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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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis