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The arts in Iran
When leaves begin to dance

The Economist , U.S. Edition
November 06, 1999

TEHRAN -- IN THE eyes of western cinema-goers, a shot of a newly-wed standing at the foot of the bed occupied by her slumbering spouse would rate as a tame allusion to sexual love. And a second image, of the same woman cowering in terror before her husband (who turns out to be a nasty bully), would hardly be considered outlandish.

Not so in theocratic Iran, however, where the ruling clerical establishment has long prevented sexually-aware cinema from getting anywhere near the screen. Imagine, then, the astonishment of Iranian audiences when they saw both these images in "Two Women", a film which recently ended a triumphant, four-month run in cinemas across the country.

Despite a powerful conclusion in which Fereshte, the snared wife, movingly articulates her unhappiness, "Two Women" is a flawed work by the high standards set in the past decade by Iranian film makers. But the significance of the film lies beyond its mediocre quality. Iranian cinema managers had to wait for four years and the election of the liberalising President Muhammad Khatami before getting permission to screen it. And when the film was finally released, the country's religious conservatives saw it as an attack on traditional notions of marriage, and howled in protest.

Before Mr Khatami's election, the government had frowned on innocent-seeming pleasures like the theatre, western music and novel-reading, fearing that such art forms would subvert the austere Islamic order established in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution 20 years ago. Even after a ban on music was lifted, listening to songs in public and reading the Persian translations of many western novels remained illicit pursuits. Censorship was rigorous. A list of the expressions which state censors were instructed to expunge from novels awaiting publication included "dancing leaves", a phrase that was apparently considered salacious.

As the popularity of "Two Women" has demonstrated, things are now changing. A lot of this is down to Ataollah Mohajerani, Mr Khatami's urbane culture minister. Mr Mohajerani says that European classical music as "undeniably beautiful", a statement that not only marks a softening in revolutionary Iran's strident distaste for "decadent" western culture, but also affirms the value of secular culture in general.

Since it is Mr Mohajerani's ministry which gives out permits for all cultural activities, the consequences of the evolution in official ideas has been considerable. Iranians are currently seeing, reading and hearing things which were firmly out of bounds three years ago. Nowadays, if you have a free evening in Tehran, you can join the city's middle class for an evening of ribald theatre by Dawood Mirbagheri, whose latest farce, "The Golden Tooth", is currently playing to packed houses at the capital's biggest theatre. You can then curl up at home with a previously unavailable Persian translation of Milan Kundera's "Immortality" before nodding off to the popular music of Ali Reza Asar. All without fear of arrest.

Musicians like Mr Asar, whose influences range from Elton John to the 14th century mystic poet Hafez, have responded to the change in official attitudes with a creative upsurge. Mr Asar's first album, "Romantic Migrants", has so far sold more than 300,000 copies to fans from all walks of life.

A few weeks ago his fans packed into an 800-seat theatre in Tehran to see Mr Asar in a series of live performances. Concerts like this were unheard of under previous governments; even now, whistling and cheering are forbidden, and female fans are warned not to take advantage of the darkness to loosen their hejab, the Islamic head-covering. Dancing, of course, is out of the question.

But despite such restrictions, some western practices seem to be creeping into Iranian pop. Shadmehr Aghili, who probably pips Mr Asar as the best-known of the new generation of pop musicians, employs minders to shield him from adoring fans. He is also rumoured to have succumbed to that quintessential symbol of western pop-star vanity: a nose-job.

While the relaxation of censorship has made life easier for Iranian pop musicians, as well as for novelists and playwrights, its effects on Iran's film industry may be more mixed. According to Abbas Kiarostami, one of Iran's internationally renowned film makers, it is no coincidence that Iranian cinema flourished during a period of harsh cultural repression; restriction bred ingenuity.

While some film makers fear that relaxing censorship will make Iranian cinema more conventional, most welcome the leniency currently being shown to films like "Two Women", especially those whose work, for political reasons, was frowned upon by previous governments. Having been nudged from the scene, some of these are making a reappearance. Bahram Bayzai is the best-known. In his masterpiece, "Bashu, the Little Stranger", Mr Bayzai upset traditionalists by planting an independent-minded woman at the centre of a story of racism in a north Iranian village.

The film was banned for four years in Iran and Mr Bayzai, whose membership of the Baha'i faith makes him deeply suspect in the eyes of many Iranians, spent years in the wilderness. But he is soon to start shooting a new feature film, his first since 1992. "The situation is still not perfect," he says, "but it's getting better."


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