For the past few days I’ve had women on my mind. Platonically, of course; the Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation was having its conference at Berkeley this year, and I was there to listen. But then, during the musical program, Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai sang for us, and that’s when Plato lost his toga.
The song ‘habanera’ from the Bizet opera Carmen means cruelly to seduce. The teasing rhythm and the pliant way the melody wraps itself around it, sets up the audience for the gypsy woman’s next song, “Seguidille,” which hasn’t been surpassed in the history of the “come on.” Raeeka’s unerring choice of Carmen for the conference addressed an unspoken question about the human rights crimes against Iranian women: Why?
Don Jose, the soldier Carmen seduced, ultimately murders her when he realizes she can’t be possessed. Close to Raeeka’s political interpretation, here is opera singer Maria Callas being frighteningly unpossessable. What’s remarkable about this video clip is that for the first two minutes Callas is not singing; she is projecting presence with posture, and facial expressions—something Raeeka also excels at. Despite the baton waving and the fancy bowing action happening in the background, the camera can’t help but stay fixed on Callas just standing there being Carmen. To appreciate the artistic choice, compare Callas’ interpretation of the character with this sweet but politically vacuous rendition by Katherine Jenkins.
Jenkins’ Carmen is no threat to the likes of the IRI, but Callas’ and Raeeka’s are. Once you peel away IRI’s official justifications for its anti-woman laws--stable family structure, motherhood, disrespectful exploitation of women’s bodies, what would Mohammad do, etc.—you find only the frustrated Don Jose and his pathological urge to possess and dominate.
An intriguing twist to this interpretation had come earlier in the fiery keynote speech of progressive feminist Cherrie Moraga. At Moraga’s level of abstraction, one can see that Don Jose represents more than just the IRI and other misogynous institutions. He is also that part of the West who would impose its ways on vulnerable cultures or else eliminate them. Here, ironically, the Iranian nation is herself a Carmen. Proud, complex , set in her ways, who would rather face death than be possessed.
Mainstream feminists who promote the foreign policies of Western Patriarchy, should understand that there are Iranian women who identify strongly with the second Carmen. Their experience of oppression as the first Carmen works only to amplify their sympathy for the other Carmen. So they will not welcome anyone who regards their culture the way Bizet’s 19th century audience may have viewed his gypsy woman: irresponsible, uncivilized, futureless, and deadly. These women have already peeled away the practical and ideological justifications for the US drive for hegemony—oil and freedom—to find nothing but the mad Don Jose standing over them with a knife.
Some audience members seemed uncomfortable with hints of such an outlook interpreting it as a “sour grapes” reaction to the social successes of the West. One questioner who voiced this criticism of a speaker drew brief applause. To paraphrase the comment, “What’s the point in denying that some superior social solutions originated in the West? We should check our pride and adopt foreign methods that are obviously better.”
Fair comment. The response is in post 9-11 US history, among other places. Immediately after that single trauma, habeas corpus, search and seizure, freedom of the press, congressional oversight, and torture policies quickly degraded. Classroom mythology aside, the workings of Western freedom is a puzzle to everyone including the West. Substituting the word “Democracy” for “love” in Carmen’s song, “Democracy is a rebellious bird that nothing can tame. And it is simply in vain to call it if it is convenient for it to refuse.”
Those who are impressed by enlightened constitutions are confusing the perch for the bird. Freedom is not a Western invention; it’s just their condition, for now. The bird call for world justice, composed of the will of all conscious beings, is still waiting to be discovered, and the search is still wide open to all cultures. This is why Carmen must be protected from Don Jose.
Raeeka’s moving on from opera to Iranian folk songs reinforced the thought artistically--for me. ‘Goleh Sangam,’ ‘Mastom Mastom,’ ‘Shekaareh Ahoo’ can be sung to the accompaniment of the Western piano—particularly as they were so sensitively arranged by composer David Garner. But there are many other Iranian melodies with tonal flavors impossible to render in the Western tempered musical scale.
Ideas are melodies. What flavors of freedom would we oppress if we favored philosophies able to play only a few?
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