Friday, 30 November 2012

Iran’s push into Egyptian film?

by Michael Rubin, AEI

The Islamic Revolution in Iran ushered in a period of enmity between Iran and Egypt. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, made enmity toward and a firm belief in the illegitimacy of Israel a pillar of the new regime’s ideology. He put Egypt—the only Arab country to recognize Israel—in Iran’s sites. Relations deteriorated further after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat: rather than condemn Sadat’s murder, the Iranian leadership celebrated it, even naming a Tehran street after Khalid Islambouli, Sadat’s assassin. Over the next three decades Iranian leaders regularly belittled Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, as a “pharaoh,” castigating both his dictatorial ways (Iranian regime rhetoric regularly depicts the Islamic Republic as a democracy) and implying that he belonged to the pre-Islamic world of the jahaliyya, the age of ignorance. Efforts at rapprochement between Iran and the largest Arab country repeatedly fell flat as Iranian hardliners castigated their reformist counterparts’ calls for improved relations with Egypt as a betrayal of both basic Islamic principles and Khomeini’s vision. Mubarak’s fall, however, coupled with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, led to hopes—at least in Tehran— for a renaissance in relations, if not a new Tehran-Cairo axis.

It is against this backdrop that this short excerpt from the semiofficial, hardline Fars News Agency, is interesting. While Tehran and Cairo have yet to re-establish full diplomatic relations— probably because of objections from Riyadh and Doha, both of whom are major donors to the faltering Egyptian economy—the Iranian Interests Section in Cairo is becoming increasingly more active and taking a far higher profile.

The Iranian encouragement to the Egyptian film industry is important. Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world. From Tangiers to the Tigris, Arabs watch Egyptian soap operas and full-length comedies. It is the Egyptian dominance of film that has led to the Egyptian dialect of Arabic becoming the most widely understood, perhaps even more so than the stodgy and formal “Modern Standard” dialect taught at most universities and in diplomatic parlors. Throughout the Mubarak years, Egyptian cinema has also been political. The Egyptian leadership used films like “Al-Irhabi” (The Terrorist) and “Al-Irhab wal Kebab” (Terrorism and Kebab) to satirize and ridicule Islamist groups. Having taken control, the Muslim Brotherhood sought its own revenge, trying and sentencing Adel Emam, the star of the films and Egypt’s best known comedian of the silver screen, to three months in prison for insulting Islam.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Innovator

Iranian Singer-Songwriter Mohsen Namjoo

Mohsen Namjoo's visionary musical style has struck a chord with audiences both in Iran and beyond. Not only does the music break with tradition, it also reconciles Iran's young generation with the nation's classical musical heritage.

by Marian Brehmer,

Mohsen Namjoo was born in Torbat-e-Jam in the Khorasan region. This area in northeastern Iran, which used to include parts of modern Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, occupies a special place in Iranian history. It was here, on the outskirts of the Islamic empire, that Persian Sufism first blossomed. Later, Ferdowsi, regarded as the father of Persian poetry, wrote Iran's national epic Shahnameh in Khorasan. He was succeeded in the centuries that followed by many other lyricists writing verses and melodies in Khorasan.

Every classical musician in Iran is aware of the legacy of these great masters. They were the ones who once penned mystical lines in florid pictorial language, thereby creating the Dastgahs. These sophisticated melodic systems form the basis upon which the Ostad (master) improvises his song. The tradition has remained intact to this day.

Mohsen Namjoo began taking tuition in classical Persian music at the age of 12. He later learned to play the setar, or Persian long-necked lute, and studied theatre and music at the University of Tehran. His teachers included some of the great masters of Persian vocal tradition.

He engaged with the classical poets, but also questioned his own culture. "I was thinking about why Iranian music is constantly criticized by the intellectual community for being behind the times," says Namjoo in an interview with the exiled Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. For example, if a poem by Hafiz is sung, then the singer takes both text and melody in its centuries-old, traditional form. "The question for me is, where is the art happening in all of this?" says Namjoo.

It was a question that the young musician could not ignore. He wanted to take his nation's rich treasure and create something new from it. Namjoo's interest in western music grew during his military service. He read the history of blues and rock, and developed plans for his own musical projects.

Clearing censorship hurdles

When he later found a producer who liked his visionary ideas, the first recordings came about. With a poem by the Iranian contemporary poet Ahmad Shamlu, the Persian tonbak drum and a guitar, Namjoo invented a fusion of eastern and western elements. He produced two albums in this style, but soon found himself up against the constraints imposed on musicians in Iran. If an album doesn't clear the censorship hurdles, it won't make it onto the market. It's a process that can sometimes take months, even years.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Taking Risks in Art and Politics

Shirin Neshat: An Artist — Iranian, Muslim and Female — Engages
Image courtesy of Scene in NY
by Aysegul Sert, NYTimes

Over the past two decades, Shirin Neshat has drawn on her personal experience of being an artist at home in the West with roots in Iran to illustrate her creed: “People should be free to choose what they want to do with their lives, what they want to wear, what religion they want to believe in; this is not something a government or a community should impose.”

Perched in her spacious studio in downtown New York, she added: “Globalization is happening, and the world is becoming more homogenous. We have to accept that we are not going to be all the same; we have to tolerate each other’s differences.” 

Born in 1957, Ms. Neshat left Iran before the fall of the shah, settling in New York after a short stay in California. “I will never belong to anywhere completely,” she insisted. “I will never fit in anywhere completely.” Although if Iran were to become democratic, she allowed later in the conversation, “then maybe one day I could go back.” 

Ms. Neshat has exhibited at the Tate in London and the Whitney in New York, and she earned a Silver Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. She first gained attention in the mid-1990s, with “Women of Allah,” a series of photographs depicting women in veils, their skin covered in calligraphy of Islamic poetry. It was a meditation, she said, on the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran — on martyrdom, patriotism and religion. 

That revolution, she asserted, led to many Iranian women becoming “brainwashed and submissive.” In recent years, first with the opposition protests in Iran in 2009 and then with the Arab Spring, “we see a generation of women and men no longer divided but equal. They are educated, they are not ideological, their interest is pure and positive, which is change, democracy and freedom.” 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'Patience Stone' Star: In Iran, You Have a Choice - You Can Stay Alive, or You Can Die

by Jordan Riefe, The Wrap

“The existential question in the west is to be or no to be; in our country it’s to say or not to say, that is the question” says exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, star of “The Patience Stone” -- a movie that sheds harsh light on the treatment of women in much of the Muslim world.

The result is a choice: “You can stay alive, or you can die,” Faranhi told the rapt audience at a screening at L.A.’s Landmark Theater, part of The Wrap’s Award Screening Series.

“Patience Stone” is part of a growing mini-genre of movies about the plight of Middle-Eastern women -- which also includes 2008’s “The Stoning of Soraya M.” and HBO’s “For Neda,” about Neda Agha Soltan, who became a symbol of protest when she was gunned down during the unrest surrounding Iran’s 2009 election.

In it, Farahani plays a young wife caring for her older, catatonic husband, wounded in a war that rages around them in a desolate Afghan city.

Her work becomes cathartic as she pours out her woes on his deaf ears, investing him with her sorrows as in the Afghan folk tale about a “patience” stone that soaks up tribulations until it shatters.

And tribulations she has, as Farahani paints a portrait of the sexual humiliation her character has endured in order to stay in the good graces of a rough and indifferent husband.

“It’s a woman that wants to be free, free of the chains of tradition, free of all these pressures they were putting on her,” Farahani told the moderator, The Wrap’s Awards Editor Steve Pond, about her character. “This was really important for me.”

Thursday, 22 November 2012

See the Light

Documenting the Sociopolitical Upheavals in the Middle East through Photography

Abbas – ‘Rioters Burn a Portrait of the Shah as a Sign of Protest Against his Regime. Tehran, December 1978′ – Images courtesy the Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

by Sophie Kazan, REORIENT

London has been undergoing its own Arab Spring of sorts in the past months, as a steady flow of exhibitions and cultural events focusing on the Middle East have been flourishing around the capital in rapid succession.

In the summer of 2011, Shubbak, London’s first festival of contemporary Arab arts & culture was launched by mayor Boris Johnson, and was quickly followed by the city’s second Nour Festival of Arts in October of that year. In January, just a few months later, the British Museum launched its Hajj exhibition, and in almost no time, an assortment of similarly themed exhibitions blossomed around London.

This November, less than two weeks after Edge of Arabia’s dazzling #COMETOGETHER exhibition in East London’s Truman Brewery warehouse, the Victoria and Albert Museum opened the Light from the Middle East photography exhibition. This major museum exhibition, running until the spring of 2013 celebrates the photography of 30 artists from 13 countries, both within the Middle East and the diaspora. While some of the works in the exhibition are to be expected – veiled women, dramatic 60s Orientalist images courtesy Youssef Nabil, and the like – others are representative of the discontent felt by many Middle Eastern artists and young idealists in countries that are at war, under occupation, or facing political turmoil. A rather eclectic assortment of works, the spellbinding photographs vary wildly in their subject matter and style, and on viewing them, one can’t help but wonder if the paradox of the mysterious, beautiful, and yet dangerous Middle East is what keeps London audiences coming back for more.

‘The emphasis is on how the medium of photography is being used, interrogated, and even undermined by Middle Eastern artists’, says Marta Weiss, Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as of the exhibition itself. ‘This is exciting, because this is the first exhibition to look at a wide range of work from this vast and diverse region, while focusing exclusively on photography’. While it is definitely the first of its kind in that respect, the exhibition is also unique in terms of its curatorial approach. ‘This exhibition presents the work in a new light (excuse the pun) by looking carefully at the choices artists make about how to use photography’, Weiss explains.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

'The Skyless City' and What the Media Misses

"These women have stories that you do not hear about in the media."

by Correspondent, Tehran Bureau

Iranian director Kiomars Moradi has completed rehearsals for The Skyless City, written by Pouria Azarbayjani in collaboration with Moradi, which made its American debut at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. The multimedia stage production premiered in Tehran in late 2009 to enthusiastic audiences, but was ultimately banned at home by the Iranian government over concerns about its subject matter: the international trafficking of women from the Middle East. (In June 2010, Tehran Bureau reviewed the Iranian production as part of a survey of the Tehran theater scene.) At the 2010 Avignon OFF Festival, critics chose The Skyless City as Best Foreign Theater. Moradi also presented the play at the Laboratory Theater Festival in Italy this past summer. He spoke with Tehran Bureau about the show and his experience preparing for its first performance in the United States.

Tell us about the story.

The Skyless City tells the story of four women from different parts of the Middle East and what they encounter trying to build new lives for different reasons. In order to do so, they have to escape their current situations.... Nasrin, from Iran, and Alma, from Afghanistan, are in an abandoned subway station in Paris. They are waiting to receive their passports from the human trafficker who smuggled them from the Middle East. They remember other women from other countries in the Middle East who were with them on this difficult journey and didn't make it. The women who disappeared are present too.