Saturday, 20 February 2016

A Dragon Arrives!

An orange Chevrolet Impala drives across a cemetery towards an abandoned shipwreck in the middle of a desert landscape. It is the 22nd of January, 1965. The day before, the Iranian prime minister was shot dead in front of the parliament building. Inside the wreck, a banished political prisoner has hung himself. The walls are covered in diary entries, literary quotes and strange symbols. Can they help Police Inspector Babak Hafizi in his investigations? Will they shed any light on why there is always an earthquake whenever somebody is buried in this desert cemetery?
Assisted by a sound engineer and a geologist, Hafizi begins his investigations on the ancient island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf. Fifty years later, their entire evidence, along with intelligence tape recordings, are found in a box, the contents of which attest to the fact that the inspector and his colleagues were arrested. But why? In his new film, Mani Haghighi once again creates a grotesquely absurd experimental set-up. His playful reenactment of mysterious events revolves around a real-life episode – but also imagines a truth of its own. – Berlinale

Still from 'A Dragon Arrives!' (Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad!, Dir/scr. Mani Haghighi. Iran. 2016. 107 mins. Ali Bagheri, Amir Jadidi, © Abbas Kosari. Courtesy  Berlinale.

Berlin Review

by Lee Marshall, Screen International

Occasionally a film comes along that is as impressive as it is baffling. Iranian director Mani Haghighi’s fifth feature A Dragon Arrives! is such: a meta-cinematic detective story set in 1960s Iran, shot through with counter-culture references and magical realism, channelling both the Westernised cool of the country’s pre-Revolution intelligentsia and the climate of fear and paranoia engendered by the Shah’s repressive regime.

The director deploys an array of post-modern cinematic tricks, from mockumentary-style interviews, to temporal leaps, cool costumes and set design (especially a flame-orange Chevrolet Impala), to a flamboyantly loud rock-influenced soundtrack by Christophe Rezai. The flash and panache of the style sometimes distracts us from storyline and ten different viewers are likely to have ten different opinions about what actually happened in this film. Whether this narrative obliquity will harm the film’s prospects of being seen by arthouse audiences outside of Iran remains to be seen. Certainly this is a good-looking package, more glamorously cinematic than anything Haghighi has made to date.

At its core, this is (probably) a story about three men who go the remote, desertified Iranian island of Qeshm in 1965 to investigate the aftermath of the suicide of a political prisoner. One, Babak Hafizi (Amir Jadidi) – a trilby-and-shade-sporting detective straight out of a Godard film – works as a detective for the Shah’s secret police, referred to as ‘The Agency’. But his mission here seems motivated by personal curiosity: spending the night in a rusted hulk of a ship that somehow got washed up in a desert valley, near a cemetery where earthquakes take place whenever anyone is buried, he brings two acquaintances to check out the seismic conundrum. One, Keyvan Haddad (Goudarzi) is a mystically-inclined sound engineer whose hippy hair and garb would have been precocious even in mid-sixties America. The other, Behnam Shokouhi (Ghanizadei), is a geologist who can identify rocks by tasting them.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Going their own way

For a long time, Persian classical music was considered untouchable. Now the sons of Iran′s great ustads have begun to change traditional music. 
Homayoun Shajarian and Sohrab Pournazeri (source: YouTube). Courtesy Qantara.
by Marian Brehmer,

Scarcely a country in the Middle East is as proud of its musical tradition as Iran. There are few other places in the world where people′s ears are so attuned to the voices of great classical singers. Step into one of the popular shared taxis in Tehran and there′s a good chance the car radio will be playing a classical Persian song.

The last few decades have seen Iran′s traditional music scene dominated by the same stars – Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Shahram Nazeri and Ali Reza Eftekhari. These voices have become hallmarks of the industry and conveyors of important memories, be they personal or historical and political.

Change within a set frame

Iranian singing is based on the traditional dastgah tonal system, characterised by different scales and melodic groups. This system, which forms the basis of Persian classical music, was first systemised at the end of the 19th century. Since then, new elements have been added, but always within a set frame. Just like Persian poetry, which until the emergence of the she′ r-e no (modern verse) adhered to a set of strict rules, Persian classical music was long considered sacrosanct by both singers and instrumentalists.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Iranian Art Scene Is Exploding Right Now

Jackson Pollock's 'Mural on Indian Red Ground' in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. All photos by the author. Courtesy Bruno Macaes/Vice.

by Bruno Macaes, Vice

More than once I have heard it said that Jackson Pollock, not Reagan, won the Cold War. After all, in those first two decades, when it was a matter of deciding which regime best symbolized the future, Pollock's abstract expressionism showed America to be a reactionary force capable of forging ahead. On the crucial front of the imagination, the Soviet Union could only retreat.

With these thoughts in mind, I headed to see one of Pollock's masterpieces now being shown in Tehran to find out how this exhibition came about and what subtle impact it might have.

Contrary to what some international media outlets have claimed, it is not the first time that the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has shown Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, one of the great works of American contemporary art in its collection. The museum also hasn't refrained from showing its Warhols, Oldenburgs, and Lichtensteins. That particular revolution happened 15 years ago. The only requirement that the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance seems to pose is that curators find an appropriate context for showing these works. In this case, the paintings serve as counterpoints to the work of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai (1944–2013), a modernist of prodigious imaginative powers, who is the main focus of the exhibition.

When I meet the Iranian curator, Faryar Javaherian, I tell her that I am particularly impressed by Lashai, especially some of her video art, both lyrical and surreal. But, it turns out, those videos were neither as short nor as surreal as I had thought. They had simply been clipped under censorship instructions. One of them was a particularly beautiful rendition of the classical poem "Layla and Majnun." Since, in Lashai's video, Layla appeared most often unveiled and even undressed, the public version had to be reduced to about 20 seconds, and it made very little sense. Something similar happened a few years ago, when one of the panels of a Francis Bacon triptych had to be removed for supposedly depicting a homosexual scene. The triptych became a diptych.

Watch a Pyramid of Mirrors Morph Based on Desert Weather

Courtesy Italian designer Gugo Torelli and Iranian artist Shirin Abedinirad
by Margaret RhodesWired

FOR A FEW days in October, a ziggurat of mirrored boxes stood in Dasht-e Kavir, a desert in central Iran. The sculpture contained sensors, gears, and an Arduino processor that sensed changes in the temperature and the light, which caused the tower’s nine tiers to spin independently. This being the desert, a place of extremes, the sculpture did a lot of spinning. From any angle, at any time, looking at it was like gazing into a kaleidoscope of the surrounding landscape.

The sculpture was called Babel Tower, and it was the work of Italian designer Gugo Torelli, who programmed the electronics, and Iranian artist Shirin Abedinirad, who handled the mirrors. Before collaborating with Torelli on Babel Tower, Abedinirad installed a similar ziggurat in Sydney for the Underbelly Arts Festival. That project looked more like an optical illusion—as though a shard of blue sky had fallen into the grass. The earthy hues and gradients of the Iranian desert, when reflected in multitudes, create an entirely different effect. It’s like you can see the entire landscape at once.

“We wanted to give a message of unity,” Torelli says. The Tower of Babel, if you need a refresher, appears in Genesis 11. The Biblical story describes an incredible collaboration: The people of the earth all spoke the same language, and decided to join forces and build a brick-and-tar tower where they could come together. As the story goes, the Lord sought to temper the power of the people to maintain control, so he made them all speak different languages. Although the people scattered to the far corners of the world and no longer shared a language, Tower of Babel even now is a symbol for a unified society.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Tales of exile and of home: Iranian diaspora in literature

Iranian fiction in English
Iranian woman walks through the snow at Azadi square in Tehran. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters. Courtesy the Guardian.
by Sanaz Fotouhi for Tehran BureauThe Guardian

When I was at university studying English literature, I took an interest in diasporic and migrant writings. Authors from India, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean all told the same kind of stories of exile and resettlement. Their books raised a shared set of concerns, reflecting homelessness, loss and attempts to reconstruct identity.

As someone who is part of the Iranian diaspora, my heart connected to these stories, but at the same time I felt something was missing. Yes, I sympathised with the writers and related to their experiences, but I could not identify with the cultural details.

I felt my voice, as an Iranian living away from my homeland, was missing. Back then, in the late 1990s, there were few Iranians writing in English about their experiences.

This changed one summer when browsing a dingy bookstore in Hong Kong, I came across Susan Pari’s The Fortune Catcher. I read the book in two days, weeping my way through it. Finally someone had depicted my very own Iranian experience in English. Now the world might understand our stories. Stumbling on this book was the beginning of a journey that has preoccupied my life.

Over the next several years, I dedicated myself to finding, reading, and researching the literature of the Iranian diaspora. Gradually, I came upon an emerging body of work. These books grew from a handful in the late 1990s to around 300 today.

Having read most of the books by Iranian writers in English, at least those that I could get my hands on, I see a body of work that paints a beautifully diverse picture of the Iranian diaspora, and makes a great contribution to the way Iranians are seen and see themselves.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Initials B.B.

How the man who signs ‘B.B.’ plans to shake up the contemporary Iranian art scene
Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar – Self-Portrait (detail; from the Invincible series). Courtesy REORIENT.
by Joobin BekhradREORIENT

It was one of those afternoons I didn’t ever want to end. All I’d brought with me were a pair of bright blue jeans and snakeskin-print loafers you’d think I’d nicked from the closet of Lady Stardust himself. Before us, the sun was sinking down into the French Riviera, behind its winding hills, into a shining, rippled film flecked with the billowing white masts of what seemed to us on high like a thousand little sailboats. It was all a blur, London and the piss-soaked back alleys of Camden, though the paleness of my reflection in the mirror reminded me of my recent whereabouts. By all accounts, Sassan should have been the happiest of souls there and then, the strapping flaxen-haired lad in the looming shadows cast by two stone Persian lions; but he wasn’t, and still isn’t. His thoughts were far away from the sun, the sea, and those tiny sailboats; he was thinking about his beloved Iran. As was I.

As we sipped on cool rosé and my attention drifted at times towards the subdued strains of the band behind us, Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar told me about his plans to show not only his neighbours in the glitzy Riviera, but the world at large, what he called the ‘real Iran’. The time, he said, pushing back wayward locks of hair, was ripe for new blood in the contemporary Iranian art scene. It was time for change – enough of the tawdry chelo kababi mentality, as I termed it; Sassan would go big, not home. Together with his business savvy and his passion for the arts, he would establish a foundation of his own in support of Iranian artists and play by his own rules. Admittedly, it all sounded rather romantic, and the feeling was in no small way accentuated by the roseate draughts that poured forth from some seemingly endless source. Fortunately, though, we ultimately ended up doing what we said we would on that cool and heady night by the sea; I’ve finally penned that confounded little book of mine, and the doors to the House of Sassan – the Fondation Behnam Bakhtiar – have been swung wide open. That hasn’t calmed either of us down in the slightest, however.

Initially, this conversation was intended to be presented in the form of a podcast. On second thought, fearing that it might degenerate into a heated discussion about the arts between two hot-blooded Iranians, I instead decided to have Sassan explain – as coolly, yet candidly as possible – the premise of his new foundation and what he’s been up to for the past six months or so.

I’m hearing about new Middle East-related arts and cultural foundations so often … they’re popping up like mushrooms! You’ve got ones in the Middle East, Western Europe, North America … Why did you feel the need to establish a new one? What are the foundation’s primary aims and objectives?

Monday, 8 February 2016

‘To each his own weapon, I have my camera’: Iran's 1979 revolution – in pictures

It took Maryam Zandi more than three decades to get her photos of the revolution published

An Iranian revolutionary with a flower in his rifle. Photograph: Courtesy of Maryam Zandi and the Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

I met Maryam Zandi last spring in the cherry-coloured hallways of downtown Tehran’s House of Artists, a prestigious gallery, auditorium and theatre inaugurated under the administration of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Zandi was ‘in conversation with’ photographer Nader Davoodi, but I was looking forward to interview her about her book, Enqelab-e 57, published more than three decades after the 1979 revolution.

Zandi fought long and hard to have the book, which spans the turbulent winter of 1978-9 when people gathered to topple the Shah, published in the form she wanted, with nearly 200 photos. Under the administrations of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the authorities said it could be allowed only with some parts removed - something she refused.

“This is a record of the rising of a people, it should be seen in its entirety,” she told me. After the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election, the culture minister agreed the book could be published whole.

The photographs run from the citywide demonstrations of November 1978 to 1 April 1979, the day of the national referendum with the simple question: ‘The Islamic Republic, Yes or No?’. They capture such momentous events as the mass march to Mohammad Mossadegh’s home in Ahmadabad, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s first media interview upon his return to Iran, at Alavi School. It was published in October 2014.

In the introduction, Zandi describes asking - almost negotiating - with a man at the door to let her into the school where only men were allowed that day. Aptly, the book begins with her plea: “To each his (or her) own weapon, I have my camera, and I have my cry.”

She recalled the frenzy of the revolutionary protests as a time of “inclusion, when divisions were momentarily set aside”. On one occasion, having found no one to take care of her baby daughter, she carried the infant in her arms and asked people to hold her as she took photos.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Linguistic diversity as opportunity

Mother-tongue instruction in multi-ethnic Iran

Iran is a state of many ethnicities where over a dozen languages are spoken, including, among others, Persian, Baluchi, Luri, Arabic, and Turkish. Unfortunately, the country’s education policy does not take account of this linguistic diversity.
Delegations from the peoples of Persia: ″since the Achaemenid era, Iran has been a state of many ethnicities and has remained in existence even without the imported concepts of ′nation′ and ′nation state′″, writes Manutschehr Amirpur. Courtesy Qantara.
by Manutschehr

The Islamic Republic of Iran has continued the policy of the old regime in that it only permits the learning of the country′s official language (Persian), even though this contradicts the obligations set out in the constitution. The widespread tradition of ′one country, one language′, which lives on across the Middle East despite the fact that reality is very different, is also alive and well in Iran.

A glance at the situation in neighbouring states highlights the problem. The country that has been known as the Republic of Turkey since the end of the First World War justifies its existence by the doctrine that the population of Asia Minor has only one language and one religion. This doctrine completely ignores the Kurds and the Alevis.

Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine – countries that were practically created on the drawing board by the French and English mandate powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the First World War without any thought to ethnic or historical borders – also adhere to this policy. In fact, this policy, which is based on the principle of ′that which must not, cannot be′, is one of the reasons behind the civil wars in Turkey and Iraq.