Why Iran's Turmoil Makes Me Want to Take to the Rooftops and Shout 'Allah-o-Akbar'!

I clicked "play" on a cell-phone video posted from Iran. It was nighttime there, and the images were grainy and unsteady to say the least. But the sound was perfect, and I experienced an electric memory jolt that transported me to a rooftop in Ahvaz, Iran, in 1979, when I marched with the other neighborhood kids and shouted at the top of my lungs, "Allah-o-Akbar! Allah-o-Akbar! Allah-o-Akbar!"


The significance of Allah-o-Akbar is deep, and it is layered. Who can deny the piercing beauty of the Azaan (the Call to Prayer), which begins with Allah-o-Akbar and is heard from the minarets of mosques across the Muslim world at dawn, dusk and in between? For me, the Azaan is both lullaby and wake-up call. It reminds me where I am and causes me to wonder if my life would not be more serene if I actually heeded the call to prayer.

I worked hard to reach an appreciation for Islam. To get here I had to do what any thoughtful citizen of the world must do when combating ignorant antipathy: separate the religion from the Republic; snatch it back from Al Qaeda; pull it from thetragic rubble of 9/11; de-hyphenate it from "--fascism" and "-extremism;" and unhitch it from "terrorism." But I have a feeling that the Islam I reflect here will discomfit the western liberal who has -- despite best intentions -- unconsciously feasted on a diet of facile racism.

Recently, I've found myself murmuring those words. My mind plays tricks on me as I eye the rooftops on Dolores Street longingly, the words bubbling up in me no longer content to be murmured. I was 12 when I first clambered up to the roof at night and chanted Allah-o-Akbar. God is great. I didn't fully comprehend what I was saying. Those words, planted in me so long ago, were awakened by the sound coming from that dark YouTube video, and I cannot understand why I am not in Iran -- in solidarity with my people -- a heathen filling the sky with my Allah-o-Akbar.

Allah-o-Akbar is, simultaneously, an invocation of the Revolution, and a message of submission to God's will. I shut my eyes, say the words, and see the slow-moving crowd; fists raised high, chanting Allah-o-Akbar. Here -- uttered in unison -- it is a message of defiance delivered from the multitudes to authorities, a notice of appeal to the beyond. After nightfall, however, it is an individual's supplication, as people ascend to their rooftops and raise their voices heavenward. The point-counterpoint nature of this call and response harmony, the diurnal and nocturnal, reflects the two-fold beauty of Allah-o-Akbar. "Allah-o-Akbar." Those were the only words uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini when he was told that the Shah had finally left Iran. The intersection, par excellence, of the spiritual and the political.

I shut my eyes and mouth the words; the year is 2004 and I am sitting with my father in the shade of a plane tree outside an ancient mosque in Natanz, enjoying a simple lunch of fresh-baked bread, feta cheese, and grapes. Soon we will enter the mosque. Once inside, we will separate. As I roam around, I will be waiting for that moment that inevitably arrives: a moment when I am completely still and at one with the silence, the centuries, the majesty, the contrast of this coolness with the waiting heat -- and the countless millions of faithful who have knelt in worshipful submission in this place. Allah-o-Akbar. I have known no greater peace than the one I accidentally found in the ancient mosques of Iran.

Today, Iran is anything but peaceful. During the Revolution, the call to chant Allah-o-Akbar awakened religious sentiment, putting modest religious morals on a collision course with western material excess and monarchic oppression. How bitterly ironic, then, that the ruling clerics -- the so-called guardians of the Revolution -- are ripping page after page out of the Shah's playbook by beating the chanting protestors, and reportedly calling on Iranians to inform on those subversive neighbors who dare to shout "Allah-o-Akbar."

The news from Iran has been devastating. A man kneels beside the dying girl and implores: Neda, bemoon. Stay, Neda. Live. The pendulum swings from this soul-crushing scene, to symbol, and back again. Neda means "call." Thus another layer of meaning is added to "Allah-o-Akbar" as a nation calls for more freedom, and mourns its Neda.

With our anxiety stoked by the heady immediacy of those grainy videos, many of us living here participate vicariously through Facebook, Twitter, and the blogs and listserves a-buzz with confirmed and unconfirmed news and images. For me, this only amplifies my sense of distance from Iran and acute discomfort over where I am not. But I feel the nervous, directionless, restless urgency that is present here, where we are all driving a little faster, talking a little faster, sleeping less and arguing a lot more.

As I write, a heavy silence has settled over the streets and rooftops of Iran, and foreboding hangs in the air. Iranians in the United States are planning a mega-rally on July 25, protesting the inauguration of President Ahmadinejad. In the current political climate it is difficult to know if this supportive gesture would be heard as our "response" to their "call" or looked upon as a suspiciously foreign-looking spoke in the tire of a home-grown cause.

It is near-impossible to be here and -- risking nothing -- to comment on events there, without feeling somehow fraudulent. Yet the need keeps growing in me for this constant murmur to mature into a full-throated shout: Allah-o-Akbar! ... Allah-o-Akbar! ... Allah-o-Akbar!

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