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The rise and fall of Simon Ordoubadi
Our heart breaks for him because he is us

By Jacki Lyden
February 23, 2004

On Houman Mortazavi's "Project Misplaced: The Rise and Fall of Simon Ordoubadi". Exhibition in Los Angeles February 21 to 28 (2004). Articultural Gallery, 10469 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles, CA. Phone: 310.481.9052. Mortazavi will also show his work at's night of comedy and satire in San Jose this Friday February 27 >>> See

These are the things that I did my first time in Iran to commit acts of journalism and write about the sixteenth anniversary of the revolution: pose for a woman who needed pictures of the female anatomy, so that she could paint them in secret; fall in love; struggle to hear the far-away world through a black headscarf worn under earphones; listen to a man explain to me in my hotel room that he had rushed home from San Francisco to join the revolution, which now had been betrayed, and that he considered the Zoroastrians to be the only true Persians; hold a Kleenex to my streaming nose as hundreds of men and women chanted "MARG BAR AMRIEKA" -- Death to America -- at Friday prayers at Tehran University; get my butt pinched while trying to cover the ceremonies for the revolution in Azadi Square; watch young women weep at the tomb of the Ayatollah Khomeini; watch young women flirt, cigarettes in hand, at sophisticated literary soirees; and watch a literature professor, Azar Nafisi, question her class from under her black chador worn with a black tassel that bobbed when she walked. "What is kitsch?" she asked. "Is this kitsch?" -- holding out a bouquet of daffodils. "Or is this kitsch?" She held out a pot of fake red flowers.

On the walls of the mullahs' bonyad, graffiti proclaimed: "Liars and Thieves." War veterans missing one or both legs sat below. I was dazed. Where had I misplaced myself -- in a cosmopolitan culture superimposed on an Islamic republic; in an Islamic republic superimposed on a cosmopolitan culture?

Iran, I have decided, is all things to all people who love it: ancient and theocratically imposing, endlessly inventive, stern and passionate. "We are contradictions, joonam," said the man who had fallen in love with me. "I cannot even touch you on the street." A basiji followed us, waiting to make a vigilante's arrest. Visually, we all know that what we see in Iran is transparently not all that meets the eye; the second we look, we want to know more. The second we realize that we will never penetrate it as Westerners, we despair of ever knowing anything at all. We are never, for one moment, as comfortable and complacent as we are, say, covering a presidential campaign or high school football playoff or ordering new kitchen tile. And yet as journalists and writers and artists, we go home thinking we know something of this "Muslim corner of the world." And when we are ready to admit that it is a carnival of chaos, ready to seduce or convert, mislead or misrepresent, along comes its artists to poke fun at our surrender.

Simon Ordoubadi may be misplaced in time and culture, but no more so than those of us ready to go to Iran, paper or microphone in hand, thinking we are going to get The Story >>> See images

When I first met Houman Mortazavi he was running an ad agency in Tehran, drawing funny little cartoon characters, in part because he enjoyed it and in part because, under Islamic law, he couldn't use the human form to sell products. No chance to depict people who enjoy using BARF, the laundry powder as snowy white as the top of Damavand Mountain. He was also busy making a wardrobe of painted clothes, called Life Accessories, and I remember wanting to wear his picture of his folded newspaper hat.

Then, he made the rash decision to come to America for more "artistic freedom." (He was not the man I'd fallen love with, by the way.) I remember his first business card, offered at a publishing party at the Rainbow Room in New York City. HOOMAN MORTAZAVI. No phone, no profession, just a man with a funny name in white letters on a black card. "And how long have you been in the U.S.?" the ad executive asked him.

"Twenty-four hours," came the reply.

But as Project Misplaced suggests, the United States remained just a little inaccessible, a little ridiculous and threatening, faintly sinister, inviting and at the same time forever resisting his advances. You can have it all if you can just make the grade. But who's grading whom? Now that the world has been neatly divided by the most sinister acts of humankind, reducing East and West to supercharged, cartoonish fear, who doesn't empathize with the Simon Ordoubadis of the world? Isn't he a man trying to please, trying to fit in, trying to behave as if he has made sense of it all? This is not de Tocqueville or Tom Paine or the founding fathers, but their indirect descendant, trying to find a place at the Big Table, and showing us in the process how slick and yet how kitsch we have become. I fear we would all choose the fake red flowers over the real daffodils now.

Iran is an "irreal" place, with its black robed authority over every aspect of life, from who takes a drink to the tolerable shine on a woman's hair. It is a place with deep values and ancient traditions, with poetry for the heart and the mind and for the ages, with colors that make you ache and that are threaded into the carpets and through the deserts and mountains, which are sometimes mocked by the notion that there is only one way to behave, think, love, pray...

Meanwhile, the vigilantes once burned a faux McDonald's down in North Tehran. A cinema was firebombed, and indeed, women have been stoned to death. And yet the society embraces a constant struggle between the desire for "personal space" and the laws of the theocracy: more and more, scarves get pushed back on women's heads and couples hold hands, at least in some parts of the country. In late 2003 Iran decided, under pressure from Europe, to submit to nuclear inspection. Sound like a civil society emerging? Yes and no. Hundreds of newspapers have been closed down. And the hardliners tried to throw all reformist candidates out of Parliament.

In Iran, there are internal struggles over who is the true face of Iran. Yet we in the United States have our kitsch notion of who we are: invincible do-gooders, people never in the wrong but making the world safe for Kmart and Halliburton and Starbucks. We paint the world in the same colors as the Iranian theocracy: black and white, and neon. We shine so brightly that we can't really see who the "other" is because, mainly, from our kitsch perspective, they are faint imitations of American culture, for who could be more dominant? So Simon Ordoubadi comes to America, but not quite on his own terms. He campaigns, but he stands in for you and you and you. His campaign is to make the world more pliable, elastic and understandable, but it resists a simple, drive-in Burger King solution. You have to make the experience, you can't just order it with fries to go. Our heart breaks for him because he is us.

And yet the story doesn't end there. In assuming his inferiority, we don't really know him at all. Examine his campaign a bit more closely. Perhaps you cannot be sure about his motivations and whether such an alien should really be trusted. There are hints of his ambitions and regressive trends, like his slogan, "Today unity, tomorrow revenge" (perhaps this is borrowed from politics American-style, post-election), or the whole idea of erecting a wall that will segregate Iranians from "those who are different to us." Aren't we living, as a new millennium begins, with an administration that predicates policies on what its sacred base wants to hear?

Simon Ordoubadi notices that, and tells his audience what it wants to hear too. So we can't tell what he might do with power: invade Poland or become a human rights activist, depending on which camp embraces him first. He is a human preemptive strike, whose first and last ambition is to make it; everything else is secondary and insignificant to his own survival.

Simon Ordoubadi projects our own overweening, preening insecure pretensions right back at us, as though he were a human funhouse. And that is why I like him so much >>> See images


Jacki Lyden has been a host and correspondent for National Public Radio for over 20 years. During that time she has extensively covered the Middle East and made many trips to Iran. She has covered the occupation of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and is writing a book about cultural interpreters in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan called "The World of Which You Speak," due out from Houghton Mifflin in 2005. Her previous book, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, is slated to be made into a film by Paramount Studios. She lives in New York and Washington, DC. >>> Homepage

Comedy & Satire in San Jose on February 27 >>> Details

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