Monday, January 31, 2011

Iran and the West (Part 3)

I had in the past made posts related to part 1 and part 2 of this award-winning BBC4 documentary.

As I am trying to take bird's view of what is happening in Egypt, what is happening in Iran (execution orgy) and about Iran, I started thinking about Part 3 of this documentary.

The first part of this episode is about Iran's collusion with the USA over Afghanistan and Iraq--and the arrogance of Bush administration to accept Khatami's proposal to approach Iraq's problem in consultation with its bordering neighbors plus Egypt.

The second (and larger) part is about Iran's nuclear standoff (starting minute 18).

Khatami speaks bitterly about Mahammad Al-Baradei's backstabbing Iran (minute 27-30), turning back from his initial agreement and definition of suspension terms, and siding with the Europeans--thus undermining Khatami internally, and empowering the Iranian conservatives against the reformists. Yet, when the Israel Lobby calls El-Baradei a stooge of the Iranian government, (while keeping in mind that the current Iranian government HATES Khatami,) you can't help wondering what's going on in the most recent Middle Eastern game. Of course, there is little surprise why Israelis hate El-Baradei. To me, El-Baradei seems like a flip-flopper, at least as far as the Iranian nuclear issue is involved. He has always talked of peace and dialogue but he has a track record of flopping narratives too.

I think the dynamics surrounding the Iranian Nuclear Issue should not be forgotten these days, despite the boiling North African revolutions. As we see in this video, even a conservative hardliners like Larijani, close to Khamenei, has been undermined in making progress on this issue (minutes 54-56). To the great pleasure of Israel, Ahmadinejad has not allowed that to happen.

(Please also watch minute 32-36, to refresh your memories about how American politicians are responsible for the killing of innocent Iranian men and women who die in plane crashes. I laughed over the slip of the tongue: "we had tried regime chan..." in minute 51, by Richard Burns.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Masterpieces that are not nominated for Oscar: Women Without Men.

Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, 2009) deserves a place amongst those cinematic masterpieces that will have remained obscure, perhaps for ever.

Despite winning the Silver Lion of the Venice Film Festival in 2009 (for best director), and despite generating a lot of paparazzi and revolutionary buzz around Shirin Neshat's "green" and "feminist" appearance on the red carpet, the film received little cinematic attention. In fact, it did not make it to many art house cinemas around the world before it was released on DVD.

With my little expertise in how media and film interact, I would have advised Neshat to not publicize this fantastic piece of visual art in the narrow tunes of feminist-Iranist-activist horn. This may be why the film has not reached the greater art and politics audience it deserves. The danger with linking a film to a contemporary 'revolution' (the Green one at this time) is that both the art houses and the big-buck distributors and promoters become hesitant to pick it as a favorite. I think this film deserved an oscar nomination (but I understand the politics that have kept it away, as well.)

And of course, there is the fallacy of the teasers. None of the teasers I saw of the film encouraged me to expect from the film what it actually contained: visual poetry; each frame freezing an instance where pain and beauty intersected. "I don't make pictures to be beautiful, I only make pictures where beauty conveys a pain or a struggle", says Shirin Neshat in the Special Feature chapter of the DVD I just received from Amazon.UK (~ 10$). (I confess that I was so disgruntled by the whole green symbolism around this film that I did not want to see it for a long time; I just dislike artists engaging in explicit propaganda--but this film is NOT propaganda at all, even if the artist says it is, don't believe her.)

The Guardian and the NYT have given it a nod, highlighting the women and the 1953 coup aspect of the film; the LA Times focused on the green on the red carpet part; although there were some LA writers who focused on the poetics of the film; the Variety acknowledge the visual beauty only to bash the narrative difficulties; The London Times was the one to correctly suggest the name misled the audience to expect a feminist rant instead of a human story; although the Feminist review insists on the feminist rant. Perhaps the most justice was delivered by the New York Review of Books, where Sarah Kerr acknowledged and contextualizes this work in relation to Neshat's previous monumentally turbulent [PLEASE WATCH] creations. Kerr talks about the caustic wit of Shahrnoush Parsipour, whose novel Neshat free-adapted; talks about the history of the American coup and the role of women in Iran's 1953 society; but also draws attention to elements of set design; and the details of this wonderful (and rare) period film:

"Neshat’s beautiful images, and also her sounds, remain a clear strength over her plotting. As in Turbulent, she casts a spell portraying musicians at weddings and salons. In another short but fierce scene, women in black sitting cross-legged in a courtyard are swaying as they wail, their voices fused into a buzzing sound like a medieval shawm. The film keeps returning to the image of a walled garden outside Tehran that is also key to the novel, a temporary place of refuge for the women and a thematically loaded idea. The first time we glimpse the garden, it looks like little more than a scrawny ribbon of stream water. But soon enough tall trees come into view, and fog cut by stripes of sunlight. There is an orchard nearby and there are plants, not overly tended by perfecting human hands and gone to seed. Visually the scene has magic in it—a quiet dense with the work of nature, a paradise saturated with the energy of life, cycling toward death and back again."
The troubled production history of the film is remarkable: Neshat's brother dies a day after shooting (although his family keeps it a secret from her); one of her Iranian actresses that cannot get a Visa to the US, gets banned from leaving Iran for Morocco (where the film was shot); the film was produced internationally: The Iranian-American director had to secure funding from German, Austrian and French producers, produce the set in different countries, edit the film by different editors in each country, coordinate different sorts of characters, with the baggages of pain and mental illness and eating disorder, speaking 100 various languages on the set [anecdotes from Shirin Neshat, in the special feature of the DVD] and deal with funding issues.

The set design, the mise en scene cannot be overlooked. Keep in mind that the film is presenting an era of the Iranian history that has suffered censorship both during the Pahlavi regime (because the film revolves around the American coup that overthrew Iran's democraticaly elected prime minister and reinstated the Shah) and during the Mullah regime (because the IRI has propagated its own version of history in those years, highlighting the role of Kashani and obscuring the nationalists and lumping them together with communists as far as the nationalization of Oil concerned. To get the details of set right, Neshat had to read many books and travel to speak to many people: her sets are reconstructed from the collective memory of those who have lived those times.

This is not a realist film; it is an expressionist one where form overwhelms the narrative. While watching, I was compelled to take a picture of each scene, and to write about each frame, about the composition of colors and frame, the camera choreography, about the acting, about the social space compacted in each mise en scene, and about the fact that this is the first feature film of this outstanding artist. Neshat is deliberates her political arguments in beautiful Tableaux. And not only does she show that Iran was not a barbaric land unfamiliar with democracy and modernism, but that it was the British and the Americans who helped ruining it. It so happens that the lives of four women (prostitute, socialite, intellectual and traditional) unfolds in that time told by Parsipour; but the creation of space and light is Neshat's. A marvelous one too.

Alireza Pahlavi, the little prince.

His death shook everyone:

Another kid of "The King of Kings" (the megalomaniac Mohammad Reza Shah, who wanted to restore Iran's monarch glory, who went head to head challenging and threatening the regional ambitions of the Israelis and the pan-Arabists, and who was dragged from the throne by assistance from Americans of whose subordination he was accused) laid in his own cold blood. At the time of his death, he was unknown to most of us who were born around his age, and who remembered him from a faint memory of his brown hair, cute face and the brown air force uniform he was wearing when, instead of Champagne, he splashed a bucket of water on his older brother, the crown prince, who had just landed his first fighter plane. (Couldn't find the image of what is printed in my memory, but found these photos of those days) His older brother, often pisses us off by siding with neo cons or Iran bombers (although he has changed his tone recently), and so the majority of us have cast a blanket of ignorance on the rest of the family, whose grandfather has laid the foundation of modernity [in terms of infrastructure and secularism], and whose mother tried to lay the basis of modernism [in terms of art] in our country (okey I am not being precise, I know). Many of the older generation, however, remain loyal to the royals.

I respect the right of any single, uncommitted person to end their own life. But I felt sorry for his mother most. She is my favorite of the monarch family.

I love her grace, her sense of fashion, her architectural education; and I love her because of many fundamental educational programs she started in the remote villages of Iran, trying to empower the villager women, trying to assist them make an enterprise of their folk art, trying to make them literate (I am happy to find this picture) Her legacy continues today in the form of NGOs ... not all Iranian women are concerned with how much hair they can or cannot show from under a scarf. Many a women are struggling with more fundamental issues, and they are making little progress every day, but I will talk about that elsewhere.

Alireza was the second Pahlavi to commit suicide. His sister overdosed on sleeping pills only 9 years ago. She was a year older than I. Her death made me sad too.

Today, I came across a podcast, a few Iranologists were talking about Alireza's academic past. This radio program, together with the support of those who encouraged me to continue blogging, inspired me to translate the podcast. If I am to revisit my past, this is a good start.

Iranians, please go to the source. This is a report by Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian of Radio Farda, broadcast from Prague.

The suicide of Prince Alireza Pahlavi, 44, on Tuesday Jan 4, in Boston, shocked many. The grief of the suicide of the third child of King Mohammad Reza and Queen Farah Pahlavi, nine years later than 31 year old Princess Leila's suicide, surpassed the family and friends of the monarchy.

Since he had studied Ancient Iranian History, the cultural and academic Iranian community was touched. However, in his academic resume he has but a Masters degree in music, from Princeton (1989), a masters in Ancient Iranian History from Columbia (1992) and continuing in the field of philosophy and ancient Iranian languages towards a doctorate in Harvard.

In this program, Peyk-e Farhang [the Culture Messenger] learns about his academic resume from a fellow Harvard student, a fellow researcher in UCLA and two Columbia professors of History who knew him.

Hamid Dabashi, Columbia's [Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York], began teaching in Columbia at the same time as Alireza Pahlavi was admitted to this university:

Dabashi: I came to Columbia towards the end of the 80s. I think Alireza was in Columbia since 1988. Our encounters were of teacher-student kind, but not in the same classroom. He was interested in, and continued to work (but did not finish) on studying Iran before Islam. Before going to Harvard, he worked with my senior colleague Professor Ehsan Yarshater.

Ehsan YarShater: He attended one of my classes. He was very interested in Iran's ancient history. After going to Harvard, he started working with Oktor Skjærvø on the ancient Persian languages and culture. Unfortunately, however, he did not receive his degree.

Alirza Pahlavi was invited by (then a UCLA PhD student) Touraj Daryayee, the current professor of ancient Persia in UCI, to present his research findings in a symposium in UCLA.

Touraj Daryaee: I got to know him in 1990s. He studied in the same field as I, on the East coast of the US. Few people, especially Iranians, work on ancient Persian history. We were a handful who worked on the Sassanid and Pahlavi scripts, i.e. Middle Persian. Alireza was one of these researchers in Harvard. This is why I invited him and Dr. Rahim Shayegan. We arranged a panel about Sassanid era and he was kind enough to join. His doctoral thesis was research in a Pahlavi text, (مینوی خرد) "meenoo-e kherad" which is about the geography and the climate in which Iran is situated. He talked about that.

Rahim Shayegan, current assistant professor of Near East languages and cultures in UCLA, is a close friend of Alireza and a fellow student for ten years.

Rahim Shaygan: I know him since 1992, we were in the same class in Harvard and started together with professor Skjærvø. We had graduate degrees in Iranian studies and had come to Harvard to complete our doctoral thesis.

Mosaddegh-Katouzian: How far did he advance in Harvard?

Rahim Shaygan: I have to give a brief explanation about how Iranian studies in Harvard works. For a few years, you study ancient Persian languages, ancient Persian history, and old religions like Zoroastrianism. Then after a few years you have a comprehensive exam, consisting of a few themes and a few languages that include all texts related to those themes. This is a relatively difficult exam and take at least a year to prepare for. He passed these exams successfully and in a short time; and since he had a phenomenal memory, he went through it with ease and began working on his dissertation. It progressed well until 2000-2001 and there is little left to complete it for publication.

Mosaddegh_Katouzian: Other than his presentation in UCLA, did he present his later research in any conference?

Rahim Shaygan: naturally, because of his situation, he could not take part in conferences easily. He was sensitive and feared his presence (as a Prince) in Ancient Persian conferences will create a burden; so he refrained from participating.

But I have to talk more about his thesis. He worked on one of the important Pahlavi scripts. Pahlavi is a language written in the Sassanid era, before Islam arrived in Iran. This script, minooye kherad, is an important text about the religious mentality of that time. It is a dialogue between a guru and minooye kherad, the conscience of wisdom. He asks questions and gets answers.

This dialogue has 62 questions and answers. He transcribed this test, phoneticized it, translated it from Pahlavi to Latin and then to English; and produced a detailed annotated report to contextualize the text historically, and in relation to other existing Pahlavi and religious texts in Iran.

Interpretation of this work, which is very heavy, was complete, but he wanted to re-write it. Unfortunately the personal tragedies made him abandon the work. After 2001 (death of his younger sister) he could never go back to finish this 90% complete work. It takes only 6-12 months to finish it off.

Mosaddegh-Katouzian: In a news conference in Thursday, the crown prince, Reza Pahlavi indicated that his brother suffered depression. Did you notice signs of depression to explain his suicide?

Rahim Shayegan: undoubtedly, his family knows the possible cause of his pains best. But it was obvious to all friends and acquaintances that he had a deep and undeniable attachment to Iran and Iran's culture. To be away, and the pain of exile, the nostalgia and all this creates a form of depression that is present in many Iranians of his age, but to a certain degree stronger in him. Perhaps because he was an educated Prince, he felt added responsibility. Perhaps his inability to do something about improving the pain and deficiencies [of his country?] exacerbated his pain.

The pictures his friend portray, indicate that Alireza refrained from aristocratic appearance in academic circles.

Hamid Dabashi: As a student, he mixed in with the rest and did not differ from others. He was a shy and a kind kid. He was a generous lad. Many of my students were his close friends and socialized with him. This is very shocking and disturbing for me. A kid, that I encountered at the peak of his youth in Columbia, who reminds me of my starting years in columbia, who could have been the source of good, both socially and culturally, has had such a tragic ending.

Ehsan Yarshater: He was extremely modest. If you didn't know he was a prince, nothing would have indicated it in his behavior. He was a loyal friend. He called occasionally and asked about me; or came to the Columbia office and updated me about himself. But in recent years I had not heard from him and didn't know what he was doing.

Touraj Daryayee: I am not into politics but in my personal encounters I found him to be a good person. Calm. Never saw aggression or malaise in him. It was interesting to me that he was fascinated by the ancient Iranian history and spent his time on that. It is regrettable.

Rahim Shayegan: After 10 years, all common memories are always present. In his demeanors, there was a form of honor. In friendship, he was consistent and loyal. In manners, very delicate, royal. Both a delicate mind, a remarkable talent, and a delicacy in all functions. I can say he was a remarkable person. Incredibly remarkable.

Prince ALireza Pahlavi, the researcher of the Pahlavi script Minooye Kherad, has willed for his ashes to be scattered on the Caspian Sea.

Alireza(1966-2011) on the right; Leila(1970-2001) in her father's arm
P.S. It was a total coincidence that I posted this on the same day that his memorial service was held.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Goodbye? Hello?

Do you still read this blog? Are you an old friend? I feel so disconnected from this blog, from my old friends, from Iran. My life is revolving around other things: science, photography, music, memory, sports, shoes!!

What have I to say? That the IRI's found a solution to population control: executing one convict every eight hours? Yes, some are political too. Often Kurds; those whom the rest of "land-worshipping" Iranians don't really care about; those whom we don't really know, because their language and race, perhaps the 'purest' of the Persians, is hardly ever taught to us, hardly ever promoted --DESPITE THE FACT that they have given us some of our best musicians.

Or, talk about sanctions? What they are doing or not? Sanctions won't do much other than bringing more airplanes down; killing more people in the hospitals; and making some smuggler in Iran, some dealer in Dubai, and some arms-pimp in Israel or Saudi Arabia richer!

No Sanctions won't lead to a "revolution"; Iranians are not the people to risk death because they are hungry; they never have. Iranian uprisings have never been because of economics. Believe me the country HAS seen plenty of hunger .. after all, this is a harsh land, where water is and has always been scarce. There have been and continue to be droughts. People are used to living on little. And people are ashamed to announce their poverty, it is just part of the culture. Generosity is part of the culture. Keeping up the appearance is part of the culture. So, don't hold your breath!

Or should I talk about the Prince who killed himself in cold blood in the solitude of his Harvard education in Boston? The prince, who was much better looking and better educated than the older brother who has been dominating our monarch scenario despite his utter lack of persona and charisma, and his obvious plentitude of stupidity and apathy.

Or maybe I should talk about good things that are happening ... it is irresponsible to portray Iran as a depressed and regressing society, just because its lawyers and human and labour right activists and journalists and filmmakers are in jail! No, like any dictatorship, there are a few who are plucked, the trouble makers. And the rest are given opportunities. If you are willing to pay the price of complicity, you can actually do good things in Iran; for Iran. (I have to dig to give examples, but I don't want to rummage through dirt to find gems.)

So you see, my silence is because I am STUCK! I don't know what to say about my country. In some ways, I have abandoned it. In some ways I am "In Search of the Times Lost" these days; I am tracing my memories back, my old friends, my childhood, I am trying to make sense of them all, make sense of what we were 30 years ago and what we have grown up to become as 40 year old men and women.

Knowing the psych of my fellow Iranians, I have stopped worrying: things will not go terribly bad. What I feared a while back, fear of civil war, is now subsiding as well. But things will not get terribly good either. In other words, Iran will have more of the same, more of the same that it has had in the past 100 years. For a society as Old as Iran, things are not as plastic as one political activist may wish them to be. There are personality and adaptation traits that have become our national haplotype!

What is depleting my blog of material, however, is the emptiness of the cultural scene in Iran these days. The vibrant and creative community that was emerging a couple of years ago is now terribly oppressed or depressed (or sub-pressed, i.e. moved to netherground!). Many artists have exiled themselves; and many who have stayed behind have to put up with the fascists who are the foot-soldiers of the Ahmadinejad camp. In brief, things are turning 'ugly', in an aesthetic sense.

I may have to change the direction of my blog ... I may have to turn it into something more personal, something where I can write "my" story ... after all, I belong to the generation of self-narratives; the author has died and our "reality" may be the most illuminating of political narratives to share.

I have been mesmerized by Marina Abramovic recently ... If she can put herself in flesh on display, and let her spectators DO to her what their (in)humanity is (in)capable of; then why not I put my "virtual" self up for sharing. Perhaps, my neo-resistance must adapt too; must circumvent the boring and annoying scenario that Ahmadinejad's forced upon us?

So I am thinking ... If you read this, say hello. I am terribly lonely these days.