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January 2002

Madame Bayaz and the auratic space of the nation

Benedict Anderson's well-worn articulation of the nation state as 'an imagined community' in which the rituals of mass communication with the help of the print media, the radio, the television, the film industry and the internet play a central role in configuring a sense of belonging to a space shared by others who are similarly positioned as citizens, is not necessarily sympathetic to the sensation of instability which shapes Madame Bayaz's vision of the national.

Madame Bayaz who is sitting comfortably in her Manhattan studio atop the most fabulous well-worn rug from Qom, feels quite at home right about now. The well-worn rug, like Anderson's notion of the national, is a family heirloom that goes back many generations. But it is from this time and place, where I sit, drinking a cup of hot 'damm-ed' tea in a Qajar tea-cup (a cup I snagged in 1998 when Leyla Diba and her colleagues curated a fabulous exhibit on Royal Persian Art for the Brooklyn Museum) that the concept of national belonging seems contingent, however imagined Anderson may claim it to be.

As I turn my tea-cup in my hand and as my ringed pinky finger caresses your enameled astrological sign on the lip of the cup, I remember the places in which the two of us encountered one another in the vicinity of this, my orange tinted rug, and how we were in this way wrapped in the auratic web of the nation.

Mme Bayaz

Farvardin: Aries

If you could just stop munching down those Belgian bon bons for a moment, Aries, I will attempt to remind you of that blissful moment in your childhood when you sat on a leather couch, holding on for dear life so you wouldn't slide off the big leather couch in Tahereh Khanum's apartment. There, a group of friends and your mother gathered in the cold of winter (made even colder by the swerving winds of the Nordic Laplands), to play the sitar and sing traditional Persian songs. Do you remember how, as you peered onto the book shelves where Tahereh Khanum stores her cups and saucers, you saw the most exquisite sculpture of dancing dervishes, which, because of the back-lighting in the shelves, looked like they were dancing shadows, twirling to the sound of the most stunning sitar performance taking place in Tahereh Khanum's living room? Here, in the blissful synesthesia of sight and sound, the aura of the nation engulfed you and at the brink of tears you let go of your hold and slipped -- WOOPS! -- and fell onto my silk heirloom. I carried the rug home with me that day and, some years later, moved it to Minnesota. Judging from the vibes I'm getting through my pinky as it touches you sign, it seems that you're out to enjoy some travel to cold destinations this month. Listen to the warm, inviting sounds that hail you back home.

Ordibehesht: Taurus

We came in from the freezing cold, rubbing our hands together feverishly, blowing hot air, and jumping up and down, hoping that, once inside The Caspian restaurant on University Avenue, we could warm up with a cup of hot Persian tea. You should be reminded that world's best chelokabab, isn't at Reza's in downtown Chicago or at Javan's on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, as some tend to claim, but right here at The Caspian in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Iranian academics from surrounding universities and their friends gather for lunch on weekday afternoons. That winter's eve, you helped me move in to my new digs, carrying my precious silk heirloom as if on a silver plate. Then you drove me to this, my favorite restaurant, where you proceeded to eat a heaping plate of The Caspian's special chelokabab with hot sauce and sour somaq, washing it down with douq, the minty yogurt drink, which you decorated with your bring- your- own- wherever- you- go marcino cherries. What were you thinking? Honey, don't mess with traditional foods this month. You'll get everyone around you sick to their stomach. And remember that the instability of the national does not mean that you can destabilize the aura that encases traditional national foods -- even in exile.

Khordad: Gemini

In Cincinnati, Ohio one day last year, I went to a party thrown by an old friend. I had brought my rug with me that day to help my friend decorate the house so that it would look more authentically Persian, whatever that may mean to a social scientist. I met you there that evening as you walked around and around the rug studying it in detail. The angular patterns, the browns and blues and the maker's signature intrigued you. Then you told me all about your own collection of Qashqaie rugs, bought patiently over the years from this auction and that. (Ohioans can't possibly know the value your dazzled spirit places on the torn up old rags.) You told me you wished some day to go to Iran to see these rugs being made and that short of that your only wish was to some day own a hat from the makers' tribe. Donning the hat, you said, may give you an insight into the genius that goes into the rugs' process of production. Your wish is granted this month as Madame Bayaz, writing to you from the bazaar in Shiraz, has purchased a grey Qashqaie hat made to fit. Here's hoping that it'll magically transport you , as Madame Bayaz' precious heirloom does, in the web of time and space that connects the enraptured citizen to his or her own imagined nation. Even if that means that the nation one is imagining is the nation of one!

Tir: Cancer

As I was telling Gemini over there, my silken heirloom has magically transported me to Shiraz where I'm out hunting for deals at the bazaar. Don't worry, my tea-cup is with me. (I never leave stolen goods around for others to steal from me, you should know.) The cup is in my pocket and my pinky finger is firmly rubbing your sign. 'Scuse me? What is this! I sense that you're attempting to be creative this month, Cancer. You're in one of these stalls, I can tell. Where? Where? And... oh!... and... OH!... Really?! Do you really think that no one will be able to tell the difference between my silken rug and the one you're making? Expressing creativity through forgery? Whatever! No doubt, you'll fool the German tourists, Cancer, and that's all that matters if you want to be in business. As long as they believe it to be authentic, you've got your finger in the auratic pie called the nation. Good luck with the sales this month. Bring it on home!

Mordad: Leo

About this time last year, I was circling Tehran's Meydan-e Enqelab ("Revolutionary Square", as one should call it, for the number of revolutions each car has to make around the square before it can point itself in a non-circular direction). I had your hand firmly in mine as I ran around inspecting one bookstore after another to see if I could find a gem for my collection of antiques on astrology. I guess I may not have been paying enough attention to you, poor baby... Do you remember how you tugged and tugged at my rupush and how, as a consequence, my hair cascaded out of my militant maghnaih right in front of the pirashki store where your hungry eyes spotted something hamburger-like to devour? The streets of Tehran are inhospitable to the de-veiled, hamburger eating culture you're used to, so we took a couple pirashkis home and had them along with fresh sabzi at our dining room table atop my beautiful orange rug which we had spread out in the Yusef Abad apartment... Your reading then, Leo, based on the images that just came to me as I touched your astrological sign are as follows: a) you're going around in circles this month, even though you want something real bad and b) no one's paying attention to you, because c1) you're de-flated or de-veiled or because c2) the people around you are just plain patronizing. My advice to you is to: Make a point of snatching what new clothes that patronizing emperor may have on and then eat your way out of the national crisis.

Shahrivar: Virgo

Before we became a dore (which happened in Sagittarius' reading) the girls and I, each with a hanky in hand to pat down our cold -induced sniffles, arrived around 9 o'clock to the darkened backroom of the Mercury bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to watch a friend of a friend play her guitar. The room was smokey and one could say that we collectively performed our own jazz with the marathon of sneezes, sniffles and coughs that ensued. We walked into the room expecting Haale G. to be setting up. Instead the room was packed with a whole band of grungy, tattooed girls there to watch an all-girl Rock and Roll band that preceded Haale's show. There is something intoxicating in experiencing the excitement of a room full of expectant women. Expectant, that is, because the star of the night will perform their life experiences for them to the tune of F minor on stage. The all-girl band captured the interest of the dancers in our small band of Persians, too. But when Haale stepped up to the stage, there wasn't room enough to contain the expanse of our collective emotion. A beautiful, young, Persian pop star... all our own! Right there! On stage! Strumming her guitar, swinging her booted heel behind her and charming us with her lyrics about a vagabond friend and a wide-eyed seamstress with a perfect New Yorker accent. (No doubt she can keep up with Aries' mom on that sitar, too!) Check out the band's CD reviews at // Virgo, then either, go back to bed and tend your cold or step up to the Persian rug I just Fed-exed you, pretend its your lit stage and sneeze and cough your own version of contemporary pop. You'll feel better by the end of the month.

Mehr: Libra

The surprise with which you encountered Shirin Neshat and collaborator's new piece "The Logic of the Birds" was what forged the friendship between you and I. You were so surprised that an artist born in Qazvin would bring in so many "white people" to her version of the Attar's "Conference of the Birds". That night in Barcelona, I couldn't help laugh at you and then accept the invitation to go out for a meal with your friends. The performance, a multi-media piece including an accomplished film by Ghasem Ebrahimian projected onto three screens, accompanied by the enchanting primal voice of Sussan Deyhim and the mesmerizing uncharted movement of untrained actors on stage had us famished for some substantial nourishment. The group of us eventually ended up in my apartment that night after the meal. Do you remember? We had nuts and dried fruits and tea as we read the "Conference of the Birds" aloud and wondered if the three-dimensional homage of sight and sound was a tribute to Attar, or to the surrealists and dadaists of a previous age or indeed to the aesthetics of a post-modern age in which the aura of the national takes on unrecognizable forms. Forms which none the less sustain our longing for the authenticity of "homeland". Your reading this month, Libra: get postcards of your favorite paintings. Put them on your fridge. Study them daily and stop worrying about the loss of auratic art in your life-time. Nothing is going to stop the process of disintegration from happening. No need to slash your veins in disappointment. Just live in Daliesque bliss!

Aban: Scorpio

In blossoming Toronto in May, I walked into a panel on contemporary Iranian Art. Against the backdrop of a silk rug which I recognized as my own, a contemporary handsome Persian Roland Barthes spoke of Googoosh's advertised image for an upcoming performance in North America. Part of an outfit in black and white, Googoosh's lapel gripped a red rose. Not all of us, not even all musician, or singers or visual artist or sportsmen, go from being idols to "becoming image" in a life-time, though Walter Benjamin would say that all of history is rescued in image-form. Barthes, or shall I say, Reza Farrokhfal in this case, read this national singer as an image, a signifying myth capable of transporting the fantasies born to a time long ago of national belonging to the present of geopolitical dispersal. What is the national, but that rose whose brilliant color reminds us in the techo-colored present that her wearer once meant something to our sense of self and still may? This month, ponder what gives you your sense of national belonging by blurring the boundaries between the past and present. Or here's an even better suggestion: Buy my Qom antique off me and take a load off your mind. Thanks. That's $300,000,000... Qabel nadareh, jooni. And in cash please!

Azar: Sagittarius

I am feeling the softness of the orange heirloom on my back and sensing the glitter of the enameled rim of the tea-cup as it lights up to the sunlight. Its rays gently warm the back of my eyelids and fill me through and through with the most serene smile. A sudden bing, bam, boom and my eyes are wide open and stunned by the most jarring close-up of a dirty heel, an arch of a foot the size of Tehran and five fleshy curved toes only two widths of a finger from my face"Ease yourself into the pose. Let your hip fall open to the left as you look over your right shoulder." Ah yes, we're in yoga class and as usual I've refused to rent a stinky mat from the front desk (I don't know why they always happen to misprint the name for those mats at yoga centers: "STICKY MATS $1"?! They're never sticky enough to keep me standing and, frankly, their most common denominator is that they're stinky) Where was I? Oh yes, the yoga class. Last week, at our monthly dore, an eating frenzy which constitutes our connection to the national aura, I discovered that everyone of my Persian girlfriends had dumped her most recent partner for a weekly two-hour yoga session. Here in the serenity of movement amidst sweaty bodies and limbering limbs, everyone of my girls has found the key to a happy life without the hazards of commitment and eternal bouts of disappointment. "It's Y. O. U. R. yoga, not GAP yoga. Just do you and enjoy!" as the gurus advise. You were there before this stunning horde of beauties ever got there, Sag... In yoga class, that is. You knew flow before any of us. My pinky on your sign says its time you take over the heartache column and send all those casualties of love off to purchase stinky-mats-4-a-dolla' of their own.

Dey: Capricorn

Kandahar! Kandahar! It's the rage these days and the house of Makhmalbaf is benefiting immensely. I rolled up my rug and packed my tea-cup and threw my lot in with those who'd rather avoid the torment of the manipulative drama of a sister's journey back to Afghanistan. I went, instead to a theatre where I could watch the most accomplished documentary made in the recent year by the then Paris based Su Abadi, a documentary entitled "SOS Tehran". The film was made to document the services offered by Islamic Republic to the poor who nonetheless need introductions to potential spouses, sex ed., counseling, marriage dowries, and wedding ceremonies. Abadi did a fabulous in-person introduction in French to the hour-long documentary at the film festival in Oslo, Norway. The festival's French translator (a total moron, I'd say) translated her talk from French to English for a Norwegian speaking audience. (I don't know what to make of that! Anyway...) The film itself was in Persian with no voice-over. It contrasted the state services with the private practice of a Freudian psychoanalyst who brought together a group of young teenage girls all in search of their true love in the city and full of complaints about their fathers, on the one hand. And, who, on the other hand, offered group therapy to couples with intimacy problems. Abadi was right about what she said in that badly translated introduction. The film she made showed an Iran that was nothing like the kind of Iran we see in Makhmalbaf, or the old Panahi, or Kiarostami. Her characters spoke frankly about their experience of everyday life in Iran under the Republic. One such frank phrase sticks with me: Jomhoori-ye Islaami mard-haa raa akhte karde,va zan-haa raa shelakhte karde. (The Islamic Republic has castrated the men and made whores of the women.) And these words of advice impose themselves on my sensitive pinky: See if you can get yourself out of the box-office circuit and into a theatre where you'll get to see something not intended to manipulate you, Capricorn. You're vulnerable this month. So, by all means, keep away from Kandahar!

Bahman: Aquarius

As a child we used to take you for walks in the Park-e Shafaq in Tehran where two bronze statues decorated the square. One statue still sits on the edge of the covered fountain in the central square putting the final knot on his shoe lace and the other leans on his elbow some distance away in the periphery of the square. Back then, this statue looked onto the care-free bougie strollers and their children in fifi outfits and jet white tights. Today the park has a traditional sofr-ekhane (a traditional restaurant) where you can smoke apple tobacco in water pipes on outdoor double bed. There's also a theatre there, where small companies perform translated plays. A dar-be-dar pizza delivery place is also close at hand... Too, the disheveled usual suspects. In my recent viewing of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's brilliant "Zir-e Poost-e Shahr" ("Under the Skin of the City") I was reminded of the lead, Golab Adineh's, performance at the Park-e Shafaq theatre in the play "Poof". A piece about a battered wife who makes her husband disappear magically into thin air. I was reminded simultaneously of a conversation I had with a cabbie about his involvement in 12-step programming in Tehran and his intimation that Park-e Shafaq now is the center for illegal drug distribution in Tehran. These images come to me as I rub my pinky on your sign, sip my tea, and follow the patterns of brown and ash gold and blue on my orange antique rugAs if to say, Aquarius: Let go of the past! Regardless of the nostalgia with which you approach it, that image of national purity (in childhood hymns) will not return except by way of a contaminated present of real lived life to remembrance. Go to Covent Garden, listen to some soothing jazz, and then move on!

Esfand: Pisces

The relationship between you, Virgo and Capricorn this month is unprecedented, so let me ask that you read their entries, paying specific attention to the following missing, though significant details: 1) In real life, the all-girl-band arrived after Haale's performance. 2) The psychoanalyst told the girls with complaints about their love lives and their strict parents (in Abadi's film) to add a little anti-depressant to their dads' waters every night and stop worrying about coming home on time.What should you make of this? My astrological tea-cup has made a full revolution in my hand, Pisces, and my pinky on your sign tells me, to advise you that whatever you dream up this month, do it in reverse order in real life. Have order your entre before the dessert. And put on your hat and gloves BEFORE you go out the door, even if you've seen the sun shine outside your window. In other words, take the necessary precautions and do them in order. And then follow this piece of wisdom: whatever the matter might be with you indeed, whatever problems or hurdles you may encounter, blame them on someone-else's frayed nerves and then furnish them with enough sedatives, so that you can make a timely get away on a magical silk rug heading nowhere. Where ever it might take you, the web that is the nation will keep you close enough to home.

Some useful terms:

-- Damm-ed: from dam kardan, meaning steamed. For tea steamed the Persian way
-- Chelo-kabab: A traditional Iranian dish of meat and rice
-- Dore: a theme based get together
-- Maghnaih: a prefabricated head scarf to go with a rupush
-- Rupush: an overcoat I most women wear instead of the veil.
-- Sabzi: Fresh herbs served with most traditional Persian meals

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