Being an almost entirely Persian nation, which adopted Shia Islam as the official state religion during the 16th century in the Safavid era, Iranians have felt themselves to be on a different level from their Arab neighbors. One of the most distinguishing elements in their national ethos has been the influence of the clergy in their day to day affairs which dates back centuries. Even in its pre-Islamic era, the Zoroastrian priests of ancient Persia were powerful and yielded great influence. With the acceptance of Shia Islam, the mullahs of the Persian clergy ended up with the same responsibilities and power of their Zoroastrian forebears. Being steeped in tradition, many clerics have long taken a conservative approach to issues facing everyday society, even though their room for reinterpreting matters of religion has been relatively more open then their Sunni counterparts. But the clergy in Iran has always been adamant that their influence over the masses must not be clipped. They tussled back and forth with the ruling Shah’s for several centuries.
The last and much despised Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, called the mullahs; “a stupid and reactionary bunch whose brains have not moved for a thousand years. They think life is about getting something for nothing, eating and sleeping… sponging on others and a parasitic existence”.*
Despite such insults, clerics tolerated the monarchy as long as they abided by and ruled according to the laws of Islam. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came on the stage of Iranian history, he decided that a monarchy was not needed and that the clergy itself should rule the country.
Taking these ground realities into account, Iranian director Kamal Tabrizi crafted a gem of a movie in 2004 called ‘Marmoulak’ or ‘The Lizard’ in which he tells the story of a thief and conman named Reza (Perviz Parastui) who after being arrested for robbery is sentenced to life in prison. His nickname ‘Marmoulak’ comes from his uncanny ability to scale walls like a lizard. While in prison, Reza comes under the stern eyes of the warden who makes it a duty of his to spiritually rehabilitate the thief. Unhappy with prison life and a confined existence, Reza steals a bottle of medicine from the prison’s clinic with the intention of committing suicide.
When one of his fellow prisoners finds out his plan, a scuffle erupts in which Reza is injured from the broken glass of the bottle. As a result he is sent to a hospital to recover where he meets a mullah, also named Reza. Over a period of time the two become friends and share conversations about life and religion that makes Reza Marmoulak rethink his own views of the clergy. Even though he despises the clerical establishment, he is impressed by the soft spoken mullah and his philosophical and less then rigid outlook on human existence.
“There are as many paths to reach God as there are people in this world,” the mullah tells him. It’s a maxim that stays with him. However, rethinking his own views hasn’t completely rehabilitated Reza, who is still a scoundrel and a convicted prisoner. Determined not to return to prison once he has recovered, he commits the unthinkable and steals the mullah’s clothes and escapes from the prison hospital. His plan is to get in touch with one of his contacts within the criminal underworld, and get a forged passport so that he can escape from Iran at a border village.
Iran’s cinema has always won plaudits for its realism. Despite the repressive and censored hand of the state, its movie
Unfortunately, Iran’s mullahs didn’t see the joke and tolerated the movie for about a month after which they promptly banned it. Despite the limited release it was a big hit among the Iranian public, who had to console themselves by watching pirated and bootlegged copies of the film after it was declared cinema non grata.
Whatever your views on the role of priests in religion, whether they are as the late Christopher Hitchens called them, “Chaucerian frauds” or simply sincere people who act out their faith, here is a movie that pokes fun at turbaned mullahs, and shows that it is alright to laugh in Islam.
*Quote taken from the book, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah by Baqer Moin.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org