Iran- Why Mullahs Need the Old Jaw-shutter
01 July 2016
By Amir Taheri
Ever since the mullahs appeared in Iran as a distinct profession in the 19th
century, they have developed paraphernalia of devices and contraptions linked
to their trade. These include a range of rosaries with 30, 90 or 180 beads,
prayer mud-cubes (mohr) made from the soil of Karbala and, of course, items of
clothing with different functions including a flowing cape with pockets in
which one could hide a book, a loaf of bread or, in more dangerous and recent
times, a Colt.45 with a silencer.
One favourite item in that paraphernalia has always been a lengthy piece of
cloth attached to the mandatory turban and designed to close one's jaw in a
way to make speaking difficult.
In Persian, the item is known as ''chanehband'' (literally: jaw-shutter) but
most mullahs prefer the Arabic term: taht al-hanak which means under the jaw.
One attaches the taht al-hanak to the back of the turban and, when needed,
unwinds it around the neck, then knotting it under the chin to force the lower
lip against the upper one, making speech difficult.
In the good, or if you wish, bad old days, mullahs used the contraption when
they entered ''cheleh'', a 40-day withdrawal from the pubic in which they read
the first 30 surahs of the Koran, maintained a vow of silence and, presumably,
tried to discover the deeper meaning of things.
Mullahs wore taht al-hanak when they were supposed to be deep in thought
and/or at prayer. However, they often wore them when they didn't wish to
answer questions from their murids (followers). In the early 1900s when some
Iranians had mastered enough courage to lampoon the mullahs, the satirist poet
Iraj Mirza, today banned in the Islamic Republic, sent a taht al-hanak to
Sheikh Fadlallah Nuri, a militant pro-Russian mullah who opposed the advent of
constitutional rule in Iran. The poet wanted the mullah to shut his mouth and
engage in prayers rather than making political statements.
Judging from photos in the media and TV footage, few political mullahs in Iran
today appear to possess a taht al-hanak. And this explains why some of them
seem to be struck by logorrhea, unable to stop talking about everything under
the sun as long as it has nothing to do with their original business which is
Take ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei, for example. He should enter the Guinness
Book of Records for the number of speeches made in a single year and the
amazing variety of topics; everything except religion and theology. He has
also published six books ranging from how to destroy Israel to how to write
Islamic poetry, the secrets of a successful marriage, rules of a healthy diet,
a pseudo-Chomskyan linguistics to stop the rising influence of the English
language, and, more recently, how the late Ayatollah (or Imam) Khomeini
revived Islam before he died.
Khamenei isn't alone among mullahs to properly budget his vocal sorties. In
any case he is more of a politician than a theologian and thus could be
excused if he demonstrates an inordinate thirst for talking.
But think of other ayatollahs, say my favorite Hussein Alam Al-Hoda from
Mash'had or the older Nasser Makarem Shirazi from Qom who seems duty-bound to
comment on everything under the sun with a view to providing catchy headlines
based on outlandish slogans. The better-educated ones, let's say Muhammad
Khatami, who served as president for eight years, dish out the same nonsense
by talking of Hegel, Nietzsche and Hobbes as a prelude to blaming modern
civilization for mankind's ills.
Don't take me wrong. I think mullahs have as much right to talk about whatever
they wish as do academics, columnists, taxi-drivers and grave-diggers. The
problem is that the outside world regards Iran as a theocratic regime in which
mullahs constitute the ruling elite, meaning their views reflect the official
position of Iran as a nation-state. In the same way in a country where the
military hold power, any statement by officers, even lower-ranked ones,
attracts special attention.
However, because nothing about Iran is ever simple, the cliché that is ''mullaharchy''
isn't as straight forward as it might seem. In fact, only a minority of
political mullahs, people like Khamenei or Makarem, are involved in the
confused and confusing power game that has been playing in Tehran since
Khomeini, helped by his Marxist and Stalinist allies, seized power in 1979.
The Khomeinists failed to destroy Iran as a nation-state but managed to create
a parallel reality based on the hodgepodge that is their ideology. Thus we
have two armies, two judiciaries, two bureaucracies and economies reflecting
Iran's split personality as an ancient and proud nation-state and as a vehicle
for a sick new ideology.
The talking mullahs represent this second Iran while the overwhelming majority
of Shi'ite clerics, including all the top theologians, have always distanced
themselves, and still do, from the Khomeinist system. Thousands of them have
paid the price for that position by suffering prison, house-arrest, exile,
de-frocking and even execution.
The damage done to Iran is the work of a minority of political mullahs who
talk too much, setting Iranians against one another, insulting minorities,
threatening critics, inciting violence and terror at home and creating enemies
abroad with their loose, cheap and, at times, revolting chatter magnified by
state-controlled mass media.
Iran would benefit from a real ''cheleh'', 40 days of silence by the
chattering mullahs. (One dare not hope for permanent silence by them!) These
chattering mullahs urgently need the taht al-hanak.
Coincidentally, the other day I learned that the best taht al-hanak, made of
pure double-woven silk, as well as the finest turbans, pointed slippers,
abayahs and rosaries are supplied by an exclusive shop in London's
Knightsbridge where some of our chattering mullahs have maintained accounts
for decades. The trouble is that they don't order any taht al-hanak. They
should. It would do them a lot of good, and a lot of good to Iran, too.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.