by Doug McClemont, The Huffington Post
Storytelling has been an integral part of life in the Middle East -- and Iran in particular -- for centuries. Whether spoken in the streets, played as a game or painted on a canvas, Iranian folkloric tradition, with its uniquely theatrical and magical approach to the question of what it means to be a denizen of the earth, traverses regions and generations. Fairy tales, jokes, religious allegories, and animal legends have long been a part of a continuing oral and visual history, though the number of Naghals (traditional Persian storytellers who narrate painted scenes) has dwindled in recent decades. Still, elaborate storytelling in all forms remains ubiquitous, and to be Iranian means having the ability to suspend one's disbelief and succumb to the sometimes troubling, sometimes beautiful details of an oft-told tale.
Today if a story from the East makes its way in a westerly direction, it is not likely a tale from this rich, uplifting tradition but rather a news item that brings with it tragic or politically divisive information. These accounts are often colored by the lens of an entrenched xenophobia and fraught with inaccuracies. Rare are the bits of news that can inspire us with a meaningful artistic charge. But take for example the storied life of Iranian painter and writer Farideh Lashai. The artist, who died in February after a battle with cancer, was nothing short of a national treasure in the country of her birth. A humanist and lifelong painter who also published the memoir entitled Shal Bamu (The Jackal Came) in 2003 and translated seven plays of Bertolt Brecht, effectively introducing his writings to the Iranian public for the first time. She was a socially aware artistic presence in one of the planet's many male-dominated cultures. Respect for the artist and renown in her homeland are evidenced by the four days of front page newspaper coverage in Tehran that announced her passing and recounted her artistic life. Several documentary stories were produced within weeks of her death and aired on the Farsi language edition of the BBC as well as Voice of America News.