The Imam Khomeini International Airport outside Tehran felt like an old library. That is, not a truly old library – with extravagant staircases and philanthropic sponsors – but something built in the ’80s, just before computers arrived on the scene.

Strange little hallways terminated in locked doors while most walls were plastered in the Imam’s “wizened” face. Skinny soldiers dressed all in olive green eyed over travelling Iraqi families, their touchingly normal children running up and down stairs or annoying each other with little games.

It felt like a particularly exotic episode of JAG.

I met Aydin when a bureaucratic cock-up from the Tbilisi end meant my luggage wasn’t being transferred to Dubai. For a couple of hours either side of midnight, it seemed I would need an Iranian visa just to get my backpack on the right plane – a visa worth hundreds of dollars, completely impossible.

Strangely, I’d already met another Iranian on the flight over, a talent scout for the Iranian Basketball Super League. (I originally mistook Ali for a Mexican frat boy, genuinely thrown by his backward baseball cap and surgically attached iPad.)

In an act of kindness I’ll never forget, he spent nearly half an hour explaining my plight to Iranian officials, who eventually shepherded me into a corner and left me to think long and hard about what I’d done (which was trusting in Georgian customer service – an obvious rookie mistake).

In the hours before my connecting flight to Dubai, I became friends with Aydin, the hapless Iranian soldier whose sole assignment seemed to be keeping watch over a disused escalator. Aydin was 18 and both shorter and lankier than me, with naturally smiling lips that probably ruled out a career in the Revolutionary Guard.

Between his English and my Farsi – both zero – we struck up a stilted conversation on life, the universe and everything. He explained that Iraqis had no love for America, and that he didn’t drink coffee but started every shift with a shot of whiskey.

Alcohol became something of a theme for the night, Aydin’s commanding officer even proudly announcing that he, along with everyone in Iran, drank constantly.

In fact, explained the officer, the only reason he spoke English was to escape the government’s spies – an irony so rich it felt unnecessary to point out. Here, chatting with Iranian soldiers on their cultural front line, I seemed to have stumbled into a bastion of radicals and whiskey-chugging enemies of the state.

For all the flags and patriotic posters, the Imam Khomeini International Airport felt like a realm of quiet, conversational rebellion.

The state was failing before my eyes.

I’ve recently finished reading Robert Bellah‘s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. It tracks the development of religion from biological predecessors to the time of Plato and Confucius – an era we are still, in a very real sense, struggling to deal with.

In part, this evolution of religion is really the evolution of politics, the two synonymous until quite recently.

Such deep history has a strange quality to it, more alien the longer we investigate. The first city was a bold experiment; the roots of logic may be ritual. From this perspective, the questioning, fundamentally malleable nature of humanity becomes obvious.

We’re honestly making this up as we go along, and the modern state is just one more experiment in social organisation, arising under specific cultural and technological circumstances.

I think the trouble with Pax Americana is not the grandeur of its vision, but the smallness of it.

Many seem struck with this poverty of imagination, unable to conceive a truly multi-polar world: not just between different nations, but different worlds, with fundamentally different ways of being.

What we call a failed state is really a successful something else – not exactly a tribe, perhaps something even older or stranger.  Maybe vast, centrifugal forces are whirling the modern state apart, old centres of power returning once again to the city or the family.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

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