Tupac in Tehran


By Michael Casper

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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In the Land of the Ayatollahs Tupac Shakur Is King: Reflections from Iran and the Arab World
By Shahzad Aziz
Amal Press, 296 pages, $14.95.

Albanian music is amazing. Still, in the spring of 2007, I bypassed racks of polyphonic folk and clarinet-led pop in a market cassette stall in Korce, Albania, to spend 2,000 lek on a Tupac Shakur bootleg. I treasured the smallness of the medium then, the quaint photocopied cover and, above all, the opportunity — rare, while traveling — to hear some of the American music I grew up on. I didn’t realize that Shakur’s place on the shelves of a crowded shop in the middle of a Muslim country was no fluke.

Westside Meets Eastside: Things are never quite what you expect in the new global culture.
Westside Meets Eastside: Things are never quite what you expect in the new global culture.

Shahzad Aziz’s foreign encounter with Shakur, the tragic legend of American gangsta rap known onstage as “2Pac,” came not in a restful Muslim city but in Tehran, the site of recently contested elections and consequent protests. In Aziz’s evocatively titled travelogue to the Middle East, “In the Land of the Ayatollahs Tupac Shakur Is King,” this unexpected meeting sets the tone of disillusionment with distinctions between East and West that the author sets out to explain.

Early in the book, Aziz, a British human rights lawyer of Pakistani extraction, relates how he escaped the bustle of the Iranian capital to get some fresh air in a park. At the head of a hiking trail, he was shocked to see a group of young people standing around a boombox, rocking their heads to a Shakur tune. The traveler wonders if this activity isn’t breaking the legal prohibition on Western music set by the ayatollahs, the country’s Shi’ite religious leaders. “My trip was supposed to be a spiritual journey to Islamic lands,” he laments. “I was returning to my cultural roots only to discover that they were slowly being dyed red, white and blue. I was getting concerned. Where were all the religious people? I had met none so far. Where were the ayatollahs?”

Aziz is the perfect traveler: curious, naive, knowledgeable about his destinations’ histories and critical, to some extent, of their current governments. In pursuit of material to explain what Aziz portrays as rising tensions between East and West, he probes informants for their views on topics like September 11 and American foreign policy. He tries to be record-keeper of the regnant misconceptions held about the West, and also to nobly compare notes with locals, testing his prior education about the politics and culture of Islamic lands against firsthand experience. Despite swaths of clunky prose, regular digressions and some wryly reductive politics, the book holds up as a cultural document of how a Western Muslim accommodates the quotidian opinions of his Eastern co-religionists. These moments give life to Aziz’s running reflections and place the work in the millennium-long tradition of Muslim travelogue.

The book, in which chapters are organized by city (Aziz visits Amman, Beirut, Damascus and a handful of regional Iranian metropolises), opens with a note on Islamic life in London. “All welcome, including gays, Jews and paedophiles,” declares an advertisement for an Islamic society lecture series at Aziz’s university. Aziz supports the society’s subsequent banishment from campus and recoils at the group’s counter-protest, writing regretfully that his community has “voted the bigots into power.” It is with this sense of loss that Aziz approaches Iranian politics, much like a large bloc of Tehran’s increasingly restless university students.

Aziz argues that despite America’s faults, the United States is a model for other countries in the freedom it gives to immigrants and minorities. He wraps up his final chapter with an idiosyncratically paraphrased quotation in support of this sentiment, from the famous sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Missing is Lady Liberty’s great taunt to the Old World, in the words of New York-born poet Emma Lazarus (an early supporter of Zionism): “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Perhaps Aziz could have taken a lesson from Shakur, a more recent American expert of East and West politics — albeit of our own coasts and the rap rivalry they harbored — and joined in with the kids rocking their heads to the stereo.

Michael Casper is currently a Forward fellow.

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