Opposition leaders who were not arrested went underground or scattered abroad. Khomeini went to Turkey, then Iraq, but Lebanon provided convenient proximity for Iranian dissidents, along with religious and social affinities and even entertainment: the more secular revolutionaries could train during the day and go to the beach in the afternoon or spend their evenings in the bars of Beirut.
Chamran was a key member of Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran, the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), an opposition party that had participated in the uprising of 1963 against the shah. The group’s founders, Mehdi Bazergan and a liberal cleric, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, were religious modernists: devout, but also advocates of the separation of church and state. They too rejected the White Revolution and believed that modernizing Iran did not have to empty it of its soul. After 1963, the LMI leadership had to move underground and abroad. From Tehran to Cairo, then to Berkeley in the United States, Chamran eventually moved to Lebanon in 1971. While he helped Husseini and Sadr improve the life of Lebanon’s Shias, he was also busy organizing LMI training in various Palestinian camps. Hundreds of young Iranians—Marxists and clerics alike—came through these camps. They would soon become the vanguard of the Iranian Revolution.
Chamran had settled in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, an ancient Phoenician town and the birthplace of Dido or Elissar, Queen of Carthage. Pious but secular in his outlook on life, he had no religious iconography in his living space, no religious recitations about Imam Hussein or sermons among any of the cassette tapes in his car. Driving around Lebanon, the revolutionary with a PhD loved listening to the songs of Umm Kulthum, with her melancholic lyrics that seemed to never end, and her repetitive, entrancing incantations of love. Sadr had a weakness for Iran’s equivalent, Marzieh, the daughter of a cleric with a rich repertoire of over one thousand songs about love, passionate but mostly unrequited. Her mezzo-soprano could bring him to tears as he pined for his country.
On the balcony of the Husseini home, it was usually the music of Lebanon’s beloved Fairuz that played in the background while the three friends engaged in late-night discussions about the role of religion in life and its limitations. Both Iranian men spoke perfect Arabic, Chamran with a heavier Persian accent. Husseini experienced his Shia identity more as a culture than religious dogma, shaped by communal traditions, philosophy and poetry from the sages of Jabal Amel, and Shia treatises about social equality. Imam Sadr indulged in the occasional water pipe, an unusual practice for a cleric. He wore his turban almost casually, with an occasional tilt or strand of hair showing. He felt that the rigid minutiae of strictures were an obstacle to a spiritual embrace of religion.
There was Shiism and the community in Lebanon … there was Iran and the shah … and then there was Jerusalem. Those were the issues that brought the three men together and where their interests overlapped. Jerusalem loomed large in the Husseini home, as a constant reminder of a gaping hole at the heart of the Arab world. A two-meter-long black-and-white poster of Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, hung on the wall. The wounds of the Arab-Israeli conflict indisputably drove some of the action at the heart of the events that led to 1979 and the years that followed.
Copyright © 2020 by Kim Ghattas
Kim Ghattas is an Emmy-award winning journalist and writer who covered the Middle East for twenty years for the BBC and the Financial Times. She has also reported on the U.S State Department and American politics, and is the author of The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power. She has been published in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy and is currently a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Born and raised in Lebanon, she now lives between Beirut and Washington D.C.