Table of Contents

English Verso

Iranian Masculinities

Preface: Iranian Masculinities
Mostafa Abedinifard and Sahar Allamezade-Jones

A Tree Atop the Mountain: Mobad Manikan and the Elusive Promises of Masculinity
Cameron Cross

‘Prescriptive’ Masculinity?: Deception and Restraint in the Films of Asghar Farhadi
Niki Akhavan

An Iranian Female Vampire Walks Home Alone and Disturbs Freud’s Oedipal Masculinity
Mahdi Tourage

On the Path to Manhood: Men and Masculinities in the Contemporary Kurdish Novel
Kaveh Ghobadi

Homosexuality – the emerging new battleground in Islam
Junaid Jahangir & Hussein Abdullatif

The Abject Outsider: “The Story of Two Gay Men”
Claudia Yaghoobi

Queering the Iranian Nation: Be Like Others and Resistance to Heteronormative Nationalism
Amy Tahani-Bidmeshki

Persian Reverso

Wedding Trials of Masculinity in Iranian Fairy Tales
Samin Espargham, Abolghasem Ghavam, and Samira Bameshki

Ekhrajiha1 (The Outcast 1): The Role of the ‛Lāt’ Figure in the Construction of the Islamic Republic’s ‛Ideal Man’
Papoli Yazdi

The Predicament of Complicity with Hegemonic Masculinity in Goli Taraghi’s “In Another Place”
Amirhossein Vafa

The Male Homosexuality Problematic in the Context of ContemporaryIranian Shi‘ism
Arash Naraghi


In the Mirror of Time: On Rostam and Shoghad in Firdawsi’s Shahnameh and Akhavan Salis’s “The Eight Passage”
Nasim Khaksar

Iran Days in Egypt: Mosaddeq’s Visit to Cairo in 1951
Lior Sternfeld

Table of Contents Volume 3, Number 4

English Verso

Special Issue Dedicated to Professor Mohammad-Ali Islami-Nodoushan
Guest Editor: Javad Abbasi & Mahmood Fotoohi-Rudmajani

Religious Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “Right to Have Rights”
Anja Pistor-Hatam

Male Same-Sex Sexuality in the Legislation and Jurisdictions of the Islamic Republic
Arash Guitoo

Journalist Memoirs and the Iranian Diaspora: Truth, Professional Ethics, and Objectivity Between Political and Personal Narratives
Babak Elahi and Andrea Hickerson

The First World Conference on Human Rights and the Challenge of Enforcement
Andrew S. Thompson


Persian Reverso

A Realist Iranophile: Reflections on Professor Nodoushan’s Contributions to Iranian Studies
Javad Abbasi

The Contest of Languages: The Role of Iranian Dehqan’s in the Enduring Competition Between Persian and Arabic
Mahmood Fotoohi

The Soul of the Iranian World
Mohammad Jafar Yahaghi

The Days of the Land of Days: Recounting Nodoushan’s Journey to Yazd
Farhad Taheri

Reading Books in Public
Hasan Zolfaqari

Avecenna’s Recital of the Birdand its Impact onGhazzali’s Epistle of Birdand ‘Attar’s The Conference of Birds
Mahdi Mohebbati

Critiquing the Editing of the Scrolls of ShahnamahNarrators (Naqals)
Kamran Arzhangi

Rustamocide or Sohrabicide? Comparing Orhan Pamuk’sThe Red-Haired Womanwith the Tales of Rostam and Sohrab
Azam Nikkhah-Fardigi

Ferdawsi’s Shahnamehin the Historical Texts of Anatolian Seljuks
Fereshtah Mohammmadzadeh

“This is Not a Building That They Have Destroyed”: Critiquing Two Editions of The Correspondence of ‘Arif Qazvini
Said Pourazimi


Recognizing Human Rights
Mohammad-Ali Islami-Nodoushan

Interview With Dr. Mohammad-Ali Islami-Nodoushan (1977)
Farrokh Amirfaryar


Journalist Memoirs and the Iranian Diaspora: Truth, Professional Ethics, and Objectivity between Political and Personal Narratives

Babak Elahi <> teaches in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology. He holds a PhD in American literature from the University ofRochester. His work has been published in Iranian Studies; Alif; MELUSInternational Journal of Fashion Studies, and Cultural Studies. His book, The Fabric of American Realism, was published by McFarland Press in 2009. Elahi writes about American literary and cultural studies; Iranian culture, film, and literature; and the Iranian diaspora.

Andrea Hickerson <> is the Director of the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology. She holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in Communication TheoryJournalism and Global Networks. She writes about political communication and journalism routines, especially in transnational contexts.



While interviewing Jon Stewart for Voice of America upon the release of Stewart’s adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari’s Rosewater (2014),[1] Iranian-American blogger Saman Arbabi asks, “So, in a story, like, about Iran, how do you find the truth? I mean who decides what the truth is? And how do you find it?”  Stewart admits that he doesn’t know what the truth is: “Well, I don’t. […] I have to own my inauthenticity; I’m not Iranian. So, no matter what I do, for someone who lives there, this will be a simplistic and reductive version of their life.  But hopefully, from a Western performer for a Western audience, it’s a more nuanced look into a country that we’ve called evil.”[2]  Stewart adds that for him, “the film is just a reflection of Maziar’s book, which is again an interpretation of his experience.  So within that, truth is probably a pretty elusive figure in all this.  But I think the film is true to his reflection of his experience.  And I think that’s probably as close as I can get to what I wanted to achieve.”[3]

This exchange between an Iranian blogger and an American satirist about how close an Iranian-Canadian journalist’s memoir can get to the “truth” is emblematic of the complex ways in which journalism has been transformed by social media, by the increased legitimacy of satire as alternative journalism, and by the blurring of the line between personal experience and public information.  Stewart is suggesting that average Americans are twice removed from the truth in other countries. They must settle for his cinematic interpretation of Bahari’s narrated experience. This double remove from the truth raises important questions about the function of memoirs in the broader media landscape, especially in an era of displacement and diaspora.

This paper asks how diasporic Iranian prison memoirs penned by journalists deal with “the truth” as a moral, ethical, political, and professional category.  At this intersection—of journalism, diaspora, prison narrative, and memoir—a number of important questions converge. How do memoirs function in contexts where the nature of truth is ideologically overdetermined by state propaganda on one side, and stereotypes about dissimulating non-Western cultures on the other? How is the nature of “truth” in memoirs, or the status of “objectivity” in journalism affected by the dual experience of diaspora and captivity that these journalists’ memoirs relate? What is the best way to classify certain memoirs in terms of genre when they can fall into more than one category? Specifically, we focus on two memoirs by journalists in the Iranian diaspora, Between Two Worlds by Roxana Saberi, and Rosewater by Maziar Bahari. Both books largely recall the journalists’ experiences in captivity in the period surrounding the 2009 presidential election and the “Green Movement” in which there were mass protests against what many saw as a rigged election. In both books the journalists frame their personal and professional experiences as a quest for “truth.”  This quest for the truth is not a simple uncovering of an objective reality that is already “there,” but rather, a search for the strength to speak the truth in a context that militates against it in several ways ranging from the power of propaganda in Iran to the prevailing and similarly propagandistic stereotypes about Iranians in the U.S. media.

Theorists of and practicing commentators on the memoir focus on “truth” not as “information” but as “meaning,” and this creation of meaning is self-referential (for the memoirist as author and memoirists as subject) as well as relational between memoirist and reader.  Vivian Gornick, for example, describes memoir as a set of “fragmentary memories” rather than a “transmission” of facts. These memories are not “invented” but “composed” and the reader bears some responsibility in creating “meaning” rather than consuming information.[4]  Similarly, in their guide to reading autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson ask readers of autobiography and memoir not merely to seek “evidence,” but to ask about the nature of truth. They urge us as readers to ask, “What’s at stake for the narrator in persuading you of the truth of his story? What’s at stake historically (in the larger society) in having this text accepted as a ‘truthful’ account of a life? What difference would it make to learn that the narrative is a fabrication?”[5] Both at the level of theory in Smith and Watson’s work, and for practitioners like Gornick, then, the key to understanding “truth” in memoirs is how it functions relationally between memoirist and reader. Similarly, Philippe Lejeune defines the “autobiographical pact” between memoirist and reader as a “contract between author and reader in which the autobiographer explicitly commits himself or herself not to some impossible historical exactitude but rather to the sincere effort to come to terms with and to understand his or her own life.”[6] However, the “truth” of referential discourse in the autobiography is different from science, history, or journalism.  In autobiography, the pact covers truth “such as it appears to me, inasmuch as I know it, etc.”[7]  The difference between journalistic truth and autobiographical truth, according to Lejeune is the distinction between information and meaning, between accuracy and fidelity: “Accuracy involves information, fidelity meaning.[8]  Information is transmitted, but meaning must be constructed.

In journalism studies, as Juan Ramón Munez-Torrez has observed, “truth” is often conflated with “objectivity.”[9] Despite the increasing prominence and popularity of news satire and punditry like Jon Stewart,[10] the perception and performance of objectivity is still seen as the hallmark of “good” journalism.[11]  In the pursuit of objectivity, journalists employ strategies and routines which can shelter them from claims of bias. Strategies include reporting conflicting claims, excluding opinion, and using quotes.[12] Journalists also tend to omit personal details, instead focusing on generic, episodic facts conveying the impression of dispassionate observers.

Scholars continue to argue that the routine insistance on objectivity transcends culture and nationality. Surveys of journalists across national cultures show it is highly valued, even if journalists have different ways of defining and practicing it (Donsbach & Klett, 1993; Post, 2015; Skovsgaard et al., 2013).[13]  Drawing on Donsbach & Klett , Skovsgaard et al. identified possible measures related to objectivity: no subjectivity, balance, hard facts, and value judgments.  They argued that journalists may favor one aspect over another based on their perception of the role journalists should play in supporting democracy.  They tested how whether or not journalists perceived their role as either a “passive mirror,” “watch dog,” “public forum,” or “public mobilizer” correlated with their assessments of objectivity.  Their results suggest objectivity is “more important with role perceptions that emphasize a representative conception of democracy in which journalists inform citizens about society, whereas it is less important when they emphasize the inclusion of citizens in a public, democratic debate.”[14]

Indeed, not all believe objectivity is possible or desirable, as Michael Ryan explains.[15]  James Brian McPherson, for example, argues that the journalistic devotion to achieving “balance” in every story leads to polarization and false equivalence.[16]  Furthermore, he contends the overwhelming number of commercially successful conservative pundits on TV and radio in the United States has forced the mainstream media further to the right politically, as they attempt to appeal to and put themselves in conversation with conservative audiences.  Arguably, this has created a vacuum whereby activist and satirists like John Oliver and Trevor Noah, both free from the constraints of objectivity in their satirical genre, find resonance with audiences looking for “truth” outside the mainstream media, and questioning an uncritical “objectivity” that subjects even the facts to contrasting opinion.  Owing to their life experiences rather than their satirical stance, diasporic journalists find themselves at the center of a dynamic tension between subjectivity and objectivity.   Diasporic journalists are widely considered experts on international news because of their experiences in countries with restricted access to Western journalists; yet, their personal histories are often characterized by emotional and sometimes physical upheaval, suggestive, perhaps superficially, of experiential bias.

In contrast to the sometimes formulaic and rigid structure of hard news stories, journalists are increasingly penning memoirs and autobiographies.   Michelle Weldon speculates that a rise in journalist memoirs may be related to a general subjective turn in journalism coinciding with the popularity of social media and blogs.[17] Weldon, who conducts workshops for journalists looking to write memoirs reminds journalists not to stray from basic facts.  “The urge to write a personal story cannot eclipse the need to fully report,” she advises.[18]  Analyzing memoirs and interviews with war correspondents, Howard Tumber and Michael Webster probed for details; Weldon’s notes are typically accounted for in the journalist-memoir genre, namely the motivations and sentiments behind journalists’ chosen occupation.  Journalists often articulate an adventurous spirit and the desire to “bear witness.” The authors further observed that journalists’ “aspirations to report truthfully are couched in language of objectivity.”[19] Pointing to Tuchman’s conceptualization of objectivity as a “strategic ritual,”[20] Tumber and Webster suggest some journalists stress balancing differing viewpoints almost to the point of absurdity. They write, for example, “Inside a military unit as an embed, it is hard to imagine how the inescapable reliance on the limited sources available could even approximate to objectivity.”[21]  In contrast to the war correspondents, historically, African American journalists in the U.S. used their memoirs to counter stereotypes and challenge dominant narratives in the mainstream press.  Calvin Hall suggests these memoirs are born out of the tradition of slave narratives, and that they provided a space for marginalized African American journalists to “challenge the status quo” and describe the institutional racism they faced on the job.[22]  In his analysis of four autobiographies of African American journalists, Hall argues each functions as a “manifesto” or a “combative document whose purpose is to allow its subject to assert him- or herself in the locale of the universal subject.”[23]  Theoretically, Hall draws heavily on Gigi Durham’s work and her argument for using standpoint theory as a counterpoint to objectivity.  Durham argues objectivity is a form of “epistemic relativism” such that the norms associated with the practice ignore and perpetuate socio-cultural inequities by not acknowledging the marginalized standpoint of minority groups.[24] Hall extends Durham to journalistic memoirs and notes how in each of the memoirs he studied, the journalists make a conscious “statement” about the “complexities of being black in America.”[25]  In other words, writers foreground their standpoint, their difference and opposition to mainstream practice, explicitly in their work.

Whether or not diasporic journalists working in mainstream media would articulate a similar stance to the satirist, the war reporter or African American reporters is unknown.  On the one hand, journalists in diaspora are extreme outsiders, marginalized by two cultures, not one. They occupy a liminal space.  At the same time, journalists living in diaspora are privileged by their ability to pass between cultures. Diasporic journalists working in mainstream media are successful because of their personal histories, not despite them. So, then, what happens when diasporic journalists relay their personal histories in memoirs? Stéphane Dufoix defines diaspora as an “analytical framework that takes into account the structuring of the collective experience abroad based on the link maintained with the referent-origin and the community stance this creates.”[26] Much of the literature on the Iranian diaspora focuses on life-writing, but not specifically on journalist memoirs, even though many of the best known Iranian writers in the West have worked as journalists, including Tara Bahrampour, Roya Hakkakian, and Azadeh Moaveni, to name but a few.

A number of articles and special issues have been published since the mid-2000s focusing on Iranian diasporic memoir, though not always explicitly identifying the writers as journalists by training, nor considering the implications of such memoirs being penned by journalists.[27]  More recently, Nima Naghibi builds on this earlier work, broadening its scope to address other media, including documentary film and social media as forums for self-narration.  The critical discourse seems to have shifted away from questions of departure to those of return, and from the affective mode of nostalgia to that of engagement.  Babak Elahi and Persis Karim gesture towards this shift, suggesting that diasporic Iranian writers and artists view their own “work, and praxis as related to the future of Iran.”[28]  Naghibi makes a similar case by contrasting memoirists who remain fixated on the individual memoirist’s nostalgia for a lost childhood with other writers who challenge their readers to bear witness to violations of human rights. While we focus on a very specific sub-genre—the journalist prison memoirs—we see Naghibi’s framing of the question useful: documentary writing negotiates the nostalgic memorializing of the Persian prerevolutionary past with the act of witnessing the present in Iran and the United States towards the overall goal of testifying, allowing for empathy through a form of transmitted affect.[29] Ervand Abrahamian focuses not on memoirs, per se, but on a variety of forms that forced confessions took in Iran, ranging from written recantations to kangaroo courts to videotaped and televised self-recriminations. Nevertheless, we find his concepts useful in analyzing Saberi and Bahari’s work.  However, we wish to narrow the focus even further on diasporic prison memoir, a subgenre Naghibi also discusses.

For example, among the forms confessions took in Iran, Abrahamian includes the “mea culpa memoirs.”[30]  Indeed, Saberi references Abrahamian in the Epilogue to her memoir, saying that in a conversation with the scholar, he tells her that Iranian interrogators force prisoners to write confessions out in their own words (like a memoir) so that these are more believable when released to the press.[31] If forced confessions can be called mea culpa memoirs, perhaps the memoirs written by Iranian journalists who were held and then released based partly on such confessions might be called mea innocentia memoirs or memoirs of political absolution—a journalist asking absolution from his readers for the sin of having made false confessions, a rhetorical stance similar to the apologia. At the same time, whether intended on the part of the authors or not, these memoirs also function as challenges to Iranian propaganda about journalism as a form of espionage.  They specifically address the question of why the memoirist lied to gain his or her freedom, and how the memoir we are reading is an attempt to redeem the author’s personal, political, and professional ethos by telling the truth about the lies they’ve had to tell to save themselves. The memoirist’s central motive becomes the journey from falsehood to fact. By focusing on Saberi and Bahari, we hope to tease out this narrative structure of memoirs of political absolution or mea innocentia statements: the struggle to regain the truth from the political necessity to lie.  Put more formally and in conversation with the previous literature we summarized relating to the genres of journalism, memoir, and journalistic-memoir, we ask: how does the process of meaning-making rather than information-reporting in memoir and journalism affect our understanding of Iranian diasporic prison memoirs?



At the beginning of her captivity, Saberi is coerced into a false confession that she is a spy funneling information to an outside—presumably American—contact, causing her to waiver on both professional ethics and personal morality. Hoping that once released she will be free to set the record straight and vindicate anyone she might have implicated, she succumbs to pressure:

It was then that I came to a terrible realization: The truth meant nothing here. Only lies could save my family and me. My only way out was to admit to a crime I did not commit and to ask for forgiveness. … I could always, like many before me, recant my lies once I was freed.[32]

However, she soon realizes lies lead to more lies, and might ultimately hurt both herself and others.  In a concise Orwellian equation, Saberi sums up how her axiology of truthtelling was turned upside down by the trauma of imprisonment: “In sum: Truth = Prison.  Lies = Freedom.”[33]  The memoir can be read as Saberi’s attempt to turn this formula right side up into the adage, “the truth shall set you free.”  In fact, about half way through the memoir, after witnessing the courage of some of her fellow prisoners who refuse to sign false confessions, she redefines “freedom” as spiritual rather than physical. Saberi seeks religious (Biblical as well as Koranic), cultural, political, and professional paths back to truth, but what ultimately persuades her is the example of fellow prisoners who refuse to give false confessions.  Because the voices of fellow prisoners guide her to the truth, her narrative can be characterized by what Naghibi calls transmitted affect—a function of testiminio that allows the memoirist to speak for the voiceless, in this case Iranian women in prison who do not have the platform on which to speak that Saberi does. In this sense, Saberi’s memoir defines journalism as a balance between objectivity and advocacy, and it is in that overlap where she finds “truth.”[34]

One of Saberi’s touchstones for the value of truth is religion.  She turns to “God,” an entity she defines in a distinctly agnostic way as “a Higher Power to which all major religions pointed in one way or another.”[35] She even asks explicitly for dispensation to deceive:  “God, I asked for help, but you did not rescue me. And if you don’t save me, who will? I have no choice left but to lie for my life.”[36] The example of at least one of her fellow prisoners is distinctly Christian;[37] Saberi explicitly quotes from Matthew 6:31,[38] emphasizing trust in God, and the memoir itself might be read as an instantiation of the Biblical adage from John 8:32, “the truth shall set you free.” Much later in the memoir, she balances these agnostic or Christian religious frameworks for truth with a specifically Koranic axiology.  In response to a question from the judge in her case, she says, “I recanted [the false confession] after I realized it is better to tell the truth late than never, and the Koran told me to tell the truth because even if you suffer, in the end you will prevail.”[39]  Clearly, then, one way that Saberi negotiates the truth is through appeals to religious belief and scriptural doctrine.

In addition to religion, Saberi also turns to culture to contextualize her negotiation of falsehood and truth.  First, she points to taqīya,[40] or “dissimulation,” which she associates with Shiism. This form of cultural discourse “allowed and even encouraged Shiites to conceal their faith to protect their property or themselves.”[41]  Secondly, she links this Shiite form of strategic dissimulation to something that pre-dates and transcends Islamic influence: the practice of tā’rof, which Saberi describes as “a complex system of formalized curtesy—which could often make social interactions seem insincere, for example, when a shopkeeper refused payment although he actually expected it.”[42] As one friend tells her, “lying was not only expedient but also often necessary for survival in the Islamic Republic.” [43]  Taqīya and tā’rof, however, are balanced with Saberi’s reference to everyday Iranian wisdom that values principled honesty: “lies were harder to remember than the truth.  As the Iranian saying went, Durugh-gu kam hâfezeh ast, ‘The liar has a short memory.’”[44] Thus, Saberi finds a tension in Iranian culture between truth and dissimulation.

At the political level, Saberi identifies a moral dilemma in Iranian culture between strategic deception and principled veracity. She avers that like “people all over the world, Iranians often felt compelled to tell lies to get out of danger.”[45] Interestingly, this seems to challenge the stereotype that Iranians or Middle Easterners are particularly prone to mendacity.  She speculates that for Iranians duplicity is one of the bitter fruits of “various authoritarian regimes.”[46] As some “cynically claimed,” Iranians were “right to spin tales because their country’s rulers themselves were so adept at it.”[47]  Thus, Saberi explains that she lied under pressure as a function of Iran’s widespread culture of deception.

The moral dilemma between strategic deception and principled truth-telling is complicated by another ethical conflict: the erosion of journalistic truth in Iran. In Iran, reporters must find ways around the regime’s regulations.  This set of expectations around censorship and self-censorship rejiggers Saberi’s journalistic ethics, including notions of truth and objectivity: “It was then I understood that to report in the Islamic Republic, I would have to balance the expectations of the regime, my employer, interviewees, and my own conscience to do my job.”[48]  Rather than relying on her formal training in the West, Saberi learns from local Iranian journalists who “had become experts at … working within the regime’s often arbitrary and unclear boundaries, while still offering a measure of serious discussion and criticism through their work.”[49]  Here, again, the journalist’s commitment to the truth is replaced with a negotiation between the regime, her professional “conscience,” and her sources—interviewees. The value of the truth becomes less clear.

Ultimately, Saberi’s “truth” comes neither through religious morality, nor in the nuances of culture, nor out of political expediency, and not even from journalistic ethos, but, rather, through solidarity with fellow prisoners—a dialogic truth or truth as social justice.  Through the example of others Saberi begins to realize that she can peak truth to power: “The women I had met over the previous several days defied their interrogators demands to lie, while I had abided by many orders that were in conflict with my conscience.”[50]  One of these new friends, Nargess, tells Saberi “I am glad I didn’t succumb to these people’s threats to tell lies.”[51]  It is these appeals to the axiology of truth that persuade Saberi to change tack from dissimulation to veracity, with the exception of one white lie that she explains will secure her freedom while retaining her integrity.

By the end of the memoir, she sees the truth not only as the measure of her own salvation, but also as the greatest weapon against injustice, and it is here perhaps that the reader is pulled in to sign Saberi’s autobiographical pact, if you will—to reach the “truth” of Saberi’s memoir as the result of meaning-making.  As she prepares for one of her many speaking engagements after her release she concludes her memoir by addressing the reader more directly and highlighting the significance and power of the “truth:”

Tonight I will speak freely, hoping to give a voice to the many Saras, Faribas, and Mahshids who are struggling to achieve their most basic rights. From them, I have learned that in the dark, there is light, and that though there will always be those who suffer, eventually the truth will prevail.[52]

This statement, coming as it does in a post-script in which she—now on a book tour where she literally tells her truth—echoes her fellow prisoners’ advocacy for truth-telling. Saberi embraces the truth not so much as a professional value, but something that transcends her profession, or her culture, or political expediency. She embraces truth as a way to give voice to those who were voiceless—the cellmates who led her back to the truth. We, as readers, are signaled to participate in that purpose of transmitted affect.

However, there is a coda here that complicates the situation somewhat.  During her final appeal, Saberi complicates truth’s triumph by describing how one final tactical lie helped her protect a group with whom she had worked.  When Saberi’s boyfriend, Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, tells her that the “world knows that this regime tells lies,” and her lawyers urge her to admit to and apologize for the lesser crime of unwittingly copying one classified document, she opts to go along with this white lie, justifying it to herself and her readers by saying that this would protect the moderate Iranians at the Center for Strategic Research where she obtained the documents.[53] When the prosecutor asks who gave her permission to copy the classified document, she once again begins to question the truth:

My mind began to spin. I didn’t want to say that employees at the center let me copy materials because even though I didn’t think this report was classified, if it really was, I didn’t want to get anyone there in trouble. Not only was the center filled with moderates, but hard-liners had also accused one of its directors of espionage in 2007, though he was later given a suspended sentence for a lesser charge and resumed his work there. ‘No one told me,’ I said. ‘I copied it myself…out of curiosity.’[54]

Thus, the line between falsehood and the truth is blurred with one last nuance. Nevertheless, this exception is still in the service of solidarity with others who share her cause.

Maziar Bahari’s prison narrative also hinges on negotiations of truth and falsehood.  An Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker working for Newsweek, Bahari was arrested by Iranian authorities in June 2009 on charges of espionage and incitement of anti-Islamic and anti-government agitation following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election to President.  He was tortured for 118 days in an attempt to extract a false confession linking him to American intelligence.  His interrogator, whom he nicknames Rosewater because of his sickly-sweet cologne, subjects Bahari to a combination of physical and emotional abuse. On the surface, Bahari’s memoir is about how he had to lie in order to free himself from Evin Prison. However, the backdrop to this story is how Bahari views journalism as advocacy, as a set of professional principles, and as personal identity that links him to a history of activism in Iran through his family.  In the context of his captivity he must defend against his captors’ insistence that Western journalism is simply part of Western espionage.

Soon after protests broke out in the summer of 2009, Bahari began to see his journalistic role as one of advocacy, specifically as a key element of the process of democratization. Bahari describes crossing the line between reporter and protester, declaring that he “was not a reporter anymore” but “part of the people.”[55]  He views this as participating in democracy, or at least attempting to revive it in a country where it is limited by a religious judiciary and a Revolutionary Guard.  Breaching journalistic ethics was, for him and others, a matter of participating in public discourse: “Even though we were trying our best to remain professional, I know that, like me, most others were rooting for Mousavi.”[56]  Crossing from journalism into activism elides the distinction between professional and personal aims: “Unlike many stories I had covered in the past, I cared very deeply, on a personal level, about this one.”[57]  In fact, he tries to persuade his captors that his personal stake in stories about Iran could only help the Iranian people and government by providing a fairer picture of Iran to the West: “I always tried to help [Iranian officials] understand that the Iranian government was, in fact, lucky that I was working for Western media.  I knew my job. I knew my country.  And I was a patriot.  If they stopped me, I could be replaced by someone with an ax to grind against the regime.”[58]  Bahari’s blurring of journalism and advocacy seems to balance Rosewater’s blurring of journalism and espionage.

One might argue that one of the things Bahari suffers in prison is a kind of epistemological torture—that he is forced to reconsider how his job as a journalist is connected to truth or lies, how it is connected to espionage rather than democratic discourse.  According to Bahari, Rosewater saw little difference between espionage and journalism.  For Rosewater and his superiors, Bahari is conducting “media espionage,” making him a “media spy” funneling information to Iran’s enemies.[59]  In one scene, Bahari recounts a sort of distorted Socratic dialogue with Rosewater. “Maziar, what is a spy?” asks Rosewater, to which Bahari answers: “A person who passes secret information related to the national security of a country to another country.”[60] Rosewater continues the perverted Platonic inquiry, asking, “What is a journalist?”[61]  Demoralized, Bahari takes his answer farther, replying that “… a spy works secretly against the national security of a country for another government, but a journalist works openly—even if he uses secret sources—to inform the public.”[62] Rosewater turns this back around, claiming that both journalists and spies spread information, and information could harm Iran.  At this point, Bahari is not dealing with the question of “truth,” but is laying the groundwork that will allow him to return to that question later. Bahari demonstrates that the ideology and paranoid style of Iran’s hardline leaders mangle truth, democracy, and integrity.

Further complicating this epistemological torture Bahari’s growing sense that his torturer’s profession of extracting information is a twisted reflection of his own work of gathering information as a journalist.  Each has his own professional code. During one interrogation session, Bahari realizes that Rosewater follows his own set of principles, as perverse as their results might be. Overhearing Rosewater complain to his wife on the phone that he gets all the difficult cases, Bahari concludes, “Rosewater was just a man.  Despite the power he had over me, he was just a man with a job.  Like most people, his main priority was to keep his job and provide for his family.”[63] Bahari relates the importance of his own professional identity as journalist to Rosewater’s professional identity as interrogator, opening up a strategy for escape: “I knew what I had to do.  I had to allow him to be successful in that job.”[64]  In some distorted way Rosewater and Bahari are engaged in a professional transaction.  Ironically, Bahari knows that his deliverable in this professional exchange is information, but the truth or falsehood of that information is secondary to its usefulness to both parties in this transaction.  This is a negotiation of truth and lies.  According to Bahari himself: “I had to give him enough information so that he could prove to his bosses that he was making progress, but not so much information that I would harm my contacts or the people close to me.”[65]

Throughout this ordeal, Bahari is haunted by memories of his father, Akbar, and sister, Maryam, who had been tortured under the Shah and the Islamic Republic, respectively.  Thus, journalism is part of Bahari’s personal and familial identity, a legacy from his sister who tells him his writing is more important than any political action he might take.  After seeking ideological solutions to his and his country’s suffering, he realizes that such answers are elusive, and turns instead to a very personal definition of journalism, but one that also situates him in a history he can trace back to his sister and father: “The Islamic government had been brought to power by the people … like Maryam. … there was no point in blaming everything on the government; instead I should remain the person Maryam wanted me to be: a good journalist.”[66] Bahari recounts a dream in which Maryam and a second redemptive figure visit him on his most trying night in prison.  Two angelic figures approach him, embodying sisters of mercy from Leonard Cohen’s song.  On one level, this can be read in relation to Saberi’s attempts to find truth through religion, but the distinctly Catholic implications of these sisters of mercy, both with names echoing “Mary,” are much more personal. The emphasis here is not so much on religion, as it is continuity, solidarity, and what Naghibi calls transmitted affect. In his conclusion, Bahari tells us that he saw these two figures as his newborn daughter Marianna Maryam, and his deceased sister, Maryam.  Through this anecdote, Bahari places journalism in a deeply personal and familial space, embracing journalism as an identity, and voicing a politics that links his sister to his daughter.

Once Bahari realizes his detention will not be brief, he also realizes that his captors’ demands cut at the very core of his sacred familial identity as a journalist.  One of his interrogators—an official given the pilgrim’s honorific of Haj Agha—broaches this subject with Bahari.  Haj Agha sees Western media as a “vehicle used to provoke demonstrations,” demanding that Bahari exchange his identity as journalist for his freedom.  He must affirm the regime’s claims about media espionage if he wants to be free.[67]  But he begins reasoning with himself: “I thought that I could […] embellish and exaggerate his concepts so that they would sound more ridiculous.  That way, when people heard or saw the confession, they would know it was coerced.”[68]  Turning the term duplicity literal, Bahari shows himself as doubled, describing his confession with the phrase, “I heard myself saying.”[69]  He gives his captors what they want: “One characteristic of the velvet revolutions is their relation to the media.  International media pave the way for such revolutions, and without their presence, these revolutions cannot happen.”[70]  The following chapter opens with Bahari describing himself banging his head against his cell wall, self-flagellation for having “betrayed my family, my colleagues, myself.  My father.” He asks, “What had I admitted to?”[71]

Truth and lies become even more explicitly central to Bahari’s negotiation later when he compares his own situation to that of his father who was a political prisoner under the Shah in the 1950s.  The difference between their experiences is that his father’s captors were attempting to extract the truth from him, while Bahari’s captors want him to lie: “I knew that what I was facing in Evin was very different from my father’s experience in the 1950s.  My father had had concrete information about a number of individuals and their whereabouts.  The torturers wanted him to tell the truth in order to save himself.  I was being tortured to lie about myself and others to preserve the regime’s and Khamenei’s narrative about the election.”[72]  In this key narrative moment, Bahari links his experience to a longer historical trajectory, noting the difference between the current regime and previous ones in Iran.  Moreover, like his reference to his sister Maryam as a sister of mercy, this also links Bahari to his father, underscoring the personal. Like Saberi, Bahari employs a variation of distributed or transmitted affect by linking his own experience to that of his sister and his father, suggesting that tortured confessions are not limited to the Ahmadinejad era, nor even to the Islamic Republic, but were also part of the Pahlavi regime. He gives voice to the now silenced voices of his sister and his father, and invites readers to share these emotional responses to his lived truth.



Like other Iranian diasporic memoirs, and particularly the by-now identifiable sub-genre of Iranian diasporic journalist prison memoirs, Saberi and Bahari negotiate the spaces between political, professional, and personal positions.  Within the broader context of how scholars understand Iranian diasporic life writing, these prison narratives tap into the hybrid voice and transmitted affect identified by scholars ranging from Naficy to Naghibi.  By focusing on what we see as a clearly identifiable subgenre of Iranian diasporic writing—personal memoirs by journalists (some of which deal with captivity)—we hope to add a new level of understanding of Iranian diasporic writing, and situate it among equally alternative subgenres like satire in visual and social media, reflexive war correspondence, and activist African American journalist memoirs. Like these other alternatives to standard notions of objectivity and truth, Iranian diasporic journalism challenges our accepted notions of objectivity, balance, and normative journalistic ethics.  This link between the subgenre of Iranian diasporic journalist memoirs and self-conscious journalism of satirists and others can, we hope, help to illuminate a number of these alternative forms of journalistic praxis.

Thus, Bahari and Saberi do not so much use their writing of the self as an extension of activism, but rather as a negotiation of hybridity.  They practice “balance,” that ideal of journalistic ethos, pointing out flaws in American and Iranian policy, despite the fact that Iran grossly mistreated them by putting them in jail.  Being in jail and asked to confess, both reporters are confronted with the nuances of truth.  More so than Bahari, Saberi speaks of a higher, moralistic truth. Ultimately both journalists use their profession to justify their adherence to truth and demonstrate balance and alternative perspectives. For example, they put forward truth claims that are indeed negative about Iran, arguing, for example, that the Iranian government is paranoid about journalists.  Yet, they both aspire to objectivity by giving voice to officials within Iran and describing their motivations.  In these ways they are more like typical war correspondents, strategically performing objectivity. The author’s emphasis on discussing and practicing objectivity in their narrative calls to mind Skovsgaard et al.’s assertion that the more journalists are preoccupied with objectivity, the more they serve as a “passive mirror” rather than an instigator of debate. In this regard, these journalists are very different from diasporic activists working for/with other mainstream journalists.

While we have focused on two post-2009 prison memoirs, the methods we have employed here can be applied to a wider range of memoirs from the Iranian diaspora, including Tara Bahrampour’s To See and See Again (1999), Afshin Molavi’s Persian Pilgrimages (2002), Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005), and Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (2008), to name only a few. A brief survey of such titles reveals at least four other memoirs that explore the dilemmas of truth, objectivity, and the politics of duplicity in the context of Iranian journalism and politics.  In The Road to Democracy in Iran, Akbar Ganji, the jailed Iranian dissident and journalist, writes, “Authoritarian systems turn lying from a vice to a virtue.”[73]  Similarly, Ramita Navai, a British-Iranian journalist, writes in City of Lies, “Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival. … All these lies breed new lies, mushrooming in every crack in society.”[74] In The Lonely War, Nazila Fathi, who narrowly escaped imprisonment in Iran, reveals one of these cracks when describing her courtship with her husband, Babak Pasha, who had recently come to Iran after having grown up in San Diego, California: “Having lived in a free country, lying hadn’t become engrained in his character the way it had become a self-protection impulse in me.”[75] And in Camelia, Save Yourself by Telling the Truth, Camelia Entekhabifard writes, “Affectation and lying were the first things we learned in school, along with great caution in the questions we asked, and the answers we gave.”[76]  These editorial and observations about the prevalence of dissimulation in Iran’s public sphere raise the question of how a variety of forces impinge upon truth and lies in the context of life-writing by Iranian journalists in diaspora.  Future work on these materials could deepen our understanding of how journalists work in the context of various forms of political pressure, particularly under the paranoid style of power at work in Iran.


[1]Rosewater was originally published in 2011 as Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.

[2]Saman Arbadi, “What Jon Stewart Learned about Iran from Rosewater,” Voice of America, 14 November 2014,

[3]Arbadi, “What Jon Stewart Learned…”

[4]Vivian Gornick, “Truth in Personal Narrative,” in Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, ed. David Lazar (Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2008), 10.

[5]Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 242.

[6]Paul John Eakin, Foreword to On Autobiography, ed. Philippe Lejeune, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1989), ix.

[7]Lejuene, On Autobiography, 22.

[8] Lejuene, On Autobiography, 23.

[9]Juan Ramón Munoz-Torres, “Truth and Objectivity in Journalism: Anatomy of an Endless Misunderstanding,” Journalism Studies 13, no. 4 (2012): 566-582.

[10]Lauren Feldman, “The News about Comedy: Young Audiences, The Daily Show, and Evolving Notions of Journalism,” Journalism 8, no. 4 (2007): 406-427, 409-410.

[11]See, for example, Wolfgant Donsbach and Bettina Klett, “Subjective Objectivity: How Journalists in Four Countries Define a Key Term of Their Profession,” International Communication Gazette 51, no.1 (1993), 53-83;   Michael Schudson, “The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism,” Journalism 2, no. 2 (2001): 149-171; Merton Skovsgaard et al., “A Reality Check: How Journalists’ Role Perceptions Impact Their Implementation of the Objectivity Norm,” Journalism 14, no.1 (2012): 22-42; Gaye Tuchman, “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual,” American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 4 (1972): 660-679.

[12]See Pamela Schoemaker and Stephen Reese, Mediating the Message: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 2006); Tuchman, “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual.”

[13]See, for example Senja Post, “Scientific Objectivity in Journalism? How Journalists and Academics Define Objectivity, Assess Its Attainability, and Rate its Desirability,” Journalism 16, no. 6 (2015): 730-749;

Donsbach and Klett, “Subjective Objectivity;” Skovsgaard et al., “A Reality Check.”

[14]Skovsgaard, et al., “A Reality Check: How Journalists’ Role Perceptions Impact Their Implementation of the Objectivity,” 36.

[15]See Ryan’s “Journalistic Ethics, Objectivity, Existential Journalism, Standpoint Epistemology, and Public Journalism,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16, no. 1 (2001): 149-171.

[16]James Brian McPherson, The Conservative Resurgence of the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008.), 11.

[17]Michelle Weldon, “Journalists and Memoir: Reporting + Memory,” Nieman Reports, Winter 2011: 20 – 23,

[18]Weldon, “Journalism and Memoir,” 23.

[19]Howard Tumber and Frank Webster, Journalists Under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices (London: Sage, 2006), 169.

[20]Gaye Tuchman, “Objectivity as Strategic Ritual,” 660.

[21]Tumber and Webster, Journalists Under Fire, 169.

[22]Calvin L. Hall, African American Journalists: Autobiography as Memoir and  Manifesto (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2009), x.

[23]Hall, African American Journalists, xviii.

[24]Meenakshi Gigi Durham, “On the Relevance of Standpoint Epistemology to the Practice of Journalism: the Case for ‘Strong Objectivity,’” Communication Theory 8, no. 2 (1998): 117-140.

[25]Hall, African American Journalists, 11.

[26]Stéphane Dufoix, Diasporas, trans. Roger Waldinger (Berkeley: UC Press, 2008), 3.

[27]See, for example, Babak Elahi, “Translating the Self: Language and Identity in Iranian-American Women’s Memoirs,” Iranian Studies 39, no. 4 (2006) 461-481; Amy Motlagh, “Towards a Theory of Iranian American Life Writing,” MELUS 33, no. 2 (2008): 17-36; Manijeh Nasrabadi, “In Search of Iran: Resistant Melancholia in Iranian American Memoirs of Return,” Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 31, no. 2 (2011): 487-97; Marie Ostby, “De-Censoring an Iranian-American Memoir: Authorship and Synchronicity in Shahriar Madanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story,” Iranian Studies 46, no. 1 (2013): 73-93.

[28]Babak Elahi and Persis Karim, “Introduction,” Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (special issue on Iranian diaspora) 3, no. 2 (2011): 386.

[29]Nima Naghibi, Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 10, 19.

[30]Erband Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (Berkeley: UC Press, 1999), 4.

[31]Roxane Saberi, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran (New York: Harper, 2010), 299.

[32]Saberi, Between Two Worlds, 58.

[33]Ibid., 168.

[34]See Naghibi, Women Write Iran, 67-8.

[35]Saberi, Between Two Worlds, 14.

[36]Ibid., 61.

[37]Ibid., 139.

[38]Ibid., 195.

[39]Ibid., 230.

[40]Abdulaziz Sachedina, Chair in Islamic Studies at George Mason University, connects taqīya to political quietism among Shiite communities living in Sunni majority countries.  He defines taqiya as “prudential concealment” or “precautionary dissimulation.” Sachedina limits the concept to the practice of not divulging one’s beliefs and practices rather than lying about specific actions. See Sachedina, “Prudential Concealment in Shi’ite Islam: A Strategy of Survival or a Principle?” Common Knowledge 16, no. 2 (2009): 223-246.

[41]Saberi, Between Two Worlds, 70.

[42]Ibid., 70.

[43]Ibid., 70.

[44]Ibid., 84.

[45]Ibid., 69.

[46]Ibid., 69.

[47]Ibid., 69.

[48]Ibid., 146.

[49]Ibid., 147.

[50]Ibid., 157.

[51]Ibid., 158.

[52]Ibid., 303.

[53]Ibid., 278.

[54]Ibid., 285.

[55]Maziar Bahari, Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival (New York: Random House, 2014), 60.

[56]Ibid., 56.

[57]Ibid., 64.

[58]Ibid., 104.

[59]Ibid., 272.

[60]Ibid., 272.

[61]Ibid., 272.

[62]Ibid., 273.

[63]Bahari, Rosewater, 201.

[64]Ibid., 201.

[65]Ibid., 202-3.

[66]Ibid., 145.

[67]Bahari, Rosewater, 167.

[68]Ibid., 167.

[69]Ibid., 173.

[70]Ibid., 173.

[71]Ibid., 173.

[72]Ibid., 207.

[73]Akbar Ganji, The Road to Democracy in Iran, trans. Abbas Milani (Boston: MIT, 2008), xvii.

[74]Ramita Navai, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran (New York:  Public Affairs, 2014), xi.

[75]Nazila Fathi, The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 149.

[76]Camelia Entekhabifard, Camelia, Save Yourself by Telling the Truth, trans. George Mürer (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 92.

Table of Contents Volume 3, Number 3

English Verso

A Special Issue Dedicated to Professor Hamid Naficy
Guest Editor: Golbarg Rekabtalaei

Introduction: Alternative Visions of Iranian Culture: A Celebration of Hamid Naficy’s Work
Golbarg Rekabtalaei

Video Sensations: The Experimental Films of Hamid Naficy
Simran Bhalla

Exilic, Diasporic, and Ethnic Media: Hamid Naficy’s Oeuvre from an International Communication Perspective
Mehdi Semati

What a Line (Drawing) Might Reveal: Hamid Naficy’s Caricatures
Michael M.J. Fischer

Through Thick and Thin: An Interview with Hamid Naficy
Kaveh Askari

Ten Theses on Iranian Cinema
Sara Saljoughi

Worlding with Images: Nexus between Art and Anthropology
Mazyar Lotfalian

Persian Reverso

Translating Foreign Sources on the Iranian Cinema into Farsi: Methodological Suggestions
Mohammad Shahba

Local Studies

The Ancient Qanat of Vazvan
Hojjat Rasouli

Literary Studies

The Persian Script and Iranian Temprament
Hamid Sahebjami

Comparing Narrative Elements of “Majnun and the Phlebotomist” in Three Masnavis
Abdol-Majid Yousefi-Nekoo

In Memoriam

Professor Ehsan Yarshater and Yarshaterian Wisdom
Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi

Table of Contents Volume 3, Number 2

English Verso

Special issue on Foucault in Iran

Foucault and Iran Reconsidered: Revolt, Religion, and Neoliberalism
Michiel Leezenberg

French Secular Thought: Foucault and Political Spirituality
Brian Turner

Risking Prophecy in the Modern State: Foucault, Iran, and the Conduct of the
Corey McCall

Foucault and Epicureanism of the Iranian Revolution
Yadullah Shahibzadeh

What is at the heart of the dispute? Reflections on the Foucault Controversy Forty Years Later
Kevin Gray and Rida Faisal

Iranian Conditions: Metaphors of Illness in Iranian Fiction and Film
Babak Elahi

Iranian Conditions: Metaphors of Illness in Iranian Fiction and Film
Babak Elahi

In Memoriam: Heshmat Moayyad, 1927-2018
Franklin Lewis

Persian Reverso

A Thunderbolt Out of the Blue: The Iranian Revolution in Foucault’s Thought
Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi

Possibilities and Limitations in Writing the History of the Present: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution
Ata Mohamed Tabriz

Foucault’ Accounts of the Iranian Revolution in Light of Islamic Historiography
Mahdi Shafieyan

Foucault and Iran
Daniel Defert

Michael Foucault’s 1979 Interview
Farès Sassine


The British Library’s Treasured Persian Collections
Cyrus Ala’i

Dariush Shayegan’s Philosophy Revisited: A Critique of the Cultural Identity of the Migrant
Ata Hoodashtian

Preface: Iranian Masculinities

We are pleased to present the Spring 2018 issue of Iran Namag as a special issue, and the first collection of essays, on the topic of Iranian masculinities.[1] Academic studies of Iranian men and masculinities mainly gained ground during the past decade or so, especially outside Iran, and following the global wave in masculinities studies.[2] Yet, critical discussions of masculinities were not unprecedented in Iran. Indeed, they go back at least to early twentieth century, when such debates were provoked by early Iranian women’s rights thinkers and activists, both women and men. As one of us argues elsewhere, Bibi Khanum Astarabadi’s Maʿāyib al-Rijāl (The Vices of Men), can be deemed the preliminary model of Iranian masculinities studies, on the grounds of her dealing with male privilege and its subsequent sense of entitlement among her contemporary men.[3] While The Vices of Men was never published during its author’s time and we are not exactly sure how far and long it circulated in manuscript form, its outright critical approach towards men is easily noticeable in numerous issues of several women’s periodicals published during the first decades of Iranian women’s movement.

A look at the Iranian women’s periodicals during the late Qajar and early Pahlavi eras (i.e., from the beginning of early women’s movement in Iran until its decline) shows that direct challenging and critique of men and male privilege prevailed in these periodicals.[4] Examples abound. For instance, Shukūfih, the first Iranian women’s periodical, in three issues entitled “Warning to Inconsiderate Men and Youth,” criticized men who—despite being expected by verse 34 of the Qur’anic surah al-Nisā to be “keepers, guides, and guardians of women”—become the “means to women’s wickedness, calamity, lasciviousness, and their reprehensible deeds.”[5] Dānish also allocated the first article in its second issue to a similar topic, entitled “Warning to Men and Youth,” while also addressing, in other issues, men’s “customs of taking care of one’s wife.”[6] The editorial of the fourth issue of Nāmih-yi Bānovān, written by Shahnāz Azad, disparagingly addressed men, showing her disappointment with “Tehran’s affluent men,” in reference to a previous editorial by her on the importance of men’s assisting women in creating girls’ schools. Apparently irritated with many unhelpful men, she posed a rhetorical question, all published in boldface, as the title of her new editorial: “Is the ambition of all rich men in Tehran not equal to three Zoroastrian women from Bombay, who donated their wealth of two kurur [one million] tomans to the building of an all-girls boarding school?”[7] In yet another case, Roshanak No‘dust, the founder of the periodical Piyk-i Sa‘ādat-i Nisvān, in a part of its first issue’s (1927) editorial, entitled “Statement of Purpose,” wrote: “Our journal will watch and criticize the unacceptable acts and behaviors of certain young men regarding women and will seriously pursue this matter.”[8] In the same issue, in an article entitled “Reason for Women’s Wretchedness and Its Remedy,” and in an attempt to answer the question “Why have we Iranian women so far been left behind from civilization and wandering the deserts of ignorance?,” the author alludes to the impact of “men’s reprehensible mentality and their despotic beliefs.”[9] In another article in the same issue, titled “Women in Our Society,” the author explains that “the body of our society is sick and aching” and “poverty, calamity, ignorance, and the corruption of the moral are eating us away like gangrene and threatening the people of this country to a horrible death and annihilation.” The author then identifies the main cause of this “spine-chilling disease” to be “women’s ignorance and illiteracy,” and in an attempt to respond to the question “Whose fault is it?,” s/he (unknown author) points criticism toward men, writing:

If the country’s men had not belittled and demeaned women with obstinacy and animosity to such degree; if they had not closed all the doors of knowledge and information to women; and if they had not wanted women only for self-enjoyment and for satisfying their sexual needs; had they usurped and trampled women’s legitimate rights at least according to reason and [the teachings in Islamic] shari‘a; had they not deemed women’s brains’ weight and their heads’ size the criterion for their weakness and inferiority; had they not composed the poem: “Women and dragons are better dead on the earth / better is the world that is clean of these two filthy creatures,” our time would not have been so, and our lives would not have such quality.”[10]

It appears that the most notable women’s periodicals in later periods, instead of expanding on and complicating these earlier critical interventions into the “man question,” mostly forgot that approach. This remarkable oblivion is seen, for instance, in the critically acclaimed Iranian post-revolutionary women’s periodical Zanān (Women), with Shahla Sherkat as its editor-in-chief, which remains one of the most significant women’s periodicals in Iran’s modern history. Indeed, in reviewing the first thirty-five issues of this magazine (from Feb. 1991 to July 1998), very few articles are found that directly address the topics of men and masculinity. Although, a few legal articles, particularly those written by Mehrangiz Kar, while informing female readers of certain legal issues and criticizing patriarchal laws, sometimes expose privileges that the Iranian Civil Law has disparately granted men.[11]

Masculinities of various forms are pervasive in cultures, Iranian included, and yet they often insidiously remain invisible and unmarked, mostly to men—whom Raewyn Connell rightly deems to be “in significant ways gatekeepers for gender equality.”[12] The metaphor of the invisibility of masculinity was first conceptualized more than two decades ago by renowned masculinity theorist Michael Kimmel in order to make a case for studying men and masculinities—a field which has ever since been variously known as masculinities studies, critical men and masculinities studies, and studies of men and masculinities.[13] We find the metaphor equally helpful in vindicating the acceleration of the bourgeoning research on Iranian men and masculinities. As Kimmel put it back then, regarding US masculinities,

Strange as it may sound, men are the “invisible” gender. Ubiquitous in positions of power everywhere, men are invisible to themselves. Courses on gender in the universities are populated largely by women, as if the term only applied to them. “Woman alone seems to have ‘gender’ since the category itself is defined as that aspect of social relations based on difference between the sexes in which the standard has always been man,” writes historian Thomas Lacquer. As the Chinese proverb has it, the fish are the last to discover the ocean.[14]

Not only that, men as men have often also escaped scholarly scrutiny. This has especially been the case with hegemonic forms of masculinity in a culture, that is, those modes of being, or enacting as, a man which have gained cultural ascendancy not only over femininity in general but also over other subordinated and marginalized versions of masculinity.[15] Such non-hegemonic masculinities can be constructed at any given time in a culture along the lines, for example, of race, class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, physical abilities, nationality, and religious identity. (And as we will see, along with discussions of hegemonic masculinity, these non-hegemonic masculinities take center stage in many of the articles contributed to this special issue.) Prior to Kimmel’s warning, another founder of men’s studies, the late US sociologist Harry Brod, had also made a strong case for the field, noting the scarcity of scholarship on men as men. In a book chapter, titled “The Case for Men’s Studies,” published in his 1987 edited volume The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies, Brod, in his attempt to “delineate” the field of men’s studies and justify the necessity of undertaking such research, drew readers’ attention to an obvious contradiction, a fundamental paradox so to speak, in human history, were we to regard it through a gendered lens. On the one hand, Brod noticed, most of what was known and recorded in human history is by and about men, implying that human history is one of men; and yet, as gendered subjects, men had not become subject to any significant thinking and analysis.[16]

In its early phase, second-wave feminism’s focus on women and femininity ironically ended up in gender becoming synonymous with women, thus also contributing to the above invisibility of masculinity. The Women’s Liberation Movement provoked immediate debates on masculinities from the very early 1970s, often in the form of discussions on “the male role.” By 1980s, and later during the 1990s, those debates were, under the influence of gender studies, largely displaced by the critical theorizing of masculinities. Thus, masculinities studies emerged as a sympathetic, multidisciplinary field to pose critical questions about men and their relationship to power and patriarchy. We would like to emphasize the word “sympathetic” since unlike what many—especially outside the academe, but unfortunately also within it—may think, masculinities studies “is many things, but one thing it is not: a rejoinder to, or repudiation of feminism.”[17] Categorically rejecting essentialist, biologically determinist, and sociobiological justifications of gendered behaviors and relations, yet by no means overlooking the role of body—in its various shapes, forms, and colors—in informing prevailing notions of gender and sexuality, masculinities studies scholars presume the constructivist theory in gender studies, therefore also deeming sex, gender, and sexuality to be socially and culturally specific. Rebuffing claims to masculinities as natural or determined traits or behaviors, such scholars understand masculine identities primarily as acts and enactments situated in a given time and place, with possible continuities and ruptures over time. Thus, in line with the its empathy with feminism, seminal to masculinities studies are attempts to clarify the connections between and among femininities and masculinities within the context of the structures of gender and sexuality or as represented in cultural productions, and how those inter- and intra-relations work to sustain any gender hegemony; in addition, they examine how such hegemony may be challenged towards promoting or constructing more democratic gender orders and relations.

To these ends, today many feminists emphasize how undertaking masculinities studies must become a part and parcel of any effective inquiry to gender and sexuality, in order to ensure more comprehensive and insightful outcomes than otherwise.[18] As Judith Gardiner has put it, “feminists need to engage masculinity studies now, because feminism can produce only partial explanations of society if it does not understand how men are shaped by masculinity.”[19] Similar arguments can be made for Iranian and Muslim masculinities, too. More than a decade ago, while referring to the emergence of masculinities studies in the West, Shahin Gerami remarked  that “in other parts of the world, feminists and women scholars and organizations are still too involved with many problems of women’s rights to divert their attention to masculinity.”[20] She deems the study of Muslim masculinities as “necessary.”[21] Distinguishing between “Islamist identity” and “Muslim identities,” Gerami defined the former as “an abstract construct applied by others” yet the latter as “concrete, contested, and differentiated identities created through individual or group agency,” warning that “Muslim societies are never monolithic as such, never religious by definition, nor are their cultures simply reducible to mere religion.”[22] According to Gerami, studying Muslim masculinities will not only help women, gender studies, and men in Muslim societies, but it also “aid[s] Western masculinity studies in going beyond self-absorption with sexuality and in further incorporating the discourse of imperialism into the mainstream of gender discourse.”[23] Aspiring similar aims in Iranian gender studies provided the primary motivation for sending out the Call for Proposals for this issue more than a year ago.

During the past two to three decades, following the global development of gender and women’s studies, many Iranian studies scholars have extensively welcomed feminist theories to the extent that research on gender, as an essential identity element, is now well established in Iranian studies. Most such research has concentrated on Iranian women; however, especially during the last decade, and along with a global thriving of studies on men and masculinities, a gradually increasing number of Iranian studies scholars have also shown interest in considering masculinity within their gendered examinations of Iranian history, culture, and literature. Still, there was no separate volume directly addressing the subject. In the past, some Iranian studies scholars, including historians Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi and Afsaneh Najmabadi, had shown interest in addressing, and at least not ignored, masculinity alongside femininity when attending to gender in their various accounts of Iranian modernity.[24] Yet, to the best of our knowledge, the first book-length projects in Iranian studies where gender is debated with conscious awareness of the relationality of masculinities and femininities are Minoo Moallem’s Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Cultural Politics of Patriarchy in Iran (2005) and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beard: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005), the latter recently having been followed by Najmabadi’s monograph on transgendered subjectivities in modern Iran, titled Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2016).[25] Lloyd Ridgeon’s monograph, Moral and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A History of Sufi-Futuwwat in Iran (2010) is also noteworthy. Although not much interested in analyzing futuwwat (javanmardi [chivalry]) as a gendered discourse, Ridgeon builds on previous research to render a very valuable general survey of the field of Persian Sufi-futuwwat, thus facilitating any future research also on gendered dimensions of this institution and their ramifications for studies on modern Iranian men and masculinities.[26] These book publications have also been punctuated by several scholarly articles and book chapters on Iranian masculinities, in Persian and in English, written by scholars in various disciplines, some of whom are contributing to this special issue. Recently, elsewhere, one of the authors of this Preface, while arguing for the necessity of studying men and masculinities in Iranian women’s and gender studies, rendered an overview and an annotated bibliography of the emerging scholarship in Iranian masculinities studies as well as Islamic masculinities, until 2015.[27] Inviting scholars to join the conversation, the article also proposed a list of topics worthy of attention in Iranian men and masculinities studies, an abridged version of which we included in our Call for Papers for the current special issue. We are excited to see also some monographs, directly focused on Iranian masculinities, forthcoming or in progress in this field.[28] Iranian men and masculinities studies has certainly gained ground and is flourishing. Currently, this endeavour is mostly taking place outside Iran, which is understandable given the current restraints within Iran regarding the institutionalization of gender and women’s studies.[29]

Finally, a few words on the scope of the contributions made by the articles in this issue are in order. By zooming in on masculinity in a set of texts related to Iran and the Iranian cultures, all contributors provide novel insights about their texts and wider aspects of the Iranian history, culture, literature, and the arts, from which we would have otherwise been deprived. Two articles in particular, i.e., that by Arash Naraghi as well as the one by Junaid Jahangir and Hussein Abdullatif, by nature of their particular topic and corpus, exceed Iranian studies, claiming contributions to Islamic studies, too. Moreover, we hope these articles will also be read in line with what Connell calls “a world-centered rethinking of masculinities” as they all attempt to contribute to a “world-centred, rather than metropole-centred, domain of knowledge.”[30]

This special issue, in the familiar tradition of Iran Namag, includes articles both in Persian and English. The essays showcase a variety of topics and texts and are written from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches, including in gender and sexuality studies, masculinities studies, literary studies, cultural studies, visual and film studies, cultural sociology, and Islamic studies.

The English section opens with Cameron Cross’s “The Tree Atop the Mountain: Mobad Manikan and the Elusive Promises of Masculinity.” This article illuminates the complex character of Mobad, the unfortunate king of Marv in Gurgānī’s Vis & Ramin. He exposes the inherent contradictions of masculinity and the code’s inability to deliver on the promise of its ideology. Cross’s provocative and wittily written article investigates the logic underpinning the assumption that the ideal man must perform well in matters of love and war. Cross illustrates Mobad’s character as an “enigmatic” figure with innate ironies and paradoxes. He responds to the myriad studies on Vis & Ramin that see the figure of the king as static by suggesting to read Mobad’s story through the medium of his own speech, the circumstances surrounding his actions, and the process of his demise. This way, Cross demonstrates that the certainties of the king’s ideal roles as a man, a lover, and a ruler will begin to shift. Cross’s article shines a different light on a classic work of Medieval Persian literature and is a timely contribution to a broader discussion around love and power, and their relation to the concept of masculinity.

Focusing on masculinity as a contested topic in the films of Iranian Oscar Award winning director Asghar Farhadi, Nikki Akhavan’s article “‘Prescriptive’ Masculinity?: Deception and Restraint in the Films of Asghar Farhadi,” advances an argument in the face of ongoing domestic criticisms of Farhadi’s films, whose representations of masculinity such critics have often found disconcerting in a culture where male honor often enjoys a noticeable degree of authority and respect. According to Akhavan, while the critics admit the breakdown of key social institutions such as marriage and the nuclear family, they find it especially troubling to witness inefficient men and masculinities in Farhadi’s films. Focusing on the themes of deception and collusion as the two main concepts favored by Farhadi’s critics in their analyses of his films—especially About Elly, A Separation, and The Salesman—Akhavan shows that these films explore multiple men and masculinities, yet have no interest introducing masculinity or certain types of it as a (re)solution to the damaged institution of marriage, particularly because the—often violent—assertions of masculinity are themselves a serious part of the problem.

Mahdi Tourage’s article “An Iranian Female Vampire Walks Home Alone and Disturbs Freud’s Oedipal Masculinity” discusses Anna Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), which is tagged as the first Iranian vampire feminist romance. In it, the unnamed chador-wearing vampire skateboards the streets of the Bad City at night, viciously attacking men who are abusive to women. Suggesting that the film exceeds “limited categorization as a vampire movie or a feminist art film,” Tourage argues that “masculinities are deconstructed and reconstituted as spectacle in this film, and in the process the patriarchal boundaries of pleasure are remapped and circulation of desire is destabilized.” While drawing on feminist psychoanalytic film theory, Tourage notes how “this theory leaves the specific contours of an alternative feminist counter-cinema unarticulated,” thus posing important questions: “Should a feminist counter-cinema embrace patriarchal techniques of representation or develop its own cinematic language? Can a feminist counter-cinema dismantle the visual regimes of patriarchal power relation and still remain faithful to aesthetics of visual pleasure?” In response, he argues that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night enhances our understanding of feminist film theory by instantiating an example of a feminist counter-cinema. Significantly, the film’s exclusively Persian iconography, Tourage further argues, broadens debates within feminist film theory to include subjects whose epistemological roots extend beyond the horizons of Europe and the Americas.

Kaveh Ghobadi’s “On the Path to Manhood: Men and Masculinities in the Contemporary Kurdish Novel” examines sex, gender, and particularly the representations of hegemonic masculinity in two novels from Iranian Kurdistan: Zindexew (Nightmare) by Fatah Amiri and Siweyla (Suheila in Persian, proper female name) by Sharam Qawami. Nightmare tells a story of a new generation of Kurdish young men during the final years of the late Pahlavi’s reign. The protagonist suffers from a recurring nightmare in which he tortures people as a SAVAK intelligence officer. Set in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, Siweyla is about a young man’s stifled enthusiasm when he falls in love with the eponymous character Siweyla. Relying on Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as well as on Raewyn Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity, Ghobadi undertakes to show the ramifications of the naturalization of the categories of “masculine” and “feminine”, while also examining patterns of hegemonic masculinity in the novels to demonstrate how this culturally ascendant masculinity “adapts itself to new conditions to guarantee men’s dominant position.” Ghobadi argues that while both novels feature innovative narrative styles and radical political standpoints as well as depict a “New Man” and a “New Woman”, they “substantially reproduce essentialist gendered subjectivities, through reinscribing a binary opposition that defines woman as man’s ‘other’.”

Taking up the issue of same-sex sensuality in Islam, in their “Homosexuality—The Emerging New Battleground in Islam,” Junaid Jahangir and Hussein Abdullatif look closely at a seminal essay by Scott Kugle entitled “Sexuality, Diversity and Ethics in the Agenda of Progressive Muslims” and its scathing critique by Mobeen Vaid, in the aftermath of the shooting at a gay bar in Orlando. This dialogue becomes a starting place for the authors to address some “misconceptions that Muslims generally have on homosexuality.” While crediting Vaid for engaging with Kugle’s article in detail, the authors criticize Vaid’s analysis, suggesting that his argument “emboldens conservative Muslim leaders to equate LGBT Muslims with Lot’s people and downplay the legitimate human need for affection, intimacy and companionship as mere urges and whims.” Through this critical intervention into Vaid’s response to Kugle’s essay, Jahangir and Abdullatif deconstruct the fourteen salient points which Vaid makes in his critique of Kugle. In response to Vaid, the authors put forward rebutting counter claims. Some of the main topics addressed concern consensus in Islam regarding same-sex relations, the issue of permanent celibacy as a test, the necessity of updating traditional jurisprudence, procreation, the Qur’anic account of Lot, the qasas (stories) literature, and the heterosexist overtones of some Qur’anic tafsir or exegesis.

In the face of the paucity of research on male sexuality in Persian literature, Claudia Yaghoobi’s article, “The Abject Outsider: The Story of Two Gay Men,” introduces three texts in which male same-sex relations are brought to the fore: Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib’s graphic novel, Yousef and Farhad Struggling for Family Acceptance in Iran: The Story of Two Gay Men; Arsham Parsi’s memoir Exiled for Love; and For the Love of Mohammad, another memoir by Jean Beaini and Mohammad Khordadian. All three narratives deal in one way or another with the “coming out” phenomenon within the contemporary Iranian culture. In her article, Yaghoobi gives center stage to the graphic novel, while occasionally drawing on the other two memoirs and their accounts of lived experiences to support some of her arguments. She examines the narratives’ male characters in order to demonstrate how Iranian hegemonic masculinity directly feeds off the subordination of the gay masculinity. She maintains that this “subordination of gay masculinity normalizes heterosexuality while deeming homosexuality as abnormal.” By contrast, Yaghoobi foregrounds the constructive role of the religion in the novel, demonstrating how religion is not the root of the main characters’ problem. On the contrary, the authors, she posits, draw on religion, especially Islamic mysticism, to subvert heteronormative discourses about male sexuality. Finally, Yaghoobi’s article highlights the role of the unique medium used by Soltani and Bendib—that is, comics as image-text—which provides unconventional expressive power by enabling the authors to create “a combination of thoughtful images and key words” to convey their message more effectively.

Finally, in her article, “Queering the Iranian Nation: Be Like Others and Resistance to Heteronormative Nationalism,” Amy Tahani-Bidmeshki takes up the intersection of masculinity and transgendered subjectivities, which she debates through the lens of Tanaz Eshaghian’s 2008 documentary Transsexual in Iran (also known as Be Like Others). The film follows the lives of several trans Iranians, particularly Male-to-Female persons, offering “the viewer opportunities for reflection about the role of gender, sexuality, whiteness, and belonging in nation-building broadly, and in the post-1979 landscape of Iran.” Tahani-Bidmeshki employs Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined community” to argue that “Iranian regime’s acceptance of post-SRS trans Iranians as citizen-subjects presupposes the ‘imagined community’ of heteronormative Iran” and that it is an effort to “abolish homosexuality by ensuring a particular form of trans identity.” She builds on the works of Afsaneh Najmabadi regarding the historical roots of repression of public displays of homoeroticism since the Qajar Iran and in the modernization and nation-building processes to conclude that the visual arts from the time of Qajar paintings to the present-day form in the documentary Be Like Others highlight the tensions between the government and the Iranian polity for nation-building.

The Persian section of this special issue begins with the article “Wedding Trials of Masculinity in Iranian Fairy Tales” by Samin Espargham, Abolghasem Ghavam, and Samira Bameshki. Analyzing numerous Iranian fairy tales, the authors investigate the various types of arduous and grueling trials frequently appearing in these tales, through which men must prove their suitability, manliness, and prowess to marry the tales’ princesses. The authors analyze these tales from a structuralist viewpoint and with regard to their fundamental generic units of narrative structures, i.e., their mythemes. The trials, deemed as “trials of masculinity,” are intended to test the intelligence, physical and financial capacities as well as the courageousness of the young men involved. The frequency of these literary tests of manhood poses a series of questions such as: Why should men go through hard trials, and why should men be killed in the process? Why, in these tales, is the nobility of the suiters not significant? And finally, why do the brides and the suiters all come from different lands? To answer these questions, the authors examine myths and rites related to fertility, studying the mythemes appearing in numerous fairy tales and revealing their structural similarities. Through this comparative analysis, the authors postulate that the wedding trials in fairy tales are rooted in the myth of the “sacred marriage”—or the story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and war (known in Akkadian as Ishtar) and the shepherd-king Dumuzi (Akkadian Tammuz), who became a god at some point, possibly through his marriage to Inanna and the fertilization of nature. According to this myth, the future king would have to be “healthy,” “strong,” and “fertile” in order to guarantee his ability to impregnate his bride. The authors conclude by posing questions for further research on the possible influence of Iranian folk literature on the conceptualization of gender, particularly masculinity, in contemporary Iranian culture.

In “Ekhrajiha I (The Outcasts I): The Role of the ‘Lāt’ Figure in the Construction of Islamic Republic’s Idealized Man,” Ali Papoli-Yazdi addresses Islamic Republic discourse’s strategic revisiting a section of the Iranian traditional culture, which was initially reviled in the wake of the Islamic Revolution—i.e., the social types of the lāt (rogue) and the lūtī (tough guy). The revisiting, Papoli-Yazdi shows, is aimed at achieving a peacetime ideal of masculinity, as opposed to the male basījī (volunteer member of state-operated militia) heroic figure of the Iraq-Iran war period. These processes of revisiting and reconstruction, Papoli-Yazdi argues, occur via Masoud Dehnamaki’s best-selling film Ekhrajiha I (The Outcasts I) (2007). Analyzing the film within the context of the Iranian “Sacred Defense” Cinema, Papoli-Yazdi first shows the evolution of the image of the basiji into the lāt in The Outcasts I; then, putting the film in the context of pre-revolutionary jāhilī movies,[31] he demonstrates how the jāhil character is also restored. This restoration, however, is deployed to redefine a mystical-popular image of the clergy, since, amidst many allegedly religious persons’ denial of the lāts, it is only the clergy characters who, as if through mystical intuition, are cognizant of the eventual transformation of the lāt figure in the battlefield. Moreover, by reviving the lāt as a redefined figure, Papoli-Yazdi argues, The Outcasts I illustrates the Islamic Republic’s ideal society, one in which the lāts and clerics, as if within a traditional neighborhood, can bond.

Goli Taraghi’s novella, In Another Place, is the focus of Amirhossein Vafa’s article, “The Predicament of Complicity with Hegemonic Masculinity in Goli Taraghi’s In Another Place,” where—drawing on Raewyn Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity—Vafa sheds light on a particular mode of masculinity in Taraghi’s narrative, i.e., that which becomes complicit with the hegemonic masculinity in order to benefit from what Connell deems the “patriarchal dividend.” In Another Place is a final piece in the collection of the same title that tells the story of a wealthy but unhappy businessman living with his “affluent and assertive wife” in 1998 Tehran. Discontented with the sociopolitical status quo, the novella’s male protagonist is feeling for another place. Vafa offers this character as “one of the author’s most developed male portrayals to date, as a means both to make visible and to challenge the author’s conception of urban, upper middle-class masculinities in contemporary Iran.” Vafa shows that the male protagonist fails at dissent; he concludes that the character’s failure “is in part informed by the novella’s entrapment in the binary of two opposing but completing masculinities performed by the complicit middle and upper classes and the hegemonic state apparatus.” Drawing on postcolonial feminism and masculinities theory, as advanced by such scholars as Minoo Moallem and Raewyn Connell, the author criticizes Taraghi for her feminist agenda that centers exclusively on urban, upper-middle class masculinities. This exclusive feminist agenda, Vafa maintains, is limited and elitist, “potentially informed by a ‘Western’ notion of ‘egalitarian ‘feminism’.”

Contributed by Arash Naraghi, the last article of the Persian section tackles male homosexuality in Islam. Titled “The Male Homosexuality Problematic in the Context of Contemporary Iranian Shiʿism,” the essay delves into Shiʿi jurisprudence and Qur’anic exegesis, particularly on the scripture’s narration of the story of Lot, to propose a solution for the problem of male homosexuality in Islam. First, Naraghi explores the sources of discrimination against sexual minorities within Shiʿi jurisprudence, while critically evaluating the views of some prominent contemporary Iranian Muslim scholars on homosexuality. Then, he introduces a rationalist tradition within Islamic philosophy and theology which provides a theoretical framework for approaching the problem. His proposed framework is based on two pillars: first, Ibn Rushd’s view on the relation between demonstrative reason and Shariʿa, and second, Muʿtazilites’ view on the relation between God’s nature and moral obligations. Finally, within the above framework, he suggests ways for how a devout Muslim might refute discrimination based on sexual orientation, and how Muslim communities could create a space tolerant, if not welcoming of male homosexuality.

Many of these contributors, along with other scholars interested in pursuing research on Iranian men and masculinities, will be gathering in the forthcoming Association for Iranian Studies (AIS) conference at the University of California, Irvine, during 14-17 August 2018, over four panels on “Iranian Men and Masculinities,” organized by the editors of this special issue, in order to share their research with the conference attendees. As the first collection of arguments on the topic, this special issue and the above panels are of course a starting point, which we also plan to follow with an edited volume in the near future. We will have achieved more than what we aim for if these efforts incite similar endeavours.

At the end, we would like to thank all who kindly contributed their papers for this issue as well as the anonymous reviewers and the journal’s copy editors, Susan Foster and Vahid Tolooei, for their kind help and co-operation. We are also indebted to the Iran Namag’s Editor-in-Chief, Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, for his assistance in preparation and publication of this issue and for his editing help.

[1]The authors would like to thank Raewyn Connell for her invaluable comments on an earlier version of this introduction.

[2]Mostafa Abedinifard, “Maʿāyib al-Rijāl va Żarūrat-i Mardānigī-Pazhūhī dar Muṭaliʿāt-i Zanān-i Iran” [The Vices of Men and the Necessity of Studying Men and Masculinities in Iranian Women’s Studies],” Iran Nameh 30, no. 3 (2015): 230-282.

[3]Abedinifard, “Maʿāyib al-Rijāl.” In 1894, an educated and well-known woman named Bībī Khānum Astarābādi was motivated by some female companions of hers to retort the male chauvinism of Ta’dīb al-Nisvān (The Education of Women), copies of which had obviously moved around and impacted some people. The Education of Women—of which there exist variant manuscripts with such titles as Ta’dīb al-Nisā’ (Educating/Disciplining Women), Sulūk va Sīrat-i Zan (Women’s Conduct), Ādāb-i Moʿāshirat-i Nisvān (Rules of Etiquette for Women), and Nasāyih-i Mushfiqānah (Affectionate Pieces of Advice)—was written by a male upper-class author who chose and apparently managed to remain anonymous among his contemporaries. Up until recently, scholars had no conjectures about the author’s identity. Lately, it has been argued that the text was most probably written by Khānlar Mirzā Ehtishām al-Dawlah (?-1287/1861), the 17th son of Prince Abbās Mirzā Nāyib al-Salṭanah (1168/1789-1212/1833). As evidenced by the manuscript variants, it is likely that the author chose to remain unknown lest he be reproached by women. The text continued to be re-inscribed, with minor changes, by other men who welcomed Khanlar Mirzā’s message yet who likewise preferred to be nameless. Organized in ten short thematic chapters, The Education of Women addresses and prompts men to patrol and discipline the behavior of their daughters and wives. The author’s conservative and often misogynous advice, frequently garrisoned with references to the Qur’an and hadith, ranges from counsel on women’s unquestionable obedience to their men to instructions on table etiquette and sharing a bed. Bibi Khānum, being a pro-women rights activist, and having personally tasted the patriarchal oppression in her marital relationship, complied with her friends’ request. She responded by penning a diatribe she titled as Maʿāyib al-Rijāl, i.e., The Vices of Men, also known to be the first satirical piece written by an Iranian woman. As opposed to The Education of Women, Bibi Khanum’s book is framed and informed by autobiographical information (e.g., she reveals her painful experience of bearing with her husband’s contracting their female servant as a maid/concubine). In her rejoinder, Bibi Khanum first paraphrases and criticizes the main arguments of her opponent, and then continues by expounding on what she believes to be the typical vices of men in her time. For Persian versions of both texts, see Javadi, Hasan, Manizheh Marʿashi, and Simin Shekarlu, eds. Ruyārūʼi-e Zan va Mard dar Asr-i Qājār: Du Risālah-yi Taʼdīb al-Nisvān va Maʿāyib al-Rijāl (Chicago: The Historical Society of Iranian Women (Kānūn-i Pazhūhish-i Tārīkh-i Zanān-i Irān), 1992). See also Afsaneh Najmabadi, Maʿāyib al-Rijāl: Vices of Men (Chicago: 1992). For English translations of both texts, with commentary, see The Education of Women & The Vices of Men: Two Qajar Tracts, trans. Hasan Javadi and Willem Floor (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2010).

[4]For a classical account on the women’s rights movement in Iran, which also considers men’s contributions, see Eliz Sanasarian, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran (New York: Praeger, 1982).

[5]Abdulhossein Navayee et al., eds., Shukūfih & Dānish: First Iranian Women’s Journals (Tehran: National Library of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1998), quote on 152.

[6]Navayee et al., Shukūfih & Dānish, 305-306, 330.

[7]Alireza Tayrani et al., eds., Women’s Periodicals (Tehran: Library, Museum and Document Center of Iran Parliament, n.d.), DVD.

[8]Banafsheh Masoudi and Naser Mohajer, eds., Piyk-i Sa‘ādat-i Nisvān (Berkeley, CA: Noqteh, 1390/2011), quote on 2.

[9]Masoudi and Mohajer, Piyk-i Sa‘ādat-i Nisvān, 21-22.

[10]Masoudi and Mohajer, Piyk-i Sa‘ādat-i Nisvān, 27-28. For a more detailed discussion and further examples, see Abedinifard, “Maʿāyib al-Rijāl.”

[11]For a digitized archive of many issues of Zanān, see

[12]Raewyn Connell, “Change Among the Gatekeepers: Men, Masculinities, and Gender Equality in the Global Arena,” Signs 30, no. 3 (2005): 1801–1825, quote on 1802.

[13]R. W. Connell, Jeff Hearn, and Michael Kimmel, eds., Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005); David Buchbinder, Studying Men and Masculinities (London: Routledge, 2013).

[14]Michael Kimmel, “Invisible Masculinity,” Society 3, no. 6 (1993): 28-35; quote on 29.

[15]It is no exaggeration to regard the theory of “hegemonic masculinity” as the most influential theory in the field of masculinities studies so far. For an overview of this theory, some criticisms of it, the main theorist’s response to them, and the theory’s probable prospects in gender studies in the future, see R. W. Connell and James Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829-859. For a more recent article by Connell on hegemony and masculinity in relation to imperialism and neoliberal global power, see Raewyn Connell, “Masculinities in Global Perspective: Hegemony, Contestation, and Changing Structures of Power,” Theory & Society 45, no. 4 (2016): 303–318.



[16]Harry Brod, “The Case for Men’s Studies,” in The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies, ed. Harry Brod (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), 39-62. Commenting on an earlier version of this preface, Raewyn Connell remarks: “There was an older European questioning of masculinity, as well as femininity, which Harry Brod misses—it’s very clear in the work of Freud and Adler.”

[17]Helena Gurfinkel, “Masculinity Studies: What It Is and Why Would a Feminist Care?”

Masculinity Studies: What Is It, and Why Would a Feminist Care?

For the interplay of feminist theory and masculinities theory, see especially, Nancy Dowd, The Man Question: Male Subordination and Privilege (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[18]See, for example, Dowd, The Man Question; Judith K. Gardiner, ed., Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Peter F. Murphy, ed., Feminism and Masculinities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[19]Judith K. Gardiner, “Introduction,” in Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, ed. J. K. Gardiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 1-29; quote on 9.

[20]Shahin Gerami, “Mullahs, Martyrs, and Men: Conceptualizing Masculinity in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Men and Masculinities 5, no. 3 (2005), 257–74, quote on 258.

[21]Shahin Gerami, “Islamist Masculinity and Muslim Masculinities,” in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, eds. M. Kimmel, J. Hearn and R. W. Connell (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), 448–57, quote on 456.

[22]Gerami, “Islamist Masculinity,” 448.

[23]Gerami, “Islamist Masculinity,” 456.

[24]For some such works by these authors, see Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Reading ‘Wiles of Women’ Stories as Fictions of Masculinity,” in Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb, eds., Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (London: Saqi Books, 2000), 147-68; Afsaneh Najmabadi, The Story of the Daughters of Quchan: Gender and National Memory in Iranian History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998); Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Naqsh-i Zan bar Matn-i Mashrutah,” Nimeye Digar 2, no. 3 (1997): 72-121; Afsaneh Najmabadi, “The Erotic Vaṭan [Homeland] as Beloved and Mother: To Love, To Possess, and To Protect,” Comparative Studies of Society and History 39, no. 3 (1997): 442-67; Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Digarguni-i Zan va Mard dar Zaban-i Mashrutiyat,” Nimeye Digar 2, no. 2 (1995): 72-105; Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Zanha-yi Millat: Women or Wives of the Nation?,” Iranian Studies 26, no. 1/2 (1993): 51-71; Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001); Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Going Public: Patriotic and Matriotic Homeland in Iranian Nationalist Discourses,” Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture, and Politics 13, no. 2 (2000): 175-200; Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Nigaran-i Zan-i Farang,” Nimeye Digar 2, no. 3 (1997): 3-71; Mohamad Tavakli-Targhi, “Zani Bud, Zani Nabud: Bazkhani-yi Vujuhb-i Niqab va Mafasid-i Sufur,” Nimeye Digar 14 (Spring 1991): 77-110; Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Imagining Western Women: Occidentalism and Euro-Eroticism,” Radical America 24, no. 3 (1990): 73-87.

[25]See, respectively, Minoo Moallem, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[26]See Lloyd Ridgeon, Morals and Mysticism in Persian Sufism: A History of Sufi-Futuwwat in Iran (London: Routledge, 2010). Ridgeon has also brought together English translations of three medieval Persian futuwwat-nameh texts (books on futuwwat/javanmardi [chivalry]), with a detailed introduction to the book, and with each text being preceded by a separate introduction. See Lloyd Ridgeon, Jawanmardi: A Sufi Code of Honour (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011).

[27]See Mostafa Abedinifard, “Maʿāyib al-Rijāl.” Since that article was published, more articles and book chapters have appeared on Iranian masculinities. Some include Christopher Gow, “Real Men: Representations of Masculinity in Iranian Cinema,” Asian Cinema 27, no. 2 (2016): 165–76; Nagihan Haliloğlu, “Activist, Professional, Family Man: Masculinities in Marjane Satrapi’s Work,” in Uwe Bläsing, Victoria Arakelova, Matthias Weinreich, eds., Studies on Iran and The Caucasus: In Honour of Garnik Asatrian (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 495-506; Amy Motlagh, “What Kind of Crisis?: Marriage and Masculinity in Contemporary Iranian Cinema,” in Kristin Celello and Hanan Kholoussy, eds., Domestic Tensions, National Anxieties: Global Perspectives on Marriage, Crisis, and Nation (New York, NY: Oxford University press, 2016), 192-211; Nacim Pak-Shiraz, “Shooting the Isolation and Marginality of Masculinities in Iranian Cinema,” Iranian Studies 50, no. 6 (2017): 945-967; Sivan Balslev, “Population Crisis, Marriage Reform and the Regulation of Male Sexuality in Interwar Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 2 (2018): 121-137; Sivan Balslev, “Dressed for Success: Hegemonic Masculinity, Elite Men and Westernisation in Iran, c. 1900–40,” Gender & History 26, no. 3 (2014): 545-564; Sivan Balslev, “Gendering the Nation: Masculinity and Nationalism in Iran during the Constitutional Revolution,” in Meir Litvak, ed., Constructing Nationalism in Iran: From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic (London: Routledge, 2017), 68-85.

[28]Minoo Moallem has been working on a monograph on masculinities in Iran-Iraq War movies. A chapter of hers is forthcoming in 2019: Minoo Moallem, “Staging Masculinity in Iran-Iraq War Movies,” in Aaron Magnan-Park, Gina Marchetti, and Tan See-Kam, eds., Handbook on Asian Cinema. Sivan Balslev’s monograph Iranian Masculinities: Gender and Sexualities in Late Qajar and Early Pahlavi Iran is under contract with Cambridge University Press. And Wendy DeSouza’s book Unveiling Men: The Emergence of Modern Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Iran is forthcoming by Syracuse University Press.

[30]Raewyn Connell, “Margin Becoming Centre: For a World-centred Rethinking of Masculinities,” NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 9, no. 4 (2014): 217-231.

[31]A sub-genre of the “tough guy” genre in prerevolutionary Iranian cinema. See Hamid Naficy, “Males, Masculinity, and Power: The Tough-Guy Movie Genre and Its Evolution,” in A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 2 (Durham: Duke University Press), 261–324.


Table of Contents

English Verso

On Abbas Kiarostam

Transcending Cinema: Kiarostami’s Approach to Filmmaking
Maryam Ghorbankarimi

Trajectory of Smooth Female Spaces within the Striated Masculine in Kiarostami’s Ten
Pouneh Saeedi

Waves of Stasis: Photographic Tendency and Cinematic Kindness in Kiarostami’s Five (Dedicated to Ozu)
Donna Honarpisheh

Kiarostami and Love on the Iranian Screen
Proshot Kalami

On the Borders of Documentary and Fiction in Kiarostami’s Homework and Close-Up
Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Lessons of Darkness”: Affect, Non-Representation, and Becoming-Imperceptible
Tanya Shilina-Conte


An Approach to Humour in Persian Literature
Homa Katouzian

Transition from Orient to the Third World: Sketch of a Phenomenological Study of a Historical Fall
Tanya Shilina-Conte


Persian Reverso

On Abbas Kiarostami

Khatereh Sheibani

Altering Perspectives: The Documentary and Fictional Components in Abbas Kiarostami’s Works
Saeed Aghighi

The Contradictions of Unactoricity: Actoricity in Kiarostami’s Films
Robert Safarian

Abbas and ‘his’ Bench: A Short Memoir on Abbas Kiarostami’s Latest Film in China
Hossein Khandan

Wind: Serentdipity and Cinephilia
Negar Mottahedeh

Persian Variorum

Ideological Agendas in Historiography of Early Safavid Era: Study of Tarikh-i Iran Dar Asr-i Safavi
Behzad Karimi

In Praise of Form and Deprecation Content: critiquing Rastakhiz- Kalamat
Hamid Sahebjami

Table of Contents

English Verso

My Kurdish Brother, Amir Hassanpour
Thomas M. Ricks

The Raven of Separation: Arabic Poetic Topoi and the Persian Courtly Tradition
Asghar Seyed-Gohrab

Interiority and the City Center: Locating the Gulistan Harem During Nassir al-Dīn Shah’s Reign
Leila Pourtavaf

Arānī, Kasravī and Demonic Irrationality: Discourses of Reason and Scientific Explanation
Arshavez Mozafari


Persian Reverso

Namag: A Concise Etymology and Semantic
Nima Jamali

Culture and Democracy
Ali Mirsepasi

The Western Problematic and the Idea of Everyday Culture and Life in the Post-Revolutionary Iran
Mohammad Reza’i and Hadi Aqajanzadeh

Divorce as Seen through Women’s Cinematic Lens
Nasrin Rahimieh

European Racial Thought, Iranian Nationalists, and Theories of Arab Invasion and Decline
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi

Kamal Khojandi, Reza Quli Khan Hedayat, and Muhammad Hashim Asef Rustam al-Hukama
Jalil Nozari

Bloodletting Practices in the Iranian History of Medicine
Mohsen Farsani

The Seven Cities of Love
Hamid Sahebjami

My Kurdish Brother, Amir Hassanpour

Amir. Your name is so simple. “The Commander.” But, in fact, it’s more complicated than that. Your father changed it from Omar to Amir knowing that you would be in a Shi’a land in Tehran for the last years of your high school. In fact, there was nothing simple about you at all.

Born on November 17, 1943 in Mahabad, Iran, you reached your seventy-third birthday this year, dear friend, and your life has been full of accomplishment. We all sat at your hospital bed standing watch as you slipped away in your long struggle with cancer, eyes closed and breathing heavy though stable and calm through it all. Then, at 5:49 on Saturday morning on June 24 of this year, you quietly left us weeping by your side motionless with blinding grief and shaken by the thought that you were no longer on this planet. Peace in Paradise. Oh yes, I know how you would dislike these words, but you know that the Persian word, pardis, is the root of our English word. When I first met you, I heard your name was “Kak Amir,” a Kurdish version. Then, as time went on, we all began to call you “Amir Khan,” in a reference to your faux military status which you scorned. You got even with me by naming me, a Peace Corps volunteer of all things, “Tom Khan.”

I met you on one of those frigid Zagros mountain days in December 1964. You were comfortably ensconced in your home reading, just down the alleyway from the bazaar. Bob Abramson, the other Peace Corps English teacher, led me to that heavy wooden door of your house and banged the knocker loudly. We had tea and cookies that day according to polite society customs, just Bob, you and me. We came to your house a few more times again, but usually met in our second-floor apartment in the old bank building on the main street.  After introductions and brief mention about what I was going to do in Mahabad, you corrected me about the town’s name. “Tom, we actually call this place “Cool Spring” or soujboolak in Kurdish.”  This was just the beginning of the avalanche of information on a myriad of subjects from Amir.

From these early days of our brotherhood, there began a long list of historical and archaeological   discussions about the writings of British, Australian, French, and Italian historians aligned with the Communist Party or from Socialist activist backgrounds, including your all-time favorite work, Man Makes Himself, by the Australian-born Marxist scholar, V. Gordon Childe. We spoke about that and several other of Childe’s writings on Labor and Civilization. All these and more were new to me though I had studied Tomistic philosophy and French literature at Notre Dame in Indiana. You had asked me if I had read much fiction and I had said some American and French as school requirements. I had then asked you the same question, and you said very little except in school. And so, for the next fifty-two years, we discussed a range of topics in history, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology, and in Marxism as well as any number of social sciences, debating their virtues and failings. Religion did not figure high at all in these discourses so when I told you that I had been in Mashhad for the previous eight months, and that some of my Persian friends took to calling me “Mashti Tom,” you had looked disapprovingly on such mirth, and announced that for you, I was only “Tom Khan.” We never spoke again about Mashhad or pilgrimage sites focusing instead on civilizations, dialectical materialism and class struggle in nearly all that we read the years I spent in Mahabad. We also talked a lot about socialism and the communist party of Iran, the Tudeh Party.

Bob was amused by our exchanges and debates, interjecting his questions and comments about the present Kurdish conditions, society and economy, and the doings of the Pahlavis in Tehran and the countryside or rusta. Together, Bob and I recalled the beginnings of Peace Corps, our training programs in Oregon and Michigan respectively, and our own unpreparedness for anything Iranian, much less Kurdish. We both had had our brief introduction to the linguistics of second language learning, but that did not count for much. We were Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, or, as Peace Corps dubbed us, “AB generalists” thrown into developing societies of the Third World.

We were witnesses, as Amir observed, of the modernity process of global outreach of industrial countries to pull other countries into rapidly expanding capitalist relations, and if we looked closely, we might observe various forms of resistance to this process. These discussions and others with Amir made me rethink so many of my older assumptions, and he became our main source of information about “Modern Iran” and the Kurdish resistance movement in Iran and in the Middle East, particularly in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, countries that bordered northwestern Iran. It was Amir who introduced us to the fairly recent history of Mahabad and its singular Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan of 1946 and the reasons for its rise and fall. He took us to the grave site of Ghazi Mohammad, the leader of the Republic, who was executed by the Pahlavi forces in the winter of 1946.

Throughout the spring and summer of ’65, Bob and I saw Amir almost daily. As one of our colleagues and an increasingly close friend, he was introducing us to his perspective on the limited rights of Kurdish people as a minority under Pahlavi rule, the issues of US and Iran relations and military advisors, the Vietnam War, the role of women and families in Iranian society, the daily forms of resistance to modernity, and the complicated gender and family relations in Iran. In fact, these discussions were both instructive and amusing at the same time. My first encounters in Mahabad were with some of Bob’s friends whom he had befriended in evening get-togethers in their homes over the previous fall term before I had arrived. On nearly my second or third day in Mahabad, I met a Kurdish banker friend of Bob’s who began our conversation with “the rules of the street.” I was told that there are two languages spoken in Mahabad, “Kurdish and English.” The second rule was politics was everything – he wanted to know why the CIA killed President Kennedy. Stunned by both “rules” as no one had broached such matters to me while I was in Mashhad, I answered that I was willing to learn Kurdish though I had been studying Persian for nearly a year by then, and had no idea how to get Kurdish language materials, and secondly, had a few notions about Kennedy’s death none of which included the CIA!  From these early days in Mahabad, I had learned some important lessons about Kurdish nationalism, and Iran-US politics.  Bob and I had met our first Kurdish scholar, companion, and teacher, dear Amir. It was over time that Amir and I became brothers in many ways.

Amir had just completed his BA degree in English from the University of Tehran, and following those four years, he went on to complete a year at the Tehran Teacher Training College. Now, he was assigned to teach in Mahabad’s secondary schools or at the dabirestan level. In short, we and Amir had become colleagues in teaching English as a second or third language to the young Kurdish and few Azeri and Armenian adventuresome high school students in that remote mountain town comprised of 90% Kurdish Mokri and Debokri Sorani-speaking peoples of Kurdistan. We discussed why there were no more pastoralists in Kurdistan as that was part of an older period of history. While some texts on Iran do talk about the Kurdish tribes as do the American diplomats in their consular reports, Mr. Eagleton, a past US consul in Tabriz does not use those words in his introduction to Kurdish language. Come to think of it, in trying to follow the advice of Bob’s banker friend, I had asked the Peace Corps Office in Tehran to send me a Kurdish grammar and funds for a Kurdish language tutor. The reply was a little stunning – the PC Office told me that since Kurdish is a dialect of Persian, there are no funds for dialects so they could not support my language studies. I then asked my twin brother Ted in the States to find Professor Ernest McCarus’ Kurdish grammar used in his classes at the University of Michigan where he taught, and send a copy to me. My brother found the book and sent it.  It was a lesson in the Iranian linguicide of Kurdish. I left it behind with Amir when I returned to the States in 1966.

Proud of his town’s historical role in the on-going Kurdish national struggle for self-determination and the survival of Kurdish as an endangered world language, Amir’s home was stocked with Persian, Kurdish and English works on a wide spectrum of topics hidden away from Iranian security and public eyes. I found that unlike so many other educational colleagues, he had an unquenchable thirst for books. He was equally enthusiastic about Marxist theories and world view. I found that in those two years in Iran and for the rest of my life that there was just no one else like Amir Khan.

It was Amir Khan who led us to a summer excursion into the Zagros plateau north of Mahabad in search of ancient caves with some Peace Corps friends from distant Rezayeh who were also engaged in English training. During the summer months, we also spent time in picnics with our Kurdish, Gilaki, and Persian teacher and professional friends in the valleys and dells of the surrounding mountain streams in laughter-filled story-telling and mountain-naming mixed babble of English and Kurdish according to the “rules.”  In more somber moments, Amir related some of his experiences during his Tehran stay at the university, such as the time when he and several other Kurdish undergrads asked to be included in the underground students’ socialist club mainly followers of the forbidden Tudeh party – they were accepted immediately with another kind of “rule” or understanding about their use of Kurdish. They were told by the Persian-speaking students to not speak Kurdish, or there “would be consequences.” It was not the first time that I began to learn of the factionalism in the Iranian student movement.

By the fall of 1965, Amir and I were deep into our discussions about Marx and Marxist theories of historical change and historical generalizations with a growing list of new works for me. I had already discovered Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, part of the British “social historians” in their eye-opening work on the threshing machine protest by workers of Sussex near Kent, England. They had based their research mainly on the police records of the striking peasants in their co-authored work, Captain Swing –  the mysterious signature found at the bottom of the warnings that appeared on local parsons’ doors of the possible burning of local wheat fields using threshing machines and not human labor. This wonderful work was my introduction to the English social history school while I was in Mashhad where I had by chance met the British Consul and took some liberties with the British Council’s library. Before the year was out, Amir and I had read and discussed other British and French historians’ works, such as E. H. Carr’s seminal work on What Is History?, E. P. Thompson’s recently published The Making of the English Working Class, and the equally seminal work of Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft. We promised each other to continue reading the English Social Historians and the French Annales school historians after I left Mahabad at the end of my two-year obligation that had begun in February 1964. We also completed a translation project of a Kurdish romance story in the midst of our school work that included Bob and me conducting Friday (a holiday) classes in acquired language learning with all the English teachers of Mahabad and nearly free evening Adult English classes in one of the high schools for anyone interested in the subject. As with everything else, Amir was a fellow teacher in both Teacher and Adult Evening classes.

The English translation of a Kurdish folk tale that Amir and I did was his idea. The story, Khadj va Siamand, in both Persian and Kurdish, was based on a popular Kurdish ballad concerning the youth of Kurdistan in Sorani Kurdish. Khadj was the attractive young daughter of a wealthy Kurdish merchant who had forty sons from his four wives as well as several daughters. Khadj was the most beautiful of them all. Siamand, on the other hand, was a strapping young and good-looking shepherd from a neighboring village who saw Khadj and other young Kurdish girls coming to the communal well on the outskirts of the town. In the midst of the collective spring flower gathering, and the summer harvests from nearby fields, Khadj and Siamand became more acquainted, falling in love with each other over time. They then planned to run away to the mountains to live together, fearing in part her father’s outrage and the forty brothers of Khadj whom she knew would be close behind. In the eventual confrontation in the mountains, first Siamand fell in combat and then, in despair, Khadj leapt to her death off the mountain in the end. We translated the text into polished English and ran off copies of the ballad in Persian and English for the advanced students in the high schools – we were forbidden to use Kurdish by the principal. The mimeographed story was a hit, needless to say. I told Amir that I was sending our translation off to the Netherlands to be published. I found out later that the translation was only listed in a bibliography of Kurdish literature and not published. That would have to wait until later.

By February 1966/1345, I was getting ready to leave Mahabad and then Tehran for the States. Before doing so, Amir and I had decided to translate small parts of E. H. Carr’s What is History?  and V. Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself into Persian over the next year. We wanted the social studies teachers and advanced students to benefit from these authors. Amir was to do most of the translations, while I was to work on some bibliographic information. We planned for a translation into Kurdish but it was never done as we were both too busy in graduate programs. We did finish the two translations of Carr and Childe into Persian that I left with Amir.

Little did I realize how important we would become to each other in the next three decades. By 1975, I had married Janice and completed my doctorate at Indiana University in Middle East history with a minor in Persian Studies with a US grant while Amir had gone to the University of Illinois at Chamagne-Urbana in the mid-1970s. While Amir continued his studies in Communication, I was soon hired first by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then by Georgetown University in DC. We met a couple of times first in Chicago at the 1975 American Historical Association meeting, and then again at Illinois University as the Iranian Revolution was beginning in 1977/1356. I was the one of the guest speakers of the Confederation of Iranian Students – US at the University of Illinois and took part in one of their campus-wide conferences on Iran.

By 1979/1358, in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, like so many other Iranian students, Amir had returned to Iran with hopes for a better Iran in his mind and heart. In 1986, Amir completed his Illinois doctorate program, and, with his family, immigrated to Canada, settling first in Toronto, then in Windosr and Montreal, and finally back to Toronto taking teaching positions in those cities’ universities in Communication and Middle Eastern studies. In 1992, Amir published his revised thesis with the new title of Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985 in which he made a very strong case for the role of a nation-state in the evolution and survival of languages such as Kurdish. He also argued for the standardization of Kurdish language that would contain the northern/southern Kurdish dialects of Kirmanji and Sorani.  Amir continued to read and write about Marxism and applying his Marxist perspective in his writings and teachings in his many articles on oral traditions of Kurdistan, linguistics, linguicide, genocide, Turkish and Iranian policies, the role of language formation in the media, in song and music throughout his academic career at the University of Toronto. His final work of articles in Farsi was published in April 2017, which was particularly special to him and is entitled, Bar Faraz-e Mooje Nuvin-e Kumunism [On the New Wave of Communism].

On reflection, Amir was my brother, colleague and closest academic life companion. We had left the level of normal friendship long ago during our continued conversations, debates and discussions. Amir had radicalized me in both my politics and historical research. Many of my American Peace Corps volunteer companions had remarked, rightfully, that the Peace Corps and their Iran experiences had “changed their lives.” For me, Amir, Kurdistan, and contemporary Iranian struggles for political and economic independence had changed my life. My dear mother took about three seconds upon my return to our Lafayette, Indiana home after my two-year Peace Corps absence to say that, “Tom, you’ve changed.” She was absolutely correct. It took take me several years to completely understand that statement as “Yes, Mom, I have changed because of my Kurdish brother and the Iranian people’s life and death struggles against various imperial powers including the United States.”

Sometime after I had left Georgetown University and was invited to Birzeit University in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that I understood how much of Amir’s world view or jahan bini influenced my thoughts as an analyst of contemporary US foreign policy as well as an historian of 18th century Iran. Amir and I had also discussed Immanuel Wallerstein’ s world systems analysis of center and periphery dialectics and the role of US development polices within Washington’s Consensus and world geopolitics that contributed to “underdevelopment”. We continued our discussions of Andre Gunnar Frank, Paul Baran, Samir Amin and Walter Rodney regarding dependency theories and US Agency for International Development, or US AID. My own reading of these political economic theories was in relation to historical studies of greater Asia and world historians’ work over the past three centuries as became evident in my courses and more recent writings.

Thus, Amir’s death thus has left a “hollow in the land” according to the Southern African adage. I would add that his death has now left a deep hollow in all the hearts and minds of those who knew Amir Hassanpour. His many intellectual feats, his own radical perspective of this world and its affairs, a Marxist perspective from beginning to end, and his amazing historical imagination and humor will not pass as quickly as he did physically in Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. He, more than any of my life friends and acquaintances, fulfilled Samad-e Behrangi’s famous dictum in his international literary work, Mahi Siyah-ye Kuchulu, (The Little Black Fish) when the Little Black Fish notes towards the end of the story, “Living or dying is not that important. What is important are the influences one may have on the lives of other.”

So, beduwa and goodbye, Kak Amir, for now. I long to be with you again someday, my dear Kurdish friend, colleague, and companion. I am bowed from grief for Shahrzad and Salah, and all of Amir’s fine students for their and our immense loss.

Table of Contents

English Verso

“Not about, but for workers”: Media, Labour and Politics in Post-2009 Iran
Zep Kalb

“Translator’s Invisibility”: Strategies of Adaptation in Persian versions of Indian Tales from the Mughal Period: King Vikrama’s Adventures and Ocean of the Streams of Stories
Anna Martin

Hafez and Sufi Hermeneutics
Daryoush Ashouri

Persian Recto

Bonyad Monthly and the Depoliticization of Gharbzadegi
Ali Mirsepasi and Mehdi Faraji

Shafiei-Kadkani between Poetry and Prose
Reza Ghanadan

The Untold Stories of the Wolf: A Comparative Study of “The Wolf”
Nasser Maleki, Bahman Fallah, and Meraj Kazemi

Shahrzad: Pop Culture, Media Culture, and the Representation of Gender in the Digital Age
Khatereh Sheibani

Cyrus in Judeo-Persian Literature
Nahid Pirnazar

Reconstructing Ancient Iranian History through the Deciphering of the Avesta and the Fahlaviyyāt
Abolala Soudavar

Qur’anic Perspectives on the ‘Nafs’ and the ‘Ruh’
Esmail Tabibi

Alternative Visions of Iranian Culture: A Celebration of Hamid Naficy’s Work

Iranian cultural history has been overshadowed by a grand narrative of political history that disregards shifts within the Iranian fields of culture. This focus on political history stems from Iran’s geopolitical position and its implication in international politics. A symptom of a homogenous historical time, such an over-determining political history collapses the continuities and discontinuities in cinema, theatre, literature, and other cultural spheres, as it provides a strictly political interpretation of cultural narratives. Decoupling this political grand narrative from multiple layers of historical time, reveals a range of creative cultural activities inside and outside Iran that have had long-lasting impacts on cultural fields. The history of Iranian film production, for instance, has been almost always explained within a political narrative. An interdisciplinary study of cinema, however, that looks at histories of culture, society, and politics, separately, provides a different reading of the history of cinema and its surrounding culture.

For its unique position as an offspring of a new time and facilitator of modernity, cinema has been an indispensable part of modern life since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In registering contemporary events, cinema provided the conditions to capture the past and project it for the future. By virtue of that, cinema has brought history to life and become a primary source for social thinkers, critics, and scholars from its inception to the present. Its emergence within the conditions of urbanity set a precedent for its proliferation in city centres as places where images, ideas, and peoples were in motion. In the context of early twentieth century Iran, the socio-political circumstances of Tehran and other major cities, provided the conditions for the establishment and expansion of cinema in urban areas, and the projection and dissemination of never-seen-before images of peoples, lifestyles, and cultures.  The acceptance, adoption, and usage of cinema by cosmopolitans of diverse ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds, facilitated the conditions of circulation and cosmopolitanism in major cities, and further engendered a movie-going culture. Many cinema owners and enthusiasts soon seized on cinema’s potential for mass mediation and public education, and, in the absence of Iranian films, employed international motion pictures as didactic media in the service of national advancement.

With the production of the first Persian-language films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the screening of Iranian past and present for the audiences, cinema became a forum for registering and projecting aspirations for sovereignty. During the same period, cinema also became a medium for Pahlavi state nationalism, as the government commissioned the making of films that portrayed an advanced country or the Iranian ancient glorious past. The popular film industry that emerged in the late 1940s was arguably an actualisation of earlier aspirations for national and cinematic sovereignty in a sustained cinematic form. While painting films with an Iranian colour, these popular films drew on global mainstream film narratives, tropes, and characters, and engendered an entertaining cosmopolitan film enterprise. Unlike what has been commonly argued, these films unraveled Iranian negotiations with rapid modernisation and provided a social commentary on national changes from the 1950s to 1970s.  The pre-revolutionary alternative cinematic movement, also known as the New Wave, which solidified in the 1960s, continued Iranian popular cinema’s tradition of social criticism, albeit in a realist and arthouse cinematic form; this cinema which spoke to left-leaning international critics and cinematic movements gained attention from global film circles. The emergent alternative movement set the conditions for a cinematic revolution which happened prior to the political revolution of 1979.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 arguably changed the conditions of filmmaking in Iran. Despite the radical changes, however, Iranian cinema has continued its tradition of mediating social criticisms and national debates. Because of its realism and social commitment, in the last three decades, the post-revolutionary alternative cinema has once again gained the attention of international film critics and found a unique place for itself in film festivals.

No other scholar has examined the history of Iranian cinema, from pre-revolutionary to post-revolutionary Iran, as extensively as Hamid Naficy. Taking a personal interest in cinema and multi-media visual culture from an early age, Naficy has come to be known as one of the authoritative voices on the history of Iranian cinema and television, both national and exilic. Considering his meticulous early work on documentary filmmaking in Iran, literature on Iranian and global exilic television and film production, and his seminal four-volume work on the social history of Iranian cinema, it is impossible – and I speak from personal experience – to be a student and researcher of cinema and not engage with Naficy’s scholarship. Naficy’s work, nevertheless, is not limited to Iranian cinema. Over the years, it has found much relevance in fields outside Film Studies namely, in Communication Studies, Media Studies, Post-colonial Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology. The special issue at hand, dedicated to Naficy, is a reflection of his rich, diverse, and theoretically-rigorous career. It has been put together to recognise and celebrate Naficy’s work and influence on cinema, media studies, and culture in general. Each contribution either attends to his academic scholarship, builds upon it, or tackles his artistic creations. One aspect that connects all the contributions in this issue, is the inter/transdisciplinary nature of Naficy’s work that has made his oeuvre a crucial foundation in interdisciplinary studies of visual culture.

Shadowed by his academic contributions to the field of Cinema Studies, Naficy’s early film production and artistic work has not gained much scholarly attention. In this volume, Simran Bhalla, examines Naficy’s experimentation with video technologies in the 1960s and 1970s. Bhalla argues that Naficy’s films as a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of California, Los Angeles, capitalized on the possibilities granted by new technologies and functioned as media critiques that contributed to the counterculture of the period. His films were recently restored and screened at Northwestern University. By highlighting Naficy’s authority outside Cinema Studies, Mehdi Semati explores his transdisciplinary scholarship on International Communication. Drawing connections between his various scholarly works, Semati specifically attends to Naficy’s contribution to the problematisation of borders, politics of Otherness and belonging, and the more general relationship between culture and power. Being at the intersection of Cultural Studies, post-colonial theory, and media theory, Naficy’s oeuvre, according to Semati, is the epitome of trans/interdisciplinary scholarship, perhaps reflecting his character and upbringing.

Another confirmation of this transdisciplinarity can perhaps be found in Michael Fischer’s commentary on Naficy’s caricatures of academics which he captured during public academic addresses. Regarding his simple line drawings as a window into Naficy’s self, Fischer looks for the evolution of a signature style. Asking, “What does the line reveal that the natural eye does not see?”, Fischer encourages the reader and viewer to cross the lines of the drawings and commentaries, to interpret them in good humour, and re-decipher them through their own lens. In a search for a deeper look into Naficy’s life, mind, and career, Kaveh Askari has contributed a revealing and thought-provoking interview with Hamid Naficy, as part of The Fieldnotes project for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Aside from exploring Naficy’s memories about his childhood, pre- and post-secondary student years, and his fascination and experimentation with multi-media visual culture, the interview also discloses valuable information about the institutional and production history of cinema, and some historical actors involved in the development of the industry, particularly in pre-revolutionary Iran.

Mazyar Lotfalian’s article also attests to the transdisciplinary malleability of Naficy’s scholarship.  Drawing on Naficy’s conceptualisation of transnational art production, Accented Cinema, and Third Cinema, Lotfalian investigates the relationship between art and anthropology. Examining Iranian diasporic paintings, installation art projects, performances, and photography after 9/11, an era that the author considers as exemplifying a new Cold War involving the US and Iran, Lotfalian demonstrates how Iranian visual culture has engendered a landscape for communication and critique. Lotfalian considers such endeavours as a form of active agency on the part of artists to create a different world in transnational settings.

Sara Saljoughi’s contribution in this issue further attests to the centrality of interdisciplinarity to new studies of Iranian cinema. Questioning what is commonly considered as “Iranian Cinema,” Saljoughi uses new interdisciplinary paradigms to challenge conventional conceptions of the phenomenon. An homage to Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (Dah, 2003), the article uses ten theses to tackle grand narratives that overlook historical discontinuities and collapse aesthetic and political specificities in Iranian cinema. Ten proves to be a useful film in this endeavour as it draws on Kiarostami’s past cinematic signatures and expresses the future of Iranian cinema, reflected in its digital mode of filmmaking and focus on women’s experiences.

Mohammad Shahba’s article in Persian attends to challenges associated with the translation of English scholarship on Iranian cinema into Persian for the use of Persian speaking world. Having translated the first volume of Hamid Naficy’s A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (2011) to Persian in 2016, Shahba uses the translated volume as a case study to comment on essential methodologies for translation including a close rapport between the author and translator, and extensive research on the part of the translator. In identifying guidelines for translation, the author also alludes to the necessity of such translated volumes in interdisciplinary fields and for the fostering of a global dialogue on Iranian cinema.

The contributions in the issue at hand, dedicated to Hamid Naficy, not only engage with and build on Naficy’s scholarship and artistic works, but they attest to the necessity of an interdisciplinary examination of Iranian visual media culture. The articles in this issue beg for a rethinking of conventional histories of Iranian cinema, rejection of grand narratives, and highlighting of particularities in visual culture; in other words, they offer new avenues for the future studies of Iranian cinema and media. We hope that the readers will enjoy perusing these articles in the same light.

A Tree Atop the Mountain: Mobad Manikan and the Elusive Promises of Masculinity


Look! Have you ever seen, or heard from any wise man, such deeds
As Ramin has done to me time and again? He’s wearied my heart of sweet life!
By the hands of Vis, her Nurse, and my brother, I forever burn in fire;
Confounded by these three sorcerers, no salve can ease this pain I’m in.
Indifferent to chains and the brig, they fear neither Hell nor God;
What should one do with three demons, who know not fear or shame,
Who brashly do whatever they want, who do not fear to be disgraced?
Though I am king of world-kings, I know no one more wretched than me.
What use this rule and lordship, when my days are black as pitch?
I dispense justice to all, but I’ve a hundred plaints against my lot:
Men at war have seen my tyranny, but now a woman has become my tyrant. ([I] 60.31–41)[1]

These are the words of one of the most enigmatic men in Persian literature: Mobad Manīkān, lord of Marv, king of Iran and Turan, sovereign of all lands from China to Kairouan.[2] Despite these lofty titles, it is clear from his lament that all is not well back at home. Mobad’s wife, Vis, has rendered him impotent with a magic talisman, and is now having an affair with his younger brother, the dashing Prince Ramin. As Mobad complains here to his minister, Zard, this turn of events has “bound” much more than his physical body: for a man whose symbolic authority stems from his connection to the law—the right to command, and the power to punish those who disobey—the scandal has brought the limits of his sovereignty into open view. Faced with these lovers who not only flout the law but laugh in the face of its adjudicator, Mobad stands to lose not only his bride but the right and authority to claim her; no wonder, then, that he calls the lovers’ actions demonic.

I begin with this passage because it brings us straight to the crux of Mobad’s authority and the site of its crisis: sexual power over women and political power over other men. Typically, one would expect these two dynamics, both classic emblems of patriarchal power, to complement and reinforce the other, but I will argue that this is not the case with Mobad. Indeed, it is the very tension between his dual role as man and king that lies at the root of his predicament, in that the demands of masculine honor impede him from carrying out his kingly duties, even as the exigencies of kingship undermine his status and position as a man. I hope in this reading to bring new insights into the complex negotiations of love, gender, and power at work in the tale of Vis & Ramin, and to offer an example against which we may consider this topic in the story’s generic neighbors and relatives. Vis & Ramin reminds us that these dynamic relationships are neither as simple nor as stable as they may first appear, and must never be taken for granted.

On genre and gender

To provide a few words of context, Vis & Ramin is a narrative mas̱navī of about 9,000 verses, composed in Isfahan by Fakhr al-Dīn Gurgānī around the year 446/1054 under the aegis of the Seljuk Turks, who had wrested the area from Buyid control only a few years prior. The poem participates in a genre I would broadly call the romance—a story that recounts the adventures of two lovers who are forced apart by the hand of fate and its various deputies, only to be reunited (either in death or in marriage) at the end.[3] Texts that engage with or invoke this model in some way or another include the “ideal” Greek novels of the Imperial period, such as Callirhoe and Leucippe & Clitophon, the Arabic akhbār about Majnūn and other ʿudhrī lovers, and European cycles like Floris & Blancheflor, Aucassin & Nicolette, and Tristan & Isolde. Iranians, for their part, seem to have told stories of this kind as far back as our documentation allows us to see: Chares of Mitylene, who accompanied Alexander the Great on his march to Persepolis, relates the popular “barbarian” tale of Odatis and Zariadres, who fell in love when they beheld each other in a dream.[4] Vis & Ramin, like its famous cousin Bīzhan & Manīzhah, is part of this pre-Islamic Iranian tradition of love-stories; its roots go back to Parthian Iran of the first century ce, and it is one of the few medieval texts extant that was possibly rendered into New Persian from a Middle Persian source.[5] Although Vis & Ramin follows the basic structure of initial love, separation, and union that is common across this genre, it brings many unexpected twists to the convention, not least in the psychological attention it gives to the ostensible villain of the story, Mobad.

In terms of generic expectations, Mobad easily falls into the recognizable role of the “rival” or “obstacle” who stands between the hero and heroine.[6] This is an ubiquitous figure in the romance genre; for example, ʿAyyūqī’s Varqah & Gulshāh (w. ca. 420/1030), a romance that incorporates both Arabic and Helleno-Iranian narrative patterns, features two such characters: first Rabīʿ b. ʿAdnān, who abducts Gulshāh on her wedding-night, then the King of Syria, who uses his immense fortune to bribe Gulshāh’s mother into marrying her daughter to him instead of Varqah.[7] Despite the generic nature of this role, it nevertheless bears curious implications for those who play it, for it generates a character who is both necessary for the story to take place and necessarily tangential in its denouement. Mobad’s job, in other words, is to activate a story about the separation of two lovers; the plot cannot be set into motion until he intervenes, and it will not end until his claim has been neutralized in some manner, in this case with his emasculation, humiliation, and death. Mobad exists to be nullified—his job is to fail—for the minute he dies, the union of Vis and Ramin becomes legitimate and achievable, signaling the end of the story. What is fascinating and I daresay unique about this case is that, unlike Rabīʿ b. ʿAdnān or the King of Syria, Mobad seems acutely aware of the constraints that his role as a stock figure has placed upon his political autonomy. This is not to say that he has a meta-knowledge of himself as a fictional character, but rather that his story is all the more powerful precisely because he is forced to confront his innate contingency and grapple with the mysterious reasons behind it. He can sense, though he cannot fully explain why, that the obstacles that lie between him and his happiness, unlike those faced by Vis and Ramin, are necessarily and forever insurmountable for reasons somehow intrinsic to his own person, yet outside of his ability to control: Though I am king of world-kings, I know no one more wretched than me. Realizing his inherent and fundamental limitations—the condition of being “bound”—throws the givens of his masculine and kingly self into a state of existential crisis.

This bittersweet mixture of power and poverty in Mobad expresses itself on a number of levels, most pointedly in terms of the way it runs against the basic expectations of his male identity. As we saw above, Mobad identifies a direct correspondence between his private failure to control his wife and his public failure to rule his kingdom. Both forms of domination, the sexual and the political, are linguistically connected to the fundamental identity of being a man (mard) and its associated codes and practices—mardī and mardumī, similar to the link between vir and virtus in Latin.[8] Mobad makes the same equivalence between the sexual and political spheres in another passage: “My troops, be they rank and file or high command, all call me a ‘non-man’—and if they do, I deserve it! What man am I, who cannot overcome [lit., ‘come on top of’] a woman?” (sipāh-am gar kihān u gar mihān-and • hamah yaksar marā nā-mard khwānand / agar nā-mard khwānand-am sazāyam • chi mard-am man ki bā zan bar nayāyam, 68.26–27). It is crucial to recognize that Mobad experiences and expresses his lack of autonomy in terms of his gender, that he has in some way failed at being a man—and most critics of the poem, we shall see, will concur with his assessment. What is not so simple, however, is to reverse-engineer the proposition, and ask ourselves what would a successful practice of mardumī look like in this situation? What would Mobad need to do to succeed in this story that requires him to fail?

Unfortunately for the king, the answer is bleak: there is no “right” kind of manliness that could have saved him. Indeed, it is manhood itself—the property that promises dominion and autonomy to those who possess it—that forges the bars of his jail, trapping him inside social and institutional structures that curtail his ability to act, such that “the skin on his body was like a prison” (chu zindān būd guftī bar tan-ash pūst, 38.60), as the narrator says in a telling simile. In this way, we encounter an uncanny parallel between the story’s norms of genre and gender: just as Mobad keeps stumbling against his innate limitations as a figure paradoxically central and superfluous to the narrative, so too is he emasculated, paradoxically again, by his intrinsic power as man and king.

In search of an ideal

These are the considerations that lead me to describe Mobad as an “enigmatic” figure, not only to express the innate ironies and paradoxes of his character, but to emphasize the genuine murkiness and confusion that surrounds the question of who he is and what he is supposed to be. We find a fair range of answers on this front in the critical scholarship on Vis & Ramin. Interestingly enough, the first studies of the poem written in European languages, such as those of Graf and von Stackleberg in the late nineteenth century, were inclined to view Mobad as the tragic hero of the story, a noble king brought low by a single, fatal flaw; they were indeed rather put out by his humiliating demise at the hands of the conniving lovers, who not only dodge retribution, but are rewarded for their sins with a happy ending.[9] Moving into the twentieth century (and as cultural attitudes changed), the king came to be seen as more deserving of scorn than sympathy. Critics now wholeheartedly agreed with Mobad’s self-assessment—that his success as a king could not but reflect his worthiness as a man (and vice versa)—and armed with this circular definition, they arrived at the conclusion that he is a failure on both accounts, equally inept in bed and the battlefield. Gabrieli was nonplussed by Mobad’s gullibility (dabbenaggine) as he wavered between hatred and love for his wife and brother; Minorsky found the king both “brutal” and “weak”; and Rypka opined that “the old man is a ridiculous, pitiful figure in the hands of the two lovers.”[10] Southgate echoes these pronouncements a decade later, writing that Mobad “is often pitiful in his rage and despair” as he fulminates against Vis’s repeated infidelities.[11] In contrast, Bürgel sees in Mobad not an excess of passion but a lack of it: he describes the king as “a cold moralist, always presuming on his seemingly legal claim, […] completely incapable of loving her [Vis].”[12] Common to all of these readings of the king, however, whether as tragic hero, mercurial fool, or reptilian tyrant, or is that there is something defective, something wrong about him that inevitably leads to his moral and political collapse.

This theme of defectiveness or incapacity plays out in interesting ways in Meisami’s landmark study of the poem in Medieval Persian Court Poetry. Emphasizing the social context in which Persian romances were produced and circulated, Meisami argues that the themes and concerns of this genre overlap to a considerable extent with other courtly forms, particularly the qaṣīdah. Just as the interplay of lyric and panegyric in the qaṣīdah can collapse the poem’s beloved and the poet’s patron into the same figure, so too does the romance explore the qualities of a good ruler through the figure of a good lover. Thus:

The protagonist’s conduct as lover reveals his fitness, or unfitness, for kingship; this aspect of his qualitative, or ethical, identity depends directly on his capacity to be guided by love and to understand its nature correctly as encompassing, not merely private passion, but public order.[13]

This hermeneutic leads Meisami to draw perfect parallels between the private and public lives of the male characters in the Persian romance: a bad lover will be a bad king, while a man who learns to love properly will also rule properly. It is not surprising, then, that Mobad’s public disgrace must reflect his unworthiness as a lover, made manifest in his bodily emasculation: “Mowbad’s physical impotence with Vis (magically induced by a talisman) figures his moral incapacity, as it identifies his confusion of love, and of the lover’s goal, with concupiscence.”[14] From this perspective, Mobad’s failures are not limited to the physical nor even the political arenas, but amount to a fundamentally moral inadequacy on his part (the poor guy can’t get a break!). Although I will offer an alternative explanation for this outcome, Meisami’s point is well-taken that Mobad’s impotence and cuckoldry are tightly bound to his position at the head of a social and political hierarchy;[15] her work makes it clear that his case is a complicated one, caught up in the intertwined webs of power, gender, and love.

To respond to Meisami, the major drawback I see with her reading is that it continues the legacy of seeing the king as a relatively static figure whose chief significance lies in his place within a clearly defined symbolic order of ideal kingship. I suggest that when we read his story through the medium of his own speech, consider the specific circumstances surrounding his actions, and trace the processes that eventually lead to his demise, the certainties of his ideal roles begin to turn upon themselves, undermining their categorical stability. This is not to say that Mobad does not invoke the ideal equivalence between King, Lover, and (Perfect) Man that Meisami describes—that he certainly does—but that the difficulties he faces in attempting to embody all three figures at the same time render this equation far more problematic than the math would suggest. I imagine that, had he been able to read Meisami’s diagnosis, Mobad might have been tempted to ask her what she expected him to do to restore his authority and win Vis’s love; how could he have walked the path of Niẓāmī’s Bahrām Gūr and transitioned from “kingship by will” to “kingship by law”?[16] Unfortunately, Meisami does not see a way out for him, for, as she writes, the rotten core of his story is ultimately rooted not in his behavior, which can be adjusted through education and refinement, but in his person as “an inappropriate (not to say unnatural) partner for Vis.”[17] Mobad’s dilemma, then, goes back to something intrinsic about him, to the fact that he is Mobad: there is no way he can “possess” Vis in love or in marriage—as his social position tells him he has the authority to do—that does not ruin that authority in the process.

Thus, we are brought back to the underlying quandary of our powerless monarch, “whose hopeless psychological situation,” Davis writes, “flickers wearily from patience to self-assertion to fury and back again.”[18] Henri Massé, who translated Vis & Ramin into French, was also struck by the pathos of this predicament, stuck in a love that is “physically impossible and morally reprehensible”:

The poet has well noted the tragic nature of the love that has enslaved this old man to a woman too young [for him], as we read in his desperate speeches, his bitter reproaches to Vis, and his admonishments enlivened by a tender sadness; at the piteous cries of Vis’s mother, believing that her daughter is dead, Mobad responds with a certainty that is as dejected as it is passionate, a dialogue that counts among the best parts of the work.[19]

Here, both critics land upon what to my mind might be the most interesting question raised by our hapless king: what if the poem is not simply giving us a negative example of how not to be a successful man/king/lover, but in fact asks us to consider what it means to inhabit such roles, especially if one is condemned to perpetual failure? The psychological complexity of Mobad’s character has been occasionally addressed; an interesting example of this is found in a short comparative essay that highlights his knack at self-diagnosis and “guilt at being stirred by a daughter’s beauty.”[20] In addition, there are two studies of Vis & Ramin in Persian that utilize psychoanalytic theory in their analysis of the king. Zamān’zādah reads him, the father figure, as a symbol of the id, and concludes that the poem celebrates the victory of love over sin by killing off the sexually repressed Mobad and replacing him with the uninhibited Ramin; while Kahdūnī and Buḥrānī, drawing from Jung, argue that Mobad’s anima prevents him from connecting with his fully-formed masculine self, trapping him in a state of permanent immaturity in which he is prone to anger, anxiety, fear, self-sabotage, illogical behavior, effeminacy, and vulnerability to womanly tricks.[21] Although these readings employ new approaches to the study of Mobad, they arrive at the same conclusions we have seen before, infantilizing him as a defective man or reducing his character to a purely symbolic existence; my own questions about what he might tell us about masculinity itself remain to be answered.

This, in brief, is my take on the matter, which I will explicate in the following pages: the tale of Mobad offers us a profound glimpse into the anxious interior of normative power and authority, rooted in the male body and the symbolic orders it claims to inhabit. Yet Mobad encounters a glitch, so to speak: the normative “grammar” of masculinity, with all its givens, expectations, and promises, turns upon itself and collapses under the weight of its own (il)logic. Trapped inside a role that both promises him autonomy and blocks him from realizing it, Mobad is thus forced to gaze into the void of his own irrelevance, contemplating the ideological forces that unmake his persona even as they construct it.

A royal position

If a reader with no prior knowledge were to pick up Vis & Ramin and start from the beginning, it would be quite natural for them to assume, as Graf and von Stackleberg did, that Mobad is the main protagonist of the story. The poem’s opening lines place the King of Kings at front and center of the narrative stage:

Among the evening-tales and reports, I have found it written from the chroniclers’ words:
That there was once a king, blessed and successful in kingship.
All kings were slaves to him; they lived in the world for his sake. ([II] 8.1–3)

This claim is illustrated by the splendid springtime banquet that immediately follows, confirming in its pomp and pageantry Mobad’s position as the undisputed ruler of all lands. During this feast, the king’s gaze falls upon Shahru of Media, the fairest of his vassals, and, taken by her beauty, he invites her to become his consort, “whether as wife or as lover” (yā juft yā dūst, 10.6). When Shahru declines the offer on account of her advanced age, Mobad presses the issue, suggesting that, if she is too old for love, let him have her daughter—should she ever have one—for “she would be fair of skin, like you” (buvad dukht-i tū mis̱l-i tū saman-bar, 10.40); to this Shahru readily agrees, and the two exchange oaths to seal their pact. The narrator of the poem leaves us in no doubt that this is the moment when the seeds of Mobad’s (and Shahru’s) troubles are sown, as he cries out at the end of the scene, “Look what hardships they fell into, giving an unborn child into wedlock!” (nigar tā dar chi sakhtī ūftādand • ki nā-zādah ʿarūsī rā bidādand, 10.54). We might detect the same message in the subtext of Shahru’s rejection of Mobad’s advances, when she tells him, “Shame and disgrace will grow in the world of any old person who plays at being young” (har ān pīrī ki burnāʾī namāyad • jahān-ash nang u rusvāʾī fazāyad, 10.29). Although she is ostensibly speaking of herself, this could well be a veiled critique of Mobad’s interest in love, despite his mature age and exalted rank.[22] If this anxiety is present, however, it is not enough to spark a challenge to Mobad’s authority; as the King of Kings—the alpha male, so to speak—he seems to be acting within his socially accepted rights to initiate and agree upon a marriage proposal.[23] Thus this scene, in addition to laying the groundwork for the future conflict, also uncovers a point of tension latent within the established norms of male power and the potentially self-destructive implications of its assertion.

Years later, Shahru indeed gives birth to a daughter, Vis; but, either forgetting or ignoring her vow, she instead marries Vis to her (Vis’s) brother, Viru, and just at this moment, Mobad’s deputy Zard arrives at the court to fetch the king’s new bride. Vis is horrified at the thought of marrying an old man and publicly rejects the proposition, saying, “I should mix with my brother like milk and wine; I don’t want Old Mobad in some foreign land!” (bisāzam bā barādar chūn may u shīr • nakhwāham dar gharībī mobad-i pīr, 16.39). However vocal in her protests, Vis cannot deny—nor can Mobad forget—the contract made so many years ago. This contract gives Mobad the right to press his claim on Vis, but it also puts him under a great deal of pressure, for as king and guarantor of the law, it is his formal duty to see that such contracts (especially those made with him personally) are upheld; to ignore such a violation would have serious consequences for his credibility. That he understands the implications of Vis’s defiance is immediately evident when he first hears the news from Zard: “So much sweat poured from his face, you’d say his body had melted in the heat of his fury” (zi bas khūy k-az sar u rūy-ash hamī tākht • tan-ash guftī zi tāb-i khashm bigudākht, 18.3). The personal insult is bad enough, but there looms a larger danger, as Zard continues:

Viru has crowned himself rūḥā and surrendered his heart to Ahriman along the way.
All say “king” before his name and know no other king save him.
They do not count you among the kings—some don’t consider you a man! ([III] 17.45–48)[24]

Such is Zard’s report; but we, who were privy to the scene, have good reason to doubt its veracity. It was Vis, and not her brother Viru, who refused Mobad’s summons, and her reasons were far from political. Nonetheless, Zard reads her rejection as an explicit declaration of war on the part of the Medes, which he announces publicly in front of Mobad’s court. Both Mobad’s personal honor and his political authority have now been compromised, and regardless of however he might wish to act, he is institutionally obliged to respond to the crisis. His lack of autonomy is underscored when we observe the reaction of his court nobles; it is clear that in their eyes, Mobad’s love-life is no longer a private issue (if it ever was), but a matter of concern for the kingdom at large:

The nobles in the king’s presence gnashed their teeth and said,
“Why would Shahru, our ally, give the king’s wife to another man?
How could Viru have dared to court a woman betrothed to our king?”
And then they said, “From now on, our king will bring ruin upon the land of Media! […]
Fate has sounded the death-knell for all who live there, now that she who was one’s is now another’s!” ([IV] 18.22–25, 31)

At the risk of belaboring the point, it is worth reflecting on the choices available to the king at this juncture. Within this context of sedition and personal affront, one is hard pressed to imagine any other response from Mobad that could both save face and preserve his authority; were he to relinquish his claim on Vis now that his men are clamoring for blood, he would lose both Media and his credibility at home in a single stroke. This works against his chances as Vis’s suitor, however, for if he can only possess his bride by violence, he ensures that he will never win her affections: as Ramin will say to him later, “If you stay with her against her wishes, forget it; you’ll not enjoy her!” (v-agar bī kām-i ū bā ū nishīnī • zi dil dar kun k-az ū shādī nabīnī, 26.29).[25] Aware of this double-bind, Mobad is loath to respond as he knows he must; his first move is to ask Zard, “Did you see this with your own eyes, or did you hear it somewhere?” (bipursīd az barādar k-īn tū dīdī • bi chashm-i khwīsh yā jāʾī shinīdī, 18.5), perhaps hoping against hope that it was all just a rumor. Zard glibly reaffirms his tale, concluding with a conspicuous request for orders: “I’ve told you what I saw, and now you know best, for you are the one to give orders, and I’m the one to obey” (man ān guftam ki dīdam pas tū bih dān • ki tū farmān dihī man bandah farmān, 18.19). Thus, willing or no, Mobad must march off to make war on his own subjects. Needless to say, this does not endear him to the local population, and it marks the beginning of a political collapse that was engendered through the exercise and defense of his own royal prerogative in laying claim to Vis.

As the claims on Vis’s body increase, Mobad’s position grows ever more precarious. After a protracted battle against Viru that gets him nowhere, the king eventually manages to “persuade” Shahru, with gold and the threats of divine punishment for breaking her sacred vow (the meaning of his name, “Mazdean priest,” seems suggestive here),[26] into surrendering Vis, with whom he returns to Marv in triumph. But as Ramin predicted, there is no joy in victory; his furious bride retaliates by having her Nurse curse him with the charm of impotence, and Ramin swoops in and takes his brother’s place as her lover. When Mobad first discovers the affair, he attempts to resolve the issue discretely, sensitive to the damage this latest scandal could have on his reputation; but when negotiations fail, with Vis declaring she will only stay with him insofar as it allows her to continue seeing Ramin (turā az bahr-i rāmīn mī-parastam, 48.27), Mobad exiles her to the home of her mother and brother, still evidently hoping to end the affair by separating the lovers, rather than punishing or killing them. This, too, does not resolve his problem, for Ramin defies his brother’s warning and takes up residence with Vis in Media. The threat to Mobad’s authority has thus shifted from the enemy without (Viru) to the enemy within (Ramin), and as before, the frustrated king sees no other choice but to annihilate this danger, even if it means killing his own brother. As he asks his mother:

“Can this be right? No sensible man would allow
Ramin to court destruction with my wife and dishonor my royal position!
How can two brothers share one woman? What in the world could be worse than this shame? […]
I must kill him for this, though it grieves me, for your eyes will shed tears like the springtime cloud. ([V] 51.7–9, 13)

Although he invokes the moral outrage of being cuckolded by his own kin, Mobad is careful to present this decision as a product of reason, not of anger. He does not want to kill his brother, but he must; the threat that Ramin poses to his authority is so great that this is the only reasonable thing to do. In other words, it is not Mobad who is acting, but his “royal position”; by this means the burden of fratricide shifts from the officeholder to the office itself. His mother, however, raises an equally convincing argument as to why he, or rather his “royal position,” should not act in this way. With Mobad impotent and childless, Ramin is the only one who will carry on the family line: “No sensible man,” she retorts, “would cut off his own two hands” (hargiz • dū dast-i khwad naburrad hīch gurbiz, 51.16)—a metaphor certainly evocative of self-castration. Mobad is thus left with two perfectly contrary routes that a “sensible man” in his place would (not) take, leaving him in the unenviable position that no matter how he acts, he will commit a senseless deed that will harm himself and undermine his royal line. The only escape from this quandary lies in the chance that perhaps someone other than Ramin is the real culprit here, a possibility that Mobad’s mother is quick to seize upon. It is Vis and Viru of Media, she says, who are to blame; in her eyes, Vis has seduced both Mobad and Ramin and turned brother against brother. Her advice for her son, then, is to renounce Vis, reconcile with Ramin, and punish Viru for his treachery. Mobad immediately grasps at this straw and composes a letter full of rancor and vitriol to Viru, deriding his lineage, sneering at his martial prowess, and promising an imminent and merciless retribution—an exemplary display of male posturing:

As long as you’re in your palace and harem, you display well the skills of brave men;
But when you meet warriors on the field, you flee like women before men! […]
I’ll make a field of the bodies of your dead, and drive a Tigris of blood through it!
I’ll bring out Vis without shoes or veil and parade her before the army like a dog.
I’ll so humiliate her that none will ever again oppose the noble! ([VI] 51.65–66, 85–87)

Despite their bluster, these threats cannot hide the systemic failure of Mobad’s attempt to salvage his authority; though he is willing to redirect his ire from Viru to Ramin and back again (at the end of the day, it is not important who his enemy is, just so long as that enemy can be identified and destroyed), he cannot give up his claim to Vis; for as we recall, the conflict is rooted in the matter of his right to possess her, a claim that his position in society both entitles him to and demands that he uphold. With this claim now contested, the possession of Vis has become an indispensable pillar of Mobad’s sovereignty. We thus miss the point if we read his threats as a reflection of a cruel or violent personality; rather, I would suggest that this is an example of Mobad doing exactly what is required and expected of him if he hopes to maintain his increasingly tenuous claim to male authority, in which the power and right to dominate plays a functional and foundational role. He thus fills the air with threats of violent retribution in a mimicry of kingship that arises from and attempts to hide the anxiety of not knowing what to do; this deep unease is apparent in the opening of his letter, in which he reveals his desperation to locate a concrete enemy against whom he may unleash his righteous anger: “Will you not say who commanded you to seek power and iniquity over me? Who gives you refuge? Who’s your support?” (bidū guft īn ki farmūd-at nagūʾī • ki bar man bīshī va bīdād jūʾī / panāh-at kī-st yā pusht-at kudām ast, 51.48). It is as though Mobad himself cannot believe—as much as he would like to—that the seemingly omnipresent threat to his kingship is reducible to a single individual.

These paranoid accusations only contribute to the growing confusion that spreads like a fog throughout the story’s atmosphere. When he receives the letter, Viru has no idea what crime it is that Mobad could be talking about, and is forced to wonder aloud: who is doing wrong to whom?

He said, “What strange words are these? Against whom is his anger directed?
He sat my sister within his harem, then kicked her out in the middle of winter.
It was he who struck, then he who cried foul: thus he has done two kinds of injustice. […]
He’s the one who sinned, and now he wants to punish us; such is one who has retreated from justice. ([VII] 52.9–11, 14)

As we can see, Mobad and Viru are equally confused about the other’s intentions. The normative logic of masculinity—which originally led Zard to interpret Vis’s rejection as Viru’s rebellion—has turned upon its actors, forcing them to defend their honor from slights that were only possible within that logic. Now, with this latest (perceived) affront, Mobad and his allies are convinced that Media has staged a full rebellion, while as far as the Medes are concerned, the king has lost his marbles. The only thing certain in this game of blind man’s buff is that Mobad’s every attempt to shore up his rule only succeeds in further destabilizing it; ironically, his suspicions that a revolt is brewing under his nose may instigate a real one. Viru, no less a participant in this masculine performance, insinuates as much in his response to the letter, challenging Mobad to prove the truth of his spurious accusations by appearing on the battlefield. His reply bristles with ad hominem attacks, not only on Mobad’s right to rule, but indeed his manhood:

If we come out to the plain of battle, you’ll see for yourself how I’ll deal with you.
I’ll wash your noble line with the quicksilver of my sword; I’ll be a man in deeds, not words.
Neither lineage nor eloquence bear any value in the battlefield, where heroes show their fury!
Bring only your manhood (mardi), not words, for today only manhood will aid us! ([VIII] 53.37–40)

Viru’s retort, daring Mobad to show the power he claims to have, is of course the one thing that forces the king to stop: “When the king read out this heart-wrenching reply, he halted his endeavors” (chu shāh ān pāsukh-i dilgīr bar khwānd • az ān pāsukh bi kār-i khwīsh dar mānd, 53.44). Mobad’s bluff has been called; after their last scuffle, the king knows he cannot beat Viru in battle, and so he is forced to recant his accusation with the sheepish excuse that his nobles had goaded him into it (53.48). With this latest setback, Mobad has lost all outlets to the necessary step of exacting revenge and reclaiming his honor; now, regardless of whom he identifies as the wrongdoer, Rāmin or Viru, it will paradoxically be he who does wrong in punishing him. The enforcement of justice, that keystone of kingly authority, transforms into an intrinsically unjust act.

This paradox will plague the king to the end of his days. The codes of masculine honor demand a swift and decisive response, but the choices are grim: either punish his brother and doom the family line, deflect the punishment to an innocent third party and undermine his legitimacy, or do nothing and watch his authority go up in smoke. I am reminded of a wonderful line in Béroul’s Tristan, in which King Mark complains that the only way he can make his barons fear him is by driving them out, and with them the backbone of his authority: Que nes enchaz fors de ma terre / Li fel ne criement mais ma gerre [Unless I expel them from my land, the villains will no longer fear my power]; in a similar vein, Mobad is caught in a position where the only way he can prove his power is by destroying it.[27] Despite his repeated efforts to perform the roles demanded of him by his “position” as a powerful man, Mobad has somehow found himself in the bizarre situation of having no one but himself to blame for his disgrace—the consequence of occupying a position where all reasonable action becomes intrinsically unreasonable.

As the reality of this Catch-22 settles in, we begin to see a curious unwillingness on Mobad’s part to fully acknowledge the affair—the engine that both upholds and undermines his rule—even though it dominates his every waking moment. The king’s refusal to believe Zard’s news, or his misidentification of Viru as his rival (despite Vis’s explicit statements to the contrary) are examples of this; in the same manner, he will play along in later escapades that continue to erode his status and dignity.[28] Attributing this to sheer naiveté, as some critics have (see above), would almost be a blessing at this point—at least in ignorance there is bliss—but it seems that Mobad is quite aware of his torturous charade. When Ramin invents an excuse to visit Vis, “he knew that his words were false” (bidānist ū ki guftār-ash durūgh ast, 49.73), but lets him go anyway; when Ramin arranges a tryst with Vis in his presence, “he heard those whispered words, but manfully kept his heart in check” (shanīdah kard bar khwad nā-shanīdah • bi mardī dāsht dil rā āramīdah, 59.50). Mobad is not fooled by these tricks, but he is forced to buy into their ambiguity as the only means of preserving his position. He needs Vis with him to maintain the appearance of sovereignty, but with Vis comes Ramin, breaking it down from within: as Mobad remarks in a poignant monologue, this dilemma forces him down a double path of knowing and not knowing, of forever seeking evidence of the affair but unable to accept it when it is found: “Before I became a lover, I was capable, wise, and perceptive in my affairs; now that I am in love, I have become so helpless that when I see, I cannot comprehend” (zi pīsh-i ʿāshiqī būdam tavānā • bi kār-i khwīshtan bīnā va dānā / kunūn dar ʿāshiqī bas nātavān-am • chunīn gashtam ki gar bīnam, nadānam, 56.33–34). Clear in this lament is the fact that Mobad’s fundamental identity has changed in some way; his becoming a lover marks a turning point in his story. We will revisit this important statement later on, but first, let us consider further what a normative application of kingship would entail in the first place, and why it could not but work against the purpose it is intended to realize.

Violence and authority

Mobad’s structural inability to act stands in direct contrast to the ideal of absolute and unchecked power claimed by the monarchs of the Islamic Middle Period, and, more broadly, the norms of masculinity itself. Lest we think that this ideal is absent from Vis & Ramin, we are presented with such a figure in the poem’s prologue, a panegyric to the Seljuk sultan Ṭughril Beg (r. 431/1040–455/1063). The story of Ṭughril’s rise to power is peppered with tough marches through difficult terrain, tenacious battles against fierce enemies, and effusive generosity when rewarding his friends—all testaments to his indomitable masculinity. It is this quality, to cite the text, that distinguishes Ṭughril from his predecessors: “He is not like other kings, always in their cups,” effuses the narrator; “he seeks his name in toil and struggle!” (na chūn shāhān-i dīgar jām-jūy ast • ki az ranj-āzmūdan nām-jūy ast, 3.29). For Ṭughril, manliness (mardumī) is an end unto itself: “He desires nothing of this world save manliness; he fears God, but not any man” (murād-ash z-īn jahān juz mardumī na • zi yazdān tarsad u az ādamī na, 3.91). The authority to forgive and the capacity to punish—both managed by the threat of violence—lies at the foundation of mardumī; in his account of Ṭughril’s conquest of Buyid Isfahan, the poet invokes both aspects of this quality:

Were the King not supremely just—so kind-hearted at the time of love and forgiveness—
Not two bricks of Isfahan would remain stacked; none would have tilled its fields for a hundred years.
But he took the way of men (mardumī) and forgave both townsman and soldier,
He crushed their crimes below his heel, so that nobody complained of his wrath. […]
An entrusted group had slandered the populace in the tax records;
By his command, their tongues were cut out, their eyes, pierced with red-hot needles. ([IX] 5.4–7, 18–19)

Thus Ṭughril, the subject of Gurgānī’s panegyric, exhibits a kind of kingship in which effective rule is a product of inner manliness, girded by the threat of violence. Mobad’s speeches and behavior invoke this same time-honored model as his own ideal, but his attempts to enact it, to claim it as his own, complicates and questions its efficacy, showing how it comes laden with internal limitations. In theory, as long as the king sticks to his guns and adheres to (masculine) virtue, he will be successful; this is borne out by texts such as the Shāhnāmah, where kings usually fail out of an inner moral collapse, causing the farr to flee their visage and portending their imminent doom. In Vis & Ramin, however, the king is placed in a situation in which the application of justice will only undermine his right to adjudicate; he is therefore only able to mime the violence that he is expected to perform, to make his threats fully aware that he cannot enforce them. For example, when he first learns of Vis’s adultery, he does not punish her himself, but rather asks that her brother do the dirty work for him, claiming that his justice, were he to mete it out, would be too terrible to behold:

If I had to discipline them, I would do them harm above all measure:
I would burn Vis’s eyes with fire; I’d crucify her nurse.
I’d drive Ramin from my city, and never speak his name again.
I’d empty this world of disgrace, and cleanse my soul of the shame they have brought upon me. ([X] 47.38–41)

It is striking how these threats mirror the tortures inflicted by Ṭughril Beg on the ne’er-do-wells of Isfahan, but, as we saw in the case of Viru, Mobad dare not implement them, lest he destroy the very authority that requires him to act. His position in life is the symbolic embodiment of masculine power and authority; yet at every turn, it is precisely this symbolic, one might say overdetermined body of his, that gets in the way, preventing him from enacting the agency he supposedly has and driving him inexorably towards the margins of the story.

The consequences of implementing a Ṭughrilian form of control over his rebellious subjects are made all too clear in the one and only scene when Mobad physically punishes his wife for her adultery. The episode begins (fittingly enough) with another assault on his kingdom: the Roman emperor has invaded the western border, and Mobad must ride out to meet him in battle. Hoping to keep his domestic troubles quiet, he orders Ramin to accompany him on the campaign, while Vis shall stay behind, guarded under lock and key in a distant fortress. Initially, the plan is a success. The king returns victorious, and it seems like he is a new man, his old prestige restored; “Having placed the kings of the world in fetters, he cried in triumph, ‘I am king of all kings!’” (bi band āvardah shāhān-i jahān rābi pīrūzī ki man shāh-am shahān rā, 64.8). But no sooner does he arrive at his capital than he learns that his brother has slipped away and joined Vis in her prison. Fuming and furious, he mobilizes his army to march on the fortress and put the traitor to death. Amidst the thundering war-drums, we see for the first time the army start to grouse under Mobad’s increasingly erratic rule:

Half of his army had not yet arrived from the march; they had labored for a year on that difficult road.
The other half hadn’t loosened their belts; their travel-hats were still atop their heads.
Against their will, they marched with him on the road to the Devils’ Grotto [the name of the fortress].
One said, “Our road’s not over—all this march is now about Ramin!”
Another said, “We’re always on the road, just to keep Ramin away from Vis!”
Another said, “Vis at home is worse for the king than a hundred Khaqans and Caesars.” ([XI] 64.18–23)

Mobad will not be deterred, however: roaring, growling, and bellowing in animal fury, he drives his exhausted soldiers straight to the castle and bursts into Vis’s chambers, where he is confronted by a scene painful to behold. Though Ramin has just fled the coop, the evidence of his stay is obvious: a rope fashioned out of silken garments dangles out the window, and Vis has torn her clothes, scratched her face, and poured dust on her head in grief. This is the moment when Mobad must take in the full reality of his situation and confront his helplessness. No social norm, no religious interdiction, no threat of violence can affect his basic problem, that Vis will never be his, that Vis will never love him. Meanwhile, his honor is ruined, his army mutinous, and all the prestige he has won fighting the Romans is gone up in smoke. Confounded by this knowledge, the king can only ask his wife (in a final irony) what it is he should do:

The king cried, “Vis! Demon-spawn! May the curse of both worlds be upon you!
You fear neither men nor God, nor do you shrink from fetters and prison!
My advice and counsel are like spells to you, just as my chains and prisons are nothing in your eyes!
Tell me—what must I do with you? What can I do but kill you? Speak!” ([XII] 64.135–38)

Brought to this state, the only recourse left to Mobad is violence—no longer rationalized in the language of justice and order, but a blind and primal fury at the futility of his attempts to govern his life. He seizes Vis by the hair, drags her along the ground, binds her limbs, and whips her, “over and over, upon her back, her haunches, her breasts and thighs, until her limbs split open like a pomegranate, and blood dripped from her like pomegranate seeds” (pas āngah tāzīyānah zad-ash chandān • abar pusht u surīn u sīnah va rān / ki andām-ash chu nārī shud kafīdah • v-az ū chu nār-dānah khūn chakīdah, 64.175–76). He then turns on Vis’s nurse with even more violence (z-ān bīshtar zad, 64.181), thrashing them both until they fall senseless, then slams the door of the room and leaves them for dead.

In his version of the Tristan story, Gottfried von Strassburg tells us that when King Mark finally beheld the horrible truth of his wife’s infidelity, he was thrown out of the safe haven of doubt and ambivalence into a permanent state of “living death”;[29] the brutality of the king’s actions, so extreme that “a world was heartbroken” by the pain he caused those two (jahānī dil bi dard-i har dū khastah, 64.187), similarly marks the death of Mobad as a sympathetic character. Up to this point, his repeated efforts to maintain order and dignity are conveyed with a certain amount of pathos, given the inherent impossibility of his situation, and his many monologues, in which he wonders out loud what on earth he can do to deliver himself from his predicament, are some of the most profound ruminations on choice and agency we see in the story as a whole. But with this furious assault, spilling blood from Vis’s body as though deflowering her the only way he can, Mobad has stepped into the character by which he is ultimately remembered (and which the story needs him to be): the raging, impotent obstacle-king who stands in the way of the love of Vis and Ramin.[30] As the narrator brings this climax to a close, he steps back from the bloody scene to reflect on how Mobad’s story should serve as a warning to all lovers:

May no lover be rash and proud, for his fury will cast him into the fire.
When a lover lacks patience, he will see no joy in pursuing love.
Why would a lover show anger, when he cannot bear a moment away from his beloved?
He loves the faults of his beloved, because through them he can forgive her. ([XIII] 64.198–201)

“He who is not a lover is not a man”

The lines quoted above raise a crucial aspect of Mobad’s story, namely the intertwined roles of man, king, and lover in his character. As we recall, Meisami identifies the three roles as close analogues to one another: drawing from philosophers like the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā and Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, she argues that the “perfect man” (al-insān al-kāmil), through his knowledge of love, will ascend to temporal and spiritual supremacy. There are many passages in Vis & Ramin that affirm this idea, of which some are (notably) invoked in the context of Mobad, rather than his brother, the ostensible hero of the story. For example, when Ramin advises Mobad against loving Vis, the narrator embarks on a discursus on the nature of love and the role that strife (sitīz) and reprimand (malāmat) play in its occurrence. The heroic disregard of the advice of friends and the abuse of enemies is a pervasive theme in Arabic and Persian love poetry, signaling the purity of the lover’s devotion and his manly fortitude in the face of adversity:

Strife is the start of a man’s love; it warms the coldest of hearts.
And if a cloud rises up and rains stones instead of admonitions,
The lover fears not this stony rain, even if the stones were javelins.
All that gives rise to reprimand is a fault—save the practice of love, which is noble.
Nothing a naysayer could say will wash the passion from a lover’s heart.
What is a blaming scorpion to love? He who is not a lover is not a man. ([XIV] 26.47–52)

True to the old adage, love is depicted in this passage as a kind of war, where taunts and reprimands fall and wound like a shower of spears. To persevere in such adversity requires an array of masculine virtues; he who cannot bear the suffering he is sure to experience as a lover should not get involved, no more than a coward should engage in battle, for failure on either front will reveal to the world his deficient masculinity. Conversely, those with the courage to engage in these pursuits will be ennobled by their efforts; the trials of public shame and disgrace are badges of honor for the lover. This martial presentation of love ties the work of the lover very closely to that of the king, for both are engaged in a kind of combat that requires an inexhaustible reserve of courage and fortitude to succeed (or die with honor in the attempt). It is curious, then, that this speech is applied to—or at least mentioned in the context of—Mobad’s connection with Vis. Even though he is, from a generic perspective, barred from inhabiting the role of the poem’s “hero” (that is, the lover), Mobad seems at times awfully close to stepping into it. For example, when Vis and Ramin escape his palace, Mobad is beside himself with grief; he quits his throne and begins to wander the countryside, calling out Vis’s name: “He sought a sign of Vis everywhere he went, but he neither saw her nor heard any news. […] For five months, he traversed mountains, forests, plains, and deserts, like a man out of his wits” (nishān-i vīs har jāʾī bipursīd • na khwad dīd u na az kas nīz bishnīd […] / bi kūh u bīshah va hāmūn u daryā • hamī shud panj māh chūn mard-i shaydā, 56.7, 10). This image of the wandering madman naturally calls to mind Majnūn, the greatest of all lovers in Islamicate lore, who shuns all human company and roams the wilderness repeating Laylī’s name as though it were a sacred mantra. It seems that Mobad has given up his role as king and taken up the way of the lover; yet, as we can glean from his lament, he cannot quite divorce himself from his old persona:

He cried out, “Alas, for my fate! My countless soldiers, treasures, and belongings
Have been scattered to the winds for the sake of my heart, and now I am bereft of both lordship and love. […]
Why must I love with such sorrow? It’s better for an old man not to love.
A child would age under such duress—look how wretched an old man has become!
I chose a paradise from the world, and in her absence, I only see hell.
Whenever I recall her cruel tyranny, my love and loyalty only increase.
My state grows worse when I count her faults; you’d say I love her imperfections!
My heart has grown blind in love, and sees no pleasure in this world.
Before I became a lover, I was capable, wise, and perspicacious;
Now I am helpless in this state: I see, but cannot comprehend. ([XV] 56.19–20, 27–34)

It is worth noting that Mobad here exhibits many of the characteristics the narrator had invoked in his description of the ideal lover: he loves his beloved’s faults; his love grows all the more for his suffering; he has given up everything for her sake. We find, moreover, that Mobad is willing on numerous occasions to forgive both Vis and Ramin for their transgressions, for example when he says: “I’ll forgive her past sins, and never again mention them to her. For Ramin, too, I have only goodwill; he’s my brother, support, and refuge” (gunāh-i raftah rā andar guẕāram • digar hargiz bi rūy-i ū nayāram / bi rāmīn nīz juz nīkī nakhwāham • barādar bāshad u pusht u panāh-am, 58.21–22).[31] None of these actions would be consistent with the image of a ruler who demonstrates his authority and right to rule through the application of violence; in such a scenario, the adulterous Vis would have been blinded and tortured, the treacherous Ramin exiled (as Mobad had once threatened to do). By abstaining from these actions, Mobad presents himself as one willing to do what lovers do, exercising the stoic fortitude that the poet claims is necessary for all lovers to show their manhood (we might recall the line cited earlier, where Mobad manfully keeps his heart in check). Yet, in so doing, Mobad’s royal authority has suffered beyond repair—he is now a gross parody of the universal monarch, allowing himself to be cuckolded and led around the world by the lovers, unable to mete out justice, his orders bearing no more weight than the air that carries them. In this way, he is his own worst enemy: as much as he tries to embody both the figure of king and lover, as the text itself tells him he should be able to do, he fails at both and disgraces himself in the process. This is not because of any flaw in his ethics or moral character, but in those aspects that are intrinsically linked with his position as a literary figure who is plugged into multiple modalities of manhood. His story disrupts the fantasy of ennobling love, the promise that virtuous action in his personal life will automatically reflect upon his public status. As his brother Zard explains to him, these two sides of his personality are caught in a destructive loop, in which any action he takes as king can only harm his status as lover, and vice versa; as a result, his heroic but futile efforts to reconcile the two roles have left him paralyzed, and the kingdom battered:

I saw how you were in love, when Vis took her lovely face away from you:
Sometimes you were with the gazelles in the desert, sometimes with the fish in the sea,
Sometimes with the onagers in the plain, sometimes with the lions in the reedbeds.
Have you forgotten that pain and torment that came to you—and us—from your love?[32]
You suffered from her, and we from you; how much anguish we endured!
Remember the treaties and oaths you swore before the Creator!
Don’t break your vows, O king; that would not become you, and one day it will sting your soul. […]
If you plunge your dagger into lovely Vis, your pain from that wound will only increase! ([XVI] 68.123–29, 139)

Despite the logical truth of Zard’s advice (like that of Mobad’s mother), it pulls the king back into a quicksand from which he cannot free himself. He can’t live with Vis, he can’t live without her; the only “sensible action” left is to delay the inevitable as long as he can. Mobad’s inability to resolve his crisis, regardless of what he tries, reveals the underlying impotency of his person and position: these two idealized figures of lover and king, presented as an overlapping set of practices and performances grounded in a bedrock of timeless masculine virtues, end up collapsing under their own weight. Disentangling these ideals from one another reveals masculinity as a variable and at times self-defeating constellation of practices, which may generate different logical frameworks for action depending on the hero’s self-image of man-as-lover or man-as-ruler. The rupture of this homogeneous ethical core into multiple and mutually negating practices engenders a profound subjective crisis for the one whose subjectivity is wrapped inside an idealized, inflated, and larger-than-life projection of masculinity, that elusive “perfect man”; Mobad’s inability to support these pressures in the end is finally made manifest in that most simple and yet most terrifying threat to manhood itself: impotence, a state in which the mind wills something of its body and the body cannot rise to the task. It is thus not just Mobad, but the symbolic image of “man” in which his person is invested, that cannot make good on his promises, leaving the king with no option but to fill the void with an empty performance of the role, all the time staring in the face of its (and his own) falsehood. This portrait is remarkably sensitive to the psychology of despair, that moment when even the loftiest of men must confront the fundamental contingencies of their identity, realizing that they are no more in control of their fortunes than those over whom they claim to rule. They are as trees perched upon mountains: towering above all, yet helplessly rooted to the edifice that raised them there.

A tree atop the mountain

I borrow this metaphor from a scene in Vis & Ramin itself, the penultimate time that Mobad makes a major appearance.[33] This scene brings us full circle back to the springtime feast where his story began: once again, the king assembles the major characters of the story together in his palace gardens and entertains them with a banquet. He commands the court minstrel to sing; the minstrel bows and recites:

I saw a grown tree atop the mountain, a tree that scours the rust from anxious hearts;
A tree whose head was raised to Saturn, who had taken in its shadow the whole of the world.
Its beauty was like the sun’s, and the world was hopeful of its leaves and fruit.
Below it ran a limpid spring, with nectar for water and pearls for sand.
Tulips and roses were in flower by its side, and violets, mallow, and hyacinth had bloomed.
A Gilani bull grazed by its bank; at times it drank the water, at times it champed the flowers.
May the water of this spring be forever flowing! May its tree be ever fruitful! May its bull be ever young! ([XVII] 69.17–23)

The song, of course, is a metaphor for the tale of Mobad: a great king of limitless power and boundless dominion, yet unable to do anything but watch as Ramin, the Gilani bull, munches contentedly in his garden.[34] The final line of the song, a wry parody of the duʿā that typically marks the conclusion of a qaṣīdah, wishes Mobad a long and helpless life as Ramin happily consumes what is his. In this allegory within the allegory of the garden-as-kingdom, the rise and fall of Mobad becomes clear: if the garden was once a site where Mobad’s glory was confirmed, it has now become a carnival where all the conventions of courtly panegyric can be openly twisted to mock the king to his own face, in his own court, and by his own minstrels.

This is the final straw: furious and humiliated, Mobad leaps to his feet, draws his dagger, and demands that Ramin forswear all further relations with Vis. It is a final test of his personal and kingly authority: no letters, no intermediaries, no room to wiggle out or back down—just a direct order from king to subject, from one man to another. The gambit does not end well:

Nimble Ramin seized the king’s two hands; you’d have said a male lion had seized a fox!
He gleefully threw him into the dust and snatched the Indian dagger from his hand.
The king was drunk and senseless from wine, his perception broken, his power gone.
He could not realize what Ramin had done; he had no memory of Ramin’s cruelty.
Many kinds of trouble and torpor arise from love and drunkenness, affecting reason;
If these two burdens had not weighed on Mobad, no sort of evil would have befallen him. ([XVIII] 69.51–56)

Thus concludes Mobad’s effective reign, to quote the famous verse: not with a bang but a whimper. Although he will play a small part in the poem’s conclusion, he comes across entirely as the cardboard character the critics have made him out to be, either petty and cruel, delighting in Vis’s suffering at the hands of Ramin, or grim and ruthless, prepared to fight to the death when word reaches him of Ramin’s usurpation of his throne. But in truth, his fate had been sealed long ago, and his symbolic deposition now is merely the confirmation of a secret long unspoken but obvious to all. Though his physical death is yet to come, it might be said that Mobad’s character, like Gottfried’s Mark, who fell at last into a “living death,” is essentially killed off here, in a state that neatly captures the trajectory of his story: a once-mighty king now broken and senseless, hurled to the ground by a force he cannot fully identify or comprehend, still wondering where it all went wrong.

Through the figure of Mobad, Vis & Ramin contributes to a broader discussion around love, power, and masculinity in unique and provocative ways. Unlike Jamshīd of the Shāhnāmah, whose decline and fall is readily ascribed to a collapse of his inner virtue, or the lover-kings of Niẓāmī’s romances, who succeed (Bahrām), fail (Khusraw), or a combination of both (Majnūn) in realizing the ideal symmetry between man, lover, and ruler, the story of Mobad Manīkān raises serious problems about the internal coherence of normative masculinity in the first place. In Mobad, we learn that the practice of being a man, mardumī, can paradoxically unman its practitioners, thanks in no small part to the overdetermination of its idealized self-projections. In attempting to adopting the simultaneous positions of king and lover—both of which are presented in the text as paragons of masculinity—Mobad blows their synchronicity apart; although his narrative suggests a steady march of self-sabotage and self-destruction, I hope to have shown that these processes are actually driven by imagined and socially constructed selfhoods far bigger and beyond his physical self, proclaiming his agency even as their shackles wind ever tighter around his body. If Mobad’s narrative function is to act as the catalyst of a love story that inexorably pushes his own body towards the abyss, this same action is replicated in the unstable dynamics of his masculinity that set off its collapse from within. Vis & Ramin provides us with a fascinating example in Persian literature where these inherent vulnerabilities are allowed to show through, challenging the myth of the ideal man: no master of his domain, but a prisoner of his skin.



([I] 60.31–41)

نگر تا تو چنین کردار دیدی • و یا از هیچ داننده شنیدی
که چندین بار با من کرد رامین • دلم را سیر کرد از جانِ شیرین
همه‌ساله همی سوزم بر آذر • ز دستِ دایه و ویس و برادر
بماندستم به دستِ این سه جادو • برین دردم نیفتد هیچ دارو
نه از بند و نه از زندان بترسند • نه از دوزخ نه از یزدان بترسند
چه شاید کرد با سه دیوِ دُژخیم • که نَز شرم آگهی دارند و نَز بیم
کند بی‌شرم هر کاری که خواهد • نترسد زانکه آبِ او بکاهد
اگرچه شاهِ شاهانِ جهانم • ز خود بیچاره‌تر کس را ندانم
چه سودست این خداوندی و شاهی • که روزم همچو قیرست از سیاهی
همه کس را به گیتی من دهم داد • مرا از بختِ خود صدگونه فریاد
ستم‌دیده ز من مردانِ صف‌در • کنون گشته زنی بر من ستمگر

([II] 8.1–3)

نوشته یافتم اندر سمرها • ز گفتِ راویان اندر خبرها
که بود اندر زمانه شهریاری • به شاهی کامگاری بختیاری
همه شاهان مرو را بنده بودند • ز بهرِ او به گیتی زنده بودند

([III] 17.45–48)

لقب کردست روحا خویشتن را • به دل در راه داده اهرمن را
به نام او را همه کس شاه خوانند • جز او شاهِ دگر باشد ندانند
ترا نز شهریاران می‌شمارند • گروهی خود به مردت می‌ندارند

([IV] 18.22–25, 31)

بزرگان که پیشِ شاه بودند • همه دندان به دندان بر بسودند
که شهرو این چرا یارست کردن • زنِ شه را به دیگر کس سپردن
چه زَهره بود ویرو را که می‌خواست • زنی را کاو زنِ شاهنشهِ ماست
همی گفتند ازین پس کامِ بدخواه • برآرد شاهِ ما از کشورِ ماه‪
منادی زد قضا بر هرچه آنجاست • که چیزِ آن فلان اکنون فلان راست

([V] 51.7–9, 13)

مرو را گفت نیکو باشد این کار • نگه کن تا پسنند هیچ هشیار
که رامین با زنم جوید تباهی • کند بدنام بر من گاهِ شاهی
یکی زن چون بُوَد با دو برادر • چه باشد در جهان زین ننگ بدتر
که من زان سان کُشم او را به زاری • که گردد چشمِ تو ابرِ بهاری

([VI] 51.65–66, 85–87)

همی تا در شبستان و سرایی • هنرهای یلان نیکو نمایی
چو در میدان شوی با هم‌نبردان • گریزی چون زنان از پیشِ مردان
کنم از کشتگانِ کشورت هامون • به هامون بر برانم دجلهٔ خون
بیارم ویس را بی‌کفش و چادر • پیاده چون سگان در پیشِ لشکر
چنان رسوا کنم وی را کزین پس • نجوید دشمنی با مهتران کس

([VII] 52.9–11, 14)

همی گفت ای عجب چندین سخن چیشت • مرو را این همه پرخاش با کیست
نشانده خواهرم را در شبستان • برون کرده به دی ماهِ زمستان
هم او زد پس همو برداشت فریاد • بدان تا باشد از دو گونه بیداد
گناه او کرد و بر ما کینه‌ور گشت • چنین باشد کسی کز داد برگشت

([VIII] 53.37–40)

اگر پیش آییم بر دشتِ پیگار • تو خود بینی که با تو چون کنم کار
به آبِ تیغ گوهر را بشویم • کنم مردی به کردار و نگویم
چه گوهر چه سخن‌دانگی نیرزند • در آن میدان که گردان کینه ورزند
به یک سو نه سخن مردی بیاور • که ما را مردی است امروز یاور

([IX] 5.4–7, 18–19)

اگر نه شاه بودی سخت عادل • به گاهِ مهر و بخشایش نکو دل
صفاهان را نماندی خشت بر خشت • نکردی کس به صدسال اندرو کشت
ولیکن مردمی را کار فرمود • به شهری و سپاهی بر ببخشود
گنهشان زیرِ پا اندر بمالید • چنان کز خشمِ او یک تن ننالید
گروهی را که مردم می‌سپردند • رعیّت را به دیوان غَمز کردند
به فرمانش زبان‌هاشان بریدند • به دیده میلِ سوزان در کشیدند

([X] 47.38–41)

اگر فرهنگشان من کرد بایم • گزند افزون ز اندازه نمایم
دو چشمِ ویس با آتش بسوزم • وزان پس دایه را بر دار دوزم
ز شهرِ خویش رامین را برانم • دگر هرگز به نامش برنخوانم
بپردازم ز رسوایی جهان را • ز ننگِ هر سه بزدایم روان را

([XI] 64.18–23)

سپاهش نیمی از ره نارسیده • به سختی راهِ یکساله بریده
دگر نیمه کمرها ناگشاده • کلاهِ راه از سر نانهاده
به ناکامی همه با وی برفتند • رهِ اشکفتِ دیوان برگرفتند
یکی گفتی که ره‌مان ناتمامست • کنون این ره تمامی راهِ رامست
یکی گفتی همیشه راهواریم • که رامین را ز ویسه باز داریم
یکی گفتی که شه را ویس بدتر • به خان اندر ز صد خاقان و قیصر

([XII] 64.135–38)

شهنه گفت ویسا دیوزادا • که نفرینِ دو گیتی بر تو بادا
نه از مردم بترسی نه ز یزدان • نه نیز از بند بشکوهی و زندان
فسوس آید ترا اندرز و پندم • چو خوار آید ترا زندان و بندم
نگویی تا چه باید کرد با تو • بجز کشتن چه شاید کرد بر گو

([XIII] 64.198–201)

مبادا هیچ عاشق تند و سرکش • که تندی افگند او را در آتش
چو عاشق را نباشد بردباری • نبیند خرمی از مهرکاری
چرا تندی نماید مهربانی • که از دلدار نشکیبد زمانی
گناهِ دوست عاشق دوست دارد • ز بهرِ آنکه تا زو درگذارد

([XIV] 26.47–52)

ستیز آغازِ عشقِ مرد باشد • بتفسد زو دل ارچه سرد باشد
وگر میغی ز گیتی سربرآرد • به جای سرزنش زو سنگ بارد
نترسد عاشق از بارانِ سنگین • وگر باشد به جای سنگ ژوبین
هرآنچ از وی ملامت خیزد آهوست • مگر از عشق‌ورزیدن که نیکوست
به گفتاری که بدگویی بگوید • هوا را از دلِ عاشق نشوید
چه باشد عشق را بدگوی گژدم • هر آنک او نیست عاشق نیست مردم

([XV] 56.19–20, 27–34)

همی گفتی دریغا روزگارم • سپاه و گنج و رختِ بی‌شمارم
ز بهرِ دل سراسر برفشاندم • کنون بی‌شاهی و بی‌دل بماندم
به پیری گر نبودی عشق شایست • مرا این عشق با این غم چه بایست
بدین غم طفل گردد پیرِ دلگیر • نگر چون زار گردد مردم پیر
بهشتی را ز گیتی برگزیدم • که با هجرانِ او دوزخ بدیدم
چو یاد آرم به دل جور و جفایش • بیفزاید مرا مهر و وفایش
بتر گردم چو عیبش برشمارم • تو گویی عیبِ او را دوست دارم
دلِ من کور گشت از مهربانی • نبیند هیچ کامِ این جهانی
ز پیش ار عاشقی بودم توانا • به کارِ خویشتن بینا و دانا
کنون در عاشقی بس ناتوانم • چنان گشتم که گر بینم ندانم

([XVI] 68.123–29, 139)

چو او از تو ببرد این خوب چهرش • ترا دیدم که چون بودی ز مهرش
گهی با آهوان بودی به صحرا • گهی با ماهیان بودی به دریا
گهی با گور بودی در بیابان • گهی با شیر بودی در نیستان
فرامش کردی آن درد و بلا را • که از مهرش ترا بودست و ما را
ترا زو بود و ما را از تو آزار • چه مایه ما و تو خوردیم تیمار
از آن پیمان و زان سوگند یاد آر • کجا کردی و خوردی پیشِ دادار
مخور زنهار شاها کِت نباید • یکی روز این خورش جان را گزاید
گر این خنجر زنی بر ویسِ دلبر • شود زان زخم دردِ تو فزون‌تر

([XVII] 69.17–23)

درختی رسته دیدم بر سرِ کوه • که از دل‌ها زداید زنگِ اندوه
درختی سرکشیده تا به کیوان • گرفته زیرِ سایه نیم گیهان
به زیبایی همی ماند به خورشید • جهان در برگ و بارش بسته امید
به زیرش سخت روشن چشمهٔ آب • که آبش نوش و ریگش درّ خوشاب
شکفته بر کنارش لاله و گل • بنفشه رُسته و خیری و سنبل
چرنده گاوِ گیلی بر کنارش • گهی آبش خورد گه نوبهارش
همیشه آبِ این چشمه روان‌باد • درختش بارور گاوش جوان باد

([XVIII] 69.51–56)

سبک رامین دو دستِ شاه بگرفت • تو گفتی شیرِ نر روباه بگفرت
ز شادروان به خاک اندر فگندش • ز دستش بستد آن هندی پرندش
شهنشه مست بود از باده بیهوش • گسسته آگهی و رفته نیروش
نبودش آگهی از کارِ رامین • نماند اندر دلش آزارِ رامین
خرد را چندگونه رنج و سستی • پدید آید همی از عشق و مستی
گر این دو رنج بر موبد نبودی • مرو را هیچ گونه بد نبودی


[1]Citations are from Vīs va Rāmīn, ed. Muḥammad Rawshan (Tehran: Ṣidā-yi Muʿāṣir, 1377), using the shorthand notation (chapter.line). The original Persian passages can be found in the Appendix, identified by Roman numerals; all translations are mine. I transcribe the proper names from this book (Mobad, Ramin, Vis, etc.) without diacritics, as they appear in Dick Davis’s English translation (Penguin, 2009).

[2]For a detailed discussion of Mobad’s dominion and Parthian lineage, see Vladimir Minorsky, “Vīs u Rāmīn: A Parthian Romance,” in Iranica: Twenty Articles (Hertford, Eng.: S. Austin, 1964), 164–65, 180–86.

[3]In conceiving of these generic kinds, I find J. C. Bürgel’s typology of the epic (“heroic” versus “romantic” helpful: see “Die persiche Epik,” in Orientalisches Mittelalter, ed. W. Heinrichs (AULA-Verlag: Wiesbaden, 1990), 301–18; also “The Romance,” in Persian Literature, ed. E. Yarshater (Albany, NY: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988), 161–63.

[4]Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, ed. and trans. S. Douglas Olson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006–2012), sec. xiii.575a–f.

[5]This is the view of many scholars, although there is not unanimity on this point; see, for example, Gilbert Lazard, “La source en ‘farsi’ de ‘Vis-o Ramin’,” T’bilisis Universitetis Šromebi 241 (1983): 34–39; François de Blois, Persian Literature: A Bio-Bibliographical Survey, vol. 5: Poetry of the Pre-Mongol Period, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2004), 142 [163]. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see Cameron Cross, “The Poetics of Romantic Love in Vis & Rāmin” (PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2015), 26–36.

[6]Both Hidāyat and Gabrieli make this observation; see, respectively, “Chand nuktah dar bārah-yi Vīs va Rāmīn,” in Majmūʿah-i nivishtah’hā-yi parākandah-i Ṣādiq Hidāyat (Tehran: Amīr Kabīr, 1344), 487; “Note sul Vīs u Rāmīn di Faḫr ad-Dīn Gurgānī,” Rendiconti della R. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di Scienzi Morali, Storichi e Filologiche, Ser. 6, no. 15 (1939): 382.

[7]It is noteworthy that Mobad subverts Vis’s mother Shahru using the same stratagem; for more on obstacles, abduction, and the possible connections between Greek and Persian romances, see Dick Davis, Panthea’s Children: Hellenistic Novels and Medieval Persian Romances (New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 2002), 50–51 and 72–75.

[8]The concept is similar to other words that denote (masculine) codes of virtue, such as murūvat, futūvat, and javānmardī, in contrast to the more “humane” values of insānīyat it usually means today; see Dihkhudā, Lughat-nāmah, sv. mardumī. While such virtues are not fully dependent on or restricted to biological sex in Vis & Ramin—Ramin, for example, begs the Nurse to have mercy on him out of mardumī (tū nīz az mardumī bar man bibakhshāy, 40.95)—their constitution as essentially male is important to keep in mind for this study.

[9]Karl Heinrich Graf, “Wîs und Râmîn,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 23 (1869): 378; Baron R. von Stackelberg, “Neskol’ko slov o persidskom epose ‘Visa i Ramin’,” Drevnosti Vostochnye 2, no. 1 (1896): 10–23; cf. Minorsky, “Vīs u Rāmīn,” 190–91; Inga Kaladze, “The Georgian Translation of Vis and Rāmin: An Old Specimen of Hermeneutics,” Journal of Persianate Studies 2, no. 2 (2009): 139.

[10]Minorsky, “Vīs u Rāmīn,” 187; Gabrieli, “Note sul Vīs u Rāmīn,” 177; Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature, ed. Karl Jahn (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1968), 178.

[11]Minoo S. Southgate, “‘Vīs and Rāmīn’: An Anomaly Among Iranian Courtly Romances,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, no. 1 (1986): 46–47.

[12]J. Christoph Bürgel, “The Romance,” in Persian Literature, ed. Ehsan Yarshater (Albany, NY: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988), 165. For a more detailed explication of this reading, see his “Die Liebesvorstellung im persischen Epos Wis und Ramin,” Asiatische Studien: Zeitschrift der Schweizerischen Asiengesellschaft = Études asiatiques: revue de la Societé Suisse-Asie 33 (1979): 75–76, 80–82, 88.

[13]Julie Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry (Princeton University Press, 1987), 182.

[14]Julie Scott Meisami, “Kings and Lovers: Ethical Dimensions of Medieval Persian Romance,” Edebiyât 1, no. 1 (1987): 5; see also Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 139.

[15]This perhaps explains why Vis, as a potential symbol of Iran, remains childless (despite a decade-long affair) until after the struggle between Mobad and Ramin to see who is her legitimate lover/ruler comes to an end. See Peggy McCracken, The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) 26–27 and 119–23 for a discussion of the same phenomenon in medieval French romances.

[16]For a discussion of this concept, see Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 198ff; cf. Julie Scott Meisami, “The Theme of the Journey in Niẓāmī’s Haft Paykar,” Edebiyât 4, no. 2 (1993): 164–65.

[17]Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 139.

[18]Dick Davis, “VIS O RĀMIN,” in Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2005,

[19]Henri Massé, “Introduction,” in Le Roman de Wîs et Râmîn (Paris: Société d’Édition «Les Belles Lettres», 1959), 16.

[20]Sudhir Kakar and John Munder Ross, Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 108.

[21]Javād Zamān’zādah, Ravānkāvī-i ṣuvar-i ʿishq dar adabīyāt-i fārsī (Bethesda, MD: Iranbooks, 1994), 120–27; Muḥammad-Kāẓim Kahdūnī and Maryam Buḥrānī, “Taḥlīl-i shakhṣīyat-i Mūbad dar Vīs va Rāmīn bar asās-i naẓarīyāt-i Yūng,” Muṭāliʿāt-i Īrānī 15 (1388): 223–38.

[22]Such reservations about pursuing love at a certain stage or position in life are borne out by Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar in his Qābūs-nāmah, as he advises his son: “If you pursue love in your youth, you’ll be all right in the end, for they’ll look and know that you’re excused, saying that you’re young; but strive to never become a lover in old age, for the old man has no excuse. This sort of thing is easier when you’re one of the common people, but don’t even think about it if you’re an old king, and make sure to never publicly attach your heart to someone else; for a king to lose his head in love in old age is very bad indeed.” Qābūs-nāmah, ed. Ghulām Ḥusayn Yūsufī (Tehran: Intishārāt-i ʿIlmī va Farhangī, 1390), 83; cf. A Mirror for Princes: The Qābūs Nāma, trans. Reuben Levy (London: Cresset Press, 1951), 73.

[23] See Massé, “Introduction,” 15.

[24]The meaning of this title rūḥā is uncertain; Minorsky posits a corruption of rūjā, “serenissimus”; Henning suggests wrjā, “powerful”; and Boyce draws our attention to the Mandaean Book of John, which names the “Rūḥā” as a local despot; see “Vīs u Rāmīn,” 176; Vis and Ramin, trans. George Morrison (Columbia University Press, 1972), 38; “The Parthian Gōsān and Iranian Minstrel Tradition,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1957, no. 1/2 (1957): 17.

[25]Mīnuvī suggests the reading zi dil dar kun k-az ū shādī bibīnī, “Get it out of your mind that you’ll enjoy her!” See Vīs va Rāmīn, eds. Magali T’odua and Alek’sandre Gvaxaria (Tehran: Bonyād-e Farhang-e Irān, 1349), 82, fn. 5.

[26]See Bürgel, “The Romance,” 165. A recent study of Mobad’s name and titulature sheds new light on his potential ties with the “false-priest” and “sorcerer-king” figures found in other ancient Iranian texts; see M. Rahim Shayegan, “Old Iranian Motifs in Vīs o Rāmīn,” in Essays in Islamic Philology, History, and Philosophy, eds. Alireza Korangi, W. M. Thackston, Roy Mottahedeh, and William Granara (Berlin; Boston: de Gruyter, 2016), 35–42.

[27]Béroul, The Romance of Tristran, ed. and trans. Norris J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1989) vv. 3189–90.

[28]Among the more famous of these, we could name the banquet where Vīs and Rāmīn actively collude against Mobad (while the latter pretends not to hear); the “bed-trick” scene when Mobad discovers the Nurse in his bed instead of Vis, but then accepts Vis’s explanation that he was drunk; and when Mobad discovers Vis stark naked in his garden, but allows himself to believe her story that the angel Surūsh carried her there in her sleep.

[29]Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan: With the “Tristan” of Thomas, trans. Arthur Thomas Hatto (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1967), 281.

[30]By the end of the tale, Mobad is explicitly described as “evil-tempered” (bad-khū), the worst kind of defect that kings could have (v-az īn badtar shahān rā nīst āhū, 122.2). Cf. Southgate, “‘Vīs and Rāmīn’,” 46–47: “The character of Mūbad suffers from an inconsistency towards the end of the romance, where Gurgānī turns the benevolent King into a tyrant to justify Rāmīn’s insurrection against him.”

[31]For other instances of Mobad attempting to reconcile with Vis and Ramin, see vv. 48.12–19 and 58.31–40, 71.

[32]Zard here uses , which Morrison translates as “I,” but I think the word allows for a more general reading as well, perhaps referring to the kingdom at large. The “humble” is rarely used in the poem. See Vis and Ramin, trans. Morrison, 200.

[33]The final time is his death scene.

[34]An engaging analysis of the minstrel’s song and its significance to the poem is found in C.-C. Kappler, “Présence du mazdéisme dans le roman de Gorgâni, Vîs o Râmîn,” Dabireh 1 (1991): 39–54.


Transcending Cinema: Kiarostami’s Approach to Filmmaking

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, Maryam Ghorbankarimi ( completed her PhD in film studies at the University of Edinburgh and her dissertation was published as a book entitled A Colourful Presence: The Evolution of Women’s Representation in Iranian Cinema. As well as a scholar, Maryam is a filmmaker and has made some award-winning short films in both formats of short documentary and fiction.

As an artist, photographer, and filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami masterfully continued experimenting with medium, style, and storytelling throughout his long and fruitful career. This paper will look at his film oeuvre as a whole and will focus on his style of filmmaking, which can be characterized by the osmosis of formalist and realist elements and his move beyond the restrictions of genre.

When watching Kiarostami’s films and considering the vast amount of scholarly literature about his work, we come across one unifying theme: the use of realism. He has been described as the master of bridging fact and fiction, walking the thin line between documentary and fiction storytelling.[1] Realism in film can be explained as a style of filmmaking that attempts to duplicate the objective reality by using authentic locations, long shots, and lengthy takes. Some of the most significant elements of realism in cinema evident in Kiarostami’s films are the use of natural lighting, location shooting, employing non-professional actors, and minimal editing, which are all employed in an attempt to convey the illusion that the constructed film world is a mirror image of the real world. His first and most iconic film that commanded the critical analysis of his oeuvre as neo-realist is Where is the Friend’s House? (Khāneh-ye dust kojāst?, 1987), a simple narrative, shot in and around Koker, a small village in northern Iran, employing non-professional actors.[2] This film is the first of three, now known as the Koker trilogy. Kiarostami revisits Koker after the 1990 earthquake in the film Life and Nothing More (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992) in search of the two main actors of the film. Among the characters he visits in Life and Nothing More, Kiarostami spots a blossoming love story, which creates the basis of the third film, Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e Derakhtān-e Zeytun 1994). It is the simple narrative, minimalist structure, and lyrical tone of these three films that confirm Kiarostami’s fascination with the nature of reality.[3]


In opposition to realism, formalism in film can be explained as the style of filmmaking in which aesthetic forms take precedence over the subject matter, as the content’s emphasis is usually placed on symbolism and composition. Formalist works are often lyrical: “formalists stressed a ‘poetic’ use of film analogous to the ‘literary’ use of language they posited for verbal texts…. just as plot is subordinate to rhythm in poetry, […] plot is subordinate to style in cinema.”[4] As Khatereh Sheibani argues, Kiarostami achieves a poetic realism in his films “by employing minimal plots and non-narrative stories, based on lyrical moments set in rural areas.”[5] For instance, the plot in Where is the Friend’s House? is very simple. The protagonist, Ahmad, wants to return his friend’s notebook so that he can do that night’s homework. During his journey to find his friend’s house, Ahmad meets different characters. In between each encounter he is depicted as running along different winding roads and alleys accompanied by non-diegetic music. These memorable sequences work like caesuras separating each chapter in his coming-of-age journey.


At first glance, the principles of realism and formalism may seem contrary to one another and even mutually exclusive. In spite of these differences, however, they still share some common ground, which has paved the way for Kiarostami to retain his control and artistic vision while presenting the audience with a realist film, and venture in and out of both styles or employ both styles at the same time. Throughout his career, he experimented with both form and medium, creating a transcended cinema unique to him, which earned him the title of “author”, and yet is so diverse that his films cannot be easily and exclusively categorized within one genre or another.[6] He also made short and long documentary, fiction, and docu-fiction films. He used both film and digital formats and was one of the pioneer directors who decided to use digital format for the feature-length film Ten (Dah, 2002), having completed his feature-length documentary ABC Africa digitally in 2001.


The sense of time and continuity of action, and creating coherence and meaning by juxtaposing two images, one after the other, is achieved through editing. In film school, one of the first lessons of “conventional” editing we were given was that each shot should run as long as necessary and should cut to the next shot before the viewer feels and realises it is needed, or the edit is too loose. The edit always has to be one step ahead of the viewers and keep them alert or their attention drifts, which would defeat the purpose of editing. This drifting or detachment is, however, the key to innovative “art house” films and when skilfully employed, it can create a masterpiece that urges the audience to participate rather than being a passive observer.


In order to prevent the “death of the audience and the film”, Kiarostami argues for the need for the audience’s creative involvement in the development of the plot and asserts: “a story… requires gaps, empty spaces like in a crossword puzzle, voids that it is up to the audience to fill in.”[7] I would argue that the gaps, empty spaces, and silences that he uses in his narrative structure, and which are commonly attributed to realism, are evidence of his style and formalist approach to filmmaking. Unlike what might be considered as the most distinct element of a formalist film—heavy reliance on editing—Kiarostami’s films often use long takes and very subtle editing. Nevertheless, all these slow cuts and lingering shots are meticulously rendered and juxtaposed with calculated gaps. These planned “crossword-like” scenes keep his films alive and guide the audience’s perception towards a multitude of possible interpretations.


André Bazin believed that realist cinema was a more democratic form of film as it did not manipulate the spectator and allowed them to enjoy “the freedom to scan the multi-planar field of image for its meaning.”[8] Similarly, Kiarostami believed that spectators should not be captives of the filmmaker but rather be active participants. He famously achieved this stylistically in his Koker trilogy by employing long takes and minimal dialogue to give the viewer space and time to fill in the gaps and add to the film through his or her own experience. In Where is the Friend’s House? he introduced scenes and actions into the plot that do not add much to it except a meaningful gap to entice the audience to participate. In between the many scenes following Ahmad up and down the alleys in the village, and entering the shot from one side and leaving from the other, Kiarostami added quasi-subtle pauses. For instance, when Ahmad passes a certain house, a woman on the balcony off screen is hanging her wet laundry and a sheet falls to the ground at his feet. He tries to throw the sheet back up to her a couple of times. The neighbour comes out and says that Ahmad cannot throw it that high and asks him to bring it to the bottom of her balcony instead; she takes the sheet from him to pass it on to her neighbour. At the end of this little delaying interaction Ahmad takes this opportunity once again to ask for his friend’s address; he receives the same unhelpful, repetitive and nonsensical reply that he gets throughout the film.


Kiarostami coined the term “unfinished cinema” for this approach to filmmaking: “a project being created constantly” and a cinema that considers the spectator as a creator, not as created.[9] Bazin’s democratic attribute to realist films is not necessarily in opposition with the formalist’s point of view, and even the purpose of Eisenstein’s montage is not to dictate a special meaning of reality onto the spectator:

In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience […] creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author, leading him to understand and experience of the author’s theme. This is the same image that was planned and created by the author, but this image is at the same time created also by the spectator himself.[10]


The sense of realism in Kiarostami’s films is not only achieved through his “documentary” style of filmmaking but also through the use of formal and stylistic techniques that create the illusion of realism. Editing is one of the main tools that Kiarostami employed to convey realism; for example, the car conversation in The Taste of Cherry (Ta’m-e Gilās, 1997) in which the film’s realism is generated by its spontaneous conversations, non-professional actors, and conveying real time.[11] Kiarostami edited the conversations between the driver and the passengers in a way that gives the “illusion of face-to-face encounters.”[12] He filmed each side of the conversation separately and then edited them seamlessly into a conversation creating the illusion of realism, in contrast to his later film Ten in which he placed two cameras, one facing the driver and the other facing the passenger.


In order to understand Kiarostami’s treatment of realism while retaining a formalist style, I chose to adapt the neo-formalist film analysis offered by Kirstin Thompson. According to her, realism is better understood as realistic “motivation” than as style alone. It can either appeal to “our knowledge of everyday life gained by direct interaction with nature and society” or “our awareness of prevailing authentic canons of realism in a given period.”[13] Realism can be “radical and defamiliarizing if the main artistic styles of the time are highly abstract and have become automatized.”[14] Therefore, arguably what is seen as realism at one time is not necessarily perceived as realism at a later time, and as a result, realism in films appears and disappears in a similar way to other styles over time. After employing defamiliarization techniques for some time, what was considered as realistic will become “automatized” through repetition and less realistic qualities will take their place.[15] In each period a new sort of realism will emerge through defamiliarization and employing different devices. For example, it is argued that Italian neo-realism emerged after the Second World War because post-war trauma demanded a new and fresh cinematic language, unlike the established styles commonly employed in the time preceding it.[16]


According to Thompson, neo-formalism also posits the viewers as active participants.[17] As David Bordwell argues, it is the “film form” that guides the audience’s activity and therefore its response or reaction to the film.[18] Through the director’s choice of what to include and what to leave out, he or she can try to make the audience perceive things anew, shaking them out of their accustomed habits and suggesting fresh ways of hearing, seeing, feeling, and thinking.[19] Kiarostami invites the audience to take part in the film and contemplate further by repeating some of the long takes, such as the famous winding roads in Where is the Friend’s House? In a similar way, he leaves the conversation between Makhmalbaf and Sabzian in the closing sequence of Close-up (Kelosāp, Namā-ye Nazdīk, 1990) partly incomplete—admittedly due to initial technical difficulties—and conceals the rest of the conversation by adding non-diegetic music. Another strategy he employed is to leave important plot information out of the narrative structure; for example, in Taste of Cherry he never reveals why Mr Badi’i wants to end his life.


Another literary device for defamiliarization Kiarostami employed in most of his films is the notion of reflexivity, subverting “the assumption that art can be a transparent medium of communication, a window on the world.”[20] As Robert Stam argues, referring to Balzac’s Lost Illusions (1837–1843) and Godard’s Numéro Deux (1975), reflexivity can exist simultaneously along with realism in the sense that they both represent everyday realities while reminding the audience of their constructed nature.[21]


Kiarostami has employed reflexivity in all his films but to different degrees; at times it is more obvious, at others less so. Sometimes the reflexivity is in harmony with the realist approach of the film, and in some instances it is used to subvert the constructed realism. In some of his documentaries the presence of the camera and the crew is felt either because of their location and angle or because the camera and the interviewee are both captured on camera. In the documentary Fellow Citizen (Hamshahri, 1983), he employed the candid camera method, observing the traffic controller’s conversations with passengers of cars pleading and trying to convince him to allow them to enter the traffic-controlled zone without a permit. The zoomed-in shots create a distance from the subjects, and this voyeuristic gaze reminds the audience that it is watching a film. On the other hand, in the documentary Homework (Mashq-e Shab, 1989) the crew, including Kiarostami himself as the interviewer with the sound engineer and the camera operator behind him, is cut back and forth with students and the occasional parent interviewees. The tight shot of just the camera operator behind the camera is sometimes used as the reverse shot cutaway juxtaposed with the tight shot of the interviewee talking on camera, thus making the film overtly reflexive. The static close-up of the camera situates the audience in the same place as the interviewees, turning them from the observer to the observed. Kiarostami employed this reversal of the gaze most notably in his stylistic and formalist film Shirin (2008). Here, we watch the reaction of 114 Iranian actresses and Juliette Binoche watching a theatrical representation of the famous love story of Khosrow and Shirin in a small cinema. In Shirin, he employed a film-within-a-film reflexivity. Butler argues that when the character Shirin is heard saying “listen to me, my sisters” at the beginning and end of the film, apart from the women we hear with her on the soundtrack, she is also addressing the women in the theatre whose faces we see. He also adds that Shirin has adapted the style of storytelling employed in One Thousand and One Nights and that it is possible to turn Shirin into an allegory of the self-reflexive framed storytelling.[22] It is argued by Jean-Luc Nancy, however, that Kiarostami is not only interested in the “mise-en-abyme”[23]; rather, he is investigating the constructed nature of reality, and in the above-mentioned documentaries, he has employed reflexivity to add to the realism of the films.[24]


Kiarostami’s defamiliarization sometimes takes a more Brechtian tone by suddenly revealing the process of the production in the narrative.[25] As was mentioned as an example, the distancing effect was achieved in the final sequence of Close-up when Makhmalbaf picks up Sabzian and they go to Ahankhah’s house. In this continuous shot the crew is in a mobile unit across the street following Makhmalbaf.  Suddenly we hear the voices of Kiarostami and his crew talking about how Makhmalbaf did not hit his mark, which is why the camera does not initially capture him well and they cannot repeat this shot a second time. After this, the audio starts cutting out and we hear them discussing the technical difficulties with old cordless microphones from the 1970s (adding a social commentary about the current state of technological equipment in the 1980s) that resulted in parts of their conversation being left out. This method of revealing the existence of the crew is also used in a scene in Life and Nothing More, where Mr Ruhi cannot open the door to his house; he asks the crew for help, thus acknowledging their existence, and for a moment the script girl walks into the shot. The most effective of these alienation techniques is the closing scene of Taste of Cherry after what the audience assumes is the final scene of the film and Mr Badi’i is lying in the grave in the dark. While we can only hear the sound of the rain on black, the sound of soldiers fades in and the scene cuts to the wide stark video shot of the hill with the small figures of soldiers marching up the hill along a winding road. In the next shot of this concluding video sequence, we see Homayoun Ershadi, the actor portraying Mr Badi’i, walking towards Kiarostami and smoking. Although the long black shot with the sound of rain can be considered as a space he has provided for the audience to write their own ending, the cut to behind-the-scenes video footage really takes the spectator out of the built-up drama of Mr Badi’i’s supposed death. These shots subvert the realism that was achieved by the Kiarostamiesque minimalist narrative, and by revealing the production process they create uncertainty in its realism.[26] According to Mathew Abbott it is also through his signature shots of winding roads, a familiar view in several of his films, that Kiarostami reminds us in a self-reflexive way that we are watching one of his films.[27]


Kiarostami’s forays into digital cinema opened the door for him to develop his interest further and focus on cultural truth and minimalism in the intersection between fact and fiction. The digital format also facilitated much more experimentation with the medium, allowing him to fine-tune his formalist style of filmmaking. Kiarostami did not start experimenting with the medium until after he began to work with digital format; his enthusiasm and willingness to experiment with form and medium are already evident in his early works. He came from a visual arts background and before he began his career in cinema in the 1970s making short films; he made some title sequences and posters, an activity he continued throughout his career. One the most memorable title sequences is for Masud Kimiai’s film, Gheisar (Qeysar, 1969). Lasting 2 minutes and 45 seconds, it consists of high-contrast static close-ups of body parts: arms, shoulders, torsos, etc., each containing black and white body art against a black backdrop. The body art depicts characters and scenes from Shāhnāmeh (Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings), conveying the heroic epic tales that it tells including but not limited to the depiction of the hero Siyāvosh, and the iconic rescue of Zāl by the magical bird, Simorgh. The body art consists of outlined black and white figures coming out of coffeehouse-style paintings and the underlying heroic topos sets the mood of the film very well. The titles appear in the negative space created in juxtaposition with the figures and against the black backdrop. The film’s title appears in the same frame as the scene of a hero holding up the severed head of his defeated enemy. The framing, playing with the contrast of black and white, and the movement created through the curved lines of the edge of the bodies against the black backdrop, are very much reminiscent of Kiarostami’s much later signature photographs and shots of winding roads, hills, and single trees. We can observe today that the visual sensibility evident in this minimalist title sequence is close to his final film projects, and pervades through his other films as well.


Another famous and minimalist title sequence by Kiarostami was created for Reza Mirkarimi’s film, As Simple as hat (Be hamin sādegi, 2008). Kiarostami’s hand is shot from underneath a light box writing out the credits with his unique handwriting superimposed on a textured cream-coloured sheet. Each credit dissolves into the next and when the names are written out, the sound is heard of a pencil on paper under the diegetic sounds of the main character washing dishes and humming a song.


His first venture into the digital world was a documentary film about AIDS, ABC Africa (2001). He shot research footage on location using two digital cameras, with the intention of returning to make his film, but he realized that the intimacy and immediacy of the digital camera was more suited for this project and he edited the film from the research footage.[28] He said about his decision that, “I felt that a 35 mm camera would limit both us and the people there, whereas the video camera displayed truth from every angle and not a forged truth.”[29]


Digital production and post-production techniques due to their low cost and portability added a sense of intimacy and closeness to the subjects, creating a certain “cinematic realism”.[30] The low cost of digital filmmaking gives much more freedom to the filmmaker than the film format. For example, an independent director such as Kiarostami would use a much higher shooting ratio when shooting digitally. A high shooting ratio allows for experimentation and improvisation while shooting. Moreover, the camera and equipment for digital filmmaking are cheaper and much more portable. When making a digital film he often made use of two cameras, providing multiple angles and representation of the same subject. Digital filmmaking has transformed the traditional organizational structure of film production by enabling all stages of production from pre-production to post-production to take place at the same time.[31]


Digital filmmaking provides a platform for the filmmaker to break away from conventional filmmaking and storytelling. As Kiarostami admitted, there is an expectation to tell stories with 35 mm film, while with digital film the viewer is more open to accept new styles of filmmaking.[32] Ten is a great example of the way Kiarostami used this new technology to his advantage. He compared his hands-free experience of directing Ten to managing a football team.[33] The actors in each scene were given the dialogue but they could improvise and individualize it during the performance, creating believable and realistic conversations. The film has a very specific form: it is made up of ten scenes and ten conversations between the main protagonist—the driver Mania—and her passengers, shot through two fixed cameras facing them. At first sight this film is quite different from Kiarostami’s previous narratives, but a close reading reveals many of his prominent traits are also present in this film. Each scene is driven forwards through heavy and at times very deep and emotional conversations, with very few pauses. There is no sign of those gaps and silences that Kiarostami used to employ for the audience to fill in, but he has also kept this film open-ended, and with the limited devices available he has controlled the audience’s access. For instance, for about 16 minutes at the beginning of the film, we only hear Mania while the camera stays on her son the entire time; and in the sequence with the prostitute, the camera for the most part stays with Mania and we barely see the prostitute getting out of the car. Through this kind of unpredictable editing of the conversations, Kiarostami has retained his unique style of filmmaking by leaving out certain key reactions and responses.


Before concluding this paper, it should be mentioned that Kiarostami experimented further with the medium and reduced the narrative structure of his films, giving way to a more formalist structure towards the end of his career. I have yet to see his last film 24 Frames (2017) that was completed posthumously and previewed at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, but Geoff Andrew described it as “mementos of the late master’s increasingly minimalist poetics, these short experiments in animating photographs and a painting teem with life’s magic and mysteries.”[34] In similar fashion, Kiarostami’s last short film Take Me Home (2016) is a minimalist and an experimental film using CGI to bring his photographs from southern Italy to life. This 15-minute black and white film with no dialogue begins with a fixed shot of a door at the end of a flight of steps. A young boy holding a football runs up the steps and leaves the ball by the door before disappearing behind it. As soon as he disappears, the ball starts to roll and falls down the steps, one after the other and several at a time. The boy twice comes to collect the ball from the steps but the third time the ball rolls down and takes us on a journey through the static but beautifully composed still photographs. Apart from the animated ball, there are wandering cats that walked into Kiarostami’s frame in some of the static shots, which he must have decided to film after setting up his photographic shot in order to add a layer of constructed reality. The film depicts beautiful Italian alleys and steps and the journey of the animated football through this winding and mysterious terrain is accompanied by music and the sound of the ball hitting the steps. Take Me Home is very reminiscent of the shots from Where is the Friend’s House?, more specifically when Ahmad is walking into the empty shots as he comes down the winding alleys of the village, walking to one side of the shot and disappearing down another alley. Here, Ahmad is replaced by a ball, and the winding alleys of northern Iran are replaced by the alleys and steps of a village in southern Italy. Even the presence of the cats in Take Me Home is a reminder of the chickens or the stranded cow that Ahmad comes across on his way to find his friend’s house. Yet again Kiarostami has constructed a vivid and lively realist world through minimalist, still frames and a computer-animated football; perhaps by naming this film Take Me Home, he has added one more layer of self-reflexivity to his fascinating work.


After watching Seyfolah Samadian’s insightful but unimposing documentary 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (2016) and witnessing snippets of Kiarostami working behind the scenes over the years on various projects, it is evident that to him the medium is secondary to his vision. This is why, compared to some other filmmakers of his generation, he did not hesitate to make the shift to digital format. We may think of him first and foremost as a filmmaker but he was in the fullest sense of the word an artist, who was constantly creating, irrespective of the medium he used to express his ideas. His choice of medium was based on what he intended to do. In one scene of the documentary, it is touching to witness how Kiarostami drifts from the ongoing conversation in a car driving through the rain, and continues to take photographs through the windscreen and to share his genuine happiness with the other passengers whenever he is satisfied with the results.[35] It is deeply saddening that there will be no more innovations by this true artist who lived to create.


Throughout his career Kiarostami found different ways and devices to reproduce and reinterpret real-life events into his filmic representations. His films often adapt a simple and minimalist narrative and invite the spectator to be an active participant rather than a passive observer. Despite the theme of realism always present in his films and the self-reflexive nature of his oeuvre, he continuously experimented with medium and style. In particular, his foray into the world of digital filmmaking facilitated much more experimentation with different media, allowing him to fine-tune his formalist yet realist style of filmmaking in his own unique way. Although he quite often walks a thin line between documentary and fiction or adapts a documentary style of filmmaking, it is through the subtle use of formalist devices such as editing, the employment of defamiliarization techniques, or simply omitting elements of the narrative structure that he managed to preserve the illusion of realism.


[1]For some of the main discussions on realism in Kiarostami’s work, see Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4 (Durham, N.C.; Chesham: Duke University Press; Combined Academic 2012) , Richard Tapper, ed. New Iranian Cinema : Politics, Representation and Identity,  (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), Jean-Luc Nancy, Mojdeh Famili, and Abbas Kiarostami, L’evidence du Film: Abbas Kiarostami (Bruxelles: Y. Gevaert, 2001), Gilberto Perez, “Where Is the Director? Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Koker Trilogy’ Is Exquisitely Poised between Fiction and Real Life, Opening Film to New Formal Experiences. It’s His Greatest Work, Argues Gilberto Perez,” Sight and Sound, 15, no. 5 (2005).

[2]André Bazin and Bert Cardullo, André Bazin and Italian Neorealism (London: Continuum, 2011), 27.

[3]Hamid Dabashi, Close Up : Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future (London: Verso, 2001), 72.

[4]Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2000), 49.

[5]Sheibani Khatereh, “Kiarostami and the Aesthetics of Modern Persian Poetry,” Iranian Studies 39, no. 4 (2006): 531.

[6]For some of the discussions on Kiarostami as an “auteur”, see: Christopher Gow, From Iran to Hollywood and Some Places in Between : Reframing Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (London:

  1. B. Tauris, 2011), Seung-hoon Jeong and Jeremi Szaniawski, eds.“The Global Auteur : The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema,” (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2016), Devin Orgeron, Road Movies from Muybridge and MélièS to Lynch and Kiarostami (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), Yvonne Tasker, Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers (London; New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2002).

[7]Abbas Kiarostami, “An Unfinished Cinema,” text written for the Centenary of Cinema, Paris 1995, and distributed at the Odeon Theatre. Reprinted in the DVD release of The Wind Will Carry Us. For an online reproduction see “An Unfinished Cinema” by Abbas Kiarostami,”,

[8]Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, 76-77.

[9]Mohammad Jafar Yousefian Kenari and Mostafa Mokhtabad-Amrei, “Kiarostami’s Unfinished Cinema and Its Postmodern Reflections,” The International Journal of Humanities 17, no. 2 (2010): 29.

[10]Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form [and] the Film Sense; Two Complete and Unabridged Works, Meridian Books, Mg10 (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), 33.

[11]M. Gail Hamner, “Abbas Kiarostami: The Face of Modernity; Alienation and Transcendence in Taste of Cherry (1997),” in Imaging Religion in Film: The Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 81.

[12]Hamner, “Abbas Kiarostami: The Face of Modernity,” 73.

[13]Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2010), 17.

[14]Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor, 198.

[15]Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor, 199.

[16]Laura Mulvey, “Repetition and Return,” Third Text 21, no. 1 (2007): 24.

[17]Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor, 29.

[18]David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art : An Introduction (Princeton, N.J.: Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, 2007).

[19]Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art : An Introduction, 57.

[20]Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, 151.

[21]Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, 152.

[22]Rex Butler, “Abbas Kiarostami,” Angelaki 17, no. 4 (2012): 74.

[23]Nancy, Famili, and Kiarostami, L’evidence du Film : Abbas Kiarostami, 27.

[24]Zsolt Gyenge, “Subjects and Objects of the Embodied Gaze: Abbas Kiarostami and the Real of the Individual Perspective,” in Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies (2016), 128-29.

[25]Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, 53.

[26]Mulvey, “Repetition and Return,” 22.

[27]Mathew Abbott, “Kiarostami’s Picture Theory: Cinematic Skepticism in The Wind Will Carry,” SubStance 42 (2013): 165.

[28]Kathryn Millard, Screenwriting in a Digital Era  (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 146.

[29]Scott Krzych, “Auto-Motivations: Digital Cinema and Kiarostami’s Relational Aesthetics,” The Velvet Light Trap 66, no. 1 (2010): 32.

[30]Eliza Hansell, “A New Cinematic Aesthetic: The Effect of the Digital Revolution on the Construction of the ‘Real’,” Journal of Digital Research & Publishing (2010): 131.

[31]Adam Ganz and Lina Khatib, “Digital Cinema: The Transformation of Film Practice and Aesthetics,” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 4, no. 1 (2006): 24.

[32]Ganz and Khatib, “Digital Cinema: The Transformation of Film Practice and Aesthetics,” 29-30.

[33]Ganz and Khatib, “Digital Cinema: The Transformation of Film Practice and Aesthetics,” 32.

[34]Geoff Andrew, “24 Frames Review: Abbas Kiarostami’s Living, Parting Miniatures | Sight & Sound,”  (2017),

[35]I believe two of the photographs taken that day (Rain (23), Rain (27)) have made it to his “Roads and Rain” exhibition in London. See

Integrating Arabic Poetic Topoi in the Persian Courtly Tradition: Manūchihrī of Dāmghān’s The Raven of Separation (ghurāb al-bayn)


Abū ’l-Najm Aḥmad ibn Qows ibn Aḥmad Manūchihrī of Dāmghān (d. circa 1040/41) started his career at the court of Falak al-Maʿālī Manūchihr (r. 1012-1031), a ruler of the Zīyārid dynasty (930-1090) who governed the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.[1] Although the poet took his pen name Manūchihrī from this ruler, there are no evidence in the poet’s writings that Falak al-Maʿālī was his patron. Later he travelled to Ghazna, in present-day Afghanistan, where he became a prominent courtly poet during the reign of Masʿūd (1030-1041), son of the mighty ruler Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna. Manūchihrī’s name is usually mentioned with other major court poets in Persian, such as Farrukhī (d. circa 1037) and ʿUnṣurī (691-1039).[2] Manūchihrī was an able and innovative panegyrist, especially famous for his wine poetry and his introduction of a new poetic strophic poem called musammaṭ, which was imitated by several other poets. He wrote eleven musammaṭs. His collected works (dīwān) consists of 2785 couplets that have survived.

His style is different from the other poets of the period, as his talent lies in his vivid descriptions of nature, that impact strongly on sensory perceptions. He is like an able camera- man who zooms in closely on an object and depicts it in minute detail from different perspectives. In his seminal work, Ṣuwar-i Khiyāl dar shiʿr-i Fārsī, M.R. Shafīʿī-Kadkanī devotes a chapter to Manūchihrī’s ingenious descriptive technique by analysing how the poet depicts one drop of rain from different perspectives in several consecutive lines.[3] The diversity of his descriptions is exceptional, from fresh blooming meadows to scorching deserts, from descriptions of the winter and rain to spring gardens, which he usually connects to animating descriptions of wine and wine-making. As Gh-Ḥ. Yūsufī remarks, since Manūchihrī’s poetic experience is personal, his poetry is devoid of any elements of imitations. The images and metaphors are all based on his own imagination. He describes nature for the sake of nature and not, as we see in other Persian poets, as a backdrop to indicate the conditions of a character, or as a symbol for mediations on the spiritual world. His depictions of nature are lively and dynamic as in the following description of the sunrise, in which the sun is presented as a thief coming out of its dark ambuscade, with a wounded head:


The disc of the sun raised its head from behind Mount Alborz

Like a blood-soaked thief showing his head from the hiding place;

Like a half-dead lamp

To which oil is added moment by moment.


Manūchihrī is a cheerful poet who devotes much of his poetry to describing wine, the Persian autumnal and spring festivals, flora and fauna, and merry making.[4] Furūzānfar characterises his poetry as follows:

In all of his poetry, consisting of some 3000 couplets, there is not one depressed word, no sorrowful phrase: all of his poetry is full of cheer and joy. This is one of the strengths of his poetry, less seen in other poets whose poetry, although it may be descriptions of festive courtly gatherings (majlis), celebrating joyous and gratifying times, shows traces of heartburning lamentations between the lines. Although their poetry is outwardly smiling, they are inwardly mourning.”[5]

Allegorical descriptions of wine-making in Persian are often based on Rūdakī’s (860-940) famous poem, commonly known as the “Mother of Wine,” but Manūchihrī experiments with new ways of presenting the same topic in different poems.[6] Such poems are literary exercises, displaying his poetic talent, rather than depicting the Persian courtly world. Elsewhere I have shown that Manūchihrī’s literary descriptions are so focused on the language, especially the metaphors and imagery, that his text creates a world of its own.[7] The focus on metaphors makes several passages in his poems sheer riddles, while other descriptions turn to an animating world in which even the tiniest element such as the seed of a pomegranate comes to life:

This pomegranate is like a pregnant woman;

There are a handful of baby boys inside the pregnant belly.

Unless you smash her to the ground, she will not deliver her babies;

When she delivers her babies, one should eat them.

A mother gives birth to one, two or three babies;

Why is this pomegranate the mother of three hundred babies?

So long as a baby is not out of the womb, the mother

does not put it in bed; this is no secret, everyone knows this.

In her belly, the mother has made yellowish beds for the babies,

And the heads of the babies can be detected within the womb.[8]


Manūchihrī is also a poet in whose Dīwān we hear a rich array of sounds from nature.[9] In several of his nature descriptions, he catalogues the singing birds. Suffice it here to give two stanzas of one of his strophic poems as an example:


The ring dove clad in ermine has filled its crop with wind,

Partridge has poured musk in the ears,

The nightingales are singing in delight, the doves are cooing loudly,

The mouth of the tulip is filled with musk, the mouth of the palm is full of honey,

Lily smells of camphor, the rose bush is selling pearls,

And spring time is an eternal garden. (…)


A bird is hanging down from a tree branch,

The black crow is sprinkling civet to the wings.

A spring cloud is driving its horse in the distance,

while pearls are trickling down from its hooves on the road.

The wind is scattering black musk and shimmering pearls

in the mouths of tulips.[10]


Manūchihrī’s Panegyric Poem, ‘the Raven of Separation’

While much attention has been paid to Manūchihrī’s depictions of vernal gardens, his panegyrics in which he describes how a grape has become pregnant and how grapes are processed into wine, and his individual descriptions of objects such as his peerless poem on the depiction of a candle, little or no attention has been given to his descriptions of the desert. The topos of the ‘Raven of Separation’ was part of the description of the desert in classical Arabic poetry.[11] Manūchihrī adopts the Arabic topos, but does not merely imitate. He tries not only to outshine his Arab counterparts, but also to transform the topos in a Persian way. Hellmut Ritter detected a fundamental contrast in the way Persian and pre-Islamic Arab poets looked at the world around them and translated their views in their poetry. About the Arab poet, he says, he “is above all concerned to catch the details as precisely as possible; his poetic feelings are satisfied when this aim has been achieved” whereas the Persian poet “becomes enthusiastic when the object observed appeals to his creative imagination and takes a pleasure … beyond everything else in the fantastic transformation of the objects he observes in themselves. He has another way of looking at things than the Arab.”[12] De Bruijn rightly responds to this, that the Persian style of description and comparison found its way into Arabic poetry of the early Abbasid period (8th-9th centuries), and there is no reason to attribute racial characteristics to the poets.[13] In addition, many Persian poets wrote in Arabic and a watershed division, especially in the early phase of Persian poetry, remains problematic. As regards the genre of poetic description, Abū Nuwās (d. circa 815) introduced techniques of visual description to Arabic, and there are, of course, numerous instances of the impact of Arabic poetic style on Persian.[14] Persian poets such as Manūchihrī contrive new imagery and metaphors to depict an object or idea chiefly to outdo their predecessors and contemporary poets, whether Arabic or Persian. The poet’s financial existence depended on his continuing new ways of attracting attention, which was essential to gain financial support from a courtly patron.

Manūchihrī is exceptional in his ingenious descriptions, his technical skills, and originality, showing his mastery of the Arabic poetic tradition.[15] In fact, as Clinton says, his profound knowledge of Arabic poetry made him unique among his contemporaries and was “a defining feature of his work,” yet his “attempts to find a home for the Arabic qaṣīdah in Persian were a failure.”[16] He wrote several panegyric odes based on Arabic topoi. In these poems he blends Persian and Arabic elements.[17] Clinton is right when he says that Arabic poetry did not enter into Persian literary tradition in the form of translations of individual poems but rather almost exclusively through the “translation of individual lines, metaphors and images.”[18] Manūchihrī’s poem with the opening couplet “O raven, croak no more your cry, for you have separated me from my love” is often cited as an example of his Arabism.[19] Even in the medieval times, this particular poem was discussed in Persian rhetorical manuals such as Shams-i Qays because of its artificial Arabism.[20]

Discussing Manūchihrī’s Arabic orientated panegyrics in the courtly Persian context, Meisami wonders “what world is this? Not merely a hybrid world in which disparate conventions are yoked together, but a world in which the aspiring court poet must constantly struggle and outdo his rivals, prove himself with poetic tours de force.”[21] The urge to outshine rivals and secure a firm position at the court drives Manūchihrī to draw on Arabic materials to create new and original metaphors and imagery within the literary conventions. Dhabīḥullāh Ṣafā adds to this that by drawing on Arabic panegyrics Manūchihrī compensated for his youth as compared to established poets such as ‘Unṣurī.[22] Although Manūchihrī employed many Arabic words that were regarded as archaisms at that time, the spirit of his poetry is vivid so that the vocabulary does not decrease our reading appreciation. His innovative and original imagery made him a transitional figure from the inimitably simple Khorasani style to the more convoluted poetic style of ʿIrāq. His new way of composing panegyric odes also makes him a transitional figure. Meisami rightly regards him as a transitional figure “noted for his composition of both ‘Arabic’ and ‘Persian’ qaṣīdahs, and particularly noteworthy for his development of the later type.”[23]


This essay will analyse one of Manūchihrī’s panegyric poems to see how he treats an Arabic topos and how he integrates it within the Persian literary conventions. The poem is qaṣīda number 53 of his dīwān and is based on the genre of the beloved’s deserted encampment. In this genre, the suppliant lover pursues the beloved, who journeys from place to place in the desert. In the classical Arabic nasīb, the crow, which is attracted to the remains of encampments, announces the departure of the beloved’s tribe with its raucous cry. There are several descriptions in Arabic poetry depicting the lover at such an empty spot. The lover arrives too late, sees the traces of the beloved’s ‘aban­doned campsite’ (aṭlāl), and bursts into tears and sings songs, complaining of the beloved’s infidelity and cruelty.[24] This association of the bird with the place vacated by the beloved engendered the notion of ‘the Raven of separation’ (ghurāb al-bayn).[25] Ghurāb is used for both the raven and the crow. In Arabic ornithomancy and literary tradition it is regarded as an ominous bird.[26] The word ghurāb appears once in the Koran (5:31).[27] Here the crow is sent from Paradise to show the murderous Cain how to bury his brother Abel.[28] The crow also appears in a story in which Noah sends it out to explore the land, but when the crow finds a carcass, it does not return. A crow also appears in the Thamūdic tradition, where it is a messenger sent to Kānūh, the high priest of the Thamūd. Whereas in the Koran the bird is sent to instruct Cain how to bury his brother, in this tradition the same bird sent from Paradise is the messenger of resurrection, awakening Kānūh from his century-long sleep.[29]

In Islamic mystic cosmology, every bird has its place and symbolic value. The semiotic of the crow is ambivalent. The bird is contrasted to the white falcon, a symbol of the soul, which is exiled in the company of crows.[30] The crow also appears as a contrast to the nightingale, especially in descriptions of autumnal gardens. With the coming of the cold season, the crows enter the garden, putting the nightingale to flight. In such descriptions, the crow represents worldly existence which sends the soul into exile. The connection to exile is strengthened by the fact that the Arabic root of its name, ghurāb, means ‘to go away,’ ‘to depart,’ ‘to withdraw,’ ‘to go westwards,’ and ‘to exile.’ In Ibn ʿArabī’s (d. 1240) philosophy, the crow stands for the Universal Body, i.e., the Perfect Human Being. For Ibn ʿArabī, the crow is Abraham, God’s intimate friend, possessing all the qualities of the perfect man. Jaffray states, “Permeated with divine qualities, as light permeates inchoate matter, Abraham becomes the manifest locus of the hidden God.”[31] Because of its jet-black colour, the crow is the keeper of the secrets and the “repository of trust.”[32]

In Shiism, the crow is used by ‘extremist’ Shiites, who believe that ʿAlī and Muḥammad were physically as similar as one crow is to another.[33] When the Angel Gabriel brought the revelation, which was intended for ʿAlī, he gave it to Muḥammad by mistake. In the extremist Shiite views, God wanted to appoint ʿAlī as a prophet, but due to Gabriel’s blunder, Muḥammad became the prophet. The adherents of this idea were called ghurābiyya. They also believed in ʿAlī’s divinity and that he had the form of a crow in heaven.

The crow appears in old Arabic love poetry. In the romance of Qays and Lubna as reported in al-Isfahānī’s al-Aghānī, the frustrated lover, Lubna “buys up and kills all the ravens she comes across.”[34] In the Dīvān attributed to the ninth century poet al-Wālibī, a number of references are made to Majnūn’s communion with a crow. In Persian literature, the crow has both negative and positive associations. In modern Persian literature, the novella by Maḥmūd Masʿūdī, Sūrat al-Ghurāb comes to mind, which “recounts contemporary man’s quest for the truth,” led by a raven.[35] Generally speaking, the crow is a bird of ill-omen in Persian literature, but its positive attri­butes are also referred to. Its representa­tion as a malevolent bird is probably under the influence of Arabic literature. In Niẓāmī’s romance Laylī and Majnūn, based on Arabic anecdotes, there are several monologues in which the separated lover Majnūn talks to himself or to the wind or the birds to bring his message to Laylī. The poet refers not only to the crow’s colour and its function as a courier, but also to the bird’s beauty, comparing its black and shining plumage to the locks of Laylī’s hairs and to a tenebrous night. The bird’s eyes are compared to gleaming lamps.[36] Niẓāmī’s emulators deal with this scene creatively. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī (1414-1492) takes the crow’s cawing as a good omen.[37] Fuzūlī replaces the crow with a caged pigeon, depicting how Majnūn releases the bird by offering the hunter a pearl.[38]


Analysis of Manūchihrī’s Panegyric

Manūchihrī’s poem consists of 47 couplets and can be divided into several sections. The opening is long, from line one to 34, which in turn is divided into a vivid description of the crow (ll. 1-3), a description of the beloved, her campsite and the lover’s condition (ll. 4-8), a description of the camel (ll. 9-11), of the desert (ll. 12-35) and of the night (ll. 24-34). The praise of the patron is blended with the description of the dawn, which is followed by self-praise (ll. 42-45) and the final praise of the patron (ll. 45-47). The opening part describes the crow and its distressing cry. Arriving at the beloved’s abandoned campsite, the lover sees nothing but a gathering of cawing crows. The cawing of the crow reminds the lover of his fate. Both the crow’s harsh cry and its black colour emphasize the lover’s distressed state. In this poem, the ‘raven of separation’ is introduced in the first three couplets:


  1. Woe to this raven of separation and his caw,

whose sorrowful cry has thrown me in mourning.

  1. It’s not the raven of separation but a Messenger

whose prayer has quickly been answered.

  1. The raven of separation has become a flutist

and I’ve become weary of hearing its flute.[39]


In lines four and five, the narrator refers to the beloved, who is cruel, indifferent and inconstant. As usual, no reason is given for the beloved’s abandonment of the lover. It is part of the poetic genre to depict the beloved as unfaithful. In fact, once the beloved’s traits are enumerated, the lover finds himself in a position to blame her. The lover often complains of the beloved’s infidelity:


  1. The faithless beloved has gone, her habitation

as much a ruin as her loyalty.

  1. Where she once stayed, I pitch my camp,

her campsite, instead of her, shows loyalty to me.


In the next lines, the narrator focuses on the lover’s condition and draws a number of comparisons. The beloved’s campsite, which in the lover’s eyes is as sacred as the House of God, has become a ‘Mecca’ for wild animals that feast on the leftovers, and the lover’s tearful eye is compared to the zamzam fountain in Mecca:


  1. Since her place is now the Ka’ba of wild creatures

my eyes are like the Zamzam Fountain.

  1. The clouds [upon her head] resemble my [weeping] eyes,

the gentle breeze of this place resembles my cold sigh.

  1. My body is ruined from weeping for her

Her body s ruined because of weeping.


To reiterate the lover’s loneliness and his lack of companionship, the narrator states that even his camel has gone. Through a series of comparisons, the lover describes the beauty of the camel in the desert.[40] Its long and powerful legs are likened to the feet of God’s throne. Like a ship cruising in the vast ocean, the lover’s camel is the only vehicle that can transport him in the desert. The narrator’s comparisons of the camel with the ship is indeed original:


  1. O, where is my light-footed camel

whose legs are like the feet of God’s throne?

  1. Like a boat [under sail] with its oar [extending] from its stern

to her canopy, her buttocks and her back,

  1. Her reins, her gait, her rider,

Her hump, her forelegs, and the riding crop.


The poet then describes the desert and the lover’s forlorn feeling. The desert is another symbolic element that functions not only as the setting, but also as the objectivisation of the lover’s lack of hope for union. The lover knows of the barrenness of the desert and the dangers he must face alone. His physical thirst for water corresponds to his thirst for union with the beloved: both are mirages. The narrator makes a pun on the word sarāb, which means ‘mirage’ but it can also be read as sar-āb, meaning ‘fountainhead.’ The pun shows the lover’s confusion, which is further stressed by inserting the word āb, ‘water,’ immediately after the word sarāb. The lover has to traverse the desert under a bleaching sun that steals any moisture. The plants do not grow tall, but are frizzy like a black man’s hair. There is no human king to rule such a vast land, instead the rulers are demons and ghouls surrounded by venomous serpents. In qaṣīdas in which the court and the courtiers are described, the king is usually in the middle while courtiers are gathered on both flanks in hierarchical order, while dancers and musicians entertain the king and his courtiers, pouring wine and flirting with the guests. Manūchihrī creates a sharp contrast between this sedentary courtly ambiance and the dreary picture in which its unnamed king, ruling over ruins, is accompanied by venomous serpents and other animals of the desert. The musicians at such a horrifying court are the roaring lions and howling wolves:


  1. Where is she so that I can know her familiar

face in this mirage.

  1. I shall cut through this rough desert, so large

that the mind is lost in its endlessness.

  1. It is so wide that half of it can engulf

the entire heavens.

  1. Its earth is as hell and its heat

makes the bushes grow like Ethiopian hair.

  1. This waste is as ruined as King Jamshīd’s Empire,

an army of ghouls and demons rule.

  1. In the king’s presence, they beat the drum with a whip,

made of a serpent’s skin and the fangs of a dragon.

  1. The concubines lined up around the king

are cranes, ostriches and sand-grouse,

  1. The sand around its pools and ditches,

is full of Levantine vipers and other poisonous snakes.

  1. Its wine is a mirage and a valley is the cup;

its sweetmeats are stones and pebbles.

  1. The music played by musicians in this desert

is the lion’s roar and the wolves’ howl.

  1. The incense is hot poison with fragrant herbs;

in the surroundings are the ʿUkāza[41] and Ghaza trees

  1. I am frightened in the midst of this desert;

I am fearful of the demons and their howling.


The lover’s fear, loneliness and despair are intensified with the fall of night. Having described the setting in which the lover finds himself, the narrator depicts the time of his travel. This is an animating description of the night, presenting several stars and planets and their constellations. Descriptions of night occur quite frequently in Persian love poetry for several reasons. First of all, the lover’s poor condition is compared to the blackness of the stars. Often when he identifies a planet, he associates his fate with the planet’s auspicious or inauspicious omens. He compares his black fate to the night. Such poetic passages allow the courtly poets to demonstrate their knowledge of astrology and astronomy,[42] and to outshine other poets by contriving new metaphors within the strictly conventionalized poetic system. Niẓāmī describes a lovely night in more than fifty couplets in his romance of Laylī and Majnūn:


  1. A shining night bright as day,

through which heaven was fresh like the green of Paradise.

  1. The golden necklaces being suspended,

the image of the Wheel had turned into gold.

  1. Giving the hands of loveliness to each other,

the planets were dancing upon the spread of the horizon.

  1. The meteor was throwing a javelin to the demon (i.e. the black night),

singing from a distance: ‘There is no power.’[43]

  1. The air was perfumed with the musk-bag of night,

and the earth was illuminated by the jewel of the moon.

  1. By this jewel and that bag, the six storied Wheel

had made the horizons full of ornaments and fragrance.[44]


Manūchihrī is skilled in describing the desert and the conditions of the lover. He has described deserts, horses, camels and journeys in the desert in some other poems, but in this poem he elaborates on his descriptions, employing peerless metaphors, imagery and similes to outshine his Arabic counterparts. In such descriptions, he intentionally devotes his attention to the night sky or to gardens in order to demonstrate his knowledge of astronomy.[45]


  1. When the sun assumes a darkened hue;

when its light turns as pale as the lover’s face,

  1. Night springs from the east,

spreading the sun’s bed over the horizon.[46]

  1. The air becomes like a painter’s dress,

Its sand are as golden spots.

  1. The sphere is like a mine of lapis lazuli, while Aquarius[47]

Gemini, and the Milky Way resemble the sphere’s throat.[48]

  1. Dust floats in the air while in the dust

someone has scattered the dust from the mill.

  1. The sign of Orion like Sagittarius in the sky,

was founded from the beginning in the constellation of the Bear.[49]

  • The polar star with a veil and turban

is like a dot on the Taurus, like a small star in the Lesser Bear.

  1. The air has assumed the colour of a dark blue garment

the meteor forms a red belt upon this garment.

  1. The Milky Way is like a ray falling though an opening,

its stars are motes of dust, dancing in the ray.


This nocturnal scene is followed by a description of dawn. From this section onwards, Manūchihrī cleverly connects the description to the praise of the king. At dawn, the traveller has reached his destination, the agony and torment of the hard journey are behind him. The narrator identifies himself with the traveller, and the absent beloved becomes the loving king, the patron for whom the poet has composed this panegyric. The cold dark desert gives way to a warm and light setting in which his “matchless master” is presiding. In this subtle way, Manūchihrī expresses his intense love for his patron, characterising his poem not merely as love poetry but also as a document revealing his poetic genius, emphasizing how he can write in a completely different genre:


  1. The moment the dawn brings in the day

the price of dawn’s glory goes down.

  1. The moon becomes like the eyes of a drunken man,[50]

the dawn will serve as a kohl around the eyes.

  1. I have come to the end of the desert,

desert cares have come to an end

  1. In the gathering of the matchless master

whose equal God has not created.

  1. His sagacity is as one who shoots

a stone in the air with a catapult.

38        Where resolution is desired, a firm decision is his intent;

Where opinion is desired, reasons is his counsel.

  1. Who but God almighty has made him

content with His good-pleasure, judging according to His decree.

  1. There is no grandeur in the world like his grandeur

there is no greatness like his greatness

  1. Were it not watered by his generosity,

the western golf would shrink away.


In the last section, the poet praises himself and his poetic ability. Such passages are commonplaces in panegyrics and are called fakhr or mufākhara (‘self-praise’).[51] In old Arabic poetry, the poet wished to delay his beloved’s departure (if she was present at all) by listing his exploits and his personal qualities to her. The poet would point to his courage in battle, generosity, intellectual accomplishment and his talent for enjoying the pleasures of life such as wine and hunting, and he would also describe possessions such as his helmet, sword, armour, horse, and camel.[52] Such self-praise is sometimes interpreted as a type of proposal. In a Persian courtly context, the praise of the poet’s talents could be seen as an application for the position of a court poet, or the continuation of one’s position.

In couplet 41, the poet alludes to the desert, through a metaphor drawing on the romance of King Solomon (Sulaymān) and Queen Sheba (or Sabā) Belqīs (or Belqeys in Persian). This is a popular theme in Persian and Arabic literature.[53] Manūchihrī shows his knowledge of the Koran (27:20-44), where it is said that the hoopoe bird reports to Solomon that the people of Sheba, who are ruled by a wealthy woman, worship the sun. Solomon takes action and sends emissaries to invite the Queen and her people to worship God. By comparing his eloquence to the bird, Manūchihrī not only refers to his poetic skill and his imaginative power, but also cleverly adds another element to his desert description. The poet’s devoted relationship to the patron is implicit.

The poet’s allusion to the hills of Ṣafā and Marwa (line 43) is another way of describing the desert but at the same time starting to praise his patron. This allusion brings to the reader’s mind the story of Hagar and the thirsty baby Ishmael.[54] Hagar sought water for her thirsty infant in the desert, and ran in desperation between Ṣafā and Marwa seven times, but found no water. When she returned to Ishmael, she saw an angel, who scratched the earth with his wing and brought forth water. This is the story that is commemorated annually by pilgrims to Mecca. By placing himself in the position of Hagar, who is running and praying to God to find water, Manūchihrī shows his own position in relation to his patron. If Manūchihrī is the caring mother, and the patron is as God, then his poetry could be the child whose existence depends on both the poet and the patron’s generosity. The water would be the money that sustains the poet’s profession. Such verses remind the patron of the reciprocal relationship between the poet and the patron. While the poet preserves the patron’s fame and reputation for posterity, the patron’s financial support offers sustenance for the poet to continue his craft.[55]

In the subsequent couplets, the poet shows that although he is imitating his Arabic predecessors, he is actually surpassing Arab poets who composed poems on the same topic:


  1. My eloquence is like a hoopoe and how far my bird

can fly to attain to Sheba’s realm.

  1. My running to the hills of Marwa and Ṣafā is that I praise him

Generosity and good cheer are among his good qualities.[56]

  1. My disposition is the seat for my poetry

Like to the noble Jamila and Buthayna.[57]

  1. “Did not he wake up” is Arabic while I am

composing in Persian ‘but flawless.’[58]

  1. O, so long as under this rotating sky,

his fortunate stars are in motion,[59]

  1. May he live eternally and enjoy eternal fortune

and may he be an affliction on all who envy him.


In the final couplets, Manūchihrī refers to Arabic poetry. The first words in line 44th are an allusion to a poem by ʿAttāb b. Warqā’ Shaybānī, starting with ammā ṣaḥā ammā arʿwā ammā intahā, which has the same metre as Manūchihrī’s qaṣīda.[60] This is a favourite metre among the Arab poets, while it is infrequently used by Persian poets. To reiterate the Arabic topos, he cites the Arabic words but emphasizes that he is a better poet, by changing the topos of separation and the bleak depiction of the desert into an eloquent supplication that the patron may prosper, protected from jealous folks.


The Poem’s Modern Reception

This poem is unique in the way Manūchihrī treats the old Arabic topos of the raven of separation, especially his vivid description of the desert, the condition of the beloved and how he combines various poetic elements to praise his patron. In the twentieth century, the poem became popular through the poet laureate Muḥammad-Taqī Bahār (1886-1951), who imitated several classical poets, including Manūchihrī.[61] He recited his poem, entitled “The Owl of War” (jughd-i jang), which as Homa Katouzian writes, was his last great qaṣīda, to a select audience in 1950 on the occasion of his inauguration as President of the Iranian Peace Association.[62] It is “lofty as well as well as moving, against war, and in praise of peace.” In this poem, the crow is replaced by an owl which represents ill omen, loss, and ruination in Persian culture, associating the bird with destruction afflicted by war.



Several conclusions can be drawn from Manūchihrī’s application of the Arabic topos for his courtly Persian reader. What Manūchihrī is doing in this qaṣīda is to showcase his poetic genius by transforming the Arabic topos of deserted encampments to a Persian panegyric mould. Persian qaṣīdas commonly consists of nasīb, gurīzgāh, madīḥ and duʿā. In the nasīb or the opening part, the poet tries to capture the attention of the listener or reader by treating themes such as love, wine and descriptions of nature. The gurīzgāh mentions the name of the patron and is a transition to the main part of the poem in which the qualities of the patron are praised. As in his other desert qaṣīda, Manūchihrī is using the conventions of the Arabic qaṣīda for his own ends, as he opens the poem with an Arabic topos and concludes by praising an unidentified patron in order to secure his own position as a court poet.[63] The poet does not refer to the patron’s identity. The editor of Manūchihrī’s Dīwān does not give any information, and any statement about the object of praise in this poem would be speculative.

The poet uses the Arabic topos to emphasize his relationship with the patron. The poem starts with the theme of the lover who arrives at the deserted encampment of the beloved and ends with the arrival of the narrator/poet at the court of the king at dawn. As J. Clinton remarks, “the figure of the poet as lover, singing his beloved’s praises and suing her for the gift of love, has a striking similarity to that of the poet as eulogizer, singing the virtues of his patron and hoping thereby to win a generous gift of money.”[64] The analogy between the poet and lover and beloved and patron was so common during Manūchihrī’s period that no “overt articulation” was necessary.[65] Manūchihrī creates symmetry between the lover/poet and the beloved/patron. The lover at the beginning of the poem arrives and sees the deserted encampment, and then journeys through the desert for one day and night, but at line 36 the lover is transformed into the poet-lover who arrives at the patron’s place at dawn, leaving behind the horrifying journey in a dark and cold desert full of dangers. The warmth, light and ease the poet experiences in the patron’s presence stand in sharp contrast to the description of the lover’s desolate situation at the beginning of the poem. This transformation of a bleak and despairing love into a courtly and confident reception at the patron’s palace indicates a change in the poet’s fortunes.

This panegyric is an example of how Manūchihrī transforms an Arabic topos, which is chiefly employed to lament the beloved’s separation, into a descriptive monument, worthy of being offered to a courtly patron. The poet ingeniously places the gloomy and bleak description of the deserted encampment over against the Persian courtly setting, finishing the poem with a positive note, showing how his knowledge of Arabic poetry enriches Persian poetic tradition. Manūchihrī is a poet who combines pre-Islamic Persian wine rituals and Arabic topoi in his poetry, showing creativity, fertility and richness of poetic diversity.


   [1]C.E. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids: 994-1040 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963), 75. Also see G-Ḥ. Yūsufī, Chashma-ye Rowshan: Dīdārī bā shā’irān (Tehran: ‘Ilmī, 1371/1992), 62-74; ‘A. Ḥ. Zarrīnkūb, Bā Kārivān-i ḥulla: Majmū‘-ye naqd-i adabī , 7th ed. (Tehran: ‘Ilmī, 1993), 55-68; C.H de Fouchécour, La Description de la Nature Dans la Poésie Lyrique Persane du XIe Siècle (Paris, Peeters, 1969); J.W. Clinton, “Manūčihrī,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs.

   [2]On these poets see J.T.P. de Bruijn in Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. Farroḵī Sīstānī Abu ’l-Ḥasan Alī; and editors of the Encyclopaedia Iranica in Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. ʿOnṣori.

[3]Shafīʿī-Kadkanī, Ṣuwar-i Khiyāl dar shiʿr-i fārsī, (Tehran: āgāh, 1350/1971).

[4]On Manūchihrī’s poems on wine and the grape sacrifice motif, see W.L. Hanaway, “Blood and Wine: Sacrifice and Celebration in Manūchihrī’s Wine Poetry,” in Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, no. 26 (1988): 69-80.

[5]B.Z. Furūzānfar, Sukhan wa sukhanwarān, 4th ed. (Tehran: Khārazmī, 1369/1990), 134-35.

[6]On ritualistic aspects of Persian wine poetry see D.P. Brookshaw “Lascivious Vines, Corrupted Virgins, and Crimes of Honor: Variations on the Wine Production Myth as Narrated in Early Persian Poetry,” in Iranian Studies, no. 47:1 (2014): 87-129.

[7]See A. A. Seyed-Gohrab, Courtly Riddles: Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2010), 48-52; also see idem., “The Art of Riddling in Classical Persian Poetry” in Edebiyāt: Journal of Middle Eastern and Comparative Literature, no. 12 (2001): 15-36.

[8]Manūchihrī-yi Dāmghānī, Dīwān, ed. M. Dabīr Siyāqī, qaṣīda no. 13 (Tehran, Zawwār, 1996): 160-64, ll.

[9]H.A. Mallāḥ, Manūchihrī-yi Dāmghānī wa mūsīqī (Tehran: Hunar wa Farhang), 1363/1984.

[10]Manūchihrī-yi Dāmghānī, Dīwān, 179-181, musammaṭ 7.

[11]See, for instance, A.J. Arberry, Classical Persian Literature (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1994) who devotes his attention to Manūchihrī’s “remarkable Bacchic sequence enigmatically describing a vat of wine”  (56-7). For an analysis of this specific poem in the context of ekphrasis see Seyed-Gohrab, “Stylistic Continuities in Classical Persian Poetry: Reflections on Manūchihrī from Dāmghān and Amir Moʿezzi” in The Age of the Seljuqs, ed. Edmund Herzig and Sarah Stewart (London / New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015), 131-47.

[12]As cited by J.T.P. de Bruijn, “Arabic Influences on Persian Literature,” in General Introduction to Persian Literature (London / New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 378.

[13]J.T.P. de Bruijn, “Arabic Influences,” 378; for other studies on the interaction between Arabic and Persian poetry see B. Reinert, “Probleme der vormongolischen arabisch-persischen Poesiegemeeinschaft und ihr Reflex in der Poetik” in Arabic Poetry: Theory and Development, ed. G.E. von Grunebaum (Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz,  1973), 71-105; Julie Scott Meisami, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry (London: 2003); Umar Muhammad Daudpota, The Influence of Arabic Poetry on the Development of Persian Poetry (Bombay, The Fort Printing Press, 1934).

[14]See A.M. Sumi, Description in Classical Arabic Poetry: Waṣf, Ekphrasis, and Interarts Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2004); J.T.P. de Bruijn, “Arabic Influences on Persian Literature,” in General Introduction to Persian Literature, 369-384.

[15]See E.G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia, no. 2, reprinted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956): 30-34 and 153-56; also see V. al-Kik, Ta’thīr-i farhang-i Arab dar ashʿār-i Manūchihrī-yi Dāmghānī, Beirut, 1971; Daudpota, The Influence of Arabic Poetry (Bombay, The Fort Printing Press, 1934), 72-3.

[16]J.W. Clinton, “A Sketch of Translation and the Formation of New Persian Literature,” in Iran and Iranian Studies: Essays in Honor of Iraj Afshar, ed. K. Eslami (Princeton / New Jersey: Zagros, 1998), 294.

[17]J. Scott Meisami, “Poetic Microcosms: The Persian Qasida to the End of the Twelfth Century” in Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa: Classical Traditions and Modern Meanings, ed. Stefan Sperl and Christopher Shackle (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 157.

[18]J.W. Clinton, “A Sketch of Translation, ” 294. Clinton writes, “among all his imitations of Arabic, there is no poem that we can comfortably call a translation of a specific poem by a specific poet.”

[19]J. Scott Meisami, “Poetic Microcosm” 157. The translation of the couplet is by Meisami.

[20]Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Qays al-Rāzī, al-Muʿajam fī maʿā’ir ashʿār al-ʿajam, ed. M. Qazwīnī & M. Raḍawī (Tehran, 1935), 321.

[21]J. Scott Meisami, “Poetic Microcosms”, 157.

[22]Dhabīḥullāh Ṣafā, Tārīkh-i Adabiyāt (Tehran: Firdows, 1368/1989), 586; on other aspects of his poetry see 580-597.

[23]J. Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 56.

   [24]R.A. Serrano, “Al-Buhturi’s Poetics of Persian Abodes,” in Journal of Arabic Literature, XXVIII, no. 1 (March 1997): 69f, where the author succinctly deals with the language of the abandoned encampments. For a treatment of the atlal theme in Arabic ghazal and its transference from nasīb to ghazal, see Renate Jacobi, “Themes and Variations in Umayyad Ghazal Poetry” in Journal of Arabic Literature, XXIII, part 2 (July 1992); also see Suzanne Pickney Stetkevych, ed. Reorientations: Arabic and Persian Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

   [25]This topic has been very popular with Persian poets as well. See Dīvān-i Manūchihrī, 93-4, qasīda no. 53;

   [26]See C. Pellat in Encyclopaedia of Islam, s.v. Ghurāb. In Perso-Islamic eschatology, it is believed that when the end of the world approaches, the sun and the moon lose their light and they are compared to two black and blind ravens. Also see J. Scott Meisami, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Poetry, Oriental Pearls (London: Routledge / Curzon, 2003), 305-06.

   [27]“Then Allah sent a crow digging up the earth so that he might show him how he should cover the dead body of his brother.”

   [28]H. Busse, “Cain and Abel,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University),

[29]J. Stetkevych, Muḥammad and the Golden Bough: Reconstructing Arabian Myth (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 19.

[30]A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975),

307-08. See Rumi’s mathnawī, 5: 833-38; ‘Aṭṭār, Manṭiq al-tayr; see also chapter eight of Kalīla wa Dimna, on the raven and owls. Abu’l-Maʿālī Naṣr-Allāh Munshī, Kalīla wa Dimna, ed. Mujtabā Mīnavī Tihrānī & Zahrā Kishāwarz Bāqirī (Teheran: Bihzād, 1385/2006), 273-330.

[31]See Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi, The Universal Tree and the Four Birds, trans. Angela Jaffray (Oxford: Anqa Publishing, 2006), 99-101.

[32]Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, The Universal Tree, 102.

[33]I. Goldziher in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., s.v. “G̲h̲urābiyya”; see also S. Anthony in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd ed., s.v. “Ghurābiyya”,


[34]See Hilary Kilpatrick, “Ahbar Manzuma: The Romance of Qays and Lubna in the Aghani”, in the Festschrift Ewald Wagner zum 65. Geburtstag, Studien zur Arabischen Dichtung (Beirut: 1994), 350-61. For the omen drawn from birds see Th. Nölde­ke, in ERE, s.v. Arabs, 671.

   [35]See my analysis of this novel, “Some Elucidatory Notes on Mas`ūdī’s Sūrat al-Ghorāb” in Maks: a Persian Journal of Literature, no. 1 (1995): 8-21. This article is reprinted in the journal Baran: Persian Quarterly on Culture, Literature, History and Politics, no. 14-5 (Winter/Spring, 2007): 99-105; Houra Yavari, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. Fiction. ii. Post-Revolutionary Fiction Abroad.

   [36]See Hushang A’lam, in Encyclopadia Iranica, s.v. Crow. Also compare Ḥusayn Lasān, “Tafa’ul wa ṭaṭayyur”, in Hunar wa mardum, No. 183, (1357), 30-57. Niẓāmī always censures ‘a flaw detecting eye’ (dīda-yi ‘ayb-jū). In Makhzan al-asrār, the poet tells the story of Jesus and the cadaver of a dog in which Jesus looks at the beautiful white teeth of the dog, teaching his followers to detect virtues instead of vices. Likewise, Niẓāmī considers the owl, which is usually regarded as a bird of ill omen, the nightingale watching a treasure: “The owl which is inauspicious in the lore / is the nightingale of the treasure in the ruined place.” (Makhzan, 106, l. 5). On Niẓāmī’s romance and the crow scene see A. A. Seyed-Gohrab, Laylī and Majn‎ūn: Love, Madness and Mystic Longing in Niāmī’s Epic Romance (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 196-98.

[37]See Jāmī, “Laylī and Majnūn,” in Mathnavī-yi haft owrang, 793.

[38]Leylā and Majnūn by Fuzūlī, trans. Sofi Huri (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1970), 197-200.

[39]Manūchihrī-yi Dāmghānī, Dīwān, 93-4.

   [40]On descriptions of camels, see R. Jacobi, “The Camel-Section of the Panegyrical Ode,” in Journal of Arabic Literature, no. 13 (1982): 1-22; also compare Remke Kruk, “Of Rukhs and Rooks, Camels and Castles,” in Oriens, no. 36 (2001): 288-298; idem, “On Animals: excerpts of Aristotle and Ibn Sina in Marwazi’s Taba’i’ al-hayawan,” in Aristotle’s Animals in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Carlos Steel et al. (Leuven: Leuven University Press,1999), 91-120.

   [41]Ḥ. Anvarī describes this as a staff which has a sharp iron tip. See Farhang-i buzūrg-i sukhan, no. 5 (Tehran, Sukhan, 1381/2002): 5061.

   [42]Mesmerizing depictions of night appear in the works of Firdowsī, Gurgānī and Niẓāmī. See Elaheh Kheirandish, “Astronomical Poems from the ‘Four Corners’ of Persia (c. 1000-1500 CE),” in Essays in Islamic Philology, History, and Philosophy, ed. A. Korangy, W.M. Thackston, R.P. Mottahedeh, W. Granara (Berlin / Boston: De Gruyter, 2016), 51-90; P. Kunitzsch, “The ‘Description of the Night’ in Gurgānī’s Wis and Rāmīn” in Der Islam, 1982, 59, 93-110; J.T.P. de Bruijn, Of Piety and Poetry: The Interaction of Religion and Literature in the Life and Works of Ḥakīm Sanā’ī of Ghazna, Publication of the “De Goeje Fund,” No. 25, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983), 190; J. Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 103-07; D. Davis, Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 167-74; A.A. Seyed-Gohrab, Laylī and Majn‎ūn, 314-19.

[43]The phrase in its entirety reads as follows: ‘There is no power nor strength except in God, i.e. there is no striving against fate, an exclamation uttered at any sudden or per­plexing emergency; and to drive away an evil spirit. See F.J. Stein­gass, A Comprehensive Persian English Dictionary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 1110-1111.

[44]Niẓāmī Ganjawī, Laylī u Majnūn, ed. B. Thirwatīyān, Tehran, Tūs, 1364/1985.

[45]For comparative descriptions see J.W. Clinton, The Divan of Manūchihrī Dāmghānī, 40-2.

[46]Literally, ‘Wheel.’

[47]The eleventh month of the solar year, in recent years replaced by Bahman.

[48]The word nāy also means flute and may also refer to this in this line.

[49]Haqʿa refers to “three bright stars near one another in the head of Orion, which marks the fifth mansion of the moon.” See Steingass, 1504.

[50]Variant reading: “the moon becomes like the eye of a patient.”

[51]E. Wagner, E. and Farès, Bichr, “Mufāk̲h̲ara,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs,

[52]See E. Wagner, E. and Farès, Bichr, “Mufāk̲h̲ara.”

[53]Ḡolām-Ḥosayn Yūsofī in Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. Belqīs.

   [54]See R. Firestone, “Ṣafā and Marwa,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān; also see M. Radscheit, “Springs and Fountains,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān.

   [55]See J. Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 44-5.

   [56]If we read the words Marva and Ṣafā as in the previous hemistich it would read “Marva and Ṣafā exist due to his excellence,” but we could also consider that the words are puns which then read differently as in my translation.

   [57]The second hemistich is problematic and variants such as jamīla shah, jamīl wa shah, jamīla bīshīna and jamīl wa sa‘īd are given. Dabīr-Sīyāqi states that the latter should be Buthayna emphasizing that the hemistich is not strong. Kazimirski translates the couplet, with the same Persian text, as follows: “lorsque je compose des poésie, c’est mon beau talent que l’on voit et le Roi en est l’ami,” W. Kazimirski, Menoutchehri: Poète Persan du 11ème Siècle de Notre Ere (du 5ème de l’hégire) (Paris: 1886),  229.

   [58]The first words are part of the opening line of an Arabic poem by ‘Attāb b. Warqā’ Shaybānī. “Didn’t he wake up, didn’t he learn, didn’t he withdraw? / Didn’t he see how much gray on the temples grow, remembering him and the boyhood days (wishing to come back though)”أما صحا أما ارعوی أما انتهی / ‏ أما رأی الشیب بفودیه بدا / سقیا لأیام الشباب و له.

   [59]It is hard to translate the second hemistich of this couplet with all its puns in a meaningful English. The poet is wishing fortunate times for the praised person by referring to astrological signs. The common meaning of the word shujāʿ is magnanimous, daring, brave, but Steingass (735) states that it also means “a species of serpent, a male serpent, a small snake.” As explained by Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, shujāʿ refers to the seventh of the southern zodiacs, while ḥayyatu al-ḥawā alludes to the fourteenth of the northern zodiacs. The compound ḥayyatu al-ḥawā refers to the snake in the hands of the charmer of snakes, who is located in the middle, holding the snake with two hands. See Kitāb al-tafhīm li awā’il ṣināʿat al-taqwīm, ed. J.D. Humā’ī (Tehran: Bābak, 1362/1983), 91-4; see also the English translation of the Arabic version, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, trans. R. Ramsay Wright 9London: Luzac & Co, 1934-, 71-2.

[60]See the index to Manūchihrī’s Dīwān by Sayyid Muḥammad Dabīr-Sīyāqī, 297.

[61]Muḥammad-Taqī Bahār, Dīwān, no. 1 (Tehran: Tūs, 1380/2001), second print, 693-96.

[62]H. Katouzian, “Poet-Laureate Bahar in the Constitutional Era,” in Iran: Politics, History and Literature (London & New York: Routledge, 2013), 219, 298.

   [63]See also J. Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 59 in which Meisami discusses such manipulation of the Arabic qaṣīda for the poet’s own ends.

[64] J.W. Clinton, The Divan of Manūchihrī Dāmghānī (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1972), 122.

[65] J. Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry, 67.

Bonyad Monthly and the Depoliticization of Gharbzadegi


هدف این مقاله عرضۀ تحلیلی دقیق از بخشی از تاریخ پرآشوب مدرنیتۀ ایرانی در سال‌های پایانی حکومت پهلوی است. ما در این مقاله بر خاستگاه‌های ”غیرسیاسی“ ایدئولوژی ضدمدرنیستی حکومت تمرکز خواهیم کرد که در گفتمان غرب‌زدگی تجسم پیدا می‌کند. مشخصاً به وضعیت غریبی توجه خواهیم کرد که در آن، حکومت از یکسو دست به نوسازی ”مادی“ فراگیر ایران می‌زند و از سوی دیگر، فضای فرهنگی مناسبی را برای نوعی ایدئولوژی ضدمدرن رادیکال فراهم می‌کند. این وضعیت غامض چه بسا خبر از سرنگونی حکومت، به منزلۀ عروسک خیمه‌شب‌بازی غرب، به‌ دست انقلابیون رادیکال ‌داده و به تقویت این جریان کمک بزرگی کرده باشد.

حکومت پهلوی در مقام نیرویی سکولار و در حال نوسازی از جانب طبقۀ متوسطِ در حال ‌رشد با بحران مشروعیت و مشارکت سیاسی مواجه بود. با نگاهی به گذشته متوجه می‌شویم که حکومت به‌ جای باز کردن فضای دموکراتیک در کشور دست به قمار بسیار خطرناک و مهلکی زد. حکومت ایدئولوژی ضدغربی و ضدسکولار گفتمان غرب‌زدگی را، که مخالفان چپ و مذهبی آن را تقویت کرده بودند، تصاحب کرد تا از جنبش در حال ‌رشدی سیاست‌زدایی کند که برگرفته از ایدئولوژی غرب‌زدگی بود و کوشید آن را به‌ مثابه پدیده‌ای فرهنگی تقویت کند.

شخصیت‌های فکری و فرهنگی نزدیک به دربار به شدت به پروژۀ غرب‌زدگی پر و بال دادند. این افراد -کسانی مثل سیدحسین نصر، احسان نراقی، داریوش شایگان، احمد فردید و دیگران- که به نخبگان طبقۀ حاکم تعلق داشتند، عمدتاً در غرب تحصیل کرده بودند یا آنکه مثل هانری کربن غربی بودند. در این مطالعه، صرفاً بر مطالب منتشرشده در ماهنامۀ بنیاد تمرکز خواهیم کرد که بنیاد اشرف پهلوی آن را تأسیس کرده بود و از آن حمایت مالی می‌کرد.

در اسفند 1355، فقط دو سال قبل از انقلاب، بنیاد اشرف پهلوی ماهنامه‌ای با ‌نام بنیاد به سردبیری علیرضا میبدی منتشر کرد. مجله هدف عمدۀ خود را توجه به مهم‌ترین موضوعات اخلاقی و فرهنگی ایران در برهۀ بسیار مهمی از تاریخ کشور اعلام کرد. شمارۀ آغازین ماهنامه با یادداشتی از اشرف پهلوی شروع می‌شود. اشرف پهلوی در این یادداشت با تشریح مأموریت مجله، تحلیل خود را از مصائب تمدن‌ها در جهان معاصر عرضه می‌کند. او می‌نویسد: ”ما در مرحلۀ گذار به سوی مدنیت نویی هستیم که بی‌ساز و برگ فرهنگ و اندیشه نمی‌توان به آن دست یافت.“[1] بدون اینکه هیچ اشاره‌ای به فرهنگ مدرن بشود، این ”مدنیت نو“ درون سنت‌های گذشتۀ ایران قرار داده می‌شود: ”برای ملت‌هایی که دارای یک تمدن و فرهنگ دیرینه هستند، آینده همچون تابلوی سفید و دست‌نخورده‌ای است که می‌توان آن را به شکل دلخواه و مطلوب آفرید.“[2] اشرف پهلوی در ادامه برای مشکلات بشر نسخه‌ای ”معنوی“ می‌پیچد. او برای ”احیاء“ خاستگاه‌های معنادار فرهنگی هویت ملی ایرانیان فراخوان می‌دهد:

هر اندازه نهادهای فرهنگی، پژوهشی و آموزشی غنی‌تر و گسترده‌تر گردد و هر چقدر بر میزان دانش و بینش معنوی افراد جامعه افزوده شود، آماده‌سازی مجموعه‌های انسانی برای مواجهه با آینده و مسائل آن ساده‌تر خواهد بود. به این اعتبار می‌توان گفت ضروری‌ترین مسئله برای جهان امروز راهیابی بیشتر به ”معنی“ و ”فضیلت“ و گستردن آن در رابطه‌ها و نسبت‌های بشری است.[3]

بسیار جالب است که در همین زمان گروه‌های مخالف حکومت، به‌خصوص گروه‌های مذهبی، با ادبیات مشابهی در حال بسیج توده‌ها علیه حکومت بودند. هدف این گفتمان مخالف سلطنت پهلوی و مشخصاً سیاست‌های فرهنگی ”غرب‌زده“اش بود. فساد سیاسی و اخلاقی‌‌ای هم که رژیم بابت آن سرزنش و نکوهش می‌شد، موضع گفتمانی‌اش را متناقض‌تر می‌کرد.

اشرف پهلوی ماموریت ماهنامۀ بنیاد را چنین توضیح می‌دهد:

این آرزوی همیشگی من بود که با اختصاص همۀ ثروت و هستی خویش یک منزلگاه علمی و فرهنگی و هنری ایجاد کنم تا مکانی، ولو کوچک برای رفت و آیندها، گفت‌وشنودها و خلاقیت‌های فکری و ذهنی همۀ کسانی باشد که در قلمرو فرهنگ و دانش بشری تلاش می‌کنند. اکنون که این بنیاد تأسیس شده است، امیدوارم بتوانیم در راه توسعۀ علم و دانش و شناساندن بیشتر تمدن و فرهنگ ایران به جهانیان و تشویق و پشتیبانی پژوهشگران و علاقه‌مندان به شناسایی نقش فرهنگ ایران در تمدن جهان و بالاخره نیل به آرمان‌های صلح و بهره‌مندی جامعۀ انسانی از حقوق بشر، گام‌های مؤثری برداریم، و این بنیاد را ”مکتبی“ برای پژوهش‌ها، نواندیشی‌ها، و ارتباط‌های جهانی متفکران بسازیم.[4]

اولین صفحۀ ویژه‌نامۀ بنیاد به سخنرانی اشرف پهلوی در سی‌وچهارمین نشست بین‌المللی حقوق بشر در سازمان ملل اختصاص دارد. او در میانۀ سخنرانی از اعلامیۀ حقوق بشر انتقاد می‌کند: ”در حقیقت، اعلامیۀ جهانی که میراث اندیشه‌ها و طرز تفکر غربی می‌باشد، خالی از نقص نیست. نقائصی که بیش از آنکه به اصول مندرج در آن بستگی داشته باشد، ناشی از بی‌اعتنایی به پاره‌ای از واقعیات می‌باشد.“[5] اشرف پهلوی استدلال یک حکومت استبدادی سکولار را منعکس می‌کند. ایدۀ محوری این استدلال این است که اگرچه ما به‌طور کلی طرفدار مدرنیته و دموکراسی هستیم و از ”اصول“ سیاست‌های دموکراتیک استقبال می‌کنیم، با این‌ حال از دنیا می‌خواهیم که شرایط خاص ما را درک کند. این طرز استدلال تا آنجا پیش می‌رود که از دنیا می‌خواهد صرفاً به آنها اعتماد کرده و درک کند که ”واقعیت‌ها“ی جوامع آنها مستلزم شیوه‌های کاملاً متفاوت به ‌کار بستن و مفهوم‌سازی حقوق بشر و دموکراسی است. اشرف پهلوی معتقد است که خودمختاری و حاکمیت دولت باید مقدم بر حقوق انسانی شهروندان باشد:

در اینجا لازم به ‌تذکر است که به هنگام تصویب اعلامیۀ جهانی حقوق بشر، حتی پرحرارت‌ترین مدافعان آن نیز لحظه‌ای به ‌حق خودمختاری و تعیین سرنوشت ملت‌ها نیاندیشیدند و بدین‌گونه، در حقیقت تمامی حقوق مدنی و سیاسی را که مورد تأکید اعلامیۀ جهانی است از آنان سلب کردند.[6]

او تا آنجا پیش می‌رود که با مطرح کردن موضوع عدالت اقتصادی و برابری، گفتمان حقوق بشر را نقد می‌کند: ”در مورد استثمار اقتصادی جهان سوم بایستی متذکر گردید که مبارزه در راه شناخت این استثمار به عنوان سدی مرتفع در راه تحقق بخشیدن به حقوق بشر هنوز به پایان نرسیده است.“[7] اشرف پهلوی در بخش دیگری از سخنرانی‌اش می‌گوید:

نباید از مد نظر دور داشت که این نظم در اجتماع‌های مختلف چهره‌های متفاوت داشته و به مسائل ویژه، سنن، فرهنگ و درجۀ تکامل مدنی و سیاسی آن اجتماع وابسته خواهد بود . . . بدین دلیل است که استفادۀ کورکورانه و یکنواخت از معیارهای مشترک در همه‌جا امکان‌پذیر نیست و همکاری بین‌المللی جز با محترم شمردن این واقعیات میسر و مثمر ثمر نخواهد بود . . . منظور آن است که دیگر کسی نباید طریقۀ زندگی و عقاید خود را به دیگران تحمیل کند. عصر استثمار، جنگ و زورگویی سپری شده و دوران همکاری و تفاهم فرا رسیده است.[8]

دیدگاه اشرف پهلوی واقعاً گیج‌کننده است. او در ابتدا می‌خواهد نشان دهد که حکومت پهلوی متعهد به دموکراسی و حقوق بشر است، اما در عین حال از گفتمان استعماری مراحل تمدنی استفاده می‌کند تا تلویحاً بگوید که ایرانیان در حال حاضر به‌ لحاظ فرهنگی عقب‌مانده‌تر از آن‌اند که برای دموکراسی و حقوق بشر کامل آماده باشند. اعتقاد آتاتورک دربارۀ ترکیه هم همین بود. اشرف پهلوی حتی یک گام پیش‌تر می‌رود و اعلامیۀ جهانی حقوق بشر را به این علت که به خاص‌بودگی‌ها و تفاوت‌های محلی توجه نکرده است، به لحاظ فرهنگی امپریالیستی می‌داند. از نظر او، اعلامیۀ حقوق بشر به‌ منزلۀ ایده‌ای اصالتاً غربی، بدون در نظر گرفتن تاریخ بومی و خاص‌بودگی‌های فرهنگی تمدن‌های جهان، به‌دنبال تحمیل نوعی همسان‌سازی حقوقی کورکورانه‌ بر همۀ تمدن‌هاست. او به ‌وضوح بیان می‌کند که اجرای حقوق بشر و سیاست‌های دموکراتیک برای ایران در مرحلۀ تمدنی کنونی‌اش مناسب نیست. عملاً، چنان که خواهیم دید، دیدگاه متناقض اشرف پهلوی در اغلب مطالب منتشرشده در مجلۀ بنیاد هم تکرار شده است.

غرب‌زدگی حکومتی

ماهنامۀ بنیاد حاوی مطالبی است که بسیار شبیه گفتمان‌های غرب‌زدگی احمد فردید و جلال آل‌احمد است. محبوبیت این گفتمان‌های روشنفکری در یک مجلۀ پرمخاطب، آن هم در مجله‌ای که بنیاد اشرف پهلوی حامی آن است، نشان‌دهندۀ سیاست‌زدایی شدن از ایدئولوژی غرب‌زدگی است. ماهنامۀ بنیاد این ایدئولوژی سیاست‌زدایی‌شده را به‌ کار گرفت تا نوعی روایت ”اصیل فرهنگی“ برای حاکمیت سلطنت پهلوی بسازد، در حالی‌ که هم‌زمان و ناخواسته در حال ضربه زدن به رژیمی بود که از بالا مشغول نوسازی شده بود. نکتۀ جالب توجه این است که حکومت پهلوی که در مواجهه‌ای تمام عیار با نیروی بسیج‌شدۀ اسلام سیاسی قرار گرفته بود، در خصوص استفاده از گفتمان غرب‌زدگی با آن اشتراک نظر داشت.

برای آل‌احمد، غرب‌زدگی اساساً مفهومی سیاسی بود. منظور آل‌احمد از غرب‌زدگی توصیفی سیاسی-اجتماعی دربارۀ موجودیت تاریخی ایران مدرن بود. به ‌لحاظ سیاسی، او غرب‌زدگی را در قالب نوسازیِ استبدادیِ از بالا به پایین شرح می‌داد: طرحی مخرب، استعماری و خودکامه برای تغییر اجتماعی. آل‌احمد عموماً به حکومت خودکامۀ پهلوی اشاره می‌کرد. با این‌ حال، همچون برخی دیگر از دیدگاه‌های پسامدرن معاصر، آل‌احمد هیچ شیوۀ بدیلی برای ایران متصور نبود که از مدرنیته استقبال کند. دیدگاه او مدل توسعۀ پهلوی را یگانه مدرنیتۀ ممکن تصور می‌کرد: دیدگاهی متأثر از اگزیستانسیالیست‌های رمانتیک آلمانی و فرانسوی. به‌ پیروی از این دیدگاه‌های ضدمدرن، آل‌احمد به سنت گذشتۀ ایرانی، یعنی سنت‌های اسلامی و عاملیت علما، به ‌عنوان جایگزین‌ سیاسی ممکن در برابر مدل نوسازی معاصر معتقد بود. این بازسازی سیاسی غرب‌زدگی از خاستگاه فلسفی اصلی آن، که نقد رادیکال هایدگری فردید از مدرنیته است، فاصله گرفته بود. فردید قویاً برداشت سیاسی آل‌احمد از غرب‌زدگی را رد می‌کرد. در مقام منتقد متافیزیک غربی و منتقد تقدس‌زدایی اومانیستی از تصور انسان، فردید بارها از ناتوانی آل‌احمد در درک معنای فلسفی درست این عبارت ”معنوی“ انتقاد کرده بود.

مطالب مجلۀ بنیاد و ایدئولوژی حکومت پهلوی به ‌طرز تناقض‌آمیزی به توضیحات فردید از غرب‌زدگی نزدیک است.[9] می‌توان چنین گفت که آل‌احمد از غرب‌زدگی استفاده کرد تا سیاست‌های دیکتاتوری محمدرضاشاه را نکوهش کند، اما روشنفکران متمایل به پهلوی و برخی افراد نزدیک به رژیم از فهم فردیدی از مفهوم غرب‌زدگی استفاده کردند تا به حاکمیت سیاسی استبدادی مشروعیت بخشند.

ایران در دوراهی اخلاقی و فرهنگی

ماهنامۀ بنیاد از اسفند 1355 تا آبان 1357، ماهانه و در مجموع در قالب 20 شماره منتشر شد. بنیاد مرکز فکری مهمی برای بسیاری از روشنفکران شناخته‌شدۀ ایرانی بود و به ‌نظر می‌رسد برای انتشار مطلب در بنیاد علاقۀ‌ گسترده‌ای میانشان وجود داشت. به تیراژ واقعی مجله دسترسی نداریم، اما شواهدی وجود دارد که نویسندگان و روشنفکران آن زمان مجله را جدی می‌گرفتند. چند ماه بعد از انتشار مجله، ”به‌ خاطر تراکم مطالب و مقالات رسیده،“ مسئولان مجله تصمیم می‌گیرند ”صفحات مجله را افزایش دهند.“[10] در مدت زمانی کوتاه، مجله مجبور می‌شود مجدداً صفحاتش را افزایش دهد، به‌طوری که مجله به 100 صفحه می‌رسد.[11] محبوبیت بنیاد تا جایی پیش می‌رود که در شمارۀ 11، مجله نام بیش از 100 نفر از نویسندگان و شاعرانی را فهرست می‌کند که مطالبشان در انتظار چاپ است.[12] همچنین، روزنامۀ لبنانی الشرق با سردبیر مجله مصاحبه‌ای صورت می‌دهد و در گزارشی بنیاد را ”یکی از معتبرترین نشریات ادبی و فرهنگی ایران“ معرفی می‌کند که ”در معرفی آثار ادبی و فرهنگی جهان عرب و جهان سوم تلاش می‌کند.“[13]

هدف ما در اینجا نشان دادن ایدئولوژی ضدمدرن سیاست‌زدایی‌شدۀ ماهنامۀ بنیاد است. بدین منظور، با مطالعۀ تمامی شماره‌های مجله همۀ مطالب مرتبط با بحث را تحلیل کرده‌ایم، چنان که همۀ مطالب چاپ‌شده در 20 شمارۀ بنیاد، اعم از سرمقاله‌ها، مقالات، یادداشت‌های کوتاه، مقالات پژوهشی، شعر، نقد کتاب، مصاحبه‌ها، تبلیغات، نامه‌ها، گزارش‌ها و مقالات ترجمه‌شده بررسی شدند. سپس، همۀ ارجاعات و نقل قول‌هایی را که به‌ نوعی با موضوعات غرب/شرق، مدرنیته، نوسازی، پیشرفت، تکنولوژی، مصرف‌گرایی، سرمایه‌داری، اسلام، معنویت و تمدن مدرن/تمدن ایران باستان مرتبط بودند مقوله‌بندی کردیم. در جدول زیر فراوانی بیشترین مطالبی آمده است که طی دو سال در 20 شمارۀ بنیاد منتشر شده است.

جدول 1. عمده‌ترین مقولات ماهنامۀ بنیاد، شماره‌های 1 تا 20 (اسفند 1355 تا آبان 1357)

موضوع تعداد مطالب
نقد تمدن غرب (اندیشه/سبک زندگی/تکنولوژی/خشونت/بی‌عدالتی) 29
عظمت تمدن ایرانی 24
اسلام، عرفان و معنویت 19
دوگانۀ شرق/غرب 16

مرور 20 شمارۀ مجله به ‌وضوح نشان می‌دهد که سردبیر و گردانندگان مجله سیاست‌گذاری و هدف مشخصی برای مجله داشتند و بر آن بودند که به آنچه ”بحران“ اخلاقی و فرهنگی در ایران و احتمالاً جهان می‌دانستند واکنش نشان دهند. از نظر آنها، ایران فردا باید بین فضای تمدنی غربی و شرقی یکی را انتخاب کند.[14] علیرضا میبدی، سردبیر بنیاد، در مصاحبه‌ای که اخیراً با او صورت گرفت، دیدگاه خود در آن دوران را چنین توضیح داد:

فکر کردم که ما بر سر دوراهی ایستاده‌ایم. [ما باید تصمیم می‌گرفتیم:] شرق یا غرب؟ خب، آل‌احمد آمده بود و مفهوم غرب‌زدگی را مطرح کرده بود و کتاب‌ احسان نراقی، آنچه خود داشت ز بیگانه تمنا میکرد، منتشر شده بود و مبحث شرق و غرب خیلی مبحث مطرح و محوری‌ای بود در دانشگاه و در محیط‌های دانشجویی و محیط‌های روشنفکری و رسانه‌ها.[15]

به ‌نظر می‌رسد سردبیر و مؤسسان بنیاد غرب و شرق را در نوعی تقابل دوتایی صریح قرار داده بودند. این جهان‌بینی را در مطالب اکثر نویسندگان مجله می‌توان دید. از نظر آنها، مؤلفه‌های فرهنگی، اخلاقی، تاریخی، تمدنی و حتی روان‌شناختی هویت ایرانی/شرقی از مختصات خاصی برخوردار بود که در تقابلی آشکار با اشکال وجودی و فکری غرب قرار می‌گرفت. این موج از متفکران ایرانی تلاش می‌کردند نشان دهند شرق، به‌ صورت کلی، و ایران، به‌ شکل خاص، ویژگی‌های ذاتی و منحصربه‌فردی دارد و می‌کوشیدند که هویت و سیاست به ‌هم متصل شوند. در کل، چند جهت‌گیری کلان در میان این متفکران دیده می‌شود: اول، معتقد بودند تمدن آریایی سنگ بنای همۀ تمدن‌های جهان است. دوم، معتقد بودند روح یا معنویت و اخلاق شرقی/ایرانی در تمدن ایران باستان و اسلامی در جهان منحصربه‌فرد است. سوم، به عصر طلایی ایران در دوران باستان و دوران اسلامی معتقد بودند. چهارم، این متفکران به قابلیت نهفته در تمدن ایرانی اعتقاد داشتند و معتقد بودند ایران می‌تواند همچون ققنوس سر از خاکستر بردارد. پنجم، با مشخص کردن این ویژگی‌های منحصربه‌فرد، پیش‌بینی می‌کردند که ملت ایران می‌تواند تکنولوژی مدرن را در عین حفظ هویت خود اقتباس کند. این ایده‌های ایدئولوژیک را، که در منازعه با غرب شکل گرفته بود، می‌شود در سه مقولۀ کلی قرار داد: قابلیت فرهنگی ایرانیان، معنویت یا عرفان شرقی/ایرانی و منحصربه‌فرد بودن تمدن آریایی.

1. برتری فرهنگ ایران باستان

بسیاری از مقالات بنیاد تقابل شدید بین ”فرهنگ“ ایرانی و غربی را برجسته می‌کنند. در این زمینه، ایران به دو شکل تصویر می‌شد: یا به منزلۀ امپراتوری ایران باستان در دوران پیش از اسلام یا چونان بخشی از تاریخ گسترده‌تر اسلامی در دوران پس از اسلام؛ که هر دو همچنان پیشامدرن‌اند. غرب یا فرهنگ غربی برحسب سلطۀ علم و تکنولوژی تعریف می‌شود، به‌گونه‌ای که گویی در زندگی و فرهنگ غرب چیزی جز تکنولوژی وجود ندارد. آنچه‌ به‌ طرز قابل ‌توجهی از این تصاویر غایب است اولاً ایرانِ واقعاً موجود و معاصر سلطنت پهلوی است و ثانیاً، جهان هنری و ادبی غرب. عزت‌الله همایون‌فر در مطلبی به‌وضوح این طرز فکر را بیان می‌کند:

ما در کار علم و تکنیک از جهان غرب عقب هستیم . . . اما در کار فرهنگ . . . نه‌ تنها از جهان غرب عقب نیستیم، بلکه در بسیاری جهات می‌توانیم سرمشق جهان بشری باشیم. آن‌چنان که در گذشتۀ دور و نزدیک این ما بودیم که الفبای صلح و آشتی بین فرزندان آدمی و رسم‌الخط آسایش و آرامش خیال را برای انسان‌ها آفریدیم. و این ما بودیم که در کار هنرها سازنده و هنرهای ارشادی -و نه هنرهای دیوانه و شهوانی این عصر- یادگارهای خوبی به تاریخ تقدیم کرده‌ایم . . . دنیای تکنیک‌زده و مسموم‌شده از علم امروز به فرهنگ درخشانی نیاز دارد که چراغدار چنین فرهنگی نه برتراند راسل و ژان پل سارتر و آلبر کامو می‌تواند باشد و نه آندره موروا و امیل لودویک.[16]

در شمارۀ 3 بنیاد، نامه‌ای از فردی با ‌نام جزایری از سوئد منتشر شد که از مسئولان بنیاد می‌خواهد با مردم سوئد ارتباط برقرار کنند تا فرهنگ و تمدن ایرانی را به آنها بشناسانند.[17] نویسنده از اینکه مردم سوئد شناخت کمی از عظمت فرهنگ و تمدن ایران دارند اظهار تأسف می‌کند و معتقد است که ”ایران زادگاه فرهنگ و کلام فارسی است و تمدن بشری از این چشمۀ جوشان و گوارا بهره‌های ارزنده و بیکران برده است و این حق مسلم هر انسانی است که از چنین منبع الهام‌بخش اندیشه و خلاقیت‌های فکری آگاهی باید.“[18]

سعید فاطمی، روزنامه‌نگار و سیاستمداری که زمانی هم دستیار شخصی مرحوم مصدق بود، در مطلبی دربارۀ نقش نمادها در ایران باستان بحث می‌کند و به هشدار می‌دهد که

غرب‌زدگی تمدن ایرانی را به فراموشی می‌سپارد. فراموش کردن اینکه ما کیستیم و چه فرهنگ درخشانی را پشت سر گذاشته‌ایم خیانتی است نابخشودنی. ما وطنمان را باید بشناسیم، فرهنگ آن را بررسی کنیم و به جوانان خودمان بفهمانیم که وارث چه نیروی معنوی جاویدانی هستیم. این وظیفۀ همۀ ما است و اگر کوتاهی کنیم فردا پشیمان‌تر از امروز خواهیم بود.[19]

در اینجا به ‌نظر می‌رسد از گفتمان غرب‌زدگی استفاده می‌شود تا واقعیت‌های ایران معاصر و همچنین جهان مدرن نادیده گرفته شود. فاطمی در عین حال که با استفاده از گفتمان تمدنی از بحث دربارۀ چالش‌های واقعی در ایران معاصر پرهیز می‌کند، ظاهراً خواستار بازگشت به ایران پیشامدرن و پیشااسلامی است. واقعاً ”نیروی معنوی جاویدان“ به چه معناست؟ کی زندگی واقعی ایرانی‌ها اساساً دارای چنین قدرتی در زندگی واقعی‌شان بوده؟ فقدان تحلیل‌های جامعه‌شناختی و تاریخی در این مباحث به ‌شدت حس می‌شود.

در ویژه‌نامۀ بنیاد دربارۀ ”جهان سوم: چالشی برای هویت،“ شاعر و مترجم ادبی مدرن، فرخ تمیمی، یادداشتی می‌نویسد با عنوان ”شرق یا غرب؟“ تمیمی می‌نویسد:

امروز، من شرقی، من ایرانی، در چارچوب مرزهای وطنم می‌خواهم خودم را از هجوم آثار منفی غرب در امان نگاه دارم. اینجا حربۀ من تنها ”هویت ملی“ است. می‌خواهم آثار خوب تمدن غربی را اخذ کنم و هویت ملی‌ام را نیز پاک و ناآلوده حفظ کنم. مسئله این است و مسئلۀ غامضی است.[20]

خواست و آرزوی تمیمی برای اینکه انسانی ”مدرن“ باشد و همچنان به هویت ایرانی اصیل هم ”تعلق“ داشته باشد، احتمالاً روایت گفتمانی رایج در میان اغلب روشنفکران ایرانی در دهۀ 1350 بود. این دیدگاه به ‌وفور در شماره‌های متعدد بنیاد بیان شده است. شاهدیم که این دیدگاه در بحث‌های روشنفکری و حتی مؤسسات فرهنگی حکومتی هم طرح می‌شود. با این‌ حال، هر چند جنبه‌های ”مطلوب“ تمدن و هویت ایرانی و اسلامی بیان می‌شود، اگرچه به ‌صورت کلی و شعاری، اما به ‌ندرت تلاشی جدی دیده می‌شود که بیان کند چه چیزی در فرهنگ مدرن یا غربی ”پسندیده“ است. با در نظر گرفتن این واقعیت که شرق، ایران و اسلام به صورت گسترده نقطۀ مقابل غرب تعریف می‌شود، چنین تبیین‌هایی تقریباً غیرممکن است. این دوگانه‌سازی‌ها با قرار دادن معنویت شرقی در مقابل مادی‌گرایی غربی، تفکر عقلانی و سلطۀ دانش تکنیکی برانگیخته می‌شود.

نمونۀ چنین گرایشی را در مقالۀ‌ ناصر رنجبین با عنوان ”غرب . . . و شرق . . . از دیدگاه انسان شرقی“ می‌توان دید. رنجبین معتقد است که ”شرق“ برای اینکه از فرهنگ مدرن غربی در امان باشد، می‌بایست تکنولوژی مدرن غربی را به ‌همراه سنت‌های خود استفاده کند و در این مسیر می‌تواند جهان ”متشکل انسانی“ و شکوهمندی را نیز در عالم خلق کند:

انسان مشرق‌زمین، فارغ از پیدایی ”تردید“ در مغرب‌زمین، تمدن پاینده و ریشه‌دار خود را به یاری تفکر خویش می‌سازد. این انسان به تکنولوژی غرب ”آری“ می‌گوید و در برابر فرهنگ غرب و تفکر غربی که زود می‌پوسد با یک ”نه بزرگ“ پاسخ می‌گوید . . . انسان شرقی باید که با دست یافتن به برابری تکنولوژی به تعمیم و گسترش ارزش‌های فرهنگی و سنتی دیار خود بپردازد و جهان انسانی را با برخورداری از تمدن کهن خویش و با بهره‌گیری از توازن ارزش‌های صنعتی به سوی یک جهان ”متشکل انسانی“ رهنمون شود. نه جبهۀ نوینی که در دو سوی آن ”انسان شرقی“ و ”انسان غربی“ موضع گرفته باشند.[21]

شبیه بحث فوق را، منتهی با بیانی شاعرانه، محمدرضا تاجدینی در شعرش با عنوان ”شرق و غرب“ تکرار می‌کند:

آن زمان که خورشید شرق

به طاعون غرب آلوده گشت

شب قلمرو خود را وسعتی تازه بخشید

. . .

اینک ای شرق عزیز!

ای قافله‌سالار روزهای پرشکوه

آیا دوباره

تاج خورشید را بر تارک قبیله‌ام می‌نشانی؟

و شوکت دیرینه باز خواهد گشت؟

کسی چه می‌داند؟



آتشی زیر خاکستر مانده باشد

که شفا دهد طاعون قبیله مشرقی‌ام را


کسی چه می‌داند؟[22]

مطالب بالا به‌ خوبی نشان می‌دهد که کمترین تلاشی صورت نمی‌گرفت تا تحلیل و بحثی جدی در این زمینه طرح شود یا حتی اندکی شواهد و مستندات برای این ادعاهای پرطمطراق عرضه شود.

فقط چند ماه مانده به سقوط حکومت پهلوی، سردبیر بنیاد، علیرضا میبدی، در یکی از آخرین شماره‌های مجله در سرمقاله‌ای ضمن انتقاد از غرب صنعتی جهان سوم را به قیام و کسب استقلال تشویق می‌کند:

اگر کشورهای صنعتی غرب سازنده، کنترل‌کننده و گاه بازدارندۀ قرن بیستم بودند، بی‌تردید قرن آینده قرن جهان سوم است. تجربۀ یک قرن قدرت فنی و صنعتی که عارضه‌هایش انسان را از لحاظ مادی زورمند و مقتدر و از دید روحانی و معنوی مسکین و نیازمند کرد، جهان سوم را به‌سوی بیداری و هوشمندی سیاسی و معنوی سوق می‌دهد. یعنی جهان سوم می‌رود تا جای اسارت را به آزادی دهد . . . آری، اگر قرن بیستم قرن قدرت صنعتی و تکنولوژیک یک انسان بود، قرن آینده قرن عظمت آزادی و انسان‌های آزاداندیش است.[23]

کوچک‌ترین نشانه‌ای دال بر عرضۀ دلیل و برهان در این شیوۀ بحث دیده نمی‌شود. بر چه اساسی می‌توانیم استدلال کنیم کشورهای غربی صرفاً به ‌لحاظ مادی قوی‌اند؟ وقتی می‌گوییم جهان سوم مرکز معنویت است، مبنای استدلال ما چیست؟

در شمارۀ 7 بنیاد، ایرج وحیدی یادداشتی دربارۀ ”احیاء سهم جهانی ایران“ می‌نویسد.[24] او به احیاء علم به دست ایرانیان به‌ مثابه جایگزینی برای سلطۀ علمی غرب اعتقاد دارد:

سهم تاریخی ایران در اشاعه و توسعۀ علوم و فرهنگ بشری انکارناپذیر است. هنگامی که با رجوع به تاریخ پی می‌بریم که دارالعلم‌ها و مدارس و مکاتب علمی ما همواره در طول تاریخ اهمیتی بس فراتر از دیگر مراکز علمی و مراکز فرهنگی و هنری جهان داشته است . . . آنچه در روزگار ما اهمیت و ضرورت دارد احیاء مجدد سهم جهانی ایران در قلمرو علوم و فرهنگ است. تنها از این راه اساسی و اصولی است که می‌توان اقتدار علمی و اقتدار تکنولوژیک و استقلال پژوهش‌ها و تحقیقات را تضمین کرد تا جهانیان ایران را نه به عنوان یک وارده‌کننده، بلکه به عنوان یک سازمان‌دار و مبادله‌کنندۀ اطلاعات و پیام‌های پژوهشی بشناسد.[25]

خصومت شدید نسبت به بُعد فرهنگی غرب در شمارۀ 14 بنیاد نیز مشهود است. در این شماره، مصاحبه‌ای با مدیر سازمان خبرگزاری دولتی پارس (پانا) صورت گرفته است. تصویر روی جلد و عنوان مصاحبه تیتر ”امپریالیسم خبری“ را برجسته می‌کند و این خبرگزاری را به ‌عنوان راه مقاومت در برابر ”امپریالیسم خبری“ معرفی می‌کند. بعد از گزارشی از ساختمان جدید و آخرین تجهیزات و وسائل ارتباطی مدرن دفتر خبرگزاری، مدیر خبرگزاری می‌گوید:

متأسفانه هنوز هستند خبرگزاری‌هایی که در انعکاس و نشر خبرهای مربوط به جهان سوم، اغلب و گاهی مطلقاً، به رویدادهای ناخوشایند و منفی این کشورها . . . علاقه نشان می‌دهند و دستاوردهای اقتصادی-صنعتی و اجتماعی و نیز تحولات مثبت سیاسی کشورهای جهان سوم در فعالیت‌های خبری این‌گونه خبرگزاری‌های بزرگ جهان جایی ندارد . . . تنها راه مقابله با این موقعیت نامطلوب، پیدایش خبرگزاری‌های نیرومند و آگاه در جهان سوم است.[26]

نمونه دیگری از این ادبیات هویت‌طلبانۀ غیرواقعی را در تبلیغات مجله برای ”پروژۀ خانه‌سازی مهستان“ می‌توان دید. در صفحۀ این آگهی تبلیغاتی درشت نوشته شده است: ”شهری با هویت: آمیزه‌ای از سنت و تکنولوژی.“[27] اما جالب است که تصاویر این آگهی مجمتع‌های مسکونی مدرنی را نشان می‌دهد که هیچ فرقی با دیگر ساختمان‌ها و برج‌های مدرن تهران ندارند.

2. معنویت ایرانی در مواجهه با غرب بی‌روح

اولین مقالۀ شمارۀ اول بنیاد اختصاص دارد به مصاحبه‌ای با شرق‌شناس و شیعه‌شناس فرانسوی، هانری کربن، با عنوان ”مصاحبه با هنری کربن: شرق درون.“ مصاحبه با نثری عارفانه و بسیار شاعرانه نوشته شده است، به‌طوری که در طول مصاحبه به‌ سختی می‌توان تشخیص داد که آیا ایده‌هایی که مطرح شده است از هانری کربن است یا برداشت آزاد مصاحبه‌‌کننده. مصاحبه‌کننده در ابتدای مصاحبه می‌گوید:

آری، او شکاکیت عظیمی نسبت به حرکت سفینه‌های غرب دارد. این فرانسوی متفکر، که زائر آستان ”ابن‌سینا،“ ”سهروردی“ و ”ملاصدرا“ است در ایران ”کلید“ مدنیت روحانی انسان را یافته است. او اسیر وسوسه‌های یک تاریخ بعید نیست. او به روحانیت حقیقی انسان نظر دارد. از این روست که وقتی با او سخن می‌گویی همواره ”کلید اشراق“ را در برابر ”ضدکلید“ فلسفۀ غرب قرار می‌دهد و تحقق حقیقت تاریخ را در اتحاد مشرقیون جهان می‌داند.[28]

سراسر مصاحبه سرشار از تصاویر رمانتیک و شرق‌شناسانه از ”شرق“ و تصاویر تاریک از غرب است و روایتی ذات‌گرایانه از شرق و غرب به دست می‌دهد. در پاسخ به پرسشی دربارۀ معنویت، کربن اشاره می‌کند که غربی‌ها

معروق [اشتباه از متن است: مغروق] یک عالم حسی و علمی شده‌اند، در حالی که فلسفۀ اشراق نگاه به معنویت آدمی دارد . . . شما در سرزمینی می‌زیید که اندیشه‌های ملاصدرا و ابن‌سینا را کنار گوش دارد. شما در عالمی سیر می‌کنید که ”شیخ اشراق“ مقیم آن است و بالاخره شما در جهانی به سر می‌برید که همۀ عناصر برای متحول ساختن روحانی انسان در دسترس است . . . در جهان بیچاره و مستمند غرب آنچه نیست، روحانیت است . . . غرب شناخت چندانی از ”انسان اشراقی“ ندارد، یعنی انسانی که می‌تواند جهانی را از این ”ناآزادی“ برهاند.[29]

این ایده‌های به ظاهر جذاب دربارۀ ایران که در سال 1355 مطرح می‌شود، کمترین ارتباطی با واقعیاتی‌ نداشت که مردم در آن زمان در ایران تجربه می‌کردند. با این‌ حال، این نویسندگان بخش مهمی از نخبگان فکری معاصر ایران را شکل می‌دادند که کربن و همکاران ایرانی‌اش را نیز شامل می‌شد. خیلی عجیب است که آیا واقعاً این افراد، که در این مجلۀ حکومتی و نهادهای مشابه مشغول به‌ کار بودند، واقعیت‌های زندگی و فرهنگ ایران آن زمان را نمی‌دیدند؟ شاید برای فرار از اتفاقاتی که در حال وقوع بود و مطبوعشان نبود، معنویت را انتخاب کرده باشند.

در پاسخ به این سوال که ”راستی چگونه شد که با فلسفۀ شرق آشنا شدید و این چنین دل در گرو آن گذاشتید؟“ کربن پاسخ می‌دهد:

من تحصیلات فلسفی خود را در سال‌های بیست، یعنی درست موقعی که اروپا رفته بود تا غبار جنگ جهانی را از تن خود بتکاند، در نزد معلمی به نام اتین گیلسون آغاز کردم . . . ما در جستجوی معنای جدیدی در فلسفه بودیم . . . ما توانستیم از رهگذر مطالعات سده‌های میانه با فلاسفۀ ایرانی، به‌ویژه ابن‌سینا، که شواهد موجودیت فکری او جابه‌جا در قرون وسطا به چشم می‌آمد، آشنا شویم.[30]

مصاحبه‌کننده می‌پرسد: ”وقتی می‌گویید مشرقیون جهان متحد شود آیا یک عمل سیاسی را مراد می‌کنید؟“ کربن جواب می‌دهد: ”فکر می‌کنم اگر بگوییم یک عمل روحانی بهتر باشد.“ مصاحبه‌کننده در ادامه می‌پرسد: ”یک عمل روحانی در برابر غرب غیرروحانی؟“ کربن توضیح می‌دهد که ”شما می‌توانید در غرب باشید، اما مشرقی بیاندیشید و زندگی کنید. یا در شرق باشید و غربی عمل نمایید. پس اگر من شرق را می‌گویم، منظورم شرق درون است.“[31]

در سومین شمارۀ بنیاد، سردبیر مجله، علیرضا میبدی، در یادداشتی با عنوان ”بحران ’من‘“ بحثی شبیه بحث غرب‌زدگی جلال آل‌احمد مطرح می‌کند:

در غرب ”من“ هر لحظه از این جهان جداست . . . سهم انسانِ باانسان به کمترین میزان رسیده . . . آری، غرب تاریخ معکوس را گزیده است: من خود را به حالت اشیاء یا به کلام بهتر به ماهیت وسائل و ابزار نزدیک و نزدیک‌تر ساخته و از حقیقت و ماهیت انسان دور و دورتر شده است. . . . پس شگفت نیست اگر می‌بینیم در قوالب زندگی تاریخی غرب همه‌چیز در حالت عکس خویش مصداق پیدا کرده است: اخلاق معکوس، مفاهیم معکوس، هدف‌های معکوس، عدالت معکوس، حریت معکوس و دموکراسی معکوس.[32]

به ‌نظر می‌رسد منطق بحث میبدی تحت تأثیر کلکسیونی از ایدئولوژی‌های مختلف است. تحلیلی شبه‌مارکسیستی از ازخودبیگانگی انسان مدرن با بازنمایی عرفانی و تقریباً اگزوتیک از ”شرق.“ این ساختار بحث بسیار شبیه به ایده‌هایی است که فردید و کربن دربارۀ معنویت شرقی طرح کرده‌اند:

وقتی شرق را در برابر غرب قرار می‌دهیم یک نکتۀ امیدانگیز حاصل می‌شود و آن اینکه شرق حیای خود را . . . هنوز محفوظ داشته و بحران من تا به آن حد گستاخ نشده است که انسانِ باانسان را مبدل به انسانِ بی‌انسان کند. عاملی که از حفظ این حیا حمایت می‌کند فرهنگ من شرق است که . . . هنوز در برابر وسوسه‌های انسان غرب، آگاه و ناخودآگاه مقاومت می‌کند. . . . در غرب، این انسان نیست که پیش می‌تازد و پیش می‌رود. این اشیاء و انسان مقرون به اشیاء است که روزبه‌روز فربه‌تر و پیشرفته می‌شود. آری، این انسان نیست که غول می‌شود، این ماشین است که نسناسی غریب شده است.[33]

یادداشت دیگری دربارۀ سلطۀ غرب بر شرق با عنوان ”استیلای دهشتناک“ در بنیاد آمده که فردی با ‌نام دکتر پژوهش آن را نوشته است. بحث نویسنده بر مبنای دوگانۀ شرق معنوی و غرب تکنولوژیک و غیراخلاقی است. نویسنده معتقد است که

غرب سعی می‌کند به شرق بفهماند که بر او برتری دارد، زیرا تمدن ماشینی و تکنولوژی را به او آموخته است. اما همین غرب فراموش کرده است که دین او شرقی است . . . غرب بی‌رحم و سنگدل و خودخواه و مغرور است . . . غرب جز بدبختی و فساد و تباهی و نکبت چیزی به شرق نداده است و شرق بیدار زنجیرهای اسارت فکری و سیاسی و اقتصادی مخرب را پاره خواهد کرد . . . و با توجه به سنت‌های کهن خود رسم غرب‌گرایی و غرب‌زدگی را درهم خواهد کوبید . . . هر آنچه انسانی است از شرق است و آنچه مادی و تجاری است از غرب که غرب تاجر است و کالای او خون انسان‌ها و سرمایه‌اش غارت کشورهاست.[34]

در همین شماره، مرور کتاب تصوف اثر نصرالله سیف‌‌پور فاطمی نیز منتشر شده است. در ابتدای این مطلب آمده است:

تصوف ایرانی پهنای اندیشه‌های شرق و غرب را در هم نوردیده و گنجینۀ پربار نبوغ شرقی داستان عشق و ایمان را از دیار عاشقان و سالکان به سرزمین ابرقدرت‌ها کشانیده است؛ جهانی که هر روز صدها جنایت در آن رخ می‌دهد، جهانی مرده از تغزل، جهان مرده از معنی، جهانی مرده از حضور عشق. و در این جهان است که انسان غربی به سوی شرق مشتاقانه پر می‌گشاید . . . نضج تصوف معلول حوادث سیاسی و اجتماعی دوران پرآشوبی بود که بر ایران گذشت و تحولات عظیم فکری به بار آورد که پرتو درخشان آن امروز در غرب همچون شرق جهانگیر شده است.[35]

این سبک انشاءنویسی که به ‌طرز عجیبی احساسی و پرسوز و گداز است و فقط بخش‌هایی از آن را در این مقاله آورده‌ایم و ظاهراً در آن زمان متداول بوده، حاوی کمترین استدلال منطقی و معناداری است. هیچ نشانه‌ای دال بر اینکه بحث‌ها بر مستندات تاریخی یا شواهد استوار باشد وجود ندارد. بحث‌ها صرفاً ایدۀ تقابل شرق/غرب را به شیوه‌ای رمانتیک و احساسی تکرار می‌کنند، منتهی به قلم نویسنده‌های گوناگون.

سعید فاطمی مقالۀ دیگری در شمارۀ 14 بنیاد با عنوان ”خام بدم، پخته شدم، سوختم“ نوشته است که به تحقق نفس معنوی مولوی اشاره دارد.[36] فاطمی می‌نویسد:

مولوی و اندیشه‌هایش نمودار یکی از درخشان‌ترین تجلیات روح ایرانی است که معنویت مشرق‌زمین را به مفهوم واقعی نمودار می‌سازد. او و ناله‌های جانسوزش نمونه‌ای از روح عمیق و عرفانی و ادب کم‌نظیر شرق و به‌خصوص ایران، سرزمین اندیشه‌های عالی انسانی و گاهوارۀ تمدن مشرق‌زمین، است.[37]

ضیاء نور هم در نوشته‌ دیگری اندیشۀ معنوی مولوی و ایدۀ وحدت وجود در مثنوی را در چندین مقاله شرح می‌دهد.[38]

در شمارۀ 20 بنیاد، مقاله‌ای به قلم ابراهیم صفائی با عنوان ”خیام و مترلینگ“ آمده است.[39] صفائی معتقد است که ایده‌های مشترکی بین موریس مترلینگ و خیام وجود دارد: ”گاهی نظریه و برداشت مترلینگ دربارۀ فلسفۀ حیات و رازهای آفرینش با اندیشه‌های خیام چندان شباهت دارد که گویی مترلینگ در مکتب خیام، فیلسوف عالی‌قدر ما، نیز درس خوانده و برخی از دریافت‌های فکری خود را از این منبع الهام گرفته است.“[40] این مقاله هم مثل مقالات فوق و بخش قابل توجهی از مقالات بنیاد تلاش می‌کند که نشان دهد تقریباً هیچ ایدۀ جدید و اصیلی در غرب وجود ندارد و همۀ آنچه را که ارزشمند و قابل ‌توجه است قبلاً شخصیت‌های ادبی و فرهنگی ایرانی گفته‌اند.

3. منحصربه‌فرد بودن تمدن آریایی

در مصاحبه‌ای دربارۀ اسطوره‌شناسی، سعید فاطمی تلاش می‌کند نشان دهد یونان باستان هیچ‌گاه چیزی برای عرضه نداشته و این تمدن آریایی -در اینجا آریایی به‌ عنوان شرقی تعریف می‌شود- بوده که زیربنای سایر تمدن‌ها بوده است. او ادعا می‌کند که

برخلاف تصور بسیاری از مردم، یونان ضعیف‌ترین فرهنگ تمدن و اساطیر را داشته است و تمام مظاهر به ظاهر قاطع و پایدار آن وام گرفته شده از مشرق‌زمین و به‌ویژه تمدن آریایی است . . . تمدن به ظاهر بزرگ و شکوهمند یونان چیزی جز تمدن وام گرفته شده از کشورهای شرقی و ایران نیست، یونانی‌ها بیشترین تأثیر را از مصر گرفتند . . . [و] تمدن مصری‌ها در بیشتر موارد از تمدن آریایی گرفته شده است . . . برتری فرهنگ و تمدن آریایی بر دیگر تمدن‌های کهن . . . به گواهی تاریخ و اکتشافات به ثبوت رسیده است.[41]

فاطمی از جمله افرادی بود که به صورت منظم برای مجله مطلب می‌نوشت و در سال اول انتشار مجله تقریباً در هر شماره یک نوشته یا مصاحبه دربارۀ ایران باستان دارد. در همۀ این مطالب رویکرد کلی او نشان دادن عظمت تمدن آریایی است. پیام اصلی فاطمی این است که تمدن آریایی سنگ بنای سایر تمدن‌های دنیاست. جالب است که این اظهارات بیش از آنکه متکی بر تحلیل و شواهد تاریخی باشد، بازتاب جو تبلیغاتی غالب آن دوره است. برای مثال، در مقالۀ ”سی قرن سرود انسانی،“ فاطمی دربارۀ ”بربریسم غرب در برابر روحانیت شرق“ می‌نویسد. او شرق را ”نماد وجدان بزرگ بشری“ می‌داند و معتقد است آشنایی یونانیان با تمدن ایران و اندیشه‌های زرتشت باعث شد که یونانیان ”بسیاری مزایای انسانیت و راستی“ را فراگیرند.[42] فاطمی معتقد است که ”چه از جهات معنوی و فکری و چه از نظر اساطیری سنت‌های هندوایرانی در زمینه‌های مختلف بر اندیشه‌های یونانی برتری دارد و نژاد آریایی هماره طلایه‌دار تمدن بزرگ انسانی در زمینه‌های مختلف بوده است.“[43] ظاهراً، آریایی واژه‌ای اساسی است که فاطمی برای ستایش فرهنگ ایران باستان به کار می‌برد. فاطمی در جایی دیگر می‌گوید:

نزدیک ده قرن تمدن یونانی با تمدن ایرانی تضاد و تماس داشت، ولی قدرت معنوی ایران همیشه این تمدن را به صورتی تحت سلطۀ خود نگاه داشت و حتی از مرزهای ترکستان تا چین آن را گسترش داد . . . اشاعۀ مهرپرستی در سرزمین یونان و به‌خصوص روم قدیم نخستین گامی است که رابطه و نفوذ معنوی ایران قدیم را روشن می‌کند.[44]

او به ‌تفصیل توضیح می‌دهد که مناسک، ادیان و اسطوره‌ها در یونان و روم قدیم ریشه در ایدۀ ایرانی میترائیسم دارد. در مقاله‌ای دیگر این بحث را ادامه می‌دهد و معتقد است ”ستایش مهر از سرزمین‌های ایرانی“ به دیگر سرزمین‌ها نفوذ پیدا کرد و در اشکال خدایانی محلی همچون آپولون نمود پیدا کرد.[45] در مقالۀ دیگرش با عنوان ”حضور اسطورۀ پیشین در متن تفکر امروز“ از ضرورت اسطوره‌ها در زندگی باستان و میراث آنها در زندگی مدرن بحث می‌کند.[46]

همچنین، مقاله تحقیقی دیگری با عنوان ”مقدمه‌ای بر تاریخ تمدن و فرهنگ ایران باستان“ از اردشیر خدادایان، استاد دانشگاه ملی وقت، در بنیاد منتشر شده است که از دورۀ باستان تا قرون میانه را بررسی می‌کند. نویسندۀ مقاله تلاش می‌کند نشان دهد چطور علی‌رغم حملات متعدد به ایران در طول تاریخ، میراث آریایی دوام آورده است.[47] مقاله بخش دومی هم دارد که به زبان‌ها و ادبیات پیشااسلامی می‌پردازد و اوستا را در طول تاریخ بررسی می‌کند.[48] همچنین، خدادیان گاتاهای زرتشت را به منزلۀ گنجینۀ تمدن ایرانی مرور کرده است.[49] هرچند این مقالات به ‌منظور نشان دادن ”شکوه و عظمت“ گذشتۀ ایران نوشته شده، اما به‌ندرت تلاش جدی‌ تاریخ‌نگارانه یا تحلیل انتقادی در آنها دیده می‌شود.

هویت ایرانی و دلهره‌های مدرن

شمارۀ 10 بنیاد ویژه‌نامه‌ای است دربارۀ ”جهان سوم: مبارزه برای هویت.“ تقریباً همۀ مطالب این شماره به میزگردهایی مربوط می‌شود که برنامۀ هفتگی تلویزیون کانال 2 در آن ایام پخش می‌کرد و بسیاری از روشنفکران در آن شرکت داشتند. علیرضا میبدی، سردبیر بنیاد، هم‌زمان مجری این میزگردهای تلویزیونی هم بود.

غربِ ”خوب،“ ”بد،“ ”دهشتناک“

حکومت پهلوی به دستاوردهای اقتصادی-اجتماعی و برنامه‌های نوسازی خود افتخار می‌کرد. رسانه‌های دولتی و بسیاری از نهادهای حکومتی مشغول نوعی پیکار تبلیغاتی گسترده بودند تا فراگیری برنامۀ نوسازی حکومت پهلوی در ایران را نشان دهند. حداقل حکومت خود را به شکل سطحی به‌ منزلۀ سلطنتی مدرن و در حال نوسازی معرفی می‌کرد. جالب است که مخالفان حکومت هم معتقد بودند حکومت پهلوی حکومت مدرن مغروری و در حال تغییر دادن ایران بر اساس مدل‌های غربی است. با این‌ حال، بررسی دقیق‌تر ایدئولوژی پهلوی حقیقت دیگری را نشان می‌دهد. حکومت پهلوی، به‌ویژه در اواخر دورۀ محمدرضاشاه (اواخر دهۀ 1340 و دهۀ 1350)، رویکردی ضد مدرن/غربی اتخاذ کرد. این رویکرد در صفحات مجلۀ بنیاد به‌ وضوح مشاهده می‌شود. تقریباً همۀ نویسندگان بنیاد مرزبندی آشکار و اگزیستانسیالی بین آنچه بُعد مثبت غرب می‌دانستند، یعنی تکنولوژی و علم، و سیاست و فرهنگ فاسد غرب ترسیم می‌کردند. حتی برخی همچون رضا داوری اردکانی مواضع رادیکال‌تری داشتند و سلطۀ تکنولوژی و سکولاریسم در غرب را به سبب به‌اصطلاح بحران معنویت و اخلاق سرزنش می‌کردند. با این ‌حال، برخی دیگر به امکان اقتباس تکنولوژی غرب معتقد بودند.

در ویژه‌نامۀ نوروز 1357 بنیاد، علیرضا میبدی یادداشت بلندبالایی با عنوان ”نوروزها دیروزها“ نوشت و در آن با حسی بسیار نوستالژیک از روزهای خوب از دست ‌رفته یاد کرد. میبدی هر چیز قدیمی‌ای را که در گذشته وجود داشته با حسرت تمام با مشابه جدیدش مقایسه می‌کند. جالب است که ظاهراً این روزهای از دست ‌رفته متعلق به فقط چند سال پیش بوده‌اند که نویسنده به ‌وضوح آن روزها را به ‌یاد می‌آورد. برای مثال، میبدی انواع محصولات و پدیده‌های فرهنگی و مادی قدیمی از دست رفته را با حسرت تمام با انواع جدید آن مقایسه می‌کند: برنامه‌های رادیویی قدیمی را با برنامه‌های بی‌بی‌سی‌، ”دوپیازه آلو“ را با کالباس و سوسیس، شربت خاکشیر را با پپسی‌کولا، حمام عمومی را با حمام‌های جدید، دستمال یزدی را با کیف سامسونت، ”سقا که کوچه‌ها را آب‌پاشی می‌کرد“ را با ماشین آب‌پاش، عرفا را با ”صوفی فرنگی‌ها“ی ”از پاریس“ برگشته، ”آنان که حرمت‌ها را نگه می‌داشتند“ را با ”منورالفکر“انی که ”به قنسول سلام“ می‌کنند، زورخانه را با فوتبال، سرکه‌شیرۀ ”قوت قلب را“ با قرص ”نوالژین،“ عشق‌های با ”صلوات“ دیروز را با ”جوانان دیوسیرت و دخترهای فریب‌خورده“ امروز، دیدوبازدید نوروزی را با سفرهای نوروزی، درشکه را با تاکسی‌ تلفنی، اخبار کوچه و خیابان را با ژورنالیسم و غیره.[50]

در یادداشتی دیگر در همین شماره با عنوان ”یک قبیله غربی در میان قومیت ایرانی“ طرز فکر مشابهی را در خصوص از دست رفتن هویت ”واقعی“ ایرانی می‌بینیم:

پاره‌ای از . . . نوکیسه‌ها به فرزندان خود عملاً چنین تفهیم کرده‌اند که برای ارتزاق بهتر، تظاهر بهتر، نخوت و تکبر طبقاتی بهتر، نان بهتر، آب بهتر، میز بهتر، باید ایرانی بدتری بود. ماساچوست و لندن و نیس را بر یزد و شیراز ما ترجیح میدهند . . . آنها یک قبیلۀ غربی در میان قومیت ایرانی‌اند. قبیله‌ای که طرز سلوک، رفتار، کردار و معاشرت و مباشرتش کمترین تشابهی با آدمیت ایرانی ندارد.

نویسنده حتی والدینی را که ترجیح می‌دهند فرزندانشان از سنین پایین انگلیسی یاد بگیرند یا کسانی‌ که فرزندانشان را برای تحصیل به مدارس اروپایی و امریکایی می‌فرستند شدیداً سرزنش می‌کند.[51]

در همین شماره، محمدحسین عادلی مطلبی با عنوان ”شیفتگی مصرف“ دارد. نویسنده معتقد است که صنعتی شدن و نوسازی در کشورهای در حال توسعه منجر به گسترش مصرف‌گرایی می‌شود و پیامد این مصرف‌گرایی ”تنهایی“ است.[52] او با ترسیم معادلۀ ”انسان گرسنه= انسان مصرفی= انسان وابسته“، که از نظر او ”معادلۀ فاجعه‌آمیز عصر ماست،“ برداشت خود را از ”انسان امروز“ بیان می‌کند و می‌پرسد: ”به راستی می‌توان آیا زندگی را زیست به ‌هنگامی که آن را گم کرده‌ایم؟“[53]

مصاحبه‌ای با مهرداد اوستا، شاعر و منتقد ادبی، دربارۀ رابطۀ ادبیات و عرفان نیز در بنیاد آمده است. اوستا بعد از شرح بی‌همتا بودن ادبیات عرفانی در ایران، می‌گوید:

در زمانی که ما قرار داریم، نه تنها در ایران، شاید در همۀ دنیا، بشر امروز به خاطر همین پیشرفت‌های تکنیکی و صنعتی و تمدن به آن‌چنان وضعی رسیده است که فراغت فکری ندارد. و هر چه زمان پیش‌تر برود و صنعت و علم و تمدن مظاهر تازه‌ای بیابد، این فراغت فکری اندک‌تر و فرصت رو کردن به مسائل معنوی و قدرت اندیشیدن را از بشر امروز بیشتر خواهد گرفت.[54]

در شماره 4 بنیاد بحثی دربارۀ زبان فارسی وجود دارد. یک قطعۀ دو پاراگرافی کوتاه از فردید با عنوان ”اکنون‌زدگی فرهنگستان“ ​آمده است. در کنار آن، یادداشت‌ها و مطالب دیگری نیز هست که صرفاً ایدۀ فردید را تکرار می‌کنند. فردید می‌گوید:

با هم‌سخنی مارتین هیدگر می‌گویم ”زبان که خانه وجود است در جهان ویران است.“ بله، زبان امروز زبان نوسازی است. زبان صنعت است. زبان اوضاع و احوال جدید است، اما زبان تفکر نیست. و حتی زبان هنر هم از زبان تفکر جدا شده است. زبان امروز در خدمت اوضاع و احوال جهان است و زبان بشر امروز افساری است برای استیلا، سیطره و تفوق بر موجود و بر هرچه که هست. زبانی که فرهنگستان [زبان فارسی] برای ما می‌سازد ”اکنون‌زده“ است و این زبان در آینده نمی‌تواند خالق فرهنگ و ادب و هنر ما شود. در حالی که باید در اندیشۀ زبان فردا بود، زبانی متناسب با نوسازی، متناسب با تفکر و از همه مهم‌تر متناسب با معنی. زبانی ورای انانیت و اکنون‌زدگی. برای یافته چنین زبانی، باید ابتدا مردم و خاصه جوان‌ها را با تفکر آشنا کرد و گذاشت که آنها خود زبان تفکر خویش را به تدریج بسازند. آنچه ما امروز داریم زبان مزاعم همگانی (رسانه‌های همگانی) است: زبان رادیوست. زبان تلویزیون است. زبان روزنامه است که مردم نیز به ناچار از آن تبعیت می‌کنند.[55]

در همین شماره، میبدی در سرمقاله از زاویه‌ای دیگر در خصوص پاکسازی زبان بعد از مأموریت‌های سیاسی و استعماری بحث می‌کند. او می‌نویسد:

ورود و حضور زبان و فرهنگ بیگانه در یک مجموعۀ انسانی زمانی خطرناک و هشداردهنده است که به حضور سیاسی و اقتصادی بیانجامد و شرایط لازم را برای موجودیت و دوام استعمار بیگانه فراهم کند . . . خطر تازی‌زدگی پیشاروی ما نیست. درست پشت سر ماست. نفوذ و رسوخ زبان و فرهنگ غرب را هشدار دهیم که پیش روی ماست.[56]

سقوط فرهنگی و اخلاقی غرب

در شمارۀ 5 بنیاد مصاحبه‌ای با رضا داوری اردکانی صورت گرفته است. در این مصاحبه، از داوری دربارۀ تاثیر تکنولوژی بر آیندۀ جهان سوم پرسیده‌اند. در پاسخ، داوری دیدگاه بسیار تاریک و هایدگری‌ از فرهنگ غرب عرضه می‌کند: ”از فلسفه دیگر نباید توقع داشت که تمدن غربی را نجات دهد. تاریخ غرب اگر آینده‌ای دارد، این آینده در تفکر آینده که فلسفه نیست تعیین می‌شود. ما هم چون شریک در تاریخ غرب شده‌ایم به این نکته باید توجه کنیم یا لااقل فعلاً دعوی نجات غرب را نداشته باشیم.“[57] البته جای تعجب ندارد که در ادامه اشاره می‌کند که شاید آخرین امید غرب آمدن به آغوش شرق باشد:

اکنون [بشر . . .] می‌داند که زمام تکنولوژی به دست او نیست و حتی خود را اسیر و مقهور تکنولوژی می‌داند و در آرزوی آن است که حاکم بر تکنولوژی باشد . . . اگر می‌بینید که بعضی مستشرقان قبول عادت و آداب کهن شرق را به مردم عالم توصیه می‌کنند از آن است که وسیله برای تحقق آرزوی بهشت زمینی می‌جویند و می‌خواهند تمدن غرب را به نحوی نجات دهند. اما اینکه افراد باتدبیر خود می‌توانند سیر تاریخ را تغییر دهند وهمی است که از غرب آمده است.[58]

در بحثی مشابه، علیرضا میبدی متافیزیک غرب را سرزنش می‌کند و با یک بحث سطحی هایدگری استدلال می‌کند که ”سیاست دستگاه‌های قاهر غرب“ بر این است که به ”انسان مقهور جهانی یک خدای فرضی“ بدهد. او ”حضور الگوهای غربی“ در غرب را ”بسیار بدیهی“ می‌داند، اما حضور این الگوها و ایده‌ها در شرق را از ”ضد بدیهیات“ می‌داند.[59] میبدی سپس استدلال می‌کند که این خاص‌بودگی هویت ایرانی است که آن را زنده نگه داشته است. از نظر او، انسان وجودی فیزیکی و فناپذیر است و فقط ”تاریخ“ است که او را ”انقراض‌ناپذیر“ می‌کند: ”ایرانی اگر تا به حال مانده، به این خاطر است که با غنی ساختن فرهنگ و شعر و ادب و اخلاق خود و با حرمتی که برای حقیقت و فضیلت قائل شده، قصد تاریخ و نیل به هویت دائم را داشته است.“[60]

میبدی سپس با رویکردی معنویت‌گرایانه مفهوم ”پیشرفت“ را نقد می‌کند. به ‌نظر او، ”انسان در غرب فکر می‌کرد“ که در حال پیشرفت است، اما ”اکنون در این تشویش است که زندگی آلوده آلوده‌تر نگردد.“ ملت‌های دیگر نباید خود را ”ملزم به تحمل سرنوشت و خدای محتوم دیگران“ کنند و باید به تاریخ و ”سرنوشت“ خود ”ایمان“ داشته باشند، چرا که ”اجتماعات بشری صاحب سرنوشت‌های واحد نیستند.“[61] جالب است این پیشنهاد که یک ملت باید ”سرنوشت خود“ را به‌ دست گیرد، درست چند ماه قبل از انقلاب، از جانب روشنفکر حامی حکومت و در مجلۀ مورد حمایت حکومت، مطرح شده است.

شمارۀ 9 بنیاد به غرب‌زدگی اختصاص دارد. تصاویر جلال آل‌احمد، سیدحسین نصر، احمد فردید و برخی دیگر از روشنفکران ایرانی پشت جلد این شماره قرار دارد و ”غرب یا شرق: میزگرد روشنفکری“ عنوان آن است. اما در این شماره صرفاً یک مقاله دربارۀ غرب‌زدگی وجود دارد و ظاهراً این تیتر به‌ مناسبت میزگردهایی آمده است که در کانال 2 تلویزیون با اجرای میبدی در جریان بود. شاهرخ شمس در مقاله‌اش با عنوان ”غرب‌زدگی در نظام تولید“ معتقد است:

در شرق، انسان هنوز شباهت به‌ خود را از دست نداده است. حال آنکه در غرب انسان می‌رود تا شباهت به‌ خود را از دست بدهد. و این برخلاف تصور نه ‌به خاطر نفس صنعت و تکنولوژی، بل صرفاً به علت حضور نوعی نظام تولیدی است که ریشه‌های آن را باید در انقلاب صنعتی اروپا و وجدان تاریخی‌اش جستجو کرد: وجدان سیاسی-اجتماعی بورژوازی. در این نظام، انسان در استخدام تولید است و تولید در استخدام سود و سود، که الزاماً اقتصادی و سیاسی است، در خدمت یک قشر مشخص.[62]

نویسنده در ادامه به نقد هر دو دیدگاه سرمایه‌داری و سوسیالیسم می‌پردازد و معتقد است که هر دو سیستم اقتصادی مشکل دارند چون هر دو جزیی از جهان غربی سکولار مدرن هستند. اگر این بخش از استدلال نویسنده به‌ سختی قابل فهم است و تناقض و سردرگمی نویسنده را نشان می‌دهد، نقل قول زیر خنده‌دار و به ‌طرز عجیبی ساده‌لوحانه به‌ نظر می‌رسد:

وقتی از غرب حرف می‌زنیم، نظام تولید کاپیتالیستی و سوسیالیستی را یک‌جا مراد می‌کنیم. چرا که پرولتاریای اروپایی و امریکایی به همان اندازه با ضدخود روبه‌روست که پرولتاریای سوسیالیسم. با این تفاوت که در نظام سوسیالیستی امروز جای ضدخود را دولت گرفته است که مالکیت بر ابزار و اسباب تولید، و بالمآل چیرگی بر ابزار و اسباب سیاست در دست اوست. در این میان، رسالت انسان شرقی مبارزه با غرب و علی‌الخصوص صنعت و تکنولوژی نیست. بلکه مبارزه با شکل و درونمایه و به یک کلام با وجدان بورژوازی است که انسان را به‌گونۀ یک ابزار صنعتی و یک شبه‌انسان مصرف‌کننده درآورده است. پس اجازه بدهید همین‌جا بگویم که وظیفه و رسالت انسان شرقی در حال حاضر جستجو برای یافتن یک نظام تولید شرقی است. نظامی که ریشه در شرافت اقتصادی داشته باشد.[63]

رضا مظلومان، استاد دانشگاه تهران، در شمارۀ 17 بنیاد مطلبی با عنوان ”تقلید و سرسام‌های اجتماعی“ نوشته است. نویسنده، که شخصیت سیاسی معروفی به طرفداری از حکومت است، اتفاقاً تلاش می‌کند تا تحلیلی جامعه‌شناسانه از خشونت و عوامل آن به دست دهد. او در قالب مقاله‌ای پژوهشی نظریه‌های متفاوت ”تقلید“ را مرور می‌کند و سپس با طرح مثال‌هایی از بسیاری از کشورهای جهان و از جمله ایران و امریکا، رابطۀ بین نمایش خشونت در رسانه‌ها و بازتاب آن در جامعه را شرح می‌دهد. اما دست‌اندرکاران مجله مثال خشونت در امریکا را به ‌صورت گزینشی برای سوتیتر مقاله انتخاب می‌کنند، چنان که در نگاه اول به‌ نظر می‌رسد مقاله در نقد خشونت در امریکاست.[64]

در شمارۀ 8، مقاله‌ای از محیط‌‌شناس امریکایی-فرانسوی، رُنه دوبو (René Dubos, 1901-1982)، چاپ شده است با عنوان ”بر علیه تکنولوژی.“[65] جالب آنکه عنوان انگلیسی مقاله ”در دفاع از محیط“ است. نویسنده میکروبیولوژیست معروفی است و نوعی رویکرد تکامل‌گرایانۀ اجتماعی‌ را پیشنهاد می‌کند که معتقد است می‌تواند بر مشکلات محیطی غلبه و در طبیعت تعادل اکولوژیکی ایجاد کند. او با ابراز خوش‌بینی نسبت به آینده معتقد است انسان این ظرفیت را دارد که معضلات زیست‌محیطی معاصر را رفع کند. اما عنوان مقالۀ منتشرشده در بنیاد گمراه‌کننده است. به ‌نظر می‌رسد تعمدی در کار بوده تا مقاله، برخلاف نظر نویسنده، ضد تکنولوژی جلوه کند.

مقالۀ دیگری در همین شماره از س. سهند با عنوان ”عصر فلزسالاری“ آمده است.[66] نویسنده معتقد است در حالی‌ که در عصری زندگی می‌کنیم که اسیر تکنولوژی و ماشین شده‌ایم، تصور می‌کنیم ”فردی آزاد“ هستیم. به ‌نظر او، در این عصر هیچ راه گریزی از امواج ”رسانه‌های گروهی“ مثل رادیو و تلویزیون نیست و این پیام‌های پی‌درپی سیستم عصبی انسان را ”بی‌حس“ و ”فلج“ کرده است.[67]

در همین شماره، مقاله‌ای از آرتور میلر ترجمه شده است. عنوان این مطلب که دربارۀ ادبیات و مصرف‌گرایی بحث می‌کند ”ادبیات و جامعۀ مصرفی“ است.[68] نویسندۀ مقاله رابطۀ نویسنده و خوانندگان در عصر مدرن را تحلیل می‌کند و معتقد است رسانه‌های همگانی و تولید انبوه به شناخته شدن نویسندگان و آثار ادبی کمک می‌کند. با این ‌حال، مجله گزینشی عمل می‌کند و برخی جمله‌های خاص را برای سوتیتر انتخاب می‌کند تا نشان دهد میلر مخالف تکنولوژی و جهان مدرن است. چنان که پیش از این نیز نشان داده شد، مسئولان مجله مدام چنین گزینش‌هایی را صورت می‌دادند تا مطالب را با ایدئولوژی ضدمدرنیستی بنیاد سازگار کنند.

در شمارۀ 15 مقاله‌ای دربارۀ ”نژادپرستی و آپارتاید“ برجسته شده است که گروه تحقیقی بنیاد فراهم کرده و به تبعیض علیه سیاهان در افریقای جنوبی می‌پردازد.[69] در شمارۀ 16 مطلبی از فرخ تمیمی منتشر شده است باعنوان ”نامۀ سرگشاده به یک عالیجناب.“[70] تمیمی در قالب یک نامه به مسئولان افریقای جنوبی، از نژادپرستی و آپارتاید انتقاد می‌کند. در نامه نقل قول‌هایی از قرآن، انجیل و محققان معروف آمده است تا وضعیت نژادپرستی در افریقای جنوبی را نکوهش کند. در همین شماره، مقاله‌ای با عنوان ”رویاهای مریکای سیاه“ منتشر شده که مصاحبه با 10 نفر متخصص دربارۀ نژادپرستی در امریکاست.[71] همچنین، بر اساس سفرنامۀ دان جاکوبسن، مقاله‌ای دربارۀ آپارتاید در افریقای جنوبی آمده است.[72]

شمارۀ 19 بنیاد بر نژاد و سیاست‌های نژادی تمرکز دارد و مقاله‌ای از رمان‌نویس امریکایی-کارائیبی، فرانک هرکوس، با عنوان ”زندگی در هارلم“ در آن چاپ شده است.[73] بخش دوم مقالۀ دان جاکوبسن دربارۀ آپارتاید در افریقای جنوبی هم در این شماره آمده است.[74] مطلبی دربارۀ ظهور نازیسم در اروپا[75] و مقاله‌ای با عنوان ”بازتاب چهرۀ زشت استعمار“ از فیلم‌ساز سیاه‌پوست سنگالی دربارۀ مشکلاتش برای فیلم‌سازی در این شماره منتشر شده است.[76] توجه داشته باشیم که این شمارۀ بنیاد در مهرماه 1357 منتشر شده است، اما دریغ از یک مقاله، تحلیل یا یادداشت دربارۀ حوادثی که در ایران در حال رخ دادن بود.

شیزوفرنی فکری: ترس از مواجهه با واقعیت

در این مطالعه، تقریباً همۀ مطالب منتشرشده در بنیاد را که با بحثمان مرتبط بود بررسی کردیم تا نشان دهیم به چه میزان ایدئولوژی ضدمدرنیستی در یک مجلۀ مورد حمایت حکومت رواج داشت. به‌ نظر می‌رسد ماهنامۀ بنیاد نسبت به موضوعات حساس آن زمان ایران غیرسیاسی عمل می‌کرد، اما به ‌وضوح و به شکلی سیستماتیک درگیر فعالیت فکری پرمخاطره‌ای بود. مجله کاملاً تحت تأثیر جریان‌های فکری دهۀ 1350 ایران بود. در واقع، بنیاد فقط یک نمونه در میان بسیاری از نهادهای فرهنگی تحت حمایت حکومت است که به تبلیغات بومی‌گرایانه ضدمدرنیستی می‌پرداختند.

یک مثال حضور منظم احمد فردید در تلویزیون ملی در دهۀ 1350 است. فردید بر اساس مطالعاتش از هایدگر روایتی ضدغربی از سنت‌گرایی دینی عرضه می‌کرد. آل‌احمد با نکوهش برنامۀ نوسازی اقتدارگرایانۀ رژیم پهلوی و استقبال از سنت‌های ایرانی به مثابه جایگزینی اصیل، ایدۀ ”بازگشت به خویشتن“ را سیاسی کرده بود. به ‌طرز متناقضی، حکومت پهلوی دقیقاً همان زمانی که برنامۀ نوسازی دولتی پرشتاب و خشنش را اجرا می‌کرد، این گفتمان اصالت تمدنی را به‌ همراه ادبیات ضدمدرن و ضدغربی‌اش از آنِ خود کرد. در این مدار سردرگم، بنیاد با کمک مالی خواهر دوقلوی شاه فضایی فرهنگی برای اندیشیدن به مسئلۀ غرب‌زدگی فراهم ساخت. مجله به تضعیف مشروعیت رژیمی کمک می‌کرد که اتفاقاً از طریق مواضع فکری‌اش به‌ دنبال حمایتش بود. مجله در عین حال که غرب را بردۀ عقلانیت اومانیستی، تکنولوژی و دستاوردهای مادی نشان می‌داد، از ایدۀ‌ به ‌شدت رمانتیک هویت ایرانی-اسلامی استقبال می‌کرد و چهره‌های گفتمانی این جریان ناتوان از هر تحلیلی، حتی سطحی، از واقعیت‌های سیاسی و اجتماعی موجود ایران بودند. در نهایت، واقعیتی که مجلۀ بنیاد همیشه منکرش شده بود چنان در برابر چشمانش منفجر شد که نابودش کرد.

سردبیر و نویسندگان بنیاد با مشغول کردن خود به مأموریت احیای حقیقت ”معنوی“ و ”عرفانی“ ایران چنان اغوا شده بودند که نسبت به حوادثی که در کشور در حال وقوع بود کاملاً کور شده بودند. فقط در شمارۀ آخر مجله سردبیر به خوانندگان توضیح می‌دهد که برای ادامۀ انتشار مجله با مشکل مواجه شده است:

بنیاد را می‌توان دوست داشت و می‌توان نداشت. نشریه‌ای است که سلامت نفس خود را تا به حال حفظ کرده است . . . بنیاد به شهادت همۀ شماره‌ها و همۀ صفحات دوسالۀ خود تیول احدی نبوده است. فضایی بوده است برای اندیشیدن . . . ما مانند هر ارگان و هر تجمع فکری دیگری گدای استقلال و آزادی اندیشه هستیم و این گدامنشی را با هیچ سرمایه‌ای معاوضه نمی‌کنیم. چرا که پیمان ما ابتدا با ”وطن“ و بعد با قلممان است و نه با هیچ‌چیز و هیچ‌کس دیگری. می‌دانیم که اگر وطنی نباشد، بهتر آن است که قلم بمیرد و زندگی بی‌وطن را نبیند. بنابراین، به عشق وطن و عشق شما شیفتگان اندیشه و قلم است که می‌نویسیم. اگر این حق را کسی از ما ضایع کند، بی‌درنگ به خانه خواهیم رفت و عطایش را به لقایش خواهیم بخشید. از این روست که به‌ یاری معنوی شما مستمندیم تا آزادگی این نشریه کماکان حفظ شود.[77]

اما در واقعیت مسئله بسیار بزرگ‌تر از آن بود که بنیاد بتواند حلش کند و این شماره آخرین شمارۀ مجله بود که منتشر می‌شد. جالب اینکه نیروهایی که منجر به از بین رفتن بنیاد شدند، درست مثل بنیاد به‌ دنبال احیای ”معنویت“ ایران بودند.

با این‌‌ حال، شیزوفرنی فکری‌ای که بنیاد دچارش شده بود، به‌ هیچ وجه منحصر به این مجله نبود. گفتمان ضدمدرنیستی‌ای که در اکثر مطالب بنیاد بیان می‌شد، تجسم یک چرخش گفتمانی بسیار فراگیرتر در ایدئولوژی حکومت پهلوی در اواخر دهۀ 1340 و دهۀ 1350 بود. مستندات بسیاری وجود دارد که نشان می‌دهد نهادهای فرهنگی و دانشگاهی بسیاری در آن دوره از جانب خاندان سلطنتی حمایت می‌شدند و همچون بنیاد به ”جنگ فرهنگی“ عجیب و خودتخربیگری در برابر ایده‌های مدرن مشغول بودند. بنیاد بخشی از این چرخش گفتمانی بزرگ‌تر در صورت‌بندی ایدئولوژیک حکومت بود. برای حکومتی که آشکارا ”طرفدار غرب“ و ظاهراً سکولار بود، پذیرش گفتمان غرب‌زدگی مخالفانش هم به ‌لحاظ وجودی غیرممکن بود و هم به ‌لحاظ سیاسی غیرعاقلانه.

[1] اشرف پهلوی، ”فضایی برای اندیشیدن،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 1 (اسفند 1355)، 3.

[2] پهلوی، ”فضایی برای اندیشیدن،“ 3.

[3] پهلوی، ”فضایی برای اندیشیدن،“ 3.

[4] پهلوی، ”فضایی برای اندیشیدن،“ 3.

[5] اشرف پهلوی، ”انسان، جهان سوم، حقوق و عدالت،“ بنیاد، شمارۀ ویژه (فروردین 1357)، 3.

[6] پهلوی، ”انسان، جهان سوم، حقوق و عدالت،“ 3.

[7] پهلوی، ”انسان، جهان سوم، حقوق و عدالت،“ 3.

[8] پهلوی، ”انسان، جهان سوم، حقوق و عدالت،“ 163.

[9] البته استفادۀ فردید از غرب‌زدگی بعد از انقلاب بسیار سیاسی و نزدیک به معنای مورد نظر آل‌احمد بود.

[10] بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 7 (مهر 1356)، 1.

[11] بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 8 (آبان 1356)، 1.

[12] بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 11 (بهمن 1356)، 1.

[13] نقل‌شده در بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 8 (آبان 1356)، 99.

[14] طی دهۀ 1350، بسیاری از روشنفکران و فلاسفۀ مرتبط با حکومت پهلوی به‌ فراوانی دربارۀ مأموریت تمدنی و اخلاقی ایران، آسیا و شرق نوشتند که شاید اوج آن در کنفرانس بین‌المللی گفتگوی تمدن‌ها در سال 1356 بود. مشخصاً شایگان و نراقی در برانگیختن این ایدئولوژی تمدنی مشارکت داشتند. با این ‌حال، این ایدئولوژی در برخی سخنرانی‌های شاه هم مشاهده می‌شود.

[15] مصاحبه با علیرضا میبدی، لوس‌آنجلس، کالیفرنیا، 16 فروردین 1394.

[16] عزت‌الله همایون‌فر، ”سفیر صلح،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 1 (اسفند 1355)، 4.

[17] جزایری، ”بگذارید یل‌های نوبل بدانند که ما نیز یلی از یلانیم،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 3 (خرداد 1356)، 21.

[18] جزایری، ”بگذارید یل‌های نوبل بدانند،“ 21

[19] سعید فاطمی، ”نمادهای اجتماعی خدایان کهن،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 7 (مهر 1356)، 14.

[20] فرخ تمیمی، ”شرق یا غرب؟“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 10 (دی 1356)، 30.

[21] ناصر رنجبین، ”غرب . . . و شرق . . . از دیدگاه انسان شرقی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 10 (دی 1356) 32 و 36.

[22] محمدرضا تاجدینی، ”شرق و غرب،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 10 (دی 1356)، 37.

[23] سردبیر، ”آزادی در بی‌آرزوئی است،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 18 (شهریور 1357)، 3-4.

[24] ایرج وحیدی، ”احیاء سهم جهانی ایران،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 7 (مهر 1356)، 3.

[25] وحیدی، ”احیاء سهم جهانی ایران،“ 3.

[26] گزارش مربوط می‌شود به سازمان خبرگزاری پارس و با محمود جعفریان، رئیس آن، مصاحبه شده است. بنگرید به ”خبرگزاری پارس: راهی برای نجات از امپریالیسم خبری،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 14 (اردیبهشت 1357)، 47 و 74.

[27] بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 2 (اردیبهشت 1356)، 56.

[28] ‌”ملاقات با هنری کربن، فیلسوف فرانسوی: شرق درون،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 1 (اسفند 1355)، 6.

[29] ‌”ملاقات با هنری کربن،“ 7. سبک نوشتار مصاحبه دربارۀ به‌اصطلاح شرق معنوی و دیدگاه‌های کربن دربارۀ معنویت‌گرایی در شرق، خصوصاً ایران، بسیار رمانتیک و شاعرانه است. به ‌نظر می‌رسد مصاحبه‌کننده بیش از آنکه دقیقاً جملات کربن را به فارسی ترجمه کرده باشد، بیشتر بر اساس احساسات و علاقه‌اش نسبت به کربن و ایده‌هایش مصاحبه را گزارش کرده باشد.

[30] ‌”ملاقات با هنری کربن،“ 8.

[31] ‌”ملاقات با هنری کربن،“ 8.

[32] علیرضا میبدی، ”بحران ’من،“‘ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 3 (خرداد 1356)، 4. تأکیدات در متن اصلی آمده‌اند.

[33] میبدی، ”بحران ’من،“‘ 4. تأکیدات در متن اصلی آمده‌اند.

[34] پژوهش، ”استیلای دهشتناک: غرب ’مغزها‘ی شرق را بی‌وطن کرد،“ بنیاد، ویژه‌نامه (فروردین 1357)، 47 و 74.

[35] ‌”مرور کتاب تصوف نوشتۀ نصرالله سیف‌پور فاطمی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 6 (شهریور 1356)، 74.

[36] سعید فاطمی، ”خام بدم، پخته شدم، سوختم،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 14 (اردیبهشت 1357)، 8.

[37] فاطمی، ”خام بدم، پخته شدم، سوختم،“ 10.

[38] ضیاء نور، ”وحدت وجود و جلوۀ آن در مثنوی معنوی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 2 (اردیبهشت 1356)، 20-25.

[39] ابراهیم صفائی، ”خیام و مترلینگ،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 20 (آبان 1357)، 37.

[40] صفائی، ”خیام و مترلینگ،“ 38.

[41] سعید فاطمی، ”گفت‌وشنود: اساطیر . . . رؤیای قهرمانی انسان،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 2 (اردیبهشت 1356)، 63-64.

[42] سعید فاطمی، ”سی قرن سرود انسانی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 4 (خرداد 1356)، 17 و 66.

[43] فاطمی، ”سی قرن سرود انسانی،“ 67.

[44] سعید فاطمی، ”رمزشناسی تاریخی یک مذهب،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 8 (آبان 1356)، 43.

[45] سعید فاطمی، ”جهانشمولی یک مذهب،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 9 (آذر 1356)، 24-25.

[46] سعید فاطمی، ”حضور اسطوره‌های پیشین در متن تفکر امروز،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 5 (مرداد 1356)، 18-23.

[47] اردشیر خدادایان، ”مقدمه‌ای بر تاریخ تمدن و فرهنگ ایران باستان،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 14 (اردیبهشت 1357)، 19-32.

[48] اردشیر خدادایان، ”ادبیات اوستائی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 18 (شهریور 1357)، 32-33.

[49] اردشیر خدادایان، ”سیری در ادبیات و زبان‌های پیش از اسلام،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 17 (مرداد 1357)، 18-19.

[50] علیرضا میبدی، ”نوروزها دیروزها،“ بنیاد، شمارۀ ویژه (فروردین 1357)، 8-11.

[51] ‌”یک قبیلۀ غربی در میان قومیت ایرانی!“ بنیاد، شمارۀ ویژه (فروردین 1357)، 34-35.

[52] محمدحسین عادلی، ”شیفتگی مصرف،“ بنیاد، شمارۀ ویژه (فروردین 1357)، 42.

[53] عادلی، ”شیفتگی مصرف،“ 46.

[54] مهرداد اوستا ”گفتگو با مهرداد اوستا در رابطه با ادبیات و عرفان،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 17 (مرداد 1357)، 82-87.

[55] احمد فردید، ”اکنون‌زدگی فرهنگستان،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 4 (تیر 1356)، 5.

[56] علیرضا میبدی، ”دکترین زبان برای زبان،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 4 (تیر 1356)، 5.

[57] رضا داوری، ”دادوستدی فکری با دکتر رضا داوری،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 5 (مرداد 1356)، 32.

[58] داوری، ”دادوستدی فکری،“ 32.

[59] علیرضا میبدی، ”وصال تاریخ،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 1 (اسفند 1355)، 32.

[60] میبدی، ”وصال تاریخ،“ 33.

[61] میبدی، ”وصال تاریخ،“ 34.

[62] شاهرخ شمس، ”غرب‌زدگی در نظام تولیدی،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 9 (آذر 1356)، 3.

[63] شمس، ”غرب‌زدگی در نظام تولیدی،“ 3.

[64] رضا مظلومان، ”تقلید وسرسام‌های اجتماعی،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 17 (مرداد 1357)، 4-7 و 86-97.

[65] رُنه دوبو، ”بر علیه تکنولوژی،“ ترجمۀ عبدالحسین آذرنگ، بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 10 (دی 1356)، 14-17.

[66] س. سهند، ”عصر فلزسالاری،“ بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 18 (شهریور 1357)، 57.

[67] سهند، ”عصر فلزسالاری،“ 86.

[68] آرتور میلر، ”ادبیات و جامعۀ مصرفی،“ ترجمۀ مهدی خاموش، بنیاد، سال 1، شمارۀ 16 (تیر 1357)، 14-17.

[69] گروه تحقیقات بنیاد، زیر نظر سعید فاطمی، ”نژادپرستی و آپارتاید،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 15 (خرداد 1357)، 3-13.

[70] فرخ تمیمی، ”نامۀ سرگشاده به یک عالیجناب،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 16 (تیر 1357)، 12-13.

[71] پول شیتا پیرس، ”رویاهای امریکای سیاه . . .،“ ترجمۀ هادی دستباز، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 18 (شهریور 1357)، 20-22.

[72] دن جکوبسون، ”خاطرات و خطرات سفر به افریقای جنوبی: در دیار انسان‌های خاک ‌شده،“ ترجمۀ فرح برابری، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 18 (شهریور 1357)، 23-28.

[73] فرانک هرکوس، ”هارلم: آمیزۀ پیروزی و فاجعه،“ ترجمۀ هادی دستباز، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 19 (مهر 1357)، 14-15 و 27.

[74] دن جکوبسون، ”خاطرات و خطرات سفر به افریقای جنوبی 2: بازوان بریدۀ استقلال،“ ترجمۀ فرح برابری، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 19 (مهر 1357)، 16-19.

[75] میلتون الرین، ”میراث‌خواران هیتلر: گزارشی از احیاء نازیسم در غرب،“ ترجمۀ فرح برابری، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 19 (مهر 1357)، 20-22.

[76] ماهاما جانسون ترااوره، ”بازتاب چهرۀ زشت استعمار،“ ترجمۀ پرویز شفا، بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 19 (مهر 1357)، 23-37.

[77] ‌”گدای آزادی،“ بنیاد، سال 2، شمارۀ 20 (آبان 1357)، 4.

Religious Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “Right to Have Rights”


Anja Pistor-Hatam <> is professor of Islamic Studies (Middle Eastern Studies) at Kiel University. She is also a member of the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Hamburg. Her research interests focus on history, mainly intellectual history of Iran. Her latest publications involve Geschichtsschreibung und Sinngeschichte in Iran: Historische Erzählungen von mongolischer Eroberung und Herrschaft, 1933–2011, (Brill: Leiden, 2014); “Historiography and the Production of Knowledge: The Mongol Period,” in What Literature Knows: Forays into Literary Knowledge Production, ed. Antje Kley und Kai Merten (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018), and “Non-understanding and Minority Formation in Iran,” in Iran 55 (2017).



In this article, I will pursue the issue of what Hannah Arendt’s claim for the “right to have rights” means regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and its most endangered religious minority, the Baha’is. Since Iran was a signatory state of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), it is bound to the rights alluded to all human beings mentioned in these treaties. Yet, constructing a “minority” – in this case the adherents of the Baha’i Faith – as either a “misguided faith” and “wayward sect” or as a “foreign-affiliated political movement” and “organized espionage ring,”[2] Baha’is are deprived of their moral and religious legitimacy and of their legitimacy as members of the polity. To make matters worse, Baha’is are unconditionally regarded as apostates because they are considered to have been Muslims or coming from former Muslim families. Consequently, their human rights – among them the freedom of religion –, their rights as citizens and as members of their faith, individually as well as collectively, must be demanded by international organizations like the United Nations. Because of their specific interpretation of (Shiite) Islam, prominent individuals like Āyatullāh Muntaẓirī (1922–2009)[3] and his student Muḥsin Kadīvar (b. 1959) have made it clear that Baha’is should be considered Iranian citizens and that apostasy can only be punished in the hereafter. Even if both argue for freedom of religion, minority rights are not seriously taken into consideration as the majority – in this case the Twelver Shiite majority of the IRI – decide if the beliefs and utterances of a religious minority do insult Islam. Yet, Kadīvar recently published a text in Persian on his website giving an overview on the transformation of his perception regarding the Baha’is.[4] As will be shown in this article, this reformist thinker has reached a position conceding the Baha’is their rights as citizens of the IRI and legitimizing them as members of a religious community.


Human Rights and the “Right to Have Rights”

Deeply affected by the consequences of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the political philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt maintained that the loss of the “right to have rights” inevitably led to losses affecting the essential characteristics of human life. According to Arendt, the “right to have rights” is equivalent to living in a system of relations where one is solely assessed according to one’s actions and opinions; it constitutes the right to belong to a politically organized community,[5] and entitles everyone to be part of humanity: “Only in a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with being expelled from humanity all together.”[6] Consequently, Arendt’s fundamental “right is the right of political inclusion.”[7]

Human rights, Arendt continues, could only be implemented in political communitie[8] “The fundamental deprivation of human rights takes place first and above all in depriving a person of a place in the world which makes his [her] opinions significant and his [her] actions effective.”[9] Those who were stateless or deprived of their citizenship, lost their civic rights and were in danger of being ignored and forgotten.[10] Yet, if a state excluded so-called minorities and other parts of its population, it changed from a protector of rights into its foremost threat.[11] Arendt calls the perception of human rights as natural rights into question when asking whether rights existed independently of an individual’s unique political status, only originating in his or her personhood.[12] Rights did only occur in the human world; they originated in human relations and depended on human beings who mutually accepted their rights.[13] Freedom and equality were constructs, invented by humans in order to master their living together. Accordingly, only humans were responsible for their implementation.[14] As maintained by Arendt, political equality is based on the members of one group accepting each other as carriers of equal rights.[15]

By this means, Arendt’s use of the term “right” at the beginning of her statement evokes a moral imperative: “Treat all humans as individuals who belong to a group of people and are entitled to be protected by them.”[16] Her use of “rights” in the second part of her statement, then, relies on this prior right of belonging. Since the members of a community are obligated to grant these rights to each other, they are called civil and political rights. Consequently, Arendt’s use of “rights” implies a trilateral relation between an individual claiming his or her rights, other members of the group obliged to grant these rights, and the state and its authorities enforcing them.[17]

In December of 1948, “born out of the war that had just ended,”[18] the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations. Apparently, Arendt’s main critique, namely that human rights were perceived as natural rights, was left unheard. The experience of the Holocaust and the impulse to completely reject the racist ideology of National Socialism led to the fundamental statement that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”[19] Yet, the UDHR does refer to Arendt’s claim for “the right to have rights,” among them the substantial right of political inclusion in article 21 or the right to citizenship in article 15. The latter article directly refers to the situation of German Jews who lost their citizenship after the Night of the Pogroms in 1939.[20]

Although Nazi Germany directed its aggressions towards various groups of people who may be called “minorities,” there is no article to be found in the UDHR dealing with their protection. On the contrary, the declaration as well as most of the following covenants are characterized by a clear focus on individual rights. Contrary to international legal instruments of the inter-war-period,[21] the declaration as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide leaves out minority groups. With the state as the basic political and the individual human being as its fundamental social unit, the group dimension of human existence is not taken into account.[22] Attesting this “pivotal document” a “certain blindness about the connection that exists between the prevention of discrimination and the protection of minorities,”[23] Morsink is of the opinion that the UDHR has to be amended with an article regarding “the rights of members of religious, linguistic, and cultural minority groups.”[24]

Were such an amendment added to the UDHR, what would its definition of “minorities” be? Of course, minorities are no primordial entities and are therefore constructed, meaning that whether a group is considered a “minority” in a given place at a given time depends on historical, political, social, religious and other circumstances. In a publication on minority rights published by the High Commissioner of the United Nations in 2010, it is evident that these rights are a critical issue. Referring to the United Nations Minorities Declaration of 1992 that was adopted by consensus, the authors relate to the fact that there “is no internationally agreed definition as to which groups constitute minorities.”[25] Any definition, it is said, had to include “both objective factors (such as the existence of a shared ethnicity, language or religion) and subjective factors (including that individuals must identify themselves as members of a minority).”[26] Since 1977, when the then Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities had offered a definition:[27] “subjective criteria, such as the will on the part of the members of the group in question to preserve their own characteristics and the wish of the individuals concerned to be considered part of that group”[28] have been added. Even though, the important fact that a numerical majority can “find itself in a minority-like non-dominant position” is still relevant.[29] It is equally important that “the recognition of minority status is not solely for the State to decide, but should be based on both objective and subjective criteria.”[30] However, states who deny the existence of minorities on their territory may take matters into their own hands and define their specific criteria.[31]

Commenting on article 27 of the ICCPR,[32] the Human Rights Committee states that “this article establishes and recognizes a right which is conferred on individuals belonging to minority groups and which is distinct from, and additional to all the other rights which, as individuals in common with everyone else, they are already entitled to enjoy under the Covenant.”[33] Even if one considers the rights of article 27 as individual rights, they might also benefit groups, since these rights can be exercised collectively.[34] Members of religious minorities need to have rights like a collective religious avowal, which support the forming and preserving of groups. Religious minorities need to be accepted as religious communities and should be protected by the state. They must have the right to establish and use places of worship and social institutions as well as educational institutions for laypersons and clerics. They should be able to interact with co-believers abroad and go on pilgrimage. Also, they need to provide their own cemeteries. Above all, religious minorities must have the right not to succumb to the rites and customs of other religious communities.[35]

All things considered, it looks as if the rights of minorities and, as this is the subject of this article, religious minorities in particular, have finally been taken care of. This may very well be the case theoretically. Moreover, since many states did not only sign the UDHR, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the ICCPR, they should be obliged to follow their rules. Yet, although the IRI has not resigned from the United Nations and has even signed some of its recent conventions on child protection and the rights of persons with disabilities, it does not grant the mentioned rights to its religious minorities unconditionally. Even the IRI, however, seems to regard human rights as a normative benchmark in the international community and responds fiercely to frequent criticism by the UN.

As I have already discussed the formation of religious minorities and the rights they are conceded by the constitution of the IRI elsewhere,[36] here I will focus on the question whether one religious minority that is not accepted as such according to the criteria of the IRI has any rights at all. The case of the Baha’i Faith clearly is the litmus test regarding the human rights of religious minorities in Iran. Like other states that once signed and ratified the ICCPR, the Islamic Republic is bound by contract to integrate members of minorities into state and society through granting them identical exercise of their civic and political rights. Concurrently, its authorities should be prohibited to force any member of any religious minority to assimilate against their will.[37] However, Iran counts among the few states having been assigned a special rapporteur by the Human Rights Council. His annual reports allude to clear indications of considerable human rights violations in the country:

The Special Rapporteur […] regrets that concerns remain around the situation of recognized and unrecognized religious minorities and that communities continue to report arrests and prosecution for worship and participation in religious community affairs, including in private homes. He raises attention to the situation of Bahai’s due to the existence of systematic policies designed to discriminate, target, harass and economically deprive them of the right to a livelihood. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities to recognize that freedom of religion or belief entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, and that measures restricting eligibility for civil, political, social or economic privileges, or imposing special restrictions on the practice of other faiths, violate the prohibition of discrimination based on religion or belief and the guarantee of equal protection under article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. [38]

Do these accusations have any impact at all on the Iranian government and its institutions? Besides complete rejections of these accusations, of the UDHR altogether, and of the legitimacy of the special rapporteur, as already mentioned, there are also more sophisticated ponderings. In the following chapter, I will discuss first Muḥammad Taqī Misbāḥ Yazdī’s (b. 1934) response to the UDHR.[39] Not only is he one of its strongest adversaries as well as an influential cleric partaking in the official discourse of the IRI, but he also counts among the few who have seriously undertaken to discuss the UDHR. Second, I will examine Muḥsin Kadīvar’s considerations regarding human rights. In both cases, the focus will be on freedom of religion and apostasy because these are the most important subjects about the rights of the Baha’i minority in Iran.


Freedom of Religion: Two Antipodal Iranian Viewpoints

As already stated, the focus of this section will be on the publications of two authors, both Shiite clerics. Whereas the official discourse is greatly affected by high-ranking clerics like Misbāḥ Yazdī, reformist thinkers like Kadīvar “who operate within the bounds of traditional methods of interpretations of Islamic sources but offer a progressive interpretation of them”[40] could play a vital role in paving the way for human rights in Iran.

Misbāḥ Yazdī became prominent even outside of Iran when he supported former President Maḥmūd Aḥmadīnizhād (gov. 2005–2013) against his reform-minded opponents.[41] In two volumes published in 1388sh/2009 and 1391sh/2012 respectively, Misbāḥ Yazdī discusses human rights with reference to Islam.[42] As is to be expected, in his comments he affirms that on the subject of rules and regulations and the compilation of drafts of human rights, a legal system limiting human life to the here and now diverges fundamentally from a legal system that regards human life in this world as only transient.[43] Each human being, regardless of his/her conviction, ideas, religion or philosophy, everywhere in the world agreed to the same rules of the right to life (ḥaqq-i ḥayāt), to housing, to own property, and to work.[44] Consequently, mutual agreement existed in regard to the basic principles of human rights.[45] If these rights stood above all other national and international laws, signatory states had to guarantee that their countries did not enact any laws contradicting the UDHR.[46] Subsequently, every country would have to define the confines of, for example, freedom of religion as postulated in article 18. Were freedom of religion (āzādī-i intikhāb-i maẕhab) and freedom of religious worship (āzādī dar anjām-i marāsim-i maẕhabī) one and the same or did they exist independently? Certain religious rites involved rules and doctrines not compatible with the declaration. Hence, believers could be forced to follow religious obligations at odds with the freedom or even the life of other people. Misbāḥ Yazdī then inquires what the UDHR had to say to this while affirming the freedom of religion and the right to life at the same time. What, he asks, was more important, freedom of religion or individual freedom?[47]

As Misbāḥ Yazdī puts it quite generally, rights meant that human beings were conceded rights. Yet, the main subject of discussion was a philosophical one: Where did these human rights stem from and what was their basis for jurisdiction?[48] According to Misbāḥ Yazdī, God’s rights (ḥuqūq Allāh) are at the core of all rights. Human beings, he says, are bound to fulfil their God-given obligations.[49] As the creator of the universe and of mankind, God was the only lawful sovereign. Therefore, God’s rights were the source of human rights.[50] Human life originated in God and there existed no independent human right to life.[51] Since life was God’s gift, no one was entitled to take another human’s life without His permission. However, Muslims could kill those who opposed the true religion in a hostile and begrudging way, fighting their enemies in jihād.[52] Unfortunately, the UDHR only spoke of human rights (ḥuqūq) although human beings also had obligations (takālīf). Rights and duties could not be separated from each other.[53]

As stated by Misbāḥ Yazdī, the right to freedom of religion and expression equals apostasy. Articles 18 and 19 of the UDHR directly related to regulations found in every religion and especially in Islam concerning apostasy (irtidād, bāz’gasht). In signing the said declaration, the signatories had undoubtedly expressed that everyone should be allowed to abandon his or her religion in favor of a new one. Conversely, Islam’s regulations regarding apostasy had to be defended against its enemies.[54]

At the other end of the spectrum there is Muḥsin Kadīvar, one of the most outspoken critics of Khomeini’s doctrine of vilāyat-i faqīh and of “traditional Islam” as he calls it. He received his permission to practice ijtihād from the already mentioned Āyatullāh Muntaẓirī. While spending time in prison for “propagating against the sacred system of the Islamic Republic of Iran,”[55] Kadīvar changed his position in regard to the Islamic government, to Islam and democracy as well as to Islam and human rights fundamentally.

In an elaborate interview first published in the Canadian-based Persian journal Āftāb and later reprinted in Kadīvar’s book on human rights in 2008, he discusses human rights regarding Islam, referring both to the UDHR and the ICCPR.[56] As said by Kadīvar, there are several cardinal points in this context, the first among them being the lack of legal equality of Muslims and non-Muslims. After explaining the differences among various groups of non-Muslims according to Islamic law, he refers to the majority of those non-Muslims who do not have any kind of contract with Muslims.[57] Contrary to the acknowledged peoples of the book living under Muslim protection, their lives, their possessions, and their honour were not respected. According to the sharia, their blood could therefore be shed unpunished:[58]

“Cleary, in traditional Islam human beings cannot claim rights simply because they are humans, that is independent of their faith and religion. In this respect, there are no innate rights (ḥuqūq-i ẕātī-i insān).”[59] To prove his argument regarding the rights of non-Muslims, Kadīvar maintains that dignity was inherent in all human beings.[60] Since religious diversity and human divergence were God’s will, no one should be forced to become a Muslim.[61]  Muslims, Kadīvar continues, were in no way obligated to examine, chide, or punish other religions. This would be done in the Hereafter. It was up to God to examine and to punish, not to humans.[62] Like his teacher Muntaẓirī and other scholars, Kadīvar also points to the Qur’anic verse saying that Muslims were obligated to live in peace with those who did not fight against Islam.[63]

The sharia, Kadīvar states, does not know human rights. In what he calls “traditional Islam” (islām-i tārīkhī), Muslims had rights, but there were no inherent human rights present. Finally, even those rights guaranteed to the true believer were less than human rights.[64] Kadīvar argues that modern human rights norms are of “a supra-religious quality, being the end product of critical collective reasoning of humanity in the modern era.”[65] Therefore, they remain “unconditioned by any religion in the public sphere. Those rights have been laid down for humans as humans before they find [any] belief in this religion or that sectarian belief […]. The philosophy of human rights is neither atheistic nor monotheistic.”[66]

As far as freedom of religion is concerned, Kadīvar argues that everyone should be free to choose his or her religion (dīn) and way of life (sabk-i zindagī). Based on the Qur’anic verse (2:256), Lā ikrāha fī d-dīn, “No compulsion is there in religion,” Kadīvar says that if one considers another individual’s choice to be wrong, one does have no right to use force in order to convince him or her otherwise.[67] Equally, he defends the position of “absolute denial of earthly penalties for changing religion and belief.”[68] Instead of punishing apostates, the religious knowledge of believers should be strengthened.[69] Here, again, he agrees with his mentor Āyatullāh Muntaẓirī, maintaining that

Rejecting or restricting freedom of religion and laying down punishments for apostasy, including execution or jail with hard labour, makes traditional Islam appear irrational and weak. The way to safeguard believers’ faith is to strengthen their religious knowledge, not to deprive them of freedom of religion and opinion. There can be no doubt that the human rights position in support of freedom of opinion and religion is rationally preferable.[70]

It appears that readers of the journal Āftāb had been invited to put forward their questions to Kadīvar. Three questions asked by readers and published in Āftāb explicitly concerned the rights of Iranian Baha’is. Although the rest of the interview, questions as well as answers, is in Persian, the questions regarding the Baha’is are printed in English:

  1. Could you please clarify your opinion about the rights of Bahais according to your understanding of Islamic law? 9. I would be very thankful if you clarify the rights of ‘Bahais’ according to your modern interpretation of Islamic law? 10. According to Holy Quran, what status is assigned to Bahais? Are they infidels? What are their rights?[71]

Kadīvar’s answers do not refer to the Baha’is explicitly – he never uses the word – but remains rather vague:[72] All human beings had a right to human rights, regardless of their belief. No one should be bereaved of a minimum of human rights because of his or her religious beliefs. There was no happiness in life without these rights guaranteeing protection of convictions and religious beliefs. Basically, human rights were everybody’s rights, not just the rights of monotheists and true believers. Kadīvar concludes his answer saying that the Qur’an identifies Muḥammad as the last divine prophet and Islam as the final religion. Each claim contradicting this assertion was null and void (bāṭel), mistaken (nā-ḥaqq) and had to be considered a transgression (khurūj) of faith.[73] Quite obviously, in his answers Kadīvar does not really deviate from the official discourse regarding the Baha’is. Even if he declares that “all men are equal” and human rights should apply to all human beings, he still refers to the Qur’an to tell his querists that Muslims agree on the article of their faith that Muḥammad was the last of the prophets. Although Kadīvar tries to prove that what he calls “spiritual” or “new-thinker” Islam (islām-i maʼnavī/islām-e nau-andīsh)[74] does not contradict human rights in the least, he does not attempt to reconcile the situation of the Baha’is in Iran with his concept, however. The only concession he makes is that, “Even though the Holy Qur’an has expressly stated that after Muhammad’s prophecy no religion other than Islam is acceptable, and that anyone with a different religion detracts from the public good, it has not mandated any worldly punishment for non-Muslims.”[75]

In a second volume dedicated to Islam and human rights published on his website in 2014, Kadīvar concentrates on religious freedom and freedom of speech, mainly apostasy and blasphemy. As stated in the introduction, he again seeks to prove that freedom of religion, particularly abandoning Islam for another or no religion at all, is compatible with Islam. On the contrary, “any traditions that sanction killing or shedding the blood of an apostate are incompatible with the noble Qur’an.”[76] Additionally, Kadīvar says, there was no evidence in the Shiite literature proving that the imams had ordered apostates to be killed or had consented to it.[77] He also states that the prophetic tradition (ḥadīth) requesting the killing of apostates was related by Muḥammad’s companions, not by the Shiite Imams, and was taken from Sunni jurisprudence by Shiites.[78] Furthermore, other than at the time of the prophet and after, when apostates not only exited from Islam but joined its enemies to fight against Muslims,

the present-day usage of ‘apostate’ is restricted to exiting from the religion of Islam without considering any other conditions and motives. In other words, the subject of ‘apostasy’ is associated with religious and cultural freedom by contemporary people, whereas the same term in the religious judgements of Islam is linked to political crimes that are akin to a belligerent (muharib) [behaviour].[79]

At least, Kadīvar believes, the right way to deal with apostates is not well-defined but ambiguous. Consequently, in case of doubt the penalties for apostasy should be suspended.[80] He then concludes that there is no temporal punishment for apostasy in Islam. Therefore, the execution of one guilty of insulting the prophet or the Qur’an could not be defended legally. The right to life did not depend on a person’s beliefs.[81]

Having become acquainted with the US-American concept of “hate speech” (guftar’hā-i nifrat’zā), Kadīvar proposes that the defamer of the Prophet (sābb an-nabī) and those denigrating religious convictions should be accused of this crime and sentenced accordingly.[82] Essentially, respect had to be bestowed upon the believers, not upon their beliefs (iḥtirām bi-bāvarmand, na bi-bāvar). Thus, freedom of expression included criticism of religious beliefs whereas insulting religious and atheistic beliefs was forbidden. Kadīvar considers the insult of religious beliefs as well as atheism to be “hate speech.”[83] Referring to article 20 of the ICCPR that inter alia mentions religious hatred, Kadīvar argues that insulting religious beliefs had to be considered “hate speech,” a crime that would be prosecuted by a civil court.[84] For people of different beliefs to live together peacefully, mutual respect (iḥtirām-i mutaqābil) was vital. “Respect” could be deemed the keyword of Kadīvar’s thoughts as expressed in the volume under consideration. In this world, adherents of different religions and even atheists should neither try to force each other to believe in one faith or the other, but should respect each other’s convictions to live peacefully together.[85] In the afterlife, however, an apostate would have to face “severe retribution if his/her denial was due to spite and hostility.”[86]

At the end of the introduction, Kadīvar draws attention to “The book’s Limitations and Future Areas of Research,” particularly the way different schools of thought (Sunnis, other Shiite schools), other Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism), non-Abrahamic (Buddhism and Hinduism) and more recent faiths (āʼīn’hā-i dīnī, Babism and the Baha’i Faith) perceive of freedom of religion.[87] This announcement alone and the fact that Kadīvar refrains from calling the Baha’i Faith a “wayward sect,” etc., instead counting it among the “more recent faiths” is certainly remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that Kadīvar has published a revised perception of the Baha’i Faith on his website. Also, he insisted that his new thinking regarding this religious community in Iran be added to a translation of a selection of his texts on human rights into German shortly before the book was published.[88] Kadīvar after all not only offers an alternative to the official discourse of the IRI. He also leaves mainstream Islamic theology[89] and chooses a secular approach to advocate freedom of religion for Iran as it is proclaimed in the UDHR. Secularism, Kadīvar states, provides an atmosphere for religious as well as non-religious people to present their convictions. People should be free to select their religious beliefs according to their individual insights. These beliefs and insights should not lead to the denial of certain rights. This basic principle, as Kadīvar affirms, deviates from a traditional Islamic interpretation. About the Baha’is, Kadīvar says that one should refrain from using the stereotype accusation (ittihām-i kilishah’ī) “spying for Israel” (jāsūsī barā-i Isrāʼīl) against Baha’i leaders, since this state was illegally established decades after the founder of the Baha’i Faith had been exiled there. Even if one considered the Baha’i Faith (bahāʻīyat) a misguided sect (firqa-i bāṭīl) and a deviated religion (āʼīn-e munḥarif), should one deprive its followers of human rights, Kadīvar asks. Did they, as Baha’is, forfeit their right to justice, life, property, honor (nāmūs), and peace of their deceased? There was no law in the IRI denying the Baha’is their human and civil rights. “Baha’is are no unbelievers (bahāʻīyān kāfir nīstand).” As monotheists and since they acknowledged the prophet of Islam – even if they contested him to be the seal of the prophets – they were not ritually impure:

Being a denier of Islam or the mahdi, denying that Muḥammad was the last prophet, or denying God’s existence, that is to be an atheist or an unbeliever, does not justify to deny someone their basic human and civil rights. These rights are in no way depending on religion or beliefs. Hence, there is no religious justification to deny Baha’is basic human and civil rights.[90]



Following Hannah Arendt, “the right to have rights” implies a trilateral relation between an individual claiming his or her rights, other members of the group/society obliged to grant these rights, and the state and its authorities to enforce them. She clearly protests “against anyone’s being placed or left in a condition of having not rights.”[91] These days, Arendt’s “right to have rights” can be regarded as a claim on behalf of the Baha’is of Iran, because their situation has not satisfied the conditions of having rights according to the UDHR. If we assume that rights may not only be claimed by individuals but also by groups of people, then, consistent with Arendt, the society in which the members of this group live would have to grant them these rights. The state for his part would have to enforce the rights demanded by a ‘minority’ that might also need its protection. Arendt had herself witnessed what happened if a state did not act as a protector of rights but became the foremost threat for parts of its population. This often happens when a “majority” decides that a particular group does not belong to the alleged ‘homogeneous’ nation, thus creating a “minority.”[92] Political exclusion and civil death[93] can lead to killing of individuals, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Although the High Commissioner of the United Nations had a paper published that identifies objective – like a shared religion – as well as subjective – individuals identify themselves as members of a religious minority – factors, states like Iran do not accept any of these criteria. Instead, the IRI either denies the existence of the Baha’is as a religious minority or refuses to allude them their rights as stated in the UDHR and the ICCPR. Only those faiths can legally be accepted as constituting religious minorities in Iran that are either mentioned in the Qur’an or were declared ahl al-kitāb or ahl aḏ-ḏimma in the early years of Islam. Additionally, although Baha’is believe in Muḥammad’s prophecy, they do not venerate him as the last of God’s messengers. Consistently, they are not considered a religious minority by the Iranian state and society and can therefore legitimately be denied “the right to have rights.” Yet, even if the Baha’is in Iran are not accepted as a religious minority, individual members of the creed do have rights as citizens of the state.[94]

Freedom of religion and the right to life count among the human rights as formulated in the UDHR and the ICCPR respectively.[95] The right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” includes the “freedom to change his [her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[96] Hence, individuals have the right to choose a religion or belief and they also have the right to do this “in community with others.” As we have seen, the right to change religion or belief does not extend to Muslims, at least as far as the official discourse in Iran is concerned. Misbāḥ Yazdī, a leading representative of this discourse, clearly states that the right to freedom of religion and expression equals apostasy, the punishment of which must be protected. He is in line with Ayatollah Khamenei who declared that “For us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing but a collection of mumbo-jumbo by disciples of Satan.”[97] Both clerics representing the official discourse in the IRI, raise the claim that Twelver Shiite Islam and its law as codified in Iran be sacrosanct. Asserting the integrity of this religious culture, they imply it to be an “autonomous and independent complete entity, a meaningful, almost organic whole, which fulfils clearly defined standards of truthfulness and respectability.”[98] Hence, an external moral authority like human rights norms is seen as an assault on this integrity.[99]

Can reformist thinkers like Kadīvar, then, pave the way for the right to freedom of religion in Iran? Using methods of classical Shi’ism, he concludes that neither the Qur’an nor the traditions of Muḥammad and the Imams provide any evidence supporting the consensus that apostates had to be killed. It was God’s decision only to judge those who had left Islam. Moreover, it was God’s will too that there existed a plurality of beliefs in this world. Hence, no one should be forced to become a Muslim and instead of punishing apostates, the knowledge of believers should be reinforced. Mutual respect was required so that people of different beliefs could live together peacefully. Insulting religious – and atheistic – beliefs should be considered an offence prosecuted by civil courts. According to Kadīvar, defaming the Prophet and denigrating religious convictions were among the insults directed against Islam. Since the Qur’an identified Muḥammad as the last divine prophet and Islam as the final religion, each claim contradicting this assertion was null and void and had to be considered a transgression of faith.

This, I would suggest, should be interpreted as the “insult” or “hate speech” to be prosecuted in this life, according to Kadīvar. If “hate speech” was to be punished and people of different religions and beliefs were to respect each other’s convictions, would this not also apply to the Baha’i community in Iran? Should not the delegitimization of the Baha’i Faith, the complete lack of respect vis-à-vis its rules and regulations, the “hate speech,” and the arbitrary killing of individual Baha’is equally be prosecuted? Mutual respect called for by Kadīvar would have to include the respect granted to each religious minority in Iran according to the definition of the High Commissioner of the UN: a shared religion, in this case the Baha’i Faith, as the objective factor identified by the UN, and individuals who identify themselves as members of its religious community. In this case, the prohibition of denigration (hijāʼ) would not only apply to Islam but would include all beliefs, even atheism.

Muḥsin Kadīvar has come a long way from a traditional Muslim/Shiite theological perception of the Baha’i Faith to a secular attitude granting all human beings the same basic rights, irrespective of their beliefs. Like his teacher Muntaẓirī, he has conceded Iranian Baha’is the same civil rights as any other Iranians and spoken out against punishment for apostasy in this world. Almost ten years after his first publication on human rights, he began to argue for a secular society which granted religious as well as non-religious people the freedom of religion. In admitting that the Baha’i Faith is indeed a monotheistic – if “deviated” – religion and its adherents cannot be considered unbelievers, Kadīvar himself shows the respect he considers necessary for people of different beliefs to live peacefully together. Thus, he revokes the delegitimization of a religious minority in Iran that still is determinant in the official discourse of the Islamic Republic. It remains to be seen if his contribution to a counter-discourse will have any effect, not least on the official discourse and the situation of the Baha’is of Iran. For, if we follow Arendt, Iranian society would have to grant this group its rights and the Islamic Republic would have to enforce these rights and protect its minorities, religious or otherwise.


[1]Many thanks to Arash Guitoo, who has been a most helpful assistant to my research and to Lutz Berger for his proof-reading of the article.

[2]See M. Tavakoli-Targhi, “Anti-Bahaism and Islamism in Iran,” in The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-historical Studies, ed. D. P. Brookshaw and S. B. Fazel (New York, Routledge, 2008), 200–231, 259; R. Afshari, “The Discourse and Practice of Human Rights Violations of Iranian Baha’is in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in The Baha’is of Iran, 232–277, 236; A. Pistor-Hatam, “Non-understanding and Minority Formation in Iran,” Iran 55 (2017): 87–98.

[3]Concerning Muntaẓirī’s – who does not relate to the Human Rights Declaration – viewpoint on human rights and, more particularly, human dignity, see Sh. T. Hunter, “Islamic Reformist Discourse in Iran,” in Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity, ed. Sh. T. Hunter (New York: Routledge, 2009), 61–62; C. Arminjon Hachem, Les droits de l’homme dans l’islam shi’ite: Confluences et lignes de partages (Paris: Les éditions de cerf, 2017), 101–150.

[4]Mohsen Kadivar, bā bahāʼīyān chih’gūna bar’khvurd kunīm?, 22 August 2018, bā bahāʼīyān chih’gūna bar’khvurd kunīm? (با بهائیان چگونه برخورد کنیم؟)

[5]Hannah Arendt, “The Rights of Man” in Modern Review 3, no. 1 (1949): 24–37, 30 (“Es gibt nur ein einziges Menschenrecht,” in Die Wandlung 4 (1949), 754–770, 760–61).

[6]Arendt, “Rights,” 30.

[7]F. I. Michelman, “Parsing ‘A Right to Have Rights,’” in Constellations 3 (1996): 200–208.

[8]Arendt, “Rights,” 37 (“Menschenrecht,” 766).

[9]Ibid., 29 (“Menschenrecht,” 760).

[10]Ibid., 33 (“Menschenrecht,” 765).

[11]Ch. Menke and A. Pollmann, Philosophie der Menschenrechte zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2007), 19.

[12]J. Förster, “Das Recht auf Rechte und das Engagement für eine gemeinsame Welt: Hannah Arendts Reflexionen über die Menschenrechte,” in Zeitschrift für politisches Denken/Journal for Political Thinking 5 (2009). No page numbers given.



[15]S. Benhabib, Die Rechte der Anderen: Ausländer, Migranten, Bürger (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2008), 66.

[16]Ibid., 63.

[17]Ibid., 63.

[18]J. Morsink, “World War Two and the Universal Declaration,” Human Rights Quarterly 15 (1993): 357–405,  357.

[19]Ibid., 358.

[20]Ibid., 393.

[21]See, for example, the Agreements on the Protection of Minorities at the Paris Peace Conference 1919.

[22]J. Morsink, “Cultural Genocide, the Universal Declaration, and Minority Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 21 (1999), 1009–60: 1012.

[23]Ibid., 1057.

[24]Ibid., 1010.

[25]Minority Rights: International Standards and Guidance for Implementation, United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations 2010, 2.

[26]Ibid., 2.

[27]“A group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members – being nationals of the State – possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language.” Minority Rights, 2.

[28]Ibid., 3.

[29]Ibid., 2.

[30]Ibid., 3.

[31]R. Wolfrum, “Der völkerrechtliche Schutz religiöser Minderheiten und ihrer Mitglieder,” Religionsfreiheit zwischen individueller Selbstbestimmung, Minderheitenschutz und Staatskirchenrecht – Völker- und verfassungsrechtliche Perspektiven ed. R. Grote and T. Marauhn (Springer, Berlin, 2001), 53–71, 56.

[32]“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied their right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” Minority Rights, 15.

[33]Ibid., 16. See also the text of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities of 1992, Ibid., 45–46.

[34]Wolfrum, “Der völkerrechtliche Schutz,” 67.

[35]Ibid., 68.

[36]See Pistor-Hatam, “Non-understanding.” As regards human rights in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, see also A. E. Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1991), 80–85.

[37]Ramin S. Moschtaghi, Die menschenrechtliche Situation sunnitischer Kurden in der Islamischen Republik Iran. Probleme der Verwirklichung der Menschenrechte in einer stark religiös geprägten Rechtsordnung im Spannungsfeld zwischen Völkerrecht, iranischem Verfassungsrecht und schiitischem religiösem Recht (Heidelberg: Springer 2010), S. 61.

[38]Human Rights Council: “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” 10 March 2016, S. 21, [5.11.2016].

[39]Beginning in the 1960s, various Iranian clerics have commented on the UDHR, especially since 1979. See  Arminjon Hachem: Les droits de l’homme (Paris: Les éditions de cerf), 74.

[40]Hunter: Islamic Reformist Discourse, 86–87.

[41]J. Amuzegar, “The Ahmadinejad Era: Preparing for Apocalypse,” Journal of International Affairs 60, no. 2 (2007): 35-53. See also A. Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics: From Majlesi to Ahmadinejad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 76-77.

[42]Although Iran participated in the compilation of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam of 1990, Misbāḥ Yazdī is not concerned with this declaration at all.

[43]M. T. Misbāḥ Yazdī, Nigāhī guzarā bi ḥuqūq-i bashar az dīdgāh-i islām (Qom: Kitāb’khāna-i madrasah-i faqāhat, 1388/2009), 39.

[44]Ibid., 44, referring to articles of the UDHR.

[45]Ibid., 44.

[46]See art. 28 of the UDHR.

[47]M. T. Misbāḥ Yazdī, Naẓarīye-i ḥuqūq-i islām (Qum: Intishārāt-i Mu’assisah-’i Āmuzishī va Pajuhishī-i Imām Khumaynī 1391/2011) vol. 1, 246–47, i.

[48]Misbāḥ Yazdī, Nigāhī, 44.

[49]Ibid., 52.

[50]Ibid., 53–55.

[51]Ibid., 55.

[52]Ibid., 110–11.

[53]Ibid., 247.

[54]Ibid., 93.

[55]Y. Matsunaga, “Mohsen Kadivar, an Advocate of Postrevivalist Islam in Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 34 (2007): 317–29, 318.

[56]M. Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās: Islām va ḥuqūq-i bashar (Tehran: Kavīr, 1386sh/2008), 88. The book’s fifth edition  was published in Tehran (Kavir) in 2014, even though he has been banned from publishing his work, including new editions. See Kadivar, Gottes Recht, 47. In another publication, Kadīvar refers to the Cairo Declaration which he calls discriminatory in five areas, among them the right to freedom of opinion and religion. Kadivar, “Human Rights,” 62.

[57]See also J. Waardenburg, “Human Rights, Human Dignity and Islam,” Temenos: Studies in Comparative Religion 27 (1991): 151–82, 171.

[58]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 92.

[59]Ibid., 92.

[60]Ibid., 381.

[61]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 381; Qur’an 18:29, 11:118, 10:99. Here he is in accordance with Abdolkarim Soroush. See Arash Sarkohi, Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs Der Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs der religiösen Reformer in Iran und die Universalität der Menschenrechte (Bonn: Ergon-Verlag, 2014), 58.

[62]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 381; Qur’an 22:68–69.

[63]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 383; Qur’an 60:8–9.

[64]Kadīvar,Ḥaqq an-nās, 92–93. Here he agrees with Mohammad Shabestari. See Sarkohi, Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs, 77, and Hunter, Islamic Reformist Discourse, 72.

[65]Quoted in Y. Matsunaga, “Human Rights and New Jurisprudence in Mohsen Kadivar’s Advocacy of ‘New Thinker’ Islam,” Die Welt des Islams/International Journal for the Study of Modern Islam 5 (2011): 358–81, 379.

[66]Quoted in Matsunaga, “Human Rights,” 379.

[67]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 43. This intepretation of the sura he shares with Abdolkarim Soroush. See Sarkohi, De-mokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs, 53.

[68]Quoted in Matsunaga, “Human Rights,” 363.

[69]M. Kadivar, “Human Rights and Intellectual Islam,” in New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim Tradition, ed. K. Vogt et al. (London: IB Tauris 2009), 47–68, 56.

[70]Ibid., 56.

[71]Kadīvar: Ḥaqq an-nās, 126.

[72]My reading here differs from Sarkohi’s interpretation of the text. See Sarkohi, Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs, 98. In an interview conducted eight years later, Kadīvar confesses that he had not been explicit in his answers regarding the Baha’is. M. Kadivar, Gottes Recht und Menschenrechte: Eine Kritik am historischen Islam, trans. A. Eschraghi (Freiburg: Herder, 2017), 46, footnote 13.

[73]Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās, 126. Here, again, he agrees with Abdolkarim Soroush. See Sarkohi, Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs, 58–59.

[74]On Kadīvar’s “new thinker Islam,” see Kadīvar, “Human Rights”; Kadīvar, Ḥaqq an-nās; Kadivar, Gottes Recht; K. Amirpur, Unterwegs zu einem anderen Islam: Texte iranischer Denker (Freiburg: Herder, 2009); Hunter, Islamic Reformist Discourse; M. Kamrava, The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and Modernity: A Reader (London – New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Matsunaga: “Human Rights.”

[75]Quoted from Kamrava, New Voices of Islam, 138–39. Apparently, Soroush does not include the Baha’is either when he demands freedom of religion, since the Bah’i Faith is not considered a religion in Iran. See Sarkohi, Demokratie- und Menschenrechtsdiskurs, 68.

[76]M. Kadīvar, “Mujāzāt-i murtad va āzādī-i maẕhab. Naqd-i mujazāt-i irtidād va sabb an-nabī bā mavāzīn-i fiqh-i istidlālī,”, 1393/2014), 26 (9, English Introduction). Qur’an 9:74 indicates that God will punish apostates.

[77]Ibid., 26.

[78]Ibid., 27. Abū Bakr is believed to have claimed capital punishment for apostates during the ridda-wars. Waardenburg, Human Rights, 170.

[79]Kadīvar, “Mujāzāt,” 26 (4, English Introduction).

[80]Ibid., 27. See also 28 for a summary of Kadīvar’s arguments.

[81]Ibid., 29.

[82]Ibid., 30.

[83]Ibid., 29–30. The author alleges that insulting atheistic beliefs (bār’hā-i ilḥādī) was prohibited by the Qur’an but does not offer any references.

[84]Here, again, Kadīvar is in accordance with Muntaẓirī. See Kadīvar, “Mujāzāt,” 25. See also UDHR, arts. 10, 11.

[85]Ibid., 29.

[86]Ibid., 25

[87]Ibid., 36.

[88]In September 2016 Kadīvar clarified that he was now free to express his views on the Baha’i Faith as well as on the subject of homosexuality and asked to include two addenda to the book. Kadivar, Gottes Recht, 185. In the following, I will refer to the Persian text sent to the translator by Kadīvar, made available to me. It is a conclusion of a number of short articles and papers, questions and answers given in Persian since 1392sh (2013/14). For the relevant texts, see

[89]Kadīvar has rightfully long been regarded as representing mainstream Islamic theology. See K. Amirpur, “‘La ikraha fi’l-din – There Is No Compulsion in Religion  ‘– Or Is There?,’” in Freedom of Religion in the 21st Century: A Human Rights Perspective on the Relation between Politics and Religion, ed. H.-G. Ziebertz (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 74–91, 88; S. Amir Arjomand, “La théologie politique shi’ite: Transformation idéologique, traduction constitutionelle,” Les temps modernes 683 (2015): 144–59, 156. Arminjon Hachem differs from the mentioned authors insofar as she calls Kadivar’s reformist thinking “une démarche herméneutique.” Arminjon Hachem, Les droits de l’homme, 233.

[90]M. Kadīvar, Difāʻ az ḥuqūq-i insānī-i bahāʼīyān. Unpublished Persian text. See also ?p=15243. For the German translation see Kadivar, Gottes Recht, 188–91.

[91]Michelman, “Parsing,” 200.

[92]S. Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 55.

[93]Cole calls the exclusion of Baha’is in Iran “civil death.” J. R. I. Cole, “The Baha’i Minority and Nationalism in Contemporary Iran,” in Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies, ed. M. Shatzmiller (Montreal: Queen’s University Press, 2005), 127–163, 156.

[94]See Pistor-Hatam, “Non-understanding,” 92–93 and the quoted literature.

[95]See Moschtaghi, Die menschenrechtliche Situation, 61 for the rights of minorities according to international law.

[96]UDHR, art. 18.

[97]Quoted in Mayer, Islam and Human Rights, 34.

[98]See R. Forst, “Das grundlegende Recht auf Rechtfertigung. Zu einer konstruktivistischen Konzeption von Men-schenrechten,”, in Recht auf Menschenrechte: Menschenrechte, Demokratie und internationale Politik, ed. H. Brunkhorst et al. (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1999), 66–105, 71.

[99]Ibid., 71. Part of this entity is the belief in “equality in difference,” meaning that different human beings have different rights (regarding sex, religious beliefs, etc.). See A. Duncker, “Ungleiches Recht für alle? Zur Rechtsgleichheit in islamischen Menschenrechtserklärungen,” Orient 4 (2004): 565–81 569.

Video Sensations: The Experimental Films of Hamid Naficy

Simran Bhalla <> is a PhD candidate in the Screen Cultures program at Northwestern University, Illinois. She is writing a dissertation on experimental state-sponsored documentaries from India and Iran made during the 1960s and 1970s. This comparative study examines the role of modernism in nation-building and each state’s filmic pedagogies for modernity. Bhalla’s other research interests include interiors and architecture in cinemas of the developing world.

The Sony Portapak, the first portable consumer video camera and simultaneous tape recorder, was launched in the fall of 1965. The technology had three major appeals: portability, (relative) affordability, and ease of use. Its availability contributed quickly to flourishing media movements, such as documentary, which sought to challenge the status quo in their respective fields by marrying access and aesthetic naturalism, disrupting the one-way, corporate model of news and information production. Reportedly, one of the Portapak’s first buyers – and users – was the Korean-born artist Nam June Paik. Other early adopters and video art practitioners included the German artist Wolf Vostell, and Steina and Woody Vasulka, from Iceland and former East Germany respectively: all young immigrants, or at least itinerant expatriates, in the United States, searching for a new language – one unencumbered by cinematic expectation, and in defiance of prevailing taste cultures – to express revolutionary or countercultural ideas. Early video art contained, at times, both a documentary impulse – to observe or report on the real, and, in particular, capture real sound and “real time” – and a desire to use new formats, and mixed media, to depart from and critique conventional visual media. [1]

In this article, I will discuss Hamid Naficy’s experimentation with video technologies within the context of movements in documentary and video art in the late 1960s and early 1970s: his films, enabled by this new portable video technology and computer imaging software, combined features from both genres in order to produce original video aesthetics that simultaneously functioned as media critiques. More broadly, I discuss them as a reflection of, and contribution to, a counterculture that was increasingly concerned and fascinated with the possibilities of new technology. Though Naficy would later theorize exile and media in his scholarly work, his experimental films are an early attempt to grapple with his own experience of being foreign and displaced – and of being new. This experience was a fraught one, but Naficy’s films gesture towards the future and its potential.

These films were made during his term as a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Naficy continued making films for many years – mostly commissioned non-fiction films – before reorienting himself as an academic. Several of his video films were recently restored and preserved at Northwestern University. Four of these films, Ellis Island: A Documentary on a Commune (1969), The Piano Player (1969), Blacktop (1970), and Salamander Syncope (1971), were publicly screened together for the first time in February, 2018. This paper is born from the project to restore and screen these works, and the conversations that followed. I focus on Ellis Island, a documentary filmed at Naficy’s commune, Urbanity Hurrah (1970), a satire – of sorts – of news television, and Salamander Syncope (1971), an experimental film made using computer-generated imagery and then transferred to colour videotape. The three films together demonstrate the nexus between hippie counterculture, computing, and ecological concerns, which has been written about at length by Fred Turner in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, among other works.

Hamid Naficy was born in Isfahan in 1944 to a family of prosperous physicians. Naficy adopted new technologies from a young age: in the preface to the first volume of his book A Social History of Iranian Cinema, he describes his early experiments with film and photography. He inherited a Kodak Brownie box camera from his father, which he would use to take photos of his hometown. In his early teens, he graduated to a 35mm Agfa camera, a gift from a family friend who had purchased it in Germany. As Naficy writes, “My current interest in documentation must have begun then. I assiduously took pictures of my two favorite subjects: The very young and the very old.”[2] Naficy recalls sneaking his Agfa camera into the cinema, hiding it under his jacket. There, he took discreet photos of close-ups on screen (from King Vidor’s War and Peace) – an early, perhaps unconscious, self-reflexive engagement with film, and one that converted publicly projected theatrical film images into private, mobile ones. He would also purchase 35mm frames of films from vendors lined up on Chaharbagh Avenue in Esfahan. Eventually, he fashioned a method by which to exhibit images as well. He explains, “I built a wooden light-box with a window in its top. Inside, I placed a light bulb, a reflector, a roll of cartoon images, which I had cut out and pasted together…By cranking the handles outside of the box, I could view the cartoon strip as it passed in front of the window. I added a lens to the window and was able to project the cartoon images on the wall, creating my first film show for my family.”[3] Naficy’s desire to experience film not only as a consumer, but also as a producer, is evident in these stories from his youth, as is his desire to experiment with new technologies – particularly when he himself could make interventions in the technology’s intended use to create novel or unexpected images.

Naficy’s first film, Ellis Island: A Documentary on a Commune (1969) was filmed on a Sony Portapak. The film is a playful, freewheeling and intimate record of a commune that Naficy was a member of while a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Though Naficy would later produce scholarship on direct cinema, and interview important members of the movement (such as Albert Maysles), at the time, it was in its early years, and he had not yet seen any of its defining films.[4] Nonetheless, the Portapak enabled him to have the same intimate access and naturalistic style that would become markers of direct cinema, or, more broadly, what Bill Nichols has termed the observational style of documentary. Per Nichols, once portable camera and synchronous sound recording equipment became available, observational cinema could convey “the sense of unmediated and unfettered access to the world. The physical body of a particular filmmaker does not seem to put a limit on what we can see.” He continues, “With this equipment, [the filmmaker] might more fully approximate the human sensorium: looking, listening, and speaking as it perceives events and allows for response.”[5]

In the biographical preface to his four-volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Naficy describes his MFA films thus: “With one exception, all the films and videos I made at UCLA were psychological, surreal, abstract, and dystopic, expressing the various anxieties, disruptions, and displacements of modernity and exile I was experiencing – and was later to theorize.”[6] Ellis Island is the exception he mentions, the least experimental of Naficy’s MFA films, but is notable for its fly-on-the-wall ethnography, and its representation of early anxieties of, and about, the counter-culture. The film is infused with the spirit of the hippie movement: not just its discourse, but the music (the group listens to “Evening” by the Moody Blues, a sitar-inflected piece from their psychedelic concept album Days of Future Passed), the casual nudity and drug-aided philosophizing, and so on. Furthermore, even the loose-limbed, unfettered form of Ellis Island seems to be a reflection of its time. As Deirdre Boyle has written about early documentary aesthetics, “The early video shooting styles were as much influenced by meditation techniques like t’ai chi and drug-induced epiphanies as they were by existing technology.”[7]

The structural conditions behind this production, and indeed all of Naficy’s experimental films, were determined by counterculture motivations as well. As with many other universities at the time, UCLA was in a moment of political upheaval­ as it faced several mass student protests in the 1960s, against the Vietnam War and the firing of then-professor Angela Davis, among other reasons. In his Fieldnotes interview for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, Naficy claims that, “Students were actually taking over offices of the faculty at UCLA,” and also putting to use new mobile video technologies to record protests and related activities. These anti-establishment practices within the institution led to Naficy participating in an entirely student-run film course. He says, “As a group of 11 students in the MFA production program, we petitioned the department to give us a course that we, the students, would design and manage, and the department agreed… So, we were eleven students running our own class, in which I made some of my early shows.”[8]

Ellis Island was also self-reflexive, as some of the direct cinema films were, with participants commenting on the presence of the camera and their roles in the film. In addition to its relationship to new modes of documentary, Ellis Island was very much borne of the same countercultural movement as video art. In her chapter “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form,” Marita Sturken writes, “The era in which video evolved was an intensely active and idealistic one, now seen as the primary moment of radical social upheaval in the United States and Europe…That video’s emergence coincided with this pivotal moment of idealism about cultural change and social pluralism contributed to its initial burst of energy and diversity.”[9] The political and technological impulses that drove documentary experimentation and early video art would merge to produce several significant films, including three of Naficy’s notable experimental works – all made between 1969 and 1971. Ellis Island featured the introduction of several thematic concerns and aesthetic themes that would develop in his later work, Urbanity Hurrah and Salamander Syncope.

The first scene of Ellis Island features a girl, pictured through a peep-hole lens, reciting the words of Alan Watts, the British philosopher who became popular for his writings on Eastern philosophies and psychotherapy. (There are similar segments later in the film, quoting Albert Camus and others.) The opening scenes feature the film’s only overt gesture towards Naficy’s pre-commune life: the sound of a tune played on a ney, an Iranian flute. After the introduction, Naficy embarks on a handheld camera tour of Ellis Island, the commune, which is housed in a Victorian mansion in Los Angeles. The doors of inhabitants’ rooms are plastered with political posters; anti-war sentiments dominate. The narrator explains that the residents of the commune are mostly upper-middle class, and from different national and regional backgrounds, but share a political worldview that rejects American middle-class values and practices. One of the doors opens to reveal a partially nude man and women; the man points to the camera, and leans in close to the lens to inspect it. Participants in the film frequently talk directly to Naficy, and further, remark upon the presence of the camera itself, differentiating Ellis Island from direct cinema works of the time (such as Dont Look Back), where, despite the intimacy provided by handheld camera movement and zooms, the participants largely do not look at or address the camera. During this shot, Ellis Island’s narrator explains to the audience that, “here, through just living in a really fluid human situation, we come to discover ourselves, and discover ourselves in relation to the harmony of things… and drugs help us, we admit that.” Thus, the film sets up what we might now consider an idealized encapsulation of the sentiments and practices of 1960s counterculture, though its participants soon reveal ruptures and hypocrisies in their chosen system. As the scene moves to a group of students seated on the floor, Naficy’s camera travels from face to face and then to abstract body parts and objects, shifting in and out of focus, as if to echo the philosophy of transitory presence and “flux,” as the narrator describes it.

Though formally Ellis Island may be the exception among Naficy’s MFA films, its participants certainly express anxieties about modernity, yet he himself remains anonymous enough that these concerns are not necessarily intended to represent him. As Naficy trains his Portapak on a common room hangout, one member remarks, “Look at the machine there. Hamid is taking down what we’re saying on a machine, what we look like, on a machine,” while another contends that, “it doesn’t understand anything, it just records it.” Ellis Island’s references to new technologies are brief and tangential, but the influence of these developments had permeated various facets of counterculture rhetoric: for example, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” was an oft-quoted hippie mantra, popularized by Timothy Leary, but credited to Marshall McLuhan. Leary promoted it as something of a spiritual saying, whereas others associated it disparagingly with drug culture, but its origin – conscious or not – is in the language of media machines. The conversation in Urbanity Hurrah also puts forth a range of technological terminology in relationship to notions of consciousness, nature, and rebirth. Naficy’s films foreground this developing vocabulary while formal choices work to make new technology visible to the viewer (which I discuss in more detail below).

As the film continues, their discussion turns to the state of the commune: recently, they have let in new residents, but do not feel as though they embody the spirit of the commune. They share concerns that center on individual responsibility as a necessary part of communal living – for example, critiquing new members who are not thoughtful in their food consumption, leaving too little for those that eat after them. Other problems are more nebulous, but in general relate to a perceived lack of authenticity, in terms of living the ideals of the commune.

Urbanity Hurrah bridges the transition in Naficy’s films from documentary and media critique to formal abstraction. It was conceptualized in the wake of an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 – at the time the largest in U.S. history. The spill was considered a catalyst for environmental policy changes and the American environmental movement in general. A media furor ensued, bolstered by then-new aerial images of the spill and photographs of dead or injured birds and sea animals. The majority of the film centers on an interview with Dr. Charles Ehler, at the time a professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has since become a well-known environmental researcher, working with agencies and organizations such as the EPA and UNESCO, specializing in marine planning. The interviewer, Lowell Ponte, takes a slightly sardonic tone with Ehler, who in turn answers his questions about environmental planning, machines, and the future seriously. Naficy himself refers to the tone as “satirizing the TV discussion show format.”[10] (Ironically, Ponte is now a right-wing commentator who advocated a theory of “global cooling.”)

The film opens with a close-up of Ehler, presented from alternating angles, repeating the same phrase: “One possible solution to our environmental problem would be the cybernetically controlled use of what I call evolutionary technology.” Cybernetics is, broadly, the theory of information systems deployed for management – one that appealed to institutions such as the military and corporations, but also to counterculture thinkers interested in utopian societies. Though Ehler is given the time to articulate his ideas and concerns, and the notion of cybernetics was being popularized at the time by writers such as Buckminster Fuller and Norbert Wiener, Ponte retains a skeptical tone throughout the interview. This tone is reinforced by Naficy’s description of the film as satirical.[11]

The film’s set design appears bare at first, in generic television interview mode, with Ehler and Ponte seated across from one another at a table. The two participants are in the spotlight, their surroundings dimmed. However, various surrealist disruptions interfere with Ehler’s interview over the course of the film. The set, previously cast in black other than the torsos of Ehler and Ponte, is revealed to be a construction, with a shot revealing the window behind Ehler to be a hanging prop on a stage, looking out onto nothing. Minor comedic notes in the soundtrack – such as the sound of a baby wailing when Ponte mentions the book The Population Bomb – give way to wilder deviations from form: one features a cutaway of a man seated at an ornate coffee table, pouring Life cereal into a bowl, only to find that toy cars come tumbling out of the box instead; a Buñuelian touch that upends a domestic practice using its own icons. This shot exhibits no clear relation to the subject matter of Urbanity Hurrah, but gestures back towards Naficy’s previous experimental films, such as The Piano Player (1969) in its use of a theatrical stage and amateur props, highlighting their artificiality in service of the absurd.

Other formal interruptions include abstract geometric imagery created through video feedback, including a shot of shapes rapidly emerging from an opened door. Towards the very end of the interview, Naficy uses video feedback to create the effect of new images emerging from Ehler’s head. These images are of television programs, which change every few seconds, as though a viewer is impatiently flipping through channels.

Fig.1. Video feedback effect in Urbanity Hurrah, 1970.

Fig.1. Video feedback effect in Urbanity Hurrah, 1970.

According to Yvonne Spielmann, video’s specificity as a medium is in its electronic signal processing: “The flexible and transformative characteristics of video are highlighted by the specific possibility that the visible form of an image can arise from different machines in the electronic setting: from cameras, from monitors and screens, and in various effects devices such as synthesizers, keyers, and analogue computers.”[12] Naficy takes advantage of this flexibility in Urbanity Hurrah, creating feedback images or keying in new ones into the existing image, in an otherwise verisimilar, television-style video recording.[13] The effects reveal the medium as electronic, and show its break with film, and even television, where the transmission is stabilized to avoid such effects. This overt emphasis on the materiality of video reinforces Spielmann’s argument about video as a self-reflexive medium.

These disruptive and seemingly random technological images appear as if in response to Ehler’s proclamations about the “controlled use of technology.” (The repetitive, uniform abstraction in Urbanity Hurrah is also an aesthetic precursor to Naficy’s computer-generated imagery in Salamander Syncope, which I will discuss further.) Despite his technological utopianism – he argues that cybernetic information theory “may be a salvation to our ecosystem and to our problems” – many of Ehler’s ideas might sound reasonable to modern ears (at times even prescient). However, the score and surrealist ruptures lend a science-fiction affect to Ehler’s interview. As the film forwards notions of a technologically-managed future, it explicitly foregrounds its own new technology – however, it does so in order to produce something disruptive and confusing rather than an improvement or solution.

During the last scene of his interview, as the screen begins to swell with television footage, the sound also drowns out Ehler’s words. Naficy then cuts to the coda of the film, which is a parody of man-on-the-street interviews on television news programs. The segment is titled “Youth Claims to Know.” The interviewer asks students questions about their thoughts on pollution generated by oil leaks and other environmental issues, to which they all give straight-faced replies in some variation of the phrases “eat my shorts” and “tough cheese” – an irreverent, if not particularly sophisticated, rejoinder to facile news media coverage of emerging problems. As Sturken notes, the possibilities of video – both aesthetic and functional – led to the emergence of guerilla television and other art in this vein, part of a larger “new communications revolution.” She writes, “This overlapping of aesthetic intent and communications/social critique was the direct result of the political ideology of the time. In the late 1960s it seemed possible to infiltrate and change the hierarchical system of telecommunication in Western society.”[14]

If Ellis Island and Urbanity Hurrah depict counterculture discourse and demonstrate its imbrications with emerging technologies, Salamander Syncope represents a synthesis of many of these ideas that articulates itself entirely through form.[15] Whereas the previous films had been made on two-inch videotape – the people’s medium – and Urbanity’s effects achieved through feedback, Salamander Syncope’s graphics were generated on an SDS Sigma 7 computer, with a DEC 340 graphics display unit, with the help of a team of computer scientists. It was then transferred to 2-inch colour videotape. (One of these scientists, Vinton Cerf, is considered a “father of the internet,” and currently holds the position of Chief Internet Evangelist at Google.) The film also features an original score, created with a Moog synthesizer, composed by Ken Yapkowitz.

Video and computer experimentation have an interlinked history, and thus, there was something of a shared language in experimental video and computer art. As Spielmann writes, “In light of the early structural connection between video and computers, it seems justifiable both to grant the electronic medium coding and programming functions and to follow, in this respect, the language use of the video technicians of the time.”[16] Indeed, in his abstract for Salamander Syncope, which was his MFA thesis project, Naficy explains how both computer and videotape technology are used together in order to generate the desired imagery. In addition to Nam June Paik, other artists producing experimental art with computer and videotape at the time included John Stehura and John Whitney, who used computer technology to design the opening credits for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Though Naficy was familiar with early computer and video art by these and other artists, he wanted to work with an aesthetic vocabulary of his own invention, and there were a multitude of influences – both personal and cultural – at work in the production of Salamander Syncope. By nature of its technology, however, the film did share qualities with other early computer art – namely, those of repetition, permutation, and standardization, the appearance of geometric forms.[17]

In his abstract, Naficy wrote that, “a versatile, mathematical and interactive graphics language” was developed such that “the fusion of these two media can best be controlled and directed toward the expression of a specific notion, i.e., the invocation of molecular memory.”[18] Naficy’s interest in scientific and technological ideas were evident even in his youth – he was descended from a family of physicists and describes, in his book, a family-run magazine called Neda-ye Elm (Call of Science) to which he contributed.[19] Frequently, this intersected with his interest in artistic production. As an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California – where he studied dentistry before diverting himself to communication studies – he hosted a radio show on the university station. It was dedicated to playing non-Western music, but in between tracks, Naficy would read new findings from the Scientific American. He also began to read about animation and computer imaging in technology and computer magazines before ultimately deciding he wanted to make his own computer-animated film.

In Salamander Syncope, an undulating wave of abstract images appears and transforms until, ultimately, we are presenting with one fully legible image: that of a fetus in a womb. Though Naficy’s meaning is clear – in A Social History of Iranian Cinema, he describes the film as being about “the origin of life”[20] – the connection between computer art aesthetics and the notion of some primordial experience or existence has been noted in regards to other works, too.

Fig. 2. Computer-generated image of a fetus, Salamander Syncope, 1971.

Fig. 2. Computer-generated image of a fetus, Salamander Syncope, 1971.

For example, in her chapter “From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney,” Zabet Patterson writes about a John Whitney film, Permutations (1968), that was made on an IBM mainframe computer, also filmed at the University of California, Los Angeles. She characterizes the film’s affect as a “sense of newness,” claiming that “Permutations remains remarkable in part because nothing much happens in it—nothing that the viewer can really remember; nothing, in any case, for which the viewer can have much of a linguistic vocabulary. Shapes grow and shift, resolve and disintegrate. Vincent Canby claimed in the New York Times that in the formal play of shapes was an innocent joy, that they evoked the sense ‘of what it must have been like to see the world for the first time.’”[21] Another landmark film for both the counterculture and cyber culture, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), featured imitation computer graphics: the resolution of the computer graphics that Kubrick had requested was too low for his 70-millimeter epic, and so instead, colour-filtered graphics slides were projected and then filmed in order to create the desired effect.[22] The film famously ends with the image of the “star child,” a fetus encased within a glowing planet that is approaching Earth. (The visual of the star child itself was inspired by in-utero photography, new and cutting-edge at the time.) The technological imaginary of the nineteen-sixties was conceptualizing new births, through new technologies. 

Salamander Syncope’s images are constantly in motion, with the shapes in each shot maintaining an orderly coherence and control even as they mutate, divide, and recombine. Images in a brilliant colour scheme of neon pastels unfurl against a predominantly black background. Though shape and image configurations do not repeat during the course of the film, over the 24-minute run time, one begins to see images relate back to their previous iterations. Our instinct is to associate the abstract images in front of us with known quantities they might represent: the shapes become cells, galaxies, salamanders. Moog-generated electronic chirps on the score accelerate, suggesting action. Once again, it might put the viewer in mind of science-fiction films: our aural and visual vocabulary for the cosmic was, of course, invented by the cinema.

Fig. 3. Suggestive abstraction, Salamander Syncope, 1971.

Fig. 3. Suggestive abstraction, Salamander Syncope, 1971.

Part of one’s desire in watching a film like Salamander Syncope is to assume continuity, and assign narrative – even when several computer artists, such as James and John Whitney, sought explicitly to make non-representative art. They wanted to move “away from indexicality”[23] – indeed, this was one of the appeals of both early video and computer art. Marita Sturken quotes the video artist Frank Gillette’s claim that there were “no formal burdens” for video because it had “no tradition,”[24] and she herself resists the notion that video should develop conventions that function as shorthand for meaning, as they can in film.[25] Scholars of video have argued for a medium-specific methodology of theorizing videotape, which is distinguished by its processing properties (a quality it shares with the computer). Video has often been dismissed as a simple, now-dead predecessor to digital video, considered low-tech and obsolete despite its aesthetic and technological influence on future electronic media. Thus, it is important to consider Naficy’s films alongside those of his Northern California and New York peers. They are not simply historical curiosities that existed at the margins of mainstream media, or between technological developments in visual media. Rather, they are artworks that both have their own medium-specific language and cultural context, and which were influential in the development of digital media and its aesthetic codes. Some moments in Salamander Syncope, including its finale, permit a recognizable representative image, but the film still refuses its audience narrative, linearity, or formal convention. Art critics considered early computer art cold and impersonal,[26] but in fact, its abstract nature allows us to dwell in the sensory. Indeed, Gregory Zinman argues that artists such as Nam June Paik and Mary Ellen Bute, an illustrator whose experimental films anticipated computer-generated imagery, created or inspired connections between abstract synchronicity and the sensory.[27]

Experimental film was Naficy’s own mode of thinking through his particular experience in the United States. In A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Naficy describes the desolation and anger he felt in his early days in America. This “exilic panic” mobilized him to take up photography again, as a way of making sense of his experience, and of understanding the new world around him. He writes that, “photography became a way of fixing, knowing, and objectifying both the Western Other and myself.”[28] He refers to his body as a camera, echoing Nichols’ notion of the person with a portable camera as a “human sensorium.” Together, Naficy and his camera became a vessel for observation and memory. This is evident in Ellis Island where, though Naficy does not include himself in the film, he lets the camera operate as an extension of himself. His fellow commune members only discuss his presence in the context of the camera he carries: the sensation of the camera-body.

Eventually – after he himself became an exile, and no longer only an immigrant, from Iran – much of his scholarly work would focus on exile art and experience. But, as he writes in the book, his own experimental videos were the first lens through which he configured the experience of exile. In his book Accented Cinema, Naficy considers films made by developing-world diasporas in the West. He argues that the filmmakers’ displacement (whether by choice or not) from their countries of origin resulted, conversely, in a frequent fixation on place: home as tied to territory. When he looked back on Salamander Syncope, he confessed of its theme of “molecular memory” that, “what was being remembered, it seemed, was rebirth, my rebirth as a new subject in exile.”[29] However, in his self-consideration as a subject in exile, space seems to have an ever-expandable quality, rather than being restrictive or secured. The film’s aesthetics, along with its circumstances of production, suggest regeneration and evolution. In looking back at birth and its possibilities, it looks to the future.

Naficy’s MFA films are a representation of – and contribution to –counterculture aesthetics and theoretical concerns. Through the sensations produced by the amateur handheld cinema of Ellis Island to the hallucinatory experimentation of Salamander Syncope, they demonstrate the confluence of emerging ideas about consciousness and new, particularly electronic, technologies. They make use of video technology not simply as an accessible and affordable method by which to record material, but as a medium with distinct properties that allowed for special effects and original aesthetics. In some of Naficy’s works, it was also a medium that distinguished itself from others through these effects. These films, as well as the computer-generated Salamander Syncope, demonstrated, in their visuals, the possibilities of the technologies themselves. They eschewed classical narrative or exposition; instead, both Ellis Island and Salamander Syncope have a more impressionistic affect (the latter also defying notions of what rigorous and orderly computer art could produce).

Naficy’s positionality as a student, commune member, and Californian during the 1960s – an active participant in counterculture practices – intersected with that of his experience as a foreigner, separated by great distance from home and family. However, rather than mining the past, Naficy wanted to construct new futures. As with his contemporaries, including the Vasulkas and Paik, Naficy was interested in the materiality of new forms and their specific qualities, and with them, the promise of new visual languages – unencumbered by tradition, expectation, and place. As he wrote of his experiments, “I was exploring and creating a new identity for myself, by my own choice, chucking the roots for routes.”[30]

[1]Marita Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form: Great Expectations and the Making of a History,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990).

[2]Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), xxx.

[3]Ibid., xxxv.

[4]Hamid Naficy, interview by Michelle Puetz, Evanston, Illinois, 8 February 2018.

[5]Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 43-44.

[6]Ibid., xlix.

[7]Deirdre Boyle, “A Brief History of American Documentary Video,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, 52. [See n. 1.]

[8]Hamid Naficy, interview by Kaveh Askari, 5 January 2018.

[9]Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form: Great Expectations and the Making of a History,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, 106. [See n. 1.]

[10]Hamid Naficy, email correspondence with the author, 12 April 2018.


[12]Yvonne Spielmann. “Video: From Technology to Medium.” Art Journal 65, no. 3 (2006): 54-69.

[13]Scholars such as Edward A. Shanken have noted the connection between the cybernetic notion of feedback loops, through which information is transmitted back and forth, and experimental artists’ use of feedback as a means to create interaction with the audience.

[14]Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form,” 107. [See n. 1.]

[15]Naficy made another entirely abstract film between Urbanity Hurrah and Salamander Syncope – entitled Blacktop (1970) – that features an interesting combination of analog sound effects and video feedback aesthetics. It is worth nothing as a broader formal experiment, though I have not discussed it at length here because it does not engage overtly with counterculture ideas, nor does it clearly exhibit medium self-reflexivity.

[16]Yvonne Spielmann, Video: The Reflexive Medium (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 12.

[17]Grant Taylor, “The Soulless Usurper: Reception and Criticism of Early Computer Art,” in Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundation of the Digital Arts, ed. Hannah B. Higgins and Douglas Kahn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 27.

[18]Hamid Naficy, “Salamander Syncope,” (MFA thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1971).

[19]Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, xli. [See n. 2.]

[20]Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, l. [See n. 2.]

[21]Zabet Patterson, “From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney,” in Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundation of the Digital Arts (Oakland: University of California Press, 2012), 347.

[22]Margaret Rhodes, “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” Wired, 19 August 2015,

[23]Patterson, “From the Gun Controller to the Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney,” 337. [See n. 16.]

[24]Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form,” 107. [See n. 1.]

[25]Ibid., 118.

[26]Grant Taylor, “The Soulless Usurper: Reception and Criticism of Early Computer Art,” 18. [See n. 19.]

[27]Gregory Zinman. “Analog Circuit Palettes, Cathode Ray Canvases: Digital’s Analog, Experimental Past,” Film History 24, no. 2 (2012): 135.

[28]Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, xlix. [See n. 2].

[29]Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, li. [See n. 2.]

[30]Hamid Naficy, email correspondence with the author, 22 July 2018.

Foucault and Iran Reconsidered: Revolt, Religion, and Neoliberalism


Michiel Leezenberg <> teaches in the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments of the University of Amsterdam. He has published numerous articles on the social and intellectual history of the Islamic world, and on the history and philosophy of the humanities.



Over three decades after his death and almost four decades after his famous, or notorious, journalistic writings on the revolt against the Pahlavi regime in Iran, the reception of Foucault’s work is still very much ongoing. This is due at least in part to the steady flow of posthumous publications that have forced us to rethink much of what we thought we knew. A first wave of such publications arrived in 1994, with the publication of the massive four-volume Dits et écrits,[1] which, among much more, made Foucault’s Iranian writings more widely available for the first time.[2] A second wave, the publication of Foucault’s Collège de France lectures, started in 1997 and ended only in 2014, in French at least (the English translation of the final volume appeared in 2017); its reception has barely even begun. Currently, yet another wave of posthumous publications appears to be approaching: early in 2018, Les aveux de la chair, the fourth volume of The History of Sexuality, was published; and reportedly, there are plans for the publication of a number of 1960s lectures on topics ranging from Marxism to literature.[3]

Readings of Foucault have changed considerably with the appearance of these posthumous publications. For our understanding of Foucault’s writings on the Iranian revolution, his 1979 Collège de France lectures on neoliberalism, Naissance de la biopolitique, published in 2004, would seem to be particularly relevant, since they were prepared and presented exactly at the time of his most intensive engagement with Iran.[4] As one of the earliest attempts to seriously engage with neoliberal economic theory from a non-Marxist perspective, these lectures have also attracted considerable attention – and polemics – in their own right; but here, I will explore them in connection with his Iranian writings.[5]

Below, I will, first, place these Iran writings in the context of Foucault’s wider debate with Marxism; second, I discuss the extent to which they have been shaped by his own wider theoretical concerns of the period. Third, I will explore to what extent Foucault maintains his genealogical views, or insights, in his discussions of Iran, and of the Orient more generally. Fourth and finally, I will discuss how several authors on the Middle East, in particular Talal Asad, though claiming to follow Foucault, in fact revert to more conventional theoretical models. This section is of necessity somewhat polemical; but its aims are constructive rather than destructive. Jointly, these considerations point out the fact that the assimilation of Foucault’s ideas and methods in the historicizing study of the modern Middle East is still far from complete.

  1. Foucault, Revolt, and Revolution

In the spring of 1978, Foucault was approached by the editor of the Italian daily Corriere della sera to write a series of articles; instead, he proposed forming a group of authors to write about a variety of contemporary issues in which, he felt, new ideas were erupting. Apparently, Foucault did not initially plan to have any member of his proposed team write on Iran when he first conceptualized the “journalism of ideas” project in March 1978. It was not until after 19 August, it seems – in the wake of a fire in an Abadan cinema that caused 377 deaths and led to nationwide protests in Iran – that Foucault decided, not only to have Iran included in the projected series of articles, but also to visit the country himself. He made a first trip to Iran from 16 to 24 September 1978, and another from 9 to 15 November. His articles were published in the Corriere between late September 1978 and early February 1979. Little if anything of Foucault’s more theoretical concerns is directly visible in these journalistic writings; conversely, his Iranian experiences do not appear anywhere in his 1979 Collège de France lectures or his other academic publications. Yet, as I will argue below, at crucial junctures, there are clear and substantial thematic links between them.

Only from the third of these articles did Foucault start zooming in on religion as a factor in the protests. Famously, he writes how, when he asked locals what they wanted, nine times out of ten they would answer not “revolution,” but “Islamic government.”[6] He was both fascinated and disturbed by this answer, and in particular by the apparent willingness of so many Iranians to risk their lives for a slogan fo which they could not give a precise meaning or content. Moreover, the fact that the population did not call for revolution pointed out to Foucault the historical and geographical limitations of that term; and with it, of course, of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. He saw neither a revolutionary consciousness shaped by class contradictions nor a leading revolutionary vanguard, as Leninist theory and practice would have it, but rather what he called an “absolutely unified collective will” for the Shah to leave.

Based in part on his encounter with Ayatollah Shari‘atmadari, Foucault claimed that no one in Iran understood by “Islamic government” a wish for Iran’s Shi‘ite clergy to play “a role of ruling or framing.”[7] With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticize these overconfident claims; eventually, Khomeini’s wish for the Islamic republic led by a non-elected “council of guardians” consisting of elderly, and exclusively male, clerics, was to come out victorious in the 1979 power struggle. Moreover, Foucault, somewhat idealistically, and undoubtedly driven in part by his then ongoing studies of Christian self-practices, saw the Iranian revolt as reflecting a desire not only for a change of government and of political organization, but also for a change of selves; specifically, he saw the Shi‘ite Islam that – as he correctly observed – informed the protests rather more than Marxist-Leninist slogans as carrying the promise of a change in subjectivity as a result of its esoteric spiritual dimension.[8]

Among the authors he studied in preparing for his visit were sociologist Paul Vieille and, more remarkably, Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin.[9] As Ghamari-Tabrizi puts it, Foucault’s reading of Massignon and Corbin “predisposed” him to “grasp the revolution he observed in terms of the spiritual reenactment of the ‘Seekers of the Truth.’”[10] Quite probably, it was these orientalist authors, and Foucault’s own reading on ethical and political subjectivation in the Church Fathers as part of his research for the later volumes of The History of Sexuality,[11] which focused his attention on the revolt’s religious dimensions rather than its material causes. In other words: the religious and spiritual dimension of the revolt was not so much something Foucault discovered as a result of his speaking with locals; rather, he had been interested in these dimensions, or backgrounds, from the moment he started studying the country in earnest, as a result of his wider interest in spiritual self-practices.

What attracted Foucault in Iran was not the prospect of revolution (which, in August and early September, was remote anyway), but the phenomenon of revolt: he was focused on the protests against a particular mode of government, rather than in the subsequent power struggle in the runup to a new political order. Foucault was both intrigued and horrified by the spectacle of an unarmed population defying, and eventually overthrowing, one of the strongest and most repressive states in the world, having not only a formidable army, police force, and intelligence service of its own, but also the backing of the United States. He found the clarity and simplicity of the calls for Islamic government “familiar, but hardly reassuring,”[12] qualifying the voices of the mullahs calling for the Shah’s departure as “terrible,” etc.[13] Thus, one can hardly claim in earnest, as has been done by numerous detractors, most notoriously Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, that Foucault was
“blinded” by his “enthusiasm” for the Islamic revolution, or that he “supported,” “endorsed” or “welcomed” Khomeini or the Islamic republic out of an alleged cultural relativism and hatred for Western secular modernity.[14] Afary and Anderson make serious errors both in their rendering of Foucault’s views and in their account of the Iranian revolution;[15] here, however, I would like to focus on the methodological differences between their approach and that of Foucault. In particular, Afary and Anderson appear to fall back on a number of modernist and secularist concepts and assumptions that are explicitly called into question by Foucault. These concern, first and foremost, the concept of revolution. As Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi correctly notes, one of the main targets of Foucault’s analyses of the revolt is the Marxist account of revolution, partly shaped by then-ongoing debates surrounding François Furet’s revisionist account of the 1789 French Revolution, which rejected classical and Marxist views that it was driven by class antagonisms.[16] One should not underestimate Marxism’s continuing grip on large parts of the French Left during the 1970s. The relentlessly anti-Marxist attitude appearing in Foucault’s Iran writings – and, less emphatically, in his lectures on neoliberalism – is undoubtedly what most irritated, and continues to irritate, his secularist and modernist readers from the Left, like Afary and Anderson, and more recently Zamora and Behrent.[17] Foucault does not so much reject emancipatory revolutionary politics, however, as question the applicability of a particular, and historically and geographically specific, concept of revolution: he emphasizes the difficulties in characterizing the religiously inspired revolts in Iran as a “revolution” that involves class struggle, vanguards, and the like.[18] Qualifying the Iranian revolt as a theatrical event, and as a collective ritual comparable to the performance of a Greek tragedy, he argues that it does not stage class struggle as a major element of either its vocabulary or its dénouement.[19] The revolt, he claims, is not driven by economic difficulties or demands, but has a purely political character, and is inspired by a religion which speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguration of this world.[20] Moreover, he repeatedly argues that the revolt is marked by the absence of class antagonisms and of a vanguard party, claiming that the different strata of Iranian society are precisely unified by a formidable and absolutely collective will, namely, the wish for the Shah to step down.[21] Yet, he continues, this absolutely collective will embodies a revolt against politics rather than a concrete political program: it is the “most modern, and the maddest, revolt,” against both liberalism and socialism, and by extension against the secular, modern subjectivity both forms of government, or governmentality, impose on their populations.[22]

This emphasis – indeed overemphasis – of the unitary character of the will Foucault sees embodied in the revolts may reflect not so much a blindness for political, ethnic and/or sectarian differences as a desire to emphasize, against Marxist accounts, that the revolts were not characterized or caused by class contradictions or led, or brought to consciousness, by a Leninist vanguard. In part, Foucault was surely right in this: he correctly called attention to one of the most remarkable aspects of the revolution, the – temporary but all- important – alliance between mostazafin or “oppressed” and bazaris, or urban merchants. He also ventured the suggestion that Islam might become a revolutionary force across the Muslim world, which could mobilize the people more easily for, in particular, the Palestinian cause than Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. Wishful thinking or not, this sounds prophetic indeed: during the 1980s, and especially after the 1989 collapse of the communist East Bloc, new forms of revolutionary political Islam would indeed come to replace communism as a major antiliberal and anti-Western political discourse. What Foucault did not see, and what he hardly could have foreseen, is the fact that this newly politicized and newly revolutionary force of Islam, whether in a Shi‘ite or in a Sunni guise, would reproduce or incorporate numerous Marxist-Leninist elements both in its ideologies and in its organizational forms. 

  1. Neoliberalism, Government, and Resistance

After this discussion of Foucault’s reservations about the Marxist concept of revolution, let us now look at the fact that he was preparing, and in part giving, his Collège de France lecture series on neoliberalism at precisely the time when he was visiting, and writing on, Iran – a fact which seems to have largely escaped Afary and Anderson as well as Zamora and Behrent. Foucault was as intrigued by neoliberal technologies of government as he was fascinated by the Iranian revolt: he saw both as offering opportunities, or hopes, for overcoming or at least resisting existing forms of government, or political rationalities, in particular those of socialism, social democracy and the welfare state in Europe, and of secular authoritarianism in Iran. That need not imply, however, that he was naively optimistic about either. Given his earlier, and consistent, rejection of all forms of utopianism, it would be surprising indeed if he were to uncritically accept or endorse the utopian projects of either neoliberals or Islamists.

Obviously, there is no one entity or phenomenon to be labeled “neoliberalism,” as Foucault would have been the first to acknowledge. In fact, he himself strictly distinguished between two of its best-known varieties, German postwar Ordoliberalism and the “Chicago School,” which emerged (or crystallized) around Milton Friedman in the 1970s. This decade, in Europe and the U.S. at least, marked the demise of Keynesianism, in part as a result of a persistent “stagflation,” and in part due to structural transformations which announced the development of a postindustrial society and with it the transfiguration of the “working class” as conceptualized by Marx and Engels. In retrospect, it is clear how deep the 1970s crises were, and how radical the neoliberal reform policies introduced by Thatcher, Reagan, and others were perceived, but we do not know to what extent Foucault and others realized something qualitatively novel was going on. Obviously, one should not project what we know now onto the past, when nobody could have possibly known how deep and dramatic its impact would be several decades later.

Clearly, Foucault saw these lectures – given at a time when his theoretical attention was already shifting from modern modalities of power to early Christian techniques of subjection – as a preliminary to a more complete account of modern biopolitics; but the latter never materialized. One should not lose from sight, however, the fact that for Foucault, the analysis of liberalism as a governmental regime that rejects the classical raison d’état is a prerequisite for understanding biopolitics. In the question of liberalism, he adds, our “immediate and concrete actuality” presents itself [23]– just as the protests in the name of Islamic government constitute the immediate and concrete actuality of the Iranians. Both liberalism as a mode of government and Iran as a mode of revolt, then, were part of the philosophical concern with actuality, that is, with the question of Enlightenment as posing the philosophical problem of actuality as an event, and of the question of “what is happening to us right now?”[24]

In part because of Foucault’s shift from conflict and resistance to governmentality, but perhaps also because of his focus on a number of foundational texts rather than on actual contemporary neoliberal practice as it could be found in, say, Pinochet’s Chile, La Naissance de la biopolitique pays rather less attention to struggle and resistance than some of his other genealogical works.[25] One cannot infer from this, however, that Foucault was so blinded by anti-Marxism and “anti-étatism” that he did not see the darker sides of neoliberalism; but this is precisely the conclusion drawn by some of the contributions to the 2015 volume on Foucault and neoliberalism edited by Daniel Zamora and Michael Behrent. The general thrust of this work is that Foucault was not merely interested in neoliberalism, but positively sympathetic to it, in part because he was looking for an alternative to a French Left dominated by Marxism and the PCF, the French Communist Party, and in part because he allegedly had come to doubt both the feasibility and the desirability of revolution by 1977.[26] More specifically, Zamora and Behrent argue during this period Foucault was associated with the so-called “second left,” which focused on self-management (autogestion) rather than state intervention, and whose main ideologist was Pierre Rosanvallon, a student of Foucault’s. They see this association as indicative of Foucault’s desire to seek an alternative both for revolutionary politics and for the socialist state.

In a gesture broadly comparable to Afary and Anderson’s polemic, Zamora and Behrent argue that Foucault maintained an “illusory” belief that neoliberal forms of power would be less disciplining than liberal or social-democrat forms of governmentality;[27] but in their polemical zeal, they overlook the analytical point Foucault is trying to make here. A neoliberal technology of government, he argues, involves non-disciplinary forms of power, in that it is not based on the normalization of the abnormal or the exclusion (or seclusion) of what cannot be normalized. That is not to say, however, that it involves no form of power or no processes at all.

Foucault’s criticisms of the welfare state remain as yet largely untapped. These do not, however, pace Zamora c.s., dovetail with neoliberal arguments, but amount to a far more radical view that the concern with public health and private well-being reflects the normalizing effects of disciplinary well-being and biopolitical forms of government. Like Afary and Anderson, Zamora and Behrent implicitly or explicitly fall back on precisely the humanist, secularist, presentist and/or Marxist categories Foucault himself rejected, and tend to construe the absence of condemnations as endorsements; moreover, they depict Foucault’s methodological efforts to abstract away from the state as an analytical or explanatory concept as a normative “hatred of the state.”

Finally, and most importantly in the present context, the claim – repeatedly made by Zamora and others – that Foucault had given up on revolutionary politics collapses when one takes his writings on the Iranian revolution – written, as said, almost simultaneously with the preparation and presentation of his neoliberalism lectures – into account. From these, it becomes clear that Foucault had not rejected revolutionary politics, but merely the post-Rousseau Marxist-Leninist concept of revolution; this particular concept, he thought, had a specifically European history, which had come to an end by the late 1970s.

But Foucault was not only having increasing doubts about the Marxist concept of revolution. By mid-1978, he also appears to have concluded that the disciplinary state was in crisis, partly as a result of new forms of resistance;[28] as a result, he seems to have developed doubts about discipline, or, for that matter, biopolitics, as the defining power modality of modernity. Thus, a close reading of his 1979 lectures reveals that he saw liberalism – and especially neoliberalism – as precisely a non-disciplinary, that is, non-normalizing, modern technology of government.[29] More generally, at this time, his theoretical concerns were gradually shifting from power and knowledge to a less universally conflict-oriented focus on government and truth, which could also include or accommodate the government of the self. To the extent that any of these theoretical preoccupations are explicitly reflected in Foucault’s journalistic works on Iran at all, it is in his concern with government (and, on one occasion, “regimes of truth”), rather than power and knowledge,- let alone such technical notions as “discipline” or “biopolitics.” Yet, his Iran writings leave open the question of what modalities of power and forms of governmentality shaped both the Pahlavi monarchy and the Islamic republic, and what, if any, role the economy played in them. By extension, a consistently genealogical study of other modern Middle Eastern states that does not relapse into either liberal or Marxist categories largely remains to be written.[30]

Thus, at first blush, there seems to be little if any overlap between Foucault’s academic lectures and journalistic reportages. As Foucault was well aware, Iran under the Shah knew neither a liberal state nor a neoliberal economy, even if it was aligned with the United States; rather, it was what he called a “dependent dictatorship.”[31] Hence, the entire thematic of liberalism as discussed in La Naissance de la biopolitique would seem simply irrelevant to his concern with Iran. And indeed, in his Iranian reportages, Foucault wrote little on how the hah’s regime tried to manage the economy, beyond noting the failure of the modernizing and market-oriented “White Revolution” of the 1960s.[32] It should be kept in mind, however, that Foucault was interested in liberalism and neoliberalism not primarily as economic doctrines or as bourgeois ideologies, but as technologies of government.

Moreover, there are indications that his research interests were already shifting away from modern Western government and towards spirituality as a form of resistance. Thus, in an interview held in early 1979 but not published until 2018, he distinguished spirituality from religion, characterizing it as “becoming something other than what one is,”
and as the possibility of revolt against the subject position one has been assigned by political, religious, and other powers. All great political, social and cultural upheavals, he continues, originated in spiritual movements.[33] Likewise, in his 1978 discussion with a group of Zen masters at the Seionji temple in Uenohara, Foucault remarked that the end of (Western) imperialism coincides with a crisis in Western philosophy, if not the end of the age of Western philosophy.[34] It is difficult to assess whether this was more than a polite remark towards his hosts; but what is most significant about these comments, at least in retrospect, is his further remark that this crisis in Western thought concerns the Western concept of revolution. This idea of revolution, he continued, has dominated European history since 1789; but in the 1970s, with the rise of non-revolutionary currents like Eurocommunism, it is in the process of disappearing.[35] Concerning the non-European world, he added, philosophers should abstain from predicting or prophesying possible futures, let alone prescribing what should be done; rather, he stated, philosophers should speak of what is going on in the present (ce qui se passe actuellement), adding that any philosophy of the future must be born outside of Europe, or out of the encounter between Europe and non-Europe.[36]

Here, once again, one sees Foucault’s conviction that philosophers should be concerned with the present. More importantly, he also believed that they should pay more philosophical attention to the non-Western world. These words imply that, although the idea of revolution may be losing force in Europe, one should be attentive to – possibly different – forms and articulations of protest and revolt elsewhere in the world. And indeed, this is exactly what Foucault would set out to explore in the revolt in Iran a mere few months later. In a short statement accompanying his Corriere della sera reports, he called this kind of investigation “journalism of ideas,” adding, “One must be present at the birth of ideas and at the explosion of their force; not in the books that pronounce them, but in the events in which they manifest their force and in struggles.”[37]

This awareness of the historical and geographical specificity of European conceptions of the state and of revolution also appears in another text from this period. In “Analytical Philosophy of Politics,” a lecture also presented in Japan, Foucault made a number of further comments on the Western philosophical notion of revolution that may help in understanding his focus on Iran. Rejecting as “laughable” the suggestion that the late twentieth century marks the end of the age of revolution, he argued that the end of the domination, or monopoly, of the idea of revolution does not simply consist in a return to reformist policies; what the protest of his day express, he argued, is a struggle against the very fact of power, the mere exercise of which is “unbearable.”[38]

In other words, Foucault’s Iran writings no more endorse the idea of Islamic government than his Collège de France lectures endorse neoliberalism as a governmental regime; on the contrary, they point precisely to innovative ways of analyzing and criticizing both. As he put it in his open letter to Mehdi Bazargan, “In the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast suspicion immediately on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ by itself is enough to awaken one’s vigilance.”[39] Foucault’s analysis of neoliberalism is not a tacit way of endorsing it, as his detractors would have it, but opens up a novel – and still largely unexplored – way of criticizing it as a technology of government rather than an economic doctrine or a political ideology.

What links Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism to his views on Iran and Japan, then, is not only his philosophical concern with the present and his interest in different forms of governmentality, but also his suggestion that the modern notion of revolution (and, by extension, the entire Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vocabulary) is not a universally applicable concept, but a historically and geographically specific phenomenon. Writing at a moment when both political Islam and neoliberal government were just about to burst on the world-historical scene, and writing some ten years before the rapid demise of Real Existing Socialism and Marxism-Leninism as major political forces, one cannot but admire Foucault’s keen eye for what is unprecedented in the present.

  1. Foucault, Genealogy, Orientalism

Undoubtedly, Foucault’s writings were quite original and innovative in his own day and age; but are they still relevant forty years later? This question can be usefully split up into two parts: on the one hand the question of whether Foucault avoided the pitfalls of what Edward Said has, famously, labeled and criticized as “orientalism;” and on the other, whether his own writings on Islam and the Orient and the publications of others claiming to follow in his footsteps live up to the demands of his genealogy.

At first blush, Foucault seems to have had a keen eye for what was novel in the Iranian revolution. At the time, the very idea of political spirituality as a non-secular, or non-secularist, form of modern political agency or subjectivity sounded like a conservative atavism, if not an outright contradiction – as Foucault was clearly aware. In subsequent decades, the world has grown accustomed to various other forms of newly political, or politicized religion and religious agency, ranging from different currents of political Islam to Hindu nationalism in India, neo-Confucianism in post-1989 China, and the post-Cold War resurgence of national churches in Eastern Europe.

This is not necessarily to say, however, that Foucault was on the right track in his approach to the history of non-Western ideas. This brings us to the question of orientalism. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi claims that Foucault avoided the pitfalls of philological orientalism just as he rejected Marxist dialectical materialism;[40] but one may have doubts about this. Although much of The Order of Things may indeed be seen as a critique of philology in general (and by extension of philological orientalism), neither here nor elsewhere does Foucault ever voice any critical appreciation of orientalist knowledge as such or of the geographical imaginary informing it. This lack of reflection becomes particularly clear in his Iran writings. First, Foucault’s ahistorical belief in an essentially timeless esoteric Shi‘ite Iranian Islamic spirituality, and of Shi‘ite Islam as possibly providing “indefinite resources” for opposition against any state power “since the dawn of history,”[41] betray a strong orientalist influence, in particular of Henry Corbin, who is in many respects a showcase example of the philological orientalist.[42] Second, Georg Stauth has argued that the very notion of “political spirituality” suggests a relapse into an orientalist view of (religious) ideas as determining social action.[43] While this may be an overstatement, or an oversimplification of Foucault’s actual views, one may well question his emphasis on premodern religious factors in explaining a contemporary social and political phenomenon. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Foucault himself never questioned or thematized the geographical imaginary of orientalism. Despite his interest in questions of space and geography, throughout The Order of Things and other works, he generically and unquestioningly uses the term “the West” (l’Occident) as a seemingly self-evident civilizational space, and equally unquestioningly posits a generic, and partly mythical, “Orient” as a counterpoint or heterotopia for this space. Thus, most famously, the preface to The Order of Things presents a fictitious Chinese encyclopedia, The Celestial Emporium of Imperial Wisdom, which appears in a short text by Jorge Luis Borges, as a heterotopia exposing the arbitrariness, and possibly undermining the very logic, of the Western classifications discussed in the main body of the book. Likewise, Foucault’s distinction between a scientia sexualis and a premodern oriental ars erotica in the first volume of The History of Sexuality has been widely criticized as uncritically orientalist. And it seems he saw both Japanese monasteries and Iranian streets as heterotopias that challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions of modernity, or more precisely of a modern, secular Western political rationality.

There is, however, another orientalist feature of Foucault’s ideas on Iranian Shi‘ite Islam that renders them, if not useless, at least outdated. This is his – in retrospect astonishing – failure to seriously ask whether the Islamic world may have known any epistemological innovations or ruptures as exposed in his own archaeologies of “Western” knowledge. Even though he asked whether one should see in the Iranian revolts the birth of something new rather than the return of something old,[44] he did tend to see “Shi‘ite Iranian Islam” as a monolithic and substantially unchanging whole, and did not seriously raise the possibility of its having undergone any major changes, let alone tracing such changes in detail. Thus, for example, he passed over in silence the entire – admittedly complex and still little known – history of politicization of Islam in Iran, which started with the 1905 constitutional revolution in which substantial numbers of clergymen played an active role.

The most directly relevant text here would have been, of course, Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1971 book on Islamic Government, which introduced the notion of velayat-e faqîh, or “guardianship of the jurist;” but this work had not yet been translated into any Western language, and was largely unknown even among specialists on modern Islamic, or Iranian, intellectual history – a specimen of scholar that at the time, was rare anyway.[45] Be that as it may, Foucault discusses neither Khomeini’s ideas (as opposed to his “lapidary” public statements and comments to journalists[46] and only briefly mentions Ali Shari‘ati, whom he largely correctly – identifies as a main architect of “Islamic government in the sense of introducing a spiritual element into political life.”[47] These brief comments do not do justice to the radically novel character of Shari‘ati’s rejection of the “official,” politically quietist Islam of Iran’s Shi‘ite clergy in favor of a “religion of the oppressed” (mostazafîn), which is driven by socialist ideals of (social) justice and equality and even has a revolutionary dimension,. Nor does Foucault seem aware that Shari‘ati’s innovations were publicly denounced as heretical by virtually all major clerics in Iran except, significantly, Khomeini. Shari‘ati’s redefinition of Shi‘ite Islam not only involves a radical, and clearly Marxist-Leninist inspired, transformation of Shi‘ism into a revolutionary religion, which it had never been before; it also hardly if at all appeals to the esoteric spirituality Foucault sees as central to the Iranian regime of truth. Although Foucault does acknowledge Shari‘ati’s having read authors like Fanon and Massignon, he appears to take at face value Shari‘ati’s self-legitimations, like his claim that already the first Shi‘ite imam taught equality and social justice.[48]

Foucault thus gives the impression of believing that nothing essential in either Iranian or Japanese society has changed by the advent of  modern Western technology, and that basically unchanged premodern or traditional local ways of thinking coexist alongside modern ways, seen as European virtually by definition.[49] Such oversimplified statements overlook the enormous intellectual and other changes non-Western ways of thinking have witnessed as a result both of their internal dynamics and of encounters with other actors – notably, but not exclusively, the modern West.

  1. Post-Foucauldian Genealogies of Islam

Foucault’s apparent belief that oriental traditions like those of Zen Buddhism and Shi‘ite Islam are essentially timeless, premodern, and/or unchanging is strikingly at odds with his archaeological and genealogical outlook and its keenness to expose ruptures and discontinuities. Elsewhere, he explicitly states that genealogy aims at precisely unmasking any semblance of identity, unity, or continuity implied by terms like nation or tradition.[50] A similar unwillingness to countenance discontinuities in non-Western traditions also appears in the self- proclaimed genealogical studies by Talal Asad, one of the most influential contemporary theorists of the modern Islamic world. An anthropologist with an initially strongly Marxist outlook, Asad made a Foucauldian turn of sorts in the 1980s, shifting to studies of monastic discipline in Medieval Christianity, and then moving on to genealogical analyses of the post-Enlightenment concepts of “religion” and “the secular,” both of which he exposes as linked to a history of Western (and in part colonial) power.[51] Given this turn, Asad would seem well-placed to develop a full-fledged genealogical approach to the Islamic world; but, surprisingly, his numerous writings on things Islamic do not fulfill this expectation.  Most famously, in his “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Asad argues both against the idea that Islam, unlike Christianity, has power in its very essence, and against the view that the wide diversity in the beliefs and practices of Muslims prevents us from forming any single coherent analytical concept of “Islam.” As an alternative, he famously proposes to approach Islam as a “discursive tradition.”[52] Recently, this view has been criticized as overemphasizing the theological and juridical dimensions of Islam, at the expense of mystical and poetic elements which in the everyday life of Muslims have been far more important over the centuries;[53] but here, I want to explore whether these analyses are as consistently genealogical in character as Asad himself proclaims. At first blush, his notion of a discursive tradition appears to reproduce Foucault’s archaeological/genealogical favoring of discursive formations and, later, discursive practices over consciousness-philosophical and/or Marxist notions of ideas, ideologies, or beliefs; on closer inspection, however, it appears to be a communitarian rather than a genealogical or archaeological concept.[54] Asad readily acknowledges that his main source of inspiration is the communitarian philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre; but he passes over in silence the fact that the latter’s communitarian cannot easily, if at all, be reconciled with a genealogical perspective, and in fact repeatedly criticizes Nietzsche’s genealogy – a criticism that, presumably, would also carry over to Foucault’s use of Nietzsche.[55]

On several points, and despite his suggestions to the contrary, the communitarian character of Asad’s own analyses appears to be indeed irreconcilable with a full-fledged genealogical account of modern Islam.  First, Asad explicitly denies any discontinuity in this discursive tradition: “for analytical purposes, there is no essential difference… between ‘classical’ and  ‘modern’ Islam.”[56] Thus, he seems to presume the very identity and continuity which Foucault’s genealogy sets out to destroy. Second, Asad is keen to emphasize that this Islamic discursive tradition is reasonable, wholly overlooking Foucault’s suggestion that reason, or political rationality, may itself be implicated in power relations. Third, and even more surprisingly, his genealogical concern with power disappears from view in this characterization of Islam: although Asad pays lip service to questions of power, he dissolves it into an actorless and anonymous tradition in the guise of “authority”: “a practice is Islamic because it is authorized by the discursive traditions of Islam.”[57] Note the use of the passive voice here, and the replacement of “power” by terms like “authority’” and “authorization,” which imply or suggest that whatever power relations are involved in the Islamic discursive tradition are agreed upon and/or legitimate.

Thus, Asad appears as keen to stress the reasonableness of the Islamic discursive tradition as he is to expose the power implicit in Western theoretical concepts. In itself this may be a useful antidote to tacit individualist and/or secularist assumptions that traditions have no room for reason, rational debate or individual liberty; but Asad seems to miss the analytical point  of genealogy here. As a consequence, he misses the more radical genealogical suggestion that any form of reasonableness or rationality, whether premodern or modern, whether secular or religious, is internally linked to historically and geographically specific forms of power. This becomes most clearly – and most painfully – visible in Asad’s analysis of public criticism in contemporary Saudi Arabia.[58] Not only does Asad rather misleadingly suggest here that there is an allegedly traditional responsibility to criticize the ruler incumbent on all Muslims individually (fard ayn); he also completely overlooks, the fact that Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian state in which the conservative religious leadership makes use of a repressive state apparatus to stifle all forms of religious and political dissent. Put in more analytical and less polemical terms: Asad tends to downplay or ignore the crucial variable of power, in favor of a picture of a more consensual and harmonious tradition of “religious criticism” and “rational debate.”

This tendency to restrict genealogical critique to Western practices, and to revert to communitarian, liberal, and/or Marxist notions for the Islamic world, can also be found in other self-proclaimed followers of Foucault. For example, several authors writing on sexuality in the modern Muslim world, even though paying lip service to Foucault’s writings, persistently tend to relapse into Marxist and psychoanalytic categories of “bourgeois sexuality” and “Victorian repression,” even though Foucault explicitly argued that the analysis of modern sexuality needs a more fine-grained vocabulary than the Marxist notion of “class,” and that the Victorian era produced rather than repressed discourse about sex.[59] To different degrees, this holds for the – otherwise admirable – studies of authors like Joseph Massad, Khaled el-Rouayheb, and Afsaneh Najmabadi.[60] Such and other authors tend to revert to representations of ideology as distortive of objective social realities; of class as determining in defining aspects of modernity; and of power as essentially repressive – all points systematically and forcefully criticized by Foucault.

In short, an inadvertent relapse into the secularist and modernist assumptions of Marxist and/or humanist views explicitly and systematically criticized by Foucault is by no means restricted to his polemically minded critics; it also appears among authors seeing themselves as walking in his footsteps. In this, sense, operationalizing and updating Foucault’s views with an eye on the Middle East without falling back into more conventional habits of thought is a largely unfinished project.



Foucault was interested in the Iranian revolt rather than the Islamic revolution, and in the spiritual dimensions of resistance rather than Islamic forms of government. In fact, his enduring preoccupation with, and criticism of specific forms and techniques of government precludes any naïve utopianism concerning the latter. Unless one mistakes the absence of invective for approval, one cannot accuse him of an uncritical sympathy or utopian hopes for the new regime in Iran. Likewise, his forays into neoliberalism may abstain from polemics, but should not be read as an endorsement. On the contrary, when read conjointly, both suggest that the concept of revolution presumed by his Marxist contemporaries (and by many present-day leftists) as universal is in fact historically and culturally specific. As such, these writings invite us to reflect on the uniqueness of the event of the Iranian revolution, instead of reducing it to allegedly universal, but ultimately Eurocentric, categories.

Foucault’s substantial comments about Islam as a religion or tradition are not above criticism: most importantly, and most oddly, he appears to forget the relentlessly historicizing, discontinuity-oriented, and identity-undermining thrust of his own archaeological and genealogical analyses when writing about Iranian Shi‘ite Islam. Moreover, if the above criticisms of Asad, his followers, and other self-proclaimed applications of Foucault to the Islamic world hold, one may venture the hypothesis that a properly or consistently genealogical history of the modern Islamic world largely remains to be written. This claim may sound rather odd, given Foucault’s immense influence in Middle East studies and in the humanities and social sciences more generally. It should be kept in mind, however, that Foucault emphatically did not intend his key notions to function as universally applicable theoretical concepts, but rather as tools meant to capture historically and geographically specific, if not unique, events and experiences. As he himself once put it, he was developing an analytic, not a theory, of power.[61]

Hence, a genealogical approach to the Islamic world need not – and perhaps should not – primarily ask whether a particular modern, or modernizing, Middle Eastern state is “disciplinary,” or whether its policies are “biopolitical,” but rather proceed in a more empirical and nominalist bottom-up manner, by exploring which parts of the population and which fields of experience became objects of government at what time, and what forms of knowledge or – religious or other – truth were involved in these processes. Some examples of the former approach are Timothy Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt, which presents Muhammad Ali’s reforms as disciplinary, and, as such, as “colonizing” by definition, regardless of whether Egypt was under actual colonial rule at the time; and Darius Rejali’s important study on torture in modern Iran, which raises the question of why torture persists in modern disciplinary societies, where – on Foucault’s perspective – the need for violent and cruel punishments has disappeared.[62]

There is a second caveat in Foucault’s rejection of universals. The most important universal in this context is undoubtedly that of the state; but Foucault’s criticism of it stems not so much from a “hatred of the state,” as Zamora and Behrent would have it; it is primarily methodological. Already in 1976, he argues that over-attention to sovereign power located in the state prevents us from looking for non-sovereign forms of powers exercised elsewhere.[63] Likewise, in his famous lecture on governmentality, Foucault argues that the state as a unitary actor or institution is a “mythified abstraction”; that is, it is largely fictional.[64] And finally, in his 31 January 1979 lecture, while discussing what he calls the “state phobia” of some authors, Foucault once again talks of his wish to abstain from a theory of the state as if it were an “indigestible meal,” stating his preference for speaking in more processual terms of “étatization.”[65]

This call to look for other modalities, locations and articulations of power than the sovereign power exercised by the state is perhaps the most promising of the many suggestions implicit or explicit in Foucault’s writings, even if in the case of Iran, let alone other Middle Eastern authoritarian states, it is by no means clear exactly what results it would yield. It may serve, however, as an antidote to the persistent tendency to “over-state the Arab state,” as one famous study suggests;[66] or more constructively, it may us help to explore exactly what is specific to modernity in the modern Islamic world, and what forms of power and knowledge have gone into its making, without falling into the traps of Islamic exceptionalism, communitarianism, and eurocentrism.


[1]Michel Foucault, Daniel Defert, and Jacques Lagrange, Dits et écrits, 1954-1988 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994).

[2]A far less comprehensive collection was published in English as Essential Writings, 3 vols., Penguin, 2004. If the reader allows me an autobiographical aside: Dits et écrits appeared just as I was about to give up a largely fruitless search for the mostly Italian-language original texts of Foucault’s Iranian reportages; I have published an initial study of these writings as “Power and Political Spirituality: Michel Foucault on the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” arcadia 33 (1998): 72-89. It is not clear, incidentally, whether the Dits et écrits text is based on Foucault’s French-language original or on a translation from the Italian.  The Italian-language edition, Taccuino persiano (Guerini, 1998), also includes an article, “Ritorno al profeta?,” not included in Dits et écrits but largely identical to the French-language “À quoi rêvent les iraniens?” (Dits et écrits, III: 688-694).

[3]Stuart Elden, personal communication, 31 May 2017.

[4]Michel Foucault, François Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, and Michel Senellart, La Naissance de la Biopolitique: Cours au Collège de France (1978-1979) (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004). English translation: Michel Foucault, Michel Senellart, Graham Burchell, François Ewald, and Alessandro Fontana, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1978-1979 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[5]See, in particular, Daniel Zamora & Michael C. Behrent, Foucault and Neoliberalism (Polity Press, 2015).

[6]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 600-691.

[7]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 749.

[8]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 749.

[9]Following the latter’s highly idiosyncratic, and even downright ahistorical reading of Iranian-Islamic intellectual history, Foucault tends to see mystical and esoteric Shi‘ism as embodying a timeless Iranian spirituality. I will return to this point below.

[10]Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 73.

[11]cf. Foucault, Dits et écrits I: 55.

[12]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 692.

[13]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 686.

[14]Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Michel Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (University of Chicago Press 2005), Introduction.

[15]For a detailed argument, see Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran, ch. 3.

[16]Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran, 68ff; cf. François Furet, Penser la révolution française (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).

[17]Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent, eds. Foucault and Neoliberalism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015).

[18]Foucault, Dits et écrits III:  759.

[19]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 745.

[20]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 712-3, cf. 748.

[21]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 703, 715, 746.

[22]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 716.

[23]Foucault et al., Naissance de la biopolitique, 23-4, The Birth of Biopolitics, 22.

[24]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 783.

[25]This absence should not, of course, be construed as an endorsement of any particular kind of government; Foucault’s entire project seems precisely to make visible liberalism as a technology of government rather than merely an economic doctrine. It may be worth keeping in mind that even Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was long seen as lacking any notion of resistance to disciplinary power, even if Foucault unemphatically but unambiguously states that Bentham’s panopticon is not so much a reality as a “diagram of a form of power: its ideal form, […] abstracted away from all resistance” (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books 1979), 205; emph. added).

[26]See in particular, Christofferson, Foucault and Neoliberalism, 17; cf. Behrent, Foucault and Neoliberalism, 47; Zamora, Foucault and Neoliberalism, 63.

[27]Zamora and Behrent, Foucault and Neoliberalism, 3.

[28]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 532.

[29]La Naissance de la biopolitique, 254ff.; The Birth of Biopolitics, 248ff.

[30]For a suggestive argument, based on the case of modern Egypt, that there is no such thing as “the economy” as a distinct space, sphere, or object of knowledge and government that follows a purely economic logic, see Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts (Oakland: University of California Press, 2002).

[31]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 714.

[32]If anything, he paints an overly optimistic picture of the Iranian economy of the 1970s (which in fact, was having serious problems with inflation and overheating), undoubtedly out of a desire to counter Marxist explanations in terms of poverty or Verelendung as causes for working class revolutions (cf. Leezenberg 1998: 77).

[33]Éric Aeschmann, “Quand Foucault s’enthousiasmait pour la révolte iranienne,” L’Obs, 8 February 2018: 73-78.

[34]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 620.

[35]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 620.

[36]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 622.

[37]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 707.

[38]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 545-7.

[39]Foucault, Essential Writings 3: 44; Dits et écrits, III: 781.

[40]Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran, 65-68.

[41]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 694.

[42]Thus, historian Claude Cahen has referred to Corbin’s influential 1964 Histoire de la philosophie islamique as “disconcertingly ahistorical.” Claude Cahen, Der Islam I (Fischer Weltgeschichte, Bd. 14, Fischer Verlag 1968), 353; for more details, cf. Leezenberg (1998): 82-3.

[43]Georg Stauth, “Revolutions in Spiritless Times: An Essay on Michel Foucault’s Enquiries into the Iranian Revolution,” International Sociology 6, no.3 (1991): 259 -280.

[44]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 694.

[45]For an English translation, see Hamid Algar, trans., Islam and Revolution I: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini (1941-1980) (Berkeley: Mizan Press 1981), 25-166.

[46]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 691.

[47]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 693.

[48]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 693.

[49]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 526, 681, 716.

[50]See in particular Foucault, “Nietzsche, généalogie, histoire” (Dits et écrits I: 141, 147-8), where he adds that historical sense has a “dissociative” usage which “is opposed to history as continuity or tradition” (153).

[51]See, among others, “On Discipline and Humility in Medieval Christian Monasticism” and “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” in Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?,” in Formations of the Secular (Redwood City, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[52]Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Papers Series (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986), esp. 14-17.

[53]See Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press 2016), in particular, 268-90.

[54]For another critique of Asad’s genealogy along these lines, see David Scott, “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad,” in David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors (Stanford University Press 2006), esp. 138-45; for Asad’s reply, see 233-5.

[55]For these anti-genealogical criticisms, see in particular Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981), ch. 9 and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth 1988), ch. 2, 9.

[56]Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 15.

[57]Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 15.

[58]Talal Asad, “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument,” in Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 200-236.

[59]Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: 17, 114, 123.

[60]Cf. Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015); Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Beards and Men Without Moustaches: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Oakland: University of California Press, 2005). Unfortunately, considerations of space preclude a fuller discussion of these works.

[61]Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 92-102.

[62]Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Darius Rejali, Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press 1998).

[63]Foucault, The History of Sexuality I, 87-91.

[64]Foucault, Dits et écrits III: 655-6.

[65]Foucault, La Naissance de la biopolitique, 78-9; The Birth of Biopolitics, 77.

[66]Nazih Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995). This study remains, however, within a political economy framework of state-society relations, class structure, modes of production, and the like.

‘Prescriptive’ Masculinity?: Deception and Restraint in the Films of Asghar Farhadi

In the wake of Farhadi’s most recent international success with The Salesman, an angry article on the conservative site Mashregh News asked, “For which society does Asghar Farhadi write up his prescriptions of masculinity?” According to the author, Hossein Soleimani, this prescription calls on men, specifically men from the middle to upper middle classes, to ignore any transgressions against their namus (i.e. their honor/women), for to take action is to become an unhappy and unlikeable man, and in any case, taking even the smallest action will only result in support for the transgressor.[1] In his appearances on Haft, a film review program on Channel 3 of  Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and in his writings, the film critic Massoud Farrassati echoes this critique, accusing the film of adopting a moral relativism that elides the distinction between transgressor and victim, such that by the end of the film, the audience has more sympathy for the former than for the man whose “honor” has been stained.[2]  Sureh Cinema, which is the official site associated with the arts division of the State organization Sazman-e Tablighat-e Eslami, similarly critiqued The Salesman for negating a man’s duty to fight for his honor/woman and for treating the culprit against honor with empathy.[3] The Salesman reveals a culprit guilty of honor violations on both a specific and general level: not only does he assault

the wife of the lead male character (violating the honor of one man), but he is also a philanderer who frequents prostitutes (violating the honor of patriarchal society more broadly). As such, critics consider it a clear-cut case where the transgressor must be punished without remorse or consideration for the particularities of his situation.  Critics have made similar objections to the lack of absolute moral judgment or resolution in Farhadi’s previous films. These reactions also seem to pivot on Farhadi’s construction of, and commentary on, masculinity.  Referring to A Separation, Ali Akbar Raefipoor, for instance, calls it a film that privileges a feminist viewpoint which depicts and decries “absolute patriarchy.”[4] Farrassati sees A Separation as a film mired in deceptions, where no marital or family relation is sacred and all lie to one another.[5]


Much of the domestic criticism against Farhadi came in the wake of the successes of A Separation, and later that of The Salesman.  Both films garnered international attention, including Oscars, and both emerged at particularly sensitive political moments. Nearly two years after the 2009 demonstrations in Iran when A Separation was released, the country was still in the grip of its aftershock, with talk of “sedition” and foreign influence still dominating official discussions. The Salesman came to the scene at another volatile moment, albeit a global one, with the surprise candidacy and ultimate success of American President Donald Trump, culminating in the “Muslim Ban” shortly before the 2017 Oscars. The domestic and international circumstances surrounding the release and celebration of both films prompted many Farhadi critics to decry the attention the films received as political and politicized. These political circumstances and the ideological battles fought around them are part of the bigger picture that explain some of the intensity of discussions around Farhadi’s films. In addition, I suggest a more specific inquiry, which considers the reception of Farhadi’s film in the context of heightened domestic concerns around the breakdown of key institutions such as marriage and the nuclear family, concerns which themselves are tethered to deeper anxieties about gender. I will show that Farhadi’s films explore multiple men and masculinities, but that the assertion of masculinity in its various forms never seems to act as a corrective to the situation at hand. In their most extreme expressions, assertions of masculinity appear as violence or the threat thereof. However, they include a range of relational behaviors, statements, or attitudes which are often about showing dominance or control over a person or a situation. This is as true for the assertions of hegemonic masculinity as it is for those that deviate from it. In other words, it is not simply that only the traditionally privileged forms of masculinity show themselves to be futile in Farhadi’s films. Contrary to the claims of Farhadi’s conservative critics, who see his films as undermining traditional masculinity in favor of a version that eschews long-held values such as fighting for one’s ‘honor’, Farhadi does not present or celebrate  alternative forms of masculinity. The inadequacy of traditional masculinity as well as the lack of an alternative are both important to assessing the hostilities directed at Farhadi and to making sense of the bigger argument his films are making about the state of gender relations in contemporary Iran. Namely, Farhadi’s films reveal intersectionally rooted crises that traverse social and economic class. He does not point fingers as villains, but neither does he provide a way out.


Whether conservatives consider the failure of traditional masculinity to be a symptom or cause, the unravelling of gender roles and core institutions such as marriage and family appear at the heart of official approaches to diagnosing and fixing society’s other ills as well. Indeed, over the last decade, “crisis of marriage” and “crisis of the family” have become increasingly noticeable themes in journalistic, official, and even academic accounts coming out of Iran. Many of these accounts identify the harmful role of a range of media in creating and exacerbating these crises, with fingers pointing at both foreign and domestically produced media.[6]


The sense of crisis has been severe enough to necessitate an explicit policy statement by the highest office in Iran. In September 2016, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a sixteen-point decree outlining policies on the family.[7] The first three points concern the “creation of a family-centered society” and strengthening the family’s internal ties as well as its relationship to institutions such as the mosque. Other points outline the goal of encouraging marriages “at a suitable age,” rejecting singlehood, creating “healthy” social spaces, and adhering to proper Islamic relationships between men and women. Importantly, the decree notes the role of cultural production in meeting its goals, explicitly indicating the work that media must do and the defenses that must be put up against the “enemy’s soft war.”[8]  Even a cursory review of Farhadi’s work, particularly the films in his marriage trilogy (Fireworks Wednesday [2006], About Elly [2009], and A Separation [2011]) and The Salesman, seem to reveal families, marriages, and indeed a bigger society that stand in opposition to what Khamenei’s policies aim to establish. Such a review of Farhadi’s films also shows that the crisis of marriage and the family is not limited to a particular group.


In response to Oleinik’s claim that Farhadi’s films romanticize the relationships of the working class, Abedinifard has argued that the breakdown of marriage and the family cuts across economic and social class in Farhadi’s films, with the religious working class as vulnerable as their more secular seeming counterparts in the middle and upper middle classes. Oleinik reads Farhadi as a “conservative” who locates the distress of contemporary relationships in modernization; in his view, Farhadi focuses on the decay of middle class marriages since they have been more welcoming to modernity and are more subject to its ills.  Abedinifard offers a more nuanced view, arguing that Farhadi presents an intersectional picture of the failures of both “traditional marital relationships” and “modernized gender relations.” In the case of the former, Abedinifard shows how Farhadi identifies a combination of factors such as poverty and “detrimental traditional beliefs about gender.” In the case of middle-class marriages that may have moved toward some equity in gender relations, enduring structural inequalities contribute to the undermining of these relationships.[9] In short, Farhadi does not single out one particular class or one particular factor in revealing the tensions of contemporary relationships.


Nor does Farhadi easily assign blame when showing relationships in distress. Echoing a familiar observation, Cheshire cites the “emotional complexity” of the relationships Farhadi sketches; remarking specifically on the titular Nader and Simin from A Separation, Cheshire notes how “both characters come across as decent ordinary people with equally compelling reasons for their positions.”[10] The refusal to easily cast fault is also seen in Farhadi’s depiction of the marriage under stress in The Salesman as well as the relationships that begin to show strain in About Elly. Even in Fireworks Wednesday, where the husband beats his wife in the street and is ultimately revealed to be cheating on her, the film manages to show potential and existing fissures in romantic relationships without scapegoating any specific characters. This absence of overt judgment renders Farhadi’s reading of relationships more powerful, but it also appears to irk his critics: lacking resolutions and without clear targets to blame, those seeking answers to the crisis of marriage and family in Iran are left without easy solutions.  According to Rugo, the emotional complexity and nuance of Farhadi is reflected in both the narrative flow and camera movements as well: “the narrative structures are intricate and, whilst the camera often operates with the agility more typical of documentaries, its constant agitation does not suggest directness, but functions as an invitation to keep up with unruly relationships.”[11]Given a domestic context where official approaches to fixing the apparent cracks in the social fabric are rooted in re-entrenching a place for marriage and the nuclear family, it is not surprising that Farhadi’s depictions of fragile families and marriages touch exposed nerves. Yet this alone does not explain the extent of the pushback he has received from conservative commentators. After all, other contemporary films showing the darker sides of Iranian society, such as Abad o Yek Ruz (Life and a Day [2016]), to take one example, have been praised by the same critics who condemn Farhadi for his grim depictions of Iran.  It is equally possible to read Farhadi’s films as providing the evidence for why the state’s project for rebuilding society is necessary: in other words, rather than contradicting the calls for a family- and marriage-centered society, his films could be used to justify policies such as those proposed by Khamenei. Yet, by and large, critics have not cited Farhadi in the service of conservative arguments for reinvigorating traditional gender relations. One reason for refusing to appropriate Farhadi’s films in making pro-state arguments can  be found in the polarities of the political landscape, where conservatives shun Farhadi on the basis of his perceived sympathies with reformist factions. I want to suggest an additional factor, which pertains to the specific ways in which his films understand and challenge masculinity. It is not merely the case that Farhadi’s films are without resolution nor is it that he prescribes a particular kind of masculinity. Rather, almost all multiple assertions of masculinity in Farhadi’s films, which are relational in nature, are insufficient to forestall, much less fix, the bigger turmoil of marriage and other social relations that his films sketch. Just as Farhadi does not limit his accounts of marriages in trouble to a particular class, he does not only show the crisis of one particular type of masculinity.


The notion of ‘relationality’ as presented in theories of masculinity provides a useful background for discussing versions of manhood as they appear in Farhadi’s films.[12]  Drawing on Connell’s ideas of hegemonic masculinity[13] and multiple masculinities, Schippers has underscored the important role that femininities play as axes in the relationalities that undergird the construction of the masculine. Schippers is also interested in providing a model for hegemonic femininity to complement that of hegemonic masculinity: “masculinity and femininity are hegemonic precisely in the ideological work they do to legitimate and organize what men actually do to dominate women individually or as a group.”[14] This relationality, of course, is not fixed, and the “feminization” of various spaces can undermine femininity’s complementary role in maintaining hegemonic masculinities. Citing McLeod’s work on public policies in Australia, for example, Budgeon has noted that fear of the feminization of public spaces and “anxieties about the limits of masculinity” have reflected themselves in programs aimed at “allowing idealized masculinity to be reworked while managing the ‘contagion’ of femininity.”[15] Popular media have also reflected the worry about feminized and thus emasculating work cultures. Looking at Fight Club (1999) and In the Company of Men (1997), for example, Ashcraft and Flores see characters who seek to recuperate a hardened, dominant masculinity that is being undermined by the contemporary workplace.[16]


These two ideas in masculinity studies, namely the role of relationality and the role of both feminine/feminizing spaces, are useful in tracing the assertion and consequences of various forms of masculinity in Farhadi’s films. My examinations here are limited to Farhadi’s trilogy and his latest work, The Salesman, as these are works that have most often been at the center of the earlier noted criticisms of his films.[17] Looking at the interrelated themes of deception and the family, I consider the constructions and failures of masculinities in Farhadi’s films with an eye toward the bigger question of why they resonate so negatively in the current context of the “crisis of marriage and the family.”


Deception and Collusion

Inside Iran, the theme of deception is among those that has received the most attention in analyses of Farhadi’s films. Critics hostile to the work have either claimed that his films paint a picture of Iranian society where everyone is a liar and no relationship is sacred or—following Farassati claims of relativism in Farhadi’s films—where every deception may have a justification and therefore should not be judged.  Supportive assessments of Farhadi reject accusations of relativism and instead read his films as an attempt by the director to complicate the audience’s knee-jerk reactions and to call for more nuanced readings of social interactions. Looking at the question of deception and collusion while foregrounding masculinity may illuminate some of the deeper reasons why Farhadi’s take on the issue is particularly unsettling for his critics.


Both collusion and deception are prominently seen in Farhadi’s trilogy, though they are particularly interesting, in the case of About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday, as collusion in these films is not always carried out intentionally. The former tells the story of a group of friends who have travelled from Tehran to the Caspian coast for a brief getaway. All but Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini)—who have just met on the trip–are married couples, some of them with children. The film first revolves around the possibility of romance between Elly and Ahmad, but an unexpected tragedy changes the tenor of both the film and friendships. About Elly  opens with a seemingly innocuous deception: the female lead, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), knew that the villa her friends and she were going to rent on the weekend away at the Caspian Sea would be occupied by its owners and that they could only spend one night at their usual place. Sepideh admits to having known but protests that if she had told her friends from the outset, none would have agreed to come along. The second lie she tells soon thereafter is one in which everyone else in the group, with the exception of Elly are in on: she tells Badri Khanoom, the older woman in charge of facilitating guests at the nearby villas, that they are hosting newlyweds Ahmad and Elly from Germany. Sepideh is shown to be at the helm not only in initiating these small deceptions, but also in attempting to push the activities of the group, and more specifically, of Ahmad and Elly, around whom she has engineered the trip, hoping that they might get together. Sepideh as the engine behind the group’s activities and the deceptions that surround them is an important part of assessing the construction of masculinity in the film.


The film’s most central deception–the one which then casts all previous lies in a dark light–becomes clear to the audience and characters at the same time. After Elly disappears on the beach, everyone eventually learns that Sepideh herself did not know much about Elly except for one significant detail, the fact that Elly was engaged to another man. It is also only after Elly’s disappearance, more than half an hour into the film, that the men become actively involved in pushing the narrative forward, initiating action rather than mostly being background props to Sepideh’s suggestions and proddings. Yet, there is both impotence and violence in this turn. Not only are the men in the group unable to find Elly in the sea, but they also cannot persuade the search group with the boat to continue looking. In conversation with the police, they have little information to provide, and conferring with one another on what to say to Elly’s family and when to inform them, they are uncertain. At this point, Farhadi shows the men in medium longshot, backs to the camera, facing the sea, an image of passivity and forlornness before a trouble that overwhelms.


By the next morning, the attempt to transform the sense of impotence into agency turns to rage and violence, with couples fighting, and Amir (Mani Haghighi), cursing and hitting his wife Sepideh for orchestrating the ruse of the trip without consulting him. It is as though the disappearance of Elly sets triggers a shift where men become the center of action, but this intervention does not set things right. On the contrary, collusion increases, both within the group and among them, as does the overall level of tension and violence. In the end, all work together to agree on one story that would best safeguard themselves against retaliatory action by Elly’s fiancé Alireza (Saber Abar), and this includes Sepideh’s being forced to lie that Elly had not told her she was engaged. Sepideh begins and ends as a liar, Elly’s reputation is besmirched, Alireza is heartbroken, and rather than being drawn together by the tragedy, all of the couples appear strained. In short, none of the assertions of male authority—between the husbands and wives, the men and the authorities, or the friends and the fiancé—act as correctives or even offer temporary respite.


A similar dynamic is at work in the Salesman. This film is about a married couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Ra’na (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are the leads in a Tehran production of Death of a Salesman. Structural problems with their building necessitate a move at the outset of the film, but other than this disruption, the couple appear to be content. This is abruptly changed after an unknown assailant attacks Ra’na in their new apartment. The remainder of the film chronicles the ensuing unravelling of their life and relationship.  In the Salesman, the transgression against the wife is at the center of the plot, but there are also various levels of deception and/or omitting the truth at play: the friend and landlord who does not disclose that the previous tenant was a prostitute, the victimized wife who never speaks of the exact nature of the transgression against her, the husband who engages in many a ruse to entrap the man who has victimized his wife. The most significant deception for the discussion at hand, however, is that of the old man (Farid Sajadhosseini), who appears unlikely as a  villain. From the outset, Ra’na (Taraneh Alidoosti) had been against finding and bringing the perpetrator to justice; while she is somewhat vague about this, the reasons she gives point to wanting to go on and not re-live the experience through any form of investigation. Once she sees that her husband has cornered the old man, however, she gives a new, explicit reason, threatening her husband that if he humiliates the old man in front of his family, exposing his deception, that she will no longer have anything to do with him. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) chooses a midway solution: while he does not expose the old man’s lies, he does slap him, causing the man to suffer two heart attacks, and likely death, though that is not confirmed for the audience.


The film’s sharpest critic, Massoud Farassati, is right to note that the climactic scenes of confrontation between Emad and the old man are set up both narratively and cinematically in terms of point of view shots to arouse pity for the old man. And while on some level Emad has acted to restore his honor in keeping with longstanding codes of gheyrat,[18] the film not only refuses to condone him, but indeed punishes him. This reading is at the heart of conservative critiques: namely, that fighting for one’s honor is discouraged, with all forms of violence becoming relative. Indeed, for such critics, Emad shows too much restraint in failing to bring the full force of the law, or of his own personal wrath, against the old man.


Again, what lies beneath such critiques, I suggest, is the undercurrent that provokes anxieties about the bigger picture of manhood that is not restricted to questions of honor. As in the case of About Elly, it is not simply that the film offers no resolution, it is that the assertion of male authority fails to bring one about. Similarly, in both films the leading women fall short of their relational function in bolstering the dominant role of their male counterpart. In About Elly Sepideh only begrudgingly accepts her husband’s demands on what to say to Elly’s fiancé, and then only when she has been pressured by others in the group. Sepideh bends to her husband’s will, but the film does not depict this as a compromise that will strengthen the marriage. On the contrary, Sepideh’s marriage—along with those of the other couples—suffer and appear rather fragile by the film’s end. Even less so than Sepideh, Ra’na in The Salesman refuses to participate in her husband’s attempts to restore his honor, and in fact, stands in opposition to him until the very end. Similar breakdowns are apparent when marriage and family is the more explicit center of action, to which I turn below.


Marriage and the Family

The issue of fragility of the marriage institution in Farhadi’s films is linked to deception, and not just in the classic case of the cheating husband of Fireworks Wednesday. Even if marriage itself is not the locus of the deceit—as in A Separation or About Elly—they are vulnerable to its manifestation around them. Thus, while the issue of deception and collusion will again be referenced in this section, marriage as it appears in Farhadi’s films deserves a separate treatment for two interrelated reasons. First, the films under consideration all show major cracks in the central marriages depicted; in some cases the marriages seem to break down all together; the second reason pertains to the earlier noted sensitivities of the Iranian state to the crisis of the marriage and family in society.  As in the case of the above discussion of deception, the assertion of masculinity in various forms is not enough to significantly delay or prevent damage to the marriage or the family relationships.


At first glance, the case of Fireworks Wednesday may appear to be a counter-example.

Exasperated by his wife Mozhdeh’s (Hedieh Tehrani) suspicions of an affair with a divorced beautician in their building, Morteza (Hamid Farokhnejad) beats her in the middle of the street after he spots that she has come to his workplace to spy on him. The young woman he has hired to clean their home, Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), inadvertently becomes an accomplice in deceiving his wife, and he is not exposed as a cheater. For a moment, it appears that he may be allowed to have it all, the wife and the mistress: in short, he seems to be a man in control of his household and his women. The film does not allow this to be, with his mistress Simin breaking up with him at the end, with the impending sense that his marriage too is headed in the same direction. This suspicion is indirectly confirmed in the opening sequence of A Separation, where documents being scanned in a family court include those of Mozhdeh and Morteza.


Of all the husbands in troubled marriages in the films under discussion, Morteza most embodies the features of a ‘manly’ man.  He has no trouble providing for his family, and hired help and a trip planned to Dubai are seemingly unremarkable parts of his lifestyle. His virility is not at issue with a wife and a mistress, and in the eyes of available legal structures, Morteza would be within his rights to have both (if the latter were procured under the temporary arrangement of a sigheh). Nor is he pliant in the face of his wife’s demands and accusations, going so far as to raise his hand to her in public to put her in her place. The contrast between Morteza and the “emasculated” husbands of Farhadi’s films (discussed further below) is instructive and evidence for the bigger argument I am making here. Namely, the problem of manhood that appears in Farhadi’s films is not just the familiar crisis of masculinity where men are battered by the quotidian humiliations of modern life; it cuts across social classes and cannot be corrected with assertions of masculinity. The end results are the same regardless of the masculinity on display: a traditional expression of dominance such as that of Morteza or self-conflicted forms such as displayed in About Elly fare similarly.


This is visible in the case of husbands in Farhadi’s oeuvre who may be seen as emasculated on some level: in A Separation, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) fails to pay his debts and feels humiliated by his wife’s secretly working to care for another man; Nader (Peyman Moaddi) is unable or unwilling to convince his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) to stay with him; and in The Salesman, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) experiences a physical assault on his wife. In A Separation, Hojjat and Nader appear as diametric opposites, and they see themselves as such. Nader is employed and both he and his wife’s family are property owners, as is confirmed when a deed has to be produced as bail for him. Hojjat is unemployed, in debt and pursued by his debtors, and his wife is forced to secretly work (in collusion with everyone from Simin and Nader to Hojjat’s own sister and daughter). Nader’s low-key refinement is juxtaposed against Hojjat’s hair-trigger temper, a contrast which is imbricated with their class positions, and which Hojjat bitterly comments upon on several occasions. While very different in personality and personal circumstances, each character is similar in dealing with their respective crisis through reliance on the relational connections that established their masculine roles. In addition, both of their assertions of very different kinds of masculinity provide no relief in addressing the separate crises they face.


In the case of Nader, the assertion of his manhood is not done in relation to his wife or his marriage, something which he appears to have given up acting upon. Even after promising his daughter to do so, for example, Nader does not follow through on asking Simin to leave her parent’s house and to return to the marital home. Instead, Nader turns to his identity as father and son to re-establish his foothold, but even in relation to his father and daughter, he is unable to center his life. Indeed, his devotion as a son is presented as one of the main factors in the turmoil of his marriage Simin is eager to leave the country before the expiration of their visa, but Nader refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. In fact, in the opening scenes, one of Nader’s first and most memorable lines is one in which he asserts who he is in relation to his father. When Simin questions his insistence to stay in the country for his father when his father doesn’t even know who Nader is, he responds, “He may not know that I am his son, but I still know that he is my father.” It is in this same scene that Nader asserts his authority as a father, denying Simin permission to take their daughter abroad. What the film shows in this first five minutes is largely what we see of Nader’s masculinity for the rest of the film: he is restrained, even passive, in relation to his wife’s desires about the move abroad he tells her, “If you prefer to, go,” but in relation to his child and father, he asserts his rights and privileges.


Displaying a deeper pattern evident in all of the films at hand, however, Nader’s assertion of authority in these well-established male roles does not mitigate his circumstances. On the contrary, they seem to steer him toward further instability. His affection and sense of duty to his father cause him to lose his temper with Razieh (Sareh Bayat) after he discovers that she has tied the elder man and left the house. Pushing her out the door in anger sets off the events that lead to the major crises of the film: the loss of Razieh’s pregnancy; Hojjat’s learning that Razieh has been working for Nader with everyone’s knowledge; Hojjat’s legal complaint against Nader accusing him of killing his child; and Nader’s counter-complaint that Razieh has stolen cash from their home. While Nader’s relationship with his daughter provides more grounding, it too fails to fortify his authority. It is he who is dependent on her to learn the household details Simin had previously dealt with, and he finds himself having to answer her queries both about why he is passive in the face of her mother’s threats to leave and about whether he is being completely truthful when it comes to the incident with Raziyeh. Thus, while Nader is shown to be a good and caring father, the power dynamics of the relationship are not ones that unequivocally confirm his masculine authority.


Hojjat also asserts himself as a father, both in relation to his daughter and the lost pregnancy, and he also fully embraces the role of the husband whose honor has been marred. In the former, Hojjat reveals that he is both aware of and sensitive to the dynamics of class as they pertain to his position as father and husband. In the court scene where he has come to register a complaint against Nader for causing his wife to miscarry, Hojjat begins to lose his cool at the defendant’s demeanor, asking with anger, “Are our children not children?” Later, Hojjat confronts the school teacher who testified for Nader for interrogating his daughter about whether a drawing she has made depicts domestic violence: “Why do you think that day and night we are beating our wives and daughters?” As a person from the working and religious class, Hojjat understands that the masculinity that has been ascribed to him is imbricated with violence, particularly in relation to his wife and children. Ironically, Hojjat’s objection to these constructions are themselves manifest in violent reactions, as he tends to lose his cool in recounting them. In this too, he is self-aware, as in one scene, where comparing himself to Nader’s cool demeanor, he admits that he is unable to get justice because he has trouble staying calm.


As such, Hojat is in many ways the most self-aware character, even if he is the most volatile. He also is the person whose enactment of masculinity fits with the most traditional conception of it. Confronting Nader about pushing his wife out of the house, he asks him, “How did you allow yourself to touch my namus?” Like Emad in The Salesman—who as a character could not be more different than Hojjat—he takes the transgression against his wife personally and raises his hand against the person who was responsible for it. Hojjat’s manhood has also been wounded by his wife’s having to work at Nader’s to begin with, not only because she had to work to pay his debts, but also because it was done secretly in collusion with so many others and it was a job that placed her in the presence of two strange men, one of whom she had to care for physically. In the end, Hojjat is unable to recuperate his masculinity, with the final failure acted out in relation to his wife about the matter of the blood money.


Though initially indignant at the suggestion, Nader agrees to pay Hojat blood money for the lost pregnancy, but demands that Razieh first swear on the Qur’an that it was his actions that caused the miscarriage. The religious Razieh refuses despite Hojjat’s badgering her to do so. Failing to impose his will on his wife and with his debtors awaiting payment one room over, Hojjat turns his violent hand against himself. While this in essence exonerates Nader, the film’s ending shows that he has been unable to deal with the titular crisis of the film, and their separation is finalized in front of a judge. As in the case of About Elly and The Salesman, A Separation ends with all of the marriages worse off than they appeared at the outset.


As evident from the examples above, Farhadi does not limit either his depictions of marriage or of men and women to one specific class or type of person. As his audience, we see relationships that traverse different levels of economic class, religiosity, and cultural capital. Farhadi’s exploration of these diverse marriages becomes a vehicle for him to explore the relational masculinities that undergird each marriage. Always showing the complexity of his characters and their relationships, Farhadi never points fingers. This absence of blame means that no specific type of masculinity is under attack. On the other hand, the fact that none of the forms of masculinity under consideration in the films provide a solution for the quandaries that each character faces reveals a broader crisis of gender relations in Iran.



Farhadi’s critics are not wrong to observe that his films are filled with unstable marriages and families as well as widespread deception in relationships and in society at large, and that his   stories offer no concrete solutions or resolution. But Farhadi is not the only Iranian filmmaker to show the darker sides of contemporary society, and yet he is the subject of the most vehement attacks. Part of this must be understood against the bigger backdrop of volatile political moments domestically and internationally, where global recognition at the level of prestigious film festivals and awards is interpreted politically. More important, however, is the context of domestic concerns about the perceived crisis of marriage and family in Iran, a crisis that is considered to be so severe as to necessitate explicit policy decrees by the Supreme Leader. The conundrum here is why Farhadi’s films are not taken as confirmatory evidence of what the state has identified as a problem and are instead seen as a threat. The answer, as I have tried to suggest, is to be found in the underlying current of what the films reveal about the present and futures of gender relations in Iranian society. Specifically, the assertion of masculinities in Farhadi’s film—emerging in various forms and in various relationalities—fail to bring about any positive or stabilizing shifts in Farhadi’s narratives. As such, and contrary to the accusations of his critics, it is difficult to see a sense in which Farhadi is prescribing a particular form of masculinity. If anything, he provides nuanced descriptions of the various challenges of manhood (and womanhood) in contemporary Iran, and the difficulty of what it would mean to resolve them. In the end, perhaps what is most revealing—and in the mind of conservative critics, most troubling—about Farhadi’s films are not the marital and familial instabilities that they depict; rather, it is the realization that assertions of masculinity—traditional or otherwise—are ill-equipped to restore the lost balance.

[1]“Sokhani ba Moshtari-ye Forushandeh: Asghar Farhardi Baraye Mardanegi Kodam Jame’eh Noskheh Mipichad?” (A Word with the Customer of Salesman: For Which Society Does Asghar Farhadi Write Up His Prescriptions of Masculinity?”), Mashregh News, August 2016,

[2]Massoud Farrasati, “Excusez Moi,”

[3]“Resaneh-ye Honari: Forushandeh Filmi Aleyh-e Gheyrat va Qeysar Koshi,” Tabnak News, 16 August 2016,

[4]“Naqd va Barressi-ye Layeh-i-ye Film-e Jodayi-e Nader az Simin” (A Critique of the Layers in A Separation),

[5]“Enteqad-e Shadid-e Farassati be Jodayi-e Nader az Simin,”

[6]For journalistic accounts, see for example, “Khanevadeh-ye Irani dar Bohran Ast,” Alef, 27 October 2015, “Bohran-e Khanevadeh dar Iran Jedi Ast,” 7 February 2015, For examples of the scholarship on the perceived crisis, see Sami’i, Mohammad, “Khanevadeh dar Bohran: Keshakesh-e Olguha-ye Sonnat va Nogarayee” (Tehran: Ettela’at Publishers, 2014) and Samira Kalhor, “Afzayesh-e Qatl-ha-ye Khanevadegi: Nemadi az Bohran-e Khanevadeh dar Iran,” Winter 2007.

[7]“Eblagh-e Siyast-ha-ye Kolli-e Khanevadeh,” 3 September 2016,

[8]Elsewhere, I have outlined the genesis and features of state discourses on “soft war.” In short, the phrase “the enemy’s soft war” is usually a reference for foreign of foreign-funded media and cultural programs including cinema, satellite television, social media accounts, etc. For more on official policies and conceptualization of “soft war”, please see Niki Akhavan, “Social Media and the Islamic Republic,” Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society after 2009 (2015): 213 and Niki Akhavan, Electronic Iran-The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

[9]Mostafa Abedinifard, “Contested Masculinities: Gender and Marriage in Asghar Farhadi’s Films from Dancing in the Dust to A Separation,” Manuscript. Under review. For Oleinik’s original article, see Anton Oleinik, “Dostoevsky’s Journey to Iran,” Cineaction (2013): 21-23.

[10]Godfrey Cheshire, “Scenes from a Marriage,” Film Comment 48, no.1 (2012).

[11]Daniele Rugo, “Asghar Farhadi: Acknowledging Hybrid Traditions: Iran, Hollywood and Transnational Cinema,” Third Text (2017): 1-15.

[12]Citing the works of Raewyn Connell and Eve K. Sedgwick, Anneli Häyrén and Helena Wahlström  Henriksson have noted that the concept of relationality has been important to theorizations of masculinity as far back as the 1990s, if not earlier. For more, see Anneli Häyrén and Helena Wahlström Henriksson, Critical Perspectives on Masculinities and Relationalities (New York: Springer Publishing, 2016).

[13]Since introducing the term, the notion of “hegemonic masculinity” has been challenged and reformulated, including by Connell herself. Scholars have noted that the idea is context-specific and a single monolithic hegemonic masculinity cannot be posited. For examples of literature complicating the notion of a singular hegemonic masculinity, see Chris Haywood and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, Men and Masculinities (London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2003). M. Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Jeff Hearn, Men of the World: Genders, Globalizations, Transnational Times (London: Sage, 2015).

[14]Mimi Schippers, “Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity, and Gender Hegemony,” Theory and Society 36, no. 1 (2007): 85-102. For Connell’s original work, see R. R. Connell, Masculinities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). R. W. Connell, The Men and the Boys (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and R. W. Connell and J. W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society, no. 19 (2005): 829–859.

[15]Shelley Budgeon, “The Dynamics of Gender Hegemony: Femininities, Masculinities, and Social Change,” Sociology 48, no. 2, (2013): 317-324, 330. For McLeod’s original study, see J. McLeod, “Working Out Intimacy: Young People and Friendship in an Age of Reflexivity,” Discourse 23, no. 2 (2002): 211–26.

[16]Karen Lee Ashcraft and Lisa A. Flores, “Slaves with White Collars: Persistent Performances of Masculinity in Crisis,” Text and Performance Quarterly 23, no.1 (2003): 1-29.

[17]Farhadi’s The Past (2013) shares many features with the films under consideration: complex characters with complicated lives and relationships and an exploration of conflicted masculinity. Kara Abdolmaleki’s review of The Past for The Guardian, “I Was, I am Not: Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé” touches on how these themes reveal themselves in the film. Unlike Farhadi’s marriage trilogy and The Salesman, however, The Past did not receive the same level of harsh domestic criticism as his other films. Perhaps domestic critics did not read the film as an essentially Iranian story in that while the lead is an Iranian man, the film is set abroad and the dialogue is mostly in French. For this reason, I have not included this film in my discussions herein.

[18]Gheyrat refers to the concept of male honor, defined most often in relation to a man’s women (his wife, sister, daughter, etc.). A man with gheyrat, for example, will defend that over which he has a sense of propriety (such as women but also his home or country) against all transgressions, real and perceived.

Trajectory of Smooth Female Spaces within the Striated Masculine in Kiarostami’s Ten


We are led to pose the woman question to history in quite elementary forms like, “Where is she? Is there any such thing as woman?” At worst, many women wonder whether they even exist. They feel they don’t exist and wonder if there has ever been a place for them. I am speaking of woman’s place, from woman’s place, if she takes (a) place.

Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?”

In the smooth space of Zen, the arrow does not go from one point to another but is taken up at any point, to be sent to any other point, and tends to permute with the archer and the target.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Through a series of examples, in her widely-acclaimed article, “Castration or Decapitation?,” Hélène Cixous seeks to demonstrate the strictures that have been imposed on womankind throughout history. At the heart of her arguments lies the demonstration of restrictions imposed on women’s mobility that bind them to a certain turf, which is labelled as both familiar and familial. Invoking the examples of the Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, Cixous posits how a woman’s “trajectory is (either) from bed to bed” or “from one house to another.”[2]Although one may want to situate such restrictions in the past, the truth of the matter is that women continue to strive for their total emancipation on various fronts, not the least of which is the right towards individuation and the attainment of the status of a self-knowing subject that can only be realized if women feel entitled to unhindered mobility and an unhampered scope of action. ­The late Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami has masterfully depicted the path embarked upon by a working woman in Iran, the homeland of the director and a country known for the many restrictions it imposes on women towards that actualization of the self and its concomitant aspects of discovery of the Other. The focus of this paper will be on Kiarostami’s portrayal of the nuanced trajectory adopted by Mania Akbari, who, more or less, features herself as a seemingly ambitious and active artist. As she drives through the circuitous streets of Tehran while engaging in a number of thought-provoking dialogues with a variety of passengers, primarily women, who go on to shed light on the evolving role and place of a woman in the Iranian society, the spectator appreciates how she cleverly dodges the restrictions imposed on her as she succeeds in carving out a smooth feminine space, à la Deleuze and Guattari, in the midst of the entangling striated space, which is deemed to be masculinist, restrictive and hierarchical. In addition to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “smooth” and “striated” spaces, other theories surrounding the indispensable role of space in self-expression including Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conceptualization of space, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of chiasm that entails the enfolded bond between the body and the outside world and Gaston Bachelard’s explication of what constitutes a home, spatially speaking, will come into play with the aim of situating the spatial dynamics of Ten–which marks the first time the auteur has turned women and their place in society into a pivotal theme—within the wider context of gender dynamics.


Kiarostami, skilfully portrays the unfolding of a smooth space, in the sense of its being a space that is “undirected,” “intensive rather than extensive” and “hapticrather than optical,”[3] in the midst of the striated space par excellence, that of a city. As we see throughout Ten, the female driver navigates through one of the busiest and action-ridden cities in world, during which she carves out a smooth space, which by definition, “is occupied by intensities, wind and noise, forces, and sonorous and tactile qualities”[4] in the midst of the authoritarian striated space of the city. As we see in Ten, smooth spaces, on grounds of their inherent characteristics, allow for the formation of sisterly bonds between women in the course of thought-provoking conversations that cohere around sex, heteronormative relationships, parenthood and religion, among other significant social matters (in fact, many a tabooed topic, including, abortion are also touched upon). Nicholas Balaisis is quite astute in pointing out the importance of the car in the film, as not only its primary setting, but also in terms of creating an atmosphere that inflects the conversations around driving and its corollary issues. However, despite invoking Merleau-Ponty and his concept of chiasm as the enfolded bond between our bodies and the world outside, spaces beyond the interior of the car are not the focus of argument, perhaps, for the reason that, as he posits, “in Ten, unlike A Taste of Cherry, there are no external shots of the car.”[5] That having been said, exterior spaces continuously seep into the interior space of the car, hence, the importance of analyzing certain aspects of the outside spaces, which, as shall be argued, tend to be significant for a more accurate analysis of gender dynamics.


One need not delve too much into the characteristics offered by Deleuze and Guattari regarding smooth spaces to conclude that in their evocation of sensory stimuli including touch and their overall intensity, they are very feminine in nature. The pan-corporeality that comes to the fore in the smooth feminine space is one that, though highly auditory, represents an “acoustic space,” which based on Marshall McLuhan’s interpretation, is one that is “boundless, directionless, horizonless, the dark of the mind, the world of emotion, primordial intuition, terror,”[6]as women in seemingly unscripted dialogues while meandering at times aimlessly through the striated city streets, feel a multiplicity of their senses and feelings enhanced. Balaisis rightfully invokes the gendered aspect of the interior space of the automobile when he highlights its significance as a space where “women are able to communicate freely and honestly.”[7] His observation of how the interiority of the car indicates the lack of such spaces in Iran is also worth pondering upon, although one could also see how the freedom or lack thereof that women feel within this space not only originates from but also carries over to beyond the car itself.


World renowned Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier has described our taking up of space as the initial indication of existence (la prevue première d’existence, c’est d’occuper l’espace) which he describes as “the initial gesture of all living beings” (le geste premier des vivants);[8] yet, in order to exercise one’s basic right of freedom of speech and movement, one needs to go beyond the mere occupation of space and engage in practices that allow for an optimum use of space. Women feeling hindered even in their primary spaces, namely their homes, set about to carve out a space approximating an ideal domain for their social imaginary where they can engage in the exchange of ideas, brainstorming of alternative modes of existence and simply, an unfolding of humour or simple counter-measures in the face of the hegemonic norms prevailing outside. One could have recourse to Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conceptualization of space that boils down to space “perceived” (perçu), “conceived” (conçu) and ultimately, “lived” (vécu), “space as it might be, fully lived space”[9] to better understand the spatial dynamics that surface in the movie. It is the enactment of this “fully lived space” that one is witness to in Kiarostami’s Ten, where women of diverse class and professional backgrounds engage in dialogues with the female driver, who nudges them to reveal a bit more about themselves, their modus operandi of existence, their (philosophical) convictions and pains and miseries.


On a different level, that “fully lived space” is referred to as “spaces of representation,” which Christian Schmid interprets as the social field, “the field of projects and projections, of symbols and utopias, of the imaginaire and … the désir.”[10] The social imaginary, “the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world, the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life,”[11] comes to the fore in the course of the dialogues as Mania exchanges words on how women behave and ought to behave, for example, in the vignette on Roya, the heartbroken woman who is sobbing over her breakup: “We women are wretched creatures because when we are little we are clinging unto our mom, then unto our dad, then unto a certain man, then unto our child […].” The imagination, which manifests itself in the social imaginary here, is a power to contend with and, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has noted, is “no longer a mere fantasy, no longer simple escape, no longer simple elite pastime,” but it “has become an organized field of organized practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labour and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility.”[12] It is through this power of imagination that women are able to go beyond the confined spaces of the home to come up with new ways to carve out a niche where they can exchange ideas that will alleviate the pain of living in a patriarchal environment.


Gaston Bachelard’s description of a home as a place which “thrusts aside contingencies,” “without (which), man would be a dispersed being” and one that maintains one “through the storms of the heavens and through those of life,”[13] has little or no meaning in the lives of most, if not all the women depicted in Kiarostami’s Ten. This fact comes to the fore in the dialogues of Mania with her son, who reprimands her for not being at home and taking care of the household and in her dialogue with the prostitute, who highlights the discrepancies that exist between the emotional bonds between men and women within and without the home. That Mania herself appears to be constantly on the go, as pointed out by her son, Amin, whether for professional reasons or otherwise, is in and of itself an indication of the lack of security and warmth that a woman desires at home.


As Hélène Cixous has noted, in our patriarchal world, women should not allow themselves to venture out their homes or even beds (as we see in the classic example of The Sleeping Beauty); should not embark on the forbidden: make a little detour, travel through their own forests in the fashion of Little Red Riding Hood.[14] Similarly, what is displayed in Ten, as women travel through their so-called “own forests” created at the heart of masculinist spaces in an automobile that becomes a vehicle of (self-)investigation and knowledge/power, is quite a daring move and challenged by the so-called Symbolic Order, at the height of which lies the Name-of-the-Father that is aimed at setting down rules and regulations and putting a finale to laughter, women’s prime emblem of womanly existence that appears as a threat to the Symbolic Order as Cixous has shown us in her examples of the Medusa as well as the decapitation of laughing women in Sun Tse’s manual of strategy.[15] The smooth feminine trajectory that women are shown to embark upon, unlike the fairy-tale example of Little Red Riding Hood, is quite real as it appears to actually capture a slice of the female protagonist’s life in modern-day Tehran. Kiarostami has himself said that “I can assure you that it is all [in Ten] very true to life, and I really am giving a realistic picture of the Iranian middle-class woman as she actually is.”[16]


One of the distinguishing features of Ten is, in fact, its certain characteristics that align it with neo-realism, primarily, the use of non-professional actors that allow for the unfolding of reality as is. Kiarostami, has been aligned with Cesare Zavattini, who describes neorealism as the desire “to give human life its historical importance at every minute.”[17] Yet, as we have come to know, the genre in which Ten is embedded, though cleverly labelled as “observational documentary”[18] by Balaisis can be better termed as an example of a “new hybrid documentary form” in its “interplay between reality and fiction.”[19] Another layer of the film is remotely similar to other road films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and Paris Texas (1984) in that, likewise, Mania is on the road, albeit with the major difference that unlike the many other examples of this genre, her trips are not goal-oriented and, even in a way, they seem to be a goal unto themselves. As Jack Kerouac has it in On the Road (1957), one has to be or be influenced by someone who is “tremendously excited with life,”[20] to hit the road; yet, in the case of Mania and her female passengers, more than being excited with life, what characterizes their movement is a sense of ontological fulfillment that finds an echo in what Spinoza calls conatus, “a striving to persevere in being,”[21] a mode of being that would grant them more space, both figuratively and literally. The myth of the mobile masculine hero, as classically represented, for example, in the figure of Oedipus, and the monstrous feminine Sphinx, who merely poses as an obstacle to be overcome as part of the heroic rites de passage, is thus reversed. What distinguishes Ten from other examples of road genres and the myth of the hero, even in its cinematic instantiations in Kiarostami’s own oeuvre, is that this time round women dominate the scene.


Joan Copjec, has rightfully, pointed out “the accusation persistently levied against [Kiarostami’s] cinema was that it was wholly indifferent to the condition of women in contemporary Iran and sought, rather, to catch the eye of Western audiences by serving up the kinds of Orientalist images they expected to see: male protagonists driving through a timeless, rural Iran dominated by the ubiquitous presence of other men, with women shunted to the margins, hidden behind doors or toiling in long shot on the fringes of vision.”[22] What comes to the fore in Ten, is a reversal of gender roles in the trajectory that is traced out in the film, as we see a woman at the wheel interacting with other women, with the exception of her son. In addition to the feminine aspects of the trajectory, one ought to refer to similar aspects of the interiority of the car, which bring about an inescapable sense of intimacy that allows for raw exchanges that lead to eye-opening confessions.[23] Many a time, we see how Mania, subtly engages in the art of extracting those truths from her passengers and along the way, so as to get to the heart of the inner recesses of their minds, their unconscious. The film is rife with such instantiations as they come to the fore in the dialogue with, for example, the prostitute, who initially, refrains from opening up, but then being nudged by Mania on multiple occasions to respond to the question of “why, she being so young, engages in the profession that she does,” she relents and takes a stance in defense of her choice in a seemingly nonchalant manner that nonetheless hints at the many repressions that have taken place within the unconscious. For example, she does confess to having at least once been in love, but then goes on to stress the dishonesty of men who tell their wives that they love them while spending time with the likes of her.


In addition to the mobile aspects of the trajectory, the means of the journey, an automobile, is one of significance as Kiarostami himself notes in 10 on Ten. For a fact, the car in its mobility affords hope to the women appearing in Mania’s vehicle whose destinies seem to be sealed by a socio-political system that has failed them at every turn of the road. Kiarostami says how the idea of the film came to him once he heard about a female psychiatrist whose office had been closed in the wake of a complaint by a female patient who had come to regret a decision to separate from her husband in the wake of consultations with the psychiatrist. As a result, the psychiatrist decided to turn her car into a mobile office.[24] When looking at the dynamics going on in Ten, at times, Mania serves as a psychiatrist by nudging her passengers to speak out their mind. For example, in her dialogue with the prostitute, which happens to be modeled on information that Kiarostami had garnered through telephone conversations with actual prostitutes and not on any data provided by a real prostitute as no prostitute was willing to act the role, one sees Mania using subtle tactics to extract some personal information within the context of love, sex and relationships. However, the significance of the closed space of the car is definitely worth taking into account as it, for the most part, compels the passenger to sit still and give into the process of conversation/therapy and eventually, perhaps, confession. That the primary spatial focus, unlike Taste of Cherry, is on the inside of the car rather than the outside, enhances the atmospheric intimacy between the characters and allows for the surfacing of some sort of sisterhood between the women who partake in the ride.


Going back to Deleuze and Guattari’s explication of smooth spaces and their characterization as haptic, which they describe as being “a better word than ‘tactile’ since it does not establish an opposition between two sense organs but rather invites the assumption that the eye itself may fulfill this nonoptical function,”[25] one can better appreciate the choice of the interior of an SUV for the conversations that constitute the basis of the movie in that they lend themselves to the emergence of such feminine and intimate spaces. Significantly, smooth spaces and their haptic characteristics have mostly been aligned with the nomadic life, which is associated with being local and not global, in the sense that “there is close vision, space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, nonoptical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline or form nor centre.”[26] The description of the local aspect of nomadic space characterizes it as non-hierarchical and borderless which fits in with the ambience that the moving car creates in ways that allow for stories to play out by themselves without direct directorial intervention. To better understand the differentiation of “smooth” and “striated” spaces, Deleuze and Guattari present the image of the painter’s involvement with the painting: when the artist takes a step back, s/he is developing a “striated” perspective; on the other hand, when the painter happens to be so close that s/he gets lost in the strokes, s/he is within “smooth” spaces, so to speak.[27]


A stanza by Rumi much cited by Kiarostami, including in 10 on Ten, which can be translated as “You are my polo ball and you ran before my mallet and I run after you although I made you run,” explains an element in the maestro’s work that comes to the fore in Ten, amongst his other films. That element is one that from a sub specie aeternitatis view can fall between free will and determinism, in that, it simultaneously manifests the enforcement of directorial dictates and the emergence of unscripted scenes as those which come to the fore in Ten. The installation of two digital cameras on the dashboard, to whose existence nonprofessional actors tend to be oblivious, in fact, allows for the emergence of a comfortable ambience that aligns itself with that of “smooth spaces,” in its characteristic element of intimacy, in that, while actors seemingly go by a certain diegetic template, they end up coming up with their own add-on scenarios further bringing home the importance of the mystic maxim of Rumi’s verse, as cited above, in the creation of Ten. Alain Bergala, in his categorization of the car device (le voiture dispositif) in his commentary on Kiarostami’s cinematic corpus, attributes its roles as “an apparatus to encounter the real” (une machine à rencontrer du reel) and “a pleasant space for a conversation between two people” (le bon espace à parler à deux) to the vehicle used in Ten. In expanding upon the former attribute, Bergala highlights the role of the car as a vehicle which enables encounters, both organized and random, and as such, Kiarostami finds himself exempt from the burden of setting up scenarios: “through the car door, at any moment, one can find a face, a body, a personage, a slice of reality come to the fore.”[28] This aleatory aspect of the film that emerges as a result of the choices made in terms of space and setting, speaks to the verse by Rumi in that it manifests the director’s predilection for setting the scene in ways that allow for that unpredictability that will in turn galvanize him into movement, bearing in mind that it was he in the first place, who set the ball into motion.


Going back to the other aspect brought up by Bergala with regard to the dynamics of the car in Ten, namely, that it is conducive to giving rise to tête-à-tête conversations, one can see how this aspect could be more prominent when two women were involved in dialogue. Women, more so than men, tend to view themselves as part of a gender-based collective and as a result sympathize, empathize and commiserate more easily with other women being fully conscious of the challenges that tend to beset them more so than men in a predominantly patriarchal world. American feminist scholar, Nancy Chodorow makes the following observation: “Girls come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world and as differently oriented to their inner object-world.”[29] As Susan Stanford Freedman has noted, “by ‘object’ Chodorow does not mean ‘things,’ but rather people.[30] Chodorow continues to highlight the significance of the feminine paradigm which situates itself in a collective unlike the masculinist approach: “Women’s object-world’ remains a more complex relational constellation than men’s … Masculine personality, then, comes to be defined more in terms of denial of relation and connection (and denial of femininity), whereas feminine personality comes to include a fundamental definition of self in relationship.”[31] Taking these factors into account is significant for a better appreciation of the intimate conversations that unfold in the course of Ten, some of which, as mentioned earlier, segue into confessions that enfold the very essence of womanhood. Perhaps, one of the most memorable of these conversations is the one that takes place towards the end between Mania and a heartbroken and disillusioned Katayoun who has taken to prayers in her lovelorn state, a move which she had not found herself previously capable of. Significantly, the fact that she has shorn herself of her hair, in a country whose most visible emblem of religiosity is the enforced donning of hijab by women, intimates a new beginning to a self that is attempting to recover from the ashes of a lost love. Phoenix-like she may not be; however, doffing the headscarf to expose a shaven head in a country like Iran is indicative of a form of resistance that may lead her towards a new path that entails more self-reliance and self-discovery.


One of the primary results of becoming aware of one’s self and consciousness is the emergence of an independent subject in the modern world. Most of the women depicted in Ten (with the exception of the older religious lady) are on the path towards attaining the status associated with a self-knowing subject which is one of the hallmarks of modernity.[32] However, in order for that conscious subject to emerge, certain factors have to be in place including a safe space through which the subject can explore the self and her surroundings and, as famously noted by Virginia Woolf, “a room of one’s own,” which denotes a space where the subject can sit still and contemplate on the self and its inner transformations. The dialogues that play out in the course of Ten during the meanderings of the self-seeking and inquisitive protagonist of the film, hint at a collective engagement in the act of self-knowledge, which, as Teresa de Lauretis brings to the fore in her arguments on the ramifications of the Oedipus myth, is at the heart of each heroic myth. That quest, as noted by de Lauretis, includes hurdle(s) that not only mark spatial boundaries, but also lead to questions that target the ontological essence of (wo)man.[33] While, as already discussed in the paper, the nature of the spaces which the women carve out in the course of their navigations across the congested streets of Tehran, comes close to Deleuze and Guattari’s description of “smooth spaces,” these spaces exist in tandem with other spaces, described as “striated” that pose as literal or figurative bumps on the path of the women in the film. Examples surface in the course of the journey such as the first vignette with Katayoun in which Mania picks her up from the Ali Akbari Mausoleum and is confronted by a male driver who is blocking her way and goes on to falsely accuse her of driving in the wrong direction. While the city in and of itself is an example of a “striated space” par excellence with its too many institutions and embedded regulations; yet, these so-called nomadic women, though destitute of the proverbial “room of one’s own,” are shown to take matters into their hands by breezing through one of the most populated cities in the world to gain a measure of freedom and agency towards self-realization.


This nomadic aspect of the women, which also happens to accord with the characteristics of “smooth spaces,” gives them not only a certain level of scope in the construction of a social imaginary of sisterhood, but also allows for the emergence of a circular space that is feminine in nature and contrasts with masculine, linear, logocentric goal-oriented movements. Deleuze and Guattari posit that “the nomads have no history; they only have a geography”[34] and  then go on to suggest how the nomads can gain the upper hand through capturing the “force of the hunted animal” so to speak, meaning that the nomads, instead of acting like the hunter whose “aim was to arrest the movement of wild animality through systematic slaughter, […] [set about] conserving it, and, by means of training, the rider joins with this movement, orienting it and provoking its acceleration.”[35] The women are engaged in becoming, which, as maintained by Deleuze and Guattari, “has no term, since its term in turn exists only as taken up in another becoming of which it is the subject, and which coexists, forms a block, with the first.”[36] As a result, they are full of a dynamism that allows them to defamiliarize the familiar and thus look at their surroundings and themselves through nuanced perspectives. The nomadic women depicted in Ten, far from reversing the hunter-hunted vector in the battle of the sexes, go beyond paradigms of war and hunting with the aim of harnessing the power of masculinity so as to re-orient it in ways that will lead to a partial reclamation of their rights, a reterritorialization of their spaces. Never do we see these women attempting to arrest the masculinist forces in place as we observe how they harness patriarchal forces as they weave their way through the smooth grooves existing in the heavily striated phallocentric texture of society. One need only observe Mania’s attitude towards her husband and son and her cleverly navigations across the striated space par excellence: the polis (in this case, Tehran), to appreciate examples of such a nomadic approach. Creatures of cartography they are without looking behind or ahead in tandem with the nomadic characteristics that they embody and they move within their terrain with no specific goal other than becoming in sight. The perspective that they incarnate resonates well with that of a number of Kiarostami’s early works including Bread and Alley (1970) and Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) which showcase the contingencies that accompany a goal-oriented trajectory, in its lack of a specific goal or destination and allows for the surfacing of aleatory elements that are part and parcel of human existence. This simultaneously serpentine and serendipitous characteristic of the spaces accords with the film’s form in its use of two DV cameras on the dashboard which come close to eliminating directorial mediation.


Film scholar, Ohad Landesman has made a series of interesting comments on the “unclassifiable hybrid”[37] aspect embodied in Ten that comes to the fore as a result of the use of DV cameras rendering it an artistic example of a cinematic oeuvre which lies along the interface of the factual and the fictional and he also highlights the democratization that is realized in the process. Nonetheless, I am not quite sure if one could classify the ambience that surfaces in the car as “voyeuristic,”[38] as the connotations associated with that term tend to more often than not sexual. Elsewhere, Landesman characterizes the interior space of the car as “claustrophobic,”[39] which may not quite be the case in that most spectators take into account the surrounding urban spaces in their viewing of the film. The striated aspects of the metropolis make themselves palpable through the occasional honking and, as already mentioned, the masculinist voice that, in seeing a woman at the wheel, wants to assert itself in accusing the woman of not driving the proper way; yet, overall, aside from the punctuated presence of those spaces within the interiority of the car, the spectator becomes privy to a series of preoccupations on the minds of these women ranging from their desire for that ever-elusive matrimonial bliss to their will to resolving their miseries through perpetual prayers. There is an allure and appeal in the act of discovery that the spectator partakes in alongside Mania; however, I am not quite sure if that aspect per se could be qualified as “voyeuristic,” unless one were to assume a very diluted connotation of this simultaneously cinematically and sexually charged term.


As much as one were to commend the agency that the women depicted in Ten have garnered, it would be a far stretch to attribute to them the possibility of the blossoming of a fully self-knowing and empowered subject for a variety of reasons. It is true that these women have moved beyond the “bed to bed” and “one house to another” trajectory that Cixous has bemoaned and have expanded their scope of action beyond that of Phyllis Wheatley, who, according to Alice Walker, was “a slave who owned not even herself;”[40] however, they have yet to move to that level of personhood that renders them free to roam around outside confined spaces and that of someone who has a home and not merely a house to go to. These women are on their way to enacting their rights to exercise their social imaginary in a fully-lived (vécu) space and seem to be getting close to creating a niche that will go beyond smooth spaces towards the formation of an actual safe and sound space that can be called home. What transpires in the course of Ten, is a feminist attempt at the recognition of the self and Other in a discursive on-the-go space that embraces a multiplicity of discourses including the right for self-expression, the freedom of movement, the right to dress as one wishes and ultimately, the right to move in the direction of individuation without feeling hampered by obstacles embedded in a predominantly masculinist attitude that for centuries have come to view women as the realm of the propre (both as an object of ownership and a subject that has maintain cleanliness and  rectitude).[41] Going back to the citation from Cixous which appears at the very beginning of the paper, the women that appear in Ten are fully conscious of their existence to the point that they are assiduously engaged in their ontological fulfillment and realization; yet, their quest seems to be for a niche where they can exercise their rights without having to fear the patriarchal forces outside. These women, unlike the women whom Cixous is referring to, are aware that they, indeed, have a place and what we see unfold in the course of the movie is their proactive attempts at creating smooth spaces that will, ultimately, peacefully co-exist with exterior striated spaces in ways that will, in the end, lead towards an oasis which they can almost call home.



[1] Pouneh Saeedi is a sessional lecturer at the University of Toronto where she has been teaching Gender and Media Studies for a number of years. Amongst her previous publications mention can be made of “Female Figurations in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 2013) and “Women as Epic Sites/Sights and Traces in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (Women’s Studies, 2015). A shorter version of her current paper was presented at the Canadian Humanities Congress held at the University of Victoria in 2013.


[2]See Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?,” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): 43.


[3]Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 479.

[4]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 479.

[5]Nichalos Balaisis, “Driving Affect: The Car and Kiarostami’s Ten,” Public: Art, Culture, Ideas (2005): 72,


[6]Marshall McLuhan, “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath,” eds. Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, in Explorations in Communication: An Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 207.

[7]Balaisis, “Driving Affect,” 74.

[8]Le Corbusier, “L’espace Indicible,” Le Corbusier, Savina, Dessins et Sculptures, éd. Sers (Paris, 1984), 1.


[9]Rob Shields, Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1996), 160.

[10]Christian Schmid, Stadt, Raum und Gesellschaft: Henri Lefebvre und die Theorie der Production des Raumes (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2005), 205.

[11]John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Cambridge: Polity, 1984), 6.


[12]Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 31.

[13]Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 7.


[14]Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?”, 44.

[15]Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?”, 42; Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa,” Signs (1976): 885.

[16]See Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, trans. Belinda Coombes (London: Saqi in association with Iranian Heritage Foundation, 2005), 176.

[17]See Craig Fisher, “Comics and Film,” in The Routledge Companion to Comics, eds. Frank Bramlett, Roy T. Cook, Aaron Meskin (New York: Routledge, 2017), 344.

[18]Balaisis, “Driving Affect,” 72.

[19]Ohad Landesman, “In and Out of this World: Digital Video and the Aesthetics of Realism in the New Hybrid Documentary,” Studies in Documentary Film 2, Issue 1 (2008): 33.

[20]Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 4.

[21]Steven Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Calif:  Stanford University, 2016) ,


[22]Joan Copjec, “Cinema as Thought Experiment: On Movement and Movements,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies27, no. 1 (2016): 150.

[23]Michel Foucault makes a distinction between ars erotica and ars sexualis.  He situates the former in the East and the latter in the West. Foucault distinguishes the former in being esoteric and operating on the basis of “knowledge that must remain secret” and the latter, he aligns with “procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret: I have in mind the confession.” However, what we observe being played out in terms of the confessions that come to the fore in Ten seems to be more in tune with the ars sexualis in terms of confessions serving as a means to the unfolding of the truth as is, particularly, evident in the dialogue between Mania and the prostitute and not so much the ars erotica that was dominant in the East in ancient times. See: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 57–58.

[24]Abbas Kiarostami, 10 on Ten, DVD, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2004; New York: MK2/Zeitgeist Films).


[25]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 492.

[26]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 494.

[27]Here, Deleuze and Guattari cite Cézanne as an example who spoke of “the need to no longer see the wheat field, to be too close to it, to lose oneself without landmarks in smooth space.” Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 493.

[28]Alain Bergala, Abbas Kiarostami (Paris: Cahiers du cinema: SCÉRÉN-CNDP, 2004), 77.


[29]Nancy Chodorow, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 167.

[30]Susan Stanford Friedman, “Women’s Autobiographical Selves,” in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 41.

[31]Chodorow, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, 169.


[32]See Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 94–95.

[33]As noted by De Lauretis, female spectators mostly see themselves aligned with “the mythical obstacle, monster or landscape,” thereby rendering it difficult for them to entertain themselves as subjects. Kiarostami has therefore applied an interesting narratological twist here in granting women agency against hurdles that could be interpreted more so in light of the masculine than the feminine. See De Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 141.

[34]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 393.

[35]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 396.

[36]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 238.

[37]Landesman, “In and Out of this World,” 38.

[38]Landesman, “In and Out of this World,” 38.

[39]Landesman, “In and Out of this World,” 36.

[40]Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in Worlds of Difference: Inequality in the Aging Experience, eds. Eleanor Palo Stoller and Rose Campbell Gibson (Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press, 2000), 50.

[41]As Betsy Wing says: “Since woman must care for bodily needs and instill the cultural values of cleanliness and propriety, she is deeply involved in what is proper, yet she is always somewhat suspect, never quite propre herself.” See Betsy Wing, “Glossary,” in The Newly Born Woman by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 167.

Shafiei-Kadkani between Poetry and Prose


از زمانی که عبدالحسین زرین‌کوب جایگاه شفیعی کدکنی را در ادبیات فارسی نشان داد زمان درازی می‌گذرد. با وجود این، امروز که می‌خواهیم از این مقوله سخن به میان آوریم، باز همان تصویر پیش روی ما نقش می‌بندد. زرین‌کوب در مطلب کوتاهی که برای سفرنامۀ باران: نقد و تحلیل اشعار دکتر محمدرضا شفیعی کدکنی نوشته است می‌گوید: ”حق آن است که کمتر دیده‌ام محققی راستین در شعر و شاعری هم پایه‌ای عالی احراز کند و خرسندم که این استثنا را در وجود آن دوست عزیز کشف کردم.“[1] مفهوم دیگر این گفته آن است که پیدا کردن شخصیت دیگری در این جایگاه در فرهنگ‌های فارسی‌زبان در عصر حاضر ناممکن است. بنابراین، چنان‌چه بخواهیم فرد دیگری از نوع خودش را در کنارش جا دهیم لازم می‌آید از مرزهای فارسی‌زبان پا فراتر گذاریم. در این خیزش فرافرهنگی است که به دیدۀ من به شخص مورد نظر برمی‌خوریم و این فرد جز تی. اس. الیوت، شاعر و منتقد انگلیسی‌زبان، کس دیگری نیست. تی. اس. الیوت نیز مانند دکتر شفیعی ‌کدکنی نخبه‌ای است ممتاز که هم‌زمان در شعر و نقد نقش پیشتاز را ایفا کرده، با این تفاوت که الیوت در مقام بنیادگذار مدرنیسم ادبی در شعر غرب از موقعیتی جهانی برخوردار است، در حالی که شفیعی کدکنی زمانی به مدرنیسم فارسی پیوند می خورد که دست‌کم سه دهه از شعر نیما گذشته و مدرنیسم فارسی پس از نیما چهره‌هایی چون اخوان و شاملو و فروغ و سپهری را پشت سر گذاشته است. در این مدت، ایشان موفق می‌شود در شمار پیشتازان مدرنیسم جا گیرد. مرتضی کاخی، یکی از نظریه‌پردازان کاردیدۀ ادبیات فارسی، هر چند با شگفتی باید گفت اسماعیل خویی را از قلم انداخته است، در نوشتۀ کوتاهی که اخیراً به مناسبت سالگرد درگذشت قیصر امین‌پور در نشریۀ بررسی کتاب تهران به چاپ رسانده، جایگاه شفیعی‌کدکنی را چنین به تصویر می‌کشاند:

من اگر بخواهم دربارۀ امین‌پور در یک جمله صحبت کنم می‌گویم امین‌پور تک‌چهرۀ شفاف و درخشان و یک چهرۀ زلال نیمایی بعد از انقلاب است . . . اگر به دو پایۀ قبل از انقلاب که اخوان و شاملو بوده‌اند و دو پایۀ بعد از انقلاب که کسانی بودند مثل آتشی و شفیعی . . . در شعر امروز بخواهیم از شعر معتبر باحیثیت که یک مقداری بین انقلاب و بعد از انقلاب است نام بریم، اول منزوی است و الان قیصر امین‌پور است.[2]

نیاز به یادآوری است که در این گستره ده‌ها شاعر دیگر حضور دارند که هر یک با افزودن فصل درخشانی بر شعر معاصر فارسی، به مدرنیسم در ایران غنا بخشیده‌اند. اینکه شفیعی ‌کدکنی در چنین مجموعه‌ای می‌تواند یکی از قله‌های بلند ادبیات مدرن را در انحصار گیرد، خود دلیل برخورداری او از توان ویژه‌ای در خلاقیت شعری است.

پرسشی که بی‌درنگ به آن برمی‌خوریم این است که شفیعی ‌کدکنی در زمینۀ شعر و آثار انتقادی در چه جایگاهی قرار دارد. بی‌هیچ تردیدی می‌توان گفت درجۀ شناخت شفیعی‌کدکنی از ادبیات فارسی چنان است که مرجعیت او در زمینۀ نقد را، به‌رغم برخی از شعرهای ناب و نغزی که سروده ، برتر از جایگاه او در پهنۀ سرایش قرار می‌دهد. برخی از دوستداران شعر شفیعی‌ کدکنی بر این باورند که چنان‌چه توان و زمانی را که به پژوهش اختصاص داده بر سرایش متمرکز می‌ساخت، مقام بالاتری در شاعری کسب می‌کرد. به ‌راستی کمتر پژوهشگری را می‌شود پیدا کرد که توان نفوذ او را در تعیین مسیر جریان‌های ادبی ایران به دست آورده و به‌ویژه در میان دانشجویان و شیفتگان جدی شعر جایگاه ممتازی مانند او را از آن خود ساخته باشد. شفیعی ‌کدکنی نه فقط دیروز و امروز شعر فارسی را خوب می‌شناسد، بل انگار از فردای شعر به خوبی آگاه است. چارچوب شناخت او از شعر و ادبیات و قلمروهای وابسته به آن وی را در جایگاهی نشانده است که نام او در پیوند با بسیاری از کوشش‌های هنری و روشنفکری، از شعر گرفته تا فیلم و تئاتر و نقاشی و موسیقی و پیکرسازی و خوشنویسی و غیره، به چشم می‌خورد و در همۀ این زمینه‌ها با نام او در مقام نظرشناسی ممتاز روبه‌رو می‌شویم. شناخت او از لطیف‌ترین خیال‌های ادبی و نازک‌ترین مفاهیم شعری چنان می‌نماید که انگار مانند لحظۀ آفرینش شعر فقط از راه نوعی الهام امکان‌پذیر شده باشد. گستردگی دامنۀ پژوهش‌های او در شعر فارسی به گونه‌ای است که اظهار نظر دربارۀ همۀ آنها در یک بررسی ناممکن است. آنچه در اینجا مطرح است، اشاره به نکاتی است که او را در زمینۀ داوری‌های ادبی در بلندترین قلۀ انتقادی نشانده و هم‌زمان بر توسعۀ تئوری نقد اثرگذار بوده‌اند.

همچنان ‌که تی. اس. الیوت با نوشته‌ای جان میلتون را که تا پیش از آن در حیات ادبی انگلستان بر ”تخت شاهی“ نشسته بود معزول ساخت و جان دان، شاعر متافیزیکی، را در جایگاه او نشاند، شفیعی‌ کدکنی نیز در شناساندن بیدل دهلوی و اعتبار بخشیدن به سبک هندی در ایران چنین نقشی را ایفا کرده است. شفیعی ‌کدکنی دربارۀ بیدل می نویسد: ”از شگفتی‌ها اینکه در ایران، حتی تحصیل‌کردگان رشتۀ ادبیات، حتی دارندگان درجۀ دکتری ادبیات و بسیاری از شیفتگان جدی شعر او را نمی‌شناسند و حتی بسیاری از آنان نام او را نشنیده‌اند.“[3] امروز به اعتبار تحلیل درخشان شفیعی ‌کدکنی از شعر بیدل، به دیدۀ ایرانیان شعرشناس، بسیاری از غزل‌های او در شمار سروده‌های ناب فارسی جا گرفته‌اند. تجدید چاپ شاعر آیینهها بیش از پنج نوبت در دهۀ اول انتشار خود بهترین نشانی است که درجۀ شناخت جامعۀ کتاب‌خوان ما را از بیدل دهلوی، شاعری که تا پیش از انتشار این کتاب حتی کسی نامش را نشنیده بود، به نمایش می‌گذارد. بنا بر کلیدهایی که دکتر شفیعی ‌کدکنی از شعر بیدل به دست می‌دهد، پس از کوشش بسیار اگر معنی ابیات وی

بر ما روشن شد، ممکن است حالت شگفتی به ما دست دهد که ببینیم این گویندۀ قرن یازدهم چه تصویرهای دور از ذهن و چه عناصر پراکنده‌ای را با ریسمان بلند تداعی‌های خویش به یکدیگر پیوند داده که طی کردن فاصلۀ آن ممکن است برای بعضی ذهن‌ها ساعت‌ها وقت بگیرد و برای بعضی دیگر روزها و برای دسته‌ای فاصله‌اش غیرقابل وصول باشد.[4]

تحلیل‌های آموزنده و راهگشای این کتاب چنان‌اند که نه فقط بیدل را از گمنامی بیرون می‌آورند و او را در جایگاه واقعی‌اش، یعنی شاعر برخی از غزل‌های ناب فارسی، می‌نشانند، بل کلیدهایی به دست می‌دهند که همگام با بیدل اعتبار ناشناختۀ سبک هندی را نیز به آن باز می‌گردانند. شفیعی ‌کدکنی می‌نویسد:

اگر برای هر یک از شیوه‌های شعر فارسی بخواهم نماینده‌ای برگزینم که تمام خصایص آن شیوه را به گونه‌ای آشکار در آثار خویش نمایش دهد، بیدل را باید نمایندۀ تمام‌عیار اسلوب هندی به شمار آوریم، زیرا این گویندۀ پُرکار و نازک‌اندیش قرن یازدهم و دوازدهم راه و رسمی را که پیشینیان او، از یکی دو قرن پیش از او، بنیاد نهاده بودند، با مجموعۀ آثار خویش به مرحله‌ای رساند که هر یک از خصائص شعری گویندگان این اسلوب را باید به گونه‌ای روشن‌تر و مشخص‌تر در آثار او جستجو کرد.[5]

تا پیش از انتشار این کتاب و شناخت بیدل، تصور ایرانیان شعردوست و شعرخوان بر این بود که با پیدایش سبک هندی پس از حافظ، سنت بزرگ شعر فارسی شدیداً افت می‌کند و شاعران سبک هندی مانند صائب تبریزی و کلیم کاشانی به صورت افرادی جلوه می‌کنند که جز تصاویر عجیب و غریب و دور از هرگونه ذوق هیچ نشانی از خلاقیت شعری در آثارشان به چشم نمی‌خورد. رمزگشایی شفیعی‌ کدکنی نشان می‌دهد چنان‌چه از زاویۀ درستی به این شعرها نگاه کنیم، در برابر مدخلی جا می‌گیریم که ما را برای ”التذاذ از بخش عظیمی از شعر فارسی که ما آن را اسلوب هندی می‌خوانیم“[6] آماده می‌سازد.

قلمرو دیگری که شفیعی‌کدکنی در غنی ساختن تئوری نقد فارسی در آن اثرگذار بوده اصطلاحات فنی است که بر گسترۀ واژگانی نقد امروز افزوده است. مهم‌ترین اینان واژه‌ها و ترکیب‌هایی است که در زمینۀ موسیقی ساخته و به جای اصطلاحات سنتی ”نظام ایقاعی“ مانند وزن و قافیه و غیره رواج داده است. این اصطلاحات عبارت‌اند از

موسیقی بیرونی شعر (یعنی عروض آن)، موسیقی کناری (یعنی قافیه و ردیف و آن‌چه در حکم آنهاست، از قبیل تکرارها، ترجیع‌ها و برگردان‌ها)، موسیقی داخلی (که عبارت است از مجموعه هم‌آهنگی‌هایی که از طریق تقابل یا تضاد صامت‌ها و مصوّت‌ها در شعر به وجود می‌آید و انواع جناس‌ها یکی از جلوه‌های معین موسیقی داخلی به شمار می‌روند)، موسیقی معنوی (که منظور از آن همۀ ارتباط‌های پنهانی عناصر یک مصراع یا یک بیت است که از رهگذر ترکیب تضادها و مطابقه ها و . . . به وجود می‌آید).[7]

اگرچه اصطلاحات موسیقی متکی بر شعر مولاناست، اما دیری از انتشار آنها نمی‌گذرد که کاربردشان در حیات انتقادی شعر فارسی جنبۀ تام پیدا می‌کند و رواج گسترده‌شان را می‌توان در بسیاری از نوشته‌های انتقادی پیدا کرد.

لازم به توضیح است که آنچه در تعریف موسیقی معنوی آمده، به دیدۀ من، با واژۀ موسیقی قابل توجیه نیست. از منظر شفیعی ‌کدکنی، منظور از موسیقی معنوی، چنان‌چه دیدیم، ”همۀ ارتباط‌های پنهانی عناصر یک مصراع یا یک بیت است که از رهگذر ترکیب تضادها و مطابقه ها و . . . به وجود می‌آید.“ ”ارتباط‌های پنهانی“ نه فقط در این کاربرد کلی و نارساست و تفاوت چندانی با عناصر ”موسیقی داخلی“ ندارد، بل روشن نیست که ارتباط و وجه اشتراک آن با اصطلاح موسیقی دقیقاً در چیست؟ درست است که عناصر متضاد بخش مهمی از محتوای موسیقی را پدید می‌آورند، اما آیا می‌توان بر هر مقوله‌ای که عناصر متضاد دارد نام موسیقی گذاشت؟

واژۀ موسیقی در دوران مدرن را نخستین‌بار در ادبیات غرب آی. اِی. ریچاردز در پیوند با معنای شعر سرزمین هرز به کار گرفت. از آنجا که این شعر با شکل بی‌سابقه‌ای به میدان آمد، خوانندگان انگلیسی‌زبان از فهم آن ناتوان ماندند. ریچاردز نشان داد برای آنکه بتوانیم از این شعر لذت ببریم، لازم است آن را به صورت یک قطعۀ موسیقی تصور کنیم. به این معنا که در موسیقی، مخاطب به دنبال معنی نیست و می کوشد بداند آنچه از رهگذر آوا و معنای واژه‌ها دریافت می‌کند چه تأثیری بر او بر جا می‌گذارد. این تأثیر گاهی زاییدۀ کشف همانندی‌هایی میان برخی عناصر، به‌ویژه عناصر متضاد، و گاهی حاصل لمس تضادهایی میان عناصر، به‌خصوص بعضی از عناصر همانند، است. مجموع این حالت‌ها برانگیزانندۀ احساس لذتی است که از خواندن شعر به مخاطب دست می‌دهد. گاهی این احساس برخاسته از زنجیره‌هایی از تداعی میان مفاهیم دور از هم و بیگانه با یکدیگر است. ریچاردز نام شعر الیوت را، که بر همین اساس ساخته شده بود، به جای فراهم آورندۀ مفاهیم تازه و مدرن موسیقی مفاهیم (music of ideas) گذاشت و توضیح داد که این ”مفاهیم از هم نوع اند، انتزاعی و جامد، عمومی و جزیی، و مانند عبارت های موسیقی، بر این اساس سازمان نیافته اند که چیزی را به ما بگویند، بل تاثیر شان در ما در تمامیت مدونی از احساس و شیوه برخورد به همدیگر گره بخورند و رهایی خاصی از اراده را فراهم آورند.“[8] آنچه واژۀ موسیقی را در این کاربرد توجیه می‌کند، تأکید بر تأثیر واژه‌ها در مخاطب است، نه بر معنای واژه‌ها.

شفیعی‌ کدکنی خود در جای دیگری از شاعر آینهها تعریفی از شعر می‌دهد که با آنچه از ریچاردز باز گفتیم بسیار نزدیک است. می نویسد:

بسیاری از قدما به‌مانند ناقدان جدید اروپایی تصریح داشته‌اند که شعر خوب معنی ندارد. شبکه‌ای از تداعی‌ها – بعضی روشن، بعضی در ابهام– از ذهن عبور می‌کنند و التذاذ روحی شنونده یا خواننده را سبب می‌شود و اگر بخواهد همین خواننده یا شنونده اجزای آن شبکه تداعی را تجزیه کند و مورد تفسیر و توضیح قرار دهد، در همان آغاز کار ممکن است با اشکال روبه‌رو شود.[9]

دو اصطلاح دیگر که در این چارچوب جا می‌گیرند و بی‌هیچ تردیدی خلاقیت و ذوق شفیعی‌ کدکنی را به تماشا می‌گذارند اوزان ”خیزابی“ و ”جویباری“ هستند. منظور از خیزابی وزنی است که سبب می‌شود شعر با پروازی تند بال گشاید، برای نمونه،

مرده بدم زنده شدم گریه بدم خنده شدم

دولت عشق آمد و من دولت پاینده شدم

نوعی شعر است که آهنگ خیزابی را هنگام خواندن نشان می‌دهد. برعکس، وزن جویباری وزنی است نرم و ملایم که مانند بیت زیر خوانش شعری را با حرکتی کند، اما همخوان با محتوای شعر ممکن می‌سازد:

دوش می‌آمد و رخساره برافروخته بود

تا کجا باز دل غم‌زده‌ای سوخته بود

بی‌شک چنان‌چه این شعر در وزن خیزابی شکل می‌گرفت، شتابی به حرکت موسیقیایی بیت‌ها می داد که با آنچه به تصویر آمده در تضاد می‌افتاد. نکته اینجاست که پیش از این دو اصطلاح، نقد فارسی خالی از امکانات واژگانی بود که به منتقد توان بخشده‌اند تمایز میان این دو نوع آهنگ وزنی را با واژه‌هایی دلچسب و گویا توضیح دهند. فقط فردی با خلاقیت شفیعی‌ کدکنی و میزان دانش و بینش او می‌توانست جای خالی این اصطلاحات را پر کند. به سبب آنچه ایشان بر اصطلاحات موسیقایی شعر افزوده است، نقد فارسی به راستی از غنایی برخوردار شده که به واسطۀ آن، نوشته‌های انتقادی امروز در قیاس با گذشته هم طراوت بیشتری دارند و هم از نیروی کشف ظرفیت‌های تازۀ شعری بهره‌مندند.

خالی از طنز نیست بگوییم آنچه اجازه نمی‌دهد جایگاه شفیعی ‌کدکنی در سرایش از آنچه هست بالاتر رود، دانش ژرف و گستردۀ ایشان در حوزۀ ادبیات گذشته و حال است. شعر شفیعی کدکنی را در کسوت شاعری سرآمد زمانی در اوج آفرینش می‌بینیم که از تداخل ادبیات گذشته مصون مانده باشد. برای نمونه می‌خوانیم:

سفر بخیر

– ”به کجا چنین شتابان؟“

گون از نسیم پرسید

– ”دل من گرفته اینجا،

هوس سفر نداری

ز غبار این بیابان؟“

– ”همه آرزویم، اما

چه کنم که بسته پایم . . .“

– ”به کجا چنین شتابان ؟“

– ”به هر آن کجا که باشد به جز این سرا سرایم.“

– ”سفرت به خیر!


تو و دوستی، خدا را!

چو از این کویر وحشت به سلامتی گذشتی،

به شکوفه‌ها، به باران،

برسان سلام ما را.“[10]

این شعر با تمام کوتاهی و سادگی بیان شعری ما را با نمونۀ گویایی از کیفیت والای شعر مدرن فارسی روبه‌رو می‌سازد. می‌بینیم که ”کثرت استعمال“ این شعر را به کلیشه بدل نکرده است، چرا که هر بار به آن برمی‌خوریم، و روزی نیست که این پیشامد به گونه‌ای رخ ندهد، انگار با سروده‌ای تازه و طراوت‌بخش سرو کار داریم و این مهم‌ترین نتیجه‌ای است که می‌توان با آن میزان ناب بودن این شعر را آزمود. این نمونه شعری است که از هر نشانی از ادبیات گذشته خالی است و ذهن خلاق شاعر آزادانه دست به آفرینش زده است.

اینک شعر دیگری از شفیعی ‌کدکنی را از نظر می‌گذرانیم:


شهر خاموش من، آن روح بهارانت کو؟

شور و شیدایی انبوه هزارانت کو؟

می‌خزد در رگ هر برگ تو خوناب خزان

نکهت صبحدم و بوی بهارانت کو؟

کوی و بازار تو میدان سپاه دشمن

شیهۀ اسب و هیاهوی سوارانت کو؟

زیر سرنیزۀ تاتار چه حالی داری؟

دل پولادوش شیرشکارانت کو؟

سوت وکور است شب و میکده‌ها خاموش‌اند

نعره و عربدۀ باده‌گسارانت کو؟

چهره‌ها در هم و دل‌ها همه بیگانه ز هم

روز پیوند و صفای دل یارانت کو؟

آسمانت همه‌جا سقف یکی زندان است

روشنای سحر این شب تارانت کو؟[11]

”خموشانه“ یکی از شعرهای نمادین شفیعی‌ کدکنی است که برای نمادین ساختن آن از شعر دیگر شاعران بهره گرفته است. واژه‌های ”شب“ و ”خزان“ بنا بر سنت رایج در گسترۀ نمادین شعر فارسی نماد خفقان سیاسی و ”بهار،“ ”صبحدم“ و ”سحر“ اشاره‌ای سربسته به رهایی از اختناق و استقلال و هوای آزاد دانسته می‌شوند. ریشۀ این نمادها در غزلی از حافظ به چشم می‌خورد   که با مصراع ”روز هجران و شب فرغت یار آخر شد“ آغاز می شود و در آن می‌خوانیم:

آن همه ناز و تنعم که خزان می‌فرمود

عاقبت در قدم باد بهار آخر شد

در معنای معنا: نگاهی دیگر توضیح داده‌ام که این غزل دارای چند لایۀ معنایی است که یکی از آنها بر فضای سیاسی غزل دلالت دارد. بنا بر آنچه در تاریخ عصر حافظ آمده، حافظ سال‌های جوانی خود را در دورانی از تاریخ سپری کرده که کشور ایران زیر حکومت خاندان چوپانی یکی از سیاه‌ترین دوران‌های خود را می‌گذرانید. یکی از فاسدترین و بی‌رحم‌ترین این سرداران، امیر حسین چوپانی، معروف به امیر پیر حسین، است که در سال 741ق ”مانند یک بلای ناگهانی“ بر شیراز مسلط شد و به مدت دو سال حکومت کرد. میزان مردم‌آزاری و خونخواری در دوران حکومت او بر شیراز چنان بود که ماجراهای ظلم و زورگویی آن دوره از نظر سیاح و مورخ معروف، ابن‌بطوطه، دور نمانده است. در سال 743ق، سرانجام دوران محنت به دنبال یک رشته حوادث خونین به دست شیخ ابواسحق اینجو، پادشاه بعدی مُلک فارس، پایان می‌پذیرد و چهره مهربان‌تری از تاریخ، گیرم برای مدتی کوتاه، بر مردم ستمدیدۀ شیراز رخ می‌گشاید. با توجه به تصویری که از امیر حسین چوپانی به دست دادیم، می‌شود تصور کرد که احساس رهایی ناشی از شکست و گریز او برای مردم آن دیار چه مفهومی داشته است. غزل مورد بحث بازگفت این احساس و نشان‌دهندۀ فریاد شادی برخاسته از این لحظۀ رهایی است. از این منظر با سیمایی از غزل روبه‌رو می‌شویم که هر یک از اجزای آن در ارتباط با این پیشامد تاریخی معنای تازه‌ای به خود می‌گیرد.

در این نمای تازه، اشاره به بهار را می‌توان بیان سربستۀ لحظۀ رهایی دانست که با پیروزی و ورود امیر جمال‌الدین شاه ابواسحق اینجو، پادشاه دلخواه حافظ، ممکن شده است. واژۀ خزان، برعکس، نماد دوران سیاه خفقانی است که در زمان حکومت امیر پیر حسین در فارس جریان داشت.[12]

دانسته است که واژۀ ”شب“ و مفاهیم وابسته به آن به منزلۀ عنصری برای بیان اختناق سیاسی به دست نیما رواج پیدا کرد. باید افزود که نیما خود در این خصوص مدیون حافظ است. در شعر ”چوک! چوک!“ نیما شب را به مثابه نمادی سیاسی به کار می‌گیرد و از آن به صورت زن آبستنی نام می‌برد که در حال زاییدن است، اما آنچه از او می زاید ”رنج“ است. می‌خوانیم:

چوک!چوک! در این دل شب که از او این رنج می‌زاید

پس چرا هر کس به راه من نمی‌آید؟

حافظ در ”ساقی‌نامه“ بیتی دارد که معنای این نماد را به روشنی نشان می‌دهد:

فریب جهان قصه‌ای روشن است

ببین تا چه زاید، شب آبستن است

اما شبکۀ نمادین شعر مدرن فارسی فقط به واژۀ ”شب“ و واژه‌های متضاد آن محدود نمی ‌شود، بل بسیاری از مفاهیم وابسته به آن مانند تاریکی، روشنایی، صبح، هوای سحری، مه، ابر، خزان، زمستان، بهار و مانند اینها را نیز در بر می‌گیرد که شعر فارسی را به امکانات نمادین گسترده‌ای مجهز ساخته است. این شبکۀ نمادین به دست شاعرانی که پس از نیما آمده‌اند رفته‌رفته گسترش یافته و سنت بزرگی را در زمینۀ تصویر فضای سیاسی در شعر فراهم آورده‌ است. بهار به منزلۀ نماد تجدید حیات سیاسی و بازگرداندن هوای آزاد به فضایی خفقان‌آور شعر شفیعی ‌کدکنی را با پاره‌ای از ممتازترین نمونه‌های شعر روزگار ما خویشاوند می‌سازد، هرچند چنین می‌نماید که ایشان در به کار گرفتن نمادهای ”بهار“ و ”خزان“ چشم به غزل یادشده از حافظ داشته است.

”خموشانه“ بی‌شک شعری ”خوب“ در چارچوب شعرهای نمادین ادبیات مدرن تلقی می‌شود. منظور از شعر نمادین این نیست که بگوییم شاعر برای بیان برخی از مفاهیم درون شعر از نماد یاری جسته است. در حقیقت، کمتر شعری را می‌توان در دوران معاصر پیدا کرد که در آن نماد به کار نرفته باشد. در اینجا، شعر نمادین شعری است که حیات معنایی آن، در کلیّت خود، با نماد شکل یافته باشد.

در این شعر با تصویر شهری رو‌به‌رو هستیم که در آن، عشق و دوستی از قلب‌ها رخت بربسته و دل‌ها همه با هم بیگانه شده‌اند. این ویژگی بیان واقعیت اجتماعی دردناکی در دوران خاصی از تاریخ جامعه است و می‌توان از آن به مثابه پیام غایی این شعر سخن گفت که با تکیه بر نماد به تصویر آمده است. بنابراین، باید گفت نخستین ویژگی شاخص این شعر پیام انسان‌دوستانۀ آن است که ژرف‌ترین لایه‌های ممکن آگاهی و حیات عاطفی خواننده را درگیر خود می‌کند.

آنچه به همراه این ویژگی حساسیت زیبایی‌شناسانۀ ما را برمی‌انگیزد، گوناگونی نمادها و تنوع تصاویر زنده‌ای است که نمادها را در خود شکوفا می‌سازند. ویژگی دیگری که به شعر تشخص می‌بخشد غنای موسیقایی آن است. بازگشت آوای ”ش“ را در واژه‌های ”شهر خاموش“ و ”شور و شیدایی“در نظر بگیرید که چگونه با تکرار آوای ”ز“ در ”هزارانت“ و ”می‌خزد“ و ”خزان“ تبادلی دلچسب برقرار می‌سازد و درک موسیقایی خواننده را از همان آغاز کار بالا می‌برد. همچنین، مصراع‌های درخشانی را در نظر بگیرید که مانند ”دل پولادوش شیرشکارانت کو“ یا واژه‌هایی چون ”تاتار“ و ”هیاهو“ و ”نعره و عربده“ به‌گونۀ مؤثری بر دریافت موسیقایی خواننده تأثیر می‌گذارند.

به‌رغم آنچه گذشت، اگر در متن این شعر دقیق شویم درمی‌یابیم که انگار دانش اندوخته‌شده در ذهن ناخودآگاه شفیعی کدکنی در لحظۀ آفرینش فروچکیده و هویت شعر را با جا دادن واژه‌هایی مخدوش ساخته است. برای اثبات این گفته کافی است شعر شفیعی کدکنی را کنار غزلی از حافظ با مطلع ”یاری اندر کس نمی‌بینیم یاران را چه شد؟“ قرار دهیم. چنین به نظر می‌رسد آنچه ابزار تداعی این غزل شده است نخستین بیت آن باشد که پیام نهایی شعر شفیعی کدکنی نیز بازگفت آن می‌نماید. به دنبال این تداعی، واژه‌هایی از غزل حافظ را در شعر شفیعی کدکنی می‌بینیم که بی‌آنکه هیچ پیوند زیبایی‌شناسانه‌ای با غزل حافظ برقرار ساخته باشند، ابیات شعر شفیعی را میدان بازگفت خالی و دور از بار معنایی لازم قرار داده‌اند. مصراع‌های زیر نمونه‌هایی‌اند که در آنها شاهد نفوذ بی‌هدف واژه‌های غزل حافظ می‌شویم:

حافظ: خون چکید از شاخ گل باد بهارانت چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: شهر خاموش من، آن روح بهارانت کو؟

حافظ: عندلیبان را چه پیش آمد هزاران را چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: شور و شیدایی انبوه هزارانت کو؟

حافظ: خون چکید از شاخ گل باد بهارانت چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: نکهت صبحدم و بوی بهارانت کو؟

حافظ: کس به میدان در نمی‌آید سواران را چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: شیهۀ اسب و هیاهوی سوارانت کو؟

حافظ: کس ندارد ذوق مستی میگساران را چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: نعره و عربدۀ باده‌گسارانت کو؟

حافظ: مهربانی کی سرآمد شهریاران را چه شد؟

شفیعی کدکنی: روز پیوند و صفای دل یارانت کو؟

شفیعی کدکنی به راستی مانند شاعری رفتار کرده است که به سبب عدم دسترسی به واژگان مورد نیاز خود از زبان آمادۀ شعر گذشته بهره برده و بی‌آنکه واژه‌ها را در هاضمۀ زیبایی‌شناسانۀ خود داخل سازد، آنها را به کار گرفته است. از آنجا که چنین رفتاری با شناختی که از شفیعی کدکنی داریم شدیداً در تعارض است، ناگزیر باید آنچه را در این شعر پیش‌آمده حاصل تداخل ناخودآگاه اندوخته‌های ذهنی شاعر دانست. نیاز به یادآوری است که غزل مورد بحث یکی از زیباترین غزل‌های حافظ است و به‌ویژه از زمانی که شجریان آن را خوانده، کمتر ایرانی شعردوستی است که با آن آشنایی نداشته باشد. وقتی چنین مخاطبی واژه‌های یادشده را دور از متن زیبایی‌شناسانۀ آنها می‌خواند، خود را در جایی می‌بیند که با تجربیات گذشتۀ او متفاوت است. باید توضیح داد که ایراد بر خود واژه‌ها وارد نیست. مشکل عدم وجود علتی است که انتقال آنها را از غزل حافظ به شعر شفیعی کدکنی توجیه کند.

فزون بر این، در ابیات پایانی شعر ”خموشانه“ خود را در فضای نمادین شعر ”زمستان“ مهدی اخوان ثالث می‌بینیم. در این شعر می‌خوانیم:

هوا دلگیر، درها بسته، سرها در گریبان، دست‌ها پنهان

نفس‌ها ابر، دل‌ها خسته و غمگین،

درختان اسکلت‌های بلورآجین،

زمین دل‌مرده، سقف آسمان کوتاه،

غبارآلوده مهر و ماه،

زمستان است.

شفیعی کدکنی این فضا را چنین در شعر خود بازتاب می‌دهد:

چهره‌ها درهم و دل‌ها همه بیگانه ز هم

روز پیوند و صفای دل یارانت کو؟

آسمانت همه‌جا سقف یکی زندان است

روشنای سحر این شب تارانت کو؟

در اینجا نیز کوشش چندانی برای کمال بخشیدن به فضای نمادین شعر صورت نگرفته و آنچه می‌بینیم از بازگفت زبان اخوان پا فراتر نمی‌گذارد.

در نبود علتی برای شیوۀ برخورد شفیعی کدکنی در این شعر، این اندیشه به ذهن راه می‌یابد که شاید منظور ایشان از این کار بهره گرفتن از ”آشنایی‌زدایی“ به معنایی بوده است که در مجلۀ بخارا در این باره به چاپ رسانده است. اگر به راستی ایشان چنین فکری را در نظر داشته است، باید گفت برخورد ایشان خالی از ایراد نیست. در نوشتاری با عنوان ”استاد شفیعی کدکنی و آشنایی‌زدایی: پاسخی به استادم دکتر شفیعی کدکنی در مورد بحث ایشان پیرامون آشنایی‌زدایی،“ این ایراد را بازگو کرده‌ام و از تکرار آن خودداری می‌کنم. اما طرح خلاصه‌ای از آن در اینجا راهگشا به نظر می‌ر‌سد . وقتی سخن از آشنایی‌زدایی در میان است، منظور نو کردن بیانی است که بر اثر بسامد فراوان جذابیت خود را از دست داده و مخاطب را نسبت به خود بی‌اعتنا کرده است. اینک باید پرسید آیا غزل ”یاری اندر کس نمی‌بینیم یاران را چه شد؟“ به راستی دچار چنین مشکلی شده است و دیگر خواننده از خواندن یا شنیدن آن لذت نمی‌برد؟ به دیدۀ من، مشکل بتوان این غزل را مصداق این ویژگی دانست.

اگر بخواهیم تفاوت این شیوۀ برخورد را با نمونه‌ای نشان دهیم که سلطۀ شفیعی کدکنی را بر فرآیند آفرینش آشکار می سازد، بجاست به ظرافت ایشان در شعر ”حتی به روزگاران“ اشاره کنیم و منظور اشاره به غزلی از سعدی است. در شعر شفیعی کدکنی می‌خوانیم:

گفتی به ”روزگاران مهری نشسته“ گفتم:

”بیرون نمی‌توان کرد، حتی به روزگاران“

شفیعی کدکنی با تغییری کوچک فضای معنایی بیت سعدی را به کلی زیرو زبر ساخته است، در این معنا که واژۀ ”حتی“ را به جای ”الا“ نشانده و با این ظرافت کوتاه، عشق را از تجربه‌ای محدود به احساسی جاودانه مبدل ساخته است. توان شفیعی کدکنی در کسوت شاعری ممتاز را در ظرافت‌هایی از این دست می‌توان دید و برخورد با این ظرافت‌ها در شعرهای او پیشامد نادری نیست.

از آنجا که بخش عمده‌ای از این نوشته به جایگاه شفیعی کدکنی در مقام منتقد اختصاص یافت، بجاست سخن با یادآوری خلاقیت ایشان در مقام یکی از شاعران سرآمد روزگار ما خاتمه یابد. به این منظور کافی است چند نمونۀ درخشان از شعر ایشان را بیاوریم که نمونه‌هایی ماندگار از شعر مدرن فارسی‌اند:

آخرین برگ سفرنامۀ باران این است:

که زمین چرکین است

چون صاعقه در کوزۀ بی‌صبری‌ام امروز

از صبح که برخاسته‌ام ابری‌ام امروز

آه از این قوم ریایی که درین شهر دوروی

روزها شحنه و شب باده‌فروشند همه

تو در نماز عشق چه خواندی

که سال‌هاست

بالای دار رفتی و این شحنه‌های پیر

از مرده‌ات هنوز

پرهیز می‌کنند؟

مهم‌ترین معیار سنجش این نمونه‌ها، که شمارشان در شعر شفیعی کدکنی اندک نیست، این است که به‌رغم بسامد چشمگیرشان در نوشته‌ها و نشریات هرگز به کلیشه بدل نشده‌اند و هر بار به آنها برمی‌خوریم برایمان تازگی دارند.

سفر ادامه دارد و

پیام عاشقانۀ کویرها به ابرها

سلام جاودانۀ نسیم‌ها به تپه‌ها

تواضع لطیف و نرم درّه‌ها

غرور پاک برف‌پوش قله‌ها

صفای گشت گلّه‌ها به دشت‌ها

چرای سبز میش‌ها و قوچ‌ها و برّه‌ها

[1] عبدالحسین زرین‌کوب، ”           ،“ سفرنامۀ باران: نقد و تحلیل اشعار دکتر محمدرضا شفیعیکدکنی، به کوشش حبیب‌الله عباسی (تهران: نشر روزگار، 1378)، یادآوری.

[2] مرتضی کاخی، نقد و بررسی کتاب تهران، شمارۀ 48، 5.

[3] محمدرضا شفیعی کدکنی، شاعر آینهها: بررسی سبک هندی و شعر بیدل (چاپ 4؛ تهران: نشر آگه، 1376)، 9.

[4] شفیعی کدکنی، شاعر آینهها، 16.

[5] شفیعی کدکنی، شاعر آینهها، 15.

[6] شفیعی کدکنی، شاعر آینهها، 14.

[7] محمدرضا شفیعی کدکنی، (مقدمه، گزینش و تفسیر)، مولانا جلالالدین محمد بلخی: غزلیات شمس تبریز (تهران: سخن، 1387)، جلد 1، 114.

[8] I. A. Richards

[9] شفیعی کدکنی، شاعر آینهها، 106.

[10] عباسی، سفرنامۀ باران، 326.

[11] عباسی، سفرنامۀ باران، 349.

[12] رضا قنادان، معنای معنا: نگاهی دیگر (     : مهرویستا، 1391)، 64.

“In Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” Male Same-sex Sexuality in the Legislation and Jurisdictions of the IRI


Arash Guitoo <> obtained a BA in Political Sciences from the University of Tehran and a BA in Judicial Sciences from Azad University of Tehran. He pursued Islamic Studies and European Ethnology at Christian-Albrechts-University (Kiel/Germany) where he earned his BA and MA He is currently a PhD candidate and Research Fellow in the Department for Islamic Studies.  The subject of his PhD project is same-sex desire between tradition and modernity in Iran.


Hell on Earth

“If gay people really are going to hell, that hell will probably look something like Iran. In the dark backwaters of the country, gay people are flogged, tortured, abused, and even executed with shocking regularity. Thanks to a 1987 law that legalized sex changes, parents of gay children routinely force them to undergo unwanted hormone treatment, chemical castration, and sexual reassignment surgery to escape being murdered by the regime’s thugs. […] In short, it is possibly the bleakest place in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”[1]

I found this description of Iran in an article entitled “10 Countries That Completely Hate Gay People” published on a website which produces top-ten “mind-blowing” lists in various categories to entertain or inform its readers. This portrait of Iran as a dangerous place, in which sexual minorities are being oppressed and systematically prosecuted is by no mean an exceptional image but rather the predominant and widely narrated one in various contexts of western societies, be that in travel guides, media reports on LGBT situation or in the scholarly texts.

Of course, there is no question that this portrait is not a product of mere imagination, but the result of actions and legislation of the Islamic Republic. From early months after the revolution, the question of the revival of Islamic sexual morality became one of the signatures of the new elite in power. Islamic sexual morality was not only the characteristic which distinguished the newly installed regime from its predecessor and its “western masters,” but also as an instrument to oppress and to intimidate the political rivals as well as the pro-western urban middle class.[2] The agenda of the revival of Islamic sexual morality was demonstrated, for example, through the prosecution and public execution of committers of livāṭ and zinā, which were intentionally well-covered and highlighted by the national press. With the establishment of the regime in the late 1980s and normalization of the situation, the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) started to pursue a less aggressive sexual policy and thus the rate of execution due to sexual crimes dropped visibly in the 1990s in comparison to the first years of the revolution. The election of the conservative Aḥmadīnizhād in 2005 let the western world once again remember the sexual politics of the early years of the Iranian Revolution. Besides the images of Aḥmadīnizhād’s victory in 2005, there were some other images, which were broadcasted from Iran and affected the debates on IRI in the western discourse, namely a series of photographs documenting the execution of two young men who were hanged in the days around the presidential election in Mashhad. According to the Farsi sources of the report namely Quds newspaper[3] and ISNA (Iranian Students’ News Agency),[4] both men were arrested around fourteen months before their execution and sentenced to death due to the charge of abduction and rape of a thirteen-year-old boy. Outrage!, an action group with an LGBT cause in Great Britain, seized this news and published the pictures of the execution on its website with the title “Iran Executes Gay Teenagers” a few days later.[5] In the narration of Outrage! it was no longer mentioned that both young men were convicted of sexual assault; the headline suggested instead that these men were executed because of homosexuality. Although a few days later other organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released their more accurate reports which pointed to the conviction on the basis of sexual assault, Outrage! kept on insisting on its narration that the men were executed just because of having consensual gay sex.[6] Outrage!’s version of the story, namely “Iran executing gays,” enjoyed somehow more popularity in the public debates of western societies. It fitted better in the understanding of Aḥmadīnizhād’s rise as a throwback to the early years of revolution, and the execution of sexual minorities was seen as the ramification of this change. Maḥmūd and ‘Ayyāz, the executed young men, became figures of a tragic love story of two gay men, who were prosecuted solely because of their forbidden love.[7]

The issue of oppression of sexual minorities returned once again to the list of questions  Iranian officials were asked about as soon as they were accessible to reporters, students or other politicians[8] and the situation of LGBT community in Iran was more frequently discussed in the western media.[9] Same as the Mashhad case, almost all of the executions monitored by western press as “execution of gays” in the following years, were according to the statements of the Iranian judicial officials as well as national press cases of rape or better said, “forced anal penetration” (livāṭ-i bih ‘unf). Same as to Outrage!’s version, the “rape” accusation was either not mentioned in the western reports or if mentioned was interpreted as a false accusation fabricated by Iranian judiciary to hide the real cause of prosecution, namely punishing those men having consensual sex with each other.[10]

The idea that the political changes in 2005 started a new wave of prosecution of homosexuals, which is practiced under the semblance of fabricated allegations such as rape, gets support in scholarly texts as well. Janet Afary, for instance, supports the view that the prosecution of the gay men and transgressive women increased in 2005 right after the election of “Basiji Ahmadinejad.” The case of Maḥmūd and ʿAyyāz serves her as an example of this claim. Relying on the reports of “independent gay sources inside Iran,” Afary asserts that the charge of sexual assault was fabricated by the Iranian authorities to cover up the execution of “two lovers who lived together” and were well-known in the city’s underground gay community.” She explains the compounding of the charges of homosexuality with others such as “rape and pedophilia” as the regime’s reaction to the international outrage prompted by execution of men on charges of homosexuality.[11]

These statements raise somehow some questions; principally, one may then ask, even if it might be a tasteless question, why is the rate of executions based on rape allegations so low if the IRI has started to crack down gays under this fabricated accusation? This question especially makes sense in the age of the Internet, in which the gay community has become, on the one hand more visible through the possibility of digital networking, and on the other hand more vulnerable because of its hardly erasable footprint and its traceability in virtual space.[12] There are indeed no signs of an attempt by the “digital army” of the IRI to systematically prosecute numerous individuals frequently using gay dating websites or Apps which are similar to many other filtered websites, however broadly accessed through anti-filtering softwares. Of course, it is very probable that a person using dating Apps or websites gets entrapped by undercover Basījīs and faces insult, intimidation, and harassment instead of having a pleasant date. Such incidents seem, however, to be either personally motivated or a part of the State’s tightening of moral restrictions, which has occurred time to time since the revolution up to now. These raids are, however, not a part of a determined agenda of gay prosecution since the entrapped persons are not facing more severe punishments than heterosexual persons who could also get arrested for transgressing public virtue. It is as well not convincing to claim that the low rate of executions could be the result of state’s successful hush-up of the real number of gay prosecutions, since it is unlikely that the officials could keep every case of disappearing gays away from the eyes of human rights organization as well as the gay community over several years, if they have indeed been doing it systematically.

The other allegation that the IRI is covering up the prosecution of consensual same-sex sexual activities under the fabricated accusation of rape or pedophilia is based on poorly documented claims or highly problematic subjective sources, which apparently undergo less critical examination, probably because of the general suspicious attitude towards the IRI. Furthermore, one could ask why the IRI would go through the risk of a public execution of gay men falsely accused of rape, although the officials are aware of the possible reaction of the international community. Why should the regime make an exception to its own supposed policy of hidden executions? What if the transgression being punished is the assault, and not the same-sexness of the sexual offence?

By asking these questions, I am neither suggesting here that those men were “properly” convicted of rape nor am I trying to trivialize the high risks the gay community are facing in Iran with respect to severe punishments decreed by law. The intention behind these questions is moreover to criticize the idea that the executions of convicts to livāṭ are a manifestation of the escalation of “the war against homosexuality and an openly gay lifestyle.”[13] I am somewhat suggesting that the IRI, despite its hostile attitude toward same-sex sexuality, is not considering the elimination of “deviant” subjects involved in same-sex sexual acts as an essential cause and not actively conducting a physical war against “homosexuality.” This reserved attitude is in my view inherent to the understanding of livāṭ in classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), to which the authorities of the IRI seem to be committed. The commitment to the Islamic jurisprudence results into a penal policy, which, I claim, has a behavioristic approach towards sexual offences and is not constructing recognizable types of subjects, which are socially visible and hence prosecutable.

The act-type dichotomy underlying this question goes back to Foucault’s perception of modern and premodern sexualities, in which homosexuality as a type of subject is understood as a modern product, while the premodern prosecutions of same-sex offences are considered to be behavioristically motivated. Foucault writes:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden  acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology with an indiscreet anatomy and a possibly mysterious physiology.[14]

Although I agree with the arguments of those scholars who criticize the universalization of this categorization as the distinguishing feature between modern and premodern sexualities,[15] this dichotomy still implies the distinction between the pre-modern legal approach towards same-sex sexuality from the modern one. Of course, I am also not precluding the possibility of the emergence of a “type of subject” through competitive discourses, such as the medical discourse.[16] I claim, however, that those discourses are not playing a significant role changing the judicial attitude of the IRI towards same-sex sexual offences.

In the first part of this paper, we will discuss the characteristics of ḥadd offences in context of classical Islamic jurisprudence to illustrate the main features of a penal policy towards same-sex sexual crimes, which is based on fiqh. Subsequently, we will look at the legislation of the IRI concerning the punishment of same-sex sexual conduct and examine the Iranian penal policy concerning its continuities and discontinuities of Islamic jurisprudence. Of course, the theoretical continuity of the Islamic discourse in modern Iranian legislation still does not necessarily mean that these regulations are implemented by law-enforcement authorities as they are intended to be. Thus we will also take a look at some decisions of the Supreme Court concerning livāṭ to illustrate the understanding of the judges of this court of the situation. This insight into the legal and judicial approach towards same-sex sexual offences, lead me to conclude that the underlying motive of the actions of the Iranian authorities is the implementation of (their understanding of) Islamic law, which provides the prosecution of livāṭ as a particular act under certain circumstances. This study shall also demonstrate that the notion of homosexuality as a type of subject within the legal discourse of the IRI is absent. In the final part of the paper I shall use the findings of this paper to criticize the western narratives on the issue of LGBT rights and their possible impacts on the situation of LGBT subjects in Iran.


add Offences in fiqh

Livāṭ counts in the Islamic juridical tradition to ḥadd offences, which are primarily violations of a claim of God (ḥaqq al-lāh) and considered to be explicitly sanctioned by the Qur’an or Sunna. These offences have their specific characteristics: their punishment is fixed and unchangeable; the qualification of their fulfillment is strictly described; they have their own exclusionary rule of evidence and a repentance results in their exemption.[17] The hearing of a ḥadd offence is a careful examination of the question if some specific act has occurred under prescribed conditions and if it is proved through its exclusionary prescribed evidence. Any uncertainty (shubhah) in any of the constructing elements or any slight deviation from the prescriptions is a reason for hesitation in prosecuting ḥadd offences and leads to the acquaintance of the defender.[18] The fiqh itself is a source of uncertainty since it is not a uniform legal system but an assemblage of views and debates of the scholars on the divine law, who frequently have different opinions and understandings of the texts.[19] Conflicting rules on a specific subject are not exceptional at all, not only among the schools of law but also among the scholars of the same school. There is also no hierarchal order of these views, in which the position of the majority would automatically discredit the less popular opinions. This variety of views in fiqh result in doubt and uncertainty for any authority implementing them.

It is not only difficult to prosecute and punish ḥadd offences but also for many reasons it is not seen as a prioritized matter. Firstly, the prosecution of violations against a claim of God is not perceived as an urgent cause since the “damaged” party of this crime, namely God, is not only powerful enough to punish any wrongdoing but also free of needs (ghanī) and thus not damaged by the violence.[20] Secondly, the ḥadd punishment itself is not considered as a measure which expiates or purifies the committer from his sin and therefore not a necessity, since the perpetrator will still face a punishment in the hereafter regardless of the worldly punishment, although it is common (but uncertain) belief among Muslim jurists that God shall forgive a perpetrator sentenced to a worldly penalty.[21] Furthermore, the implementation of the punishment is not seen as a necessity for protecting the community from God’s rage, since the assumption that God would impose collective punishments on the whole community due to its indifference towards sins does not prevail among Muslim scholars. Thirdly, the punishment is not the only way to redeem the evil that occurred since all transgressions of claims of God could also be settled through repentance (taubah). The main reason for implementing the penalty, as the Islamic scholars declare themselves, is deterring the public from those wrongdoings considered harmful to society.[22] If the undesirable acts were not severely sanctioned, individuals would not effectively be prevented from committing them, and this would lead to social decay. The fear of the spread of the wrongdoing illustrates, in my opinion, the behavioristic character of ḥadd offences. The offence is seen here as a misdeed which could theoretically be imitated by any other member of the community and is not associated with any particular feature inherent to the wrongdoer.

What are the possible features of a penal system which is committed to the above understanding of ḥadd punishment? The judicial system would probably not take the initiative to prosecute ḥadd offences, as they are difficult to prove and furthermore their prosecution could get redundant in most cases through the possibility of the repentance of the sinner. The prosecution is however more likely if the public is affected by the crime or if the rights of a third party are violated through it, as the public deterrence is seen as the raison d’être of the offence. I believe this description applies to the penal policy of the IRI regarding sexual offences. To support this claim, we shall take a look at male same-sex offences in the legislation and jurisprudence of the IRI.


Male Same-sex Sexual Offences in the Legislation and Jurisdictions of the IRI

The Penal Code of 1996,[23] which is the prevailing law of most decisions we discuss later, defined livāṭ as anal intercourse as well as intercrural sex (tafkhīẕ) between two male persons.[24] The anal intercourse was sanctioned through death penalty, and the intercrural sex was punished by 100 lashes.[25] Whereas insanity and force/duress exempted the accused from punishment, immaturity[26] didn’t necessarily lead to an acquittal of the charge. Immature men who got consciously and willingly involved in the act of livāṭ could be sentenced to a discretionary punishment (ta‘zīr) up to 74 lashes. Other activities among men such as passionate kissing or lying nude under the same blanket were penalized through less severe ta‘zīr punishments.[27]

The new Penal Code, which entered into force in 2009,[28] brought a few changes regarding the definition of livāṭ and its punitive measures. According to this Code, livāṭ is the act of anal penetration among two men, once the glans is inserted into the anus. The new Code also distinguishes between the punishment of penetrator and penetratee of a livāṭ act: the active person in the same-sex anal penetration would only then be sentenced to death if he has forced the sexual act or fulfills the conditions of iḥṣān; otherwise, he gets sentenced to 100 lashes. The same paragraph defines iḥṣān as the status of being permanently married to a mature woman, with whom the offender has almost had a (vaginal) intercourse and who is “available” to him, as soon as he desires.[29] An adult penetratee is however exempted from the punishment only in the case of force or duress and thus not affected by the iḥṣān rule.[30] There are no differences between the active and passive one when it comes to other less severe offences like intercrural sex, which is punished by 100 lashes. Some other forms of sexually motivated activities such as passionate embrace and caresses are sanctioned under the term homosexuality of the male human (hamjinsgarā’ī-i insān-i muẕakkar) and punished with a maximum of 74 lashes.[31]

The act of livāṭ is proven to the court only either through the testimony of four mature men or a four-time confession of the accused. The new Penal Code removed the ambiguous evidence “knowledge of judge” (‘ilm-i qā), a controversial proof provided in the previous Code, from the rule of evidence for livāṭ.[32] The new Code prohibits as well any form of investigation of private matters concealed from the public eye.[33] This prohibition is also provided by the Penal Procedure Law of 2013, which allows the investigation and prosecution of crimes against Public Virtue (‘iffat-i ‘umūmī), which are sexual offences with ḥadd or ta‘zīr punishments,[34]  only if the crime was either visible to the public or committed through force or prosecuted under the account of a private complaint. This Law also rules that in the case of a voluntarily expressed self-denunciation (confession) the judges are recommended to invite the confessing person to keep silence so as not to denounce themselves.[35] The judges are also committed to informing the witnesses about the legal consequences of a false or invalid testimony in such cases,[36] namely the possibility of being charged with sexual defamation (qaẕf), a ḥadd offence punished by 80 lashes.[37]

Once accused to or found guilty for livāṭ, one could escape capital punishment through repentance (taubah), denial after confession (inkār-i ba‘d az iqrār) or pardon (‘afv). If the defendant repents before the offence is proven, he would be exempted from the capital punishment, provided the judge is convinced of his repentance and his rehabilitation/correction.[38] This regulation is also applicable for those who committed rape and would reduce their punishment to imprisonment or lashings. In a conviction which results from a confession, the convict can also deny the act and take his confession back, which results in the exposure to the death penalty and its reduction to 100 lashes. All convicts to livāṭ are entitled to access to pardon except those whose convictions are based on the testimony of four witnesses.[39]

As I mentioned before, under the traditional understanding of Islamic law there is a reluctance to convict a defendant for ḥadd offences. This attitude has been adopted in the Iranian Penal Code as seen in the rules of evidence and punishment prescribed. The reluctance to initiate a prosecution and to implement the punishment, which we find in the classic understanding of a ḥadd crime, is reflected in those provisions which order the judges to discourage a defendant from self-incrimination, and to deter the witnesses from testifying by reminding them of the severe punishment for false testimony. The death penalty could in most cases be avoided through measures such as repentance or denial, even if the “guilt” of the perpetrator is proved, which demonstrates somehow the secondary importance of the elimination of the perpetrator. If the law-enforcement bodies are committed to the existing laws, it would be quite unlikely that the prosecution of a same-sex sexual offence results in the execution of the perpetrator. Only the penetratee of a consensual sexual act and his married sex-partner, who have been found guilty on the basis of testimony and who have not repented before the hearing of the evidence, have theoretically no chance to escape capital punishment. The certainty of the death penalty in the case of witness testimony illustrates as well another feature of ḥadd, namely the decisive role of the public in implementing the penalty. As we observed, one of the primary objectives of the implementation of a add punishment in the Islamic law is to serve as a general deterrent. If an offence has been seen and reported by a member of the public, then it is necessary for the legal system to prosecute and punish the perpetrator. This concern explains to my view the rigorous approach of the Penal Code towards those offenders convicted on the basis of witness testimony in comparison to those whose conviction results from a confession.

If we look at the recent changes of the Penal Code, it is clear that there are no signs of the emergence of a modern notion of homosexuality through these new changes. On the contrary, the major changes regarding livāṭ are responses to concerns raised on the compatibility of the former laws with sharia’s regulations. All of the major changes of the law, such as the removal of knowledge of the judge (‘ilm-i qā) as a proof to livāṭ, the adoption of the possibility of denial after confession and the introduction of iḥṣān as a decisive factor for the degree of punishments are indeed matters which we find in the of classical fiqh scholarly discussions.

The only term found in the legislation, which may suggest a shift from a behaviorist understanding of the offence towards the perception of the wrongdoing as inherent to the wrongdoer is the modern term for homosexuality (hamjinsgarā’ī). This word is indeed used in the new Penal Code, which leads some activists and journalists to conclude that the IRI is taking a step towards criminalizing homosexuality as a way of life.[40] The new Penal Code is however not using this expression to refer to a “state of being” or a certain “type of subject.” The word is instead functioning as an umbrella term for some behaviors already sanctioned and treated as undesirable in classical works of Islamic legal tradition, such as passionate touching (mulāmisat az rū-yi shahwat).

The continuity of the Classical Islamic legal discourse in modern Iranian law does not allow us to claim that the authorities of the IRI are following the premodern behavioristic approach towards the offence, and are interpreting the provisions as they are intended to be. Of course, it is imaginable that the interpretation of the law-enforcement bodies deviates from those of the classical law or fiqh. As we saw, the scope of action of the judges is defined very broadly in the law. From one side they have measures at their disposal which could stop the trial at a very early stage. They can postpone the hearing of evidence, or accept the repentance of the defendant before the prosecution has begun. At the same time, if they insist on punishment, they have massive influence with respect to the penalty, since they can reject the repentance or refuse to pass the request for pardon to the higher instances. Thus, it is essential to ask whether the presiding judges are interpreting these rules in their classical context or are possibly  homophobic agents utilizing these laws to prosecute the accused.


Livāṭ in the Decisions of the Supreme Court

Since the hearings of the offences against public virtue are not held publicly, it is difficult to gain detailed insight into the judicial practice regarding the prosecution of sexual crimes. Still, we can obtain some information on the implementation of the legislation in the Iranian courts and the judicial interpretation of the situation, if we take a look at the decisions of the Supreme Court and its Chambers. The decisions of the Supreme Court in its function as the final arbiter of a trial are not a binding source of law. But the rulings still reflect the interpretation, understanding, and perceptions of one of the highest judicial authorities of the country which must approve any case of capital punishment before it is carried out.

The first case we discuss was referred to the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court in 1997, where an eighteen-year-old man was accused of the rape (livāṭ-i bih ‘unf) of a ten-year-old boy and was sentenced to death. His guilt was proven through four confessions, all of which were obtained by the judge on the same day where the defendant was asked to leave the court after giving each confession and returning for the next one. The charge was also supported by a forensic medical report which verified injuries and the deformation of the rectum of the victim due to penetration of a “hard object.” The judge refused the repentance of the defendant and sentenced him to death. The appeal court objected to this decision and returned the case to another chamber with two arguments: first, the defendant should give four separate confessions, and second, there is no indication which would lead to the assumption that the repentance is not credible. In the new trial, the defendant confessed in three different hearings to livāṭ but argued at the same time that he was not aware of the death punishment and repented from his deeds in each hearing. In the fourth day, he confessed to intercrural sex and denied the penetration. The court rejected his repentance due to his criminal record (prior convictions for intercrural sex) and insisted on the decision of the first court and sentenced him to death proven by four confessions. Once again, the appeal court overturned this decision due to lack of required evidence, namely the four required confessions and sent the case to the penal chamber of the Supreme Court for a final decision. The majority of the judges of the court concluded that in this case the required evidence for a conviction to livāṭ is not present and acquitted the defendant of the charge. The judges argued that confessions passed in very first trial had lost their validity due to the overturning of the decision of the first instance by a higher court. Furthermore, the confessions in the second court were considered insufficient for a death penalty, as the defendant had admitted in the last confession only to intercrural sex. Some judges also contended that the repentance in the first court should be regarded as a repentance before confessions in the second court, which exposes the accused to the death penalty. In the discussions on the question whether the confessions are to be given in four hearings, while the judges tended to consider four confessions on the same day as valid, they recommended the distribution of confessions over four days, due to the principle of caution (iḥtiyā). The judges of the Supreme Court also objected the decisions of the lower courts for rejecting the repentance of the defendant without any justification and stated that it is to the courts to prove the dishonesty of the defendant.[41]

In another case which was heard by the General Assembly of the Supreme Court in 2010, three young men were sentenced to death for to the rape of a thirteen-year-old boy in 2005. In the first day of the hearing all three defendants had confessed four times to the assault yet on the second day denied their statements. The judge had found them guilty due to their confessions on the first day and sentenced them to death. The revision court had objected to this decision due to a procedural error since the legal representatives of the defendants were not present on the first day of the hearing and thus rendered the confessions invalid. The case was once again heard in another trial court, which insisted on the death penalty due to the confessions in the first instance, the forensic reports and the negative reputation of the defendants. Once again, the case was reviewed in the revision court, which subsequently overturned the decision. This court accepted the claim of the defendants that they confessed under pressure from the investigating officials and raised severe doubts about the validity of this evidence. The court also considered the forensic report not to be reliable enough to ascertain that this particular act of livāṭ happened since in the report it is only mentioned that the injury had occurred through penetration of a “hard object,” which could have been anything. The court stated as well that the negative reputation of the defendants did not count as evidence for this particular accusation. As the third trial court insisted on the death penalty, the matter was discussed in the General Assembly of the Supreme Court. The Court supported the arguments of the last Revision Court and approved it and acquitted the defendants of the charge.[42]

We also find cases of convictions based on consensual same-sex sexual conduct which were examined by the Supreme Court. A Chamber of Supreme Court heard in 1990 the case of two young men who were found guilty on the basis of their confession during the initial investigation. This decision was also supported by a report of forensic medicine which testified to the permanent deformation of the rectum of one of the defendants (the penetratee), which was seen as a result of repeated penetrations over an extended period of time. The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the first instance with the reasoning that there were doubts about the validity of evidence since the confessions were made in the investigative phase and not during the official hearing. Furthermore, they objected that the forensic medical report could not concretely confirm that this specific act of livāṭ between the defendants had happened and discharged both men.[43]

The role of the the judges in these cases is consistent with the expectation of Islamic law in dealing with a ḥadd offence. As we mentioned, the elements of these crimes, as well as the rules of evidence concerning the exclusion of certain confessions and their punishments are all prescribed in Islamic law and the judges had to carefully examine if all those provisions were fulfilled. The judges of the Supreme Court seemed to be committed to this maxim. They examined the validity of the decisions of the lower courts in respect to Islamic law and then the codified law. The fiqh texts served as a source for the interpretation of the codified law and for responding to the ambiguities which occurred during the hearing. The judges, who were mostly clergy, frequently crossed the boundaries of codified law and took into account scholarly debates on livāṭ which are not in codified law. We find in their discussions, for example, notions such as the role of iḥṣān or insufficiency of the knowledge of the judge as evidence to livāṭ long before they were adopted by the Penal Code of 2009. It is also notable that the forensic findings played an insignificant role in the decisions of the court, which indicated the adherence of the judges to the strict and non-negotiable evidence rule of this ḥadd offence.[44] Furthermore, the judges seemed to have the same behavioristic approach towards the offence, which we find in the classical understanding of livāṭ. The personality or the psyche of the wrongdoer appeared irrelevant to the Supreme Court judges in their decisions and discussions. As we observed, neither the criminal record of convictions to same-sex sexual offences nor the findings of forensic medicine, which attested to regular anal intercourse, served as indicators to the judges, which would let them find the defendant guilty in the case they were hearing. None of those circumstances led the judges to conclude that the behavior was an expression of some continuous quality inherent to the personality of the defendant, which would have made the judges more biased towards him.

We observe that the legal approach of the Islamic Republic towards same-sex sexual offences is a continuity of the Islamic legal tradition, not only on the point of the adoption of harsh measures but also in the conception, perception, interpretation of this offence. This tradition is characterized by the absence of active prosecution of wrongdoers and the reluctance of implementing capital punishment as long as the public is not affected by the crime. In this traditional understanding the crime is treated as a singular act of violation and thus the personality of the offender and his character traits do not play a role on the prosecution and the trial. The more committed the law-enforcing bodies remain to this traditional understanding of the offence, the more unlikely it is that this penal policy leads to a systematic prosecution of people conducting it and I believe this commitment to the tradition is by and large present in the penal policy of the IRI.


Some Final Remarks

It is difficult to imagine that the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are unaware of the existence of Iranians who identify themselves as gay. Of course, they are well-equipped enough to be able to increase pressure on the gay community and intensify the prosecution of sexual offences. Nevertheless, they seem to lack the will to actively fight against same-sex sexual conduct or to eliminate this community altogether. The regulations regarding military service offer a perfect example for the awareness of the IRI about the existence of gay citizens and the absence of any intention to punish them. For more than a decade it is possible to be exempted from the military service for homosexuality.[45] “Disorders (kazhkhū’ī) which are against military or social norms (shu’ūnāt-e ijtimāʿi wa nizāmī) such as sexual deviances (inḥirāfāt-i jinsī) and homosexuality” may exempt one permanently from military service, as per  paragraph 7 of Chapter 5 of the current Regulation of Medical Exemption of Military Service.[46] One may be skeptical of this provision and assume it is designed to keep a register of gays for possible future prosecution. But this regulation seems to be ineffective as a register as not many gay Iranians are making use of this possibility to get exempted from military service, since the bureaucratic process they have to go through is not only utterly humiliating, but also often ends in an unwanted “coming-out” of the applicants in front of their parents. The regulation seems to be a response to the problem overt homosexuality in public spaces and is fueled by the fear of spreading the undesired behavior among the others in society. Apart from the intentions of the regulation, its existence per se shows that the IRI is aware of the presence of subjects who get involved in same-sex sexual conducts yet is still not showing any intention to prosecute them.

I am of course not claiming that there aren’t any risks of being prosecuted and punished for same-sex sexual conduct in Iran and that the gay Iranians or those having same-sex sex are having a life free from the fear of facing prosecution and harassment. I am, however, suggesting that the judicial authorities of the IRI seem to be committed to a traditional understanding of same-sex sexual offences, which is characterized by the reluctance to prosecute sexual offences. As long as this perception prevails among the judicial authorities, it is less likely that they will initiate a systematical prosecution of same-sex sexual offences. Once the view of the judicial officials is “modernized” and they start to conceive gays as a social group, which is more suspected for practicing livāṭ, then we need to be alert to potential worsening of the situation of gays in Iran.

In this respect, the reports in the western medias regarding “Prosecution of Gays in Iran” could have a negative impact on the lives of the gay Iranians and increase their vulnerability. Those reports are not only objectively inaccurate and fail to provide their readers with differentiated information on the situation of gays in Iran, as I tried to demonstrate in this paper, but also exploit the LGBT issues for the “othering” of non-western (Muslim) societies and as a demarcation line between those societies and the liberal western world.[47] This process makes at the same time the anti-LGBT positions to serve as the marker of being Islamic or anti-western in the Muslim societies. As soon as taking an anti-Western course or showing dedication to Islam gets politically relevant for the actors in power, then the members of LGBT community are probably at the top of the list for suppression and harassment, as we have observed by the increase of anti-gay crack-downs in many parts of the Muslim world such as in Egypt, Chechnya, Azerbaijan or Indonesia in the last two decades.


[1]Morris, M., “10 Countries That Completely Hate Gay People,” Listverse, 30 December 2013,

[2]Concerning the sexual politics of the revolutionary Iran, see Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 265-271.

[3]For the story of Quds newspaper, seeمحمود_عسگری_و_ایاز_مرهونی.

[4]“ḥukm-i i‘dām-i dū muttaham-i bih livāṭ-i bih ‛unf ijrā shud,” ISNA 19 July 2005,حكم-اعدام-دو-متهم-به-لواط-به-عنف-اجرا-شد.

[5]“Iran Hangings,”, Outrage!, 23 June 2006,

[6]For the controversies in this case, see Scott Long, “Unbearable Witness: How Western Activists (Mis)recognize Sexuality in Iran,” Contemporary Politics 15, no. 1 (2009): 119-136.

[7]For example, the play Haram! Iran! was brought in 2010 to stage and was based on a “true story of forbidden love” with the words of Huffington Post’s contributor Jed Ryan. Ryan saw in the story of Maḥmūd and ‘Ayyāz, “…an incident [that] opened many people’s eyes on the situation for those [LGBT people] who haven’t [made some modest gains regarding visibility and rights].” The play made its New York debut in March 2017. See Jed Ryan, “HARAM! IRAN! True Story of Forbidden Love in The Middle East Comes To New York Stage,” Huffpost, 11 March 2017,

[8]The reformist president Khātamī, who was more than any other Iranian official out and about on the international stage, did not face the question regarding the execution of gays until September 2006. During his speech at Harvard, as the former president, he defended the death penalty as a suitable measure for this “misdeed.” Aḥmadīnizhād, on the other hand, faced this question in almost every encounter with a western actor. His response to the student who asked him about penalizing homosexuality in Iran is perhaps one of his most memorable quotes as the President of IRI: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals. In Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” His audience, the students and staff of Columbia University in 2007 laughed and booed after this remark. For Khātamī’s remark, see “Khatami Slams ‘Imperial’ U.S,” The Harvard Crimson, 11 September 2006,, and for Aḥmadīnizhād’s remark see Claudia Parsons, “Iranian President Spars with Academics in NY,” Reuters, 24 September 2007,

[9]See for example, “Iran Executes Three Men on Homosexuality Charges,” 7 September 2011,, or Shehab, Khan, “Iran Executes Gay Teenager for Crime Allegedly Committed as a Teenager,” 4 August 2016, or Benjamin Weinthal, “Iran Executes Gay Teenager in Violation of International Law,” 4 August 2016,

[10]I am not claiming at this point, that there is a single narration circulating in the western texts. As mentioned, human rights monitoring organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch are documenting the cases more carefully. They are of course condemning the death penalty and juvenile prosecution in general but remain cautious on categorizing the executions as actions against homosexuality. See for example, Human Rights Watch, We Are a Buried Generation: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran (New York: Human Rights Watch 2010), 27-32.

[11]Afary, Sexual Politics, 358-359.

[12]Concerning the emergence of an LGBT community and a “gay” identity, see Pardis Mahdavi, “Questioning the Global Gays(ze): Constructions of Sexual Identities in Post-revolution Iran,” Social Identities 18, no. 2 (2012): 223-237. See also Abouzar Nasirzadeh, “The Role of Social Media in the Lives of Gay Iranians,” in Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009, ed. David M. Faris and Babak Rahimi (Albany: Sunny Press 2015), 57-75.

[13]Afary, Sexual Politics, 398.

[14]Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books 1978), 43.

[15]Afsaneh Najmabadi, for instance, questions aptly the applicability of this dichotomy in context of sexualities in pre-modern Iran and argues that although the notion of “homosexual as a type” did not exist in this time, there are still identifications based on desire types, which did not go unnoted by their contemporaries. See Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005), 19-23.

[16]In fact, the medicalizing of homosexuality is frequently discussed as a process in which the authorities of the IRI are constructing “types of deviant subjects” and at the same time stigmatizing them. A careful examination of the scholarly works on this issue goes far beyond the scope of this study. Briefly summed up, it is frequently argued that the discourse on transsexuality and the encouraging policy of the IRI towards surgical sex-change are at the same time reproducing and reinforcing a heteronormative order and hence constructing and marginalizing homosexuality as a pathological type. For a more comprehensive study on transsexuality in the IRI, see Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2014) or see Susan Stryker, “Transsexuality and Biopolitics in Iran,” in Journal of Women’s History 28, vol. 4 (2016): 179-182.

[17]There are of course differences among and within Law Schools about the nature and scope of udūd, which can not be discussed here. See Rudolph Peters, Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 53-55. See also Wael B. Hallaq, Sharīʿa, Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009), 311-312.

[18]This maxim is reflected in a prophetic adīth. See Hallaq, Sharīʿa, 311.

[19]Rudolph Peters, “From Jurists’ Law to Statue Law or What Happens When the Shari’a is Codified,” in Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation, ed. Barbara A. Roberson (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2003), 84-85.

[20]Ibid., 55.

[21]Ibid., 54-55.

[22]Ibid., 55; also Hallaq, Sharīʿa, 311.

[23]The Law is available at

[24]Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 108.

[25]Ibid., Paragraph 121.

[26]Female maturity is reached at the age of nine, and male maturity is reached at the age of fifteen (lunar years).

[27]Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 123 and 124.

[28]The law was finally ratified 2014 after a test phase of five years. The law can be found at

[29]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 234.

[30]Ibid., Paragraph 234.

[31]Ibid., Paragraph 237.

[32] Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 120.

[33] Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 241.

[34]Penal Procedure Law 2013, Paragraph 306. The law could be found atقانون-آیین-دادرسی-کیفری-با-اصلاحات-1394-سایت-حقوقی-اختبار1.pdf.

[35]Ibid., Paragraph 102-1.

[36]Ibid., Paragraph 102-2.

[37]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 250.

[38]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 114.

[39]The pardon of the convict is practiced in the IRI by the Supreme Leader and regulated through the Guideline of the Commission on Pardon and Reduction of Punishments, an organ of the Judiciary responsible for suggesting the possible candidates for pardon. For the Guideline see

[40]Ḥamīd Parnīyān, “Vaẓ‘īyat-i Hamjinsgarāyan dar Qānūn-i Jadīd-i Mujāzāt-i Islāmī,” Radiozamaneh, 22 December 2012,

[41]Daftar-i Muṭāli‘āt va Taḥqīqāt-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar, Muẕākirāt va Ārā-i Hay’at-i ‚umūmī-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar (Tehrān: Idārah-yi vaḥdat-i rayīyah va nashr-i muẕakirāat-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar, 1378sh), 471-490.

[42]Summary of the decision available on: Paygāh-i Iṭṭilā’-risānī-i Ḥuqūqī-i Iran, “Ra’y-i Iṣrārī-i Kayfarī-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar: Istinād bih Qā’idah-yi Dar’ Mawjib-i Muntafī Shudan-i Ḥukm-i I’dām Shud,” 25 September 2018,

[43]Yadullāh Bāzgīr, Qānūn-i Mujāzāt-i Islāmī dar A’īnah-i Arā’-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar: Ḥudūd, Jarā’im-i Khalāf-i Akhlāq-i Ḥasanah (Tehrān: Nashr-i Hastān, 1378sh.), 125.

[44]It is frequently said, that the IRI is using forensic medicine to intensify and optimize the prosecution of the male homosexuals. The influence of forensic reports in the discussed cases, however, qualifies this allegation. See Afary, Sexual Politics, 359 or or K. Korycki and A. Nasirzadeh, “Homophobia as a Tool of Statecraft: Iran and its Queers” in Global Homophobias: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression, ed. Meredith L. Weiss and Michael J. Bosia (Champaign, ILL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 189.

[45]HRW wrongly claims that these regulations are prohibiting gay men from service and categories these measures as discriminatory, although these rules are optional and do not hinder gay men from the service. See Human Rights Watch, “We are Buried,” 23-27.

[46]The regulation could be downloaded from the website of Tabnak Professional News Site under:

[47]For the role of (homo)sexuality in self-identification of western societies, see Jasbir Puar,

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 3-24.  For a critical view on the “othering” of muslim societies on the basis of their sexualities see Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press 2007), 160-190.

Exilic, Diasporic, and Ethnic Media: Hamid Naficy’s Oeuvre from an International Communication Perspective

Mehdi Semati <> is Professor and Acting Chair in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. His writings on Iranian culture and media, and international communication have appeared in various scholarly journals. His books include Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State (2008), and New Frontiers in International Communication Theory (2004). His Persian publications include a book titled, The Age of CNN and Hollywood: National Interests, Transnational Communication (2006). His latest book is a co-edited volume titled, ISIS Beyond the Spectacle: Communication Media, Networked Publics, and Terrorism (2018).

Hamid Naficy is justly recognized as the foremost authority on Iranian cinema and its social history. A prolific scholar, he has written on various topics and areas in film studies. Among these, and beyond expository and theoretical writings on Iranian cinema and its history, he has produced scholarship on the Middle Eastern cinema, Palestinian film letters, exilic cinema, ethnographic film, Third World spectatorship and modes of address, transnational cinema, independent transnational film genre, and Iranian Émigré Cinema, among others. My contention in this paper is that although this professional identity is accurate and well deserved, it is reductive for the work he has produced. Naficy’s oeuvre covers a wider range of scholarly preoccupations and theoretical and empirical domains. Although my discussion in this paper traverses these different domains, I write from a specific disciplinary location, that of International Communication. I argue that his work is trans/inter-disciplinary in character, operating at the intersection of three specific areas of Cultural Studies, “post-colonial” theory, and media theory. The connection between these three areas is tied to specific articulations and problematizations of borders, belonging, Otherness, (trans)national imaginary, states of liminality, and the broader question of culture’s relationship to power and geopolitics. I make my argument by indexing Naficy’s work to a range of topics, concepts and problematizations central to the field of International Communication. In this context, I hope to demonstrate that Naficy’s oeuvre is best explained beyond the confines of cinema studies precisely because it engages and inhabits borders and embodies the porosity of borders of various kind, be they intellectual, disciplinary, affective, geopolitical, or geographical.

In the Beginning…

I begin with some biographical information, not as evidence but as anecdotes, to suggest how scholarships, as abstraction as they might seem, produce specific effects and become organizing elements of other contexts. Anecdotes, as Meghan Morris observes, are “primarily referential. They are oriented futuristically towards the construction of a precise, local, and social discursive context, of which the anecdote then functions as a mise en abyme. That is to say, anecdotes are not expressions of personal experience but allegorical expositions of a model of the way the world can be said to be working.”[1] Two formative encounters are revealed in the anecdotes that frame my discussion in this paper. One of these anecdotes involves my first encounter with the work of Hamid Naficy. The other is about a teacher of mine in middle school in Iran that admonished me about my cinematic heroes.

I must have been 15 or 16 years old, if not younger, when I first saw Hamid Naficy’s name in print. I believe it was in Film (فیلم), a Persian-language magazine devoted to cinema I used to read in Iran as a teenager. Elsewhere I had seen his writings on film translated into Persian from English. I fancied myself as a film buff, and whenever I saw a text written by an author with an Iranian name that had been translated into Persian I would take interest in it. I would ask myself, what is it like to write in a language that was not one’s native language? What was it like to read the same writing after it was translated into one’s native language? It was fascinating to me. Moreover, I wondered, how does one write about cinema in a language that is not one’s own native language? It struck me as an impossible task. After all, I thought cinema as an art form, much like poetry, resisted “translation.” Could it be that it takes a particular talent to do that? At the same time, I asked myself: Could it be that there is something about cinema that makes it different, more susceptible to translation, something that is transnational in its essence? At the time, the word “international” was more meaningful to a young person in Iran than transnational.

The second anecdote is about a formative experience I had as a young person. Around the same time, I had been admonished in school by one of my teachers, a certain gentleman by the name of Mr. Attaran, for a drawing I had done in an art class. Having produced a drawing of a Hollywood star (Charles Bronson), he told me my art project reflected “cultural bankruptcy” on my part. I did not understand what that meant. I think I was only fourteen years old. Several years later, I moved to the United States to start my undergraduate education and the pursuit of higher education. I abandoned my desire to study chemistry, a subject I always enjoyed, partly because Mr. Attaran’s admonition had stayed with me. I was determined to study a field in which I could explore what it means to be “culturally bankrupt.” Against this background, I chose the topic of my first paper as an undergraduate student in the United States ambitiously. I had decided to write, in an International Communication class, which was now my major, a paper titled, “What is Cultural Imperialism?” Although the paper was not my best work in the eyes of my professor, it put me on a path that led me to International Communication as a professional preoccupation and a field of inquiry. At the intersection of these two contexts one could see the relationship of culture and territory, culture and place, culture and mobility (migration and exile), culture and geopolitics, all of which can be formalized as scholarly inquiries addressing the problem of border. Naficy’s work goes beyond cinema studies to cut across these domains and presents itself as resources for addressing Communication and the border.

The designation of International Communication as a “field” rather than a “discipline” is intentional in this context and it foretells a conceptual complication that I wish to exploit productively. As I have argued elsewhere, the heterogeneity of scholarly pursuits and their objects of study under the banner of International Communication does not accommodate any unmuddled disciplinary identity.[2] Moreover, attempts at defining what constitutes the field gets us entangled in arguments over definitions and disciplinary borders, though such arguments are sometimes heuristic. However, designating international communication studies as a “field” gets us closer to viewing international communication studies as a mode of “organizing inquiry.” As Peters has argued, ways of organizing knowledge is historically mutable. The impulse to organize knowledge into fields and disciplines is a vestige of a past: “Through the 19th century, the diverse inquiries thitherto done mainly by moral philosophers and historians became rationalized into the social sciences as we know them: history, economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and anthropology.”[3] Instead of fretting over not being one of those disciplines, he argues, “we might more usefully think of it as a prime example of a newer, nascent way of organizing inquiry.”[4] Inquiry tends to ignore the established disciplinary boundaries, and is driven by preoccupation with topics. As Peters observes, “We all study topics today; ‘studies’ can be attached to almost any area of inquiry.”[5] In this sense, much of the work in Communication Studies, International Communication included, cuts across traditional disciplinary borders. Moreover, in showing how Naficy’s work addresses various topics (“areas”) of interest to International Communication, I hope my presentation in this paper reveals the equally interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary character of Naficy’s work. His work might be characterized as, to use a concept he deploys in his writings, “interstitial,” for its basic character productively falls between the boundaries and not within them.

Indexing Naficy’s Work to International Communication  

The range of topics in International Communication encompassed in Naficy’s work is wide-ranging. Here I have limited space and will only address a few. I start with one of the most obvious connections to International Communication as a field, and that is the topic of “development,” as addressed from the theoretical perspective of “modernization.” His account of the social history of Iranian cinema outlines the modernization perspective while avoiding its apolitical tendencies.[6] Cinema in this context is not simply a cultural product that is exported. Rather, it has to be explicated as an element in a complex of transformations across Iranian society and history. In that regard, one of Naficy’s goals in this social history project is to “situate Iranian cinema at the intersection of state-driven authoritarian modernization, nationalist and Islamist politics, and geopolitics during its tumultuous century, charting the manner in which local, national, regional, and international powers competed for ascendancy in Iran, affecting what Iranians saw on screens, what they produced, and the technologies they adopted.”[7] As Naficy treats it, that complex includes “the emergence of mature capitalism, organized entrepreneurial investment, centralized and industrialized manufacturing, free market competition, and extensive import and export across national borders.”[8]

Naficy’s narrative takes account of modernization projects in relationship to both internal factors (state formation, local cultural dispositions and norms, etc.) and external factors (Iran’s integration into the neocolonial and capitalist Western economies). His discussion of “syncretic Westernization,” a mixture of identification and alienation, provides nuances of the cultural dimensions of “Occidentalization” of Iranians and all the ambivalence toward modernity and modernization they display. In this narrative of “modernization,” Naficy provides an expansive view of development and modernization in meticulous details.[9] In discussing the professional structure that came to govern the film industry, for example, he shows that the industry needed to undergo modernization and industrialization in both its production, distributional and exhibition infrastructures, and its professional structures: “Civil institutions were redesigned to recognize and protect the movie industry’s various professions, to preserve the industry’s products, and to promote the study, criticism, and propagation of the industry and its products.”[10] In short, the analyses he provides in his social history of Iranian cinema offers an extensive discussion of various dimensions of modernization and developments that is at once theoretically rich and empirically grounded.

The geopolitical encounter between Iran and the West in relationship to politics of culture is addressed in Naficy’s work in a manner that recalls the origins of International Communication in propaganda studies and its latter day variants of “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy.” In this context, Naficy’s discussion of instrumentalization of culture includes aspects of cultural imperialism arguments that have been a part of International Communication in various forms for decades.[11] Reflecting on the state’s responses to the unrest that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009 in Iran, Naficy “historicizes this most recent resurfacing of the cultural assault in the context of the mutual debate about political instrumentalization of culture and media in order to show its roots, variety of forms, and continual evolution.”[12] Here Naficy unpacks decades of Islamic Republic’s deployment of culture to vilify and intimidate its opponents and critics both internationally and domestically. Although the discourse of cultural imperialism, with its critical Marxist lineage, is usually an occasion to interrogate the presence (“dumping”) of Western (i.e., American) cultural products in the Global South, Naficy shows how it is used as a pretext in Iran to silence critics and justify repressive measures.

The instrumentalization of culture in Iran has included specific cultural productions and broader cultural policies that intended to implement ideological goals and visions of the state. Using state-run broadcasting system, for example, the state has routinely targeted intellectuals, writers, artists and other cultural forms it deems a threat to its hegemonic order. Television programs such as Hoviyat (“Identity”) reproduced the cultural assault thesis by claiming Iranian intellectuals, be they inside or outside Iran, were the agents of foreign powers who were the enemies of the Islamic Republic. Later on, other broadcasting programs would vilify cultural forms such as rap, rock or heavy metal music as “unIslamic,” pronouncing them as corrupting influences on the Iranian youth, going as far as claiming that such cultural activities would lead to devil-worshiping. This approach to culture was largely in line with the “cleansing” (“paksazi”) of cultural and intellectual life of the nation during the “cultural revolution” that had taken place immediately after the revolution of 1979. However, such policies have largely been unsuccessful in “Islamization” of popular culture. The opposition to hardline policies by political figures and entities associated with the reform movement has meant the struggle over the control of culture and cultural policies is a proxy wars between competing factions within the political system of the Islamic Republic, a struggle over what it means to be an Iranian and a citizen of the Islamic Republic.

It should be pointed out that Naficy addresses “mutual instrumentalization” of culture in this context, implicating both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. The United States has long been active in “public diplomacy,” attempting to influence the public opinion of other nations, including Iran, through government-funded activities in terrestrial broadcasting (e.g., Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America) and later through satellite television. Those efforts by the United States have aggressively moved to online activities as well, targeting Iranian citizens in different venues, often in the form of attempts to “educate” them in issues related to civil society. When the United States publicly announces that it has allocated $75 million for public diplomacy to engage Iranian citizens, and additional millions of dollars “to fund U.S. and Iranian exile media to destabilize the Islamist regime and to encourage democratic efforts within the country,”[13] it is clear why such efforts would be a source of constant heartburn for the Islamic Republic. As an old saying amongst the researchers in this area would put it, just because the Iranian authorities are paranoid, it does mean some are not out to get them! Their discourse of “velvet revolution” and “soft war” based on American “soft power” and their paranoia about “foreign infiltration” is grounded in their recognition that their narrative of “enemy influence” (nofouz-e doshman) competes with other sources of information and other narratives.

One of the main sources of frustration for the Iranian authorities has been the popular culture and media of Iranian exile and diasporic communities, especially Iranian expats in the United States with a sizable concentration in “Irangeles,” California.[14] Here I do not wish to conflate or reduce the vibrant culture of Iranian expats and their (popular) culture around the world to the satellite television programing that is beamed to Iran, which is the source of frustration for the Islamic Republic. Naficy addresses such transmissions in the context of politics of culture directed at Iranians inside Iran.[15] More important, however, it is here that Naficy’s work addresses one of the most fascinating and compelling topics of interest to International Communication scholars, the media of diasporic populations.[16]

Naficy’s work here goes beyond explicating popular culture of Iranians living in exile. It is a conceptual reflection on “ethnic” and “minority media” and, more important, on the conditions of its emergence. Naficy points out the structural conditions for the emergence of “decentralized global narrowcasting” alongside the extant model of “centralized global broadcasting.” This is the era of population movements, migration, displaced communities and exile, at a time when “massive worldwide political, economic and social restructurings and displacements along with rapid technological advances have ushered in a new model of television that could be termed ‘decentralised global narrowcasting.’”[17] This model of narrowcasting, however, is not monolithic or homogeneous, even if they share a relationship to a homeland. Naficy divides this narrowcasting into three categories of ethnic, transnational and exilic. As he points out, even though these three categories are “flexible, permeable and at times simultaneous,” they have different characteristics.

Ethnic television is comprised of programming produced in a host country by indigenous minorities (e.g., BET in the United States), whose audiences are addressed within an intracultural relationship to the majoritarian culture of the host country. Transnational television covers mostly media imported into the host country from abroad (e.g., Korean or Chinese television in the United States). Because they are imported for audiences from their home countries, they tend to “minimize” what Naficy calls “the drama of acculturation and resistance.”[18] Lastly, diasporic television is produced in the host country by “liminars and exiles as a response to and in tandem with their own transitional and/or provisional status.” [19] Iranian, Arab or Armenian television programs produced in the United States for expats are examples of this type of television. To the extent that “ethnic” media try to and do reach mainstream audiences, as Naficy argues, they reach for “broadcasting.” In other words, it is only for transnational and diasporic media that narrowcasting is the operational logic, especially given that the content is in the foreign language of the motherland.

It is in this area of diasporic media that Naficy’s work on narrowcasting has been especially influential and engaging. As he demonstrates, diasporic media, as decentralized narrowcasting, crisscrosses time and space; it looks to the past and present concurrently, and is local and global all at once. Naficy delineates the specificity of this type of programming as a genre formation, that of exile or diasporic genre.[20] This is what he calls “ritual genre” because “it helps the displaced communities to negotiate between the two states of exile: the rule-bound structures of the home and host societies (societas) and the formlessness of exilic liminality in which many rules and structures are suspended (communitas).” As ritual communication, the genre provides “a sense of order in the life of its viewers by producing a series of systematic patterns of narration, signification and consumption that set up continually fulfilled or postponed expectations.”[21] At the same time, these programs reflect the complexity, the diversity and complex histories of Middle Eastern societies in ways that defy conventional binaries (e.g., East/West, Shi’i/Sunni, etc.).

Diasporic and exilic media add complications to our existing formulations of media in an international framework in terms of what is called media flows and “contra-flows.” An important aspect of media or cultural imperialism thesis has been the movement of cultural products, often couched in terms of a hegemonic relationship between American and Western culture to the Global South. There is no dispute that there has been an uneven distribution and movement of culture globally, as the disputes tend to be around the question of the meaning and the implications of such unevenness. The era of globalization or “the information age” is often said to involve “flow” of various kinds (capital, information, technology, images, sounds, etc.).[22] Although such discussions of flows have traditionally involved film, television and music of Hollywood (read “American”), the Internet and digital social media have altered or broadened the scope and understandings of “flow.” Thussu divides “flows” into three broad categories of global (e.g., Hollywood), transnational (e.g., Bollywood) and “geo-cultural” — catering to specific cultural-linguistic audiences, such as Middle East Broadcasting Center, which provides Arabic-language programming to the Middle East and North Africa.[23] Flows are conceptualized as either “dominant” flows, “largely emanating from the global North, with the United States at its core,” or as contra-flows, “originating from the erstwhile peripheries of global media industries—designated ‘subaltern flows.’”[24] This typology is a useful tool for the way it allows considerations of media flows in broad brushstrokes, and the way it points to the need for finer distinctions.

Naficy’s work on diasporic and exilic media, and “the interstitial mode of production” in exilic cinema provides a conceptual tool that enables us to account for such finer distinctions.[25] Diasporic media, as is the case with Iranian popular media in Los Angeles, might travel as examples of contra-flow, from within what we could call “internal global south in the Global North,” but on a path that is nonlinear, bouncing around on the nodal points of a distributed network that connects Iranians all over the world. More important, the diasporic media content in such a context might return to homeland where it affects or is affected by the “local” cultural dynamics, if we can still find a “local” that is untouched by the global, the transnational, or the regional. The diasporic media in the age of global networks will find or constitute its networked publics. This is our present media-saturated, highly mediated, networked and hyper-connected and mobile context. My experience of reading Naficy as a teenager, reading his writing translated into Persian from English, a writing about Hollywood, a quintessential home for immigrants in diaspora, a writing he penned in his second language, now recalling that experience to reflect on his writings as they have played a somewhat formative role in my studying of International Communication, … all of that might have been anticipated in my experience as a youngster enamored with “foreign films” and the writings by an Iranian scholar in English translated to Persian and read in Iran. Anecdotes, as stated previously, are allegorical expositions of models that tell us how the world is working. Going to the cinema, especially to see “original language film,” and then reading about it, for an Iranian teenager, was the experience of being cosmopolitan. And, as Naficy points out, “Cinema has always and everywhere been both a deeply local and a highly global industry and set of practices.”[26] This is so because “religious, ethnic, and national minorities, as well as émigrés, exiles, refugees, expatriates, and diasporic and transnational subjects, have contributed greatly to the rise of cinema and film industry in many countries and in the revival and redefinition of certain genres and national cinemas.” Hollywood itself “was from the start both ethnic and global, and it has been renewed and revived by contributions of waves of new émigré, refugee, and ethnic filmmakers.”[27] Reading Naficy’s work years later explains what I instinctively understood to be the experience of a global unicity, even if it is lived unevenly.

Naficy’s work on “accented cinema,” which he has described as “global cinema of displacement,” addresses the context and conditions of proliferation of displacements – which is the very context of interest to International Communication scholars.[28] This “accent” Naficy  speaks of “emanates not so much from the accented speech of the diegetic characters as from the displacement of the filmmakers and their artisanal production modes.”[29] This is not simply international or global, but filmmaking and filmmakers as index of re-territorialization of culture, home and/as dislocation, of journey, and of dis/placement as structural conditions. These are “accented” films in relationship to the dominant cinema. “Accented films,” Naficy argues, “are interstitial because they are created astride and in the interstices of social formations and cinematic practices. Consequently, they are simultaneously local and global, and they resonate against the prevailing cinematic production practices, at the same time that they benefit from them.”[30] In his analysis, “the best of the accented films signify and signify upon the conditions both of exile and diaspora and of cinema.”[31] These films critique “the home and host societies and cultures and the deterritorialized conditions of the filmmakers.”[32] All accented filmmakers, exilic, diasporic or postcolonial ethnic, share a “liminal subjectivity and interstitial location in society and film industry.”[33] Naficy’s work on “accented cinema” offers a wealth of conceptual reflections and resources that problematize various categories of International Communication.

Naficy’s examination of diasporic and exilic media has been influential because it offers a theoretical framework that is capable of addressing various operative spatial categories in International Communication: local, national, regional, transnational, and global. More important, this framework allows one to engage concepts that push these categories beyond mere scalar or spatial considerations: home, community, belonging, exile, dislocation, displacement, mobility, liminality, and interstitiality among others. Exile cultures are located in intersection of cultures. They are both local and global. They are lived experiences of displacement and belonging.[34]

Viewed from the perspective of those working in International Communication, the larger contexts for Naficy’s intervention in exilic discourse were the debates in post-modernism and post-structuralism, and the theoretical questions regarding “difference,” as they were addressed in the emerging literatures in Cultural Studies, and post-colonial and literary theories in the 1980s and the 1990s. The concept of “representation” was being reworked in the same context. Naficy’s writings on the “Other” (e.g. “mediating the Other” and “consuming the Other”) are a part of this context.[35] As Naficy and Gabriel explain, their collaboration on “media and otherness” was prompted by writings centered on questions of “diversity”, “multiculturalism,” “representation” and “postcolonial.” These writings, argue Naficy and Gabriel, have produced much “interest not only because such issues and discourses question existing canons of criticism, theory, and cultural practice but also because they suggest a new sense of direction in theorization of difference and representation.”[36] The graduate school experience of many in Communication, and many others in social sciences and humanities, in the 1980s and the1990s in seminar after seminar consisted of efforts to address the question of “difference” and how post-structuralism would help answer that question. Naficy’s work remains a valuable resource in that regard.

The aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of “authoritarian populism” (i.e., Thatcherism, Reaganism),[37] “culture wars” and the discourse of “diversity” in the United States, the discourse of “multiculturalism” in Europe and in the United States, and the movement of populations, peoples which Naficy and Gabriel call “othered populations – diasporic immigrants, exiles, emigrés, expatriates, evicted, homeless and the undocumented,” all have “reawakened [in]difference and enhanced dialog across cultures and geographies.”[38] In their view, these and formerly othered populations have opened a new cultural and discursive space “where all kinds of resistive hybridities, syncretism, and mongrelizations are possible.”[39] These critical discourses have made their way to the academic settings where established canons of culture and cultural theory, including the category of representation, have been challenged and renegotiated.[40]

In his study of the representation of Iranians in the Western (news) media and popular culture, Naficy once again takes on the issue of representation of “othered” populations, offering new theoretical and methodological insights.[41] He questions existing approaches for their shortcomings in taxonomic classification (plot, character stereotyping and portrayal of social situations) and for insisting on “realism” (when media themselves are constructs). If media representations provide a framework in which we make decisions individually and as a nation, he argues, we need to account for that which mediates between social realities and their representations. That is his objective in this study of othered people. Following the Marxist and Freudian “depth models” of interpretations, Naficy posits “mediawork” (not unlike Freud’s “dreamwork”) as a theoretical framework to explain the “combined operations” of “signifying institutions” (e.g., media) that “help obtain hegemonic consensus.”[42] Naficy is interested in showing how these institutions manifest in their representations the “deep structures” of ideologies and beliefs, which remain latent. Because they are infused at the level of everyday discursive practices, and are presented as “common sense,” they “cannot be bracketed off from everyday life as self-contained set of ‘political opinions’ or ‘biased views.’”[43] After this initial introduction to mediawork, Naficy shows how it produces consensus through a number of processes that involve not only media and popular culture but also financial, industrial, and marketing institutions and processes. To students of International Communication, Naficy productively outlines connections between sociology of news production, political economy of popular culture and media, and ideological analysis as practiced by Cultural Studies.

The central element of theorizing “Othered populations” is the self-Other relationship (be it individual or collective selves). It is this aspect of Naficy’s work that places it at the intersection of Cultural Studies, post-colonial criticism, and media theory, one that is clearly indexed to the range of problematiques central to International Communication as a field of inquiry. On the one hand, consider the following as the foci of analysis in Naficy’s work: analysis of exilic and diasporic media and cultures and relationship to “host” cultures and societies and to “homelands;” analysis of “Third World Spectatorship,” and “self-othering,” theorized as “a postcolonial discourse on cinematic first contacts” in media theory and Cultural Studies.[44] On the other hand, consider International Communication’s focus on the problem of culture at the international level in the context of uneven structural relationships of domination and subordination between the center and the peripheries or “the West and the rest” (e.g., dependency theories, dependent-development theories, cultural and media imperialism thesis).[45] What unites these perspectives and theories is their critical orientation, a left-leaning politics that sees “domination” or subjugation or some form of structural asymmetry, against which it seeks to intervene. Cultural Studies, media theories informed by the assumptions of Cultural Studies, and post-colonial theory and criticism share this critical orientation with the vast majority of International Communication literature that places culture at the center of its analysis.[46] Even when “cultural imperialism” as a concept is abandoned in International Communication in favor of “hybridity” or “critical transculturalism,”[47] a work clearly influenced by Naficy’s writings on exilic culture, that critical orientation remains the thrust of the analysis.

At the heart of the literature in International Communication on “cultural imperialism,” and all the issues this label signifies, is the question of the encounter between cross-cultural content (e.g., Hollywood products) and audiences in foreign markets. If the cultural imperialism thesis has enjoyed such longevity, even as it has faced criticism, it is because there has always been a need for a critical enterprise that could address enduring structural asymmetry in international communication. Some of the critics of this thesis have tended to ignore that imbalance and the asymmetry (production and distribution). Instead, they have provided evidence about “active audiences” and their reading strategies, and how audiences might use such content as a “forum” to discuss local values (reception).[48] However, these accounts have tended to be largely sociological or ahistorical. Naficy’s work on cinematic spectatorship in the Third World, and his examination of “postcolonial discourse on cinematic first contacts” provide a compelling response to this cross-cultural encounter, one that is historically informed media theory and anchored in the “post-colonial” literature with the critical orientation of Cultural Studies.[49]

To state it briefly, Naficy’s approach takes into account not just production and distribution, but also reception of cross-cultural content all within a historically grounded framework. Explaining Iran’s relationship to colonial powers, Naficy argues that “Westernization was not so much imposed or injected from the outside as it became structured in dominance.” In the aftermath of the constitutional revolution of Iran (1906-11), “much of the new constitution and many of the laws and legislative, judicial, and executive bodies for the parliamentary monarchy were adapted from European models.”[50] In his analysis, “Westernization won over the traditional systems of thought and became overdetermined, that is, dispersed throughout the emerging modern but oppressive apparatuses and ideological institutions.”[51] In this historical context of first contacts, Naficy proposes a self-othering theory that deploys Lacanian “alienating identification paradigm to speculate about the manner in which early Iranian audiences were hailed by and haggled with Western films.”[52] Naficy’s account of “hailing the spectators” and “haggling with the movie” uses Althusserian notion of hailing in the formation of the subject’s identity (the effect of viewing technology and context) in self-othering, and “haggling” to establish local appropriations of the content in different ways. As he puts it, those are strategies “by which Iranian audiences interrupted, talked back to, translated, dubbed, fetishized, objectified, and haggled with the movies and the movie stars, transformed the cinema’s ‘work’ from one of hailing to haggling.”[53] In short, by “thus engaging with the movies, the spectators were no longer just their consumers but also the producers of their meanings.”[54] In Naficy’s analysis, the notion of an “active audience,” prevalent in International Communication literature, is fully contextualized in historical, theoretical and empirical terms.

Concluding Remarks

I have to admit that the task I had set myself up at the outset, that of writing a paper in which I draw connections between different writings of Hamid Naficy in order to re-present or reimagine them written from an International Communication perspective, proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I believe there are many more connections to make than I have space to do in a single paper. That is largely a testament to the scholarship that is before us: his is prolific, complex, challenging, theoretically-rich, and historically-informed. He might start with culture or media of Iran as a question, but he explains Iran in the process in the most illuminating manner possible. He has produced scholarship on a wide range of topics, many of which cover the Middle Eastern and Iranian cinema. I have argued that viewing his professional identity as a “film scholar,” and even as the foremost authority on Iranian cinema, might be accurate but it is too parochial and restrictive. In order to do that, I have written from a specific disciplinary location to show how his work is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, occupying a space at the intersection of Cultural Studies, “post-colonial” theory, and media theory, fields that have “interdisciplinary” status themselves. The connection between these areas is tied to specific articulations of borders, belonging, Otherness, (trans)national imaginary, states of liminality, movements of populations and the broader question of culture’s relationship to power and geopolitics. I made that argument by indexing Naficy’s work to a range of scholarly preoccupations (concepts, theories, topics) that have remained central to the field of International Communication in its history. That indexing works because the objects, institutions, and phenomena he writes about (e.g., cinema) are essentially and at once local and global (international). Another reason it works is that he writes about populations that are displaced, on the move or othered. Above all, Naficy’s oeuvre is best explained beyond the confines of cinema studies precisely because it engages and inhabits borders, and embodies the porosity of borders of various kind. His work, perhaps like his self, the kid from Isfahan roaming the city with his father’s Kodak Brownie box camera, is not “homeless” as much as he is at “home” everywhere.

[1]Meghan Morris, “Banality in Cultural Studies” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. P. Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 15.

[2]M. Semati, “Introduction” in New Frontiers in International Communication Theory, ed. M. Semati (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield). 1-16.

[3]J. Peters, “Genealogical Notes on “The Field,” Journal of Communication 43, no. 4 (1993): 132.

[4]Ibid., 132.

[5]Ibid., 133.

[6]Although he had presented elements of this social history in other works, the four volumes of A Social History of Iranian Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 2012) present the most comprehensive account.

[7]H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 3, The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), xxi-xxii.

[8]Ibid., 10.

[9]H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol.3, The Islamicate Period, 1977-1984 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

[10]Ibid., 138.

[11]See H. Naficy, “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, More Powerful Than a Locomotive: Mutual Instrumentalization of Culture, Cinema, and Media by Iran and the United States,” in Media, Power and Politics in the Digital Age: The 2009 Presidential Election Uprising in Iran, ed. Y. Kamalipour (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2010), 205-220.

[12]Ibid., 206.

[13]Ibid., 213.

[14]The term “Irangeles” was memorialized as the title of a book of essays about this community, published in 1993. See R. Kelley and J. Friedlander, eds., Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). Naficy’s contribution to this volume (325-364) is a concise introduction to the “popular culture of Iranian exiles in Los Angeles”, covering a wide range range of genres, artists and practices. See also H. Naficy, “The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

[15]Naficy, “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet,” 205-220.

[16]See H. Naficy, “Narrowcasting and Diaspora: Middle Eastern Television in Los Angeles,” in The Media of Diaspora ed. K. Karim (London: Routledge, 2003), 51-62; see also H. Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship: The Case of Iran and Iranian Cinema,” in Rethinking Third Cinema, ed. A. R. Guneratne and W. Dissanayake (New York: Routledge, 2003), 181-201.

[17]Naficy, “Narrowcasting and Diaspora,” 51.

[18]Ibid., 52.

[19]Ibid., 52.

[20]For a comprehensive treatment of this genre, see Naficy’s book, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. [See n. 15.]

[21]Ibid., 53.

[22]For a discussion of flows, see M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol. 1 (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010). Readers might be familiar with the equally influential idea of “scapes” (ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes) in A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).  For a discussion of flows and contra-flows, see D. Thussu, “Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow,” in D. Thussu, ed., Media on the Move: Global Flow and Contra-Flow (London: Routledge, 2007), 10-29.

[23]Thussu, “Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow.”

[24]Ibid., 10.

[25]H. Naficy, “Between Rocks and Hard Places: The Interstitial Mode of Production in Exilic Cinema,” in Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, ed. H. Naficy (New York: Routledge, 1999), 125-147.

[26]H. Naficy, “Teaching Accented Cinema as a Global Cinema,” in Teaching Film, ed. L. Fischer and P. Petro (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012),  112-118.

[27]Ibid., 112.

[28]See H. Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, nos. 1-3 (1991): 85-116; H. Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001; H. Naficy, “Teaching Accented Cinema as a Global Cinema,” in Teaching Film, ed. L. Fischer & P. Petro (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012), 112–118; H. Naficy, “Iranian Émigré Cinema as a Component of Iranian National Cinema,” in Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State, ed. M. Semati (New York: Routledge, 2008), 167–192.

[29]Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 4.

[30]Ibid., 4.

[31]Ibid., 4.

[32]Ibid., 4.

[33]Ibid., 10.

[34]H. Naficy, “Identity Politics and Iranian Exile Music Videos,” Iranian Studies 31, no.1 (1998): 51-64.

   [35]I highlight two major interventions here: H. Naficy, “Mediating the Other: American Pop Culture Representation of Post-revolutionary Iran”, in The US Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception, ed. Y. Kamalipour (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), and H. Naficy and T. Gabriel, Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Press, 1993). Naficy and Gabriel edited a special issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, nos. 1-3 (1990). The issue sold out quickly and it was revised, expanded and published as an edited volume in 1993, titled, “Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged.”

[36]Ibid., ix.

[37]It should be pointed out that in the United States, Communication departments became the institutional home for British Cultural Studies as it crossed the Atlantic. Here Stuart Hall’s work on culture and “authoritarian populism” (among other topics) was one connection between Communication and post-structuralist theory, albeit theory as “detour.” See Stuart Hall, “Popular-democratic Versus Authoritarian Populism,” in Marxism and Democracy, ed. A. Hunt (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1980), 157–187 and S. Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988).


[39]Ibid., x.

[40]In his anthology titled, Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, Naficy collects into one volume important contributions from established scholars across disciplinary borders.

[41]Naficy, “Mediating the Other.”

[42]Ibid., 74.

[43]Ibid., 74.

[44]H. Naficy, “Self-Othering: A Postcolonial Discourse on Cinematic First Contact,” in The Pre-occupation of Post-colonial Studies, ed. F. Afzal-Khan and K. Seshadri-Crooks (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 292-310; H. Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship: The Case of Iran and Iranian Cinema,” in Rethinking Third Cinema, ed. A. R. Guneratne and W. Dissanayake, 181-201.

[45]Naficy has produced more recent scholarship in media theory that is of interest to International Communication, although limitations of space prevent me from discussing them here. Here are two examples: see H. Naficy, “From Accented Cinema to Multiplex Cinema,” in Convergence Media History (New York: Routledge, 2009), 3-13 for a discussion of “multiplex cinema”, the “emergence of a new mainstream cinema in the USA and Europe in our current moment of post-diasporic, post-internet, postmodern neoliberal globalization” (3); see also H. Naficy, Early Popular Visual Culture 6 , no. 2 (2008): 97-102 for the introduction of a theory of regional cinemas.

[46]Given the uneven “flow” of culture at the global level, it is inevitable that any literature addressing it will have to address this critical orientation. For an appraisal of this argument and a comprehensive treatment of the discourse of cultural imperialism, see J. Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (New York: Continuum, 1991). For an alternative to media imperialism or to hybridity perspective, see M. Semati and P. Sotirin, “Hollywood’s Trans-national Appeal: Hegemony and Democratic Potential?,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 26, no. 4 (1997): 176-188.

[47]M. Kraidy, Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005).

[48]For two classic and influential examples of this evidence and research, see E. Katz and T. Liebes, “Mutual Aid in the Decoding of Dallas: Preliminary Notes from a Cross-cultural Study,” in Television in Transition, ed. P. Drummond and R. Paterson (London: BFI, 1986), 187-198, and I. Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London: Methuen, 1985).

[49]See Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship,” and “Self-Othering.”

[50]Naficy, “Self-Othering,” 294.

[51]Ibid., 295.

[52]Ibid., 296.

[53]Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship,”190-191.

[54]Ibid., 191.

An Iranian Female Vampire Walks Home Alone and Disturbs Freud’s Oedipal Masculinity



A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar shab tanhā be khāne miravad, 2014)[1] is tagged as the first Iranian vampire feminist romance. This debut feature by Anna Lily Amirpour is set in a fictional Iranian town, called Shahr-e Bad, The Bad City. The opening scene introduces the viewer to Arash, a James Dean look-alike in blue jeans and white T-shirt driving a vintage 1950’s Ford Thunderbird. Arash works as a gardener in rich neighborhoods while taking care of his addicted father. His father owes money to a violent tattooed drug dealer/pimp who takes Arash’s car as payment. The unnamed vampire is a young girl who wears a black flowing chador resembling classic vampire capes. She skateboards the streets of the Bad City at night, targeting “bad” men who are abusive to women and viciously attacks them with her fangs. It is interesting that her fangs grow as she becomes angry and aggressive, or when she is sexually aroused. She meets the pimp Saeed, who is abusive towards a sex worker named Atti. Saeed notices the lonely (vampire) girl and invites her to his house, but while he is trying to seduce her she bites his finger off and brutally kills him. One night the unnamed vampire comes across Arash, dressed as Dracula and high on drugs, stumbling home on his way back from a costume party. The lonesome vampire falls in love with Arash. Later we see Arash, who, fed up with his addicted father, throws him out of their house, who then takes refuge with Atti, the sex worker. He forces Atti to use drugs, which prompts the vampire to kill him. When Arash finds out about the death of his father, he decides to leave the Bad City with the female vampire. The film ends with Arash choosing to leave with the vampire even though he realizes she is his father’s killer.


The movie has had mixed reviews. Some have argued that it is an innovative art film for mixing several genres. Despite its entire Iranian cast of characters, Persian dialogue and sound track, and Persian iconography, it has received little or no attention among Iranians. It appears that being a highly stylized film in a genre that is virtually unknown to Iranians has made it rather indecipherable both inside Iran and in the diasporic community outside Iran. Perhaps a black and white vampire flick is expected to have a niche audience outside the confines of Iranian cultural influence. In that case, the exclusively Persian iconography of the film—which cannot be fully appreciated without familiarity with Iran’s political history, its religious, musical, literary and cultural traditions, the intricacies of Persian language, as well as the hybrid culture of the Iranian community of Los Angeles—leaves it open to the charge of self-orientalization. The charge of self-exoticization for the purpose of gaining a foothold in an already established genre may be supported on a few tenuous grounds; for example, Amirpour has candidly expressed her distaste for Iran as “a mess. Medieval. Suffocating.”[2] However, I take a poststructuralist stance and bypass discussions about the significance of the “author”, and speculations about her motives.


It could be argued that this is a feminist film for staging a lead female actor as the dominant subject with independent agency, identity and desire.[3] She is not a “projection of male values,” or a “vehicle of male fantasies,” or a “scapegoat of male fears.”[4] The film surely passes the Bechdel test, a test that despite its humorous roots (it started as a joke) can be used as a serious critical tool. The Bechdel test measures the mere presence of women in a film. To pass this test, a film must meet two of these three simple conditions: (1) there be at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other (3) about anything other than men.[5] However, I will argue that the significance of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night exceeds limited categorization as a vampire movie or a feminist art film. Perhaps reading a feminist agenda into this film has more to do with certain reviewers’ inclinations than the intention of its director.[6] In any event, the goal of this paper is not to settle this debate. It is to examine the ways in which masculinities are deconstructed and reconstituted as spectacle in this film, and in the process the patriarchal boundaries of pleasure are remapped and circulation of desire is destabilized. I will use feminist psychoanalytic film theory as an analytical tool to guide my inquiry. Theoretical efficacy of this perspective remains in its deconstructive trajectory. As Laura Mulvey states, it is “a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society” structures cinematic representations.[7] However, this theory leaves the specific contours of an alternative feminist counter-cinema unarticulated. Should a feminist counter-cinema embrace patriarchal techniques of representation or develop its own cinematic language? Can a feminist counter-cinema dismantle the visual regimes of patriarchal power relation and still remain faithful to aesthetics of visual pleasure? I will argue that by engaging these questions this film enhances our understanding of feminist film theory by instantiating an example of a feminist counter-cinema. It is also significant that exclusively Persian iconography of this film broadens debates within feminist film theory to include subjects (such as Muslim women, Iranian art and culture) whose epistemological roots extend beyond the horizons of Europe and the Americas. This film unsettles constructed boundaries that separate European from non-European subjects. As will be discussed below, this film does not offer a new model of masculinity outside the heterosexual patriarchal regime of representation and sexual identification. Rather, it uses patriarchal representational tools and tactics to produce a rupture in the purportedly homogeneous edifice of Oedipal masculinity, an opening towards yet obscure alternatives, the contours of which cannot be known in advance.


Feminist Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Magic of Cinema

The mainstream cinema positions women as spectacles, objects of the male gaze, fantasies and pleasures and secondary or incidental to the narrative. When they speak to other women—if they ever do—it is hardly about anything other than men. The male gaze often positions the spectator to identify with the male protagonist. It reduces the female spectator to either enjoy adopting the male point of view or be reduced to the passive, often erotic, object of the spectacle. This is what Mulvey in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” calls “castration.”[8] The “pleasure” referred to in the title of Mulvey’s influential essay is a reference to the “scopophilic” pleasure that is controlled by the male and directed at the female, a concept Mulvey borrows from Freud.[9] Scopophilia operates either as sexually charged voyeuristic or narcissistic pleasure produced through spectator’s identification with the male point of view or the male protagonist. Just as an uncoordinated, helpless, speechless infant whose ego boundaries are yet to be formed recognizes his own image in the mirror as an “ideal ego,” a more complete image of himself, perfect and in control, the spectator too identifies with the male image and male point of view projected on the screen.[10] The results are fantasies of power, mastery and control, which hold a deep appeal for the human psyche. Freudian psychoanalysis explains that as humans we are haunted by a “lack” in the core of our being, a state of radical dependency and disempowerment at birth. This original lack of control, fragmentation and vulnerability in infancy on an individual level parallels the original lack and chaos on a cultural level. We are compelled to cover that originary lack through creative processes that create desires, religions, stories, myths, arts, fantasies, images and power structures such as patriarchy—none of which are pre-given. In the process we become subjects in what Jacques Lacan terms the “symbolic order.”[11] Theoretically this is articulated as a process of “suturing,” that is literally cutting and editing of the film which results in a desired and coherent narrative. Whether it is on a personal or a cultural level, the goal is to structure ego formation, but because the recognition of the self in the mirror (of whatever creative medium is employed: film, culture, etc.) is a misrecognition, the result is the fixation of the ego, closure of creative process and alienation of the subject. It is with reference to this split or alienation within the subject that the ego is held to be founded upon “imaginary, narcissistic, specular identification.”[12]


The signifier of the lack and desire to overcome it is the phallus, a symbolic configuration that represents an unattainable wholeness. No one can have the phallus, which means the universal lack is no other than symbolic “castration,” the condition that characterizes both male and female subjectivities. Therefore, as the privileged signifier which has no signified, the phallus should theoretically lead to an open process of creativity.[13] But in a self-serving patriarchal context, where the aim is to give order and fixed meaning, the open-ended process of meaning production is brought to a closure by binding the operations of the phallus entirely to the image of the castrated female. Mulvey writes: “An idea of woman stands as linchpin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”[14] Thus, in mainstream cinema woman is a mirror for the male’s sense of lack and loss. The projection of lack and fragmentation on woman has deep roots for example in the Bible and Islamic tradition.[15] It is upon the woman that the sense of alienation resulting from the misrecognition of the self in the “mirror” is projected. Hence, in order to successfully enter the patriarchal symbolic order, requisite acknowledgement of the female as a castrated subject is followed by distancing oneself from the female and all that is considered to be feminine. Cinematically this is rehearsed in every “buddy” movie in which the celebration of male bonding and comradery is contingent upon severing the bond with significant women in men’s lives (like mothers or wives). Michael Kimmel observes, “The male bonding celebrated in these films is a defensive reaction to patriarchal masculine failure; the men turn to each other because the world (and women) has failed them.”[16] However, male bonding is always through acts of power, domination and control and never translates into relationships of nurturing, caring and intimacy. Ostentatious homophobia, sexism, racism, and willingness to do violence are ways to ward off fears that male homosocial bonding may lead to homosexuality. The narcissistically male-centered “bromance” of modern pop culture, “an emotionally intense bond between presumably straight males who demonstrate openness to intimacy that they neither regard, acknowledge, avow, nor express sexually,”[17] is matched by its premodern institutionalized version of it, for example in Sufi brotherhoods of Perso-Islamic world.[18]


Against this background we can ask, what does a feminist counter-cinema look like? Earlier theorists like Mulvey dogmatically advocated for disregarding the classical techniques of cinema. They argued for the development of specific aesthetics of feminist experimental film and counter cinema. Their goal was to de-couple the look of the camera from the male gaze and develop specific aesthetics of feminist experimental film even if this meant doing away with visual pleasure.[19] Later on, feminist theorists like E. Ann Kaplan highlighted the heterogeneity and complexity of the narrative mainstream cinema, and argued that feminist cinema should use traditional filmic means, the master’s tool, so to speak, to dismantle the master’s house.[20] Teresa de Lauretis famously argued that instead of destroying narrative and visual pleasure, feminist cinema should exploit the manipulative power of cinema, to be “narrative and oedipal with a vengeance.”[21] In other words, instead of discarding narrative and conventional forms of pleasure in favor of the feminist content of a radical avant-garde cinema, feminist cinema should embrace female desire as well as contradictions of Oedipal scenario. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does precisely that.




Enter the Vampire

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a highly stylized and visually pleasing film to the point that many reviewers perceive an over-emphasis on visual pleasure at the expense of “substance”.[22] The film locates itself along the continuum of the horror genre depicting monsters lurking in the shadows or symbolically within our own beings—the graffiti word vahshat, meaning “horror” in Persian, is clearly visible in several scenes. Susan Hayward writes that after its heyday in the 1930’s, vampires disappeared after World War Two, but briefly came back during the 70’s in a more romantic light deserving love and affection. The AIDS epidemic of the 80’s caused vampire films to disappear, only to reappear in the 90’s.[23] Interestingly the early twentieth century Count Dracula movies used a female vampire as the first prototype of this genre. In these movies women were the predatory beasts with lesbian inclinations instead of bloodsucking killers of men.[24] However, female vampires were exceptions not the norm; vampire films centered on the male. The last literary female vampire was noted in a novel written in 1871.[25] A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does not easily fit into the categories that compose post-war horror films. It is not a psychological horror (like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960), and it is not a massacre movie (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974). More importantly, she does not stand for maternal plenitude, relegating lack to a distant memory. She is not the mother who satisfies the infant’s every desire and serves the sadistic aesthetics of his desire. The question of her position in the existing relations of patriarchal spectatorship is posed by Atti, the sex worker surrogating as the mother, when she asks the vampire: “What are you?” What is significant about horror films is that they are better reflections of the ideological positions of their time. Because they “are linked to the unconscious they can represent that which other genres repress.”[26] For example, Hitchcock’s horror films of the 50’s had Cold War resonances where the “red-scare” mentality led Americans to seriously doubt believing who people claimed to be. The Massacre/slasher movies of 70’s were a backlash against the feminist movement of the time.[27] In the post 9/11 era, in addition to popular films (on zombies, epidemic infections, etc.), a whole range of media exploited fear as a political and marketing tool. For example, “fear permeate[ed] television ads running the gamut from antibacterial soap to SUVs, [and] institutional emergency notification systems.”[28] Real or imaginary Muslims have a special place among post-9/11 monsters and apocalyptic films. Sophia Arjana writes: “Movies provided a vehicle for Muslim monsters to be displayed, and, I would argue, they continue to serve as the most dominant cultural force in the modern American milieu—a space in which Muslim monsters continue to be generated.”[29] Muslims as feared monsters infecting European bodies and borders, corrupting bloodlines has deep roots in the medieval Europe and earlier, providing “an important tool,” as Arjana notes, “for understanding the history of Christian-Muslim relations.”[30] In rare cases when a Muslim female appears as a villain, she is often under the control of malevolent men—Nazis, Arabs, or other irredeemable types.[31]


To be sure, there are no explicit references to Islam or Muslims in the film, but as Megan Goodwin observes, “Given the marked Iranian influences throughout the film, Islam is conspicuous in its absence.”[32] In light of the “pervasiveness of Islamic influence in contemporary Iranian culture” that Goodwin speaks of, we can take the chador-wearing character of the vampire in this film as a departure from the Orientalist trope of submissive Muslim women in need of saving from brown men’s tyranny. Yet, she is not a violent feminist bent on the retributive violence. Her brutal killings, as in the cases of the pimp and Arash’s father, takes place with a moral clarity. She does pose a potential threat to all men. For example, in a significant scene she confronts a young boy, asking him if he is a “good boy.” When he answers that he is indeed a good boy, she threatens him and warns him that she will be watching him until the end of his life. Then she steals his skateboard.


If there is one prominent theme in this film, it would be the gaze. The gaze is a relation to power, leading Mulvey to conclude that the gaze of the camera is a “male gaze.”[33] Goodwin perceptively points out the disruption of the male gaze in this film “reflects neither heterosexual male desire nor Western fantasies of ‘good Muslims.’”[34] The vampire with her prominent black eyes accentuated by the lighting and her chador is not a passive object of the gaze. She is author of the gaze, returning the male gaze and making men uncomfortable. She is seen literally watching men of the city, keeping them under her own surveillance and punishing them when necessary. Her gaze and her character are the primary subject of the film, controlling the other characters and carrying the narrative to the extent that invites the spectator’s identification with her point of view. At one point, Arash’s father, while walking across the street parallel to the vampire, becomes very uncomfortable when he notices he is being followed. He stops and asks her: “What are you looking at?” When the vampire is the object of the pimp’s sexualized gaze and follows him to his apartment, the return of the gaze takes a violent turn. In this elongated pivotal scene, the pimp snorts cocaine to the sound of soft music as the vampire watches. Then he starts to dance slowly as he approaches the vampire. The vampire still in her chador stands motionless as the pimp run his fingers over her face while gyrating to the sound of music. In a sexually charged gesture she gently opens her mouth and the pimp slowly puts his finger in her mouth (no doubt his finger metonymically stands in for his penis). This is when his half open eyes gazing into the vampire’s eyes change to express horror and pain as she bites his finger off. She then proceeds to retributively violate him by shoving the severed finger into his mouth and kill him as he screams in agonizing pain. The male gaze is “disciplined” in another scene as well. When Arash’s father forces Atti to dance for him, sexually objectifying her body, he is murdered by the vampire.




The vampire locates herself within the patriarchal cinematic order where all subjectivities are arranged according to the male point of view. However, by carrying the narrative and authoring the gaze, that is to say, by being the protagonist of the story, she subverts the male-centred conventions of cinema. More importantly, having the instrument of power and violence, that is, her vampire fangs that grow at the moment of her anger and arousal, she claims the power of the phallus. Of course, no one can have the phallus, which is precisely the meaning of lack and castration. The symbolic castration marks both sexes. The concealed phallus symbolizes an always absent guarantee of universality. It is precisely in its absence that the phallus in the Lacanian model can fulfill its potential function of freeing the signifying process and subject formation from the closed confines of cultural formations.[35] Yet it comes as no surprise that through obfuscated epistemic fault lines that separate the biological organ, the penis, from its unpresentable symbolic correlate, the phallus, male subjects deny their own castration. The result of this imaginary equation between the penis and the phallus is the spectacle which comprises the stuff of “dominant fiction” in a patriarchal society: “the images and stories through which a society configures consensus, images which films draw upon and help to shape … an imaginary equation between the penis and the phallus, which cements the male subject’s identification with power and privilege.”[36]


The vampire does not contest the phallocentric regime of signification, but works within its limits. She decouples the epistemological dependence of the phallus on the penis. As if the script was written à la Judith Butler, the film demonstrates that the penis does not have to always be the one and only privileged referent of the phallus and its signifying function, even though this privilege is always pre-emptively negated.[37] The phallus could symbolize other body parts, such as the vampire’s fangs, a functional metonymy for the penis. This is evident when her fangs are “erected” in what can only be interpreted as sexual arousal. In a sexually charged scene, Arash pierces the vampire’s earlobes with the pin of earrings at her own request. The vampire’s retractable fangs instantiate the same capacity for “turgidity,” which makes the penis uniquely favored to be a phallic organ.[38] The power of her fangs establishes her as the “phallic woman.” This is a departure from mainstream horror films in which penile instruments (such as knives and chainsaws) are used as “phallus replacement or substitute” for re-castrating the female in order to establish an independent/self-sufficient male subject.[39] Therefore, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night recuperates that lost “radical political edge of gore cinema.”[40] The power of signification (meaning production as well as frightening, killing, and establishing her difference as vampire) rests on the vampire’s phallic power, signified by her fangs. She is therefore the “other” fully invested with the power of otherness, unravelling the self-referential narcissistic fiction of male subjectivity.



Displacing the penis from its privileged position as the primary referent of the phallus would have been enough to make this film a “feminist flick.” The narrative could have followed Butler’s theoretical insight that the displacement of the penis underscores the viability of the “lesbian phallus,” a potentially castrating formulation that Butler admits is contradictory in itself. The lesbian phallus parodies the dependency of the phallus on the penis as its one and only anatomical occasion, showing that the stabilizing effect of the phallus is entirely based on a reified phallus-penis relationship.[41] Butler writes: “In a sense, the simultaneous acts of deprivileging the phallus and removing it from the normative heterosexual form of exchange, and recirculating and reprivileging it between women deploys the phallus to break the signifying chain in which it conventionally operates.”[42] However, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes a different route. Remaining phallocentric and decidedly heterosexual in its staging of desire and visual pleasures makes this particularly relevant to constructions of masculinity.


One of the male characters in this film, the pimp, is the first to be killed by the vampire, and in the most brutal manner. The pimp’s genealogy may be traced back to the popular “tough-guy” character of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema who remains one of the two Iranian mimic figures that have been successfully transplanted into the exilic cultural sphere (the other is the perennial racist blackface figure of Haji Firuz).[43] But unlike the tough-guy type (whose historical roots go back to the premodern tradition of altruistic chivalry)[44], the pimp is more comparable to its counterpart in American pop culture, particularly in Blaxploitation films and Gangsta rap. The uncanny similarities between the pimp’s personal style in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the stereotypical pimp of American cinema who is fond of “theatricality” is worth noting here.[45] Like a more grotesque hence darker imitation of his African American prototype, the pimp in this film could be a signifier of young Iranian men’s struggle to come to terms with their masculinity. The pimp’s carefully trimmed facial hair and tattoos, especially his prominent tattoo of jaakesh (“pimp”) in Farsi on the side of his head, and the huge Farvahar across his chest (a symbol borrowed from the Zoroastrian faith implying nationalistic-racial supremacy) could be an expression of displaced masculinity yearning for recognition. Or perhaps he is “a ghettocentric icon of upward mobility” for diasporic masculinities.[46] This is particularly significant in the United States’ body politics that render Iranian men’s diasporic masculinities “overexposed,” to borrow from Shahram Khosravi, to the racialized and securitized gaze of the normative white American culture.[47] Like the young black men in the United States, the pimp may be acting from a position of race and class marginality to acquire some measure of power and control in a subculture that is overinvested in the sexual economy of pimp-whore complex. This is similar to the experience of most black men in the United States, who, according to Cornel West, acquire power “by stylizing their bodies over space and time in such a way that their bodies reflect their uniqueness and provoke fear in others.”[48] West is quick to conclude that even though these acts of “resistance” in a hostile culture impose their own kind of order to chaos, in a society that exalts a “machismo identity” such forms of self-identification are self-defeating because they ultimately support the violent patriarchal status quo.[49] Without a vigilant consciousness of the intersectionality of structures of power, privilege and domination, the risk of reproducing violence and inequality through the very acts of resistance will always remain a possibility. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does not glorify the pimp as the prototype of the “bad boy” who is simultaneously feared and desired, but eliminates him as the worst expression of masculinity found in the Bad City.


Understanding the pimp’s function in a patriarchal society is important for the significance of the pimp’s violent death in this film. Pimps and patriarchs are different sides of the same coin: “The role pimps expected women to play is merely an imitation of the role patriarchs expect their wives and daughters to play. The passive subordinate demeanor expected of the prostitute is not unlike that demanded of all women in patriarchal society.”[50] The raw violence, charm and dependency of the pimp on “his” women is a brutal reminder of patriarchy’s suppressed underbelly. In psychoanalytical terms the pimp is a symptom of patriarchy, the mirror image of the patriarch. The appearance of the symptom “disturbs the surface of false appearances,” to use Slavoj Zizek’s description.[51] In clinical terms, eliminating the symptom is not good enough because unlike the medical model that views a symptom as an “index” of disease, psychoanalysis takes symptoms as “signifiers” of disease; if one signifier is removed it will simply be replaced by another.[52] The goal of intervention is thus to address the “structures” that give rise to symptoms. The killing of the pimp removes the immediate threat, but he would be easily replaced by another without any threat or disturbance to the structural power of patriarchy that brings about the conditions for his existence in the first place. The vampire’s murder of the pimp and “saving” Arash could lend support to Hamid Dabashi’s creative hypothesis that Iranian culture is essentially a communal Freudian Oedipal complex in reverse. He writes that instead of the son killing the father, in the Iranian cultural context it is the father’s killing of his son that produces the communal guilt and repression and subsequently takes on cosmic and metaphysical proportions. As examples, Dabashi notes the tragic deaths of Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson’s death, and its parallel in the mythical deaths of Siavush, the son of King Kavus, as well as Sohrab, son of Rostam, the legendary pre-Islamic folk heroes of Iran.[53] He concludes that to the extent that Iranian culture is imbued with Shi‘ism it is a “son-religion,” which is “subconsciously aware of the guilt of infanticide (a religion of fathers afflicted by the guilt of having killed their son).”[54] By sparing the son killing or being killed by the father and removing the threat of the pimp, the vampire annuls both patricide and infanticide and the subsequent foundational guilt.


The structural power of patriarchy is best displayed by the character of the father, who has the most important function of imposing the fundamental principles of all social relations, which Lacan formulates as “the law.”[55] In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is the father who holds his son Arash in the grips of his power, despite being an addict, sick and begging his son for money (all indications of the intrinsic sickness of patriarchy). Yet his weaknesses would not diminish the key symbolic position of the “father” in what is theoretically articulated as the Oedipal scenario. The Oedipal scenario is “an almost universal principle of the operation of the film in the American cinema.”[56] The father may be a real person, but more significantly this is the paternal function that regulates pleasure, desire, activation of sexual identification, and differentiation.[57] It would not have made a difference if the father in this film was healthy and strong. Even in his sickness, addiction, and desperation, the father exerts his power. The killing of the father by the female vampire in this film is a step towards breaking out of the Oedipal structure of father-child-mother. Contrary to the Oedipal movement of mainstream cinema, which is towards the son entering the patriarchal structure through a direct relation to the father (accepting him, rejecting him, killing him, ignoring or rebelling against him, etc.), the narrative in this film moves the son away from the father of Oedipal scenario towards the female vampire. Instead of shifting the male’s experience of lack onto the figure of a woman who is then punished, possessed or discarded so the son could claim the paternal power, in this film it is the Girl who is the hero with power to terrify, to castrate and control desire and pleasure in the narrative. It is she who is accorded the prohibitive and legislative role, which is reserved for the father in the Oedipal scenario. For example, she violently intervenes in the sexual objectification of the street worker’s body by Arash’s father and Arash is castigated for sexually objectifying a female dancer in a party.


Herein lies the significance of the vampire. By stripping the enduring Oedipal scenario of its paternal agency, the vampire shows that desire is not a pre-existing given subsequently moulded and manipulated in film. Desire is a product of the created filmic experience. What and how to desire is created by imposing prohibitions that while confining desire and restricting its parameters, construct it as essentially the desire to transgress. Evan’s explanation of dialectical relationship between the law and desire explains this well: “Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition.”[58] It follows that if desire is not pre-given; the subject’s relation to desire is not “fixed” either. Therefore, subjective positions conditioned by film, such as the male gaze of the camera, the phallocentric nature of desire, and constructed masculinities do not have to be discarded. Hence, the vampire does not transgress the phallic economy of representation. It is good to be reminded here that transgression is produced by and supports what it purports to subvert. To paraphrase Lacan, transgression is the reverse of the law.[59] The same normative subjective positions that are used in mainstream cinema to narcissistically cover over the split of the subject (and result in the closure of the creative process and the narcissistic identification with the specular image on the screen) could be used to unravel the seamless suturing of Oedipal masculinity into the patriarchal symbolic order. Put differently, the transformative possibilities offered by the vampire are not invented outside of the phallocentric system of signification, but within in. As Mulvey reminds us: “There is no ‘way’ in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one.”[60] This is demonstrated in the vampire’s killing of the most negative character of the film, the pimp by biting him and violating him with his own severed finger.


Considering the vampire as the phallic woman who defies the Oedipal trajectory of the mainstream cinema and the reifying male gaze is particularly significant in relation to the constructed masculinities in this film. She stands alone as the author of her own story, not in relation to any man. As indicated in the film, we do not know what exactly she is, but it is instructive to keep in mind what she is not. She is not Hollywood’s conventional strong female character, “the devouring vamp, origin of a dangerous enjoyment in which every man risks annihilation and against which he has to defend himself by establishing an ever more intimate brotherhood.”[61] Neither is she the “white male fantasy” of “bad girl” who is compelled to confront evil because of the trauma of her killed father; nor is she the “tough daughter” who successfully negotiates “deadly masculinist social scripts, restoring order to the father-son relationships by killing bad fathers and replacing weak sons.”[62] As the phallic woman, the vampire neither represents lack nor the illusory plenitude of fullness where the male spectator can return in order to experience a sense of completion. Neither is she impersonating a man nor “appropriating the penis in fantastical or plastic form.”[63] She remains a heterosexual woman, indicated in the film by her attraction to Arash. We can argue she is a source of visual pleasure for the (heterosexual) female spectator.[64] The source of her strength is precisely her being a fantasy which does not easily fit in the neatly organized Oedipal structure of patriarchy. Being a fantasy does not mean the vampire is an illusion opposing a correct perception of reality, as if reality could be perceived in a singular way or unmediated access to it were even possible.[65] Being a fantasy means the vampire is discursively constructed, demonstrating that reality too is produced through signifying processes, which means this film is about reality of reflection not a reflection of reality. She deconstructs the operations of the always already male gaze of the camera through which the male spectator in his Oedipal journey identifies with the specular image of the male hero of the mainstream cinema. She exposes the intrinsic flaws of such a journey, its gaps, dissonances, fragilities and lack in the process of image production that must be sutured in order to reflect back a spectacular image of the consolidated male ego. The female vampire with her phallic power is a fantasy, but a fantasy that tells the truth about the fantastic construction of Oedipal masculinity. This is perfectly captured in her meeting Arash, wearing a Dracula costume at night, a scene which could have been written according to Lacan’s insight that reality is accessible only through fiction, because reality “is structured like fiction.”[66] Behind the mask of Dracula worn by Arash is not his true self, but his location in the symbolic structure organized around the foundational Oedipal fantasy.




Concluding Scene

The killing of the father by the vampire is not an intrinsically radical gesture—after all, the guilt of killing the father in the Oedipus myth makes his memory even stronger. However, it is the killing of the father that presents the opportunity for breaking out of the Oedipal impasse. In the concluding scenes of the film Arash is leaving the Bad City on a dark night with the vampire in his fancy car. When he notices that his dead father’s cat is among the vampire’s belongings, he realizes that his father was killed by the vampire. He is faced with a choice of either claiming a righteous rage and revenging his father’s death, or accepting the vampire as his liberator. The former option is a scripted reaction expected of him if he is to take his father’s position in the symbolic order and thus perpetuate Oedipal masculinity. It necessitates possessing or punishing the female, projecting lack and disempowerment unto her, and distancing himself from all that is feminine in order to secure a space for himself in the patriarchal power structure. But Arash chooses the vampire, gets in the car, and together they leave the Bad City. They disappear into the darkness, like the heroes of a Western movie, riding into the sunset. Whereas the hero of a Western film leaves the town folks and “the woman” behind, in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night the female vampire, the primary agent of the story, rides into the darkness with the only good man of the city. The lone gunman of the Western film continues his journey alone after killing the villains, but the vampire drives away with Arash to where we can imagine it to be a better place, but the coordinates of which cannot be known in advance. Just as the gunman of a Western film riding into the sunset signifies the unfinished conquest of the West, the vampire and Arash disappearing into the darkness allude to the defeat and displacement of patriarchy as yet an unfinished project.


The solution offered by the vampire, therefore, is a modest one. She offers the young man a way out of the constraints of Oedipal deadlock (symbolic prohibitions of desire resulting from the father’s intervention, which become even stronger in the event of patricide). This “way out” is not a roadmap to a pre-Oedipal mother-child-phallus location where the son joins with the inaccessible object of his desire represented by the mother, who then satisfies his every need. That would have infantilized the son and required him to be the phallus for the mother, who presumably would be envious of men’s power (represented by the penis). Nor does the vampire in herself represent plenitude. She too is marked by lack; otherwise, she would not desire. She is both a phallic woman capable of castrating men, and vulnerable and flawed in her desire for Arash. The way out is simply an opening towards the unknown, a transformative open-ended possibility afforded by the phallus but foreclosed by the Oedipal deadlock.

[1]A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vice Media, All images in this article are the property of Vice Media.

[2]Quoted in Megan Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks: Gender and Surveillance in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” Mizan, 18 April 2016, available at

[3]Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Watch the Trailer For the First-Ever Iranian Feminist Vampire Western,” Jezebel, 27 October 2014, available at; Laura Barcella, “The Feminist Vampire Movie That Teaches ‘Bad Men’ a Gory Lesson,” Jezebel, 25 November  2014, available at; Holly L. Derr, “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part 7: New Beginnings,” Ms. Blog, 27 October 2015, available at

[4]Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 39, in Christa van Raalte, “No Small-Talk in Paradise: Why Elysium Fails the Bechdel Test, and Why We Should Care,” in Media, Margins and Pop Culture, ed. Einar Thorsen, Heather Savigny, Jenny Alexander and Daniel Jackson (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 15-27.

[5]Raalte, “No Small-Talk in Paradise,” 16-17.

[6]See Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[7]Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave, 1989), 14.

[8]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 14.

[9]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 16.

[10]Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton and Company, 1977), 2.

[11]Synonymous with language, the symbolic order for Lacan is the most important register of the unconscious that governs all manners of exchange. See Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1996), 203-223.

[12]James J. DiCenso, The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999), 45, fn. 60.

[13]Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 140.

[14]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 14.

[15]Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 113-114; for a discussion of the projection of lack and fragmentation on woman in Islamic tradition, see Mahdi Tourage, “Towards the Retrieval of the Feminine from the Archives of Islam,” International Journal of Zizek Studies 6, no. 2 (2012): 1-25.

[16]Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 207.

[17]Michael DeAngelis, Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 1.

[18]Amanullah De Sondy, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 162.

[19]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 25.

[20]Anneke Smelik, “What Meets the Eye: Feminist Film Studies,” in Women’s Studies and Culture: A Feminist Introduction, ed. Rosemarie Buikema and Anneke Smelik (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1993), 71.

[21]Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 108.

[22]For example see Emma Myers, “ND/NF Interview: Ana Lily Amirpour, ” Film Comment, March 19, 2014, available at; and Keiron Tyler, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Style over Substance in the Supposed ‘Frist Iranian Vampire Western,’” in The Arts Desk, 21 May 2015, available at

[23]Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 208.

[24]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 204.

[25]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 208.

[26]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 211.

[27]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 209-210.

[28]Jennifer Skinnon, “Redemptive Motherhood and a Discourse of Fear in Contemporary Apocalyptic Film,” available at

[29]Sophia Rose Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[30]Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination, 5.

[31]Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination, 149.

[32]Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[33]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 19.

[34]Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[35]Lacan explains that the phallus can perform its signifying function only when veiled, “as itself a sign of the latency with which any signifiable is struck, once it is raised (aufgehoben) to the function of signifier.” Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 288.

[36]Shohini Chaudhuri, Fem Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed (London, New York: Routledge, 2006), 107.

[37]Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 84.

[38]Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 287.

[39]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 210.

[40]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 210.

[41]Butler, Bodies that Matter, 57-92.

[42]Butler, Bodies that Matter, 88.

[43]Hamid Naficy, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 183.

[44]Parviz Jahed, “Film Farsi as Mainstream Cinema,” in Directory of World Cinema: Iran, vol. 10, ed. Parviz Jahed (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012), 74.

[45]Christian and Richard Milner, Black Players: The Secret World of Black Pimps (London: King Flex, 1973), 112.

[46]Ronald L. Jackson II, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media (Albany: SUNY, 2006), 118; Eithne Quinn, Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gansta Rap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 122.

[47]Shahram Khosravai¸ “Displaced Masculinity: Gender and Ethnicity among Iranian Men in Sweden,” Iranian Studies 42, no. 4 (2009): 591-609.

[48]Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 128.

[49]West, Race Matters, 128.

[50]bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 109.

[51]Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 2008), x.

[52]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 86.

[53]Hamid Dabashi, Shiism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2011), 16.

[54]Dabashi, Shiism, 14.

[55]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 101.

[56]Mathew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo, eds., Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies (London, New York: Routledge, 2001), 13.

[57]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 62.

[58]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 102.

[59]In Lacan’s formulation, it is desire that is “the reverse of the law.” See Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 99.

[60]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 15.

[61]Paul Verhaeghe, “The Collapse of the Function of the Father and Its Effects on Gender Roles,” in Sexuation, ed. Renata Salecl (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2000), 140.

[62]A. Susan Owen, Sarah R. Stein, and Leah R. Vande Berg, Bad Girls: Cultural Politics and Media Representations of Transgressive Women (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 23-24.

[63]Carellin Brooks, Every Inch a Woman: Phallic Possession, Femininity, and the Text (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), ix.

[64]The disappearance of the female vampire in cinema is pointed out as “a great loss of possible identifications and visual pleasure of female audience.” See Anneke Smelik, “Feminist Film Theory,” The Feminist eZine, available at

[65]See Freud’s explanation of “fantasy” in Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 60-61.

[66]Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1992), 18.

Waves of Stasis: Photographic Tendency and a Cinema of Kindness in Kiarostami’s Five (Dedicated to Ozu)

Abbas Kiarostami has often been described as a ciné-poet, an artist who moves between the visual and the lyrical to create a cinematic experience that moves away from “understanding” and dwells in the abstracted space of poetic reflection. His visual poetry is very much linked to a slowness, and often a stillness, that gives time to images rather than stories. While many of Kiarostami’s films feature the qualities of slow cinema, minimalist mise en scènes, long takes, and little to no narrativity, none have been quite as slow as his 2003 documentary, Five Long Takes: Dedicated to Ozu (hereafter Five). [2] The film consists of five long takes, four of which are set on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and one on a beach in Spain. For the most part, Kiarostami’s camera remains still, with periodic movement steered by surrounding winds. The film’s actors include passersby on a boardwalk, a piece of driftwood, a swarm of ducks, a herd of dogs, and several croaking frogs under the moonlight. If seen in its entirety, Five can be experienced as a time compression of a full day, with each take passing from sunrise, morning, afternoon, twilight and nightfall. Each take can be experienced as an extended or moving version of a series of photographic landscapes, each prolonged by the stasis of the camera, allowing the spectator to become attuned to moments that might otherwise be passed over in narrative cinema. Together, these takes compose a poetic reflection that yields no conclusive message or interpretation; instead, sound and images flow with time, some lost to memory, and others more enduring in our frame of consciousness. In this respect, Kiarostami’s spectators are not bound to the director’s intentions, but can link what they have seen or heard to their own dreams, and to creations of their own imagination. This is made possible through the power of Kiarostami’s filmic style, which incorporates sophisticated editing techniques while also remaining open to the contingencies of natural elemental forces. As rightly articulated by Alain Bergala, Five should be seen as “the very essence of the power, of all the powers, of cinema, of those which are used in pursuit of the revelation of reality and equality of those which seek to manipulate it.”[3] The boundaries of illusion and reality are further complicated by Kiarostami’s own receptiveness to the world’s chance opportunities. In Five, Kiarostami is particularly attuned to the temporal motions of the sea, as it poses an alternative temporal arrangement from the experience of narrative forms. By embodying the chance-driven temporality in the making of this film, Kiarostami’s final product is anything but final. Five offers viewers an open-ended temporality that invites reflections on the continuities of life and death, as well as those other vital patterns, unpredictable and hidden. 

Five takes a hybrid form that hovers between experimental art cinema and media installation. Kiarostami intended the film be viewed both as single projection as well as a media installation in five distinct parts.[4] Experiencing the film in both of these registers offers distinct spectator experiences, and yet the fundamental sense that narrative events do not dictate the film’s enduring affective presence remains true to both forms. With no dialogue or human characters, the film instead offers a set of images. How one appreciates these images, at what pace, and in what order, is wholly left to the spectator. What is more, Kiarostami himself rescinds totalizing power from his role as director and opens the film’s making to the unpredictable, the chance-like, and elements that are outside of our anthropocentric dominions of control. The resonances of these five long takes, still and in motion, make up the progression of the film. What is more, the non-diegetic music that emerges between each take stresses the passage of time and expresses the impermanence of the temporal moment that preceded.

Furthermore, the dialectical play between motion and stasis invites a probing of the fixed frame and the representation of photography within the moving image. The movement between the photographic and filmic blurs the boundaries between the two and reflects the porosity of both media, particularly as they relate to the passage of time. The aesthetic of Kiarostami’s moving landscape shots both participate in the temporality of the photographic and subvert readings of these images as purely past tense, even while maintaining traces of loss. This gesture defies narrative structure and allows the film to affect the viewer beyond the temporal constraints of both film and photograph. The experience of watching Five creates a dialectical movement between the conscious and the unconscious, and thus, extends the temporality of the filmic image, beyond the film itself. Moreover, the film posits a contemplative gaze towards the sea, a space whose movement carries its own cyclicality, yet smooth temporalization via flowing movements. The sea offers its own flow of temporality and allows for a counter-spectator experience from conventional narrative structures. By approaching this space as an image of its own making, Five’s photographic attunement allows the spectator to evade normative experiences of representative cinematic time, and enter a space of meditation open to change, as well as the ebbs and flow of life, and of death.


  1. Non-narrativity and a Kind Cinema

Kiarostami’s narrative slowness follows a lineage of filmmakers before him, most notably Yasujirō Ozu, to whom he dedicated Five. With a sense of reverence, Kiarostami once remarked on Ozu’s cinematic style, “Ozu’s cinema is a kindly cinema. He values interactions, natural relationships, and the natural human in all his films. His long shots are everlasting and respectful.” Embodying the kindness he cherished in Ozu’s films, Kiarostami’s films are at once poetically layered and still porous to the world. Therefore, they are amenable to a multitude of spectator interpretations. As such, Kiarostami’s filmic grammar does not believe in narrative structures that seek to manipulate or provoke his spectator’s vulnerable and receptive sensorium, instead he offers images imbued with profound kindness. The “kind” cinema Kiarostami espouses is one that trusts his spectators with gaps, and even moments of empty time within the unfolding of the film.

To think further about the landscape images Kiarostami offers his viewers and the ways in which they relate to perception, it will be helpful to explore the narrative compositions Kiarostami is working against. In a discussion regarding the dialectical structure of film, Walter Benjamin evokes the structure of cinema as a dialectic between production and consumption.[5] The consumption of film is a part of the industrial process to the extent that the viewer is operating on a conveyor belt to process a succession of images. In this mode of film spectatorship, the viewer is hitched to the mechanical apparatus of cinema. This mode of filmic experience binds the spectator to character movement and plot development (these gestures are themselves tethered to the apparatus) and likely unfolds in the same way other films of its kind have before, thus producing a shock experience that is both predictable and totalizing. For Benjamin, this relationship to the image on the screen is experienced simultaneously as comfort and as anxiety, comforting because it affirms our normative experience of film viewing and relies on the predictable unfolding of action, as well as anxiety ridden because our heightened sense of impending action relies on a relationship to temporality that constantly anticipates what is next before even fully digesting what preceded it. This mode of narrative storytelling entails staccato movements that leave the viewer anxiously anticipating the next move, bound to the screen, and wholly unaware of, yet manipulated by the film’s temporality. Kiarostami’s films, and Five in particular, free the viewer from such an oversaturation of images and movements of the cinematic event.[6] The concept of the Event carries a multitude of meanings in narrative discourse. For the purpose of this paper, Event is to be understood as a structure of time that captures the viewer and binds them to the narrative unfolding. Namely, the Event constitutes what ends and begins a series of sequencing connected to the temporality of reception. The Event itself evokes grand tropes condensed in time in order to elicit shock and fantasy. Often, linear narrative structures rely on Events to determine what happened in a text or a film. This understanding foregrounds the Event both within the narrative as well as in the reception, thus affecting and homogenizing the phenomenological experience of film viewing. Mary Ann Doane complicates the concept of the event by suggesting; “the event is on the cusp between contingency and structure, history and theory.”[7] Within the structure of cinema (the indexical recording of time), Doane identifies a destabilizing potential imbued with the contingent and the inassimilable.[8] This background is useful to further understand Kiarostami’s defiance of narrative logic and his gravitation towards images, poetic, and static in their form. In turn, Kiarostami’s shift from narrative emplotment offers a sense of respite from the screen and gives significance to the collective experiential participation of his spectators.

Shifting focus from narrative to image permits the spectator to encounter images without preconceived frames of narration. Images become approachable on one’s own affective terrain and sensory experience. By thinning narrative distance, film has at its disposal the capacity to give images a quality of eternal presence, and therefore center spectator experiences. Theodor Adorno takes a hopeful tone in articulating the potentiality of film in his essay “On the Transparencies of Film,”[9] where he explores film as the coalescing of technology and technique. Here, Adorno investigates the use of the photographic in the filmic and more interestingly, the movement of objects through the provocatively static character of certain films such as Antonioni’s La Notte. Kiarostami, like Antonioni, is a filmmaker who makes room for and further invites a spatial and temporal distancing from the continuous flow of images on the screen. This opening of temporality, however, is not as heavily reliant on the Event or pseudo-realism[10] as Adorno has described it. Instead, by creating a “real” realism in making time more salient, the pace of the film allows the audience to doze off for a moment and not feel completely alienated upon return. In a reflection on his aversion to the logic of narrative structure, Kiarostami stated:

I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don’t like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.[11]

Here, Kiarostami’s declarative statements aspire to a vision of cinema committed to the spectator’s power to veer off course, precisely because no experiential course has been prescribed. As Kiarostami has himself characterized them, these are the films that allow for deeper and more active contemplation, perhaps throughout the actual viewing of the film, or even days later. In accord with Adorno, such filmic experiences might resemble more precisely the experiences of listening to music or looking at a painting, where the spectator is made conscious of temporal structure, but is not conscripted to mirroring it. Looking back at Five, Kiarostami echoed a similar sensibility in regards to a cinematic experience that “can in some ways form a relationship with poetry or with painting, and thereby free itself from the narrative obligation and the servitude of the director.”[12] It appears that Kiarostami and Adorno share a vision of cinema that simulates and prioritizes a phenomenological experience between spectator and image, rather than merely a relaying of stories (though as Alain Bergala has underlined, stories may very well surface in this type of cinema).

By prioritizing the experience of cinema, Kiarostami’s careful depiction of a day at sea does not determine how the viewer should experience the film. In an interview on the making of Five Kiarostami declared: “I can confidently say that you would not miss anything if you had a short nap. The important thing for me is how you feel once the film is finished, the relaxing feeling that you carry with you after the film ends.”[13] Thus, in experiencing Five— as in the experience of a short nap— the spectator is invited to give into its soothing tranquility. Kiarostami’s emphasis on feeling foregrounds the phenomenological aspects of cinema rather than features of narrative structure or storytelling. As such, the viewer’s ability to seek respite does not suggest the films passivity, but rather a generosity attuned to the world’s contingent and mediated patterns. Alberto Elena has called Kiarostami’s filmmaking “a radical call for a contemplative cinema.”[14] I would agree with this sentiment and also add that while Kiarostami invites contemplation in relation to his films, he also emphasizes the temporal duration of feeling that exceeds the cinematic frame. This is a feeling that you may take with you as you approach and attune yourself to the world outside of the film.

Contemplative cinema offers a relationship to temporality unbound from narrative events, therefore images are not limited to the confines of the film screen but are opened to the outside world. Adorno suggests that the power of film lay in its “uncinematic” capacity to “express, as if with hollow eyes, the emptiness of time.”[15]  In order to go against its technological origins and to channel the “uncinematic,” film must go outside and against its own medium through a consciousness of other mediums, and an opening of the unconscious, as advocated by the surrealists. The image of hollow eyes to which Adorno refers is found both in the artistic expression of filmmaking and its subjective mode of spectator experience. Such a surreal image brings to mind darkness, emptiness, and a seeing without sight. This is the image of dreams and the world of the unconscious. It is such a state of perception that pushes the limits of film’s technique and technology, carries a filmic quality that is interdisciplinary at its core (with a sensibility towards the photographic, the literary, the painterly and the musical), while also expanding the realm of realism from consciousness to the realm of the unconscious.

For film to become a liberated work of art, it should “wrest its a priori collectivity from the mechanisms of unconscious,”[16] and in doing so it will better attune itself to a subjective mode of experience. This type of perceptive experience, untethered to a constraining narrative structure, can be compared to one’s personal experience of the sublime in nature. Reflecting on the dream-like images that surface from this experience, Adorno imagines:

“A person who, after a year in the city, spends a few weeks in the mountains abstaining from all work, may unexpectedly experience colorful images of landscapes consolingly coming over him or her in dreams or daydreams. These images do not merge into one another in a continuous flow, but are rather set off against each other in the course of their appearance, much like the magic lantern slides of our childhood.”[17]

Adorno, like Kiarostami, approaches the image of landscape as a consolatory space of refuge that escapes the continuous flow of narrativity. But the landscapes that turn into dreams for Adorno are not unmediated by the technological qualities of the filmic. Rather, through a meditation of experiences that resist representation, Adorno envisions a radical contemporary cinema that can expand its own technique and relieve its spectator, or even propel her into the realm of the unconscious. In interlacing the literary, the cinematic, and the musical, the experience of viewing a film can open spatio-temporal conceptions of realism.[18] As a result, in becoming an interdisciplinary medium, film can bring to light its various movements and fragmentary images. Adorno’s ideal filmic experience seeks to escape the conventional mimetic impulse and instead enter the collective unconscious, making greater use of formalistic techniques to revivify the discontinuous flow of movements as is intimately tied to the experience of nature.


  1. Between Reality and Mediation

Kiarostami has reflected that Five is a film that performs a real realism. In his book on slow cinema, Ira Jaffe writes that in the making of Five, “Kiarostami rehearses his own death as auteur by going to sleep after setting his camera on an empty seashore.”[19] While this is true for one of Kiarostami’s takes, it is important to remember that although Five gives the illusion of being untouched by the filmmaker, it is in fact, deeply and intricately labored upon. Even as Kiarostami’s filmmaking process is entangled in chance elements, the final production is no mere depiction of naturalism or mimetic transparency. In fact, the film is rather elaborately edited. In a documentary about the making of Five, Kiarostami mentioned that this might have been one of the most difficult films he has ever made— but it doesn’t show on the surface.[20]

While each of the film’s long takes gives the illusion that Kiarostami himself pressed play and then went to sleep, as he allegedly did in the third take (Dogs, which features a pack of dogs sitting on the beach), the reality is far more complex. The pure and pristine depiction of nature we believe to be consuming is in fact carefully mediated by the filmmaker himself. For instance, in the first take (Wood) the camera undulates with the waves (this is the only take where the camera is not in complete stasis) and as spectators we are led to follow the continuous motions of the waves hitting a piece of driftwood, back and forth. The motions of winds that surround the wood magnificently possess the camera. This plasticity leads spectators to embody these very same winds and waves, and thus gives the false perception that the push of waves is what breaks the driftwood apart. It was in fact Kiarostami who manipulated this seemingly natural phenomenon by placing a small explosive in the driftwood to have it break apart by the end of the long take. Perhaps this “event” is so uneventful that it does not affect our perception of the movement to discover its mediation, though nonetheless it shows us that through film, even a non-event can be mediated. In take four, which is comparatively lively compared to the other takes, the camera returns to a midrange frontal angle of the shore, and we are bombarded by noisy ducks who cross the frame from left to right, and then from right to left across the screen. Kiarostami artfully manipulates the scene beyond the frame, and guides the ducks to move back and forth, as though unprovoked. In take five (Moon and Swamp); the final image appears as a single long take that depicts the reflection of the moon. This 28-minute sequence was in fact filmed more than 20 times over the course of several months, and each take was superimposed onto the others with invisible cuts. Interestingly, the final night sequence, which underwent the most amount of technological mediation, obscures the image and privileges the soundtrack. This sequence is by far the least reliant on visual change. The temporality is thus most felt through the rhythms and cadences of sound. The take carries the unbearable sound of frogs, or toads croaking, so harrowing, it suggests an indifference to human presence; what is more, it suggest that perhaps the film is not made for us.[21]

Akin to the detailed mediation of that which we do not see on the surface of the film, Five also contains a carefully crafted soundtrack. The use of music is noteworthy for a filmmaker like Kiarostami, who like Adorno, has often commented on music’s ability to distract from the filmic image. The film juxtaposes amplified diegetic sounds from various takes during a four-month mixing process. Music is used at the end of each long take, which itself signifies a sense of conclusion and transition to the next take. Overlaying the seemingly tranquil and self-contained visual images of the film, the soundtrack creates a hyper-sentient abundance that unsettles the natural backdrop. Thus, while Kiarostami’s active role in artfully configuring each take might seem to undermine the film’s non-anthropocentric nature, both the rich composition of sounds and the cloaked darkness of the final sequence exposes the growing impenetrability and esoteric quality of the vivid locality that Kiarostami conjures. Thus, while the film gives the impression that it expresses the emptiness of time through five uninterrupted long takes, it is in fact only a semblance of such an experience, since each take is heavily edited. The seemingly uninterrupted flow of images is in fact heavily fragmented in that it includes layers of images filmed at various points in time. Thus, it is through arduous labor that Kiarostami crafts the “realist” patterns of sound and movement in the shores of the Caspian Sea. It is upon reflection of these formal and perceptive qualities that the film puts forth its ultimate capacity to reveal clarity and abstraction and new relationships between nature and technology in the digital age.

Benjamin reflects on the possibilities within technology in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” where he focuses on the potentiality of film outside of the limited structure of the studio film. He writes:

In the studio the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology (my emphasis).[22]

Five’s use of digital film allows Kiarostami to give the illusion of reality and of the natural world as a space untouched by technology. Yet it is ironically through the technological apparatus, “the height of artifice,” that he brings to light an “orchid” in immediate reality, in the real world of the technological. For this reason, while Kiarostami’s films do approach nature as a space of reflection, they do not intend to portray this space as one that is dialectically unimpeded by the effects of the modern urban space or its inhabitants, and of course, they cannot. His cinematic signature of mediation followed by an act of self-reflexivity, gestures to the encounter between these two worlds.


  1. Kiarostami’s Photographic Tendency and Cinema of Stasis

Those who are familiar with Kiarostami’s photographic oeuvre know that most of his photographs are composed of landscapes devoid of human presence. Equally, many of his earlier films include moments of repose to meditate on the vast landscapes that carry and envelop life’s minutiae. Kiarostami has attributed his fascination with rural spaces and natural landscapes as refuge from the day-to-day patterns and shock experiences of the city. As a culminating artistic creation in Kiarostami’s career of minimalist aesthetics, Five presents the boundary between his photographic and cinematic oeuvre.  The film is attuned to the temporality of both mediums, and blends them to fluidly move between the antinomies of stasis and motion. In Five, time is measured by the flow of waves reaching the shore, constant yet ephemeral. Objects are both centered in their disruption of the constant flow of water, yet recede as the waves take precedence, visually and audibly, through each take. Amidst the empty time of the film, the breaking of a piece of driftwood can feel cathartic. In the following take, passersby and birds are only fleeting objects amidst constant sound of waves, arriving at shore, like an actress emerging center-stage. In the third take, a pack of dogs is abstracted as distant specks. Instead, the object of our gaze becomes the ripple of waves that move swiftly from the left of the frame to the right. As time passes, the image fades, like an old photograph might throughout time, culminating in total whiteness. All that remains are the wave’s sonic cadences.

In Five, each long take inherits integral qualities of the photographic, including stillness as well as the meditation that comes with it. This is in part because each passing moment does not make up a progressive succession in a narrative arc; instead it carries the continuous temporal flow of waves hitting the shore, a movement that is as eventful as it is mundane. Each passing moment is similar in its rhythm, perhaps even unidentifiable with what proceeds or follows. Thus, even with the composition of a singular long take that does account for changes and temporal flow, Kiarostami’s photographic landscapes preserve traces of the photographic to sensitively illuminate the mysterious patterns of the everyday. Five unfolds through the temporality of the earth’s everyday movements, predictable and yet, all the while, unpredictable.

Kiarostami’s work escapes the dichotomy of stasis and moving-image; instead they are presented as two interrelated poles, between which a complex pictorial process can unfold. Five is not the only film that exposes Kiarostami’s investment in uniting still and moving images. Many of the shots he has taken in his films are reminiscent of stills from a road movie. For instance, in Like Someone in Love (2012), one long take looks out at the protagonist during a car ride from the outside. The glass of the car window that covers her face appears as a picture frame and separates the external world, dividing the moving image from a windscreen that makes visible the image of the cityscape through the glass. This image brings to the fore both Kiarostami’s compositional interest in stasis and motion, as well as his acute and thoughtful treatment of landscapes and human action. This has allowed him to take a step back from the scene he is shooting, snap a shot, and reflect on the space that engulfs him. This cinematic gesture permits his films from fluidly moving between the photographic and the moving image. Other films in Kiarostami’s cinematic oeuvre such as Close-up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), to name a few, incorporate the long take to follow the movements of small objects as they traverse the earth’s windy landscapes. In these instances, our perception is oriented towards objects that would otherwise occupy the narrative’s background. Furthermore, Kiarostami’s camera is intimately bound up with the flow of nature and gravitates towards meditations of landscape shots, or close-ups, as moments of repose from the already slow narrative style. Unlike this style of moving long shots (commonly used in neo-realist cinema) that impress upon the viewer a sense of distance and empty expanses from place to place, Kiarostami’s long takes in Five are in stasis. The world of Five invites us to meditate in the harmonious cacophony of the sea, to enter its rhythm, with all its hidden creatures and chance patterns.


  1. The Spectator and the Sea

While I previously discussed Kiarostami’s ability to create a visual space of serenity oscillating between the still and moving image, I would now like to discuss the specific temporal configuration of the sea as it presents a counter-narrative to Evental cinema. By reflecting on the phenomenological experiences of this space, we will be able to better consider how the particular temporal structure of the sea opens itself up to new modes of spectator experience. Kiarostami makes the sea visually and audibly prominent, all other actors (including passersby, dogs, ducks, etc.) are only extras in the continuous and chance operated patterns of the waves. Waves themselves become central characters, like sea creatures, with each emerging and pushing into the other. By creating a film that has little to no external action, the ceaseless murmur of the sea as it ebbs and flows seemingly replaces any linear narrative flow, and introduces its own mode of temporal experience. In particular, the sea in Five produces a radically non-anthropocentric experience, not only because only one of five of the long takes includes people, but also because its temporal pattern and rhythmic assemblage do not privilege the linear logic of human perception. As such, the film bears witness to moments of a day from which an anthropocentric gaze might turn away. Though still mediated by the presence of both auteur and spectator, the film’s non-evental rhythm invites us to move in and out of it. Such a motion affirms its ability to go on without us (while, of course still being mediated by the filmic gaze). And at times, it does, just as the flow of the world’s oceans continues day after day, night after night, whether we are there to bear witness, or not.

In reflecting on the phenomenological experience of watching waves, Sean Cubitt interestingly notes: “The experience of watching water is of a now that extends indefinitely. The precise configuration of light in the frames that pass by is irreplaceable, but another, infinity or infinitesimally different, will always supersede it so that its timelessness is not of the philosophical absolute, but of an endlessly differentiating repetition.”[23] Five’s non-narrativity unfolds within the endlessly undifferentiated repetition of the sea’s waves. The experience of watching Five, emphasized by the slow and static nature of its images, submerges the viewer into a cinematic experience that does not progress towards an ending or narrative arc, rather its progression is felt as a loss of time passed and at once a recognition of its salience. Still, Five is not a film that seeks continuous or unchanging repetition. Rather, each take signifies the motion of time, with light as the index that time has in fact passed. No scene carries the weight of light as much as the final scene, which would remain invisible to the human eye if it were not for the radiant force of the moonlight reflected unto the water. Here, Kiarostami lends a nod to another worldly pattern. Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s vital meditation of both audible and rhythmic forces of nature, allows the natural flow of the sea to take the place of narrativity.

As each long take from Five is filmed at the boundary between land and sea, we are positioned to embody the gaze of our auteur as he shares his refuge in the open expanse of the sea. In a thoughtful reflection on ‘Water and Dreams,’ Gaston Bachelard writes that matter can disassociate itself from form and can be given value either through deepening (with mysterious, unknowable layers) or elevating (appearing as an inexhaustible force). In each case, he writes, meditation on matter cultivates an open imagination. The sea thus symbolizes a liquid materiality that can incite our imagination.[24] Certainly, this was true of Kiarostami’s own experience. Kiarostami viewed the landscapes he captured as oneiric experiences. In a 2000 interview conducted in Tehran about his photographic impetus, Kiarostami remarked, “my photographs are made of the same substance as my dreams.”[25] What are these substances, material and dream-like? This remark is perhaps attuned to the open flow of photographic landscapes, both vast and ephemeral. Through the stilled images of the sea, and the glaring light impressed upon the pond at nightfall, moments of beauty are experienced, reactivated, and at times they enter the unconscious, to emerge again, in a delayed state, outside of the temporality of the film itself. The illumination of these images through dream contributes to the spectator’s non-linear experience of the narrative, but further illuminates the importance and the recurrence of the fixed image in our perception of the moving-image. Furthermore, each long take points to the calm flow of another worldly pattern and gives the spectator the agentive power to construct his or her own subjective spectatorial experience.

Kiarostami is not the first to push the limits of slow cinema by meditating deeply on continuous and repetitive actions or space. Some might be prone to draw comparisons between Kiarostami’s cinematic style and other slow films such as Andy Warhol’s exhaustive anti-film in Sleep or Chantal Akerman’s tedious use of a kitchen in Jeanne Dielman. And while these films do embody a temporal slowness, I’m inclined to suggest that these films are not as sympathetic to their viewer, particularly in the experience of empty time, as in a Kiarostami film. His overall sensitivity to human action and even his deep meditation on the non-anthropocentric space of the sea offers his spectator a redemptive, versus a punitive, experience. Kiarostami’s filmic style does not seek to exhaust his viewer with excesses either in length or impenetrable visuals. Even while inviting his viewers to take a short nap, his film is meticulously designed to include only that which is absolutely necessary. For this reason, Five is successful in presenting each part of the day, sunrise, morning, afternoon, twilight, and dusk; all the while, each of Five’s long takes only last about 12 minutes, thus condensing a whole day to a little over an hour. Thus, it is important to reiterate that while Five certainly shares the company of others forms of slow cinema, its singularity lies in Kiarostami’s kindness that shares images made of dreams and invites an endless and bountiful imagination. His is a type of cinematic intimacy that stays with you.


  1. Cooperating with the Earth: Auteur as Spectator

In a reflection on the making of Five, Kiarostami articulated the operative force of chance in his work, “There are moments in my film that I must confess are not of my own making.” Kiarostami humbly rescinds his authorial power (including the technical logic of cinematic design) to allow his films to be propelled by contingent elements beyond his control. As such, Kiarostami himself shares his own spectatorial experiences with life’s accidental and hidden course. In the process of creating Five, Kiarostami cooperated with the hidden powers of the earth including the rhythms, vibrations, and cadences of the earth, wind, and water. The cooperative nature of Kiarostami’s filmmaking comes from a consciousness and curiosity for factors out of his control[26]. This refers both to the creative force of spectator experiences as well as life’s unpredictable chance formation. Kiarostami guides us to watch Five with an awareness to the power of the accidental and to contemplate what we cannot know. To see the assemblage of images in Five as both creations of chance and mediation illuminates and intertwines the chance patterns of the mundane with that of the mediating apparatus.  As auteur, Kiarostami cooperates with the earth and embodies the notion of participatory cinema even prior to the relationship of auteur and spectator through the operative powers of chance within the earth itself.

Kiarostami’s films call for a collision of worlds; in a first gesture, they share his own imagined experience. And like the flow of water, his films are receptive to elements outside of it. He invites his spectators to add to the depth of the world he has created, and to see beyond it, to take it with them. To see Kiarostami’s images is not to acquire knowledge, or even a story (even though many times, we do) but to affect one’s way of looking at the material world. Kiarostami’s slow and often-static shots compel us to be attentive to objects, elements, and other worldly patterns. His filmmaking is generous with its gaze and kind in its style, a filmmaking whose current will continue to leave its traces. Like the image of ripples in each of Five’s long takes, it constantly expands our way of seeing, transforms our gaze from the linear, or logically causal, and opens ourselves and our dreams to the felt rhythms of the earth.

[1]Donna Honarpisheh is a PhD student at UC-Berkeley’s department of Comparative Literature. She holds an MA from UC-Berkeley in Near Eastern studies and is a member of the designated emphasis program in Critical Theory. Her work focuses on the aesthetics and politics of Modernist Persian Film and Fiction, Francophone literature, and Postcoloniality.

[2]Five Long Takes: Dedicated to Ozu directed by Abbas Kiarostami (New York: The Kimstim Collection, 2003), DVD.

[3]Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami (London: Saqi, 2005), 183. Elena also cites Alain Bergala, “Abbas Kiarostami: Les pleins pouvoirs du cinema,” 45.

[4]While I will not be exploring the experience of Five in its museum form, it is worth noting that viewing the film as an installation piece might prompt a different reading of the film. Specifically, focusing on the piece as an installation might provide an alternative experience for the relationship between material and viewer. MoMA acquired Five in 2004 after its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival and showed it as a part of a Kiarostami retrospective entitled: “Abbas Kiarostami: Image-Maker.” At MoMa, it was screened as a single theatrical projection as well as a media installation. As a media installation, the film was divided into five segments and projected in a continuous and synchronized loop onto five separate walls, with the audio of each take blending slightly together. MoMA describes this work as: “beautifully min[ing] the potential of digital imagery and sound while playfully investigating the fluid limits of documentary art practice.” It can be argued that as video installation, Five elicits what Alain Bergala calls the “re-education of the gaze,” with the spatiality of the museum adding its own way of looking for the spectator and his/her mobility within the space. See Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 153.

[5]Walter Benjamin, “The Formula in Which Dialectical Structure of Film Finds Expression,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Brigid Doherty trans. Thomas Y. Levin and Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 340-341.

[6]Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, and the Archive (Harvard University Press, 2002).

[7]Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, 140.

[8]Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, 141.

[9]Theodor W. Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 3.

[10]By pseudo-realist, Adorno refers to films that claim to be realist in their heightened and exaggerated interpretation of human action through an uncritical use of technology. These are films that reify commodity culture and fetishize their means. They do not truly represent reality because they debase our sense of time and capture the spectator through shock-like effects and images, as though they are coming through a conveyor belt. Instead, Adorno calls for a meaningful relationship between technique, material, and content. See “Transparencies on Film,” 184.

[11]Abbas Kiarostami, The Taste of Cherry, video interview,

[12]Here, Alberto Elena cites Kiarostami’s statement in Alberto Barbara and Elisa Resegotti. See Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 174.

[13]Abbas Kiarostami, Around Five: Abbas Kiarostami’s Reflections on Film and the Making of Five, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2003; New York: Kimstim, 2005), DVD.

[14] Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 183.

[15]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 180.

[16]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 183-184.

[17]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 201.

[18]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,”183. For Adorno, the interdisciplinary constellation of film is expressed most powerfully in Mauricio Kagel’s television film, Antithese.

[19] Ira Jaffe, Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action (New York: Wallflower Press:  2014), 13.

[20]Kiarostami, Around Five.

[21]For more on Five’s non-anthropocentric nature and its object-oriented ontology, see Selmin Kara’s essay, “The Sonic Summons: Meditations on Nature and Anempathetic Sound in Digital Documentaries” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, ed. C. Vernalis, A. Herzog, and J. Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 582–97. There, Kara argues that Five’s aesthetics provide an alternative to “human centered vision.” Instead, Kara writes, “Kiarostami’s sound and image editing in Five sets duration as a relative, matter- or object-oriented (instead of subject-oriented) term, deflating assumptions about continuity. His long-take night is a rhythmic assemblage, one that takes into account the temporal patterns, superimpositions, and cadences that might be observable among various nights on the Caspian shore, without privileging the linear logic of human perception.”

[22]Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 35.

[23]Sean Cubitt, “Watching Waves” in Eco Media (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2005), 49.

[24]Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, ed. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2006), 1-2.

[25]Interview with Abbas Kiarostami, published in Abbas Kiarostami, Photo Collection (Tehran: Hunar-i Īrān, 2000), not paginated.

[26]In his documentary film, “Around Five,” Kiarostami beautifully recounts an old story to tell the difference between chess and backgammon, or logic and chance. He says: “It is said that in old times, a philosopher in India invented chess after much pondering, and presented it as a gift to the Maharajah of India. The Maharajah was so impressed with this logical and mental game of war, that he presented it to the Iranian emperor as a symbol of Indian intelligence. In doing this, the Indian Maharajah was delivering a philosophical challenge. Bozorgmehr, the wise vizier of the Iranian king, Anowshirvan, deciphered the secrets of this complicated game and the logical warlike thought behind it. He decided to respond to the Indian philosopher in the same way. Therefore, in return for chess, he invented backgammon, with two small cubes called dice. This game takes full control from the player and show him that there are other factors contributing to one’s destiny than skill, intelligence and experience, factors that many of us are unaware of…These factors may strike our life at any point and a wise person is one who allows for these accidents in the game.”