Friday, May 19, 2006

The Prisoner

Decades after the British television series “The Prisoner” has aired its last episode, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian political philosopher, now Iranian political prisoner, is in the same surreal predicament as the BBC protagonist. As Jahanbegloo sits in Tehran’s Tehin prison, he is probably asking himself, who are they? why are they keeping me here? And what do they want from me? The difference is that in the BBC series the hero, "Number Six," really was a secret agent, whereas Jahanbegloo is simply accused of spying for Western powers.

Our man Jahanbegloo is not in Her Majesty’s Secret Service or in the CIA or a member of the Mission Impossible Team. He is a member of a private cultural research department in Tehran. For the suspicious Iranian reader, this job has no similarities to the embassy cultural attaché post which we usually suspect of being a cover for spies. The Cultural Research Bureau, where Jahanbegloo works, figures out how to encourage volunteerism in urban areas, or how to increase the number of cinemas in Iran. The agency contracts to provide statistics and demography, does youth studies, explores drug related social issues, and such. It is also a think tank for foreign relations. For instance this group translated into Persian Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilization and the New World Order (where it is argued that the future global conflicts will occur along the fault lines separating civilizations such as Islam and the West).

Of course you can’t do all this without possessing formidable scholarship, intelligence and insight. Number Six was never a post-doc at Harvard like Jahanbegloo, but it was still a thrill to watch his intelligence and insight pitted against the nightmarish mind-control technology of his mysterious captors. He always outmaneuvered his nemesis, "Number Two," in witty dialogue and brisk action. Yet episode after episode he would wake up in the same prison village, and try to figure out all over again, who or perhaps what was "Number One," which ideology governed the villagers, and where on the map was this place anyway? Puzzles that intellectuals have been trying to figure out about post-revolutionary Iran for more than two decades.

Jahanbegloo was perhaps too intellectual as a youth to have watched spy movies on TV. His metaphor for his present predicament comes from his reflections on a Bertolucci film:

This retreat of intellectuals in the Middle East reminds me of Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist. I could not get this picture out of my mind for a long time. I did not immediately understand it. [I] was constantly reflecting on what in fact was happening. What was it that hypnotically bound me to that film? What was the tragedy? What was the hero’s drama? For me The Conformist is an example of the theme of “the intellectual and power”. The intellectual opts to compromise with power because of the force of circumstances and becomes a conformist figure. This state of affairs is wrapped in tragedy for the intellectual; he/she is sacrificed, whereas the conquering side is power. On one hand, the intellectual cannot avoid power in one form or another, but on the other hand, he/she cannot subjugate himself/herself to it, as those who hold power would desire. It seems to me that the problem here is that of the conflict between the spirit and power.

To riddle the mystery of his captivity Jahanbegloo has gone where Number Six never thought to look. The conflict between spirit and power.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jahanbegloo is a victim of the same mindset which finds it necessary to invade the privacy of ordinary Americans by surveilling their telephone communications and internet activity. In an evolutionary scheme of the state, this stage is like act I of the last script, in which the state firms up its control by finding out everything about everybody. Act two will see more widespread and targeted violence by the state as people are executed or imprisoned even for being suspected of dissent against the wishes of the state. This is where Iran is ahead of the United States. The silver lining in this dire situation is that the state is nearly at the end of its useful life in act II.