Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Independent Films on Iran: Religion and Politics at a Nonreligious and Nonpolitical Event

Bahman Maghsooudlou welcomed a whole crowed to the Asia Society-sponsored International Short Film Festival: Independent Films on Iran. The Ziba Foundation’s Nina Ghavami, the organizer, emphasized the festival’s non-religious and non-political character.

I’m sure that the amount of work involved in organizing this festival could not have left any time for the organizers to contemplate what would be considered religious or political. The spheres of religion and politics has become such a frightening realm that every organization runs from them. This is so widespread that not only is their meaning lost, but their effect as well.

The first program, “Art and Culture,” was indeed more religious than one might have expected. Five films in this section had a heavy religious tone, even if we call it culture. This was sufficient enough to puzzle at least our non-Iranian audience as to what it meant for the festival to be non-religious, and this aside from the emblem of the festival being a pair of farahvashi wings!

However, religious sentiment was not celebrated, but mourned with a grim, nostalgic eulogy for the death of religion. Almost all of the films either concerned pre-Islamic arts or Zoroastrianism’s tenets, with the exception of one Safavid Mosque. In all these films, religious sentiment was tied with the life and history as inseparable. The most noticeable in this category was The Persian Tree, the saga of Zarathustra. At the opening scene, a bird is bathing in the river with flowers floating over, when we hear a hymn from that Gathas on Vahoumana’s appearing to the prophet to lead him into Ahura Mazda’s presence to receive his mission. The seed of life which is sown in our land and has sprouted has gone through a lot, resisted much, and has spread far and wide is nothing other than our age-old Zoroastrian culture manifested in the form of large palm trees in Kashmar, reputed to be thousands of years old. The film maker had not written a hymn of celebration but a dirge; and the closing scene of the dead body of a bird in the polluted dirty river was an undignified funeral for what is not needed any more. Our Good Religion, as well as its God, was presented as dead; its livelihood, which is the function of practicing both its meaning and its rituals, was replaced only with a sense of nostalgia. It is indeed true, and could be said very safely, that what is left of that wonderful religion is the same several thousand years old tree of Iran every shred of which we now hang onto, even if it means tying a tiny piece of cloth to its withered branches.

The second day’s films were highly political indeed, though some films deliberately declared that they were “not political.” Well, “A rose by any name smells as sweet.”

Two films in this section very well illustrate the blend of politics with life. Alireza Darvish’s Foot Steps of Water, echoing Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem of the same title. The film was a very personal experience of Darvish, who left the country as a political refugee, and in his transmigration he notices that he had to change his symbolism from the dry land language to that of the seashore. He learns the universal medium of the books and words and, in his case, the brushes and paints he depicts the life with. His messages are nothing if not political; it is about the freedom and expressing it, freedom and sharing it, freedom and treasuring it, freedom and spreading it, freedom and guarding it, all through the single medium of animated paintings. Darvish, while very consciously portraying his innermost world, his thoughts, and his experiences, describes an undeniable universal message which transcends the borders of time and locality. While trying to avoid politics, his message is nothing but political; secular as he is, he is like a monk piously worshipping while his wife and three children stand by his side smiling.

The other film in this series was Underneath My Father’s House. Two years after the Islamic Revolution, a leftist intellectual, who does not have the heart to burn his books and newspapers, buries them underground in his father’s old house. After twenty years, in 2001, he returns to find that what he did not have the heart to do, nature and time had done for him. The books were corroded underground and had turned into a mound of rubbish. While the camera was showing the salvaged pieces of newspaper and pamphlets, I could see it was all leftist pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers; all standard of what we call “political” has turned into rubbish. Oddly enough, the professor goes to the post office and receives bundles of books shipped to him from Iran, all of them classical Iranian literature newly published in fancy hardcover editions, the mystical poets Hafez and Rumi among them. While the standard obvious “politics” disappear, true politics persists and carries on indeed.

On the opening night, I talked to Hafez Nazeri about their next performance in the Carnegie Hall. “Next year,” he said, as if it were tomorrow. “Of course it is tomorrow because he is so passionate about his work,” I thought. While talking about peace, politics, and art, and their interconnections, he said, to my surprise, “I’m not political, but Rumi is political. One cannot sing his poetry without feeling political.” Hearing a young artist who is trying to mix traditional music, something which he has inherited from a master-father, with modern western music, talk about “Rumi and politics” and “feeling political” was a testimony sent to me from heaven; yes we can, yes we do, yes we will, and yes we will succeed in bringing life to a unified circle. The statement, had it come from an authority, could not have excited me as much as an unpremeditated and spontaneous expression of an artists who is no authority and has no claim over a giant like Rumi. It was just coming from him which made it a testimony to the truth which I appeal to.

I would not be surprised if the director or the screen writer of The Persian Tree wanted to celebrate the persistence of the Good Religion in our present life. I have no doubt that Darvish may not have wanted to sound so pious, nor do I doubt that the director of Underneath My Father’s House wanted to arouse the audience’s sympathy. However, they had the opposite effect on me. While they all focused on their points of view, some of us peeked through different windows to observe their intended objects. Thus is the world according to our prism-shape looking glass.

Religion as an act of devotion could manifest itself in art or in human services. Politics as a governing skill could be applied to small organization, even one consisting of a single person. Picking up a piece of garbage from the street could be done with one of the above or both intentions. Similarly, holding an arts festival could be motivated by either one of these intentions. (I personally categorize true artists, literary writers, clerics, and journalists as holy people who devote their lives without gaining any material reward.) While religion and politics, in their narrow sense, can be mutually exclusive, their broader meaning does not allow such restrictions. By emphasizing this kind of exclusion, we are either saying something trivial (that the film festival is not a new sect of religion or political party) or we are saying something which is not true. In either case, it is no less hypocritical than the Islamic Republic’s piety.

Let us be done with this non-religious, non-political labeling. Let us be religious, since we all are, and let us be political, since we all are, let us be truthful to ourselves and more important to each other, since many of us are not.

To read the rest, click here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Poets and Pahlevans


My name is Marcello Di Cintio and I am a writer based in Calgary, Canada. My latest book, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, chronicles my travels to Iran in 2003 and 2004. I would like to thank Mina for inviting me to be a guest on this blog and giving me the opportunity to share some of my Iranian experiences with her readers.

The purpose of my travels to Iran was to seek out two distinct ‘phenomena’ of Iranian culture. The first is the Iranian love of poetry. After reading about the great Persian poets and how they are revered by Iranians, I decided to make my own ‘pilgrimages’ to these poets’ tombs. My second focus was on traditional Persian wrestling. As a retired wrestler myself – I have the scarred ears to prove it – I was interested in the ancient wrestling forms that were practiced in the rural areas of Iran. I resolved to seek out these styles, if they still existed, as I traveled in Iran. Fortunately, for both myself and my publisher, I was successful in both pursuits.

I spent four and a half months in Iran altogether; six weeks in the summer of 2003 and another two months the following autumn. In that time I managed to travel through much of the country. I spent a fair but of time in Iran’s big cities. I learned the pleasures of sipping tea under Esfahan’s bridges. I joined the devotees of Hafez in Shiraz and the pilgrims of Emam Reza in Mashhad. Most importantly, perhaps, I learned how to cross streets of the capital without dying. In fact, when people ask me if I ever was afraid in Iran – and they ask me this all the time – I say I was most afraid of being run down by the motorcycles that sped along the sidewalks of Tehran.

However, my dual focus of wrestling and poetry led me into some of the country’s lesser-visited regions. I found myself a guest at a Turkmani wedding in a village near the border with Turkmenistan. There I watched alish wrestlers fight in the dust for the entertainment of the groom. I found the tomb of poet Parvin E’tesami amid the splendor of Qom’s Hazerat-e Masumeh. I broke the Ramazan fast with a family in a desert oasis, and shared a funeral meal with mourners in the Zagros Mountains.

In Iran, I became fascinated by the concept of the pahlevan. The word is common throughout the Middle East and can mean, simply, ‘wrestling champion.’ In Iran, however, the pahlevan holds a special cachet. The pahlevan is not just a gifted athlete, but a good man. He is a community leader, a good father and husband, a person of great integrity and honour. He represents a sort of masculine ideal. The pahlevan has its origins in poetry, namely a first-century epic poem called Shahnomeh written by the great Persian poet, Ferdosi. (His tomb in Tus was the first poet’s tomb I visited) In Shahnomeh, great warriors fight over and over again for the survival, and glory, of Persia. These men are the archetypal pahlevans.

The idea of the pahlevan is, arguably, an old fashioned one, but I had the good-fortune to encounter modern-day pahlevans during my travels. I met an eighty year-old wrestler in a zurkhane, a sort of archaic wrestling gymnasium. The man told me about his successes as a wrestler and about his former feats of strength. He also told me that a revival of the pahlevan tradition could change Iran for the better. Then he removed his shirt to show me the tattoos on his arms and chest. They were characters from Shahnomeh. I saw poetry and wrestling collide in ink on this man’s flesh.

This was not the last time I would see the combination of wrestling and poetry, however. At the annual loucho championships near the Caspian Sea coast, poems were sung before the competition began. Some of the poems were indigenous to that region of Iran, but verses from the Shahnomeh were also sung. An announcer recited poems of the great local poet Makhtumgoli before wrestlers battled for the groom at the Turkmani wedding. Sung poetry inspired the ritual exercises of the men in the zurkhanes.

For Iranians, though, none of this would be unexpected. I learned early on that, in Iran, poetry is everywhere. Taxi drivers recited poetry to me as we navigated the clogged streets. In the Tabriz bazaar, a kebab vendor, his shirt translucent with grease, took a moment to write for me on a napkin verses about traveling from the Shirazi poet Sa’adi. I met a man who told me that when he was a sailor in the Shah’s navy he used to read Molanna every night aboard his ship.

My favourite ‘poetic’ moment, though, came in a small village in the Sabalan Mountains in northwestern Iran. An eleven year-old Azeri boy asked me to write something for him in English. I wrote my name, my age and where I was from on a scrap of paper. I translated it for him, then I asked him to write something for me in Farsi. He tore a page out of his mathematics workbook and wrote two lines:

Answer my pleas,
You who are the Friend of Love.

That scrap of paper is one of my most treasured souvenirs from Iran.

Poets and Pahlevans started out as a traveler’s exploration of two divergent facets of Iranian culture. The book ended up, unsurprisingly, as a 300-page love letter to the Iranian people. A reviewer in Canada said that the best parts of the book are not my discussions of poetry or wrestling at all, but the moments I spend with everyday Iranians. I would say that the best thing about Iran is the Iranians themselves. If this book succeeds in portraying this reality to its readers then it is, for me, a success.

I want to thank Mina again for allowing me to commandeer her blog. If anyone is interested, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran is available at bookstores in Canada, and through everywhere.

Best regards,
Marcello Di Cintio

To read the rest, click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My Day of Peace

Brooklyn for Peace invited me to give a short talk in a rally held in front of the Supreme Court in the Borough Hall in Brooklyn and at a Peace Fair in Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. They were small gatherings, mostly middle aged, of peace activists, a few politicians, old commies, and some academics, and almost all the women’s peace groups. The absent of young people was striking and discouraging. In contrast to our country, where, since Constitutional movement of a hundred years ago, we never had any movements which had not been initiated by or tied to the younger generation and university students, it seems that in the United State the only time students became involved in the affairs of life was during the Vietnam War when there was a draft.

In my talk, I focused chiefly on how war is a desirable and marketable commodity in this country. An attractive packaging covers war’s ugliness and an exaggerated, vilified portrait of the enemy, who might have been friend just the day before, is usually enough to legitimize war and even wins over public opinion. I told the audience that I wanted them to would see the face of the enemy which is supposed to be bombed next.

My face.

I told them of the earliest memory I had from the same very government which is involved in two unfinished wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and now wants to start a third one.

When I was a child in Iran, we lived, with my parents, in a military camp which was the center for the army’s chemical industry. Parchin was a half hour drive from east of Tehran. It was located on the outskirts of the Alborz Mountains, and a river, Jajrood, ran along it. It had originally been built with the help of the Swedish government and was improved by Germans and then by British. By the time Iran was tied to the Americans, the base functioned self-sufficiently. Due to the sensitive nature of the activities there, the entry and exit were closely monitored and limited to the residents and their visitors.

One day, my father rushed home hurriedly, turned on the radio, and listened intensely. I was playing outside and followed him in, with the hope that he would pay a little attention to us now and then. He was so occupied with the news that he did not even notice me. I went outside and saw a few of our neighbors were practically running home. My mother arrived from summer school with my brothers and sister, almost everybody running. Apparently she had closed the school and had sent children home. All I knew was that something had happened, but I did not know what. Very soon, electricity was shut off, and as the air darkened, the whole camp slid into a deep silence and darkness. My mother in the kitchen, with a very grim face, was preparing food as if we were expecting lots of guests, although no announcement had been made and the house did not have the festive atmosphere which usually followed that kind of activity in the kitchen.

After nightfall, guests arrived one by one, all in uniform. It was the first time they would come to our home at night in uniform. Some of them rushed to another room and came out as women, whom I recognized as the wives of some of these officers. Since martial law had been declared, only military men were permitted out in the street, and the officers’ wives had to dress in their husbands’ uniforms. Very soon the large living room and dining room were filled with almost every military man in the camp. They sat and talked and drank. We, the children, were not allowed to walk in, but at some moment I peeked through the crack of the door and I saw that almost everyone was crying.

For much of the next day, the mood of whole camp was as grim as that night. I do not recall how long it took for life to return to normal, but it was too long to bear. There was no laughter, no joking and no teasing when playing backgammon. There were, however, more social gatherings, almost every night and all in silence. I felt that someone had died.

After a few years, though I was still a child, I learned what had happened that night. It was the 1953 CIA coup which toppled Prime Minister Dr. Mossadegh’s democratically-elected government. In the following years, much happened in the country as well as in our private lives, but I never saw my parents’ faces as grim as I saw them that night, and I never saw that crowed the way they sat down in silence and cried. Never!

Now, when we hear the news of attacking Iran and the threat of hitting the nuclear facility, particularly after Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University and his denunciation as a little dictator and so on, the picture of those event some half a century ago came to mind.

While I contemplate the possibility of war, with Parchin as a prime target, all I remember is the face of my parents and their friends in that room behind the closed door, wet with tears. It was not just a loss or a failure. I think it was shame, it was the tears of humiliation, those officers had not even been given a chance to defend their country, to do the job that they had been trained for. Some foreign agents had easily smashed their entire lives’ work, all the hope for a modern state and a lawful society. Though I was only four years old that night, that story was told and retold, again and again, so often that it became part of my very being. That shame and humiliation carved into that identity forever and always comes to mind whenever Americans want to deliver and dispatch their democracy anywhere in the world and whenever they want to rescue the freedom from the hands of villains.

Ironically I’m American now, and I’m not expected to care less for the country which is day and night portrayed as “my” enemy. I feel like a centaur, half of my life I was Iranian and half American. But what does it means to me? Am I an enemy of myself? Where do I have to draw the line? That blue passport in my pocket book or the red one in my desk draw? Should I wait here and share the Thanksgiving dinner and blessing with my American family when they bomb Parchin, when the school which was built practically and physically by my mother is turned into ashes; when those families whom my father helped to become part of a modern Iran die under the ruins caused by my fellow Americans? When did all this happen? When love united me with a man who happened to have a blue passport? Did that unity divided us?

In despair, many times I asked my husband what would we do if evil appears in the guise of democracy. He did not hesitate even a second: “We will go home together.” There was not the slightest doubt in his voice. Deep in my heart I know we are not alone. There are millions of Iranians who feel that way, millions of us in whom an Iranian heart still beats.

Some half a century later, we are again losing to shame and dishonor. This time the world is gazing upon us, with all the humiliation we have to face. However, as an adult I do not look at their shame and tears from the crack of the door. I would prefer to cry with them and die among them.

To read the rest, click here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Saffron Sky, A Life between Iran and America, by Gelareh Asayesh

A young, educated, pampered, highly-achieving Iranian woman who immigrated to the United States at a very young age writes her memoir. She came from a privileged background, and continued to live a privileged life in America as well. She is one among many second generation Iranian immigrants who occupy prestigious positions as doctors, engineers, computer scientists, university professors, lawyers and journalists. Even in her field, journalism, there are enough young Iranians for her to lose her novelty. She is not abandoned, she is not abused; she has not suffered. With my painful experiences of reading the solicited memoirs of the younger generation in mind, I found Gelareh Asayesh’s memoir a delightful exception. This is the second book in the row of this generation that has come counter to my expectation. Does it mean the age of Not without my Daughter is over? Just few months ago came the horror of Camelia.

Saffron Sky’s opening chapter put it off to a good start. In her short prologue, she recalls her new home in the Maryland and the first day she is not working outside and is left alone at home, writing:

I had achieved, purely by chance, a reincarnation of past happiness. I lived a dream of childhood days in Iran, when activity ceased in the heat of the afternoon sun, and the neighborhood slumbered in silence, and my grandmother’s garden filled with the sound of the wind in the apricot trees.

Asayesh is not the first of Iranian to seek her identity and her past, and to be nostalgic about it. She is not the first who finds it difficult to stop being Iranian and start becoming American, nor is she the first who does not know where one ends and the other begins. However she sees very clearly the blurry line drawn between the two. The book is partly an examination of what appears as bridges which seem easy to cross to reach the American side, and the experience of crossing these lanes which are, in fact, quite narrow if not impassible.

The fully aware young teenager finds, at a very early stage, that there is no easy way and what appears as easy is just a mirage. In Chapel Hills, North Carolina, they cross the roads very quickly and easily.

Sometimes during the first year we were overcome by the futility of holding on the past. Iran was far away, and piece by piece we started letting go of the old and embracing the new. I bought a pair of rust-colored corduroys. My sister acquired, amid great family tension, a boyfriend. Homajooon (mother) started cultivation African violets. Baba unbent enough to venture outdoors in flip flops instead of proper shoes.

As for being American, it takes more than mere adjustment; most of it comes from the difficulty of being Iranian in the past tense. The pain of what to do with our past remains to be solved. Carrying it into our life here? Forget it? Deny it? Simply be nostalgic about it? Asayesh tells us about her conflicted school years’ experience: Her memoir of high school years stands up well among her other chapters. “To fit in,” she feels, requires more than “studying well and behaving well. It requires growing faster than what an ordinary person takes to grow and it does not matter that in the end you just pretend that you have grown.” She founds soon:

But in America childhood seemed to end early, to be replaced by cultivated cynicism that masked both vulnerability and immaturity. I was still a child, with a child’s joy in simple and pleasures and a secret delight in the safety of rules and restrictions. Going to high school in America felt like a violation of my childhood, an abrupt and painful loss of innocence.

In spite of what she knows and all that happens counter to her intuition or upbringing, the inevitable must be met, one needs to grow and survive. It is at her prom that she arrives at the decision to fulfill the unspoken agreement of an immigrant:

That night, the web of belief and expectation that bound me broke apart and formed a new pattern. I slipped the tight moorings of my heritage and began to yield to the imperative of the here and now.

Later on she writes:

When I was in high school and college, I longed to be delivered of the burdens of the past, to be free to belong in the world of my peers. Now that I lived outside the constraints of family and culture, I discovered in myself a need to belong in ways that transcended the superficial acceptance of my friends.

It is not only the past which is haunting her; the present, daily existence, appears as ghostly as past, where she is dealt with as a third person, when everyone is trying to cut her from what she had been, and she has to assent to it.

"You know, it says in the Bible those people over there are descended from jackals.”

"Actually, I’m from over there”

He looked at the TV screen above the City Desk and said, I have nothing against the Iranian people. I had a roommate once who was Iranian. He was really nice.”

What is missing in her life is not only the tangibles, she craves, indeed, for something whose nature she is not fully aware of, though, but she feels its absence. Once, covering a murder story—a young women was murdered and was left in the middle of field—she writes:

Once death had been noted on the murder tally, it was forgotten. But the experience haunted me. At night, lying in bed in the silent apartment I shared with a largely absent roommate, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being alone in a cruel world. Cut off from family and friends, I felt myself adrift. There were no buffers between me and life’s harsh realities, no cocoon of familiarity and routine to shelter me no one’s love to anchor me.

She can draw a line between “belonging” and “getting adjusted to” or attaining the "approval of the judges," and it is "belonging" that she seeks, belonging to herself, for which she must first come to terms with her past and with her Iranian being.

Though she became an American in the ways of thought and language as well, still she sees in herself something which others are unable to see, her “Iranian inside,” though it is too far away, with a big gulf which she desire to cross, but feels it is impossible.

In 1990, when I obtained the green card that cemented my foothold in the West and permitted travel to and from Iran, it was instinct that drove me to return. With that first trip back, I began the long slow road toward resurrecting a buried self. And vowed I would never suffer that inner shriveling of an isolated core, the immigrant’s small death, again.

And again:

Though, in practice we stayed here because it gave us better life. Because we had endured so much in leaving Iran; and it was too hard to go back.

 Interestingly enough, being from the holy city of Mashhad, most of her trip is spent there as well as the villages and other noted towns in the area. And there, one of the first places we visit with her is the Shrine and we hear her aunts talking about the pilgrimage. Asayesh’s recounting of the pilgrimage as the “a pilgrimage of soul” might very well be a two-edged sword. I felt a religious tone in her secular trip; it was indeed her pilgrimage of her body and soul to the shrine of her being Iranian.

No, her trip to Iran was not a lavish feast she would invite us to. Indeed we, the reader, did not matter at all. It was not a grand tour for the American tourist there either. She did try not portray the better side of Iran and the so-called Iranian heritage. No grandiose Iran this and that, but a humble, modest, and honest report of one’s trip back home as if it had taken place in her absolute privacy. As if she was not seen, as if she had no witnesses. The book came from the depth of her solitude, as if she were whispering to herself.

She tells us she always brings back plenty of saffron flowers to enclose in the Christmas cards she sends to her friends; I found her whole account of her pilgrimage as a bundle of saffron flowers sent to all of us readers, I sensed its aroma. It may be my medievalist side which attaches such a mystique to aroma rather than color, and it is from my medievalist side that I can even appreciate more the mystique she brings us with her book. True, young as she is, with such an earthly profession, journalism, the word “mystique” might sounds a bit out of order, but I did not have the heart to dismiss whatever comes to me from those delicate description of her grazing site with anything less than aroma.

It is not only the various circumstances and feelings that she is fully aware of. She seems to be aware that she would probably be one of the last who sees some of the Iranian artifacts, rituals and ways of life and characters that very soon all depart and end up in the time capsules in museums. Whether she is describing her attendance in the public bath or her dialogue with her aunt over the installation of the European toilet seat and paper holder for her American husband; whether she is describing the slaughter of a sacrificial lamb or the mourning passion plays; a wedding or family visits; drinking tea with a total stranger in a tea houses by the road or taking a nap in a public gardens after the meal; going to the cemetery or shrines and praying with her aunt or getting into arguments with her secular friends; all and all equally come with an aroma since they have emerged from a truth-loving soul.

She seems to return home with her hands full. She is content with her pilgrimage since she has gone there in earnest and she returned fulfilled.

This is a book which I do recommend to all, as usual, to our younger friends, Barzin, Parisa, and Payam, Sarvin and Nasim, Tammy and Rad and Sina and Parsa and Ava, Tara and Amir Hussein, Shahrouz and Rouzbeh and Sharareh. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

To read the rest, click here.