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Review | How an American teacher became a symbol of Iran’s democratic dreams

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The story of Iran’s first democratic revolution and a young American who fought in it would have been poignant even if it had not come out as Iranians are in the throes of yet another attempt to overthrow a dictatorship. But the fact that Reza Aslan’s latest book arrives as men, women and children are being shot in the streets and tortured and killed in custody brings a raw immediacy to the century-old narrative. It is a reminder of the generations of Iranians who have risked their lives and united across socioeconomic, religious and ethnic lines to try to better their country — only, so far, to be crushed.

An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville” tells the story of a young Presbyterian missionary from South Dakota sent to teach and preach the Gospel at the mission school in Tabriz, then Iran’s second-biggest city. Baskerville, a graduate of Princeton University who counted the future president Woodrow Wilson as a mentor, arrived in 1907, joining an American community that had been in place for several generations. Although missionaries were expected to steer clear of domestic politics, Baskerville’s interactions with his Iranian students and friends led him to breach protocol in a manner that outraged his countrymen and endeared him to the locals. It ended with Baskerville being shot through the heart in a skirmish at age 24 and buried as a hero whom some have compared to the Marquis de Lafayette.

It is a rip-roaring tale of a fascinating time in history. In the first two decades of the 20th century, democratic movements were burgeoning from Russia to Turkey to China to Mexico, many inspired by the French Revolution. Old empires were tottering, and world powers were vying for position. Iran, then known as Persia, sat in a geopolitical crosshairs. Months before Baskerville arrived, the shah had, three days before dying, signed off on a new constitution that curtailed the power of the monarch and established a parliamentary system based on rule of law and individual rights. Aslan, an Iranian American writer and religion scholar, describes it as “a truly indigenous democratic movement. While the revolutionaries lifted some of their language and ideas from Europe and the United States, the movement itself was firmly grounded in a century or more of Persian political thought and promoted by an amalgam of dissident intellectuals, popular preachers, and political activists.”

But even as it was hailed by liberal thinkers across Europe, it was dismissed by British officials who considered Iranians “unfit for constitutional government” and was opposed by Britain and Russia, which vied for control over access to the Persian Gulf. In 1907 the powers agreed to divide Iran into two spheres of influence, trampling over the Iranians’ democratic aspirations. Meanwhile, Iran’s new king, the degenerate Mohammed Ali Shah, was determined to undo the new constitution and parliament, abetted by emissaries from the Russian czar. The resulting tinderbox of revolutionary fervor, royalist scheming and international meddling was primed for a conflagration. Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Turks, Jews, Christians, peasants, merchants and women joined the fray, and Tabriz became the constitutionalists’ last holdout.

Aslan’s vivid storytelling evokes an intriguing cast of courtiers, clerics, desperados and idealists: the powerful ayatollah advising the shah, “whispering defiance into his ear, the gray whiskers of his unwashed beard rubbing against the royal cheek”; the rebel commander, “wearing a perfectly pressed suit and matching felt hat, his mustache elegantly waxed and draped into two long strands past his cleanly shaven chin”; the women who “no longer bothered cropping their hair and dressing as men. Some fought in veils, a fact that caused quite a scandal in Europe when their photographs were printed abroad. A few came straight from the fields, their babies bundled on their backs, rifles slung over their shoulders.”

The book also unpacks the early relationship between Iran and the United States, which at the turn of the 20th century was largely represented by missionaries. Led by longtime Persia hands Samuel and Annie Wilson (she was born there to missionaries, and he served there most of his adult life), Tabriz’s American Memorial School was “an island of tranquility, set apart and protected from the political tempests roiling the city, respected by all.” With 800 students of different religions and ethnicities and faculty from around the world who taught in seven languages, it educated girls as well as boys and offered extracurricular sports, music lessons, theater performances and literary clubs.

Perhaps the book’s least compelling element is Baskerville himself. He is sympathetic enough, a popular teacher inspired by the “farmers and factory workers willing to die for a constitution none of them knew how to read,” intoxicated by the “late-night arguments held in packed teahouses, bodies pressed against each other, the air thick with sweat and smoke and the subtle scent of rose water.” After being rejected in his bid for the hand of the Wilsons’ teenage daughter, Baskerville threw his passions into the cause of his friends and students, proclaiming parallels with the American Revolution. His superiors tried to talk him down from taking up arms, pointing out that it compromised the neutrality that allowed the mission to function; he relinquished his U.S. passport rather than back down.

Baskerville’s sacrifice certainly held symbolic importance, particularly in a land where the dominant religious narrative is one of martyrdom. Each year, Shiite Muslims gather to watch passion plays about the futile last stand of the Imam Hussein and his small band of devotees during Islam’s early succession battles. Thirteen centuries later, the retelling still brings tears to the eyes of Iranians, who identify personally and culturally. It makes sense that seeing an American forgo the safety and comfort of the Presbyterian mission to risk his life for the constitutionalist effort would resonate with Iranians. Aslan himself seems enchanted: “Picture him sunburnt and chiseled, a pistol tucked into his belt, his chest crisscrossed with bullets, the stiff bowler hat replaced with a black felt fez. . . . He had surrendered his citizenship, abandoned his mission, and cast off the expectations of his church. He was, like Jesus bursting forth from the tomb, a brand new being: born not of water and blood, but of fire and spirit.”

Thousands of Tabrizis lined the streets to pay respects as Baskerville’s body was transported for burial, and he was hailed as a national hero. But as Aslan notes, his actions did not ultimately change the course of Iranian politics or even the immediate cause he fought for — hours after he was killed trying to break the siege of Tabriz it was announced that the shah, caving to pressure from abroad, had that very day agreed to lift it. Mohammed Ali Shah was deposed later that year, but Iranian hopes for democracy were soon quashed by a new dictator, Reza Shah Pahlavi (a royalist soldier at the time of the siege who could well have fired the shot that killed Baskerville, according to Aslan’s description). For the next half-century, Iran’s political fortunes were steered by the British government and its oil interests and the U.S. government and its crusade against communism; democracy fell by the wayside.

Aslan writes that in the run-up to the 1979 revolution that deposed Reza Shah’s heir, Iranians saw Baskerville as representing an America that would back them in their struggle and were disappointed when that support did not materialize. But by the 1970s many Iranians distrusted the United States, which had backed a coup against a democratically elected prime minister, reinstated the shah and continued to prop up his dictatorship. Seventy years after Baskerville’s death, Iranian revolutionaries scrawled “Yankee Go Home” on walls and took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage. Since then, anti-Americanism has been a key currency of the Islamic regime, even as regular Iranians have become more pro-American.

People familiar with both cultures dream of a reconciliation — Aslan included. “I wrote this book because I believe every American and every Iranian should know the name Howard Baskerville,” he writes. “My hope is that his heroic life and death can serve in both countries as the model for a future relationship — one based not on mutual animosity but on mutual respect. Perhaps then, America can once more be known as a nation of Baskervilles.”

The sentiment is heartfelt. But rather than a doomed 20-something who didn’t have time to accomplish much beyond the symbolic, the United States might do better to be associated with Americans who devoted themselves to Iran in less dramatic but more productive ways. Samuel Jordan, another Princeton-educated missionary and Baskerville’s contemporary, spent more than four decades in Iran, founding and running a renowned school that has educated generations of Iranian leaders and thinkers up to the present day. William Morgan Shuster, an American lawyer, was invited in 1911 by the constitutionalists to become Iran’s treasurer general, and he tried to reform Iran’s financial system and establish taxation independent from corruption. His mission failed in the face of Russian and British opposition, which he described in a memoir, “The Strangling of Persia.” These men did not stride onto battlefields, but their legacies run deep.

The Iranian passion play is a recurring motif, both on the stage and in the streets. It remains to be seen whether this generation of young people baring their bodies to bullets will be cut down like Hussein and Baskerville or finally write a new narrative. As they burn their headscarves and compose anthems to the country they love, I have not heard of them invoking the names of foreign heroes. They want to be their own heroes. That is a cause that freedom-loving Americans could get behind.

Tara Bahrampour is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America.”

An American Martyr in Persia

The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville

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