Foreign Affairs

The Un-Islamic Revolution: A Conversation With Professor Michael Craig Hillmann

This interview with Michael Craig Hillmann, a professor of Persian Studies at UT Austin, is an extension of my article “The Islamist Revolution: A Farce in Farsi.” For a contextualization of the issues raised in this conversation, I encourage my audience to read that piece before proceeding.

I came to know Professor Hillmann when he taught my freshman seminar class during my first semester at UT. While the topic of the class was American autobiography, Hillmann would occasionally relate characteristics of our readings to aspects of Persian literary tradition. As we approached the end of the semester, he gifted me a copy of From Durham to Tehran, his own work of autobiography. It was in the pages of that book that I developed a budding fascination with Iran a country with a rich and variegated history of which I only possessed a surface-level understanding. While writingThe Islamist Revolution: A Farce in Farsi, I had the idea of reaching out to Professor Hillmann and receiving first-hand insight from a scholar of Persian culture. He was happy to oblige. I extend my thanks to Professor Hillmann for taking the time to provide me with answers to some of my many questions regarding his experiences in Iran.

Benjamin Brown: Before we dive into the core of our discussion, I think it would be best to establish your personal history with Iran. What sparked your interest in this country?

Michael Craig Hillmann: While busy writing my Master’s thesis, I had received a notice from my Baltimore draft board informing me that I would not be receiving another deferment for graduate study or college teaching during the 1965-1966 school year. Opposed to the war in Vietnam and disinclined to emigrate to Canada, I decided to join the deferment-granting American Peace Corps. During the application process, when asked to name three countries where I might like to teach English at the college level, I expressed a preference for a country with an Indo-European language and a tradition of literary epic unconnected to historical Greece or Rome. India, Afghanistan, and Iran were the possibilities, and I chose Iran. In other words, although Persia and Persians had figured in courses I took on ancient history in high school and college, I don’t recall having any clear picture of Iran and things Iran in youth, except for reading about Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s visit to the States in 1952 and about reported American involvement in his overthrow a year later.

Benjamin Brown: Of course, when you first arrived in Iran, it was during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the infamous shah. Can you describe the atmosphere of Shahist Iran? Do you have any notable or interesting experiences you’d be willing to share?

Michael Craig Hillmann: The people in Mashhad [Iran] were agreeable, hospitable, suspicious of their despotic monarchy and America’s imperialistic republican government, and both tradition-bound and modern at the same time. It was a new experience not to talk politics, which no one apparently did outside, everyone wary, if not fearful, about the assumed ubiquitous presence of the Pahlavi secret police whose acronym was SAVAK. As for those who did engage in anti-Pahlavi talk: four such individuals in my freshmen English conversation class in the fall of 1966 suddenly stopped coming to class in the middle of the semester, their photographs appearing months later on the front page of a national newspaper with an accompanying article announcing their execution. One of their professors — my sociologist friend Ali Shari’ati — was removed from his Mashhad University teaching position a year later and spent time under house arrest until he was able to escape to England, where he died in June 1977. I met few Iranians whose families or whose acquaintances’ families did not include persons imprisoned, tortured, and/or executed by Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi’s government.

Benjamin Brown: As you began teaching Persian at UT in 1974, you were not a professor for long before the political situation in Iran collapsed. How did the Iranian Revolution affect your scholarship?

Michael Craig Hillmann: In 1980, when I realized that I could no longer spend much time in Iran or conduct research there, I decided that my academic area of interest would henceforth be contemporary Persian literature up to 1979, that I would not write or teach about literature thereafter, and that I would not write about Iran thereafter because I thought that, absent living and work experience in the Islamic Republic of Iran, my writing would lack necessary first-hand information and perspectives.

Benjamin Brown: I’m assuming you knew people affected by the Revolution? How did they react?

Michael Craig Hillmann: Once the anti-democratic and arguably un-Islamic transactional policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran became apparent in late 1979 and early 1980, hundreds of thousands of Iranians fled Iran, including Iranians who fled Iran because of Mohammad Reza Shah’s oppressive policies and who naively returned home after the king fled the country. Friend and leading poet Nāder Nāderpur fled Iran by air with a single suitcase. Friend and leading dramatist and prominent writer of fiction Gholāmhosayn Sā’edi, underground for some time, escaped Iran by foot to Turkey.

Benjamin Brown: On the subject of exiles: how do some Iranian-Americans view contemporary Iran?

Michael Craig Hillmann: Some Iranians see their lives in America as in exile rather than as immigrants. Sociologist Hamid Dabashi characterizes his distinctive authorial vantage point in The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature: “I have written this book…in an enduring distance from a homeland I can claim only in my scholarship, in a perpetual sense of loss that I can remedy only when I read and write [about] Iran.” Then, there are those Iranians and Iranian Americans in the States who suppose that Pahlavi family leadership can lead to Iran’s salvation, namely leadership from the head of the Iranian House of Pahlavi, Reza Pahlavi (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s son). Such Iranian-Americans often voice support for democratic principles, while arguing that Iran needs a strong leader. They also energetically mock the Muslim prophet Muhammad and ridicule the Koran. In short, they hold Islam responsible for the reprehensible behavior of the Islamic Republic in its 40-year history. They further hope that Islam might disappear from Iran when the Islamic Republic there collapses. In fact, they would apparently legislate the faith of the vast majority of Iranians out of Iranian existence. More generally, they see people of faith, whatever faith, as ignorant, narrow-minded, and incapable of intellectual growth and impartial judgment.

Unfortunately, owing to the difficulty in finding a time at which we were both available to meet on campus, this interview with Professor Hillmann was conducted under limited circumstances. This rendered me unable to ask my final question. As I am still interested in presenting an answer to it, I offer in its place a relevant excerpt from Hillmann’s autobiographical work, From Durham to Tehran. I should note that Hillmann’s chapters on Tehran contain a plethora of commentary contrasting pre-and-post revolutionary Iran that I cannot hope to entirely convey here. What I have provided are some of the more immediate observations Hillmann made upon arriving in the country’s capital.

Benjamin Brown: What changes did you observe in postrevolutionary Iran?

Michael Craig Hillmann (in From Durham to Tehran): In the old days, places had discomfiting royal family names: Pahlavi Square, Pahlavi Avenue, Pahlavi Foundation, Farah this, Crown Prince that, Reza everything else. To send a piece of mail anywhere, you had to lick the backside of a stamp with the face of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the front. . . . [In postrevolutionary Tehran], new, abstract, and ironically oppressive names were everywhere: Independence, Freedom, Revolution. The Israeli Embassy turned into the offices for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. . . . On a school’s courtyard, a bold and multicolored hand-painted sign now read: “Islam spreads with blood.” … The Peace Corps headquarters [was converted into] a company building. … The former offices of our Academy of Language had none of the freshness or promise of 1973 on them anymore. … [I noticed] a permanent political awareness on the part of many previously apolitical Iranians, [and less] unthinking adoption of Western ways.

As articulated in “The Islamist Revolution: A Farce in Farsi,” we mustn’t reduce Iran to the anti-Americanism apparently prevailing in contemporary Iranian dialogue. Later in his book, Hillmann elucidates that postrevolutionary Tehran was far from the soulless dystopia portrayed by his impressions. The Iranian people were not unyielding servants to the Islamist political order; many of them were self-aware and hence unconvinced by the regime’s one-dimensional, caricatured propaganda featuring the United States. Perhaps they were more conscious of the ways in which the United States had objectively wronged Iran, but they did not necessarily imbibe the blustering propaganda of the Islamists.  

At one point in From Durham to Tehran, after being asked where he was from, Hillmann simply responds with “That country. You know the one.” The questioner reacts with amusement, signalling his flippant attitude that contrasts with the regime’s raucous anti-Westernism. In another scene, a shopkeeper remarks that he is glad to finally see an American in his store. Hillmann proceeds to politely chat with the clerk and snack on cake underneath a sign reading “Down with the USA.” Despite the ubiquity of anti-American slogans and symbols around Tehran, the people themselves largely welcomed his presence. This indicates a degree of dissonance between the Islamist regime and the Iranian people.

Indeed, one does not need to extensively sleuth to conclude that the regime is not held in high esteem by the general populace. In 2009, the Iranian Green Movement — a colossal series of protests precipitated by perceived election fraud — imperiled the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Today, disillusioned Iranians continue to besiege the foundations of the regime. Since the Revolution, the Islamists have placed themselves in opposition to the interests of the Persian people; this is true not only in a political sense, but in a cultural context as well. For instance, hardline fundamentalists have overseen initiatives to suppress Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration that is a staple of traditional Iranian culture. If we hope to appreciate Iran, we must look beyond the fundamentalist veil obscuring its face. The images of Iran propagated by its regime are gross bastardizations of the vibrant, multifaceted culture that has graced Central Asia for millennia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s