Mahmoud and Hugo

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) raises his hands toward cheering supporters while standing next to Venezuela's Foreign Minister Elias Jaua (R) as he enters the funeral for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Military Academy on March 8, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) raises his hands toward cheering supporters while standing next to Venezuela's Foreign Minister Elias Jaua (R) as he enters the funeral for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Military Academy on March 8, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) raises his hands toward cheering supporters while standing next to Venezuela's Foreign Minister Elias Jaua (R) as he enters the funeral for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Military Academy on March 8, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In Iran, when we want to stress someone’s absolute strangeness and unpredictability, we use the word padideh. Padideh means “phenomenon,” but in our oral culture it has another meaning. When said sarcastically, padideh means a great troublemaker; someone who likes to swim against the tide. Padideh’s meaning is more or less similar to a black ship in European literature, or a cow with a white forehead in Persian literature. Both Chávez and Ahmadinejad are padideh.

Logically, a padideh has its specific advantages and disadvantages. All of us have heard about populism. Both Ahmadinejad and Chávez are populists. What is the real meaning of populism? Using two remarkable examples, I will show the bright side of populism.

UNESCO, in collaboration with the government of Venezuela, organized a conference in 2002 in Caracas. It was one year after 9/11. The former president of Algeria, Ahmad Ben Bella, was one of the participants. During the conference, he said to me that when he am looked into the eyes of Bin Laden, it seemed to him that Bin Laden really believes in what he says, and he lives with his dreams and wants to build an Islamic Caliphate.

I am Islamist as well, but I believe in another interpretation of Islam; my Islam is with a mild and peace-loving flavor. I was on my way to the conference along with Ahmad Ben Bella and Ahmad Jalali, Iran’s ambassador to UNESCO and the president of the 31st General Conference of UNESCO the previous year. We saw Hugo Chávez was coming, so we stopped, and we went to the conference with Chávez. All of us, along with Chávez and one of his guards, entered the lift. In the lift, the young lift operator, who looked thin and frail, began talking with Chávez. I told myself he probably has a problem, and he is cleverly using this golden opportunity to share his problem with his president. Chávez listened to him very carefully, putting his hand on the shoulder of the young man. The lift stopped, but Chávez was still talking with the lift operator. Now the lift operator is one of our VIP group!

We sat on our reserved seats. Ben Bella was on the right hand of Chávez and the lift operator was on his left side. To cut it short, Chávez spoke to the young man for more than twenty minutes, and at the end he said something to his adviser to arrange a new meeting for the man, in case his problem did not get resolved. The young man was smiling and seemed quite pleased.

Later on, when we were in the Military Academy for dinner, Chávez briefly explained the story of the lift operator to us. Chávez said, “This is my covenant; all the youth are my sons and daughters. This is my magic treasury.” When the music group began to play and sing, Chavez was singing as well, looking full of joy and happiness. It was clear to me that such manner and attitude creates a vast social capital for him.

The second story is about Ahmadinejad. It is no secret that Ahmadinejad repeatedly travels to the different provinces of Iran. In one of his trips to the Bushehr province, when flying in the helicopter, he saw a shepherd with his cattle in the desert. Out of the blue, Ahmadinejad ordered the pilot to land, saying he wants to meet that shepherd! After a few minutes he changed his mind, ordering the other pilot, who was flying the helicopter of media group, to land before him.

The shepherd was astonished once the media group landed and told him, “President Ahmadinejad’s helicopter is landing, just to meet you.” Like an Indian film, upon landing, Ahmadinejad rushed toward the shepherd: “Oh my dear brother; I am Ahmadinejad, your servant! What are your demands?” The shepherd said that had three daughters; all of them are old enough to get married. But lamented that he was a poor man and that he could not afford to buy things like household items for them. Ahmadinejad opened his wallet and told his people, “We should help this brother.” He gave money to the shepherd and kissed his face.

Ahmadinejad went to Caracas a few days ago, and kissed Chávez’s coffin, hugged Chávez’s mother and daughter, and said, “Chávez was a disciple of Jesus and Imam Mahdi, he will come back to the Earth.” Today, all the Grand Ayatollahs in Qom and the MPs in the Parliament are talking about Ahmadinejad.


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