The missing factor
Shahrbanoo merely represents the most downtrodden
June 27, 2002
In response to Elham Gheytanchi's letter, "Does
not represent the diverse population"
I have not seen the final version of Shahrbanoo [Ordinary
(Muslim) woman] that was taken on tour by Hamid Rahmanian from the four corners
of US to the surrounding Islands, but rather the various rough-cuts in its various
Following September 11, something repressed suddenly surfaced in New York.
Many, such as I, who had been living here quietly, and trying their best to keep
out of the way of everyone, suddenly felt that they can't be private Iranians anymore;
our identity was a matter of public discourse not only on TV by a hurt, revengeful,
warring country feeling betrayed but also in the subway, school or park÷ once again,
all over again. This radically brought up the question again: Who are
It was during this period that I came to meet Hamid through a mutual friend at an
Iranian film festival at Lincoln Center. For a while we had weekly parties
where we would meet with a group of other Iranians as well. It was time to
collectively lick our 9/11 wounds, and reflect on what it meant to be Iranians in
As for myself, throughout the past decade I had slowly come to terms with the Islamic
Republic. It was after all, what the people of Iran wanted - otherwise they
would do something about it. This was of course through a pair of thick optimistic
lenses and the wishful thinking of a compromising nature tired of its vagabond perished
existence and willing to do anything to once again be home.
But also, this justifying of the affairs as they stand was at the expense of an Iranian
cultural identity. Perhaps Iran only exists in the history and philology books; perhaps
all there is now, is really only the Islamic Republic.
In any event, by the time Khatami came around, I honestly believed that if I were
to do anything constructive, instead of holding on to a rather private and personal
picture of Iran as the land of greats, - a world view that had given me a semi-stable
identity and had enabled me to hold myself to the oldest, richest and highest standards
of intellectual achievement, - I could support the budding new movement in Iran.
Who cares that he is a mulla who is possibly suppressing a closet full of dirty laundry,
and is only out there to prolong the Mulla Republic? I believed the smile,
and as a fellow student, supported the Iranian students in their efforts towards
freedom, no matter in what context: Iranian, Islamic, third-worldist, whatever.
So what that Islamic Republic is an oxymoron that only the crudest
of instrumental minds could justify? I argued with myself. The pigs are standing
up and playing poker, and if they are attempting a dialogue, then I'll play a hand
too: that proved to be buying into the lie of the suicide jack.
Hamid also offers and promotes a dialogue amongst civilizations. His movies
that he makes with the help of his wife Melissa provoke thought and beg for an active
engagement in a dialogue.
The trouble is that conditioned by 23 years of the harshest forms of fascism, a one
that justifies itself through a smile and by building on the exploitation of the
spiritual needs of a community, Iranians are conditioned to censor themselves and
hold a sublimated fascist in their heads as a ghost that follows them everywhere,
- also there where it doesn't exist.
A voice in their heads tells them what to do and think, even if they don't realize
it. The censorship is on automatic pilot now, and we are conditioned to go
along with it in the name of "respect for the other's opinion," which is
always at the expense of one's own and reinforced by "imaginary" agents
and real terrorist assassins.
So estranged from truth in fact we Iranians, the original sharp-shooters and truth-tellers
are, that Taa'rof has come to completely replace Adab; and Adabiyaat
as a major emphasis in secondary education is frowned upon and only allowed condescendingly
for those who cannot be fucked to calculate the area under the curve or wash test-tubes
for a living.
This is the state of our Farhang. It has nothing to do with far
or hang. So, instead of a critical reading of the texts and moving pictures
as texts, we are conditioned firstly to go overboard with praise, and secondly hide
any murky resentment within. This then leads to an essential falsehood that
makes a mockery of what the Europeans think or hope they are doing when they continue
their critical dialogue with the fascists.
This sort of "dialogue" between civilizations
has been going on for a long time within Iran. Iranians either chose to pretend
to take on Islam in its intrusive form, propagated as it always has been through
the sword, or they emigrate. That is not to say that some do not welcome Islam
as the latest thing and try to then make it Iranicized.
But every few centuries there is a mass exodus of Iranians out of Iran, simply because
they cannot take the abuse of this violent tradition: they come to be known as Parsees
in India and Zanzibar or Persians in the west.
Our poetry is filled with accounts of censorship imposed by Islamic authorities from
Khayyam and Hafiz to even today where cupboards are filled with poetry that cannot
be published lest it is found out to go against some verse or another of Qor'an.
Even Fardusi has had to pay lip-service to this strong-arming tradition in order
to justify his Persian book of Kings.
But in all this, the responsibility for enlightenment rests on people's own shoulders.
Two things that it requires are courage and persistence. We cannot continue
to blame our miseries on foreign powers. It is of course evident that every
power seeks firstly to work in its own interest. That is why intellectuals
in Europe, such as Professor Habermas continue to engage the Islamic Republic.
It is in the interest of Europe to have an Iran lead by incompetent negotiators right
out of seminary schools to talk to, as opposed to informed, intelligent, and trained
diplomats who have primarily the national interests of Iran in mind. So we
cannot wait for them to do anything for us. We have to begin and engage this
dialogue on our own behalf, and be absolutely clear that we have a civilization that
dates at the very least 1200 years prior to Islam.
This responsibility lies on the shoulders of you and I abroad primarily, because
in Iran one does not have to come to word to be censored and jailed; fascism and
fascistic mentality is merely a matter of mundane everyday normalcy and it is almost
useless to bring the perpetrators of crimes to court: they would go free anyway.
In this, Melissa and Hamid open up at least a pretext for dialogue. One cannot
expect of them to come up with an all encompassing narrative on what Iranian women
are or are not. Iranian women have to speak for themselves and criticize the
movie in an open and honest fashion and complement it by presenting and representing
themselves. They should write and dominate the public sphere and let everyone
know that they are not all secret servants who lie to themselves and their husbands
about their services.
It is good to see the inside of Shahrbanoo's, the servant-maid's living-room, and
it is good to listen to her and her family's words. My family has never had
maids, but I grew up partly in Narmak towards the outskirts of Tehran in a rather
poor neighborhood (during the revolution and immediately before and after it,) where
we didn't have to go to a maid's house to get that perspective: these were honest,
hardworking people who would justify their misery through the narratives of Islam;
and at some point they came to be forever tied to this narrative when they would
lose their sons in that unfair war of lunacy against ineptitude.
Of course it is always the uncivil, unjustifiable horrors of violence and war that
turns a cemetery into a paradise. This terrifyingly normalized and morbid hang-out
place is rightly the climactic part of the documentary, because one has to again
and again reaffirm, - if one is to go on living, - that all these deaths were not
for nothing. The untrained soldiers and teenage adventurists with their plastic
keys at the service of ideologues must have died for a bigger cause: to save Islam
from that other Islamic country next door.
While the generals and pilots and ministers and intellectuals were savagely cut down
only because they would uphold their code of honor to Iran until the end. Of
course they are not parties to the dialogue of civilizations, because the civilization
of Iran has been dumped in the trash cans of history (for those who believe that
there is a place where history can be dumped.)
I am one of the ones of the so-called lost generation. A generation that did
not bring about the mulla Republic and then bailed, but a one that experienced the
fascism of Islam first hand, followed by the years of exile and ostracism, homelessness,
humiliation and radical otherness. A generation that vaguely remembers only
having to waive the Lion and Sun on the cover of the passports to enter Europe; and
a one that has had to sit in airport-jails while every terrorist list, as well as
every pore, is checked upon arrival.
Now there is talk of the third generation, some of whom are portrayed by Hamid and
Melissa in this film: there is the young man who says: "America
dropped the bomb on Japan, and the Japanese answered back by progress; all we did
is go on the street and say ŽDeath to America.'" This is the coming generation
that cannot buy into the reactionary fundamentalism, even if they have to endure
the day and night propaganda machine of the fascists.
My major criticism of the film was that it seemed to represent Iran, but it merely
represented the most downtrodden people and the ultimate victims of the Mullah Republic
who have gone from being financially poor to being mutilated and murdered on top
of it; and that they have to justify this unfair and unnecessary fate through Islam
because it is unbearable to look at its blank uselessness straight on, and still
go on living.
They are the pillars of the Islamic Republic holding it up, because all that sacrifice
was not done so that people in the States could have a nice documentary to watch,
but because the lies and promises of the religion that brought them hope cannot be
let go of; and much like their secularist counterparts they have to reaffirm again
and again that the revolution could not have been for nothing, could it? They
This group can be juxtaposed against the well-to-do Iranians who profited under the
reign of Pahlavis, and then undercut and betrayed the regime itself in the name of
the very ideas of enlightenment that were slowly implemented by the two shahs in
building universities and libraries.
Now they are republicans and blame everything on monarchy,
but in truth they are themselves the very ones who brought about the discontent amongst
the masses by their obnoxious, post-feudal behavior and then simply jumped ship and
blamed everything on the Shah. In this, the short-lived growing middle class
that was created by the Pahlavis, and gutted or chased away by the mullahs, is the
greatest missing factor in the movie.
In Iran there are masters who have the world as their playground, and servants who
are kept partly due to their own fault, but partly in the reinforcement of the slave
master dialectic radically ignorant of the world; and meanwhile the middle class
and the intelligentsia of a birthplace of civilization that has provided the foundation
for all the progress of the West in the form of their ideas and their libraries and
universities far before the advent of Islam, continues to gush out of there like
a bleeding wound.