A Modern Contagion…

A Modern Contagion…

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“I mainly wrote this book because I saw a gap in the historiography of the country,” Amir Afkhami told Hollywood on the Potomac at a book party in his honor at the Kalorama home of Juleanna Glover and Christopher Reiter in Washington, DC.  “This is a story that wasn’t told. It was a story with a lot of implications in understanding what’s going on in contemporary Middle East, both in terms of the Shiite-Sunni conflict that’s going on and a lot of the public health issues that are going on such as the cholera epidemic in Yemen, the substance abuse problem in Iran and some of the issues tied [to] the roots of the 1979 Iranian revolution.”  He thought the book: A Modern Contagion needed to be written to inform how we understand all of the seminal events in what’s going on in the Middle East today. His reading audience is made up of mainly historians, public health specialists, policymakers and people who are interested in the region in general.  And of course us, the lay people, who find navigating the landscape of Iranian and the Middle East culture and politics to be as they say on Facebook: It’s complicated.

Amir Afkhami

As would be expected, we asked Amir about the current administration’s policy toward Iran.  “So I’m very careful about this. I think seeing the Islamic Republic as being a regional rival is correct. Holding the Islamic Republic accountable for taking Iranian-Americans hostage to forward their political and economic goals or being involved in instability in the region is correct,” he told us.  “However, you have to have a certain degree of consistency in the policy. You can’t say that you’re on the side of the Iranian people, which, when you are against the Islamic Republic in a sense you are, because they’re the most oppressed people in the world when it comes to the Islamic Republic. They sort of get the brunt of it because they are under their rule. You can’t on the one hand say that you’re trying to help, but on the other hand ban them from coming to America to study or work or see their relatives. And so it’s complicated. So I think the administration has the right ideas, but the implementation is not consistent and not always correct.”

Before an audience of about 80 guests, Amir opened a Q and A on a light note attributed to the presence of HRH Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi. “In ancient Persia, when philosophers and historians introduced their ideas to monarchs and princes to basically get their grants, they had to introduce it twice – once when they were sober as I’m doing now. And a second time, when they had imbibed and they were drunk. Only if the idea sounded good in both occasions would they get the money they needed to continue their research. And since we do have HRH Reza Pahlavi with us tonight, I’m obliged to keep my sober remarks very short. Be sure to accost me when I have imbibed a little bit,” he joked, “and you know, test my ideas then.”

A bit of background on the history of Iran: “We are meeting this night at a somewhat inauspicious time in Iran’s history. It is the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and as the Islamic Republic enters its fortieth year, it’s faced with an unprecedented narcotics epidemic in the country. Based on an official report, about four percent of the population is addicted to drugs. Unofficial reports say that it’s about ten percent. Iran has some of the highest incarceration rates for drug related offenses and some of the highest related rates of drug related executions in the world,” he told a somewhat surprised audience – it’s not the first thing you think of when you think of Iran. “Much of this development ties back to the story of Iran’s experience with pandemic cholera,” he noted,  “which I cover in my book. Pandemic cholera which entered Iran in the second decade of the nineteenth century and lasted for about a hundred years through recurrent waves in the country, had an enormous influence; not only demographically in terms of mortality, not only in terms of how it affected the development of science and modernity, but also in how it changed the Iranian government. Cholera was directly responsible for the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and the eventual end of the monarchy about a decade later. The inability of that regime to respond adequately to that epidemic and to recurring bouts of disease lead to its eventual demise. And in this sense, I think the book should be a warning to the Islamic Republic. Its inability to adequately respond to the public health needs of its population will eventually spell its demise as well.”

Guests were curious about any parallels on several fronts: Threats to our society for not being able to take care of the population through its healthcare system and the concern of parents now not vaccinating their children as well as mental health issues such as depression.   On the issue of vaccination Afkhami pointed out : “Of course it is more of a philosophical debate in that why is it that you see this sort of anti vaccination position being more prevalent in the more educated sections of our population?  What does that say about people’s views on science in general? And are we really going in this sort of anti scientific movement rather than it being an issue of health care? We are going through this sort of anti-scientific backlash, but I really do believe it will come to an end. And invariably whether that will come because of a disaster, such as the one we’re experiencing now with the opiate epidemic, or something more intrinsic than that, I don’t know. But I think this too shall end.”