The Story of An American Revolutionary in Iran
Iran is in the news again. They have just mastered the process of enriching uranium, it seems, so that means atomic weapons are in reach for them. It just adds to the saber-rattling that is all too common in Middle-Eastern politics.
Of course, the threat could be very real in the future; the other Islamic
country that has The Bomb is Pakistan, but so far they have acted responsibly,
showing restraint in their dealings with India over disputed land. Iran
is a different situation, however. Governments since the Shahs
time have demonstrated that they are against the U.S. and the West,
and that they support international mischief-making in the name of Allah.
That is perhaps why In Search of Heaven by Ata Servati is such a breath
of fresh air in the stagnant politics of our day. Servati is an Iranian
who left his homeland in 1975 and settled in the Los Angeles area. He
brought with him knowledge of an Iranian folk hero from the 1900's who
is unknown to most Americans. That unlikely hero is Howard Conklin Baskerville,
and he is the subject of Servatis book.
Baskerville was a Nebraska boy who was unsure what he wanted to do
with his life. He attended Bellevue College in his home state for a
while, and then was accepted at Princeton University. He could have
gotten a job on Wall Street upon graduation, but he wanted to travel
and, coming from a Christian home, he thought about the possibility
of doing missionary work. Although he didnt have a call to serve
in a particular country, he learned from the Presbyterian Missions Board
that there was an opening for a short-term teacher in Tabriz, Iran.
Of course, back then, Iran was known as Persia, and it captured the
imagination of the young man who knew little of the world.
In his early years as a student, Woodrow Wilson was said to be rather
immature and precocious. Perhaps he saw some of that in Baskerville
and thought that a term in Persia might mature him. As Servati points
out in his book, Baskerville was idealistic, and a champion of the underdog,
even though the politics of Persia should have been out of his purview
as a newly arrived missionary teacher.
The cause that Baskerville immediately championed was constitutional government for Persia. When he arrived there, he found the country had an incompetent and dishonest Shah, and, as Servati says, the country had become the plaything of foreign powers: the English, the Russians and the Turks.
From his arrival in Tabriz, Baskerville was caught up in the drama
of the approaching political showdown. He befriended many leaders and
questioned them about their views and how Persia would benefit if they
had victory, either in the Assembly or the battlefield. Ultimately,
he cast his lot with Muhammed Hassan Sharifzadeh, Hajji Agha and other
friends who wanted to bring even-handed democracy to the Persian people.
Though characterized as a peaceful person in the beginning of the book,
Baskerville is quick to take up arms. This turn of events appalls S.G.
Wilson, the principal of the Presbyterian school where Baskerville is
supposed to be teaching. He pleads with Baskerville to return to his
teaching post. Wilson implores him saying,
In reply to your letter of resignation from your position of teacher,
allow me to say that I regard your contemplated course of action as
unwise, rash, and impractical, as founded on a grave error of judgment
and certain to lead to serious consequences to yourself and others.
I, as a friend, must advise you strongly against any such course. If
you acknowledge my authority, I would enjoin you from it for the common
good. I regard your first obligation as to the school and still look
to you to fulfill your contract as a teacher.
Baskerville ignored these pleas, trained a platoon of Persian soldiers, and, during the first attack on the first day of battle, was killed by a bullet in the heart.
At first blush this does not seem like a very triumphant tale. It seems
more like a story of impetuous youth gone wrong. Yet, Baskerville became
an instant folk hero to Persians, and they honor his memory to this
day. In the midst of all the anti-American rhetoric were hearing,
many ordinary Iranian citizens continue to respect the U.S. because
of the zeal and sacrifice of Howard Conklin Baskerville nearly 100 years
ago. They learned about him in school, as one might learn about Patrick
Henry in America, and over the years Baskerville has become the stuff