Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Universalism of the Ahamdinejad’s Government

Serge Barseghian wrote a beautiful anecdote in his article on the Universalism of the Ahamdinejad’s Government.

Once upon a time, there was a king in a nearby country who was very dictatorial and would do whatever he pleased. Luckily, the people in his kingdom were very meek and peace-loving subjects and never protested and would obey their monarch's most unreasonable demands ...

One day, he become very frustrated by all this obedience and wished for some protests or disagreements. He made a new arbitrary rule, that those who want to enter the city should pay a certain amount and then receive a sharp slap on the neck, after which they can enter. The monarch hoped that this utter unreasonableness would stir some anger and protest. This rule was announced and the next day people lined up behind the city gate; they all paid what they were supposed to and extended their necks and received the harsh slap and got their pass and entered.

Days passed and, like everything else, it became a routine. There was no protest. The king was really upset. It was so boring not having any disturbances and or complaints. Finally, he ordered his grand vizier to investigate the matter personally. The vizier went to the gate and saw with his own eyes how orderly the people were, almost as if they were delighted with the new ordinance. He gave the news to the king and the king, now quite furious, said it was impossible that not even a single person should not protest. He urged the vizier to look more carefully and find at least one.

The next day, the vizier went to the gate and announced “Hey people, is there any one among you who is unhappy about this new law?” No one answered. He repeated and repeated and finally, an old man raised his hand and said, “I'd like to protest.” The vizier became very happy and brought him before the king.

The king was glad to be relieved of his boredom, although he was angry that someone dared protested against his rule. He asked him what his complaint was. The old man, a bit frightened and nervous, said: “Your majesty, I do have a complaint. I just wanted to tell you that there are too few guards to slap the people and so we have to stay in line for a long time to receive the slap. I wanted to suggest that you increase the number of guards.”

Barseghian, a member of a non-Muslim minority himself, I believe, leaves out Amadinejad's proclamation of his affinity with the Twelfth Imam. However, he argues, still daringly, about Ahmadinejad’s mission that he has taken upon himself, or which had been invested in him by the Hidden Imam, i.e., the management of the world. He is wondering to what extend this world’s managements will continue, and what price Iranians will have to pay for this lunacy.

But there are other critics who are in a position to protest against Ahmadinejad's premature end of the Occultation and his “world’s management” mission. Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, for one, has stated that the reappearance of the Imam, the end of Occultation, is the domain of the high rank clerics and not a layman such as Ahmadinejad.

Ayatollah Karoubi jokingly objected that attributing this lousy management, with this high inflation, to the Occult Imam would give the people the wrong idea, as if saying all these harsh conditions were his fault, and thus damage the people's faith.

Some laymen have indulged in discussing the issue from the point of view of how the “enemy” will take advantage of such talk and would produce a “false” imam as had happened in the past. (I assume they are referring to Babism and Baha’ism.)

The most diplomatic one came from Abtahi’s blog. A wealthy merchant is robbed on a road. All of his belongings in a box are taken from him. After a while, the thief returns his box untouched. Surprised, the merchant asks the thief for an explanation. The thief points to the prayer attached to the box for its protection and says, “I noticed it when I left you.” “So?” asks the merchant, still puzzled. “I’m a thief of money and valuable goods, I’m not a robber of faith. I read the prayer on your box which was supposed to protect it against evil. If I rob it, I’m robbing your faith and trust, and that I will not do.”

Well, I don’t think we need any further conclusion than asking “Mr. President, what are you up to?”

Indeed, Mr. President has a very good explanation. He said, “If the Imam is coming someday, who said that it will not be in the next months or years.” Whatever we say about Ahmadinejad, I should admit this was not a bad explanation at all. Truly, faith is faith. There is nothing wrong with dreaming of the Imam, imagining him, talking to him, sensing his presence, and even striking up a friendship with him. There is nothing wrong with filling one’s mind and heart with the love and trust of divinity and seeking guidance and protection from him. There is nothing wrong with all this then, and there should not be anything wrong with it now either. This is the meaning of faith, and faith is part of any religion. No one can take it away from people and our beloved president, like anybody else, has a full right to his faith.

However, the two anecdotes above show that there is a limit and that the President has gone way beyond it.

But who is really to blame? Do we blame the children for their excess mischievousness when they take over their parents' and neighbors' lives? Or do we blame the parents who have not drawn a line to show them their limit. Ahmadinejad is the product of a “bad parents” who did not draw a clear line for him to show him his boundaries. He is a rowdy, raucous child who does not know his limits while, it seems, he entertains many with his hijinx. Sounds familiar? I think we all have come at least once to know a child like him, and we have not blamed the child for it.

Objecting to the president’s un-presidential speeches and behavior because it “gives a tool to the enemy” or by reducing it to a joke is futile, since the former is abused so much by the government itself and so has turned into a joke already, and the latter? Do we need Mehdi Karoubi while we have Ebrahim Nabavi and Ebrahim Raha? We have quite a good number of satirists to bring a smile to our faces; what we do not have are politicians interested in solving the country's problems and giving the people peace of mind.

However Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani’s statement is worth pondering: “Only high-ranking clerics can talk about the end of the Occultation.” As far as I know, he is one of the rare clerics who is willing to accept responsibility, at least partially. Yes, Mr. Kani, we are listening, tell us, educate us. We would like to know a few things:

Is He coming at all?

If He is coming, is He coming physically, like a person, or He comes spiritually, through some signs and some other representations?

What will happen after He comes?

Is it going to be the end of the world after His appearance? Could it be in the month of June or July?

Would everything vanish after His appearance? Or does everything resume at a perfect life?

Does His reappearance effect only Iran and few other Shiites lands, such as part of Afghanistan, 60% of Iraq, and 25% of Lebanon, or the whole world?

Please Mr. Ayatollah, if you know something, say something! Who is supposed to explain this to the people? Ahmadinejad is Ahmadinejad. He is doing what he is doing. He is an unruly child, but where are the parents and where is his room that he should be sent to? Who should send him to the corner? (Please do not tell us the Parliament, whose deputies were all confirmed by the Hidden Imam!) In the absence of such disciplinarian parents, our child-president, with his rowdiness, entertains millions of Iranians, and this in addition to the management of the world that might have been part of his mission!

The problem is that none of the ayatollahs really want to set limits for Ahmadinejad. So far, we do not have a clear, or even semi-clear, vision of the nature of the Hidden Imam. Those millions who go for pilgrimage to Jamkaran to visit the Imam’s wells in which he is hidden (and it seems that there are now two wells there), what would they do if they found out that there has never been any Imam in either of them? What would happen if the children and the grandchildren of the cleric who was the proprietor of that property, who have played, run, bicycled, fought, and pull each others hair right in that property, would testify that they had never visited any well with or without the Imam there?

I’m afraid Ayatollah Kani’s declaration would not withstand even a simpleton such as Ahmadinejad. For a change I agree with the president; why shouldn't the Hidden Imam come tomorrow?

Those who have the concession on the issue should at least use the right which is given to them and speak up. What are they waiting for? The Guardian Council is to appoint them or the Supreme Leader? Talk, Mr. Ayatollah, talk and talk soon, before Shariatmadari of Keyhan pulls a few pages of Imam Khomeini’s Sahifeh and declares that only Basijis have the right to declare the end of Occultation. You know, Mr. Ayatollah, “These are strange times, my dear!”

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Anna Karenina

My article (in Persian) on Anna Karenina. To read the rest, click here.

When Tribal Men Talk about Women

The following is a translation of a wonderful article by Mas`ud Naseri about Bijan Bahadori Kashkuli, "The Wind Painter".(1) It was conducted on May 4, 2008.

Bijan Bahadori is a tribologist who depicts the life and the culture of his tribe, the Qashqais, in his paintings. He works in the Naïve School of painting, very much like Mokarrameh Ghanbari, the peasant woman from northern Iran. Bijan employs vivid colors, simple images, and mixed perspectives (direct angle as well as distant views). He uses contrast to create harmony and rhythm, an atmosphere full of energy, movement and life which is the secret of tribal life. As portrayed in Bahadori’s paintings, tribal life owes its energy and vibrancy to its women, and this is the secret of tribal life he tries to reveal by depicting them in his paintings. His paintings have been on exhibit in Iran, France, England, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

Bahadori was born in one of the black tents of the Qashqai tribe. He says he is seventy or even sixty years old, but his wife, Bibi Iran, jokes, “Sixty or seventy? He is ninety years old!”

Undoubtedly, he has sucked the milk off his mother’s breast perfumed with clove and rosemary and slept in a bed covered with salt flowers, sea shells and love rings dropped off snakes when copulating, with the lion’s nail hanging over his crib. He has dreamed of climbing his mother’s delicate silky head gear and has witnessed the life of “tribal women and men who are born on horseback, live on saddles and die while riding.”(2)

Very likely he has spent his childhood in the saddle of new brides riding hill and dale in a Gabbeh and Qashqai tribal klims that he recalls with joy and ecstasy:

I loved painting. There were no tools for it in my tribe, even a pencil. I designed over stone slabs with the sharp edges of pebbles. I would draw horses, goats and camels. My tribal elders showed my paintings to each other and would say, “See, they look very similar to horses and camels.” They would encourage me with their tribal simplicity. Later on, I drew over the blue and while papers wrapped around the Belgian sugar cones. There was no paint or pigment and I had to use the juice and essence of various herbs and plants. I would smash the grass and thought I would make green dye, but after drawing it would yield only a dull brownish color. Despite the lack of facilities, I loved painting. The head of our tribe, Elias Khan Kashkooli, was a cultured man. He liked me and tried to make a good painter out of me. He introduced my paintings to everyone. He even sent me to school so I could learn Persian. In fact, he revived me a and gave me a new life. He introduced me to Mohamad Bahman Beigui, who had a great impact in my life. Later I became an art teacher myself and taught painting and calligraphy to the tribe kids.

Then, he could paint the bluest of the blue sky of his tribe, and “listen to Qashqai music that was nourished from the modest and generous breast of Mother Nature.”(3) He traveled and became a companion to troubadours, storytellers, camel drivers and stevedores, and listened to the magical happy songs of Vasunaks, the sad melodies of Kakams, the exciting and energetic music of Koroghlus, the love songs of Sanan, the lamentations of Aghoriles, the heart-breaking songs of Guriely Khavar, and the epic lyrics of Jongnamehs. He translated them all into the colors and images to his tribal people on his return.

My paintings are narratives from tribal life: women and men and children, migration, hunting, stick games, erecting winter and summer tents, handkerchief dances, weaving klims and gabbehs, spinning wool, horseback riding, cooking food, rebellion, war, and peace among the tribes, nature, local animals, and rain prayer ceremonies in which a designated person with beard and moustache (often artificial) would lead the prayer and sing:
I’m the bride’s drum.
I’m the golden horn.
I bring the wind, I’ll bring the rain.
I do not want anything in return.
I want only some sweet.

The sweet he requests is wheat flour that people would give him willingly. They believe that God would listen to him and send them rain. But, more than anything else…

Love and loving is a different story. Whenever is on top of the mountain, next to the valley of Khosrow and Shirin, such as a ghazal, golden and silky, running under the light of sun or moon, the natives believe to be the Lady of Ladies, the daughter of the chief, with strings of rubies and safire and Kahroba, and delrob on run.

We do not know where and when Bijan Khan and Iran Banoo bound their heart together, but we know Iran Banoo was a rider of the Chariot of Wind.

We do not know whether or not Bijan Khan, when he met Iran Banoo riding on the back of Badjani(4) said in his heart: “You dark-skinned tribal girl, do not boast of your skin color, tell me what you have in your bosom? Is it clove and rosemary that takes away from you the sweat of sowing, weaving, knitting and milking?

But we know for sure that if Iran Banoo would have asked Bijan Khan, “You, young man, what do you have in your leather arms?” Bijan Khan would have answered without hesitation: “I have my paintings of our tribe.”

Not only are his paintings the images of Iran Bibi, but of all those women who have born Iran Bibis, those who themselves were born on the road, sometimes during the migrations and sometimes while fleeing from an enemy, the women who have ornamented the harsh tribal life with the colorful rainbow of their womanly love and wisdom.

I like wedding scenes. I remember my own wedding. I wore pants and a jacket. Iran Banoo had worn local dress. But I don’t know why I never painted our own wedding. In Qashqai’s weddings other tribes would get invited and the celebration would take a week to twenty days. The guests participate in the wedding by bringing lambs and rice as gifts (to help them out). They would play music, young men would dance with sticks and women with colorful kerchiefs and do kel (a joyous sound women make in weddings). Everybody would be happy. Men would shoot and exhibition riding and other sports. In all events, men and women would all be together and never separate, never. The bride would ride on a horse along with a little boy on the saddle as a sign of good omen and good luck. At nights they would set some stones around to make a fire. Every day they would feast, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with tea and yoghurt drinks in between. Of course there are some unfortunate times that wedding turns to mourning… I have painted them all not to get lost.

One of the memorable stories in Qashqaii tribe is the tale of Gureily: The bridegroom went to the mountain to hunt an animal to offer to his bride as a gift, in accordance with tribal custom. While he is setting his traps for his hunt, he is attacked by a tiger. He kills the tiger but at night, fearing an attack by other animals as well as the mountain cold weather, he hides himself inside the tiger’s coat/skin and sleeps there to return to his tribe the day after. At dawn his friends and relative, worried for him, go to the mountain looking for him. A strain of blood leads them a sleeping tiger. Thinking the tiger had killed him, they shoot the tiger. When they get closer, they scream loud enough to shake all the mountains. The bride with her colorful wedding dress climbs the mountain and when she finds out about her husband’s death, she cries and sings heart-rending hymns. A song is composed based on this story which is called Grielly or “Leily’s Crying”(5)

Bijan Khan did not paint this story but he draws plenty of wars, peaces, and quarrels between the tribes which have caused painful divisions or joyous marriages among the young lovers in the tribes.

“Iran, tell them that I hunted a tiger too.”

“Yes, it was in the Spring.”

“I think it was five or six years ago.”

“Five or six? It was thirty or forty years ago!”

Bijan Khan has no intention of getting old… In the cool shadow full of love and affection of the wise and capable women of the tribe there is no way to become old… He expresses his wishes childishly to his wife Iran Bibi and to us as:

“I wish I had a forty foot length of paper on which I could draw the life of our tribe and its beauties.”

Images, color, colorful paintings of life, tales of happiness and woe, struggle and patience, defeat and victory … Bijan’s paintings are filled with the colorful spring rain drops in the meadows and the plains of Fars and the blissful hands of the women that have places these drops one by one in his loom.

If one looks carefully at the tribe’s women, one can find Jahaneh Bibi Kashkooli, who has been an innovating designer and the colorist of the tribal carpets and an innovating expert in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Khadijeh Bibi Kashkooli was the famous wife of the chief of the tribe who was, like her husband, a brilliant fighter. According to an anecdote, Reza Shah had said we have to give this women an honorary army medal … One of the tribes’ popular tales says of her that after her husband was killed by one of the Reza Shah’s men, when she received her husband’s body, she sent a message to the Shah saying, “ Oh kind and just King, I received your honorary military award.”

Bijan Khan still talks about the tribal women and paints them, although he knows that today’s tribal life does not have the color and sound of the past. But he continues painting lest nothing is lost and he sing the song:

Oh, the tall mountain, may I sacrifice my life to your soil and rocks,
Give me a signal until like an eagle,
I fly to your arms
To reach to your peaks,
And gaze on my tribe from your heights.
Where is that massive Qashqai tribe?


(1)“Wind Painter” was the title exhibits of the painter in 2005, in Netherland.

(2) Ashayer Iran, Nasrolah Kasra’ian and Ziba Arshi, Mo’alef publication, 1373.

(3)If there were no Ghareh ghach, Bahman Beigui, Novid Shiraz publication. 1381


(5)kouch ba Eshgh-e Shaghayegh, Manouchehr Kiani, Kian Nashr-e Shiraz Publisher, 1377
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Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Blood of Flowers

Against the backdrop of Persian art and craft of carpet weaving, wrapped in seven sheer layers of Persian folkloric-mystical tales, Anita Amirrezvani weaves her narrative of The Blood of Flowers, her first novel.

The story’s unnamed narrator tells her life story, woven delicately among the colorful flowers and leaves and birds and animals which gradually appear as five carpets are woven. The seven tales, alluding to the seven mystic steps Sufi masters have set to lead seekers of absolute truth or love to the most inner self, serves a two-fold function: to help the narrator demystify the ambiguities of her own fate and destiny and to encourage her to bear it courageously and to keep the reader from losing patience while confronting the extremities of pains and hopelessness woven into the fabric of the narrator’s life.

The art of carpet weaving is not used decoratively, informatively, or even metaphorically, as has been suggested by some reviewers. Indeed it plays a structural as well as an instrumental role in her story, functioning just as the art of illustration and miniature did in Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated novel My Name Is Red.

Anita Amirrezvani successfully, with a fairy tale style narrative, tells us a magical tale which unfolds in a magical land and a magical time. Though the setting is too far away in Isfahan and in the seventeenth century, the carpet design lends its lack of perspective to the characters in this tale, allowing them to transcend time and space to connect to us, the reader, here and now. However this universality never diminishes the liveliness, vividness and individuality of the characters, thanks to our author’s skillfulness.

The story’s narrator is a carpet weaving villager who is caught in a web of misfortunes but manages against all odds to pull herself up into the centre of a male-dominated carpet industry as a major designer. In a charming and engaging, though very sad, story we follow her obsessively from the profound depth of her misery to the peak of her glory as if it is our own fate. Exaggerated as it appears, the story is an idealized narrative of an intense infusion of centuries of epical struggles of Iranian women to overcome the obstacles of male-dominated tradition, religion, and politics which hinders them. (I very deliberately and consciously avoid the term culture when the suppression of women is concerned. I very strongly feel that Iranian “culture” is not misogynistic and it seems, judging from the two male characters in the story, that the narrative’s father and her uncle, Amirrezvani agree with me.)

The sharp contrast between the wealthy and haughty and the poor and humble, the glory of the city of Isfahan with all its magnificent bridges, mosques, palaces, and public squares and the extreme poverty, disease, filth and squalor of the narrator’s life, are effective in giving the idealized characters a vivid life, just as the play of colors separate the various idealized layers of images in the carpet designs. The dichotomy of two worlds is also used to advance various themes in the novel as well, such as sexuality, child bearing, marital discrimination, and luck and chance versus merit.

Our narrator’s divided city, with all it contrasts, is a natural setting to tell us that once upon a time “chance and luck” overrode merit; women’s life was glued to only one tiny thread, the child or the children she bore; the only value in a woman was in the pleasure she could bestow; at the age of thirty she was considered old; her dowry was the price she had to pay to buy a life; the world was divided into two halves, those who lived it and those who stare at those who lived it; some did not even have the right to a lawful marriage; others were destined to a term marriage for a limited time only, sigheh; and the institution of family was the prize not for all but for a privileged few.

Our narrator’s divided city is a two-colored life, and our narrator is a denizen of the dark and unfortunate side. Her struggle is not only to achieve happiness, in spite of what was destined for her and many other women throughout the centuries, but an effort to redefine “happiness.” The narrator, to her own disbelief, succeeds in bringing a new life and a new meaning to a concept which for centuries was imprisoned in rigid cliché.

“I had never imagined that a woman like myself, alone, childless, impoverish—could consider herself blessed. Mine was not a happy fate, with the husband and seven beautiful sons, that my mother’s tale had foretold. Yet with the aroma of the pomegranate-walnut chicken around me, the sound of laughter from the other knotters in my ears, and the beauty of the rugs on the loom filling my eyes, the joy I felt was as wide as the desert we had traversed to reach our new life in Isfahan.”

Not only has the narrator crossed a line to change the definition of happiness, but she dares to see the boredom and unhappiness in a life that for centuries was considers ideal and desirable. When she crosses that border and reaches the land of her dreams, she finds just sadness, waste, and loneliness—nothing but a gilded prison. She considers herself lucky not to dwell in that realm. She finds that in reality it is the habitants of that life who are deprived, since they cannot make a mistake and learn from it, since they live an unworthy, unexamined life which is nothing but a gradual death.

“I did not envy her. Each time a gate closed with a thud, I was reminded that while I was free to come and go, she could not leave without an approved reason and a large entourage, she could not walk across the Thirty-three Arches Bridge and admire the view, or get soaked to the skin on a rainy night. She could not make the mistakes I had and try again. She was doomed to luxuriate in the most immaculate of prisons.”

There is a myth in carpet weaving circles that the carpet weavers intentionally leave at least one erroneous knot in the carpet as a sign of humility and submissiveness to God, since it is only He Who is perfect and can create perfection, while some experts in Iranian medieval arts hold that there is no such thing as an intentional error in art and that this myth is just a clever justification for the unavoidable. After all, a work of art as massive as a carpet with such a complexity of design is never devoid of mishap.

Following the carpet weavers’ myth, Amirrezvani, intentional or otherwise, leaves some missing knots in her tapestry. I found it troubling that it ends so rapidly and so “heavily” in a very uncustomary way. The long paragraph running from page 359 to 360, just eight pages to the end of the story, is a much-delayed explanation of the narrator’s “trade of life of occasional opulence” for the life of “hard work.” One needs to know this when the narrator makes the decision or at least shortly thereafter. The sophisticated explanation, attributed to her learning from her uncle, with all the mystical tone in it, obviously justifies the expectation. As she gains in knowledge gradually and step by step, as she strengthen her self-confidence through her experience and her learning, and since she distances herself from her sigheh, physically, mentally as well as metaphorically, she waits too long to talk about it, and that only too little.

The other missing knot, which I’m impatient to air my feminist’s view of, is the letter that the narrator writes to her friend Naheed expressing her regret for not “doing her best to stop her renewal of her sigheh,” which had been decided upon by her relatives even prior to her knowledge of Naheed’s engagement. I wonder why she did not ask Naheed what she would have done had she known about her sigheh. Would she have broken off her engagement and consequently her marriage? Would it have been for her sake? Or for finding Ferydoon, (her temporary husband and now Naheed’s permanent husband), no longer worthy of herself ? Indeed, this short letter deserves good amount of consideration from a feminist perspective. There is a solid tone of inferiority embedded in the narrator’s guilt and consequently her asking for forgiveness. I wondered why she felt so obliged to her friend and not the other way around.

However, neither of these two objections diminishes the joy of reading such a well-crafted tale. Indeed, I expect the book to stir much discussion both in Iranian literary circles as well as among feminists on these two issues, as well as many others, particularly over the aesthetic aspect of story. Amirrezvani may have philosophical and aesthetic views on both objections. She may believe that more time was needed for the narrator to achieve a status on par with Naheed’s, or even some moral consideration which is left unclear in the story. I’m looking forward to hear her comments on these issues.

One last point. This book may be of interest for art historians for many reasons just as My Name Is Red was read and used widely by those interested in all aspects of the Iranian and Ottoman miniature and illustrations. While a little knowledge of Iranian medieval art would help the reader, particularly non-Iranians, enjoy the book more, I very much hope the book itself would encourage the reader to learn more about our magnificent heritage. A few years ago at NYU, Orhan Pamuk gave a talk, and an Iranian in the audience exclaimed to a friend of mine, “What if we had a writer like him!” I hope this audience member discovers Amirrezvani; she might be the writer she was looking for.

I extend my warmest thanks to Ms. Amirrezvani for her massive work, which is truly the labor of love.

PS: The author's publicist has kindly offered to give free copies of the book to the first five readers of Iran Writes to ask for them. Don't be shy!

To read the rest, click here.