Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Prince Ebtehaj

Prince Ehtejab, by Bahman Farmanara

A film review

I saw an old Iranian movie in the Walter Reade Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center. It was based on an Iranian novel written by the celebrated writer Houshang Golshiri. The story is based on a fictitious character, Prince Khosrow Ehtejab, the last in the princely line of a dynasty which ruled Iran for a little over a century, before it was toppled by the Reza Shah Pahlavi I in 1921. Prince Ehtejab had been eye-witness to the latter part that dynasty’s history. He recalls his childhood memories of the ruthless way his grandfather ruled and how his own father bravely stood up to him, resigned, and withdrew from his service. Although he never gets the opportunity to rule, he is raised to be a prince. He recalls the tyranny under his grandfather. He recalls the brutal murder, unjustified punishments, illegal seizures, the keeping of men and women in captivity for nothing, the brutal condition of women, the cruel life of the harem, and the deprivation its inmantes suffer. However, there are things that he does not know. There are two people who feed him the past that he is unaware of. His beautiful, educated, well-read wife, Fakhr-ol-Nessa (Pride of Women) and his family carriage driver, Morad, who served three generations of this dynasty and was crippled in an accident while driving him. Fakhr-ol-Nessa tells him all she has read in the memoir of their ancestors, an almost entirely brutal history. Morad tells him all the events he witnessed with horror.

I have read the book almost thirty-five years ago, when I was obliged to like it, willy-nilly and whatever it actually meant. We were of the generation in which “liking” and “disliking” had nothing to do with our preferences. It was a badge of belonging to the “intellectuals”—or else. And of course I like it, and of course I liked the similar book “Blind Owl,” and of course I liked Fellini, and Sartre, and of course I like them because I should. I was becoming an intellectual.

I left the theater quite depressed. I was more worried about what the American audience would make of all this brutality and what message they would now file in their filing cabinet of Iran which was already bulging with misinformation. When I occasionally came across this information, I did not know whether to cry or laugh. And now this movie!

Anyhow, the movie was an excellent adaptation of the novel and stayed very faithful to the text. The acting was superb; it was a pleasure to see Jamshid Mashayekhi, who rendered the prince’s personality masterfully, and the younger Khorvash, to whom we theatre lovers are in debt as a pioneer woman in the field. (She played Fakhri, the personal maid to Fakhr-ol-Nessa.)

When leaving the theater, I told a friend “Did we really need this?” I walked into the street going to get the subway to go back to Brooklyn to prepare dinner; a few friends were coming from DC. Still quite depresses, I drifted into Fairway with the hope that the sight of tomatoes and peppers and basil would cheer me up a bit. “Don’t worry what these American will make of it, it is just a fiction,” I told to myself. That did not work either.

A lump in my throat, I came home. My husband asked how the movie was, and I gave him the report. I told him that I was glad that he did not come with me since it was too depressing. He had not read the book, so I told him the summary of the story. I then told him that by the time Golshiri wrote the book, Qajar dynasty was already a forgotten story and it is now totally irrelevant to us. Oh, yes “irrelevant!” That was the word in my throat. It pushed very hard. Alas, painful as it is, the story is still relevant. Relevant here, relevant there in Iran, relevant everywhere imaginable. That is why it was depressing and painful. Though, a brutal dynasty ended and the last prince in the line went to the depths of dead history, a new one was born, only with modern equipment and modern means to rule and govern and suppress all the more brutality, with more sophisticated weapons, including the chemical and nuclear. My husband came to the defense of the Qajar dynasty (he knows a few scholar from that family) and also in defense of the present situation which is not as bad. I granted him both, however I had to remind him of few cases of brutality of unfaithful husbands toward their wives (American), of existing polygamy (not just among the Mormans!), of the uncontrolled power that employers have over their employees, of the legal system which is in full support of the wrongdoers, and I let it go at that. He knew I would jump all over White House and two incomplete wars which turned the region into a bloodbath, and now with the threat of another war over Iran, the number of murders and the casualties in last five years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also the crimes which were committed by Iraqis before the current wars using the chemical weapon given to Saddam by the Americans. And this is only small part of the brutality of which the American Dynasty was the architect.

The door bell rang, our friends came, a Pakistani couple. She is a journalist and had come back recently from Afghanistan with a magnificent report confirming that Karzai is not even the mayor of all Kabul, he is just barely in charge of his palace and its vicinity, that the Taliban are about, as for Al Qaeda, you bet! And the burka and poverty and war and fighting and chaos are all over the place. She even received a text-messaged death threat! What happened to the freedom and democracy send to them by George Bush? “It is on the way!” she said with a sad laugh.

“Where will her article on the visit get published?” I asked. “Well I’m looking around, but the newspaper editors do not have time to read it and they pass it to each other.” The report was only 15 pages double space. One can read it in fifteen minutes.

I felt bad for my husband. He himself is suffering from the injustices done in academia and that unbridled, incontrollabled abuse of power that is increasing every day. On top of everything, he has to put up with me and my readings of all these obscure events and their interconnections. I felt bad for him, he has to take all the criticism for all American’s wrong doings.

But getting back to Prince Ehtejab. It was a great movie, but I did not like it and I did not like the book either. Do we really need it? I can repeat the same comment again and again. Golshiri should know that we were emerging people, we wanted to change, we wanted to make a new world, yes, we were idealists. I do not like that realism of his. I did not like that life empty of love and compassion. I never understood why Prince Ehtejab should not have had the opportunity to improve himself. Should he not have given him a chance to depart from his ancestors’ history? Should he not have given him a chance to be a better person? Was it not cruel to make him doomed for no good reason? Golshiri can call it anything he wants, I just say I do not like the world which is doomed to be Evil. Even if the whole world is populated by Prince Ehatejab’s grandfathers I still recall many who were not like him. I wanted to hear the story of those that were good , those who changed for better, those who opened the windows and let the light in, those who could drag us into the street to demand goodness. I do not want the story about those who send us right to the sleeping pills bottles. I’m just talking about my preference.

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chelleh, Nights of Vigilance

Never before have I seen such an uproar over celebrating and assimilating our Iranian holiday such as this year with our Yalda night. Many articles and discussions about its relation to Christmas or tying its origin to Mithra’s birthday have appeared in Iranian circles. It was claimed and confirmed by Google that Yalda, meaning Birth, is in fact a celebration of the birth of the old Iranian Sun God, and was later adopted by Christianity as Jesus' birthday. While driving with our friend Reza to the Persian Tea Room to celebrated Yalda with a group of Iranians, we talked over that topic since I was supposed to give a short talk on it. Reza was even quite willing to abandon the whole idea of Yalda being of Iranian origin rather than giving up its relation to Mithra and Christmas. He thought it might as well be a Roman holiday based on Iranian mythology which was re-adapted by the Iranians.

It seemed that Yalda was the only name that my audience in the Persian Tea Room knew for this holiday. They were a little perplexed when I reminded them there is an Iranian name for this celebration, Chelleh. They were further surprised to hear that this holiday is not only one night but continues for forty blessed nights.

But it was I who was more shocked than anyone else when I found out that I must be too old to know things so ancient that no one else seems to know. One thing I know for sure is that none of our holidays relate to any event or personage at all. (I do not include the anniversary of the revolution or other Islamic celebrations.) They are just celebrations of the arrangements of the cosmos, and very few of them have any further cultural attribute in addition to their cosmological one. Chelleh is one of them.

I think it is mostly the cosmological nature of these holidays which gives them such legitimacy and privileges so that we Iranian never needed to demand, or to provide, further explanation for their existence. However, during my 33 years in the United States, I have observed that the natural legitimacy we used to feel these holidays had are not sustained anymore, with the exception of Naw Rooz the Iranian New Year. This holiday coincides with the first day of Spring, which, as the season of growth, buds, and blossoms, enjoys such a status as a self-explanatory holiday that we were at some point puzzled that January first is the Western New Year. It seems to many of us still that Naw Rooz is a more legitimate New Year than others.

But, the lesser holidays seem do not enjoy this legitimacy fully; we consider them just another occasion for festivity, devoid of their cultural significance. Like everything else which do not have a function, usage, or a meaningful place in life, they become subject to our discretion as to when and how to be used, and if it causes disturbances, we might do without.

To maintain the survival of these national heritages, Iranians in exile have come up with the idea of assimilating their holidays into the closest Western holidays, either in form or meaning or both. For example Mehregan is compared with, and defined, as thanksgiving for the harvest time. Tiregan is quite regularly celebrated on the Fourth of July (at least up to this date.) The same goes with this winter holiday of Yalda, or, as I insist on calling it, Chelleh, which is linked to Christmas.

I think the problem is due to two little words, jashn and Yalda

We translate the word jashn as celebration, which it is not equivalent to a " jubilee", but it is taken as such. The appropriate meaning for both (Jashn and celebration) is “to cherish” “to uphold” but jashn in our old tradition has the slightly more esteemed meaning of “worship.” A glance at the Zoroastrian calendar makes its religious intend clear. If that does not accord with our modern perception of religion, it is definitely due to the nature of theological religions (Islam and Christianity) rather than the mode of worship. It is fair to assume that all the jashns are, in fact, some sort of religious act and therefore bear a religious significance, though different than our concept of “religious significance” in i.e., Islam.

The other problem is due to the use of the name Yalda, and regarding it within the order of Western calendar. We can notice that it reads totally different. Yalda is Aramaic for birth, and occurs within just a few days of Christmas. So, the current link and all the myths surrounding it and the celebration of Mithra's birth appears unavoidable .

But lets call this holiday by its Iranian name, Chelleh, which does not mean birth? And lets see how it is set within the Iranian calender, relevant to the seasonal changes, and also lets look at the component of the details of this celebration, what to eat , etc. After all, why do we need to accord our holiday to the Western calendar? Did our ancestors worry about the adjustment of their holidays to the Western calendar? Did my grandmother in Yazd knew that Mithra’s birthday, or Chelleh, is just "few days to Christmas?"

Let us look back to the old name along with its roots and set it against its original background and setting, namely the Zoroastrian calendar.

We all know that it is the longest night of the year and that we Iranians celebrate this night by gathering together and eating melons and pomegranates and apples and oranges. We know we have inherited this holiday from our Zoroastrian ancestors. But the question is, why we should celebrate the darkest night of the year? Was not darkness the most signal attribute of Ahriman? Is not the darkness, virtually or metaphorically, denounced as evil? Are not we the creation of light? Are we not supposed to denounce whatever is not from the realm of good? Then why should we celebrate this darkness, which has dominated our life and is going to be around for a while (forty days). Why not wait for February 17 when the light starts taking over the dark nights? Would it not be more suitable for a celebration?

Jose Saramago, A Portuguese Noble laureate, in his magnificent book Blindness, describes the evil of darkness. He tells us the story of an imaginary land which undergoes a temporary contagious disease of blindness. People of the region gradually become blind one after the other to the last. Then a period of murder, rape, plunder, exploitation, hunger, dirt, disease and death follows. It is only after they all regain their sight that they realize what horrifying creatures they might become if they would be out of sight and live under the curtain of darkness.

Nor was darkness as metaphor used only in ancient times. We still refer to any evil deeds as taking place in the darkness. We attribute darkness to whatever we do not have access, and consider it very risky when “we operate in the dark”. We hesitate to make uninformed decision and are wary of anything which is not under the light. We still contrast the darkness of the hidden with the light of exposed truth.

For our good religion, it was neither arbitrary nor vain to enshrine light as the most distinguished aspect of divinity and darkness as the most abhorrent elements of the realm of Ahriman. Given all the doctrines of our old religion, it seems very natural to call for vigilance and awareness when facing an approaching evil. It should not be difficult to imagine that wintertime could be used as a natural reminder of that metaphysical and cosmological darkness standing for evil and it should not be difficult to imagine that these long dark nights could be used as a stage to practice and drill what we should do in preparation of defending ourselves when real evil comes.

The world Chelleh, which does not signify birth, could shed light on the ambiguity surrounding this holiday. The word has three meanings: 1) a piece of cord woven separately along with fabric and used to bind together a roll of fabric. 2) The cord of a bow which holds the arrow about to be released. 3) The 40 days of fasting which pious men would observe in the company of elders or priests in a monastery or forest in an isolated place to purify themselves. This practice was common in Manichean tradition and referred to in related literature (Balvahar). It is this tradition which lends itself to the various sects of dervishes’ practice of purification and Moslems’ forty days of mourning.

Setting this holiday, with its Iranian name, against the background of the Zoroastrian calendar (where the holiday originated) with its very distinct cosmological nature, we could very well think of this holiday as a prescription to guard our good kingdom of light and truth against the enemy if the situation arises. Is there any better time to practice our defensive skill than these long dark nights? And is there any other vigilance better than staying awake and alert (eating citrus fruits and melons)? Is there any other protection better than being together, hand in hand? Is there any other way to alarm our enemy, informing them that we are not sleeping, by making noise (e.g., by cracking nuts)? Do we not know that evil spirits are mostly hiding in the woods behind the trees (so that we knock on wood to avoid evil spirits)? Do we not know that evil’s sense of hearing is the sharpest of his senses
(گوش شیطان کر). And what about pomegranates and watermelons? These are two fruits held in esteem by Manicheans for their red lights and seeds inside. And the traditional food? Eggplants are valued for their seeds signifying the mission of spreading the seed of goodness.

I recall how in 1988, when George Bush’s father was elected president there were those who had the foresight to predict the approaching horror, and half of the country was immersed in gloom and doom, Noam Chomsky, in answer to a journalist who asked how we could go through another four years of darkness, said “People should do what they are doing already, getting together, talking, writing, raising their voices to make sure they are heard. They should let their opposite party know their objections.” Whatever we can say about Chomsky, being Zoroastrian is not one of them, but see how close he is to describing our observance of Chelleh nights?


On 2006 when I delivered my talk and wrote this article, I could not imagine that so soon we would have a real Chelleh, that for forty nights and days we should be alert, wise, together, hands in hands, raising our voice, fighting the Darkness.

Dec 19, 2009

To read the rest, click here.