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Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral

The funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini was not a tragedy, writes James Buchan, but a gruesome farce: id

The unarmed city crowd first emerged as a force in Iranian politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in protests against the growing influence of European commerce and, later, in the struggle for constitutional government in Iran. Cruelly suppressed under the two Pahlavi shahs, the crowd returned to the political stage during the revolution of 1979 in the cycle of demonstrations and public mourning that forced Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into exile. By encouraging hundreds of thousands of rural people to migrate to Tehran and the other major cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Pahlavis had created the weapons of their own destruction.

Yet the protests in 1979 were as nothing to the extraordinary scenes of mourning at the funeral of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a decade later. The chaotic display of grief during those June days of 1989 revealed to an astonished international public rather more of the Persian soul than it wanted to see.

Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini died aged 86, after repeated heart failure, just before midnight on Saturday 3 June 1989, at a clinic near his house in the village of Jamaran, just north of Tehran. President Ali Khamenei and the speaker of parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were at his bedside. They resolved to delay announcement of the death in order to allow time for the body to be prepared and for a state of emergency to be imposed. The borders were put on alert against Iraqi attack and plans were laid for an orderly succession.

Although Tehran radio would not announce Khomeini’s death until 7am on the Sunday morning, rumours immediately started to fly around the city and crowds began to make their way to Jamaran. People dressed in mourning black, the women wearing the all-over black georgette wrap called the “prayer chador”, poured into the streets and mosques.

At 9am in the parliament building, Khamenei, who was known for his beautiful Persian diction, read out Khomeini’s last will and testament to the Assembly of Experts, a body of leading clerics. In a fevered atmosphere, with all the members in tears, the reading of the will took three hours. The assembly then convened again in the afternoon to elect Khamenei as leader, even though he was only 50 years old and a relatively junior member of the hierarchy. He remains supreme leader, or rahbar, today.

Early on Monday 5 June, the body was transferred to a vast and dusty vacant lot in north Tehran, known as the Musalla, that was used for public prayers and sacrifices on religious holidays. On a high podium made out of steel shipping containers, Khomeini’s body lay, wrapped in a white shroud, in an air-conditioned glass case, feet facing Mecca, the indigo turban of a descendant of the Prophet on his chest.

By mid-morning, hundreds of thousands of mourners had come to bid farewell, beating their chests, drawing blood from their cheeks and chanting the slogan: “We are orphaned!” Eight people were killed in the crush to approach the body and hundreds more were injured.

In blinding heat and choking dust, the Tehran fire brigade sprayed the mourners with jets of water in order to calm their excitement at participating in this latest act of the passion play of Iranian history. This is a recitation of the founding tragedy of Shia Islam, in which the Prophet’s family, tormented by heat and thirst, was encircled by murderous enemies at Karbala in Iraq in October 680AD. Many in the crowd were mourning not a revolutionary leader, nor even a canon jurist, but an “imam”, a title then applied in Iran only to the perfect Shia saints of the Middle Ages.


It was decided that Khomeini should be buried not in Qom, where he had spent years as a seminary professor until his exile by Mohammad Reza in 1964, but in Behesht-e Zahra, graveyard of the dead of war and revolution, located in the southern suburbs and named after the Prophet’s daughter. This was an essentially political ritual: it re-enacted in mourning Khomeini’s triumphant visit by helicopter to the cemetery on 1 February 1979, the day he returned to Iran from exile in France.

Early in the morning of 6 June, the body was brought down from its makeshift pyramid and the coffin opened for the aged Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani to lead the prayers. Those 20 minutes were the only funerary solemnity a northern European might have recognised.

The plan was to travel 25 miles south through town in an orderly procession, but the crowds had swelled overnight to several million. “From the north of Tehran to Behesht-e Zahra,” wrote Khomeini’s biographer Baqer Moin, “nothing could be seen but a black sea of mourners dotted only by the white turbans of some mollahs.”

The air-conditioned truck acting as a hearse could make no headway through the crowd, and neither water cannon nor warning shots from the Revolutionary Guard could clear a path. In the end, the body was transferred to a helicopter –

another echo of 1979 – and brought by air to the grave that had been hacked with mattocks out of the stony desert.

Yet even here, the crowd surged past the makeshift barriers. John Kifner wrote in the New York Times that the “body of the ayatollah, wrapped in a white burial shroud, fell out of the flimsy wooden coffin, and in a mad scene people in the crowd reached to touch the shroud”. A frail white leg was uncovered. The shroud was torn to pieces for relics and Khomeini’s son Ahmad was knocked from his feet. Men jumped into the grave. At one point, the guards lost hold of the body. Firing in the air, the soldiers drove the crowd back, retrieved the body and brought it to the helicopter, but mourners clung on to the landing gear before they could be shaken off. The body was taken back to north Tehran to go through the ritual of preparation a second time.

To thin the crowd, it was announced on television and radio that the funeral had been postponed. Five hours later, the sound of rotors could be heard over Behesht-e Zahra and this time the guards were better prepared. Three of the shah’s old Huey helicopters landed and the body was brought out, sealed in what Kifner described as a “metal box resembling an airline shipping container”. Once again, the crowd broke through the cordon, but by weight of numbers the guards managed to push their way through to the grave.

There, according to reporters for Time magazine, “the metal lid of the casket was ripped off, and the body was rolled into the grave. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container.” In later years, the republic would erect on the site a monumental mosque and shrine to Khomeini, fit to match, if not outdo, the great Shia monuments at Karbala, Najaf, Mashhad, Qom and Lucknow.


For the outside world, especially for non-Shia Muslims and Iranian émigrés, the funeral was, as Time put it, “bizarre, frightening – and ultimately incomprehensible”. Here was not tragedy but gruesome farce – idolatrous, makeshift, deadly and utterly lacking in self-control. According to Radio Tehran, 10,800 people were treated that day for self-inflicted wounds, heat exhaustion or crush injuries.

For the Iranians, by contrast, these astonishing events were evidence of what they prized above all things: unaffected sympathy, or what is known as del – “heart”.

After the funeral, Iranian society resumed its habitual good order, held together by piety, pride, a certain amount of government repression, opium, cheap bread and petrol, a ban on alcohol and segregation of the sexes. And it still holds together today. The revolutionary constitution, with its novel mixture of clerical dictatorship and liberal democracy, has proved more resilient than anyone could have imagined in 1979.

What remains in the memory of those June days 20 years ago is that same power of men and women en masse that haunted Alexis de Tocqueville in his study of the French Revolution of 1789 – something “violent, radical, desperate, audacious, almost mad, and nonetheless powerful and effective”, which will certainly return to Iran one day, either to renew the Islamic Republic or to demolish it.

James Buchan was a Financial Times correspondent in the Middle East and is the author most recently of “The Gate of Air: a Ghost Story” (Quercus, £14.99)

Share your memories of the year of the crowd with us by emailing: A selection will appear on our website

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood