Further Fragments of Sogdian Manichaean Riddles?

Christiane Reck <reck@bbaw.de> is a research associate at Goettingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities at the project Union Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts in Germany. She has published Gesegnet sei dieser Tag: Manichäische Festtagshymnen – Edition der mittelpersischen und parthischen Sonntags-, Montags- und Bemahymnen (Turnhout, 2004) and three volumes of the Catalogue of Mitteliranische Handschriften in soghdischer Schrift (Stuttgart, 2006, 2016 and 2018). Currently, she is cataloguing the Persian manuscripts in Germany.

Riddles are a popular literary and oral genre for entertainment and education of young and elderly people all over the world. Riddles should be solved to win the heart and realm of king’s daughters or to save lives in many tales. But riddles also help one to memorize mythological and religious facts and ideas. The use of riddles in the pre-Islamic period of Iranian literature is examined in the summary by G. Windfuhr.[1] One of the most well-known examples of the Middle Persian tradition of wisdom literature (andarz) is the Pahlavi text “Mādayān ī Ĵōšt ī Friyān.”[2] The culture of riddles continued in Islamic times as a unique literary form by famous authors such as Nūr ad-Dīn Jāmī, for example and remain the subject of scholarly analysis and discussion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, four German expeditions to Chinese Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China) took place. They brought thousands of manuscript fragments to Berlin. Among these findings from the Turfan oasis are some fragments which contain Sogdian Christian riddles, published by W. Sundermann.[3] The Manichaean literature of Central Asia also includes amusing didactic genres. In 1945, W. B. Henning published a Sogdian text[4] (So 10100h) containing questions of the King Xusrō,[5] who asks the water sprite (γntrw) about many diverse issues. These questions are mostly comparisons such as, “What is higher than the sky? What is lower than the earth?” and so on. The Manichaean affinity results from the manuscript itself, the book format, and the handwriting which belong to a so-called multiple text manuscript, which contains tales with obvious Manichaean contents. Unfortunately this fragment preserves only the questions without a single answer. The Sogdian texts very often seem to be enigmatic. B. Gharib’s dictionary was a great step forward unravelling some of the mysteries. I dedicate this work to her as a token of my gratitude.

The Berlin Turfan collection stores three further fragments with texts which can be interpreted as kinds of riddles. They remained unpublished all over the time because of their enigmatic character. All the three texts are written on the reverse side of Chinese scrolls, which confirms the Manichaean affiliation of them. All three fragments were found in Toyoq during the second German expedition to the Turfan oasis in 1904-5. The findings of the expedition are marked by the letter T followed by the number of the expedition (I to IV), the finding place (T for Toyoq, for example) and the number of the bundles for transportation. Two of the fragments (Ch/So 14743 and Ch/So 20150) were collected in the same bundle as marked by finding sigle  T II T 1435.

There was another fragment among the Turfan texts of which now only a transliteration in Hebrew letters exists in the Lentz estate in the Hamburg University. The recent shelf number of this lost fragment is *So 21005.[6] The text on one side, labeled as verso in the Catalogue but recto in the edition, contains letter formulas.[7] On the other side, several words have survived. Lentz categorized them as “Schreibübungen” (writing exercises). However, they have been mentioned tentatively in the catalogue Reck VOHD 18, 1 as a riddle, with the answer ’’ph  āp  “water,” which cannot be approved anymore. This fragment has not been edited here.

Among the Old Uyghur texts from Turfan only few fragments with riddles are known up to the present day. Two examples from the Berlin Turfan collection should be mentioned here:

  1. Ch/U 6905 verso:[8] From the altogether preserved eight text lines only the lines /v/4-8/ are to be determined as a riddle with certainty. The clue for this identification is to be found in the concluding question, bo nägü sav ol (“What does it mean?”).
  2. Mainz 842 + U 4990 verso:[9] The question in this riddle is “Which living being do we see?,” the empty space after this question preserved on these joined fragments clearly indicates that the text is finished with this question.[10] Those texts and some proverbs or sentences are similarly enigmatic like ours.[11]
  3. Ch/So 14743 verso:[12]

The first text is preserved in the upper part of the reverse side of a Chinese scroll. The shelf number of the fragment is Ch/So 14743 (T II T 1435; 13,5 x 39,5 cm). This scroll fragment is cut in the middle lengthwise as it was often done in the case of re-use for Sogdian texts. The text itself is short but complete in three and a half lines with two interlinear words (cw ʾnt) whose position is not clear but which could belong near to the end of the third line. Possibly the writer forgot these two words and added them afterwards. The script is relatively clear and the letters s and š are easily distinguished. The letter z is written without connection to the following letter. This makes it relatively easier to read. Although the script and language of the fragment is Sogdian, several Middle Persian and Parthian words are observed. In Sogdian transliteration the letters t, k and x may also represent the sounds d, g and h. However, the reading is not certain in some cases, neither the translation nor the interpretation. It starts with a question and seems to give an answer like an aphorism. This text is somehow puzzling to understand. I discussed the transliteration and translation with Werner Sundermann many years ago and again with Nicholas Sims-Williams a few years ago, as it remained difficult to read and interpret this text. There were some different ideas about the readings of y and r, which now are more clearly distinguished. Nicholas Sims-Williams kindly informed me about his most recent readings and understanding of this tricky text.[13] Whereas the first part seems to be more or less clear, the second part remains difficult, mainly because of the difficulties with the words yʾδ (or βʾδ, rʾδ) and xʾnk (or xʾʾk, xnʾk). I preferred on this place to adopt the reading yʾδ as proposed by Nicholas Sims-Williams. Nicholas Sims-Williams read trw and trwγ “lie, falsehood,” ʾym as “this,” yʾd as “memory,” xʾʾk “earth” or xʾnk “house.” The word mrδmʾn can be a misspelling of mrδxmʾn or the variant form without any h/x (see DMSB, 230). But one could read *myδmʾn “*guest” as well (see Pashto ميلمه milma). Thus it could be together with the Middle Persian xʾnk an unexpected compound of an unattested Sogdian word together with a Middle Persian word for “guest house.”[14] Furthermore it is not clear where the passage cwn ʾnt should actually be inserted.[15] The reading and understanding of the third line is in any case difficult and can merely be a guess: “The memory is a guest house, from them are they.” In any way, all these are only attempts to understand this short sentence. Thus no final translation of this line is offered here.

/1/ cw  ʾsty  z-βʾk  trw  ʾsty What is the tongue? The tongue is the lie.
/2/ z-βʾk  ʾym  trw  ʾsty  pδ  z-yrt

cwn  ʾnt

This lie is in the heart.


/3/ y/β/rʾδ  my/rδmʾn  xʾn/ʾk  trwγ … … … from them are they. Falsehood
/4/ ʾsty xmʾk


is everything.

Non-Sogdian words:

Sogdian script: Reconstruction in Manichaean script: Translation:
trw drw lie, deceit (MP), DMSB, 193
ʾym ʿym this (MP/Pa)
pd in etc. (MP/Pa)
zyrt zyrd heart (Pa)
yʾδ yʾd memory (MP ʾyʾd)
mrδmʾn mrdwhmʾn people (MP, Pa)
xʾnk xʾng house (MP)
trwγ drwγ lie, deceit (Pa)
xmʾk hmʾg all (MP/Pa) DMSB, 216

1- Ch/So 20150 verso:[16]

The second text Ch/So 20150 (T II T 1435; 13,4 x 10,5 cm) preserves only the endings of seven lines and a trace of the line above. The presence of the interrogative cknʾʾcw “from what, from which, from whom, concerning which” could indicate that these are riddles.[17] But it could well be a kind of doctrinal text like the Sermon of the Soul,[18] as supplemented by Nicholas Sims-Williams. Unfortunately, only a few words are preserved in this fragment. One cannot thus find out, what is asked and what its answer is. The only meaningful passage is tmʾyk ʾʾtr “the hell’s fire,” as in So 18248I/r/13/.[19] The reading of x(wy)rty is proposed by Yutaka Yoshida. Because of the blurred letters and the lack of context the reading and interpretation is complicated.

/1/ ](k/m)[   6         ]
/2/ ](.)  cknʾʾ[cw ] Why
/3/ ](.)myty  rty  CWR(H)[ ]… And self/person/soul/body[20]
/4/ ](m/s/š)[1-2]ysy  ky  ZY ] … who not
/5/ ](.)  x(wy)rty  Ο ] it is eaten(?).
/6/ ](.)  cknʾʾc  pyδʾr ] Why
/7/ ](.)  tmʾykw  ʾʾtr ] the hell’s fire
/8/ ](.)nt  ZY  tšʾnt ] (they) … and escape

2- Ch/U 6419 verso:[21]

The third fragment Ch/U 6419 (T II T 1198; 16 x 13,7 cm) preserves presumably the end of a text because the end of the sheet of paper seems to be cut and the sentence is terminated by a full stop, a filled circle. We do not know how much text is missing. If the text had been written on a scroll cut in the middle, then the lines would have been nearly complete. But if the text was written on a complete scroll, nearly the half of a line is missing. The text in the lines /8/ and /9/ shows, that more than a few letters should be inserted in between these passages. This implies, that this fragment was torn from a complete scroll. The beginning of the lines is preserved in most cases. The character of the text is not clear. But the interrogatives ktʾm ʾʾδy “which person” and ky “who” indicate, that certain questions are mentioned. The word “pyrnm” occurs many times in this text. It means “before” in a temporal or in a locative sense (“formerly, before, first” or “before, in the presence of”). It can be used as a postposition: see DMSB, 164. In this text it seems to be located after several parts of the body (pʾδʾ, cšm-). In l. 9 the second word is not clearly legible. The second letter should be an n. The third letter seems to be a s as it is curved to the left. But the meaning of ʾ(ns)ʾsy is not clear. Yutaka Yoshida proposed to read the third letter as x and interpret the word ”/nx’s as “battle”. Another unknown word has only the beginning of it preserved: wkʾr[.

It would be very nice to learn what the text is about. Thus I can only wish that further research in Sogdian will allow us to identify the content of this text:

/1/ (ZY) pr  xwsʾnt(yʾ)  (βw)[t … is in … and in contentment. [
/2/ sr(y)ʾkycw  γ(n)tʾk  ZY  ptx/γ(.)[ the chief evil and …[
/3/ [n](ʾ)  xwpw  ZY  nʾ  wkʾr[ not good and not …[
/4/ [1-2](y)  ktʾm  ʾʾδy  xcy  ky  cʾwn  [ […] Which person is it, who [   ] of/from [
/5/ pʾδʾ  pyrnm  ʾʾγʾyrt  Z(Y)[ before the feet (goes) …[
/6/ (ZY) ky  MN  pcmʾky  xw  (.)[ and who is of noble [
/7/ [     10     ]  cšmʾ  py(r)[nm [               ] before the eye [
/8/ [   6   ](.)  ZY  MN  pʾδʾ  (p)[yrnm [           ] and [before] the feet [
/9/ ZKwy  ʾ(nx)ʾsy  pyrnm  tysʾy  ZY[ in before the battle(?) enters and [
/10/ pyrnm  xw  p(t)βyw  ZY  ʾ(z)[ before [       ] the respect and …[
/11/ [    8    ](..)γrβ  ʾ(st)[y] Ο [             ] is (much).

Summary: There are no more clearly legible and understandable Sogdian riddle texts in addition to those which had been published before this article. All the remnants are ambiguous, or only fragments are preserved. But it may be possible that some other documents will be discovered or identified in the future which could illuminate these puzzling texts.



Ch/So 14743 verso (detail)

Photo: Berlin State Library



Ch/So 20150 verso

Photo: Berlin State Library



Ch/U 6419 verso

Photo: Berlin State Library

[1]G. Windfuhr, “Riddles,” in General Introduction to Persian Literature, ed. J. T. P. de Bruijn (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 312‒314.

[2]M. Macuch, “Pahlavi Literature,” in Literature of Pre-Islamic Iran, ed. R. E. Emmerick and M. Macuch (A History of Persian Literature; Companion vol. 1) (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 116‒196, esp. 160‒172. See also I. Colditz, “Eine vergessene zoroastrische Märtyrerin?,” in A Thousand Judgements. Festschrift for Maria Macuch, ed. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and Claudius Naumann (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019), 51‒70,  esp. 51, fn. 2.

[3]W. Sundermann, “Der Schüler fragt den Lehrer: Eine Sammlung biblischer Rätsel in soghdischer Sprache,” in A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen, (Leiden: Brill, 1988), 173‒186, [pl.?] V-XII.

[4]W. B. Henning, “Sogdian Tales,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11 (1945) 3: 480‒482 with n. 3.

[5]P. Lurje, Personal Names in Sogdian Texts, IPNB 8, II (Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), 84, no. 65.

[6]Mitteliranische Handschriften: Berliner Turfanfragmente manichäischen Inhalts in soghdischer Schrift, described by Ch. Reck, (VOHD 18,1) (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2006,) 306, nr. *442.

[7]A. Benkato, Studies in the Sogdian Epistolary Tradition (Berliner Turfantexte; 41) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018),  41, nr. 27.

[8]S.-Ch. Raschmann, Alttürkische Handschriften, Teil 14: Dokumente: Teil 2  (VOHD 13, 22) (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2009), 184, nr. 503.

[9]The fragments are described in the database KOHD digital: https://orient-mss.kohd.adw-goe.de.

[10]I thank Simone-Christiane Raschmann for her kind help in referring the Old Uyghur texts.

[11]P. Zieme, “Fragmente von Erzählungen, Sprichwörtern und Reimsprüchen aus der altuigurischen Zeit,” AİBÜ Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi, Semih Tezcan’a Armağan 13 (2013): 473‒496.

[12]Mitteliranische Handschriften: Berliner Turfanfragmente manichäischen Inhalts in soghdischer Schrift, described by Ch. Reck, (VOHD 18,1) (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2006), 162‒163, nr. 215 (wrong measurement). The recto side contains Chinese text: Taishō Tripiṭaka nr. 473 = 21, 443c52‒444a.

[13]I thank Nicholas Sims-Williams and Yutaka Yoshida very much for all their help and Alisher Begmatov for improving my English phrasing. All remaining shortcomings are, of course, my own responsibility.

[14]There are some of such multilingual text fragments among the Turfan texts, which use words from several languages; see for example Nicholas Sims-Williams, “A Multilingual Manichaean Calendar from Turfan (U130),” Language, Society and Religion in the World of the Turks: Festschrift for Larry Clark at Seventy-Five, ed. Zsuzsanns Gulácsi (Silk Road Studies 19) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), 251‒266.

[15]See DMSB, 67 and 64 s.v. cwn.

[16]Mitteliranische Handschriften: Berliner Turfanfragmente manichäischen Inhalts in soghdischer Schrift, described by Ch. Reck, (VOHD 18,1) (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2006), 230, nr. 310. The recto side contains Chinese text: Taishō Tripiṭaka nr. 374 = 12, 572c19‒26.

[17]Nicholas Sims-Williams, Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst, Dictionary of Manichaean Texts 3:2, Texts from Central Asia and China (Texts in Sogdian and Bactrian) (Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum: Subsidia 7)(Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), 63‒64.

[18]W. Sundermann, Der Sermon von der Seele (Berliner Turfantexte 19) (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997), 92-93, 153, 155).

[19]W.B. Henning, “The Murder of the Magi”, JRAS (1944): 133‒144, (138 and 140), repr. W. B. Henning, Selected Papers II (Téhéran-Liège: Brill, 1977), 139‒150 (144 and 146).

[20]I thank Yutaka Yoshida for the reading of CWRH.

[21]See Mitteliranische Handschriften: Berliner Turfanfragmente manichäischen Inhalts in soghdischer Schrift, as described by Ch. Reck, (VOHD 18,1) (Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 2006), 268, nr. 369. The recto side contains Chinese text: Taishō Tripiṭaka nr. 262 = 9, 18c22‒19a3.

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, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/vis-o-ramin.

[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 (mg91@st-andrews.ac.uk) 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,” wordpress.com, https://jyothsnay.wordpress.com/2008/02/13/an-unfinished-cinema-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), www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/24-frames-abbas-kiarostami-living-parting-miniatures.

[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 www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2009/may/19/abbas-kiarostami-photography-exhibition.

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), http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-the-quran/cain-and-abel-EQSIM_00066.

[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”, http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2.


[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, http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2.

[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.

Poetry as Salve for Persian Exiles

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab is a professor of Persian and Iranian Studies at Utrecht University and an associate professor at Leiden University. In addition to many articles, blogs, and chapters, he has authored, edited, and translated several books on Persian literature and culture. His latest publications include the edited volumes Pearls of Meanings: Studies on Persian Art, Poetry, Sufism and History of Iranian Studies in Europe by J. T. P. de Bruijn (Leiden University Press, 2020) and The Layered Heart: Essays on Persian Poetry, A Celebration in Honor of Dick Davis (Mage, 2019). He is the founding general editor of the Iranian Studies Series at Leiden University Press.



With the coming of the 1979 Revolution and the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), Persian poetry entered into a new phase. While the revolutionary poets wrote about the ideals of the revolution, motivating young soldiers to go to the front, many established poets were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed, and some chose exile. From this period onward, a rich corpus of Persian poetry about exile has been created. With minds in their new homes and hearts in the homeland, the poets reflect on a wide range of new experiences. What strikes me in reading the poetry of exiled Iranians is that their poetry, as well as their other writings, usually starts with traumatic experiences in prisons before and after the revolution, followed by reflective narratives about their flight from Iran, and a period of adaptation and even acceptance of the new culture, elaborating on life in exile with all its hardships and problems. In these three phases, poetry often functions as a salve, offering poets a space for reflection and contemplation. The authors have recourse to classical Persian poetry, which conveys the ephemerality of life, to universalize the theme of exile by relating it to a mystical longing of the soul for its original abode and to the uncertainties of mundane life. While classical poetry is restorative for pains and tribulations, the exiled authors also compose their own poetry depicting a bitter and souring process of acquiescence to an uncertain life in the diaspora.

In this essay, I will first give an example of how classical Persian poetry is used by the diaspora in an exilic context, and then, I will analyze the poetry of three Persian poets: Nasim Khaksar, Pegah Ahmadi, and Fatemeh Shams. There are a large number of Persian poets in the diaspora whose poetry deserves to be analyzed. Each of these poets, whether they are established, amateur, or novice, reveals a new aspect of life in exile.


Diaspora’s Use of Classical Persian Poetry

Some thirty years ago when I was a student, I worked incidentally as a translator. I was struck by the use of classical Persian poetry in Iranian and Afghan refugees’ asylum applications. One popular couplet was the following by Hafez (1315–90):

ما بدین در نه پی حشمت و جاه آمده‌ایم               از بد حادثه اینجا به پناه آمده‌ایم

We have not come at this door for pomp and position

Because of misfortune, we have sought refuge here[1]

For the Dutch, it is most remarkable to see a verse from a fourteenth-century poet in an asylum application. What does it mean to let Hafez speak to European governmental organizations? Is it a humble way to inform them that the writer is a learned refugee, to exclude the possibility of being stigmatized as an economic migrant? Do the refugees not know that citing Hafez in this context is strange, or is it, indeed, an original way to gain attention and convince authorities of the writer’s refugee status? In any case, this couplet conveys an emotive element, inviting the reader to reflect on the life of a refugee. Hafez’s poetry is famous for its multilayered significations, oscillating between heaven and earth, allowing both spiritual and earthly interpretations.[2] One mystical interpretation of the original ghazal points to the poet, who is intimately supplicating to God (monajat), expressing his frail position in the material world and the longing to return to the original abode, to be united with the Creator.[3] The metaphor of the door implies that the poet is at a closed door, imploring God to open the gate. He is clearly not praying out of any desire for material gain or position. Rather, his soul has experienced a misfortune: expulsion from the spiritual world. This might be a reference to Adam’s expulsion from the heavenly gardens. The poet is now knocking on the door to find a refuge in God’s propinquity. The ghazal has also a panegyrical character, allowing the poem to be used in a mundane courtly context. The word door in Persian also alludes to a “court.”[4]

The salient feature of this single couplet is that Hafez does not identify the addressee, making the poem timeless, allowing it to be used in a wide range of contexts, including the secular sphere. In this reading, the poet hopes to strike up a relationship, detached from material gain. What are the salient features of this single couplet that have made it usable in all types of situations, even seven hundred years after its composition and in a European context? What are the features of good poetry that is timeless? In what follows, I will try to analyze this couplet to show how and why poetry functions as an emotional home for Persian speakers, especially those living in exile.

The couplet assures Iranian refugees that they are not the first to experience this misfortune, and gives them words to depict the situation of refugees who have lost everything and are seeking safety in a strange country. It is used to exclude any possibility that the speaker has come to the new homeland for material benefits or positions. It says that the speaker has suffered a traumatic experience, and therefore, they find themselves at the door, which has connotations of both desperation and hope.

The couplet is the opening line of a ghazal of seven couplets.[5] Persian poets exert themselves to find the catchiest opening couplets to attract the attention of the audience, their patrons, or their beloved. This technique is called hosn-e matlaʿ or “the beauty of the opening couplet.” The line is attractive in several ways. First, it is written in an inimitably simple style so that even a dull child can understand the message. Compared with Hafez’s convoluted style, in which he often weaves different themes, metaphors, and motifs into one line, this couplet is straightforward. Second, Hafez is using one of the most effective vehicles to communicate—namely, emotion. A feature of good poetry is to move the reader or listener. And this couplet moves the audience without requiring them first to puzzle out what the words mean.

This emotive and reflexive aspect of the couplet gives an air of informality, which is completely opposed to the formal asylum applications. While maintaining the hierarchy of high and low, rich and poor, safe and unsafe, this colloquial formulation creates an equality and a sense of honesty and familiarity between the poet and the addressee. The couplet sets the tone. The interpretation of the couplet affects how the reader treats the rest of the applicant’s text. The key term here is panah, which means “asylum,” “refuge,” and “protection” and appears in common phrases such as be kasi/khoda panah avardan/bordan, “to seek refuge with a person/God.” The word’s emotive aspect is further emphasized by the phrase az bad-e hadethe, which is literally “[as a result] of a bad accident” or “bad luck.” Without any adjectival modification, the word hadethe in Persian refers to misfortune, disaster, or calamity, but the adjective bad emphasizes the intensity of the events that caused the poet to flee. Simon Vestdijk (1898–1971) provides an excellent analysis of John Keats’s (1795–1821) opening line of “Endymion” (1818), “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” According to Vestdijk, Keats’s original version, “A thing of beauty is a constant joy,” could never be as successful as the later version, because the use of a combination of Roman adjectives and Saxon nouns, and vice versa, in the later verse increases the flow and beauty of the language.[6] In Keats’s line, “thing” is Germanic and “beauty” is derived from the French beauté. But in “a constant joy” (une joie constante), there is no variety, and the balance in the word combination is broken.[7] I would argue that in Hafez’s case, the beauty of the couplet also lies in this variation of formulation and the combination of Arabic and Persian words. The Arabic heshmat (“pomp”) is combined with the Persian jah (“position”) in the first hemistich, while the Persian adjective bad is combined with the Arabic noun hadethe. The sequence of Arabic, Persian, Persian, and Arabic words creates a balance, as well as a contrast. While heshmat-o jah alludes to worldly possessions and status, the compound bad-e hadethe refers to the loss of material goods. An oppositional contrast is created: there is dissonance between heshmat-o jah and bad-e hadethe, and a positive association between dar and panah. Aside from the musicality, which is created through the meter, assonances, and dissonances, the formulation of words makes this couplet attractive. The words are formulated in such a way as to guide the reader to the key word almost at the end of the second hemistich, panah. The negation in the first hemistich makes the reader wonder how the poet has come to be at the door, emphasizing the urgency.

After the depiction of the pungent calamity afflicted on the poet, the word inja, “here” (literally, “this place”), creates an antithetical space, contrasting it to the place of mishap. Using ellipsis, by not mentioning the place from which the poet has fled, he conveys a feeling that he does not want to think about it. The focus is on “this place.” It is here that the poet can find protection. The poet’s begging for shelter is further amplified by the emphasis on not seeking any fortune and position in this new place. His plea is minimal: safety.

There is also a vigorous dynamic in the line, expressed through the radif rhyme amade-im or “we have come.” This emphasizes the vitality but also the completion of the journey. The Persian ghazal has a monorhyme (aa, ba, ca, da, etc.). The radif rhyme consists of an “independent word, a phrase or a personal suffix added repeatedly to each rhyme.”[8] In this case, the word amade-im emphasizes the arrival, the sense of urgency that the poet is out of danger but not yet safe, as he is standing before the closed door and hoping that the door will open and he will find protection.

The easy rhythmic flow of the Persian original also allows the couplet to be a kind of mantra and easily memorized. The meter is ramal-e mothamman-e makhbun-e maqsur or -0–/00–/00–/00- (where – stands for a long syllable and 0 for a short one). One can imagine refugees repeating it in their minds as they set out, and as consolation in the uncertain conditions of a foreign land. The individual key words remind them of their reasons for fleeing their hearth and home, seeking safety. The couplet is a poem on its own, independent of the rest of the ghazal, which is a love lyric. This independence has allowed the couplet to become a proverb. It has been calligraphed in splendid Persian scripts and used as a decoration in private and public places. No longer a line in a book, it becomes art on the walls and is spoken and heard. While the Persian literary tradition is very much a written tradition, with a complex infrastructure producing magnificent and lavish manuscripts, this textual tradition interacts with oral transmission, as these poems were performed in a wide range of social rituals. Refugees would be familiar with this couplet in both forms.

I was told that this couplet is carved on the gravestone of a young Iranian man buried in a cemetery in The Hague, the Netherlands. This person committed suicide when his asylum was rejected. After his death, people found this couplet, written in his own handwriting, on the wall of his tiny room. In this particular case, the couplet becomes a symbol of perpetual exile, as the poem reminds the reader and visitors that the buried young man is far from his homeland.[9] The chiasmus created between homeland/foreign land and unsafe/safe embodies the emotional pain many Iranian refugees experience.

The use of couplets such as this in everyday life presupposes that speakers have a repertoire of apposite verses. Hafez composed this couplet seven hundred years ago for a completely different situation, yet the ambiance he has created with a few words is of such a timeless quality that it matchlessly corresponds to the situation of Persian speakers today. While such usages of the work of Hafez and other poets show how poetry is part and parcel of the lives of Persian speakers, they also demonstrate how poetry soothes personal pains and sufferings in exile.

Through analysis of this splendid couplet, I have tried to show the prominent place of poetry in the lives of Persian exiles. A study of the use of classical Persian poetry among diasporic Persian communities is certainly a desideratum, as poetry is employed not only in festivals such as Nowruz (21 March) and Yalda (21 December) but also increasingly in digital forms, especially on social media to comment on sociopolitical developments in Iran.[10] In what follows, I would like to show how Persian diasporic poets use their own poetry in exile and how this poetry creates a space to reflect on traumatic experiences and process their emotional wounds.


Nasim Khaksar’s Poetry on Exilic Life

Nasim Khaksar is commonly known for his prose fiction and literary criticism. While his prose fiction limns the lives of fictional characters in exile in detail, his poetry creates space for multiple interpretations of exilic life, allowing readers to fill in their own experiences. Khaksar was born in Abadan in the southern province of Khuzestan in Iran in 1944.[11] After finishing school, he undertook teacher training in Hamadan and later in Isfahan. As a teacher, he served at various schools in several towns in Khuzestan Province. His literary career started in this period; he was also faced with the suffocating repression and censorship of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925–79) in the 1960s, when pressure on intellectuals, especially literati, increased.[12] He was arrested in 1967 and jailed for two years. After his release, he resumed his literary activities under the pseudonym Behrouz Azar. He won recognition for his literary stories for children. After the 1979 Revolution, he fled Iran and has lived in the Netherlands since 1983.

Most of the poems of his first years in the Netherlands show the poet intensely haunted by nightmarish experiences of persecution, imprisonment, and torture. The following poem, “The Sad Melody of Exile” (1984), depicts a sense of uprootedness combined with aloneness as a foreigner in a new country. The emotions depicted here are the reluctant bidding farewell to one’s homeland, the unwillingness to accept life in a foreign country, and finally, the long process of mourning. Being incessantly haunted by the memories of imprisonment, torture, and flight, the poet depicts these emotions while living in a new country, cold, raining, and often covered by clouds:

The Sad Melody of Exile

The rain falls,

And drop by drop

Splashing at times on the window pane.

I’m here

far from my birthplace.

There’s no sun here,

and ash-gray colours

recede into far distances.

The morning rain

is different to the rain at noon.

The morning rain

is different to the rain at sunset.

The morning rain,

is not like rain at night.


Weeping in all sobriety,

in the dawn of memories;

the feeling of loneliness

in the first light of understanding.


I travel

with a sail of sorrow,

with words imbued with memory,[13]

I come in the wind, searching for you.

I will collect the smell of pine trees

from the creeks of memories,

And I will not stay in the abyss of apprehension.


This is not the end of being human:

an exiled man

a homeless man

an exhausted man


without refuge,

a man without pride.


This is not the end of being human:

to forget

the name of water lilies,

and the memory of palm trees

and your sorrows,

O you, your soil most defenseless.

The cracked lips of your hollow places

have remained open,

thirsty for the rain.

The morning rain,

Is the rain of memory,

the rain of tears,

the rain of memories,

the rain of wind,

the rain of leaves,

the rain of being born

in the narrow streets of a flourishing village.

The morning rain

is the morning rain.[14]

ترانه غمگین تبعیدی

باران می‌بارد

و چکه چکه

گاه بر شیشه می‌خورد

من اینجایم.

دور از زادگاه

آفتابی اینجا نیست

و رنگ خاکستری

تا دوردست می‌رود

باران صبح،

باران ظهر نیست

باران صبح،

باران غروب نیست

باران صبح

مثل باران شب نیست

هوشیار گریه کردن

در پگاه خاطره

و حس تنهائی

در بامداد شعور

من  سفر می‌کنم

با بادبان اندوه

و با واژه‌های حافظه

در باد به جستجوی تو می‌آیم

و بوی صنوبر را

از جویبار خاطره می‌چینم

و در ورطه‌های هول نمی‌مانم


این سرانجام انسان نیست.

انسان تبعید شده

انسان دربدر

انسان خسته


بی پناه

انسان بی غرور.


این سرانجام انسان نیست

که نام نیلوفر را

ازیاد ببرد

و خاطره‌ی نخلها را

و اندوه تو را

ای بی پناه ترین خاک

که لب حفره‌های پوک‌ات

در عطش باران

باز مانده است

باران صبح

باران خاطره است

باران صبح

باران گریستن

باران یاد

باران باد

باران برگ

باران میلاد

در کوچه‌های یک ده آباد

باران صبح

باران صبح است


Coming from Khuzestan, notorious for its blistering heat, reaching sometimes 45°C or even 50°C, the poet expresses displacement by depicting the cold, wet, and cloudy climate of the Netherlands. The diametrically opposed climate becomes a symbol to evoke memories, reminding the poet of his exile. While there is a complaint in describing the incessant rain, there is also a starting point of accepting the uneasy sense of belonging in the new homeland, as the rains falling at different hours of the day each have a different meaning. It is as if the rain is becoming the poet’s companion, reminding him of who he is and where he comes from. It even reminds the poet of the rainless and hot seasons of the original homeland, when due to the blazing heat, the earth shrinks. The poet imagines his homeland as a living being with cracked lips longing for water. The shape of the hollows in the earth is compared to lips. The incessant flux of rain contrasts with the arid and dry homeland and the flourishing village of the new home in exile. Rain has become a symbol of safety, shelter, and a flourishing culture. Most of Iran is dry, so for Iranians, rain is a blessing. But the poet is paradoxically reminded of his alienation by the superabundant rain of the Netherlands. The rain, denoting alienation here, becomes a sense of belonging to the new homeland in his later poetry. In addition, there is a contrast between baran or “rain” (implicitly, “water”) and khak or “soil,” “earth,” or “homeland.”[15] The poet uses direct speech to address his homeland: “O you, your soil most defenseless.” It is as if the homeland is dying of thirst while the poet had to leave it behind, living in a country abundant in rainfall. The contrast between rain and thirsty soil evokes many fragmented memories, foregrounding a kind of homesickness combined with a feeling of guilt for having abandoned the homeland in an unsafe condition. The homeland becomes a living being.[16]

While in the previous poem, the poet is still homesick, smelling the pine trees of the homeland “from the creeks of memories,” he conveys that he will not allow himself to fall into the “abyss of apprehension.” Here, one can sense a mourning process: Persian words are imbued with memories, and expressing them will open new wounds, while the poet also links the rain, a feature of life in exile, to his memories. In his later poetry, the mourning is completed, the haunted glimpses of torture are processed, and there is space to appreciate the new land, which starts to feel like home. In several of Khaksar’s later poems, he limns an event, a feeling, a memory, or an object as a magic potion that cures the invisible wounds of exile. Reading a poem secures hope. The following poem, “You Have Come So Far Well” (2003), depicts an individual’s attempt to reach their destination. The individual is walking a steep road while exhausted:

تا این جا خوب آمدی

آدم عاقل باید بداند

كجا بایستد خستگی در كند.

هیچ لطفی ندارد

وقتی توانش را نداری

با زور بی‌خود

لنگ لنگان

سر بالائی را طی كنی

كه نتیجه اش فقط نفس زدن است

چایت را بخور

برای نوشیدن  یك قهوه ام وقت داری.

به خصوص كه حالا حالا ها

معلوم نیست

اتوبوسی برسد.

You have come so far well.

A wise person should know

where to stop and rest.

There’s no point

if you do not have the power.

A pointless attempt,

limping and halting

to climb up the road

that only leads to panting.

Drink your tea;

you’ve time enough to take a coffee too.

Especially now, when

it’s not certain for a long time


a bus may arrive.[17]


The poem is couched in the form of a dialogue, but the addressee is absent. The poet describes the events. Is the poet talking to his own alter ego? The poet advises the addressee to pause, to drink a cup of tea or coffee, instead of limping on the road and running out of breath. Also, the poet advises the addressee not to wait for a bus, because it is not clear when or whether it will arrive. One should travel the road well, pacing oneself and enjoying each step, as the journey may last for a long time. Does the road stand for exile? Is the bus a symbol of good tidings of returning to the homeland? Does the traveler symbolize life in exile, struggling to reach an unknown destination on this steep road? These and similar questions come to mind, but a soothing thought, which is also the kernel of the poem, is that the poet gives hope, inviting the traveler to rest and drink something because there is much time left on the road. In the space the poet creates by amplifying the contrast between mobility and immobility, rootedness and rootlessness, and belonging and lack of belonging, the dialogue leans on undecidedness, irreversibility, and a bitter uncertainty, which cannot be cured.

While in the previous poem, the poet’s concerns are to take the time and enjoy the moment as the situation is irreparable, the following poem, entitled “From the Beginning, It Looked Like a Game” (August 2003), shows another aspect of exile:


از پيش هم مثل بازی بود

فقط وقتش گذشته بود

يعنی وقت بازی گذشته بود.

انگار بد نيست گاهی

در زمينی يك طرفه

توپ بزنی.

Even before, it looked like a game,

but a game whose time was up.

In other words, the time to play was up.

Sometimes it is not bad

to kick the ball

in half a playing field.[18]


Here, one sees a poet who has accepted that half a playing field may be enough for a player. This is a sad but emotionally laden message of an exile who has lost one part of their life. As in the previous poem, the poet invites his reader to accept the situation, as “it is not bad / to kick the ball / in half a playing field.” Does living in exile become a game restricted to one part of the field? The poem subtlety allows various interpretations. Does the half field that is denied represent half of the poet’s life, or is it the home country? Is the exiled poet unable to form roots in the entire soil of the new home? The half field also represents a rift in the poet. While the half field that is barred may stand for the original homeland, creating a sense of longing through inability to play on the other part of the field, it may also symbolize the feeling of not being accepted by the culture of the new homeland. Does the half field refer to discriminatory experiences, to being excluded in the new homeland, causing the poet to retreat and accept being limited to half the field? This type of physical and emotional split appears in other poems, as well.

The split introduced in the following poem refers to engagement or the lack of it, the emotional divide from the home country, and the unreality of life in exile. The separation is just a mirage, as memory always remains. This poem, entitled “It Disappeared from Sight” (n. d.), splendidly exhibits the inner struggle between connection here and connection there:

گم شد از نظر

مثل پشت برگهای این درخت

فنرهای این ساعت کهنه

عقربه‌هایش را

از یاد برده است

Like the back of the leaves of this tree,

the gears of this antediluvian clock

have forgotten

its hands.[19]


This superb metaphor for being cut off, neglected, and disengaged with what is essential displays how exile has stolen half of the poet’s existence. While this half is always present, it is not necessarily visible. The movement from the floral imagery to the industrial metaphor of the clock marks the boundary between the homeland (Iran) and the industrialized country (the Netherlands). Time has a different implication in exile. It is as if time has stopped. The exiled person is stuck in time and may be active, yet nothing changes. The poet compares this person’s two halves to the two sides of a leaf: neither can see the other.

In another poem, entitled “Perhaps” (12 May 1997), the poet acquiesces to the situation, creating a philosophical doubt about life. An individual who has followed his ideals all his life, suffering persecution, imprisonment, flight, and the bitter taste of exile is now questioning the object of his longing. The poet does not define his quest, inviting the reader to contemplate with him their own goals, stating, “Perhaps what I longed for was in fact the far distance itself.” Is the exiled poet turning his focus from politics, which caused him to flee Iran, to a mystical quest?


شاید آنچه در دورها می‌خواستم

همین پیرامون باشد

دستم اما به پیرامون نمی‌رسد.

اشیاء در تاریکی گم شده‌اند

و پیرامون مرزهایش را تا بی‌نهایت برده است

جائی آنسوی هیچ

آنسوی بیداری

آنسوی خواب

آنسوی عطسه کودک در صبحگاه

شاید آنچه من می‌خواستم، اصلاٌ خود دورها  باشد

شاید من اصلاٌ چیزی

چیزی نمی‌خواستم



Perhaps what I long for in the far distance

Is also here, nearby.

But my hand does not extend to “here.”

Things are lost, in darkness.

And “here” has stretched its bounds to infinity.

Somewhere, on the other side of nothing,

the other side of wakefulness,

the other side of sleep,

the other side of a child’s sneezing at dawn.

Perhaps what I longed for was in fact the far distance itself.

Perhaps I was not, in fact,

longing for anything.



Pegah Ahmadi

While Khaksar’s poetry may be characterized as accessible, Pegah Ahmadi’s poetry demands more attention because the language becomes a space of refuge. Ahmadi belongs to another generation of Iranian exilic poets.[21] In Khaksar, one finds a clear line of development from traumatic experiences such as imprisonment, torture, and flight in his early poems to a voice of acceptance and bitter certainty of life in exile in later poems. In Ahmadi’s poetry, one finds overwhelming allusions to the Iranian Revolution (1979), the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), and political events taking place in Iran.[22] In addition, both Ahmadi and Khaksar have become poets of their respective new homelands, commenting on happenings related to Muslim zealotry, extremism, and terror.

Ahmadi’s close attention to the theme of language makes her work quite distinct from that of other contemporary Persian exilic poets.[23] “Alexander’s Note” (19 April 2016), published in her volume Sheddat, is a good example of her poetic language, and also illustrates how the poet takes refuge in the elusive space of poetry. In this collection, Ahmadi uses various derivatives of the Arabic root shadda, such as tashdid, shadid, and ashshad to emphasize the intensity of emotions and violence. The Arabic root means “firm,” “fast,” “solid,” “hard,” “strong,” “vigorous,” “robust,” “vehement,” “violent,” and “intense.”[24] While the same connotations are present in the Persian usage, the word also has connotations of “assault,” “charge,” “affliction,” and “hardship.” Before giving a brief analysis of the poem, I will translate it in its entirety:

یادداشت ِ الکساندر 

فلج شدن میان ِ فنرهای سُرخ
انسان که انفجارِ دائم ِ شوخی‌ست
دوباره با تشدید
حدِّ شدیدِ شاهرگی را زدن
دریا را شبیه یک لغت از ته، شکافتن
به وحشت انداختن
با کف، بیرون کشیدن‌اش
به هوش نیاوردن ِ حروف از درد
فرارِ فوّاره ای که در فراموشی‌ست
صورت ِ شدید ِ راهروهایی
که مثل شلیک، خیره می‌مانند
اعصاب ِ صورت ِ میشا، کامیل، سابین
فرار با گردن، با شانه با دهن
شکستن چمدانی که کوچه‌ای قرمز
به جنگ می‌بخشد
زبان، اشدِّ مجازاتِ ماست
زبان ِ سرخپوش ِ زنی پشت ِ نفت و تیرآهن
زبان ِ سوریه در شعر” رامی العاشق”
زبان ِ زنده های الکساندر
وقتی صف ِ رکیک ِ صدا پشت ِ سیل می‌مانَد
نوبت‌های خون
وقتی سیاره‌ای به هوش می‌آید
زبان که مثل ِ در از غیب، می‌رود بیرون
زبان که مثلِ پرنده می‌میرد
و ابر را به ابد می‌بَرَد
زبان که می‌مانَد
در منقارِ باد
شبیه ِ خراشیدن ِ دهان با تیغ
شبیه چنگک در سکوتِ بی قلاّب
شبیه غیبت در تنی که می‌پاشد
زبان ام را
شبیه ِ مرثیه دشوار کن
به هوش بیا مثل خون
دارم لخته می‌شوم از درد


Alexander’s Note

Paralyzed between coiled crimson springs[25]

Humans, who are a constant explosion of impudence

Once again, with violence

Cutting the jugular with utmost force[26]

Splitting the ocean like one word from the depth

To throw it into terror

To pull it out, with foam

As if the letters in their pain, were not to be revived

The flight of a fountain that lives in oblivion

The violent appearances of corridors

Stuck in astonishment, like a volley

The nerves in the faces of Misha, Camile, and Sabine

Escaping with neck, with shoulder, with mouth

The breaking of a suitcase

That offered a red alley to war

Language is our most severe punishment

The language of a woman in red behind the oil and the iron beam

The language of Syria, in the poems of Ramy al-Asheq

The language of the lives of Alexander

When the coarse row of voices remain below the flood[27]

The ebb and flow of blood[28]

The moment a planet comes to her senses

The language, like a door from the unseen, that opens out

The language that dies like a bird

And carries the clouds to perpetuity

The language that remains

In the beak of the wind


Like a razor wounding the mouth

Like a hook in hookless silence

Like an absence that is sprinkled in a body


Make my language

Tough, like a requiem

Come to the senses, like blood

I am clotting with pain[29]


In this poem, the poet foregrounds language, interweaving several existential experiences with it. The language provides certainty in an uncertain situation, acknowledging and even documenting the poet’s existence. Here, the language becomes a central locus of suffering. While it expresses the traumatic experiences of war, despotism, and exile, the same language is “our most severe punishment.” It is the language that “like a door from the unseen” opens out, to what? Perhaps to the hint of transcendence and the ineffable quality of the moment, in the images of the cloud clasped in the mind of a dead bird and the woman in red, or to massacre, blood, suffering, and experiences one is left to imagine? The sharp images Ahmadi employs remind the reader of the imagist poets, for many of whom movements of individual objects and agents they depict define their style.[30] The images define the indescribable in a polyphonic fashion, inviting the reader to ponder the intense events. In this poem, Ahmadi universalizes the destinies of the oppressed, who may become exiles. Focusing on Syria, she alludes to the poetry of Ramy al-Asheq, a Syrian–Palestinian exile in Germany, whose poetry “lays bare the experience of revolution, war, imprisonment, and exile that followed the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria.”[31] Her reference to the language of Syria shows that “language” in this poem does not mean Persian: it is the “language” of exile itself. Arabic and Persian are different, but the shared vocabulary of war, fighting, and flight, the grammar of relief and guilt, and the punctuation of asylum applications and decisions bring the exilic poets together.

Ahmadi’s poetry not only depicts such traumatic experiences, but it also creates a new poetic Persian, which demands pondering and reflection. She creates new compounds, imagery, and metaphors to depict the intensity of violence. For instance, the opening line, becoming “Paralyzed between coiled crimson springs” may refer to a bloody death between two forces, “Cutting the jugular,” or to life in suspense between implacable, ponderous systems. The poet forces the reader to ponder the scene for which she gives only the sharp image. Does “paralyzing” allude to the motionless corpse of a person just killed? Are the springs the springs of a mattress, which have become visible because of destruction? Does the color crimson refer to the blood of a victim, dyeing the springs? Or does it express the energy of the springs themselves? In such forceful language, soulless objects participate in assaulting the victim. For instance, the corridors have “violent appearances,” and they are shocked, witnessing the destruction with astonishment. The poet compares the corridors to a volley of gunfire that is focused on destroying one object.

Such terse descriptions make the poetry of Ahmadi distinct from that of the other Persian exilic poets. Also conspicuous in Ahmadi’s language is the use of antithesis, as in the line “Like a hook in hookless silence”: the silence is hookless in the sense of being invariable and irreversible, but language, or perhaps specifically poetry, must remain as a hook, a tool, a handle. She also uses paradoxes, as in the line, “Like an absence that is sprinkled in a body.” These images are so intense that they are easily understandable to those who have personally experienced war, bombardments, and killings, but the images also invite the reader to contemplate. On the physical level, one thinks of shrapnel, while the other side of the metaphor is language, or poetry, which is present in life like an absence: a sharp reminder that there was, is, or could be something more.


Fatemeh Shams

Another poet writing about the theme of exile is Fatemeh Shams, whose poetry depicts concrete experiences in the Iranian diaspora.[32] Her scholarly work analyzes sociopolitical events in Iran, while her poetry treats topics and themes ranging from the experiences of an exile in a new country to people’s protests against the Islamic Republic to human rights. Several of her poems focus on reminiscences of life in Iran, showing how an exile longs for union with loved ones, suffers from the lack of familiar objects and landscapes, or is haunted by horrible memories. In this part, I will focus on a number of examples chosen to demonstrate her style and the way she uses poetry as a salve to ease the hardship of a life in exile.

One subject running through many of her poems is loneliness, a type of forlornness, mystical in essence, yet also emotional and physical. In one poem entitled “The Marsh” (batlaq), loneliness or aloneness (tanhaʾi) is personified. The poet knits various characteristics to this aloneness and confides secrets to it. Being alone is an ettefaq, which is hard to translate with a single word, connoting “happening,” “chance,” “accident,” “approaching one another,” or “coming to pass.” The poet gives positive traits to tanhaʾi as a being: “O my most eternal chance” (ey hamishe-tarin ettefaq-e man, translated in elegant literary English by Dick Davis as “My commonest, my constant plight”).[33] This tanhaʾi is presented as a singer in the poet’s lampless night, a melody in seclusion, pain’s blossom. It grows to become an almost concrete individual, invited by the poet to “lay your head against my shoulder here, my burning sight.”[34] By ascribing human traits to tanhaʾi, the poet creates an ideal partner, challenging herself to confide her innermost thoughts to aloneness.

Part of this aloneness concerns bidding farewell to the life of Iran, a leitmotif in Shams’s poetry, as for many other Persian diaspora poets. Allusions to Iran swell in the poetry at special moments, such as the Iranian New Year on 21 March. One poem, entitled “Home” (n. d.), reads:

اگر چه در خانه نیستم، ولی به جان دوست دارمش

میان آغوش هر بهار هنوز جا می گذارمش

شبیه راز نگفتنیست، جنون ویران غربتم

به دور از چشم عاقلان، به شعرها می سپارمش

I’m not at home, but even so I love home in my soul,

I leave home in spring’s arms each time that spring comes back again

The madness of my exile’s like a secret left unsaid,

I place it in my poems far from glances of the sane.[35]


The construction agar che (“although,” here translated as “but even so”) in combination with the term “home(land)” may be taken as a homage to Simin Behbahani’s (1927–2014) famous poem starting with the line “Once more, I will build you, my homeland, though it be with the bricks of my soul,” in which the poet uses agar che six times.[36]

In the following short poem, “Freedom” (n. d.), one part of life that has been exchanged for freedom is “kisses,” “memories,” and “poems.” Is the poet alluding to loving memories of her family, of her love, of the cherished memories that give meaning to life, and of the poetry celebrating life? All these are left behind, even destroyed for the price of freedom. As in Khaksar’s poem in which the poet conveyed how an exile lives in half of the playing field, experiencing a physical and emotional split, here one sees how the poet expresses the price she has paid for a “lifelong freedom:”


بوسه هایم را فروختم

خاطراتم را

شعرهایم را سوزاندم

چمدانم را برداشتم

و رفتم

به قیمت یک عمر آزادی


I sold my kisses

My memories

I burned my poems

I picked up my suitcase

And I left

As the price of a lifelong freedom[37]


Perhaps the most conceptual description of an exilic life, referred to frequently in Persian diasporic poetry, is an emphasis on the split, living two separate lives, and an inexorable wish to weld the two worlds together. Edward Said’s (1935–2003) words fittingly express this split, this rift:

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.[38]

In the next poem, entitled “Amphibious” (n. d.), the poet depicts such a life as an amphibian being. The compound for the class of Amphibia, do-zist, derives from “two existences,” meaning living in water and land, and also implying the larval and adult stages. It is a vivid characterization of life in exile, in hybridity. The term generates a series of antitheses and paradoxes from human associations with land and water. Land could be associated with safety, trust, and the known, while the sea is associated with insecurity, distance, and the unknown. The exile has paradoxically left the land for the sea. It is this image that expresses the exile’s uncertain, feeble, and unstable position in the new homeland marked as the sea. By using the image of Amphibia, the poet is stressing that human beings are not amphibians and are simply unable to live such a life; nonetheless, the exile feels like an amphibian in a new environment, in the betweenness. The word amphibian could also imply living happily in water and on land, but the exiled poet here lives in water, having exchanged the safety of the land to the limited safety of the water. Does the image of the Amphibia also refer to the exile’s cold-bloodedness? Are all the other humans around the exiled person cold? Is this a contrast to the warm-hearted people the exiled poet left behind? Does the term amphibian allude to having become an intermediate being, as the amphibian appears to be between the fish and the reptile? Before starting my analysis, I cite the poem in its entirety, followed by Dick Davis’s translation:

دوباره مرگ، دوباره زوال و نیست شدن
دوباره مثل وزغ خسته و دو زیست شدن

دوزیست یعنی در سراب جان دادن
به خواب، یک بدن مرده را تکان دادن

دو زیست یعنی اینجا کم است یک چیزی
میان خاطره‌ها مبهم است یک چیزی

دو زیست یعنی آنجا شبیه یک دریاست
کویر، فاجعه‌ی بیکران ماهی‌هاست

دو زیست یعنی: مردم! نفس کم آوردم
غزل کم آوردم، هم‌قفس کم آوردم

شبیه آدم برفی، شبیه بستنیِ
شبیه رابطه‌های کجِ گسستنیِ

شبیه حلقه‌ی زنجیرهای پاره شده
شبیه شعر بزک کرده استعاره شده

شبیه لحظه پرواز و بغض یک چمدان
شبیه حسرت پروازِ تا ابد تهران

دو زیست شد دل من تا نمیرد از دوری
شبیه خاطره‌ی سرد سنگ بر گوری


Once again death, once again fading to nothingness

Once again, like an exhausted frog, amphibious


Amphibious, which means dying in a mirage’s gleam

And shaking a dead body within a dream


Amphibious, which means that something’s missing here,

Among vague memories there’s something that’s not clear


Amphibious, which means that over there is like a sea,

A desert, for the fish a limitless calamity


Like a snowman, like an ice-cream disappearing

Like wrong relationships unravelling


Like a link from broken chains, or

Like a tawdry poem’s metaphor


Like the moment of take-off and a suitcase’s grieving

Like endless regret for Tehran that you’re leaving


In exile my heart’s become amphibious to survive

Like the cold memory of a stone that marks a grave.[39]


In this poem of nine couplets (couplet five is missing in Davis’s translation), the poet depicts the fear of the painful process of becoming an amphibian. In the opening, the poet emphasizes that she was not born an amphibian but is experiencing this transformation. This alteration is likened to death: to departing, to declining, and to eventually perishing. This transformation from life to death is compared to a wounded and exhausted toad, an amphibian. From couplets two to five, the poet employs the rhetorical figure of anaphora, repeating the words do-zist yaʿni or “amphibian means,” followed by a definition. The use of this particular figure of speech is culturally marked since anaphora is abundantly used in Persian elegies to praise, memorialize, and mourn the deceased.[40] In the definitions the poet offers, amphibious life is attributed to the exile’s experiences in the new land. The first definition is the metaphor of mirage, longing for water in a desert. The Persian word for “mirage” is sarab (literally, “fountainhead”). The poet’s use of this image while living in the West creates a kind of contrast: the wetland of Northern Europe becomes a desert where the thirsty poet is looking for water.

The next definition of being amphibian is that “something’s missing here.” Is this the mystical call for a better, ideal situation, or is it the loss of a feeling or memory? In couplet four, the poet contrasts the sea and the desert, from the point of view of a fish. This juxtaposition of the desert and the sea is meaningful for the exile. While Iranians in exile are like other human beings, like fish in the sea, yet they feel they are in a desert, a boundless catastrophe (fajeʿe) for any fish. The metaphor also shows the destitute situation an exile may find themselves in. In couplet five, the poet in the first person says, “I am dying!” and in parallel, “I have come short of breath,” which has a literal signification, but is also an idiom for lacking stamina to continue. This “coming short of” is repeated in the same couplet in combination with poetry and a cage mate. It is as if the poet is saying that she is unable to finish her poem, or she is all alone and has no “cage mate.” The entire couplet reads: “Amphibious, which means that I am dying! I have come short of breath / I have come short of a poem, I have come short of a cage mate.” Does this imply the transformation of a monoculture into a hybrid one, the death of the older cultural identity, and the experience of a hybrid culture? The compound ham-qafas refers both to the poet’s memory of being imprisoned with a friend, and to the poet’s having no friend in exile. The space of the exile is here compared to a cage. This couplet also marks the end of the anaphoric use of the amphibious being and the start of another series of anaphoric similes.

From couplets six to eight, the poet uses the simile construction and the ellipsis of the words “Amphibious, which means that.” Here, the poet offers a comparison between an amphibian and the process of gradual perishing, already highlighted in the poem’s opening. An amphibian is like a snowman that melts, an ice cream, and a crooked relationship that is doomed to fail. An amphibian is also likened to “a link from broken chains” and “a tawdry poem’s metaphor.” Couplet eight constitutes a climax, in the comparison between the amphibian and “the moment of take-off and a suitcase’s grieving.”[41] The images employed here are so familiar to refugees because they will remember the exact moment they left their beloved country. The word boghz, used in this couplet, refers in contemporary Persian to the moment when someone bursts into tears because of some intense sorrow.[42] Boghz is the pressure in one’s throat before tears come. In the same way that the throat is a container for boghz, the suitcase is filled with boghz and can at any moment burst. The transference of the container from a body part to an object also signifies the transformation and movement of the person from one place to another. In addition to this geographic transformation, perhaps even more marked is the expected change of identity: the identity is not any more part of the body but is outside the body; it is transmutable and can be negotiated. Moreover, this boghz is a symbol for the emotional memories that are collected and which the refugee will take to the new land, regretfully leaving behind their hometown, Tehran. In the concluding couplet, the poet reverts to the word amphibian, giving the reason why her heart has transformed into such a creature to survive in exile. Life in exile is compared to “the cold memory of a stone” on a grave. The penetrating images, metaphors, and rhetorical figures the poet has employed offer a vivid picture of the exile’s feelings and emotions.



Several conclusions can be drawn from the poetry of the diaspora poets discussed above. First, a good part of this poetry is introspective, referring to the poet’s experiences in the homeland and in flight. In many ways, this introspection works therapeutically: the poet writes of their anxieties and of haunting memories of home. Paradoxically, limiting the poem to a personal experience or feeling gives it a universal character, voicing the experiences of a broader Persian exilic community. Second, the bitter certainty of remaining an exile forever encourages the poets and offers them a new space to comment on sociopolitical events in Iran and in the new homeland. In these poems, the poets show that exile is not merely being physically separated from the homeland. The notion of home is composed of diverse physical, emotional, and historical elements anchored in a person’s life. These poems offer a unique insight into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the exiled person and how the person pictures the homeland, how they perceive life in exile with all the possibilities of the new homeland, but also how discrimination and exclusion wound the soul, and how the exiled person tries to come to terms with their new homeland. The rift created by the flight from the homeland is an element that recurs in many Persian poems. It is as if the poet desires to pass over the period of exile and return to the original home. This reminds me of a Syrian girl about ten years old who, speaking on a Dutch TV program, asked her mother, “how long are we going to be a refugee?” She had not yet realized that she would quite possibly be called a Syrian refugee all her life. It is as if the trait of “exile” becomes an inseparable part of the individual. Shams compares exile to a wandering bullet in her eponymous poem (n. d.):


فشنگ سرگردان

مثل فشنگی سرگردان و سمج

بازمانده از سال های دور

در خونم راه می رود


It’s like a wandering, nagging bullet

Still there after many years

Traveling in my blood


Persian poets in exile depict new dimensions of the loaded appellations of refugee and exile, based on their lived experiences. These poems are gentle reflections on separation and the hope for union. It is in this tender universe that the poems become a cure, showing how the poet has accepted life in a new home, even if half of life remains invisible for them.

[1]Muhammad Shams al-Din Hafez, Divan, ed. P. Natil Khanlari (Tehran: Khvarazmi, 1362/1983), p. 734, ghazal 359. For a poetic translation of this ghazal, see Dick Davis, Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (Washington, DC: Mage, 2012), 86–87: “We haven’t travelled to this door for wealth or mastery, / We come here seeking refuge from misfortune’s misery.” (Quotation on p. 86.) The translation in this article is mine, as are all others unless otherwise noted.

[2]There are many studies of Hafez in English, the most comprehensive edited by the late Leonard Lewisohn, Hafiz and the School of Love in Classical Persian Poetry (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010). See also the valuable entries by various authors on Encyclopaedia Iranica, www.iranicaonline.org/, under Hāfez.

[3]M. Esteʿlami, Dars-e Hāfez: Naqd va sharh-e ghazal-hā-ye Hāfez (Tehran: Sokhan, 1382/2003), 941–43.

[4]The appellation Dari, signifying the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan, derives from the name of the Persian language as a literary and courtly language, in contrast to literary Middle Persian (Pahlavi). For an elaborated definition and analysis, see Gilbert Lazard, “Darī,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2011, www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dari. Also see K. Talattof, “Social Causes and Cultural Consequences of Replacing Persian with Farsi. What’s in a Name?,” in Persian Language, Literature and Culture: New Leaves, Fresh Looks (London: Routledge, 2015), 216–27.

[5]See Mohammad Shams al-Din Hafez, Divān, ed. P. Natel Khanlari (Tehran: Kharazmi, 1362/1983), 734, ghazal 359.

[6]John Keats, “Endymion,” The Complete Poems of John Keats, ed. P. Wright (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2001), 61–167. Quotation on p. 61.

[7]Simon Vestdijk, De glanzende kiemcel, 1950. (Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditma, 1991), 13.

[8]See J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Ḡazal i. History,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2012, www.iranicaonline.org/articles/gazal-1-history. On the Persian ghazal, see de Bruijn’s excellent chapter, “The Ghazal in Medieval Persian Poetry,” in Persian Lyric Poetry in the Classical Era, 800-1500: Ghazals, Panegyrics and Quatrains, vol. II, ed. E. Yarshater (London: I. B. Tauris, 2019), 315–487.

[9]Persians use poetry at cemeteries and have continued this in the diaspora. The use of poetry on the graves of the Persian-speaking diaspora is one of the projects I am working on, examining the types of poetry and the choice of poets, such as Hafez and Khayyam. For poetry on graves in Iran, see Fatemah Shams, “Dialogues with the Dead: Necropoetics of Zahra’s Paradise,” Iranian Studies 53 (2020): 893–909. Also see Fritz Meier, Die schőne Mahsatī: Ein Beitrag zur Gechichte des persischen Vierzeilers, vol. I (Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1963), 22–26.

[10]For English translations of Persian exile poetry by female poets, see Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Bilingual Edition) (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), 390–485. The majority of poets translated in this part by Davis are diasporic Persian poets. The book has just been republished by Penguin Books (New York: 2021). See also Sholeh Wolpé, The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and Its Exiles (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012).

[11]For more biographical details, see Nasim Khaksar, Wees Mooi: Gedichten van Nasim Khaksar, trans. K. Parsi (Leidschendam, Netherlands: Quist, 2011), 7–10. My information is based on Parsi’s introduction in the collection of Khaksar’s poetry translated into Dutch.

[12]On the suffocating situation of the Iranian intellectuals during the Pahlavi regime and after the 1979 Revolution, see Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak’s indispensable analysis of several key authors in his A Fire of Lilies (Leiden, Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 2019) and chapter 17 of his Bud-o nemud-e sokhan: matn-e adabi, bāftār-e ejtemāʿi va tārikh-e adabiyyāt (Los Angeles, CA: Sherekat-e ketab, 1394/2016) and the book’s second print (1397/2019), which analyzes three works by Shahrokh Meskub, 497–517 (pagination in the second print). Also see A. Frühwirth, Ökonomien des Weltverlusts: Die Prosa iranischer Autorinnen im Exil (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016). Frühwirth devotes her attention to the analysis of the prose works of Sorour Kasmai, Chahla Shafiq, Nahal Tajadod, Fariba Hashtroudi, Ruhangiz Sharifian, and Chahdortt Djavann.

[13]The word hafeza literally means “the retentive faculty.”

[14]Khaksar, “The Sad Melody of Exile,” in Wees Mooi, 69–73.

[15]There are several excellent studies on the notion of homeland in Persian literature. See, for instance, Afsaneh Najmabadi, “The Erotic Vatan [Homeland] as Beloved and Mother: To Love, to Possess, and to Protect,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39 (1997): 442–67; Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “From Patriotism to Matriotism: A Tropological Study of Iranian Nationalism, 1870-1909,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34 (2002): 217–38. For a historical meaning of the term vatan, see Shafiʿi-Kadkani, Cheragh-o ayene: dar josteju-ye tahavvol-e sheʿr-e moʿaser-e Iran (Tehran: Sokhan, 1392/2013), 641–71.

[16]The homeland as a living being, even part of one’s body, is a motif in many exilic poems. This motif is inspired by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry on the concept of vatan. See, for instance, Mahmoud Darwish’s allusions such as “Where can I free myself of the homeland in my body?” and “No. This is not my homeland. No. This is not my body.” See Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, trans. and ed. Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 15 and 177, respectively. Such references are abundant in collected poetry of exiled poets. See, for instance, Fatemeh Shams’s poem “A Poem for Iran,” in which she states: “You’re a fistful of dirt, wounded, a winter, a distant land, how much I miss that fistful you’ll never understand!” See When They Broke Down the Door: Poems, trans. Dick Davis (Washington, DC: Mage, 2016), 98–101, quotation on p. 99; Daftar-e sheʿr-hā-ye Fātemeh-e Shams: 88 (Berlin: Gardun Publishers, 2013), 5–6, quotation on p. 5.

[17]Khaksar, “You Have Come So Far Well,” in Wees Mooi, 31.

[18]Khaksar, “From the Beginning, It Looked Like a Game,” in Wees Mooi, 27.

[19]Khaksar, “It Disappeared from Sight,” in Wees Mooi, 59.

[20]Khaksar, “Perhaps,” in Wees Mooi, 49.

[21]She has published several volumes of poetry in both Iran and Germany. Among these publications are Sardam nabud (Bremen, Germany: Sujet Verlag, 2010); Majmuʿe-ye sheʿr-e ru-ye sol-e pāyāni (Tehran: Entesharat-e negah-e sabz, 1378/1999); Majmuʿe-ye sheʿr-e kādens (Tehran: Entesharat-e negah-e sabz, 1378/1999); and Āvāz-e ʿāsheqāne-ye dokhtar-e divāne, tarjome-ye gozideʾi az sheʿr-hā-ye Silvia Plath (Tehran: Entesharat-e negah-e sabz, 1379/2000). Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak translated twelve poems for the Dutch Poetry International in 2008. See “Translation of Twelve Poems by Iranian Poet Pegah Ahmadi,” 2008. Also see Davis, Mirror of My Heart, 435–38.

[22]Ahmadi devotes several poems to the political upheavals taking place in Iran. See, for instance, her poem on Neda Agha Sultan, a twenty-six-year-old student who was shot on the streets in Tehran during the 2009 demonstration usually named the Green Movement. The shooting was broadcast live via Twitter and Facebook around the world.

[23]On Ahmadi’s poetry, see Koushyar Parsi, “Del-e afzun-khah: barabari-yi ehsas va taʿqqol,” Ava-ye tabʿid (1397/2018), avaetabid.com/?p=608. Also see Nasim Khaksar, “Nafas hamin bazist,” Akhbar-e ruz, 9 Esfand 1398/28 February 2020, www.akhbar-rooz.com.

[24]See J. M. Cowan, ed., “shadda,” Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd ed. (New York: Spoken Language Services, 1976), 459.

[25]The word fanar or “springs” refers here to the metal compression pressure device.

[26]According to Steingass, the word hadd means “Setting bounds; defining; boundary, term, limit, extremity, extent,” but it also means to punish and is used with the auxiliary verb zadan. See F. Steingass, “hadd,” Persian-English Dictionary, 1892. (London: Routledge, 1963), 413. The compound verb was increasingly used after the 1979 Revolution, alluding to the punishment of anti-revolutionary individuals. Because of the emphatic shadid, the primary meaning here refers to imposing a severe punishment on the jugular, and the connotation is of limiting or blocking the jugular.

[27]Literally, “behind the flood.”

[28]Literally, “turns of blood.”

[29]Pegah Ahmadi, “Alexander’s Note,” in Sheddat (Bremen, Germany: Sujet Verlag, 2017), 20–22.

[30]See, for instance, Andrew Thacker, The Imagist Poets (Tavistock, UK: Northcote House Publishers, 2011), 4.

[31]Levi Thompson, “Poet Ramy al-Asheq: ‘In the Sea’s Playground,’” ArabLit Quarterly, 7 September 2017,  arablit.org/2017/09/07/syrian-poet-ramy-al-asheq-in-the-seas-playground.

[32]For a short biography, see Shams, When They Broke Down the Door, xi–xiv; Davis, Mirror of My Heart, 468–77.

[33]Shams, “The Marsh,” in When They Broke Down the Door, 34–35. Quotation on p. 35.

[34]Translation is by Dick Davis. Shams, When They Broke Down the Door, 35.

[35]Translation is by Dick Davis. Shams, “Home,” in When They Broke Down the Door, 41.

[36]Simin Behbahani, “dobare misazamat, vatan,” in Majmuʿe-ye ashʿār (Tehran: Negah, 1982/2003), 711–12. Quotation on p. 711.

[37]Shams, “Freedom,” in Daftar-e sheʿr-hā-ye Fātemeh-e Shams, 66.

[38]Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays (London: Granta Books, 2001), 173.

[39]Translation is by Dick Davis. Shams, “Amphibious,” in When They Broke Down the Door, 85.

[40]A lucid example is Farrokhi Sistani’s splendid panegyrical elegy on the death of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna. See Sistani, “qaside 41,” in Divān, ed. M. Dabir Siyaqi (Tehran: Zavvar, 1371/1993), 90–93, ll. 1692–1760. For an English translation and analysis, see C. E. Bosworth, “Farrukhī’s Elegy on Mahmud of Ghazna,” Iran 29 (1991): 43–49. Also see J. T. P. de Bruijn, “Elegy,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2011, www.iranicaonline.org/articles/elegy.

[41]The suitcase could be seen as a motif in exilic poetry. See, for instance, Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Diary of a Palestinian Wound,” where he states, “My Homeland is Not a Suitcase and I am No Traveler, I am the lover and the land is the beloved.” See Dalya Cohen-Mor, Mahmoud Darwish Palestine’s Poet and the Other as the Beloved (Potomac, MD: Palgrave, 2019), 2. Also see his poem “Sarhan Drinks Coffee in the Cafeteria,” where he says, “They come, the sea if our doors, Rain took us by surprise. No God but Allah. Rains and bullets took as by surprise.” As quoted by R. Abou-Bakr, The Conflict of Voices in the Poetry of Dennis Butrus and Mahmud Darvish (Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 2004), 80.

[42]The word is Arabic, coming from the root baghiza (“to be hated,” “to loathe”), but it also appears in Persian. In classical Persian poetry, it has varied shades of meanings, ranging from “hating; hatred, spite, malice,” to “grudge, rancour; malignity; revenge.” See Steingass, “baghz,” Persian-English Dictionary, 193.

[43]Translation by Dick Davis. Shams, “Wandering Bullet,” in When They Broke Down the Door, 91.

Mapping the Unmappable: A Critical Study of Dead Reckoning: A Novel by Bahman Sho‘levar

 Babak Mazloumi is a literary translator and critic. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on literary translation, exile literature, and literary criticism within the larger area of contemporary Persian literature. His latest publications include an essay on Through the Windowpanes by Akbar Radi in Text and Presentation: Journal of the Comparative Drama Conference (2019); a book review of Nasim Marashi’s I’ll Be Strong for You in World Literature Today (2021); and the translation of a poem by Rosa Jamali in the Los Angeles Review of Books (2020).

آدمی در عالم خاکی نمی آید به دست
عالمی دیگر بباید ساخت وز نو آدمی

It is impossible to have mankind in the ephemeral world

There should be built another World and another Man[1]

—Hafez (704–68/1325–89)

There is the story that when the English navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert was lost at sea during a colonizing mission to North America in 1583, he was last seen seated in a boat reading Utopia.[2]

—Ivan Doig

I begin with a general introduction of Bahman Sho‘levar (1320/1941) and his first novel, The Night’s Journey and the Coming of Messiah (1966), specifying its key elements. Many of these elements can also be found in his second novel, Dead Reckoning: A Novel (1992), the focus of this paper. Analyzing Dead Reckoning, I specify three stages in the protagonist’s exile from Iran to America, demonstrating how each stage develops into and affects the subsequent one. I tackle questions such as the spatial aspect(s) of utopia, and argue that utopia and exile are flip sides of each other in that both indicate placelessness. I argue that because the protagonist is a Persian exile in the contemporary United States, his idea of having a farm there as a Garden of Eden—that is, utopia (or at least eutopia)—is not in sync with the present-day realities of America. Finally, I argue that even if “America is a state of mind,”[3] there should be some ground for considering the United States, or at least certain parts of it, as utopia. In other words, something in the place attributed to utopia should trigger the said mental state.

Bahman Sho‘levar is an Iranian novelist, poet, literary translator, literary critic, psychiatrist, and political activist. He was born to an educated and politically savvy family in Tehran. The renowned Iranian writers Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Jalal Moqadam, who later became a well-known filmmaker, were his high school teachers, and they encouraged him greatly. He also attended Nima Yushij’s poetry reading circle. His first story was published in the newspaper Mehregan when he was only thirteen. Ever since his childhood, he has had a great aptitude for learning languages. His father knew six languages and had an extensive library. Sho‘levar’s translations of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) were published in Iran, when he was eighteen and nineteen, respectively. He had to leave his study of medicine at the University of Tehran incomplete because he had to start a diplomatic career at the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in Turkey. His sojourn in Turkey was an opportunity to have his first novel, The Night’s Journey and the Coming of Messiah (Safar-i Shab, 1966), published in Iran. He knew that if the novel were published when he was inside the country, his life would be endangered by the shah’s regime.[4] Later, he completed his education in the United States, earning a PhD in English literature and an MD in psychiatry.

Like novels by Zakaria Hashemi, Ismail Fasih, and Bahman Forsi, Sho‘levar’s Night’s Journey portrays the situation of Iranian youth in the aftermath of the 1953 coup: a desperate, confused, and bitter generation who lost their sublime political and social ideals trying to survive in a ruthless environment. The novel recounts the wanderings of a young intellectual who, to extricate himself from the oppression and political failures of his time, turns to reckless drinking and spending his time with hooligans and prostitutes. In terms of content, the novel is influenced by The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger, and in terms of technique, it is inspired by The Sound and the Fury.[5] The novel ends when the narrator uses continuing his education as an excuse to leave Iran for the United States.[6] Identity crisis, alienation, and the feeling of exile (at home) are the major themes of this work.

In Night’s Journey, the protagonist (Homer) and his like-minded friends, such as Akbar Shiraz, yearn for and dream of a serene place where they can stay away from their drab and dirty daily lives:

I can’t leave Shemroon now. When I take this money, I’ll owe it to Hajji and to Hassan Chelowi to stick around a while. But gimme six months, let me marry off my sister with a good dowry to this guy who is standing by her, let me pay for some twenty or thirty acres for farming and cattle raising, then I’ll go to give the Major a guarantee. Then I’d be a motherfucker if I ever show my face around this circle, I’ll go somewhere where I won’t ever see a human being. I says to the Major, Look, Chief, what could a gutterpup like me have become, if not a thug? A police officer? A doctor? An engineer? A teacher? [. . .] All Akbar Shirāz wanted was to get his sister married, give up a thug’s life, buy a piece of land outside Tehrān, and farm and raise cattle. What Homer wanted was a quiet place in the countryside among the woods, with a small kitchen garden and a small poultry farm to survive on, and a small backyard zoo in which he could raise wild and rare animals. Suddenly all the dreams seemed to merge into one big dream, their dream. They all wanted the land in the country.[7]

The point is that this “good place” is not a “no place”; rather, it is a specific and mappable place near Tehran. All these dreams of living in utopia, however, come to an end when Akbar Shiraz is hanged and another one of Homer’s friends, a talented medical student on the verge of graduation, commits suicide. The seemingly nearby place (i.e., utopia) close to Tehran is not reachable. Eutopia is a good place as long as it is a utopia (i.e., a no place). A specific place near Tehran offers nothing in the way of being a good place. Presumably, that is why in the end, the protagonist decides to leave Iran for the United States.

Although written decades after Night’s Journey, Dead Reckoning seems to be the continuation of the same story with the same themes expanded and elaborated upon. It is as though this time the writer has had a free hand and free time to write about issues such as exile, uncertainty, placelessness, and a Homeric, Odyssey-like quest for utopia. Moreover, years of the writer’s life in (self-)exile seem to have added depth to his writing. Dead Reckoning is “a more coherent and more readable novel than Night’s Journey as far as the structure and the character development are concerned.”[8]

The novel is, in fact, Farhang Shadzad’s diary recounting “the socio-political events in the country [i.e., Iran] and the blows they render to the life of Farhang Shādzād, the novel’s protagonist and his family.”[9] The story starts in the winter of 1963 when Farhang’s elder brother, Alex (Eskandar), disappears. Farhang, who lives with his father, has another brother named Cyrus, who left Iran for America to go on with his studies. This happened simultaneously with Farhang’s father, the head of the Supreme Court, divorcing his mother. Like his father, Farhang’s Uncle J. (Jalal) is an ex-Marxist and ex-revolutionary, who is now a very rich man holding the office of vice–prime minister in the Iranian cabinet under the shah. Even after the 1979 Revolution, he continues to be a highly wealthy and influential man living in Switzerland, but having business interests and connections in Iran as well as many other parts of the world.

Alex’s disappearance and subsequent death under torture (he is a Marxist guerrilla) trigger a series of events that render life for Farhang unbearable. He is under constant pressure by the SAVAK to act as an on-campus informer for them. Finally, he manages to go the United States to fulfill his father’s last wish:

And Dad wouldn’t let me stick around [Iran] until he died. He wanted me out of that hellhole before he was pronounced dead. He was afraid they wouldn’t let me go afterwards. The only satisfaction he would take to the grave was seeing me leave, out of the one eye that could still see. To America my boy! Now! Before I die! The last words I heard out of his mouth, the half that moved, while the other half, the paralyzed half, the speechless half, mocked me and mocked the world. [. . .] That’s why he [the father] had to plan it all over again for me. He had to plan another America. A different one. To America my boy! He didn’t know that America is a state of mind. You bring to America what you are. Did Cyrus have an America? Yes, the one he has got now. Put money in thy purse. I say, put but money in thy purse. And Alex? What America do you have out there in the water, my boy? Only the total sincerity, the precise definition.[10]

Farhang’s father believes that America is humanity’s final battlefield. Being a permanent student, Farhang lives in the United States for years. Throughout his years in America, he has a strange relationship with Iran: he is influenced by it and sometimes yearns to get back, but he also finds returning dangerous and even deadly. He lives with the memories of his murdered brother, the very memories that shape his identity and the way he perceives exile. His father dies sometime after his departure from Iran, which coincides with the anniversary of Alex’s gruesome murder, but Farhang cannot return to attend his father’s funeral. Several years later, again right on the anniversary of Alex’s murder, Farhang’s mother dies. This time, it is several years after the triumph of the 1979 Revolution, when an Islamic regime has established a dictatorship far more brutal than that of the shah. Farhang wants to return to Iran to attend his mother’s funeral. Even more, he wants to find himself in Iran because that is where he lost himself.[11]

Two points about exile are important here. First, I believe that although Farhang left Iran for the United States on a student visa, the term exile can be applied to Farhang’s situation because the term can be used for those banished from their homes, refugees, domestic exiles, asylum seekers, the reterritorialized and deterritorialized, diasporic subjects, economic migrants, the infinitely detained, stateless people, expatriates, nomads, and transnational people.[12] More importantly, toward the end of the twentieth century, the word exile came to be known as a metaphor for “a new phase of social alienation.”[13] The second consideration concerns how an exile grasps the homeland they have left behind—that is, how they draw its map from the vantage point of exile. A map of this kind does not seem to be the same as the map the person draws prior to exile. In fact, this new map is “a new kind of narrative.”[14] This is a new space having a “navigable palimpsest.”[15] If mapping lays bare the hitherto hidden structures,[16] it might be possible to say that mapping lays bare for an exile objects and structures hidden in their homeland—for example, their identity and purpose in life, the forces that destroyed their life, and the future hope that may (not) exist in the homeland. Presumably, mapping makes people such as Homer and Farhang see that the utopia near Tehran they were yearning for had never existed.

But what is Farhang’s motive for turning back toward the homeland perpetually and even wishing to go there to find himself and what he has lost there despite his Uncle J.’s and Cyrus’s insistence not to do so? Farhang’s motive is his reckoning with the dead, which makes him who he is. This reckoning is the very act that causes him an identity crisis. Here, the dead are Alex and his parents, who each died on Alex’s anniversary, as well as Cyrus, Uncle J., and Clara (Farhang’s girlfriend, who betrays him), who are not physically dead but are dead for Farhang.

The narrator recounts the incidents taking place in Iran in two distinct manners. The first style is direct, present tense narration, which is mostly used in the early chapters, where everything is more or less clear and final. For example, all Alex’s comrades are like him: They do not surrender. They do not betray their ideals and comrades under torture. They endanger their lives to drop a newspaper containing the news of Alex’s murder in the Shadzad family’s garden. The second style involves flashbacks: Farhang remembers what happened to him in Iran while he is in the United States. In this style, the formerly clear and transparent incidents and people seem shadowy and uncertain. The same solid revolutionary comrade of Alex, named Sufi, turns out to be a double agent who, after torturers raped his sister, started cooperating with them. Sufi drops the newspaper in the Shadzads’ garden at the order of the shah’s intelligence service to act as a ploy to get Farhang involved. It is not just Sufi who is revealed as a traitor; all the former communists turn out to be officials in the shah’s regime as well as nouveau riche contractors and businessmen. It is not just communists; even the shah shows signs of instability and identity crisis, hovering between being religious and materialistic, funny and arrogant. And it is not just people; lands and countries such as the United States sway between dystopia and utopia.

All in all, the novel shows a constant interplay between minimal pairs such as revolutionary/traitor, religious/materialistic, trustworthy/untrustworthy, successful person/loser, and apparent stability at home/instability in exile. Here, the protagonist ponders on home from his place of exile and later physically returns home only to find out that the stability in both home and exile has been the deepest kind of instability. A constant dialectical tension and interplay exists between the members of each of the said minimal pairs that create the exiled person’s cultural identity,[17] an identity in which crisis and instability are fundamental parts. In other words, the dialectical tensions and instability exist on both the ontic and the ontological level. The number and significance of real and concrete cases such as the abovementioned dichotomies which can be considered ontic indicate a much deeper, more universal reality—that is, the fundamental and ontological instability and ambivalence of an exile and the world they live in. The point is that despite the exile having an ontological status, each exile perceives and experiences exile and its associated anxiety and instability in a unique manner. In his critique of Dead Reckoning,[18] Mohammad Reza Ghanoonparvar states:

What distinguishes Sho‘levar’s novel from the works by a majority of Īrānian writers who write in English is that on the contrary to them; Sho‘levar is not that interested in these writers’ favorite subjects such as the encounter between modern and traditional outlooks and manners, or Īrānian versus Western social and cultural values. The concept of identity in the works by the majority of these writers is the same as cultural identity which, after immigration to the West, is threatened by other cultures and, as a result, it turns into a kind of cultural confusion whereas in Sho‘levar’s novel, the said identity has mostly individual and philosophical aspects to it. In fact, Asākesh is the late twentieth century wanderings of a confused intellectual’s quest for understanding concepts such as justice, freedom, and human identity.[19]

Edward Said also believes that “nationalisms [or any dominant power or regime that sends people into exile] are about groups, but in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group.”[20] So in the case of Farhang Shadzad, the said dialectical tensions which form his cultural identity could fall into the categories of time, space, and embodiment—a time, a space, and an embodiment which are Farhang’s only.

  1. Time: An exile has been thrown away from the present time of their nation. This brings about “a series of dialectic tensions between different versions of linear/progressive/historical time.”[21] This means time could be cyclical, primordial, relative, and fractured. This is apparent in the manner in which Sho‘levar narrates the story. The reader encounters a fractured diary with the times and locations of incidents not in a linear order.
  2. Space: An exile considers this both liberating and confining. “It is noteworthy that the dual gestures of narrating utopic and dystopic places are common in exile writing. Consequently, spatial dialectics in exile writing relate to many factors regarding both real and imagined territories of existence.”[22] In Dead Reckoning, the reader can see a wide variety of dystopic places, such as those in Iran that Sho‘levar writes about in the beginning of the novel: SAVAK’s premises, prison, and torture room, and by extension, the whole country. Farhang’s struggles continue in the United States. The visa officer in the US embassy in Tehran, Alan Dugan, believes that the jungle Farhang is struggling with in Iran does not stop at the US border; rather, it covers most of the United States with the exception of some patches, some safe islands where people such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville could live and write freely. Still, if someone is in one of those safe areas and wants to confront the jungle, it will destroy them:

“My father would be delighted to hear you [Alan Dugan] saying that,” I said. “That is what he always says. You know, he is a great believer in Constitutional Democracy. He admires your constitution. He is always talking about the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution. Listening to him, you wonder whether he is the Chief Justice in America or here.”

“I am a believer in our constitution, too!” said Alan. “But at this moment I can almost see Thomas Jefferson turning over in his grave. And I can hear Toynbee’s words, then when we adopt the methods of our enemy, our enemy has conquered us.”

“Do Americans know what their government supports abroad?” I asked.

“Interesting question. There are those who know and condone. There are those who don’t know and condone. There are those who know and don’t care. There are those who don’t know and don’t care. And there are those who know and try to fight it and do not succeed. These last ones are still dreaming Jefferson’s dreams. Have you read any Jefferson?”

“No,” I said. “But my father has a shelf full of his works. He greatly admires him. He says when he speaks of America, he speaks of Thomas Jefferson’s America. It is to Thomas Jefferson’s America he wants to send me.”

“Your father is an enlightened man! You should read Jefferson,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder how far we have strayed from his dream of America.”

“So the jungle doesn’t end at the American border?” I asked.

“No, unfortunately not!” said Alan. “The jungle extends everywhere. The only difference is that in America, the jungle is a patchwork, interspersed with small isolated colonies of the saved. Out of those colonies come men like Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman. ‘Isolatos,’ Melville called them then, and isolatos we still are. In America they let you get out of the jungle and stay out, if you really don’t have the killer instinct, if you really want to go vegetarian, but only if you don’t try to stop the jungle, to do something to stop it. You won’t catch any big games that way. But then, if you are a vegetarian, you don’t need big game.”

“And if you try to stop the jungle?” I asked.

“Then they crush you,” he said.[23]

  1. Embodiment: The dead bodies Farhang remembers and the way they affect him account for his unique experience and the way he perceives Iran, the United States, and again Iran as an exile. These dead bodies determine how and what Farhang perceives through his own body. He becomes the embodiment of exile: the exile per se, not just a person in exile.

Thus, America becomes not a passive vision of a utopia, but rather an active and personal commitment to it. The protagonist goes in search not of America, but of his America. In this sense, his becoming an American encompasses more than an accident of geography. He becomes the embodiment of that search for value which was behind the original idea of America, and which has to be renewed by each generation, indeed by each individual, if the idea of America is to be saved.[24]

The space dimension of the abovementioned tripartite deserves more elaboration. This dimension could be either utopic or dystopic, which are the flip sides of each other. In other words, when someone is an exile, it is hardly imaginable that they live in a place that gives a feeling of happiness or of being in a befitting place. On the other hand, the same experience makes the person wish to be in a place which does not make them feel like an exile. As a result, in an exile novel, there is hardly a neutral place. In the context of Dead Reckoning, the novel has possibly three dystopian stages which lead into one allegedly utopian stage at the end. Further, I would argue that this utopian stage is too utopian and cannot be considered an organic result of the previous parts of the novel. In other words, it is not in sync with its dialectical result of the related social, political, and historical conditions and underpinnings. Later, I will make comparisons and contrasts between Sho‘levar’s novel and the fictional travel memoir The Last American, a Fragment from the Journal of Khan-Li, Prince of Dimph-Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy (1889) by J. A. Mitchell to see whether or not the United States could serve as a proper place for establishing a utopia.

Farhang’s meeting with the visa officer at the US embassy in Tehran marks the end of the first dystopian stage. The persecuted, cross-questioned, and harassed protagonist ultimately wants to extricate himself from his situation. As mentioned, though, the visa officer warns him that the jungle extends to the United States and that anyone wanting to confront the jungle will be destroyed.[25]

Farhang decides to return to Iran to attend the burial of his mother and to find himself where he lost himself: “Today, I know enough about myself, to go looking for my America. I am going back to start looking where I began, where I missed the boat in the first place, where I lost myself.”[26] Farhang chooses to go to Iran despite his brother Cyrus’s and his Uncle J.’s insistence not to do so because of the danger prevailing in the country. During his time in the United States, Farhang wanders from one place to another. He fails to establish deep and meaningful connections with people and places. He experiences everything by himself, drawing a solitary mental map of his own exile. At a certain point, he does not accept his long-sought-for US citizenship. All through this time, he feels that the dead bodies of his dear ones define his present situation. Also, in this second stage, there seems to be no sign of the utopia Alan Dugan spoke about.

The imprisoned Farhang, who is on the verge of torture and even execution by the Islamic regime in Tehran, is forced to leave the country, never to return. In this third stage, the haunting memories of his murdered brother as well as the torturers and intelligence officers he met years ago under the shah’s regime return to him with a vengeance, especially because he meets those torturers again. When he finally leaves Iran and reunites with his uncle, who has used both his money and connections to set Farhang free, in Switzerland, he finally talks with his uncle about his dream of establishing a farm somewhere in Iowa that would be a recreation of the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, he rejects his uncle’s offer of money to purchase the land. He talks about this although he is not in the United States yet. This is what he envisions about America. He seems more like a dreamer, not caring about whether he can buy a piece of land and start a farm with no money. He also does not pay attention to whether historical, political, and cultural facts of the time in the United States are conducive to establishing such a utopia by and for exiled Persians. If American writers and thinkers of past centuries managed to establish a utopia on a limited basis, it does not necessarily mean that an exiled Persian like Farhang Shadzad will be able to do that empty-handed. In the end, he expresses a vague hope to the Statue of Liberty that although he has returned empty-handed, things will change: “As we made the final descent into New York and the plane tipped its wing in the glare of the rising sun, I caught a glimpse of the Lady with the Lamp. I spread out my hands for her to see. I had come back empty-handed again. But I hoped I would not remain that way forever.”[27]

Here, the common point between Farhang and Alex is that both have a dream or vision for which the former experiences exile and the latter loses his life. Another common point is that this dream or vision is placeless: it is a good place which, in fact, is no place. This is the same as “Thomas More’s pun: eutopia-the good place; utopia-nowhere.”[28] The novel gives no indication that Alex thought of a place like this. In the end, Farhang talks about starting a farm, a sort of Garden of Eden somewhere in Iowa. Prior to that, almost throughout the novel, however, he thinks that America is more a mental and psychological state,[29] which is why the United States he experiences is different from the United States his father expected and why it is as though Farhang and Cyrus live in two separate Americas. It is interesting that on all of the aforementioned pages (iii, 67, 68, and 297), the words U.S. or America could easily be replaced with either exile or utopia (i.e., no place). Only at the very end does the United States become purely “promised land”—that is, a good place (eutopia). Hence, this ending does not seem organic and logical; rather, it looks like an added grain of optimism.

The Last American by J. A. Mitchell could be seen as an opposing perspective to Sho‘levar’s quasi-utopian approach toward the United States in Dead Reckoning, which portrays the United States as the only country in the world with patches that offer the possibility of establishing a utopia immune to tyranny and corruption. The Last American is the fictional travel memoir of a Persian prince, whose sailship reaches North America inadvertently. This is the year 2591, when the United States has been wiped from existence through drastic climate change. The story offers an anti-utopian view of the United States, which is either a ruined utopia or has never been a utopia in the first place: “There was nothing to leave. The Mehrikans [Americans] possessed neither literature, art, nor music of their own. Everything was borrowed. The very clothes they wore were copied with ludicrous precision from the models of other nations. They were a sharp, restless, quick-witted, greedy race, given body and soul to the gathering of riches. Their chiefest passion was to buy and sell.”[30]

Interestingly, the Persian sailors leave their ship in a city that turns out to be the ruins of New York. In fact, the first sight that catches their attention is that of the Statue of Liberty: “Right ahead, in the middle of the bay, towered a gigantic statue, many times higher than the masts of our ship.”[31] The subsequent descriptions of New York City impart a sense of dead and decayed glory mingled with glittery superficiality and materialistic values. As a result, being an important symbol for and in such a city, the Statue of Liberty conveys nothing but the sense of decay, despair, and vanished glitter: “Beyond, from behind this statue, came the broad river upon whose waters we were floating, its surface all aglitter with the rising sun. To the East, where Nofuhl was pointing, his fingers trembling with excitement, lay the ruins of an endless city.”[32] If in this story, the United States is presented as a dystopia, that presentation is based on the details and evidence portrayed in the story.

This seems to be in sharp contrast with how Farhang invokes the same statue twice, like a deity as a witness: first, when he promises to build a utopia or Garden of Eden somewhere in the United States and does not need the deity’s help, and second, when he confesses to the same deity that he has failed, but there is still hope. It could be argued that a writer is free to depict concepts such as hope, utopia, eutopia, and exile as well as objects such as the Statue of Liberty the way they want to, especially if they believe that “America is a state of mind.”[33] While it is difficult to disagree with such a position, “description of utopian fiction… hinges on this general notion of historical possibility…the utopian novum (the novelty or innovation) requires a historical logic, a historical empiricism as well.”[34] Dead Reckoning, however, lacks a historical, cultural, and political logic of this kind to substantiate the writer’s claim that the United States has the capacity to be a potential promised land or Garden of Eden for a Persian exile. Some may object that plenty of evidence of this capacity can be found in a variety of sources. However, it is important to note that the novel as a self-contained and autonomous entity should provide the reader with such a logic. Besides, due to different cultural, historical, and social backgrounds, the opportunity for people such as Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville to live and write freely in the patches not yet covered by the jungle might not necessarily be available for a Persian exile. As mentioned earlier, “nationalisms [or any dominant power or regime that sends people into exile] are about groups, but in a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group.”[35] So, in the case of Farhang Shadzad or any other Persian exile, the said dialectical tensions which form his cultural identity could fall into categories such as time, space, and embodiment—a time, a space, and an embodiment which form their unique experience and may be poles apart from those of  Whitman, Thoreau, and Melville.

[1]Translation is mine.

[2]Ivan Doig, ed., Utopian America: Dreams and Realities (Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Company, 1976), 125.

[3]Bahman Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning: A Novel (Philadelphia: Concourse Press, 1992), 2.

[4]Bahman Sho‘levar, “Gouftegu Ba Bahman Sho‘levar-2 [“Talk with Bahman Sho‘levar-2”], interview by Poupak Rad, VOA Farsi, 17 November 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFoAeRT0SEI.

[5]Hasan A‘bedini, Sad Sal Dastan Nevisi Dar Īrān (A Hundred Years of Story Writing in Iran), 4 vols. (Tehran: Nashr-i Cheshmeh, 2009), 1–2:639.

[6]Mohammad Ali Sepanlou, Nevisandegan-e Pishrou-e Īrān (Iranian Pioneering Writers) (Tehran: Ketab-I Zaman, 1993), 173.

[7]Bahman Sho‘levar, The Night’s Journey and the Coming of Messiah (Philadelphia: Concourse Press, 1966), 137, 151.

[8]Mohammad Reza Ghanoonparvar, “Dead Reckoning [A‘sākesh] by Bahman Sho‘levar,” Īrān shenasi 5 (1993): 642–47. Quote on p. 646.

[9]Houra Yavari, “FICTION, ii(f). BY PERSIANS IN NON-PERSIAN LANGUAGES,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2012, www.iranicaonline.org/articles/fiction-iif-in-non-persian-languages.

[10]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, 63, 67.

[11]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, 86–87.

[12]Karen Elizabeth Bishop, ed., Cartographies of Exile: A New Spatial Literacy (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 2016), 2.

[13]Sophia A. McClennen, The Dialectics of Exile: Nation, Time, Language, and Space in Hispanic Literatures (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2004), 1.

[14]Bishop, Cartographies of Exile, 6.

[15]Bishop, Cartographies of Exile, 6.

[16]Bishop, Cartographies of Exile, 7.

[17]McClennen, Dialectics of Exile, 2.

[18]Sho‘levar tentatively translated the title of Dead Reckoning as A‘sākesh, meaning “the blind helper,” possibly taken from the Persian proverb “Koori A‘sakesh-e Koor-e digar,” meaning “the blind leading the blind.” However, later on, he changed the title to Bilengar, meaning “anchorless.”

[19]Ghanoonparvar, “Dead Reckoning,” 647.

[20]Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 177.

[21]McClennen, Dialectics of Exile, 2.

[22]McClennen, Dialectics of Exile, 3.

[23]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, 138–39.

[24]Robert Reed, introduction to Dead Reckoning: A Novel by Bahman Sho‘levar (Philadelphia: Concourse Press, 1992), iv.

[25]Bahman Sho‘levar, Bilengar (Philadelphia: Concourse Press, 2009), 139.

[26]Sho‘levar, Bilengar, 288. Translation is mine.

[27]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, 336.

[28]Jean Pfaelzer, The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984), 3.

[29]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, iii, 67, 68, 297.

[30]J. A. Mitchell, The Last American, a Fragment from the Journal of Khan-Li, Prince of Dimph-Yoo-Chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy (New York: F. A. Stokes & Brother, 1889), 7.

[31]Mitchell, Last American, 4.

[32]Mitchell, Last American, 5.

[33]Sho‘levar, Dead Reckoning, 297.

[34]Pfaelzer, 16.

[35]Said, Reflections on Exile, 177.

Farmer–Herder Villages and the Revolution


Mary Martin studied the ecological impact of farmer–herder strategies in northeast Iran for eighteen months during the 1974–78 period while engaged in doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published widely on conservation at the local level; goat products and marketing; pastoral production, milk, and firewood in Turan ecology; production strategies, herd composition, and offtake; and the national and regional contexts of local-level agricultural strategies. Currently retired, she taught cultural anthropology at Rider University and the University of the Arts, and was assistant director/outreach coordinator at University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center.

As the Iranian Revolution gained momentum in the cities of Iran, many rural areas resisted Ayatollah Khomeini’s message and appeared to support the shah. In particular, agricultural villages did not respond to a revolutionary message in which use of resources, particularly oil and agriculture, was to be a key issue. This issue was linked in explanations of the performance and prospects of the rural sector in agricultural oil economies generally and in Iran particularly. For example, in 1978 an Iranian economist produced evidence for the rapid destruction of Iranian agriculture from 1963 to 1978 and demonstrated that the plight of the Iranian peasantry was “a direct consequence of increase in oil revenues and the adoption of public expenditure strategies which they have encouraged.” He warned that unless a radical change in public policy occurred, Iranians would experience a depletion of both their oil and their agricultural resources within the foreseeable future.[2] This call for a radical change in public policy found fertile ground in urban areas but did not mobilize certain rural Iranians against the Pahlavi regime.

The discussion here follows the events in the fall of 1978 in a smallholder agricultural village in an area in northeast Iran where in addition to a lack of active political response to the resource question, there was resentment at the politicization of Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala). The brief return of urban relatives also brought into relief the dynamics of smallholder village migration to Tehran. The question of why these villagers did not respond to Khomeini’s revolutionary message in the same way as did the town and city dwellers is one which throws further light on Iranian society at the time of the revolution and on such issues as smallholder political options, the problem of security in outlying areas, and the relationship between politics and religious feeling. This article will first review the events of the autumn of 1978 and then discuss the issues raised by these events.


Autumn 1978 from a Rural Perspective

In the fall of 1978, I returned to Iran to finish investigating the use of resources in village populations in a steppic region at the northeastern edge of the kavir (central salt desert). It was a region in which extensive herding of sheep and goats (range-based operations rather than more intensive fattening operations) was combined with agriculture based primarily on qanat irrigation; a qanat is an underground channel which carries groundwater by gravity flow from an aquifer underlying relatively high ground out onto the surface at a point lower in a plain where there is good soil. Rainfall averaged less than two hundred millimeters per year in this region. The dominant form of land use was pastoralism of various types, sedentary and transhumant, and the settled and transhumant pastoral populations had a close, interdependent relationship. Agriculturally, it was set off from other rural areas in that it was an area of smallholders and had been so before the Land Reform of the 1960s.

My research was carried out in conjunction with the Turan Program for Ecological Research and Development associated with the Iranian Department of the Environment and UNESCO, which was coordinated by Dr. Brian Spooner from the University of Pennsylvania. I was concerned with the environmental consequences of the various strategies of pastoralism and agriculture, and the use of vegetation for fuel, fodder, food, construction, and medicine. My work had begun in 1974, and by the time of this visit in the fall of 1978, I had previously lived in the area under discussion for a total of seventeen months. I had been away for almost a year, one which had been a critical year for Iranian politics and was to culminate in the Iranian Revolution. In order to safeguard the identity of the people involved, the exact locality of the villages is not revealed.

The report that follows is primarily based on accounts by people in whom I had a great deal of confidence and was built up over months of painstaking research on cropping patterns, herd composition, grazing schedules, and the use of natural vegetation by both humans and animals. These questions, in fact, were still the main focus of my day-to-day inquiries as 1978 drew to a close, although the emphasis in the following account is not on yield per acre of tobacco, wheat, or cotton but on the course of the revolution in Iran and its local impact.

When I left Tehran for the village at the beginning of November, the city was in a state of unrest. Iranians sensed major changes, and the foreign community was fearful. The government had reinstituted restrictions and curfews after a period of relaxation.

I made two stops on the long drive to the research area which gave slightly different pictures of the events in the country. The first stop was in a town in the Alborz Mountains which was home to the Sangsari people. These transhumant pastoralists have regular summer grazing areas in the Alborz Mountains near Sangesar and winter grazing areas at the edge of the kavir that included the area near my destination. We talked of the large flock owner Hojabr Yazdani, who was extremely wealthy in flocks and other commercial interests. He employed numerous shepherds, both local and from the area of my research, and he was always a topic of conversation there. This time, the conversation was about his links with Shahpur Abdul-Reza, the shah’s brother, in acquiring former common grazing land around Firuzkuh for flocks the two of them owned. The locals noted that not only was Yazdani a Baha’i, as were several of the Sangsari, but he had links with Bank Saderat, many of whose branches in Tehran were, by that time, only charred remains. This conversation concerning grazing land was the kind of subject which always engendered great interest in the villages of my destination. What was different was the topic introduced by the only boy from my research area sent away to high school (in this case, at the home of his maternal uncles). He spoke of books forbidden until just before this time—Behrangi’s Little Black Fish and works by Gorky and Ali Shariati—books which played an important role in the revolution in urban areas. It was also different because I had always been careful not to discuss current politics during my research time in the field. On this visit, suddenly politics became part of daily discussions.

The next stop was Sabzevar, and unlike the previous stop, it was the scene of much political activity. I stayed with a family that, at one time, had owned grazing stations and significant amounts of land in my research area and with whom I had spent much time at grazing stations, in their home, and in their fields and gardens before they moved to Sabzevar. The husband said he was descended from Shiraz nomads who were placed in the region by Naser al-Din Shah and who, in recent times, kept the area safe from the encroachment of the Basseri tribesmen living in the area of Semnan. Until the husband’s father died in the forties, the Basseri came into my research area, usurped grazing area, and married local women. They remained a problem until the gendarmerie restored control in 1956. When anthropologist Brian Spooner (head of the Turan Project during the time of my research) was in Jajarm in 1958, he was told of the area discussed in this paper and was warned not to go there, because of disturbances with the Basseri. Now, this Sabzevar family and their relatives warned me not to go into the biaban (area away from the villages and fields) alone and to stay close to my village base because of the current national unrest. This was a warning I had never had before but took seriously because of the stories they had told of previous periods of unrest and breakdown of government control.

That evening in November 1978, the family was visiting a relative who had migrated to Sabzevar as a teenager, married a local, and raised her family there. Now, her teenage children were very active in the politics of the revolution. That evening, they were repeating a rhyme, “Shah Iran kotak zad, Khomeini Iran poufak dad” (“The Shah hit Iran, Khomeini gave Iran a cheese twist”), and reported that the local cinema had been burned earlier in the day.

Although these relatives of my host family had known of me, this was their first opportunity to discuss with me personally my studies of local use of resources among pastoral and agricultural populations. One young man was impressed that villagers weren’t planting food but cotton because of the price structure. He said Iran bought grain from the United States at one price and sold it in Iran for about a third of that price. In actuality, the cropping patterns in the area I studied were a bit more complicated. Cotton did compete with wheat and barley for irrigation water and had for some time. However, the wheat and barley lands were double cropped with tobacco and fodder crops. In previous years, opium had competed with wheat and cotton for land, yet the learned religious men or ulama had, at the turn of the century, united the country not against opium production but against the tobacco concession to “foreigners” in what became known as the Tobacco Rebellion.[3] The young man’s point about wheat prices was valid, however, for wheat was planted only for local needs and not for outside markets—and prices played some role in these decisions. Yet as noted earlier, these discussions about agriculture mobilized the urban rather than rural populations politically. The remainder of the discussion was on questions of religion and politics, the extent of alcoholism and Islam in America, and whether any American Muslims were Shi‘a. My host family’s relatives talked of a jihad, or holy war, against the shah and were sure all Muslim countries would help.

The next day, as I made preparations to drive to the research area, there were demonstrations in the upper part of town, reports of no flour in the stores, and a report that if more than two people were seen walking together the next day, they would be shot. The following morning, a male family member returned from a trip to the store saying all shops and the bazaar were closed and only food places were open. Nonetheless, we went to buy gasoline for my Iranian Jyane, and I saw lines of people waiting for kerosene or trying to stock up on the supposedly nonexistent flour, despite the supposed decree that if more than two people went out together, they would be shot. Just as I was preparing to drive away, a young relative of my host came by proudly displaying his pro-Khomeini sign which would be carried in demonstrations “uptown.”

I then set off for the villages at the edge of the kavir, which were about a five-hour drive via dirt road. This was an area of rangeland with small pockets of qanat-irrigated agriculture at the edge of an area protected by the Department of the Environment because of its wildlife (gazelle, onager, wild sheep, and wild goat). It was an area where governmental concern was with desertification, and it had been affected in the sixties in a variety of ways by national legislation forbidding the making of charcoal, limiting firewood collection to dead vegetation, and nationalizing rangeland and water. As this was already a region of smallholders, its agricultural base had not been affected by land reform.

In the summer of 1978, as tension increased in urban areas, local life had continued at a pace that on the surface resembled previous years. The malaria squad had come through on one of their regular visits; wheat, barley, cotton, tobacco, and fodder crops were planted and harvested; sheep and goats grazed; milk products were processed; and animals were fattened for winter consumption. In November 1978, local discussion centered on the year’s tobacco prices and what the government would finally pay per kilo (the locals had said that, in previous years, the government first quoted one price but then paid less).

When I arrived in the area, in addition to the regular catching up on family, grazing, and crop conditions that occurred whenever I returned, everyone asked whether Tehran and nearby provincial towns were in a state of unrest. I was warned, as in Sabzevar, not to leave the area in a hurry and not to go to the area away from the maidan (villages). In fact, there were indications that the national situation had already had significant local impact and that the areas away from the villages were less safe than usual. The Department of Environment game guard station in a nearby village was no longer occupied. One game guard had packed up and gone to his home village, a qal’eh (small fortified compound) in a remote area toward the kavir. An Iraqi Kurd had gone to another village where he had relatives. He was one of the Kurds who had been assigned to the Department of the Environment in 1976 as a part of the government attempt to disperse Kurds among local populations.

In mid-November when I drove family members to visit relatives shepherding at an aghol (sheep station) in the south, I saw something that truly indicated that the changes that were taking place in Iran were having an impact on the local region. The government had forbidden charcoal production in Iran since 1966, after which time many people for whom it had been a livelihood had migrated to the cities. A tremendous amount of smoke in the distance indicated the burning of charcoal. My passenger, a village neighbor working as a shepherd for the transhumant Sangsari, informed me that there was a lot of charcoal burning near the kavir at that time. This was serious evidence of the breakdown of control over the hinterland by the environmental agencies assigned to protect the vegetation which charcoal burning threatened.

The theme of past insecurity was raised again and again. Residents of the rural research area compared the chaos to earlier periods of rioting and discontent, one of which occurred at the time of Mosaddeq. One resident noted that if the government hadn’t applied force at that time, the country would have fallen to pieces, for there was no kerosene or food and there were constant strikes. Another balva (period of discontent) was the period during World War II, during which, according to one neighbor, Iran had had no way to protect itself—perhaps only ten thousand soldiers. When Reza Shah left the country, food prices soared, and residents had to buy wheat with copper, which was owned in relatively large quantities for milk processing. During this period, a lot of copperware owned by residents was sold.

News from outside, as in earlier peaceful days, came into the area with visitors, locals who brought back firsthand reports from the closest provincial towns, and the daily radio broadcasts. The amount and tenor of the news from the outside differed. In early September, for example, visiting relatives had reported bad news from Tehran in the form of fires and demonstrations, as well as stories—for example, that Israeli soldiers had been brought in because Iranians did not want to fight against Iranians.[4] The discussions in people’s homes now included the demonstrations occurring with increasing frequency throughout the country, the Abadan fire, and the Tabas earthquake. The radio news of the Abadan fire in August was the real turning point in local concern about the course of events in the country.

Eight days after the Abadan fire, the arrival of the new teacher, more religious than his predecessors, also signaled the changes underfoot. The Sepah-e Danesh (Literacy Corps) teacher supported the religious dimension of the revolution by insisting on the proper Islamic dress for his female students (fifth grade was the highest grade) and believed that the Abadan fire had killed four hundred people and had been set by government agents. The teacher lived separately, and except for occasional meals with village families who were entertaining him, he socialized primarily with teachers in other villages. He was not part of the regular social life of the village which occurred in the fields, at the milking pens, and in the shab neshin (evening visits between families).

As disturbing news from the outside increased that autumn, natural events occurred which some considered to have special meaning. For example, in mid-September the big earthquake in Tabas occurred. This earthquake was accompanied the same day by an eclipse of the moon. According to ethno-archaeologist Lee Horne, a UPenn researcher involved with the Turan Project who was there at that time, a local mother of seven claimed that the earthquake and the eclipse meant that God was displeased.

Tape recorders were locally popular for taping poetry and playing music. However, the tapes of Khomeini and Shariati did not have the overwhelming impact in rural areas that they did in urban areas. Instead, the radio played an important role during the five-and-a-half weeks of my stay. Unlike earlier periods of my research, when the radio was never a topic of discussion, in the fall of 1978 we all listened to and commented on the various news programs which came over numerous radio stations. They were often the first topic of conversation in the morning and the last at night. I listened primarily to the BBC World Service. The locals’ choices included the Iranian broadcasts, BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Moscow. As we compared notes on radio news broadcasts, I received various comments directed toward my choice of listening to the BBC. The one comment that I heard often was that the BBC spoke lies.

The consistency of views about the BBC may have been one of the most significant indicators of local opinion about national politics, in the sense that the locals were shocked at the station’s apparent support of Khomeini, indicated by news and views which differed from those of the government station. They were upset about what influence this might have on local politics. Tehranian has commented that the “BBC’s World Service program in Persian, always popular in Iran as a source of reliable news, filled a vacuum left especially by the domestic mass communication blackout. It also enlivened its program by news that bordered on rumor and by special commentaries that were interpreted as support for the revolution.”[5] It is not clear whether the local mistrust of the BBC had always been as strong, for we had never discussed news reports before. Whereas I saw the BBC as a source of reliable news, my neighbors saw it as a threat. They also displayed ambivalent attitudes toward Britain.

The knowledge of national politics varied. One woman from a neighboring village asked if my government and her government got on, and then commented that it was getting to be like old times, one ruler after another. Two brothers said they were happy about the help the United States had given Iran and disliked both England and Russia. At one point in December, my host expressed shock when he learned that the director of our research project was English. There was another expression of distrust of the BBC, this time because they thought it was against Iran.

Attitudes toward the Iranian government varied. A young man who had worked in Tehran in a shoe store appeared to be against the shah while his mother was for him. A local man said that Khomeini’s dissatisfaction with the Pahlavis would not end until the shah was gone, for Khomeini had kineh (a grudge). This was because, the man said, Khomeini’s father had been killed in an uprising against Reza Shah, and Khomeini’s son had recently been killed. The man went on to say that Khomeini was very old, and after a man is seventy, he begins to talk like a child again and one cannot take him seriously. I guessed that this man was against the shah, for even his little boy said “Shah, velesh kon” (“the shah, to hell with him”), although later events contradicted this assumption. A teenage girl said that the teacher must side with Khomeini as the teacher told the girls not to let their hair show from under their chadors. A mother of eight said she would like an Islamic Republic under the shah. This last statement represented then and now what I considered to be a major local sentiment toward the events in the country and one that would reappear dramatically as Ashura approached.

The news from this and other nearby provincial towns was taken very seriously. The villages in the region had links with a range of provincial towns because of trade, government offices, or relations living there. Sabzevar was the closest in terms of trade, transportation, and personal connections rather than official administrative relationships. Several households had moved to this town, either because they had little land or a lot of land (rarely in between). Thus, when on 14 November came serious news of disturbances and arrests in Tehran, there was little, if any, overt reaction. However, when talk turned to women in Sabzevar baring their heads, locals said, “What is the world coming to?”

The following day, I heard on the radio that Shahrud would become sholuq (in a situation of unrest). A man said, “It will never be okay again because people have forgotten religion.” He continued, “They are throwing the foreigners out.” This statement about foreigners was just a repetition of the news, not an impassioned cheer. Foreigners were rare in the region. Those who came were ecologists or anthropologists, generally not in large groups which would have distinguished them symbolically. Villagers told me that Sabzevar residents, for example, liked foreigners, and when a destitute Israeli came to the mosque, they collected seven to eight toman for him. This is in great contrast to the ideas of some villagers near Shiraz that the shah had planned the decline of Iranian agriculture to “provide a market for the crops of his American masters” or their complaints that Americans in Shiraz lived in separate compounds and didn’t like to mix with the Iranians.[6]

It is also in contrast to ideas about foreigners expressed by certain educated Department of Environment employees in Tehran. These employees noted that it was better for the Department of the Environment that the foreigners were gone because first, the United States was about fifty years ahead of Iran in environmental matters; second, Iranians had been technical assistants to foreign-run projects which were sometimes too advanced for Iran; and third, no Iranians had been getting the “big picture” of what was needed. These issues directly affected resource use in the area of national parks and protected areas where local populations, such as those described here, were increasingly being prevented from using local grazing area because foreigners and Iranian elite wanted the country to be in the forefront of the international ecological movement. Although the local populations in this case study were seriously concerned about an increasing number of laws affecting their use of resources, they did not see it as an issue of a foreign model of national resource development.

Several days later, I heard news of the closest arena of disturbance up to that point in a village to the north. The children were home from school because of the trouble. Some people were taken away after the nearest government center (Shahrud) had been contacted by the local gendarmerie via their wireless. I heard this report from a local man who worked as a shepherd for the wealthy flock owner Hojabr Yazdani and had been in Tehran selling sheep when the Jaleh Square massacre occurred on 8 September. He was also the one local man who had told me that he used to be a dozd (robber) in previous days when he had no resources and there was great insecurity.

By 22 November, the reports from Tehran were of disruptions and electrical cutoffs. A neighbor reported that the news had said that the cities are for Khomeini and the villages for the shah, and then asked, “What happened to our peaceful country?” The news from Khorasan was that Gonabad and Nishabur had, it seemed, demonstrated in support of Mashhad. That evening, the talk again turned to the events in Sabzevar. A woman who had been in Sabzevar with a sick child said that the wounded who were brought from Nishabur were not accepted by Sabzevar hospitals. She said that during the four days she was there, there were processions followed by slow-moving army vehicles and firefighting equipment. People had been calling Khomeini “imam,” but she said that Khomeini himself said not to do this as he is only the “ja neshin” (temporary replacement) of an imam. She said that those in the processions were trying to replace every picture of the shah with a picture of Khomeini. Shops were half open, ready to close in an instant if the procession should come. Someone in the room suggested that 80 percent of Iranians were followers of Khomeini.


Ashura and the Differential Mobilization of Urban and Rural Populations

The month of Muharram approached with an increasing amount of tension nationally combined with local concern about the national situation. At the end of November, a young man who had returned from his work as a shepherd for the army said that the government was gathering up extra arms from the gendarmes, but they had not yet done so in our area. In fact, despite the disruption in the country, the following day a surveyor came to plan for the piped water for the hammam, the new bathhouse scheduled to be built by the government.

The Voice of America reported trouble in Tehran and Mashhad. The BBC spoke of evacuation plans for foreign embassies. On 1 December came radio reports that the British embassy had been set on fire and that Americans and English were being told to stay away from the bazaar and mosques during Ashura, the day of mourning on the tenth day of Muharram. I was scheduled to leave Iran the day after Ashura for a conference in India, so the subject of my departure and the timing of such became an item of discussion and a reflection of local assessments of the national scene. One woman said it would be bad to travel before Ashura because, I suspected, she wanted to be in the village through Ashura, and then go with me to Tehran. When her husband also said not to go until Ashura, I felt that his advice conveyed concern about the national situation and not his wife’s travel. The news of the following day confirmed his perspective, for I heard that Tehran had been sholuq the previous night. After the curfew, people at Jaleh Square and in south Tehran took to the streets. Khomeini called for the overthrow of the government and the shedding of Muslim blood.

These events prompted me to go to visit one of the members of the village council who had always seemed so cool in contrast to other villagers. He had just returned from Shahrud, where he had been with another villager, and he reported that some groups were demonstrating for and some against the government, but that they were all kids. He suggested again that the BBC might be lying. We talked of what would happen if the army withdrew its support from the shah. He didn’t think this would happen although his son, recently released from the army, said he thought the fate of the shah was in the hands of General Oveissi. Then, we listened to the national news together.

On the fourth of Muharram (3 December), the rain led to cancellation of the local kharj

(in local terminology, the pledged feeding of the entire village by a family). The Voice of America reported a general closing of businesses and new clashes the previous night with men, women, and children dressed in the white sheets used for wrapping bodies for burial. According to a neighbor, Radio Moscow reported one thousand dead. Again, a neighbor said I shouldn’t leave until after Ashura. Later, while I was visiting another family, Tehran radio gave news of the previous night’s disturbances and the involvement of wives and children, and I was told not to budge until after Ashura, to go with people from the village, to wear village clothes (which I normally wore in the village, changing to city clothes on the trip back to Tehran), to go to the home of a person from the villages living in Tehran, and maybe not even take my car. I tried to guide the conversation to other topics such as range quality, previous silk production, and old routes across the desert, but they redirected the discussion to whether Americans could bear arms. My affirmative response triggered an impassioned speech about how the government controlled everything in Iran including people’s having to pay a fee if they wanted a new door for their house. On a similar evening weeks earlier, the villagers’ conversation had also revealed their special concerns when they spoke of wage increases (putting some blame for the increases on literacy among the young), of the old times when it was so dangerous here, and of the problems associated with the new hammam and the expected piped water.

That evening when the conversation drifted back to the events in Tehran, it became clear that the events in the country had become very disturbing to local villagers. One deeply distressed man said that if Muslims were killing Christians, it wouldn’t be so horrible but “Muslims are killing Muslims!” He then asked, “What is it that brings women and children out to be killed and allows their husbands to let this happen?” Another man said that it was only those who lost relatives who were driven to do this and that the Communists had a hand, as well. Later that same day, the BBC reported that the government, too, was shaken by the last few days and that Ambassador Zahedi had been called back from Washington.

On 4 December, my discussion with neighbors was about Khomeini being upset because the government did not help the farmers and they were all leaving the land. They were leaving the land because the government bought wheat from the United States at nine toman per man (3 kg) and sold it for four toman per man, raising the question as to why the money wasn’t given to farmers to grow wheat. A few weeks earlier, a large land and flock owner had said that, of course, he would plant more wheat if the price were higher. Nonetheless, people in this region did not leave the land because of wheat prices. Wheat was not a cash crop locally as were tobacco and cotton. Enough wheat was planted to meet local food needs.

As political activity increased throughout Iran in early December, there was increased discussion about the disturbances in provincial towns. One view was that Sabzevar was not sholuq, for no one had been killed there and only processions had taken place, but that Gorgan was considered in worse shape because they were mazhabi (religious). Reports said that two factions that had clashed in Nishabur, pro- and anti-shah. Shahrud was pro-shah, my neighbors said. Whatever photos of Khomeini had been put up had been removed. However, the bazaars were closed in Shahrud, and the two local men who had gone there could hardly sell their sheep. The national situation continued to deteriorate.

Ever since the death of a revered resident sheikh (mullah) in a neighboring village, visiting mullahs had been brought into the area from outside for special religious holidays, such as Ramadan and Muharram, and serviced several villages. The one who came for Muharram this particular year appeared to be a problem. There was talk that the sheikh had told people to take photos of the shah down from the Husseinieh (the building set aside for religious gatherings). The villagers did not like this and said they couldn’t pay him if he did not like pictures of the shah. One man muttered that all these troubles were caused by the sheikhs and “who needs them anyway.” “They’ve taken our namus (honor),” said another.

In past years, every night during the first ten days of Muharram, the entire village had gathered at the Husseinieh for rozeh-khani (mourning performance). It was a time of religious excitement anticipated by men, women, and children, a time of “liminality”[7] when daily life was transformed. When the sheikh arrived, he would preach and then recount the events at Karbala in 680 AD. In unison, the audience would unite in ritual weeping at the recounting of the story of the cruel martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, at the hands of the Ummayyed dynasty. 

This year, the men were talking politics before the sheikh arrived. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying as they were all up in front, and I was in the back with the women and children. The sheikh arrived, mispronounced the name of the next town, and spoke of prayer and how to do it correctly. Finally, a member of the village council suggested that he get on with the rozeh-khani so that the woman and children could get home. The sheikh then spoke of Mashhad and the recent desecration of the shrine there by the government. However, he was losing the attention of his audience and, at several points, got everyone there to give a salavat (the verbal invocation “Aliahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa asli Muhammad,” “Oh God, bless Muhammad and his kin”). Then, he said he was talking history, one moment speaking of Harun al Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, then jumping to the 2500th anniversary of civilization in Iran and how much it cost and how that money should have been given to the poor. The women were bored with all this political talk; they just wanted a good cry at the recounting of the Battle of Karbala and some sineh zani (chest beating).

When I went visiting again, I heard that the sheikh had put up a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Husseinieh. Later, I heard that village men had put a photo of the shah underneath it. The next night at the Husseinieh while everyone was listening to taped rozeh-khani, the sheikh came and began to speak of prayer. The men challenged him a lot this night and, at one point, told him he was lying. However, he kept pursuing topics of proper ritual such as how one pinhead of menstrual blood ruins a prayer. When I left, he had not yet seen the shah’s picture.

Later, someone came by to tell me that the sheikh had gone to the next town (gendarme headquarters). It seems that the previous night he had finally seen the shah’s photo and torn it down. One man told him that this was shah territory. The sheikh said that if the man wanted to turn him over to the gendarmes or to file a shekayat (complaint), he could, but that he was not afraid.

Later, a woman told me that the sheikh wouldn’t come that night, and she repeated the words of another from the morning: “If he doesn’t like the shah’s picture, he can tear up the money we’ll give him.” There were also some threats of beating him up. People were unhappy that the sheikh wanted to talk about naft (oil). “What does naft have to do with Islam?” they asked. The sheikh had also annoyed them by speaking against opium addicts, touching on a habit shared by several influential men in the village. Others were annoyed with his requirements for proper prayer. For example, on 7 December, a grandmother about to pray cursed the sheikh when I jokingly told her I would watch and see if she did it in the correct manner he had prescribed: controlling arm movements so she did not appear to “fly.”

The next morning, the daughter of a village leader came to tell me what had happened the previous night when the sheikh came, after all. The gendarmes were present, and one was dressed up in shaksi (street) clothes. The others were outside, all around. The sheikh said to the undercover gendarme, “Are you from here?” and the gendarme said, “I was in the city.” Sheikh: “Which city?” Gendarme: “I move around.”

This went on until the sheikh asked the undercover gendarme his name and then said, “I know you” (that is, that you are a gendarme). The gendarmerie was pro-shah and very upset with anyone who wasn’t. They had expressed surprise that one villager, whose brother was a government employee, was pro-Khomeini. In the case of the sheikh, it sounded like they would have beaten him up if he had said the wrong thing. Apparently, he did not say the wrong thing, as no violence occurred that evening. After he had torn down the shah’s photo, the sheikh had gone (or been taken) to the town where the gendarmes were stationed, but I had no news of what transpired next. Accounts differed as to whether local leaders had made a formal complaint about the sheikh’s behavior.

The following day, the sheikh was still there and staying with a family I knew well. When I came to visit, he was then sitting alone in the next room. The grandmother whispered that the gendarmes had come to get the sheikh and her son-in-law had brought him back (the granddaughter said she didn’t know who had brought him back). They both reported that the sheikh kept saying that Iran shouldn’t be selling its oil to foreigners. Ironically, that night the BBC reported attacks on clergy members—and that one might have been killed in Bushire.

As Ashura drew nigh, the gendarmes seemed to think that it would become sholuq here after Ashura. The previous day, a neighbor had brought news that Sabzevar was sholuq and several had been killed. By now, the question had become, “What will happen to Iran?” Two men suggested that the shah would have to go if the army said so. The BBC reported that three ayatollahs from Qom said that soldiers would not fire on their coreligionist brothers. Both the ayatollahs and Sanjabi (general secretary of the National Front) said that the processions planned for Ashura should be peaceful.

Four nights earlier, as we had sat and recounted what we had heard on the news, we received reports that several local people from villages to the north had returned from Tehran, where they were living and working. Based on a phone conversation between people in Sabzevar and in Tehran, a relative reported that there were about sixty in Tehran from the local villages, that Tehran was be dard-e-ma nemihore (no good to us) at the time, and that they possibly would come back for Ashura. These migrants to Tehran all had good jobs in factories, companies, or stores. They were basically young men with a local sixth-grade education and further training in the army. Although they could have made good money working as shepherds for the Sangsari, they had chosen urban living. Many were unmarried, and others, married to local girls, had their wives with them. Their families supplied them with local dairy products and usually visited in the winter. The migrants came back for weddings, holidays, and sometimes, to help with the harvest, but not usually for Ashura.

Upon hearing the news that the migrants might return, the mother of two of the sixty told of her dream in which she had seen her sons talking about the troubles in Tehran. The youngest said that he was leaving Tehran but could not come home as she (his mother) wanted but would go to another city. Nonetheless, on 8 December, the two arrived after the long drive from Tehran. Another village boy and his wife were expected to arrive the following day.

The two returnees reported that every night after 9:00 in Tehran, there was the sound of shooting and their car had a broken window from a demonstrator. We discussed radio reports that on Ashura, eight processions would converge at the Shahyad monument. When I said I had heard my report on the BBC, their response was that of other villagers: the station lied. They suggested Radio Moscow for news that was correct.

As they continued their reports of Tehran, they spoke of television reports of the queen drinking alcohol. They said bread was available but that shops were shut because shopkeepers were afraid of being burned. Over a hundred Mercedes-Benzes, which had been imported for the police, had been burned. They said that the police station attack which we had heard about on the radio had been near Roosevelt Avenue, or a bit further east, and Russian guns had been used. Gas was not rationed, but capsule gas could be gotten from only the company. Electricity was on and off, and sugar had run out in Tehran. On the way to the village, they had observed that there was no kerosene in Biarjomand, the seat of the baksh (local governmental division).

As the reports of Tehran continued, one of the brothers said a BBC reporter had been shot and another thrown out. One person from the region had been killed in Tehran. He spoke of accidents and the police not coming because of Khomeini and of Khomeini paying the newspaper staff’s wages. He felt that the students were causing a lot of the trouble. The arms that were found were Russian. He continued, saying that the Russian soldiers were by the borders waiting and if it were not for the Americans, the Russians would already be in Iran. He shared a story of men who had dressed up in chadors and demonstrated. A man from his brother’s factory, Iran National, had disappeared on the Karaj road, and no one knew his whereabouts. Foreign parts were not coming in for the cars at Iran National. His local sister-in-law reported to me that whenever there was a demonstration, the two brothers would shut down their gate and retreat to the second floor of where they lived and that one of them had told her that if anyone said they were for the shah in Tehran, their tongue would be cut off.


10 December: Tasu’a, the Ninth Day of Muharram

I had retired the previous night thinking that the sheikh had not come to the Husseinieh. However, the next day, I heard that the sheikh had come late, about eleven or so. A village council member came to compare news reports. Everyone was praying that the day’s march in Tehran would be peaceful, for there had been talk of people dressing up in soldier’s clothes and firing. At 3:30 p.m., the BBC reported that the march had been peaceful. My neighbor’s wife exclaimed, “May God have mercy!” At the home where the two sons had returned, however, no one but me seemed excited that it had been peaceful.

About 9:00 p.m., when I went to the Husseinieh, the men were deep in discussion. They finally started sineh zani, but the sheikh arrived and they had to stop. The sheikh spoke of qosl (ritual bathing). The women were bored as were many men, but people kept asking questions. He again said men should change clothes before praying. This was not only another example of the conflicting demands of ritual purity and agriculture noted by Loeffler[8] but also a lack of consideration for the women, who already devoted most of one day a week to heating water and washing clothes by hand. No wonder, when later he referred to bichareh zanan (the unfortunate women), a young wife visiting from Tehran muttered, “bichareh khodet” (“unfortunate yourself”). Then, he talked again about Muslims in Spain. “A country with faith cannot fall,” he affirmed. Next, he gave another illustration of a village overflowing with milk and honey. “Why was it this way? Because there were no thieves.” His politics were more subtly expressed by that time. However, he was still in trouble with the local population. Several times, he had to tell the audience not to laugh, that his time here was almost up. The story about Karbala was not sung or chanted but preached, and the audience was even more unhappy.


11 December: Ashura

In many ways, this day was like the other two village Ashuras in which I had participated. In the early morning, the family providing bread for the day’s kharj began baking with the help of relatives. The village was gathered to help make the meal of the day: sometimes halim (a mixture of cracked wheat and meat) or ash (a soup with meat and spices). The latter had been made daily by families who had made religious vows to do so, but this was the only day in which regular activity was significantly modified. Some families commandeered all the limited available transport in the area to make the pilgrimage to the nearby shrine on Mount Peyghambar. Most people checked out the cooking process or made gulach (a special bread) to take to the cemetery. As in other years, the radios were on in the courtyards, broadcasting from Tehran the Ashura processions and recitations.

Locally, Ashura seemed peaceful, and I had plans to join a convoy of returned migrants which would set off for Tehran in three days. In the afternoon, the entire village proceeded together to the cemetery to mourn the local dead and for the men to read from special books for the occasion and to engage in sineh zani. The trip to the graveyard this year was very emotional because of the recent death of a wife and mother from cancer. Then, the villagers returned, more religious reading and sineh zani by the men took place, and a lull set in until the evening. Ashura evening was in many ways not unusual. Each family sent a representative to collect bread and ash for the women and children, who ate at home. The men ate together in the Husseinieh and were joined later by their families, who watched the sineh zani and listened to the story of the events of Ashura. On this Ashura, the drama with the sheikh had been played out, and it was a quiet evening. In one home later that evening, the conversation drifted to the national events. One of the returnees agreed that the Abadan cinema fire was the work of SAVAK. He started talking about how good an Islamic state would be. He spoke of a girl walking in Tehran who would be followed by ten men saying matalaks (taunts), and that it is these lat o luti (hoodlums) who were burning shops.

Four days before Ashura, another event had occurred which had strongly affected the local populations and indicated local views about serving in the army at this time. The local village headman and other village men had gone to the neighboring village as twenty local youths were taken away to be soldiers. Parents, men and women both, were most reluctant to see their sons leave, even more so at this insecure time. An influential and religious man from a neighboring village reportedly said that no one should go to the army from this area. Earlier in the year, the mother of a boy serving in Ahvaz said that they had not heard from him during the postal strike and his father was ready to go to Ahvaz to see how he was. On 12 December, a flock owner from the edge of the kavir came looking for my neighbor to write a letter of complaint. His son had been taken into the army but was needed at home because his father was very old. The whole family were gathered at their original village next to ours. The father would take the letter to Semnan himself.

The day after Ashura, some families still made the pilgrimage to the shrine at Peyghambar, while other villagers compared notes about the collections for the sheikh. The neighboring village collected one thousand toman for the sheikh and six hundred toman for a seyyid (a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and then through the male line) married to a woman in our village. Here, they collected seven hundred toman for the sheikh, an amount which was considered little and which reflected their unhappiness with this sheikh.

On 14 December, departure day, I drove away with the old man who felt his son had been taken unjustly into the army. As we drove past mile after mile of steppe vegetation and periodic flocks of sheep and goats, a Sangsari shepherd hailed a ride from us. For a while, it was almost as if nothing had been happening elsewhere in the country. However, indications of the serious nature of the changes in the nation and region soon arose. Here, driving at the edge of an area protected from hunting, I was told that poachers were killing endangered onager and selling its fat for medicinal purposes. This was another indication of the breakdown of government control in the hinterland. The Department of the Environment could no longer control poaching and was no longer able to prohibit charcoal production. In Shahrud, we saw that the barbed wire around the statue of the shah had been removed, and in Semnan, his statue had been torn down.

In Semnan, the convoy stopped at the home of a gendarme who had once served in the villages from which we had just come. We sat and talked of demonstrations in Damghan, where opposing factions had fought, resulting in two casualties. General Azhari was on television, but transmission stopped periodically and our discussions continued. The host was upset because he thought that the one guest who said he was on the side of truth was pro-Khomeini.

The next day, we waited for car repairs. I spoke with a student at the National University in Tehran who had lived just about everywhere in Iran, including the villages near the kavir we had just left, because his father was a gendarme. He was hostile to me at first and asked why I was damaging Iran’s ab-e-ru (face) by studying agriculture. I told him that village production was something to be proud of, not ashamed of, for my research had shown that small-scale production indicated respectable yields per hectare. Then, our three-car caravan went on to Tehran, and I left the country.

The following summer, Brian Spooner, head of the project, visited the area briefly. He felt that the local situation had reverted to that of the 1950s, that unstable period when the villages had been left alone to work out their own security and had lost grazing lands to the Basseri. By the summer of 1979, the gendarmerie was in the hands of several former leaders in the village, those same men who had put up the picture of the shah in the Husseinieh.


Villages, the Pahlavi State, Shi‘ism, and the Revolution

As we have seen, the smallholder villagers who were actively engaged in mixed herding and agricultural pursuits in the region under study did not take up the revolutionary message and often manifested pro-regime sentiments. The local farmer–herders’ response occurred despite the presence of issues such as agriculture, mass mobilization in the cities, and the dissemination of revolutionary propaganda in the villages both by the media (especially the BBC) and by means of political messages delivered in religious gatherings, which served as the traditional means of anti-regime political communication in urban areas. The residents of this rural region did not become active against the regime even at the critical stages of mass demonstrations, mass strikes, and dual sovereignty.[9] They remained non-receptive in the last month of the old regime, during which such foreign radio stations as the BBC, Radio Moscow, and the Voice of America widely covered and disseminated the news of the revolution (from an outside perspective) throughout the rural areas, and the locals regularly accused the BBC of lying. Tehran migrants returned to their villages during Ashura, whereas in areas closer to the cities, village youth joined urban demonstrators.[10] Furthermore, and even more significant to analysis of the revolution, was the villagers’ resentment toward the transformation of traditional means of communication for political mobilization in Iran: the mosque. They were unreceptive to the mullah who carried the revolutionary message and gave him a reduced payment.

Not all rural residents had the same responses to the events of the revolution. In the revolutionary period, these rural residents of Iran can be divided into four social categories:[11]

  1. Farmers and herders (34.3 percent of the rural population of Iran, which was 53.1 percent rural).
  2. People in direct contact with the cities (intellectuals, teachers, students, laborers, clerks).
  3. The elite (cadres and those from institutions of the old regime).
  4. Clergy (who do not usually live in the villages but are often in them).

After the revolution, some reports indicated village support for anti-shah activity[12] whereas others reported that villages were not always anti-shah or vigorously in support of the revolutionary religious perspective.[13] Consideration of revolutionary activity according to the four categories helps to clear up some of the confusion of reports where the “villages” supported the revolution. For example, in Hegland’s discussions of the anti-regime activities among villagers outside Shiraz, peasants (that is, farmer–herders) were distinguished as a group which “stayed out of the fray entirely.”[14]

It is the behavior of farmer–herders that concerns us here. Three aspects of their behavior deserve attention: first, their relationship to the government; second, the traditional ways of seeking change; and third, their particular experience of Shi‘a Islam and its role in their lives.

The Pahlavi state is often blamed for its failure in the Land Reform program, for its urban bias, and for the relative failure of its agricultural policies.[15] These issues are often taken as a major cause of the revolution, both by the revolutionary leadership and by observers of the revolution. However, various constituencies in Iran at the time of the revolution had their own histories with the state, some marked by periodic overt and violent confrontations, as with the ulama and certain nomadic tribes. The villages of the region described here had their own history. As a place distant from the centers of current and past political control in Iran, the area had been subject to raids or struggles for territory from nomadic tribesmen such as the Turkmen and Basseri, respectively. Under the Pahlavis, however, there was security, a factor of extreme importance to the local population’s outlook.

One approach to understanding the relationship of these residents, vis-à-vis the government at the time of the revolution, is to consider the totality of services received, restrictions imposed, and expectations raised.[16] The primary impact of the national policies of the sixties and seventies in the region had been on improving the “household” or the quality of personal life, as opposed to the agricultural pastoral enterprises. While some Westerners and Iranian elite may have chastised the government for not doing enough for the rural household, it was, in fact, the experience of household- or personal-oriented policies that was important for the communities in this case study in the revolutionary period. In particular, those services which affected improvements in security, education, health, and sanitation, minimal as others might have considered them, were important in affecting local residents in their assessments of the Pahlavi regime. Government services were somewhat limited in contrast to other regions of the country. As in many Iranian villages at the time of the revolution, electricity and running water were not available in the region under study. Access to television gives one clue as to the extent of electrification in the country. Tehranian reported that 100 percent of the country had access to radio while 70 percent had access to television.[17] The main government services included schools up to the sixth grade, and the nearest medical facilities had just recently been established in the administrative center at the edge of the region, several hours away. Public health and agricultural extension services were periodic, and veterinary services did not exist. Kerosene and gasoline were available in a locally administered cooperative. Nonetheless, beginning in the late seventies, the government undertook a program of building new public bathhouses in the villages, part of an ongoing program in the area. These bathhouses were desired for religious reasons, and the shah’s government was providing them. There was also a plan for electricity and piped water for the local hammam and a hospital in the neighboring village where the gendarmerie was located.

Over the years of Pahlavi control, the power of the central government increased. Government bureaucracy affected more and more areas of the country, bringing rural populations under the ever-increasing influence of government policies. At the time of the revolution, the major administrative links were limited to resident government personnel such as the gendarmerie, game guards of the Department of the Environment, and teachers performing their army service with the Sepah-e Danesh. Periodic visits to the region occurred for malaria control and other public health programs, and the government tobacco program, with less frequent visits from other government agencies.

If local discontent existed, it was not with the services provided but with the nature and extent of government bureaucracy over certain aspects of the locals’ lives. Because grazing was a key to local economic success and was subject to government restriction, it was a subject of concern for local owners of sheep and goats. Government actions affecting grazing were a serious local issue, as were restrictions on the collection of vegetation for fuel (important for milk processing and bread baking). The reactions of these populations were not unlike those in the American West a year or two later, in what was described as a “Sagebrush Rebellion.” The issues in this “rebellion” were related to government control. For example, according to a Nevada state legislator and rancher, “the people resented Washington [. . .] coming out here with a packet of regulations and policies telling us what to do.”[18] Although the history and nature of control of rangelands was not always the same in both the United States and Iran, the reaction of the local owners was resentment of government control.

The concerns were different with agriculture. Government regulation of agricultural activity had occurred only in relation to tobacco (or, in the past, opium) and curtailed free market trade of only tobacco. Low tobacco prices would have caused great resentment as they were set by the government, and this was an important cash crop. This contrasts with wheat prices, which were low, not because they were forced on this population, but because of larger agricultural policies. The role of smallholders in national production had been a significant issue nationally when the government had planned for future agricultural projects,[19] but like the questions of models for national resource development, it had not become a local issue.

The response of local residents to government policies depended on whether a policy provided opportunities for the individual or their family to respond positively, or instead attempted to impose controls. Those policies in which control was attempted without alternative means of advancing the individual’s enterprise or household often placed local residents in a position where the only options for survival were protest, as with fuel-gathering regulations; escape through sellout; and occasional urban migration which occurred as a result of new policies concerning rangeland. Other traditional political strategies have been petitions, evasion, and occasional protest through legal channels if possible, or if not, through such unusual means as use of poetry to state grievances. These kinds of actions are the “weapons of the weak,” the “everyday forms of peasant resistance [. . .] the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on [. . .] that typically avoid any direct, symbolic confrontation with authority.”[20]

The political actions of these farmer–herders relate to larger questions about the political “nature” and strategies of peasants—for example, whether they are political or nonpolitical[21] and whether they are revolutionary or non-revolutionary.[22] The position taken here is that peasant–herder political response is individual—ranging from political indifference to extreme involvement[23]—and is based on individual options and resources. Peasants can take any position depending on circumstance. Concerted political action by peasants (farmer–herders) is a difficult and complex question, whether it be protesting injustice or government regulations on overgrazing, and is related to individual options and the pressures to act as a group. Nothing in peasants’ “nature” predisposes them to act one way or another.

However, there is the issue of when and under what conditions these villagers (as well as other people) would be moved to concerted political action, to change a condition or to attempt to change the established system itself. In responding to a problem or risk, what determines whether a group attempts to maintain or change the system? In Risk and Culture, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky have analyzed why people emphasize certain risks while ignoring others and why so many in our society have singled out pollution as a source of concern.[24] I wish to turn their analysis to the question of various political strategies in the Iranian Revolution. Why is it that the clergy emphasized certain risks and ignored others, seeing use of oil money, the importation of agricultural products, and the presence of foreigners as the pollution generated by the shah? Why were these problems not viewed in the same way by farmer–herders? Why did one group try to bring down the system and the other seek to maintain it?

Whether we are speaking of God or nature as the cause of threats, the model is the same. It consists of a center which seeks to maintain the system, whatever it may be (from church to company to state), and a border, self-defined by its opposition to the encompassing larger system:

The first difference between the border and center views is about what the

future will be like. The center takes it to be an extension of the present. Sectarians

expect discontinuity. They expect a different future and they expect it will be bad.

Established society is incorrigibly evil [. . .] The border is worried about God or nature,

two arbiters external to the large-scale social systems of the center. Either God will punish or nature will punish; the jeremiad is the same and the sins are the same: worldly ambition, lust after material things, large organization.[25]

Historically, the religious hierarchy in Iran has been “border” in relation to the ruling state. Whereas Douglas and Wildavsky seek to illustrate why the movement of social concern began earlier and with greater strength in America than in Europe, the processes and patterns they are isolating shed light on the events in Iran. For example, in the United States the economic boom and the educational boom together “produced a cohort of articulate, critical people with no commitment to commerce and industry.”[26] Douglas and Wildavsky argue that it is this shift to service industries that makes room for “educated people of the border [. . .] where before, engaged in production, educated people could see why collective constraint might be necessary, working in the service sector suggests such subordination is unnecessary. Removed from the ‘firing line,’ not having to meet the ‘bottom line,’ the boundary between service and production becomes one between border and center. The more the means of production are ideas rather than things, the less the hierarchical organization or production appears essential.”[27]

The authors see parallels with the Russian intelligentsia and the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and 1961, noting that when a return of the people to the land was advocated, the peasants they came to help did not want such a return. Similar parallels can be made with Iran.

The authors go on to assert that so long as loyalties are turned toward centers or borders, people “will buy a whole package of political judgments about nature, human and physical, that go with center or border views.”[28] We can see in the 1978 Iranian Revolution that “the package of political judgments about nature” of the “border” was expanding in its adherents—but that these adherents were not the farmer–herders or all of their hardworking migrant relatives in the cities. They were, for example, the students, the intellectuals, and the service sector. This was a time when the rural population was still the majority in the country, but not by much. The educated sector had increased, and there was prosperity. Some parts of the population were more susceptible to a certain kind of political explanation prevalent in the revolution whereas the groups discussed here, farmer–herders who represented the center, wanted to maintain the “system.”

In another model of radical change, or revitalization of a society, Anthony Wallace approaches the question of the charismatic leader whose message explains to the collection of highly stressed group members why they are experiencing problems and what can be done about it.[29] In Iran at the time of the revolution, there were numerous individuals who for their own individual reasons felt under psychological stress, a phenomenon which can have a material or intellectual basis, ranging from change in “purity” of lifestyle to actual or “felt” deprivation due to disease, war, foreign occupation, or loss of land to a highway. These situations of populations with serious accumulated stress are ripe for charismatic leaders, and the pre-revolutionary period in Iran was a time when there was a leader, Khomeini, who could unite the differing groups until the system was changed. However, when the level of group stress (built up from individual experiences of stress) is low, it seems only natural that the leader’s message is answering “unasked questions,” and he will not represent the group. Such, I suggest, was the case with the farmer–herders discussed here.

The value of Douglas and Wildavsky’s approach is to help us understand why some groups experience more stress because of their “world view.” Shi‘a Islam, like other major religious traditions, has its local meanings and expression.[30] When religion became the attempted vehicle for revolution, whether by tape or sermon, the revolutionary message was rejected among certain of the rural populations. This seemed more perplexing because these populations were the rural contingent of Iran’s “moral majority,” the people for whom living a moral, upright life meant following the ideas of the Prophet and his family, as exemplified in the Karbala tragedy. The attempted change during Ashura of 1978 was in the content of the evening rozeh-khani, an important Shi‘a ritual. There was an attempt to change this ritual from its traditional form, to intellectualize it and invest it with another world view, and it was this change that was resisted.

Mary Douglas has struggled with interpreting the varying local contexts of Catholicism in London and why the same rituals meant different things to different constituents.[31] For the “Bog Irish”—those immigrant Irishmen for whom neighborhood, kin, and, often, livelihood overlapped, making them part of a strongly bounded group, and whose relationships with each other within the group were regulated by years of custom—ritual played an important role. The change in ritual in the Catholic Church (in which eating fish on Fridays and the role of Latin in the mass were abolished) was welcomed by the intelligentsia within the church, but to the Bog Irish, it was a threat to their identity. A parallel change in the meaning of ritual can be seen in the revolution in Iran. The urban dwellers invested Shi‘a ritual with a new meaning which weighed less on “traditional ritual” than on a revolutionary message. In these situations, ritual served a communal function, uniting groups hitherto disunited. But for villagers who were still part of bounded groups with traditionally defined relationships between them, the attempts to politicize Ashura were more of a threat than an opportunity. Because it did not meet their needs in the same way as it met the political and intellectual needs of many urbanites, the other paradigm was not adopted. For example, the need to retrieve a national Islamic identity was not experienced in the country as it was in the cities by the “de-peasantized” migrants[32] or others coping with the negative side of contact with the West. In the farmer–herder villages, the evening rozeh-khani and march to the graveyard were the only time when the village did anything together. This Ashura unity could conceivably have led to group resistance, but in this setting, it could not be used to politicize the villagers, for reasons explained above. It has been suggested that ritual contributes to the “organization of political groups in a variety of ways ranging from the integration of the individual member into the group to the integration of the group itself into its larger political environment.”[33] In the area described here, it was the role of ritual in integrating the group into the national political environment that was lacking and could not be developed by the visiting mullah.

Shi‘a Islam has what has been referred to as active and passive modes,[34] true of Christianity, as well. Michael Gilsenan describes the martyrdom of Hussein as offering an image of the world as it is—with the oppressors triumphant.[35] The “true” order of things is reversed by the actual historical order: the world is seen as morally and politically upside down, and the source of religious and social authority is contained in the hidden imam figure. This “reversal of the world” can be taken in diametrically opposed ways. In the passive sense, it offers an image of suffering to be endured and an experience of oppression that is mythologically and historically the fate of the community. True believers can only await the return of the savior at some unspecified and uncertain point in the future. On the other hand, Gilsenan notes an active mode, in which “this reversal of the world contains a potential for mass mobilization and an extremely dynamic view of the community’s role and duty. It radically exposes the illegitimate power of the rulers and asserts the legitimate authority of the believers who await [. . .] the emergence of the concealed Imam.”[36] This latter mode is the ideal mode of the “border” groups described by Douglas and Wildavsky.

Gilsenan illustrates this general theme of variation and transformation in Islam by looking at southern Lebanese Shi‘a villages described by Emrys Peters.[37] In this situation, “the drama of Hussein become[s] an overt attempt to confirm rather than to deny the order of the world.”[38] The main point he is trying to make about southern Lebanon is one which I wish to make about the case study here from northeast Iran. In the fall of 1978, the nightly rozeh-khani and the Ashura procession and meal confirmed “the order of the world”—in this case, the village in the shah’s, not Khomeini’s, Iran. The comparison is particularly interesting because the Lebanese setting was a stratified one in which sharecroppers and landowners lived, in contrast to the smallholder village I experienced. Nonetheless, in both cases the Ashura activities confirmed the status quo and did not challenge it. In the Shi‘a villages of Lebanon and Iran, there are somewhat related questions of the meaning of symbols in times of social change,[39] power and symbolism in a complex society,[40] religious paradigms and political action,[41] and the individual response to change and the charismatic presentation of new paradigms[42] which touch on the case which I am attempting to explain. The situation in southern Lebanon has changed dramatically since that time, with many descendants of those villagers adopting the “active” mode as they moved into lifestyles in which border views were likely to prevail.



The case study presented here has described the reaction of smallholder agriculturalists and pastoralists to the events of the revolution in 1978 and to the messages about the revolution during this period. For several reasons, the farmer–herders were not moved to political action: their historical relationship to the Pahlavi state, their status as smallholders with a special dependence on pastoralism, and an Islamic world view which was less disposed to change the system. While they had grievances against certain governmental policies, these grievances did not predispose them to overthrow the system which they considered to have made positive contributions to their lives. The question of the political role of ritual has also been raised. The use of the Karbala paradigm as a political example is suggested to be one strategy to attack the prevailing political system. In fact, in two excellent articles about Iran, the use of the Karbala paradigm as a political strategy is so persuasively stated for urban settings that readers may see it as a pervasive “Shi‘a” response, particularly in the United States after the hostage crisis.[43] Thus, it becomes even more important to note that in the case presented here, it was not adopted, because it was a strategy related to someone else’s political agenda. The villagers had a different cultural and political assessment of the problems in Iran and the necessity and means of change than did those in the urban areas.

Understanding the political options and strategies of farmer–herders remains a goal to be attained through analysis of their daily lives. Their reactions to the events of the revolution are surprising only when viewed from the outside; when these and other responses are compared to their day-to-day approach to the government and religion, and in an ethnohistorical context, their reactions are more understandable.


[1]This paper, written in 1989, has not previously been published. It is submitted with only a few minor corrections for this issue in honor of Ahmad Ashraf, who originally encouraged me to write it.

I was in Iran only once after the period described in this paper. In September 1992, I presented a paper titled “Settled and Nomadic Pastoralists in Iran” at an international conference on nomadism and development held in Shahr-e Kord. The Semnan Office of the Nomadic Organization (newly created after the revolution), which included the area of my research, was able to take me there for thirty-six hours after the conference. A wedding was being held in the village bringing back youth I had known who had married and moved to other Iranian towns for work. The village had a new mosque, water piped to family courtyards, and a new hammam. It showed some visible signs of individual economic success: a tractor owned by the son of one family and a couple houses made of commercial rather than local mud bricks. Poles for electricity were lying on the ground by the road to the village, signaling imminent plans for electricity. Most of these major projects had been in the planning stage while I was there in 1978.

[2]M. A. Katouzian, “Oil Versus Agriculture – A Case of Dual Resource Depletion in Iran,” Journal of Peasant Studies, no. 3 (1978): 347–69.

[3]Nikki Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-1892 (London: Frank Cass, 1966).

[4]Reference to Israeli participation is also found in Karen Pliskin, “Camouflage, Conspiracy, and Collaborators: Rumors of the Revolution,” Iranian Studies, no. 1–4 (1980): 55–82.

[5]Majid Tehranian, “Communication and Revolution in Iran: The Passing of a Paradigm,” Iranian Studies, no. 1–4 (1980): 5–30. Quote on p. 22.

[6]Mary E. Hegland, “Islamic Revival or Political and Cultural Revolution? An Iranian Case Study,” in Religious Resurgence: Contemporary Cases in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, ed. Richard Antoun and Mary Hegland (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 194–219. Quote on p. 197.

[7]Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974).

[8]Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).

[9]Ahmad Ashraf and Ali Banuazizi, “The State, Classes and Modes of Mobilization in the Iranian Revolution,” State, Culture and Society, no. 3 (1985): 3–40.

[10]Hegland, “Islamic Revival”; Manijeh Dowlat, Bernard Hourcade, and Odile Puech, “Les paysans et la revolution Iranienne,” Peuples Mediterranéens 10 (1980): 19–42.

[11]Dowlat et al., “Les paysans,” 20.

[12]Mary Hegland, “Ritual and Revolution in Iran,” in Political Anthropology, vol. 2, Culture and Political Change, ed. Myron Aronoff (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983), 75–100; Mary Hegland Hoogland, “One Village in the Revolution,” Merip Reports, no. 4 (1980): 7–12; Mary Hegland Hoogland, “Religious Ritual and Political Struggle in an Iranian Village,” Merip Reports, no. 5 (1982): 10–17; Eric Hoogland, Land and Revolution in Iran 1960-1980 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).

[13]Dowlat et al., “Les paysans”; Anonymous, “Current Political Attitudes in an Iranian Village,” Iranian Studies, no. 1–2 (1983): 3–30.

[14]Hegland, “Islamic Revival,” 201.

[15]cf. Haleh Afshar, “An Assessment of Agricultural Development Policies in Iran,” in Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil, ed. Haleh Afshar (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), 58–79.

[16]John Bennett, Of Time and the Enterprise: North American Family Farm Management in a Context of Resource Marginality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 196.

[17]Tehranian, “Communication and Revolution,” 16.

[18]Larry Eichel, “The West Gets Wild over the Public Lands,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 January 1981.

[19]Fatemeh Etemad Moghadam, “The Effects of Farm Size and Management System on Agricultural Production in Iran” (Ph.D. diss., Somerville College, Oxford, 1978).

[20]James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), xvi.

[21]Hoogland, Land and Revolution in Iran.

[22]Farhad Kazemi and Ervand Abrahamian, “The Nonrevolutionary Peasantry of Modern Iran,” Iranian Studies XI (1978): 259–304; Ahmad Ashraf, “State and Agrarian Relations before and after the Iranian Revolution 1960-1990,” in Peasants and Politics in the Modern Middle East, ed. Farhad Kazemi and John Waterbury (Miami: Florida International University Press, 1988); Eric R. Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).

[23]Loeffler, Islam in Practice.

[24]Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983).

[25]Douglas et al., Risk and Culture, 122–23.

[26]Douglas et al., Risk and Culture, 159.

[27]Douglas et al., Risk and Culture, 160.

[28]Douglas et al., Risk and Culture, 174.

[29]Anthony Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264–81.

[30]Loeffler, Islam in Practice; Michael Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

[31]Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

[32]Dowlat et al., “Les paysans,” 21.

[33]David Kertzer, “The Role of Ritual in Political Change,” in Political Anthropology, vol. 2, Culture and Political Change, ed. Myron Aronoff (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1983), 53–73. Quote on p. 56.

[34]Gustav Thaiss, “Unity and Discord: The Symbol of Husayn in Iran,” in Iranian Civilization and Culture, ed. Charles Adams (Montreal: McGill University, 1971), 111–19; Gustav Thaiss,“Religious Symbolism and Social Change: The Drama of Husein,” in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, ed. Nikki Keddie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 349–66; Mary Hegland, “Two Images of Hussain: Accommodation and Revolution in an Iranian Village,” in Religion and Politics in Iran from Quietism to Revolution, ed. Nikki R. Keddie (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 218–43; Loeffler, Islam in Practice.

[35]Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam.

[36]Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam, 62.

[37]Emrys Peters, “A Muslim Passion Play: Key to a Lebanese Village,” Atlantic Monthly 198 (1956): 176–80.

[38]Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam, 62.

[39]Clifford Geertz, “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example,” in Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 142–69.

[40]Abner Cohen, Two-Dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

[41]Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors.

[42]Wallace, “Revitalization Movements.”

[43]Catherine Bateson, “‘This Figure of Tinsel’: A Study of Themes of Hypocrisy and Pessimism in Iranian Culture,” Daedalus, no. 3 (1979): 125–33; Peter Chelkowski, “Shia Muslim Processional Performance,” The Drama Review, no. 3 (1980): 18–30.

Forgiveness for What? Vis and Ramin and Troilus and Criseyde

Dick Davis is an emeritus professor of Persian at Ohio State University. He has written scholarly works on both English and Persian literature, as well as nine volumes of his own poetry. His publications include volumes of poetry and verse translation chosen as books of the year by The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, (United Kingdom), The Economist, the Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. He has also published numerous book-length verse translations from Persian, most recently The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Mage, 2019) and Nezami’s Layli and Majnun (Mage, 2020).

Dear Ahmad,

What follows is not an attempt at a scholarly paper of localized assessment, exposition, deduction, and analysis of the kind that is usual as a contribution to a collection like this, one put together in honor of a colleague’s long record of continuous intellectual achievement.  It’s much more like an extension of one of the intermittent conversations I’ve been lucky enough to share with you over the years, one that is personal, wandering, and celebratory, that tries to convey something of the grateful sense of wonder and privilege that you and I have both felt as devoted lifelong readers of the two seemingly very disparate literatures that are our shared heritage. And if anyone who overhears this snatch of fictive conversation should think to query my opening implication that you are as devoted a reader of English literature as I have attempted to be of Persian literature, I would refer this skeptic to your masterly translation, one that is evidence of an extraordinary capacity for cross-cultural literary empathy and understanding, of that massive and indisputably major work of eighteenth-century English literature, Fielding’s great novel, Tom Jones.

And of course, our two literatures are very disparate. English has no Ferdowsi or Hafez, or anything remotely like them; Persian has no Chaucer or Shakespeare, or anything remotely like them. But in the spirit of our shared enthusiasm for literature as it transcends even as it simultaneously demarcates cultural difference, I would like to talk for the moment about similarity and continuity, about mutual apprehensions and understandings, flourishing in such apparently diverse cultural milieux, of what literature is and aims to be.

Let’s narrow our perspective temporarily to the Middle Ages, and broaden it geographically to the Middle East. In theory, we are now talking about cultural scorn and/or indifference, political enmity, and theological disdain if not outright hatred, or this at least has been the expedient shorthand consensus of the nature of relations between the two areas since the Middle Ages themselves, relations that can be summed up in two words, the Crusades. But when we look at the literary products of the world of Christendom and the world of Islam in these regions during the medieval period, we find an extraordinary continuity across this divide of supposedly irreconcilable contempt and animosity between two cultural entities whose mode of interaction was assumed to be restricted to that of warfare.

To begin with, the major literary genres that flourished in each of these areas are more or less identical. For example, both delight in frame stories, compendia that contain a multiplicity of separate tales linked together by a common narrative thread. Major examples are The 1001 Nights in the Islamic Middle East and Boccaccio’s Decameron in Europe. These two compendia of disparate tales are also similar in other ways. The variety of individual narrative units within each frame means that we get a kind of social panorama of the cultures out of which the tales have come; kings and princesses rub shoulders with merchants and shopkeepers, who in turn keep company with servants, slaves, and mercenaries, as well as thieves, murderers, social outcasts, and riffraff. In both cases, this social variety goes hand in hand with another kind of variability, that of tonal register; some stories are elevated and courtly, some are colloquial and vulgar, some are bawdy, and some are ethically admonitory. And there is a geographical variety; some take place close to home, some in exotic foreign lands, and some in a never-never land of magic and enchantment. This geographical diversity can shade into a recognition of religious diversity. The third story of The Decameron is about a Jew at a Muslim court, and the point of the story is that it is not possible for mortal humans to know which of the three major religions that made up the medieval world, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, is the “true” one. There is a humorous parallel (if it were deliberate, it would be almost a grotesque parody) to this tale in The 1001 Nights in “The Story of the Hunchback,” in which a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian, each afraid of being accused of murder, all try to fob off onto one another a corpse that none of them have killed. In The Decameron’s story, we are shown that we can’t know whose claims are true; in The 1001 Nights’s tale, we are shown that practitioners of all three religions are equally deceitful and venal and that none of their claims—at least as they are made in the course of the tale—are true. The frame stories themselves, which are superficially so different, are in their fundamental import uncannily similar: Shahrzad tells her tales as a way of evading death; the storytellers in The Decameron have fled a mortal plague in Florence and tell their stories to while away the time they have snatched for themselves. Both sets of stories are told as a way of escaping from death’s clutch, and as the stories themselves demonstrate, they do so by celebrating the infinite variety of the possibilities of human life.

A subset of frame stories, those that involve pilgrimage, can also be found in both cultures, as we can see if we put Attar’s Conference of the Birds and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales side by side.[1] The differences are obvious, the main one being that Attar’s narrative is relentlessly allegorical and pietistic, while Chaucer’s is, in the main, almost equally relentlessly mundane and secular. Also, Attar’s poem is minutely structured both in microcosm, episode by episode, and in macrocosm, in the way that everything it contains is there for a teleological purpose and points toward a specific conclusion (in this way, it is more like Dante’s Divine Comedy than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Chaucer’s poem seems to point every which way and sometimes no particular way at all (this impression is increased by the fact that it was left, like almost all of Chaucer’s longer poems, unfinished; it simply stops, having no reached no conclusion, either didactic or literal). But the similarities are also palpable. In both, a journey is undertaken for religious purposes (at least ostensibly in The Canterbury Tales, and actually, if allegorically, in The Conference of the Birds); tales are told as the journey proceeds; and the tales give a panoramic view of the myriad possibilities of how lives could be lived in their authors’ societies, for good or ill. Leaving the frame story genre, we can still stay with that of pilgrimage, which was a major prose genre in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds. Both produced many texts that describe actual pilgrimages undertaken by literal pilgrims, usually to Rome or the Holy Land in Christian literature, and to Mecca in Muslim literature. Despite the religious purpose of the journeys described, in both cultures we find pilgrimage texts that brim with local detail about places and people encountered along the way, so that at times they read more like later travel literature rather than religiously oriented texts. This is true, for example, of both Naser Khosraw’s Safarnameh, and The Book of Margery Kempe. Staying with religious literature, we can instance the genre of hagiography, concerned with either a specific personage or a group of such people, as in Jacobus de Varagine’s Golden Legend, or Attar’s Memorials of the Saints. Other genre parallels are the numerous romances we find in both cultures (for example, Vis and Ramin in Iran, and Tristan and Isolde in Europe); tales of warrior exploits imbued with nostalgia for a more heroic, now-lost age of epic warfare (La Morte d’Arthur in French and in Malory’s English translation, The Shahnameh in Persian); straightforward travel literature devoid of any religious purpose (Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta); memoirs of travel and encounters with representatives of each culture’s feared and despised religious Other that were connected with the Crusades (de Joinville and Usama ibn Munqidh); and love lyrics of great sophistication and delicacy that imply sophisticated courtly audiences to consume and cherish them. And as well as similarities of genre, we may adduce similarities of rhetoric; this is especially true of the rhetoric of love poetry, which can be extraordinarily similar, sometimes even at the level of identical metaphors, in love lyrics produced on both sides of the medieval Muslim-Christian divide.

Why do these similarities exist, and where do they come from? I think we can adduce four possible reasons why a literary work in one culture may sound and look a lot like a literary work in another culture. First, individual works may have a direct connection through transmission and translation. I have suggested elsewhere that the striking similarities between Gorgani’s Persian romance Vis and Ramin and the various European versions of the story of Tristan and Isolde may be due to such transmission.[2] Second, the works may draw on literary topoi, motifs, plots, rhetorical devices, and so forth that are part of a shared cultural heritage, even if such “sharing” is an unconscious phenomenon. Ernst Curtius has suggested that such a common heritage may account for many similarities between Middle Eastern and European medieval literatures.[3]  Third, relatively similar social conditions existing in different times and places end up producing similar effects to those that having a shared culture can produce (a culture with a lot of courts tends to produce a lot of courtly literature). Fourth and most basically, similarities and parallels may arise from our shared biological heritage in that we are all human, and humans have the same basic needs. Although these needs come to be expressed in different ways in different cultures, such expressions and preoccupations inevitably sometimes overlap (no literary culture seems to be completely devoid of love poetry, and few are without martial poetry of some kind or other). Of course, such processes do not exclude one another, and more than one, or even all four, may be at work, in varying proportions, in specific examples of literary similarities across cultural differences.

I’d like to spend the rest of my space in this little paper by drawing attention to the similarities between a Persian romance written in the eleventh century, and an English romance written three hundred years later, in the fourteenth century. The romances in question are Gorgani’s Vis and Ramin, and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the similarities between which are, I think, quite striking, even though they are certainly not due to any kind of direct transmission from the earlier text to the later one; it is extremely doubtful that Chaucer could even have heard of Gorgani’s poem, and it is even more doubtful that he would have had access to any text that could be said to derive from it, except just possibly in a couple of cases, and those only tangentially and at a considerable remove. The similarities to which I wish to draw attention are most likely the result of the second and third categories listed above, with perhaps a touch of the fourth category too.

I’ll start with two cases of similarity between these two poems that seem to me to be conspicuously noticeable. First, readers familiar with Gorgani’s romance will remember that the first time Vis sees Ramin, she does so from above. He is among a group of musicians, and Vis has been brought by her nurse to an upper story from which she can look down on him through a kind of jalousie. As soon as she sees him, the love she had felt for Viru (her brother to whom she has been married) disappears, to be replaced by love for Ramin. The first time Criseyde sees Troilus, it is also from an upper story. She is looking down from a room to which she has been brought by her uncle, Pandarus. The room overlooks a street through which Troilus is riding, and as he passes below her window, she sees him and says, “Who yaf me drinke” (“Who gave me the drink”)?[4] The reference is clearly to the love-potion that is drunk by Tristan and Isolde. Criseyde has fallen completely and hopelessly in love in a moment, just as Isolde had done when she drank the love-potion (that the implied reference is wholly anachronistic, given that Troilus and Criseyde takes place during the Homeric siege of Troy, long before the medieval lovers Tristan and Isolde were supposedly alive, is neither here nor there and probably would not have bothered Chaucer even if he had been aware of it).

As indicated above, I’ve suggested elsewhere that Gorgani’s poem could well have been a source for the Tristan story, so it seems that there might just possibly be a remote connection between Criseyde’s reference and Gorgani’s poem, by way of some version of the Tristan tale. But it’s unlikely, and it’s rendered even more unlikely by the fact that the detail of the magic potion, which is so important in the European tale, is absent from Gorgani’s poem. The reference to Tristan does not tie the poem to Vis and Ramin; it’s merely drawing on what had become by Chaucer’s time the archetypal European love story. But there is still the fact that the two women first see the man they fall in love with from above, and that they have been brought to the place where they can look down on him by someone who is trying to bring them together at the instigation of, exactly, the man whom they are to glimpse from their vantage point.

In fact, the go-betweens in question, Vis’s nurse and Pandarus, have almost identical roles in the stories in which they appear. They are the amoral enablers who support the poem’s hero in his attempt to seduce its heroine. It is they who spend an inordinate amount of time persuading their unwilling charges to look kindly on the hero, it is they who arrange the trysts where the lovers finally meet, and it is they who are blamed by the heroines when things go wrong. And there is something that links these go-betweens even more strongly. Both Vis and Ramin and Troilus and Criseyde are filled with conversations, arguments, pleading, reproaches. The characters in both poems are defined as much by what they say as by what they do. In both poems, the female lovers are presented as nobly born women who wish to act with appropriate nobility; they are conscious of status and reputation, and they are also conscious that the love affair on which each of them embarks is in some way a violation of their noble status, so that they expresses hesitation and uncertainty, until finally persuaded, by the nurse and Pandarus, to follow the awakened instincts of their hearts. It is the nurse and Pandarus who effect this awakening, and they do so by long, persuasive harangues in which they consciously and skillfully work on their charges’ vulnerabilities and hopes. The colloquial, conversational, resourcefully glib language of the two is extremely similar. It’s filled with bits of proverbial folk wisdom, it’s knowing about sex and sexual encounters, it’s deceitful and wheedling, and it’s both sophisticated in its technique and low-life in its register. Their spoken words make the two sound as though they are much more plebian than either the heroes or the heroines of their tales are. The nurse is in fact more plebian than Vis; she’s a servant. Pandarus is not a servant at all. He’s from the same class as his niece, but his cheerfully demotic speech, which ignores social and linguistic niceties, conveys a cynical, older male’s attitude toward courtship and sex that can make him sound crass and boorish when set beside his relatively innocent niece. In his own terms, he’s well-meaning enough, but at his worst, there is something of the lewd voyeur about him that sets him apart from the more self-consciously gracious characters with whom he mingles.

The other moment that seems to link the two tales in a more than merely generic way concerns the dream Troilus has after Criseyde has been lost to him, when she is handed over to the Greeks in exchange for a Trojan prisoner. Here is the dream:

            So on a day he leyde him doun to slepe,

            And so bifel that in his slep him thoughte

            That in a forest faste he welk to wepe

            For love of here that hym these peynes wroughte;

            And up and doun as he the forest soughte,

            He mette he saugh a bor with tuskes grete,

            That slepte ayeyn the bryght sonnes hete.

            And by this bore, fast in his armes folde,

            Lay, kissing ay, his lady bryght, Criseyde.[5]

(One day, he lay down to sleep, and it happened that as he slept he dreamed he was walking in a forest, weeping because of the woman who had given him such pain, and as he went up and down in the forest, he came on a boar that had huge tusks, and was asleep sheltered from the heat of the sun; next to the boar, enfolded in his arms, lay his bright lady, Criseyde, who kissed him constantly.)

Now there’s a boar, a real one, in Vis and Ramin, and there’s a dreamed boar in Tristan and Isolde. The real boar in Vis and Ramin kills Vis’s unwanted second husband, Mobad, so enabling the lovers to marry and the tale to come to a happy ending. The boar in Tristan and Isolde is dreamed of by King Mark, the equivalent of King Mobad in Vis and Ramin, and in his dream, it wrecks his household. Troilus dreams of the boar not when he is with Criseyde but after he has lost her. In this way, he is like Mark and Mobad: he is the man who loses out, who doesn’t finish up with the girl. When Mobad is killed by the boar, Vis is free to be with Ramin; when King Mark dreams of the boar, Tristan has stolen Isolde from him; when Troilus dreams of the boar, he has lost Criseyde to Diomede. In all three accounts, the boar is associated with the figure who loses the tale’s heroine to another man, and in fact represents that other man. Troilus’s dream also seems like a shadowy version of another moment in Vis and Ramin. At one point, a musician sings a song before Mobad, Ramin, and Vis, and in his song, he describes a young bull who feeds on grass and cavorts beside a stream above which a huge tree towers. The dream is then interpreted: Mobad is the great tree, Ramin is the young bull feeding on grass and splashing in the stream, and Vis is the stream and the grass. Again we have a strong, unmanageable, potentially destructive animal whose possession of somewhere (someone) is impotently resented by the person to whom that somewhere or someone “should” belong.

One obvious difference between Vis and Ramin and Troilus and Criseyde (and there are of course a great many differences) is the presence or absence of the author in his tale. Gorgani doesn’t talk about himself very much, and so those moments when he does refer to his own situation or opinions seem all the more significant. Chaucer is the omnipresent authorial commentator in Troilus and Criseyde, and he quite frequently gives his opinion about what is happening as his story unfolds. But there are two moments when both Gorgani and Chaucer make their presence unequivocally obvious in the story, and they are the same two moments. Both apologize for their heroine’s behavior, and ask the reader not to judge her too harshly. Gorgani goes so far as to say that Vis’s actions were fated, and so she cannot be blamed for them.[6] Chaucer more than once indicates that he feels very uncomfortable condemning Criseyde for what she does, most tellingly when she gives up Troilus for Diomede; at this moment, Chaucer writes, “Men seyn – I not – that she yaf him her herte”[7] (“Men say, but I don’t, that she gave him her heart”), and he goes on, “Ne me ne lyste this sely womman chyde”[8] (“I don’t want to condemn this unfortunate woman”). It seems to be this authorial tenderness toward their poems’ morally straying heroines that most strongly links the actual feeling and atmosphere of the poems as one reads them. It seems that both authors find themselves celebrating, certainly sympathizing with, heroines whom they feel they ought to condemn. But they find themselves unable to condemn them: their human conscience, their as it were empathy with their own creations won’t allow them to do so.

It is perhaps this sense of moral inadequacy for humane reasons—which seems far too anachronistically “modern” a sentiment, but which also seems to be palpably present—that accounts for the curious volte-face both authors perform as they bring their tales to a close. Gorgani never mentions Islam in his poem (as it is set in the pre-Islamic world, there is no reason why he should). He also flouts a good number of Islamic moral norms, beginning with a brother-sister marriage and ending with the murder of the perfectly innocent younger brother of a king and the survival of an unpunished adulteress who lives happily to a ripe old age. So immoral was his poem seen to be by later generations that Nezami’s Shirin roundly condemns Vis as an evil woman,[9] and the fourteenth-century satirist Obayd-e Zakani remarked in his Resaleh-ye sad pand (One Hundred Maxims): “Don’t expect chastity from a man who consumes hashish and wine, or from a lady who has read Vis and Ramin.”[10] Similarly, throughout Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer delights in his invented world of pagan gods and goddesses, cramming in references to them at every possible juncture, and recounting his thoroughly unchristian story with great gusto. And then, after their enthusiastically indulgent reveling in their fictional pre-Islamic and pre-Christian worlds, both authors end their poems with pious prayers for forgiveness for writing such a morally compromising tale, and an implied promise of religiously acceptable good behavior from now on. Chaucer goes so far as to dedicate his poem to his fellow more strait-laced and somewhat censorious poet, “moral Gower,” as if a borrowed modicum of Gower’s “moral” quality might serve him as a fig leaf for his own enthusiastic excursion into pagan immorality.

But what lives in the reader’s mind after reading either Vis and Ramin or Troilus and Criseyde is not the final prayer for forgiveness. The reader may well ask, forgiveness for what? For tenderness and sympathy, for the humane understanding of human foibles and weaknesses, for delightedly delineating and not condemning the transgressive passion, pleasure, and heartache of young love? These are the qualities that these two wonderfully inventive and moving medieval poems most eloquently share, qualities that can still provoke an appreciatively warm response in us across whatever temporal and cultural spaces might separate us from them. It’s in their celebration of Eros and its attendant joys and woes that the two poems speak most directly to us, when they seem to transcend the restrictions of their specific historical and cultural circumstances. These are the moments when we encounter a quality that Thomas Mann has described as pertaining to only the most persuasively beguiling works of art: “The divorce from history, the free humanization that takes place only [. . .] in the service of the erotic myth.”[11] It is, I think, this “free humanization [. . .] in the service of the erotic myth” that accounts for the particular persuasiveness of these two so disparate but also similar poems that exist wholly within their own cultural boundaries but which are also, for us as readers, able so convincingly to transcend these boundaries.

[1]It can’t be anything more than a coincidence, but it’s a satisfyingly apposite one that Attar ends his poem with thirty birds, and Chaucer begins his with thirty pilgrims; he comes on “nyne and twenty in a compaignye” and then adds himself to the group so that “I was of hir felaweship anon” (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], 17, lines 24, 32.)

[2]Fakhraddin Gorgani, Vis and Ramin, trans. and ed. Dick Davis (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), xxxiv–lxii.

[3]“But history had spun threads between the Islamic East and the Christian West a thousand years earlier (than Goethe’s West-oestlicher Divan). Islamic poetry is paralleled by a very extensive and hitherto little studied literature on rhetoric, style and poetics. Both – the poetry as well as the poetics of the Arabs and Persians – were certainly influenced by Hellenistic models, especially in regard to figures of speech, panegyric and the use of conceits. This oriental poetry was then transplanted to Andalusia. There it flourished from the tenth to the thirteenth century.” Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), 34–341.

[4]Chaucer, Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 408, l. 651.

[5]Chaucer, Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 472–73, lines 1232–42.

[6]Fakhraddin Gorgani, Vis o Ramin, ed. Mohammad Roshan (Tehran: Seda-ye Moasar, AH 1377/AD 1998), 49, lines 9–12.

[7]Chaucer, Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 471, l. 1050.

[8]Chaucer, Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 471, l. 1099.

[9]Nezami, Khosrow o Shirin, ed. Behruz Sarvatiyan (Tehran: Entesharat-e Tus, AH 1366/AD 1987), 493, l. 74.

[10]Kolliyat-e Obayd-e Zakani, Resaleh-ye sad pand, ed. Parvis Atabeki (Tehran: Khavar, AH 1343/AD 1964), 207. Translation mine.

[11]Thomas Mann, “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner,” in Essays of Three Decades, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 335.

The Turtle and the Geese: A Pañcatantra Fable in Sogdian

Nicholas Sims-Williams <ns5@soas.ac.uk> studied Iranian languages, Sanskrit and Syriac at Cambridge, obtaining his PhD with a thesis on the Sogdian manuscript C2, a miscellany of Christian texts translated from Syriac. In 1976 he joined the staff of SOAS, University of London, where he became Research Professor of Iranian and Central Asian Studies in 2004 and Emeritus Professor in 2015. His research focuses on Bactrian, Sogdian and other Middle Iranian languages of Afghanistan and Central Asia. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres and the Academia Europaea, and an Honorary Member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Oriental Society. He is Chairman of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, Cambridge, and the Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum.

Olga Chunakova recently published a fragment of a previously unknown Sogdian fable under the title “A Sogdian Manichaean Parable.”[1] As she rightly indicates, the fragment (SI 5704) contains part of a tale which is well-known from sources both eastern and western, including the Pañcatantra, Kalila wa Dimna and Aesop’s fables, though in this last the content of the story is altered significantly. Chunakova has given an excellent survey of the various versions of this “migratory tale,”[2] extending as far as the Russian short story, “The Traveling Frog” by Vsevolod Garshin.[3] Sogdian-speaking Manicheans frequently employed such stories as parables, and it is very likely that this is the case here too; however, since the fragment is written in Sogdian rather than Manichean script, and since no moral or epimythion survives, one cannot be entirely certain of its Manichean origin.

The oldest surviving Indian version seems to be a story in the Buddhist Kacchapa Jātaka, according to which two geese make friends with a turtle (or tortoise) and invite him to visit their home in the Himalayas. They propose flying through the air, holding the two ends of a stick in their beaks while the turtle bites on the middle of the stick, but the plan goes awry when the turtle cannot restrain himself from speaking and thus falls to his death.[4] Essentially the same story is told in the Pañcatantra and Kalila wa Dimna, except that in these versions the reason for the journey is that the geese and the turtle need to escape because their pond is drying up.[5] Although only a small fragment of the Sogdian text survives, Chunakova’s convincing restoration of the word [p]twʾty “dried up” in the last line suggests that it is close to the Pañcatantra version.

According to Chunakova, the Sogdian version replaces the geese with falcons, a change which she is inclined to ascribe to reliance on a putative Buddhist text in Chinese.[6] However, it seems to me that the first word of line 5 is not zwš or nwš “falcon” but kws “side, limit,” here as elsewhere combined with its near-synonym kyrʾn in a hendiadys: compare, for instance, pw kws kyrʾn translating Middle Persian ʾqnʾrgwm[nd] “unlimited.”[7] If I am right, the species of the birds is not indicated in the surviving part of the text, so we are free to assume that they are geese as in the Pañcatantra and most other versions of the fable. Since Chunakova’s edition in my opinion contains several other misreadings, it seems worthwhile to give a new reading and translation of the whole text, together with a linguistic commentary which will, I hope, be of interest at least to our dedicatee, Professor Badri Gharib, the founder and leading proponent of Sogdian studies in Iran.



1                                            ]k(yš)ph

2                     ]…[                    ](t) kt

3     tγw myδ(ʾ)ny kwcʾky δʾrwkw

4     xns zγʾy [deletion] ZY mʾx ʾδw

5     kws ZY ʾδw kyr(ʾn) kwcʾky

6     xns zγʾy-ʾmkʾm βrwz-ʾny-(h)

7     šwymkʾʾm twʾ cym(ʾ)[yδ]

8     [p]twʾty zʾyh ny(š)[kʾwym]


“. . . [The geese said to] the turtle: ‘You bite the wood firmly in the middle with (your) mouth, and we will bite the two sides and the two ends firmly in (our) mouth(s); we will go flying (and) [will get] you out of this dried up place . . .’”


Linguistic commentary

  1. Sogdian kyšph can presumably refer to either a tortoise or a turtle, like the cognate forms in Indian languages, Sanskrit and Pali kacchapa– etc.[8]
  2. The particle kt no doubt introduces direct speech, a typical late Sogdian usage. It should be preceded by a 3rd-person plural verb meaning approximately “they (i.e. the geese) said,” but not enough of the word survives to justify making a choice between the various possible forms.
  3. kwcʾky (also in line 5) must stand for [kōčē] or [kōčā’ī], oblique case of kwcʾkh [kōčā] “mouth.” Compare to the variant spelling kwcʾkyh (with silent –h) in P3, line 295.[9]
  4. The verb zγʾy “to bite” (also in line 6) was not recognized by Chunakova. It is only known from one other published text, which describes the anguish of an animal which is about to be butchered: ZKw zβʾk ʿM xypδ δntʾk zγʾytw “it bites its tongue with its teeth” (P2, lines 297–98). In his edition of P2, Émile Benveniste read the initial letter as n-, which is in principle possible, but W. B. Henning, in an extended review of Benveniste’s work, noted that the verb is written with an unambiguous z- in unpublished texts.[10] One of the texts to which Henning refers is probably So 14410 /I/, a Manichean divination text, which contains the following prediction (verso, lines 5–7):

wyspw kwtyšt pr twʾ šrʾk kwnʾnt tγw ʾʾγʾz-ykʾn pckwyrt Lʾ( ktʾ) kwnʾ(n)t(k)ʾm δʾmcʾny kwtyšt twʾ z-γʾyʾʾt

“All the dogs (will) bark at you (and) you will begin to be afraid; (but) the dogs of the (material) world will not be able to bite you.”

The form of the verb in line 6 of our fable is apparently 1st person singular future but must be intended for 1st person plural “we will bite” (zγʾy-ʾmkʾm for *zγʾy-ʾymkʾm), while that in line 4 is 2nd person singular imperative zγʾy “bite!” Here too the scribe seems at first to have written zγʾy-ʾmkʾm, anticipating the later form, but the last five letters have been deleted.

Etymologically, zγʾy “to bite” seems likely to derive from the Iranian root *gah “to gorge,” Old Indian ghas “to eat, devour.”[11] For the semantics cf. in particular Choresmian *bγʾh- “to bite,” attested via forms of the imperfect stem bʾγy-, which is found in sentences such as bʾγyt ʾy xyr “the donkey bit” or bʾγytyc wsnʾ prmʾhʾcyc “he bit on it (= the wood) to test it (for hardness).”[12] The initial z– of the Sogdian verb probably represents the preverb *uz-, while the remainder of the stem could derive from *gahaya– (cf. ptxwʾy “to kill” from *pati-hwahaya-) or *gāh(a)ya-.

6–7. For βrwz-ʾny-(h) (whose final –h is perhaps just a line-filler) cf. βrwzʾnʾk “flying” (SCE, line 304), Christian Sogdian brwzʾny “bird” (E27/17V2).[13] Its use with šw– “to go” may be compared with the phrase prnʾʾyʾnn šw– “to go flying” in the Rustam text.[14]

  1. As noted above, [p]twʾty “dried up” was already restored by Chunakova. The same word occurs in a partially comparable Sogdian tale concerning a parrot who is obliged to move because the tree in which he has his nest loses its water supply and dries up.[15] My restoration of a form of the verb nyškʾw “to remove, bring out, take out” is hypothetical, but the third letter does appear more likely to be š rather than m as read by Chunakova.
Fig. 1. The manuscript SI 5704, verso. By permission of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences

Fig. 1. The manuscript SI 5704, verso. By permission of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences

Fig. 2. The Turtle and the Geese, carving from Nalanda, Temple 2. Photo by Michael Gunther, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License

Fig. 2. The Turtle and the Geese, carving from Nalanda, Temple 2. Photo by Michael Gunther, CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License


[1]Olga M. Chunakova, “A Sogdian Manichaean Parable,” Written Monuments of the Orient, no. 2 (2017): 35–42. As I have been informed by Yutaka Yoshida and Pavel Lurje, a further Sogdian fragment of this tale, the text of which overlaps with that of the fragment discussed here, has now turned up in St Petersburg and will be published in a forthcoming book by Chunakova.

[2]Since Chunakova chiefly refers to works in Russian, it has seemed useful to give references here to English translations of the most important versions. For an informative survey of the many versions and illustrations of this fable see also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tortoise_and_the_Birds (accessed 5 March 2019).

[3]Several English translations of Garshin’s short story are available, e.g. The Frog Went Travelling, trans. Olga Shartse (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1987), archive.org/details/VsevolodGarshinTheFrogWentTravelling.

[4]H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas, Jātaka Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916), 178–80.

[5]Patrick Olivelle, Pañcatantra The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 51–52; I. G. N. Keith-Falconer, Kalīlah and Dimnah or the Fables of Bidpai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1885), 48–49.

[6]Chunakova, “A Sogdian Manichaean Parable,” 41. [See n. 1.]

[7]W. B. Henning, Sogdica (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1940): 27, fragment d, line 6.

[8]R. L. Turner, A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 130.

[9]Cited in B. Gharib, Sogdian Dictionary. Sogdian–Persian–English (Tehran: Farhangan, 1995), 199.

[10]E. Benveniste, Textes sogdiens (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1940), 16; W. B. Henning, “The Sogdian Texts of Paris,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11, no. 4 (1946): 734.

[11]Johnny Cheung, Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 93.

[12]Mahlagha Samadi, Das chwaresmische Verbum (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1986), 17.

[13]Ilya Gershevitch, A Grammar of Manichean Sogdian (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954), section 1039; Nicholas Sims-Williams, The Christian Sogdian Manuscript C 2 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1985), 58.

[14]Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18 (1976): 43–82, esp. 55, line 20.

[15]Enrico Morano, “Sogdian Tales in Manichaean Script,” in Literarische Stoffe und ihre Gestaltung in mitteliranischer Zeit, ed. Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst et al. (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2009), 173–200, esp. 179, line 23 of the reconstructed text.

Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis, 1967-1977

Mahasti Afshar <azmahasti@gmail.com> studied drama, film and classical music production in London (BBC) and Paris (ORTF), and while on staff at NITV/NIRT, recorded live performances at the Shiraz Arts Festival for later broadcasting on TV. She earned a PhD in Sanskrit and Indo-European Folklore and Mythology (Harvard 1988) and pursued a career as a nonprofit arts and culture executive at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, and National Geographic Society. She has published books and produced museum exhibitions and video documentaries on humanity’s archeological and historical heritage in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Central and South America, and on the landmarks of a new generation in the U.S.



11th Festival, 1977. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

11th Festival, 1977. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

The Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts was an international festival held in Iran every summer from 1967-1977.  Jashn-e Honar-e Shiraz, as it was popularly known in Persian was an inspired and feverish exploration, experimentation and creative conversation between Iran and the outside world that unfolded primarily through music, drama, dance and film. Presented in Shiraz, or forty miles northeast at the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam, the programs started at 10 a.m. every day and concluded at 1 or 2 a.m. the next, staggered across ancient, medieval and modern venues, some natural, some formal, others makeshift. True to its mission, the festival’s ecosystem cut across time and other boundaries, refreshing the traditional, celebrating the classical, nurturing the experimental, and stimulating a dialogue across generations, cultures, and languages, East and West, North and South.

Shiraz, “without doubt the most important performing arts event in the world…”[1] to cite one of many such accolades by foreign critics, was where most Iranians first encountered the traditional arts of Asia, Africa and Latin America—Indian raga music, Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, Qawwali, the music of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Korea and Vietnam, Balinese Gamelan, Japanese Nôh, Rwandan drumming, traditional dances of Bhutan, Senegal, Uganda, and Brazil… The experience was eye opening, expansive, magical, and transformative. Or to use terms coined by Vali Mahlouji in his penetrating analysis, the festival was a “third-world re-writing,” a “temporary autonomous zone,” and “a universalizing heterotopia.”[2]

Persepolis, Takht-e Jamshid. Photo: Alireza Pourhassan

Persepolis, Takht-e Jamshid. Photo: Alireza Pourhassan

Shiraz is where Iranians came to “rediscover” their own traditional music on a different platform. Presented by master musicians on an international stage before large audiences for the first time, this exquisite art form acquired a fresh vitality and just recognition and gained new fans, especially among youth. Regional music from the four corners of the country was also presented at the festival, with the same result. And that is not all. It is at the Shiraz Arts Festival that Iranian audiences witnessed the revival of Persian storytelling and dramatic traditions on a large scale, naqqali, ta’zieh/shabih-khani and ruhowzi, celebrated a new generation of Iranian filmmakers along with cinema legends from East and West, and watched the spectacular birth of new Iranian theatre—playwrights, directors, and actors fearlessly writing and staging innovative plays in Persian that for the first time resonated globally. Owing to Shiraz, Iranian productions were invited to festivals in the West for the first time. Abbas Nalbandian’s play, Pazhuheshi…,[3] appeared at the Royan Festival and Esma’il Khalaj’s Shabat, at Nancy; Royan also presented the National Iranian Television Chamber Orchestra where it premiered Alireza Mashayekhi’s Permanent, and later, classical Iranian musicians Ali-Asghar Bahari, Farhang Sharif and Jamshid Shemirani. Another Western discovery was Hossein Malek who was invited to the Pamplona Festival in Spain.

A distinguishing feature of the Shiraz Arts Festival was the variety of works it commissioned from pioneers of contemporary music as well as representatives of avant-garde theater and dance, works that embodying a transcendent blend of East and West, were shaped by the landscape for which they were created. These were, in music,  Iannis Xenakis’ Persephassa[4] and Persepolis (1969 and 1971, respectively), and Bruno  Maderna’s Ausstrahlung,  a spiritual journey through history that integrated recitations of Persian poetry (1971);  in theatre, Peter Brook’s  Orghast, a “work in progress” (1970) that involved actors of diverse nationalities, Iranians among them, speaking an invented idiom that included Avestan, Greek and Latin; and in 1972, Robert [Bob] Wilson’s KA MOUNTAIN… which ran non-stop for seven days and nights on a hill at Haft-tan with the participation of American and Iranian actors and nonprofessional locals; and last but not least, in dance, Maurice Béjart’s Golestan (1973), named after Sa’di-e Shirazi’s 13th century literary masterpiece and choreographed entirely on Iranian music.

Tens of thousands of admiring spectators experienced the festival each year on site. Millions more had the opportunity to watch the recorded programs on national television throughout the year. The festival operated on a starting indie budget of $100,000 that grew to $700,000 in 1977. The budget was subsidized in part by the state but mostly by the National Iranian Radio and Television (NITV/NIRT),[5] which offset its costs by airing the programs as part of its broadcast schedule. Ticket sales generated some revenue; most travel costs for foreign artists were taken up by governments that had bilateral treaties with Iran. The artists, thrilled by the opportunity to explore and innovate in a singular environment accepted minimum fees for commissioned work, and many offered world premieres of their works gratis.

To be sure, the festival’s fans, artists, and organizers represented a minority of the general population in Iran; the majority had little or no awareness of, interest in, or access to the likes of Balachander, Béjart, and Bijan Mofid. But that was precisely the point, to bring down the wall between the culturally privileged and underprivileged, and to celebrate and share humanity’s artistic wealth as widely as possible for the benefit of larger publics across the country, especially the younger generation. Many dream of making the world a better place; some dare to act on their dreams. Others slumber in the luxury of stagnation. Jashn-e Honar never slept.

Shiraz Festival catalogue, 1976: Qobad Shiva and Fowzi Tehrani

Shiraz Festival catalogue, 1976. Qobad Shiva and Fowzi Tehrani

Formation, Mission and Organization

The idea for organizing an international festival designed to “nurture the arts, pay tribute to the nation’s traditional arts and raise cultural standards in Iran” and to furthermore “ensure wider appreciation of the work of Iranian artists, introduce foreign artists to Iran, and acquaint the Iranian public with the latest creative developments of other countries”[6] originated in 1966 with Queen Farah Pahlavi, the Shahbanou in Persian.  The responsibility for shaping and executing the concept was delegated to Reza Ghotbi, then project manager for television at the Plan Organization, later director general of NITV.

Shahbanou Farah with Maurice Béjart, Shiraz Arts Festival

Shahbanou Farah with Maurice Béjart, Shiraz Arts Festival

An advisory board was formed that charted the festival’s scope and principal goals. In Ghotbi’s words, the festival would present all the arts “in the context of an encounter between East and West” with a focus on “the best traditional arts of the East, the finest classical traditions of the West, and the avant-garde apropos its place in the world.”[7] The festival would also undertake research and pursue activities in the creative domain.[8]

Most cultural activity being centered in Tehran, the group decided to host the festival away from the capital thinking that the effort to make the trip and the concentration of artists and festival-goers in one location would enrich the experience, “like an artistic pilgrimage.” After considering Kashan and Isfahan, their choice fell on Shiraz. The city offered a variety of venues, among them, Hafezieh, the Delgosha Garden, Saray-e Moshir, Narenjestan, and the Jahan-Nama Garden. The Mehmansara provided hotel accommodation—modest, but adequate and in line with the festival’s identity—as did the newly built Pahlavi University student dormitories.

Hafezieh; Lighting design and photo: Keyvan Khosrovani/Sara-ye Moshir before a concert

Hafezieh; Lighting design and photo: Keyvan Khosrovani / Sara-ye Moshir before a concert

To govern the festival, a 31-member board of trustees was formed under the patronage of Shahbanou Farah comprised of cabinet members, university chancellors, provincial authorities and other officials, and individual scholars, cultural figures, and custodians of properties earmarked as performance venues. The trustees, who served for two-year terms and who changed over time were responsible for approving the budget and the bylaws, nominating the board of directors, and appointing an inspector for financial oversight. A five-member board of directors was then appointed; Dr. Mehdi Boushehri served as President, with Reza Ghotbi, (NITV- and Festival Director General), and Farrokh Gaffary (NITV- and Festival Deputy Director General), Dr. Qassem Reza’i, Director, Tourism Organization, and Dr. Zaven Hakopian, Director General, Ministry of Culture and Arts. The Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis officially opened on 11 September 1967 (20 Shahrivar 1346), less than a year after NITV televised its first program.


Program Selection and Planning Process

Planning and decision making were a collaborative team effort involving many individuals, principally, Ghotbi, Gaffary (the festival’s artistic director and later its de facto director); Bijan Saffari and [until 1971] Khojasteh Kia (theatre); and Sheherazade Afshar (music and dance); Gaffary was also in charge of film, and later, of theatre. Other key members of the team included Parvin Qoraishi (executive secretary), Faramarz Shahbakhti (administrator), Vardkes Esra’ili (engineering), Mohammad Shafa’i (construction workshop), Farideh Gohari and Fereshteh Shafa’i (set design), Keyvan Khosrovani (lighting design, inaugural year),[9] Manouchehr Shamsa’i (lighting), Yousef Shahab (sound), and Qobad Shiva (graphics). Publications, media and public relations posts were held by Iraj Gorgin and later, Karim Emami. Over the years, the festival benefitted from the advice and expertise of a large number of individuals, including Dr. Hormoz Farhat, Dr. Dariush Safvat, Fozieh Majd, and Houshang Ebtehaj (music), and Arby Ovanessian, Davoud Rashidi, Mohammad-Baqer Ghaffari and Parviz Sayyad (theatre).

5th Festival of Arts, 1969; Poster design: Qobad Shiva

5th Festival of Arts, 1969. Poster design: Qobad Shiva


Magnetic videotapes of most performances at the festival and a complete audio archive of the daily public forums and seminars with the artists, as well as interviews with the artists on 16mm film, were housed at NIRT as were festival catalogues, daily news bulletins, printed programs of each event, publications on music, drama, film and filmmakers, texts of plays, and the weekly Tamasha magazine. The archive also housed photographic prints and negatives, including some of the images created by Kamran Adle, Jean-François Camp, Ali Qashqai, Shahram Golparian, Abbas Hojatpanah, Bahman Jalali, Mehdi Khansari, Ata Kiani, Fou’ad Najafzadeh, Mehdi Seifolmoluki, Ali Rahbar, and Maryam Zandi.[10]

Daily public forum, 1970; L-R: Erika Munk, Raymonde Temkine (hidden), Jerzy Grotowski, Núria Espert, Arby Ovanessian, Karim Mojtahedi (standing, moderator)

Daily public forum, 1970; L-R: Erika Munk, Raymonde Temkine (hidden), Jerzy Grotowski, Núria Espert, Arby Ovanessian, Karim Mojtahedi (standing, moderator)

Collectively, this archive formed a time capsule of substantial historical and cultural value, both in terms of Iran and internationally, covering the period 1967-1977. Portions of the archival material were destroyed soon after 1979 while some made it abroad. The catalogues can be found in major public and university libraries in the U.S.A. and Europe. Tamasha magazine has been since digitized in Iran by the Majles Library and is available on Data DVD. The state, nature and location of other items that may have survived is not known.

Shiraz Festival stamp, 1st day issue, 1972

Shiraz Festival stamp, 1st day issue, 1972




Traditional Iranian Music

Iranian classical or traditional music, musiqi-ye aseel (“authentic” or “noble” music), which is Iran’s highest and most treasured performing art—as is poetry in the literary domain and miniature painting in the visual—was the heart and core of the festival’s programming. Several concerts were offered each year in Hafezieh, an ideal setting where Hafez, a 14th century native of Shiraz who is considered Iran’s greatest lyric poet of all time lies in a white marble tomb etched with his memorable verses under the shade of a stepped, open pavilion in a jasmine-scented garden.


7th Shiraz Festival, 1973. Poster design: Fereydoun Ave

7th Shiraz Festival, 1973. Poster design: Fereydoun Ave

Beginning in 1967 and through 1977, the most distinguished masters of traditional Iranian music were selected in close collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Arts, Radio Iran, and NITV to appear at the festival. The general public knew these masters primarily through radio while a privileged few enjoyed live performances hosted by small circles of aficionados in their private homes. Meantime, the market for popular music was growing exponentially. As part of the trend, classical musicians were led to play the modal systems (dastgahs) in shortened forms that fit radio program schedules and were more palatable for public consumption. The festival, on the other hand, was a platform where live concerts were performed full scale on a formal, international stage before large audiences. The pioneering effort was transformative, such that prominent artists who as a matter of course refrained from performing publicly agreed to appear at the festival, Saeed Hormozi, Yousef Foroutan, and Dariush Safvat, among them.


Four concerts were offered during the inaugural festival in 1967, with all seven major modes performed by the most renowned instrumentalists, among them, Ali-Akbar Shahnazi (tar), Ahmad Ebadi (setar), Jalil Shahnaz (tar), Hassan Kassa’i (ney), Lotfollah Majd (tar), Faramarz Payvar (santour), Ali-Asghar Bahari (kamancheh), Hossein Tehrani (tombak), and vocalists, Hossein Qavami, Mahmoud Karimi, Touraj Kiarass and Khatereh Parvaneh.

Jalil Shahnaz, Ali-Asghar Bahari, Hafezieh, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp

Jalil Shahnaz, Ali-Asghar Bahari, Hafezieh, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp


L-R: Faramarz Payvar, Hossein Tehrani

L-R: Faramarz Payvar, Hossein Tehrani

News of the event spread around town by word of mouth and through public media. The concert on the second night played to a packed, standing-room only audience with spectators lined up all the way back against the garden rails. From then on, on nights when the adjacent site, Hafezieh Stadium, was free, the music was amplified over the garden walls to the delight of non-ticketed publics who gathered outside to listen. Numerous other recognized masters also appeared in concert over the life of the festival, including Abdolvahab Shahidi, Taj Esfahani, Mahmoudi Khonsari, singers, and Gholam-Hossein Bigjekhani (tar), accompanied by Mahmoud Farnam (daf), Farhang Sharif (tar), and Hossein Malek (santour).

The festival’s goal—which was achieved at the outset and sustained to the end— had been to present unadulterated, authentic Iranian music with the respect due the art and its foremost exponents. As a result, not only countless more Iranians came to appreciate their own traditions, but foreign critics posted reviews of Iranian music in the international press with the same level of interest and esteem accorded classical Indian, Chinese and Japanese music.

L-R: Shemirani, Bahari, Shajarian, Bigjekhani, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp

L-R: Shemirani, Bahari, Shajarian, Bigjekhani, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp

In subsequent years, a new generation of gifted artists joined the roster of musicians that appeared at Jashn-e Honar, while NIRT’s Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Music (Markaz-e Hefz va Esha’eh Musiqi), established in 1968 under the direction of Dr. Dariush Safvat, contributed new research, training, and programming. A new standard was set with the introduction of young masters at the festival, Dariush Tala’i and Hossein Alizadeh (tar and setar), Mohammad-Reza Lotfi (tar), Jalal Zolfonoun (setar), Majid Kiani and Parviz Meshkatian (santour), Jamshid Shemirani (tombak), and singers, Siavosh (Mohammad-Reza) Shajarian,  Noureddin Razavi-Sarvestani, and Parisa,  all of whom were enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike.[11]

Parisa at Hafezieh, 1976

Parisa at Hafezieh, 1976.

Watching two generations of musicians bring the exquisite spirit of traditional Iranian music to life side by side was to experience the sublime; it refreshed the art, artists and audiences alike, as if in a nod to Hafez’s verse, “I may be old, but hold me tight in your arms one night and I’ll wake up young by your side at dawn”:

گر چه پیرم، تو شبی تنگ در آغوشم کش

تا سحرگه ز کنار تو جوان بر خیزم

The festival also presented regional Iranian music, which although prized locally was not considered a fine art, nationally. A shift in perception of this genre of music started with the appearance of Asheqs from Azarbaijan and musicians from Kurdistan in the early years of the festival, while a dramatic rise in its stature became palpable beginning in 1973 as the “NIRT Center for the Collection and Study of Regional Music”[12] founded under the direction of Fozieh Majd contributed more varieties of programs to the festival. Master “singers of tales” from Baluchestan, Khorasan and the Persian Gulf, none of whom had ever performed outside their region, found an audience mesmerized by a repertoire that ranged from meditative and mystical poetry to epic and romance. Collectively, they broadened the horizon of Iranian music and its audience in ways unimaginable before.

Highlights of the regional music, instruments, and artists from Khorasan included Nazar-Mohammad Soleymani (dotar) and vocalist Morad-Ali Salar-Ahmadi who by popular demand performed again the next evening; dotar players and singers, Mohammad-Hossein Yeganeh who performed the tale of the Sufi king, Ebrahim Adham, and Olia-Qoli Yeganeh who performed Gharib and Shah Sanam, the romance of Zohreh and Taher and songs from the Kour Oqli cycle. “Sha’eri, Baluchi Epic Tales in Song and Music” was performed by La’l Baksh Peyk (vocals and tanbireh), accompanied by Qolam-Heydar Baluch on the sorud (bowed string instrument). Also, from Baluchestan, the festival hosted Guati Music led by Karimbaksh Ostadi, principal singer and tanbireh player; as well as a Noban and Zar healing ritual from the Persian Gulf island of Qeshm, with Baba Darvish and Mama Hanifa, Zar leaders.

The events were a sensation from start to finish.

Olia-Qoli Yeganeh, 1975

Olia-Qoli Yeganeh, 1975


Noban and Zar, 1973; Mama Hanifeh (R). Photos: Jean-François Camp

Noban and Zar, 1973; Mama Hanifeh (R). Photos: Jean-François Camp


Traditional Eastern and African Music

Iran and India share ancient cultural roots that are expressed in their respective sacred literatures, the Avesta and the Vedas. In later periods, Iranians were exposed to Hindu literary traditions when the Mughal Empire produced Persian translations of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other Sanskrit literature starting in the 16th century. Farther east, Iranians learned of the arts and crafts of China and other lands that traded along the Silk Road. Literary and visual arts aside, however, Iranians had no firsthand experience of the performing arts of Asia. The Shiraz festival introduced audiences to a vast array of traditional music, dance and dance-drama from Indonesia to the Philippines, Japan, China, and across the Middle East and Africa, that went a long way to filling the void.

The master instrumentalists who first introduced the gift of Bhairavi, Darbari, and other grand ragas of classical Indian music to the audience in Shiraz included the great Vilayat Khan, sitar, and Sharan Rani, sarod (both in 1967), and Bismillah Khan, shehnai (1968). Audience reaction went from initial astonishment and curiosity to a little impatience, and in rapid resolution, to absolute awe, where it settled for the lifetime of the festival.


3rd Shiraz Festival, 1969; Poster design: Qobad Shiva

3rd Shiraz Festival, 1969. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

In 1969, the year when percussion was the theme, the festival hosted Shiv Kumar Sharma, santoor (Indian dulcimer), Debabrata Chaudhuri, sitar, and Doreswamy Iyengar, veena, who performed with Trichy Sankaran, mridangam. Sitar players Imrat Khan and Ravi Shankar were hosted in 1970, the latter accompanied by Alla Rakha on the tabla; Balachander, veena, performed at the festival twice, in 1970 and again in 1976. Other eminent instrumentalists from India included, in 1973, Amjad Ali Khan, sarod, and Ram Narayan, sarangi, and in 1975, Hariprasad Chaurasia, whose bansuri, the storied bamboo flute known as Lord Krishna’s divine instrument, left the audience spellbound.

Ravi Shankar, Persepolis, 1970

Ravi Shankar, Persepolis, 1970.

Classical Indian vocal music was performed, among others, by Pran Nath, a master of Kirana Gharana known for his austere singing style (1974), and by Nasir Aminuddin Dagar, the pre-eminent exponent of the dhrupad (1976). The traditional Rajasthani art form, Pabuji Ki Phad, a scroll painting used by priests to sing songs of the heroic exploits of the folk deity, Pabuji, was also part of the vast repertoire of Indian music presented at the festival.

A short list of traditional music from East and Southeast Asia included, from Taiwan, Yi Chi Liu, performing on the pipa and yangqin, (1967), and Chien-Tai Chen, yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), plus three types of gamelan from Bali and Java, Indonesia (1969 and 1976). The festival also hosted Lhamo, a 400-year-old folk opera performed by exiled Tibetans from Dharamsala (1976). From Japan came Rinshoei Kida (shamisen), koto players Shinichi Yuize and Yori Kishibe (1968), Kinshi Tsuruta (biwa and vocals), and Katsuya Yokoyama, shakuhachi (1976), and from Vietnam, the great musician and teacher, Trần Văn Khê who appeared at five of the festivals performing on the dan co and dan tranh.

Trần Văn Khê (R) and son Trần Quang Hâi, 1975

Trần Văn Khê (R) and son Trần Quang Hâi, 1975.

The festival also presented diverse genres of African, Middle Eastern, and West Asian traditional music. Highlights included a striking nine-man ensemble of drummers from Rwanda (1969); classical Arabic music was performed by Munir Bashir, the Iraqi master of the oud (1974); and Mahmoud Aziz led an ensemble performance of Tunisian liturgical music (1975). L’Ensemble Lyrique Traditionnel du Sénégal appeared in 1976 as did Aziz Mian, a master of Qawwali from Pakistan who mesmerized the audience with his rendition of Sufi devotional music. Finally, one may mention the Musicians of the Nile Delta, led by Metqal Qenawi Metqal, who brought spiritual folk chants from Upper Egypt to the festival in 1977.


Rwandan drummers, 1969

Rwandan drummers, 1969

Western Music

Classical Western music had almost a century-old history in Iran and a serious, if relatively small group of adepts mostly concentrated in the capital. The festival’s mission in this category was to offer the finest of the classical repertoire and also make known the best in the contemporary and the avant-garde.

The quality of sound production was exceptional. As reported by Financial Times lead music critic Andrew Porter, “Indeed here at Persepolis and in Hafezieh the ‘assisted’ open-air sound had a naturalness and trueness surpassing anything I have ever heard in the West”[13] a feat all the more remarkable in view of the range and variety of programs and instruments, both Western and Eastern, from solo recitals to orchestral and choral, including electro-acoustic music and musique concrète.

The inaugural year in 1967 opened with a concert by the National Iranian Television Chamber Orchestra[14] (est. 1967) conducted by Vahe Khochayan in a performance of Pergolesi’s Salve Regina with Iranian soprano, Nasrin Azarmi, and ended with the world premiere of Kakuti, a dance for her by Iranian composer Morteza Hannaneh. Yehudi Menuhin was the soloist for the orchestra’s second concert at Persepolis; piano recitals were offered by Ayşegül Sarica, Elzbieta Glabowna and Novin Afrouz in the same year. The final event was a concert by the L’Orchestre du Domaine Musical led by Gilbert Amy in a program of Varèse, Messiaen, and Mozart, and the world premiere of Amy’s Relais.

Yehudi Menuhin with the NITV Chamber Orchestra, 1967

Yehudi Menuhin with the NITV Chamber Orchestra, 1967

A selective list of notable musicians in 1968 includes Arthur Rubinstein performing works from the classical repertoire, Iván Eröd, Hindemith, and works from the Second Viennese School; and Cathy Berberian, Berio, and her own composition, Stripsody. The closing event featured the NITV Chamber Orchestra at Persepolis, Farhad Mechkat conductor, Christian Ferras, violin, performing world premieres of works by Hormoz Farhat, Morteza Hannaneh, and Houshang Ostovar.

NITV Chamber Orchestra with Mechkat and Ferras, 1968

NITV Chamber Orchestra with Mechkat and Ferras, 1968

In 1969, Martha Argerich was featured in a recital of works by Bach, Debussy and Chopin, and Yvonne Loriod performed Chopin, Albeniz and Messiaen, and a Mozart concerto with the l’Orchestre National de l’ORTF. The third festival also presented the world premiere of Xenakis’ Persephassa, which echoed that year’s central theme, “percussion.” Performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in Persepolis, the work featured six musicians stationed on widely separated platforms playing a wide range of percussive instruments as the audience moved about, with the space itself acting as an instrument of music. The ensemble also offered a concert that included the world premiere of Betsy Jolas’s États: pour violon et six percussions. The latter two compositions were co-commissioned with the French Ministry of Culture. The ORTF orchestra performed other concerts in 1969 as well; the programs included Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, led by Jean Martinon, and Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum, a work commemorating those who died in the two World Wars, conducted by Bruno Maderna in the presence of the composer. The Juilliard Quartet was featured in the 4th festival in 1970 in a performance of works by Beethoven, Webern and Bartok.

R-L: Olivier Messiaen, Bruno Maderna, Jean Martinon, 1969. Photo: Jean-François Camp

R-L: Olivier Messiaen, Bruno Maderna, Jean Martinon, 1969. Photo: Jean-François Camp

The world premieres of Xenakis’ Persepolis and Bruno Maderna’s Ausstrahlung—both festival commissions—were presented in 1971. The latter was performed by The Hague Residence Orchestra led by Maderna himself with soloists Berberian, Verheul and Faber. Iranian conductor Farhad Mechkat also led the same orchestra in a program that ranged from Baroque to contemporary music. The Moscow Chamber Orchestra conducted by Barshai also appeared in 1971 as did the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in concerts led by Katlewicz. John Cage, David Tudor and Gordon Mumma appeared in concert at the 6th festival in 1972 and collaborated with Merce Cunningham in separate programs in the same year.

John Cage at the public forum, 1972 / Cage and Gordon Mumma (L)

John Cage at the public forum, 1972 / Cage and Gordon Mumma (L)


One special program was a week-long Stockhausen retrospective in 1972. Students turned out in droves at Saray-e Moshir, squatting on the floor in shirt sleeves and jeans to hear him, with many locals looking in, fascinated by the novelty of the music and the production.


Stockhausen at the sound desk, 1972                              / Stockhausen concert, Sara-ye Moshir, 1972

Stockhausen at the sound desk, 1972 / Stockhausen concert, Sara-ye Moshir, 1972

At Delgosha Garden where he performed his Sternklang the crowd almost got out of hand as they overflowed the space and climbed telegraph poles to get a better look, an image emblematic of the festival whose audience grew increasingly young and engaged, presumably because they heard the music in an environment that encouraged openness, curiosity, exploration, and level participation with the rest of the world through the arts. To say that foreign artists and visitors were just as excited by their experience in Shiraz is an understatement. Mumma described the 1972 festival as “one of the most extraordinary cultural experiences of my life.”[15]

The 1974 festival featured the London Sinfonietta with David Atherton and Mary Thomas, and in 1975, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Penderecki conducting his own compositions, and by Maksymiuk in performances of Ravel and Mussorgsky.

Penderecki at Persepolis, 1975

Penderecki at Persepolis, 1975

In 1976, the American Brass Quintet offered a rich program of music that ranged from the 16th century to Elliot Carter and Gilbert Amy and performed the world premiere of Contradictions by Iranian composer Alireza Mashayekhi. Another world premiere that year was Iranian Set by Bogulaw Schäffer, a work based on Persian poetry, with Adam Kaczynski leading Ensemble MW2. The 11th festival in 1977 featured the composer Morton Feldman and the Creative Associates. Iranian composers whose work premiered in the course of the festival[16] included Dariush Dolatshahi, Fozieh Majd, Mohammad-Taghi Massoudieh, Massoud Pourfarrokh, Manouchehr Sahba’i, and as mentioned earlier, Hormoz Farhat and Houshang Ostovar.

In 1969, American jazz and blues programs featured the great jazz drummer Max Roach leading his Quintet, and the vocalist and songwriter Abbey Lincoln; and in 1970, the gospel, soul and R&B group, the Staple Singers.

Max Roach Quintet, 1969

Max Roach Quintet, 1969


Dance and Music Theatre

Iran has no indigenous tradition of formal dance, only folkloric. Discovering the breathtaking variety of traditional and modern dance from around the world at the festival was therefore a novel adventure for the audience. Classical Indian dance was presented in all its varieties, beginning with a Kathakali performance of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in 1968. Among the foremost exponents of Indian dance forms were Uma Sharma who performed Kathak in 1969; Yamini Krishnamurti and Sonal Mansingh, Kuchipudi and Odissi (1970), and Shanta Rao, Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Bhama Nrityam and Kathakali dances (1972).

2nd Shiraz Festival, 1968. Poster design: Houshang Kazemi

2nd Shiraz Festival, 1968. Poster design: Houshang Kazemi


The opening program in 1972—a festival commission—was a Kathakali presentation of Rostam and Sohrab, a fabled tragedy where the greatest hero in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the 10th century Persian national epic, mortally wounds his son in battle, neither man being aware of the other’s identity until it is too late. Other Indian dance programs included Sanjukta Panigrahi performing Nritta and Odissi, her signature dance form (1975), and Purulia Chhau, a tribal martial dance popular in regional festivals in India, particularly in West Bengal, which was presented in the 11th festival in 1977.


Top: Kathakali, 1968. Bottom: Rostam o Sohrab, Persepolis, 1972

Top: Kathakali, 1968. Bottom: Rostam o Sohrab, Persepolis, 1972

An array of Indonesian dance and music drama also dazzled at the festival. One particularly memorable Balinese program was the opening event in 1969, the story of Rama’s struggle to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana. The highly stylized choreography, with the dancers’ arms, fingers, and facial expressions moving to the strange and hypnotic beat of the gamelan framed by lush colors and elaborate costumes conjured an unreal, timeless and dreamlike dimension at Persepolis. Another rousing performance was a Balinese Kechak at Naqsh-e Rostam in 1976. Presented by Sardono W. Kusumo, it featured a percussive a cappella chorus of men and boys in checkered waistcloths hunched down in tight circles chanting “chak-chak” and throwing up their arms as they voiced a battle from the Ramayana.


Top: The Ramayana, Persepolis 1968. Bottom: Balinese Gamelan and Legong Dance, 1969

Top: The Ramayana, Persepolis 1968. Bottom: Balinese Gamelan and Legong Dance, 1969

The festival’s complement of dance and music theatre also included Chham, sacred and ancient Buddhist dances from Bhutan, and Brazilian Capoeira, a ritualistic fusion of martial arts, dance, and music in 1974, and along with the Senegalese National Ballet (1970), a number of African productions derived from indigenous traditions that included Duro Lapido’s Oba-Koso from Nigeria (1973) and in 1975, Robert Serumaga’s dance-drama, Renga Moi from Uganda.

National Ballet of Senegal and musicians, 1970

National Ballet of Senegal and musicians, 1970


Oba-Koso, Nigeria, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp

Oba-Koso, Nigeria, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp



Western modern dance was represented by several choreographers and dancers at the forefront of the avant-garde. In 1972, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company presented “Open Air Theatre Event,” described by one critic as “an incredible soaring of pure spirit,”[17] followed by the world premiere of “Persepolis Event.” Carolyn Brown, one of the dancers remembers the experience as “marvelous” and “unforgettable.”[18]

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Persepolis, 1972. Photo: Abbas Hojatpanah

Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Persepolis, 1972. Photos: Abbas Hojatpanah

The opening program of the 7th festival in 1973 was the world premiere of Maurice Béjart’s Golestan at Persepolis, a work named after a Persian literary masterpiece by the 13th century poet Sa’di who says of his own work, “A rose lives a mere five or six days/The joy of my rose garden abides forever,” and performed by the Ballet du XXe Siècle. The dance was set to Iranian music performed live by members of the NIRT Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music. Béjart’s Improvisation sur Mallarmé III, a work based on music by Boulez was also premiered that year. Back in Belgium, he created Farah at his own initiative, a work inspired by Rumi and other Persian mystical poetry. He invited the Iranian musicians who had accompanied his Golestan in Shiraz to premiere the work in Brussels and performed it in many major European cities and at the 10th festival. Béjart’s premiere of Héliogabale was also on the program in 1976 as were his L’Oiseau du feu and Le Sacre du Printemps.

Maurice Béjart, Golestan, 1973

Maurice Béjart, Golestan, 1973

The Nikolais Dance Company, led by founder and renowned American choreographer, Alwin Nikolais, gave the opening night performance of the 9th festival in 1975 with a program that included Temple, and Tribe- Dance I & II.

In 1977, the festival hosted the world premiere of Carolyn Carlson’s Human called Being at Naqsh-e Rostam. In the same year, Carlson also performed her trilogy, This; That; The Other and conducted a special workshop for children.

Carolyn Carson, This; That, The Other, 1977

Carolyn Carson, This; That, The Other, 1977



Carlson workshop for children, Jahan-Nama Garden

Carlson workshop for children, Jahan-Nama Garden


From 1967-77, the Shiraz Arts Festival presented more than fifty traditional as well as contemporary and experimental plays from Iran, India, Japan, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, U.S.A., and Latin America, and accommodated a number of independent “ancillary” productions, including popular Iranian theatre.[19]


Traditional Iranian Theatre

In terms of Iran, the festival had a twofold goal. One was to revitalize indigenous Iranian dramatic arts, and the other, to stimulate the growth of theatre in Iran and propel it to international standards. The indigenous Iranian dramatic arts constitute naqqali, a storytelling tradition involving dramatic recitations of Persian epic poetry and other narrative literature; ta’zieh (also known as shabih- khani), a Shi’ite Passion play or mourning ritual commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein at the battle of Karbala in 680 C.E.; and ruhowzi, popular drama imbued with social satire.

With eyes on its first goal, the 1967 inaugural festival presented a series of performances featuring some of the most notable naqqals in the country. In the same year, Parviz Sayyad presented Ta’zieh Horr, Nemayesh-e Kohan-e Irani (Ancient Iranian Theatre), the first such public enactment outside rural areas since ta’zieh performances were banned in 1933. Following its warm public reception, Sayyad produced Ta’zieh Moslem in 1970, and in 1971, Khorouj-e Mokhtar, a tale centered on revenge—with comic overtones and no martyrs— that is traditionally performed on the 13th of Muharram to provide relief after ten days of mourning. In 1976, Mohammad-Baqer Ghaffari who had traveled for a year and a half in search of ta’zieh performers and musicians produced seven ta’ziehs at Hosseinieh Moshir in Shiraz and in the village of Kaftarak nearby where about 10,000 spectators attended free of charge. In the same year, the festival hosted an international seminar on ta’zieh chaired by Peter Chelkowski, where approaching ta’zieh as pure drama and presenting it outside a religious/ritualistic context was a subject of lively, and as yet unsettled discussion and debate.


Ta’zieh: karna players, performance, children’s choir, 1967

Ta’zieh: karna players, performance, children’s choir, 1967


Ta’zieh at Kaftarak, 1976

Ta’zieh at Kaftarak, 1976


Ta’zieh Conference, 1976. Poster design: Leyly Matine-Daftari

Ta’zieh Conference, 1976. Poster design: Leyly Matine-Daftari

Ta’zieh left an impression on some foreign directors, notably on Peter Brook who in spring 1970 had seen a spartan performance of Ta’zieh Moslem in Abdullahabad, a village near Neishapur in Khorasan, and was struck by the dramatic effectiveness of its technique.

The festival’s interest in exploring and presenting traditional Iranian theatre included a ruhowzi festival and seminar at the 11th festival in 1977.


Contemporary Iranian Theatre[20]

To address its second goal, namely, to cultivate and advance the dramatic arts in Iran, the Shiraz Arts Festival launched a playwriting competition in 1967 that in 1969 led to the founding of NIRT’s Theatre Workshop, Kargah-e Nemayesh, led by Bijan Saffari, whose mission, to “help writers, actors, directors and designers exercise and experiment independent of commonly accepted professional restrictions,” operated in close association with the festival.

The first hidden talent to emerge from the competition was Abbas Nalbandian, a 21-year-old newspaper seller whose Pazhuheshi…, written two years earlier, had been rejected by other production companies as “un-stageable.” The play depicts eight already dead characters who “search, get acquainted, travel, exchange ideas, make a show of their lives, die, get resurrected, and keep going without getting anywhere,” confronted by a “director” and his twelve “assistants” who threaten to install central heating if the actors fail to perform well. In staging Pazhuheshi at the 1968 festival, Arby Ovanessian who also designed the set, costumes and lighting, acted not as a mere stage-master but as a master artist recreating another artist’s work as his own, a radical notion that opened the gates to the true art of directing in Iran. [21]

Pazhuheshi…, 1968

Pazhuheshi…, 1968

The second gifted playwright that emerged through the competition in 1968 was Mahin Jahanbegloo (Tajadod). A doctoral candidate in Persian literature, her Vis o Ramin, based on an 11th century romance by Fakhruddin Gorgani, underlined the wealth of Persian narrative poems that have rarely been exploited for their dramatic value. The play opened the 4th festival whose theme was “Theatre and Ritual.” Under Ovanessian’s direction, it was timed to unfold with the movement of the setting sun; he then lit a fire, a natural artifice with deep, spiritual undertones.

4th Festival, 1970. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

4th Festival, 1970. Poster design: Qobad Shiva



Vis o Ramin, 1970. Photo: Mehdi Khansari

Vis o Ramin, 1970. Photo: Mehdi Khansari

In 1972, another Nalbandian/Ovanessian collaboration titled Nagahan ‘Haza Habibullah. . .’ (All at Once . . .)[22] offered an outstanding performance by Bijan Mofid in the lead role of a teacher who is murdered by his neighbors at high noon on ‘Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, for a hidden treasure that turns out to be merely a chest full of books. The play is a commentary on the plight of societies that characterized by poverty, ignorance and superstition commit a tragic mistake and kill the source of knowledge, which is a universal path to salvation.[23]


Bijan Mofid (L) in Nagahan…, 1972.  Photo: Jamileh Neda’i

Bijan Mofid (L) in Nagahan…, 1972.  Photo: Jamileh Neda’i

Another highly acclaimed production in 1968 was Shahr-e Qesseh, a play in the vernacular genre written and staged by Bijan Mofid. A social commentary with animals representing familiar character types in Iranian society, the production was accompanied by moving songs composed and performed by Mofid himself that were soon memorized by one and all and are cherished today as a living legacy of this multi-talented and widely popular artist.

Shahr-e Qesseh, 1968

Shahr-e Qesseh, 1968

Iranian theatre continued to thrive at the festival, including a number of ancillary productions named here along with the official entries. In 1969, Mofid directed his Mah o Palang, a political allegory in which he played the leopard (“palang”). He returned to the festival in 1973 with a new play, Bozak Namir Bahar Miyad, a coproduction directed by Maria Krishna with her Théâtre Athanor from France that included French and Iranian actors and had both children and adults for an audience.

Bozak Namir Bahar Miyad, 1973

Bozak Namir Bahar Miyad, 1973

Another of his plays, Rubah o Oqab, was staged by his younger brother Ardavan Mofid in 1977 with actors from the Kanoon-e Parvaresh-e Fekri-ye Koudakan va Nojavanan (Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults).

Other Iranian plays rich with local flavor, social commentary, poetic realism and currency were developed at the Theatre Workshop for the festival during 1972-1977. Among them were four plays by talented writer-director Esma’il Khalaj who staged his Halet Chetoreh Mash Rahim?,   Goldouneh Khanoum, and Jom’e-Koshi in a tea house in Shiraz, and his widely acclaimed Shabat, which later traveled to Warsaw. Gifted writer, director, actor, and artist Ashurbanipal Babilla presented two of his works, Emshab Shab-e Mahtabe indoors, and Hora Sexta at Persepolis.

Halet Chetoreh Mash Rahim?, 1972

Halet Chetoreh Mash Rahim?, 1972



Jom’e-Koshi, 1973

Jom’e-Koshi, 1973


Shabat, 1976

Shabat, 1976 


Hora Sexta, 1977

Hora Sexta, 1977

A number of veteran Iranian theatre directors appeared at the festival as well. The well-known and popular stage and TV director, writer and actor, Parviz Sayyad, previously noted for his productions of ta’zieh, staged a play in a tea house based on the merry “eavesdropping” seasonal rite, Falgoush, written by poet-artist Manouchehr Yekta’i that enjoyed a very warm reception. Another renowned actor and director, Abbas Javanmard, produced Bahram Beyzai’s Ghoroub dar Diyari Gharib and Qesse-ye Mah-e Penhan, two one-act puppet plays sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Arts and performed by actors from the Gorouh-e Honar-e Melli (National Arts Group). A final example among veterans is the pioneering writer-director Ali Nassirian who staged his ruhowzi-inspired Bongah-e Teatral in Saray-e Moshir, which was also sponsored by the Ministry.

Ghoroub dar Diyari Gharib, 1973

Ghoroub dar Diyari Gharib, 1973



Bongah-e Teatral, 1974

Bongah-e Teatral, 1974

The festival also presented a new generation of Iranian directors that included Iraj Saghiri, a native of Bushehr in southern Iran who staged his Qalandar-Khouneh and Mahpalang, both richly inspired by local traditions and colors, Aziz Chitta’i who presented his Omar Khayyam dar New York with the Tokme Repertory Company that he had created in New York, and Mohammad Saleh-Ala who wrote and directed Zir-e Chador-e Oxygen, and Eski ru-ye Atash. Two other productions were supported by the Ministry of Culture and Arts: former member of the Theatre Workshop Shahru Kheradmand staged Rostam o Esfandiar, a tragedy of epic proportions that pits two iconic Shahnameh heroes against one another; and writer-director Mehdi Faqih presented his Bastur with a puppet theatre company from his native Fars Province.

Qalandar-Khouneh, 1975

Qalandar-Khouneh, 1975

The collective result was a paradigm shift that propelled Iranian theatre from a domestic stage to an international one.[24] Iranian plays were for the first time reviewed in foreign media—and favorably so—while Pazhuheshi… which became the subject of a doctoral dissertation[25] also made history by being the first Iranian play to be invited to international festivals. Another milestone was Ovanessian’s production of Albert Camus’ Caligula in 1974 where he cast the protagonist as a split personality played simultaneously by two actors. Hailed for its striking originality, the play was invited to tour Poland and was performed in Latin America, making Ovanessian the first Iranian to be invited to direct a foreign play in the West.

Caligula, 1974

Caligula, 1974

For the Festival’s 10th anniversary in 1976, several artists were invited to come back to Shiraz with new creations. In response, the leftist Confederation of Iranian Students that rejected the festival as too liberal and the Iranian regime as too illiberal launched a concerted political campaign in Europe and the U.S.A. and pressured some of the Western artists who were eager to return to decline.


One positive response, however, was Savari Dar-amad … (There Appeared a Knight . . .).[26] Developed collectively— the first such experiment in Iran—with Mahin Jahanbegloo (Tajadod) as the lead writer,[27] the text incorporates the Younger Avesta, Manichean writings, classical Persian literature, Islamic mysticism, and Iranian Illuminationist philosophy as a composite expression of “Persian poetic wisdom,” and depicts the end of obscurity at the moment when, driven by greed, darkness swallows the light. A Knight was invited by the Theatre of Nations to represent Iran in Caracas, Venezuela in 1978; it was also presented at La MaMa in New York.

Savari Dar-amad, 1976

Savari Dar-amad, 1976




L-R: Brook, Ovanessian, Grotowski, 1970

L-R: Brook, Ovanessian, Grotowski, 1970

Traditional Eastern and African Theatre

The festival presented more than a dozen varieties of non-Iranian traditional theatre over the years; most, if not all these exquisite art forms were unfamiliar to the audience in Shiraz and a true revelation. Several examples from the East and Africa were previously noted under Music Dance and Theatre, including Indian Kathakali, a Balinese rendition of the Ramayana, Oba-Koso, Yoruba musical drama from Nigeria (1973), and Robert Serumaga’s Renga Moi offered by the National Theatre of Uganda (1975). In addition to these, the festival hosted Wayang Kulit, shadow puppet theatre from Malaysia (1973), several presentations of Nôh, traditional Japanese lyrical drama (1975), and Bhavai, folk theatre from Gujarat (1977).


Contemporary and Experimental International Theatre

The most memorable foreign productions at the festival were presented starting in 1970 and numbered [then] Eastern Bloc (8); Western Europe (5); U.S.A. (10); Latin America (1), and Asia (2). Only Japan presented both experimental and traditional theatre at the festival.


Eastern and Central Europe

Poland set the tone of contemporary theatre at the festival in 1970 with one of the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century, Jerzy Grotowski’s The Constant Prince, a product of the director’s radical concepts, the “theatre laboratory” and “poor theatre.” Groups of fifty spectators seated inside the Delgosha Garden pavilion watched in awe and dread as Ryszard Cieslak enacted the anatomy of resistance, anguish and pain with perfect control over every muscle, sinews and vein in his body. The astounding quality of Grotowski’s work and his personal gravitas, palpable during the morning seminars and debates, imbued the festival with a heightened sense of intensity and drive. In 1973, another Polish director, Krzysztof Jasinski, staged Polish Dreambook and Fall with Teatr Stu from Cracow, and Atelier 212 from Yugoslavia performed Slobodanka Alexic’s Hamlet in the Cellar (1973) and Miracle in Shargan by Ljubomir Simovic, directed by Mira Trailovic´ (1976).

The Constant Prince, 1970

The Constant Prince, 1970

Two other works from Poland deserve special mention. In 1974, Lovelies and Dowdies, written by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz “Witkacy” in 1938, was stripped down and staged by another pioneering theatre director and theorist, Tadeusz Kantor, as an iteration of Impossible Theatre, a happening where the actors took shape on the spot and the spectators were dragged into the action. Kantor came back to the festival in 1977 to stage his most famous work, Dead Class; he played himself as a director in a classroom where the children are lonely marionettes and robotic adults who cannot relate to their childhood, ambiguous characters that endlessly morph, disintegrate, and finally harden in a dead class. Both plays were produced by Cricot 2.

In 1977, Squat Theatre, a group of young actors who had been exiled from their native Hungary in 1973, performed Pig, Child, Fire!, an experimental play they had originally performed in Budapest in 1975. In Shiraz, the play was staged in a store window on a busy street. One vignette, performed on the sidewalk, depicted the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” the biblical account of the massacre of male infants in Bethlehem by Herod’s soldiers sent to kill the newborn “King of the Jews”. In Shiraz as in Budapest, a soldier wearing a high-collared military overcoat, trousers and boots snatches two babies (plastic dolls) from their mothers’ arms, snaps off their heads and throws them to the ground. A third woman, pregnant and wearing a long, flowery skirt, hurriedly dresses up her young boy to look like a girl, and then seduces the soldier to save her child. The ploy works; the soldier ignores the child, grabs the woman from behind, and the two bend back and forth, fully clothed, in a symbolic gesture of love-making.

The scene was meant to induce repulsion against the tyranny of power; instead, it generated an urban legend according to which a naked actor had raped a naked actress on the street before hundreds of onlookers. Though patently untrue as evidenced by real-time photographs[28] as well as eyewitness accounts by Squat actor and archivist Klara Palotai[29] and theatre critic Iraj Zohari,[30] the tall tale quickly went viral with unfortunate consequences, among them an edict issued on 28 September 1977 by Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in Najaf, that urged the [religious] “gentlemen” to “speak out and protest,” for “indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz.” Anthony Parsons, then British Ambassador to Iran also sealed and embellished this misinformation in a book, writing that he was told by an “eyewitness” that a “rape . . . was performed in full (no pretense) by a man (either naked or without trousers, I forget which.”[31] Salacious rumors, especially when propagated from above, tend to nest and rest in the popular mind. Just so, evidence to the contrary, the wretched fiction about the love-making scene in Shiraz continues to circulate even today even among those who were not born in 1977, sadly, even in academia. Slaughter of innocence.

Anna Koos dresses her boy as a girl, Festival Daily Bulletin #4, 1977

Anna Koos dresses her boy as a girl, Festival Daily Bulletin #4, 1977



Pig, Child, Fire!, Anna Koos and Peter Breznyik, seduction scene.  Photos (L): Squat Archives, Budapest, 1975. Photo: (R) Bahman Jalali, Shiraz, 1977.

Pig, Child, Fire!, Anna Koos and Peter Breznyik, seduction scene.  Photos (L): Squat Archives, Budapest, 1975. Photo: (R) Bahman Jalali, Shiraz, 1977.


Western Europe and Latin America

Productions from France included, in 1971, Chroniques coloniales, ou les aventures de Zartan by Jérôme Savary, creator and director, Grand Magic Circus, and in 1977, the world premiere of Honoré de Balzac’s Peines de coeur d’une chatte anglaise, staged by Argentinian Alfredo Arias, Group TSE, a satirical animal story involving Beauty, a magnificent English cat, Puff, an older Persian cat, and Brisquet, a chatty little French cat discussing proper Victorian behavior and other topics of interest in mid-19th century Europe.

Victor Garcia, the Argentine-born director, produced two plays at the festival with the Spanish Teatro Núria Espert, Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes (1970) and Divinas Palabras (1976). In 1974, working with the Ruth Escobar company in Sao Paolo Brazil, he directed Autosacramentales, allegories illustrating the mystery of the Eucharist by Calderon de la Barca, playwright, poet, later Franciscan priest and the foremost dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age in the 17th century.

The International Centre for Theatre Research (French acronym, CIRT) founded in 1970 by Peter Brook and Micheline Rozan in Paris was a research center built to explore the cultural, geographic, spatial and linguistic boundaries of theatre.[32] Brook’s visit to Iran in spring 1970 and the screening of his films at the 4th festival in the autumn led to the presentation of CIRT’s first major research project, Orghast, as a “work in progress” at the 1971 festival.[33] Centered on Prometheus, the Greek culture hero who defies the gods and brings fire to man, the two-part work was an experiment led by Brook in Paris with a cast of twenty-five actors of different nationalities, including Iranian, and three collaborating drama directors, Arby Ovanessian (Iran), Geoffrey Reeves (England), and Andrei Serban (Romania). The British poet Ted Hughes and Brook led an improvisatory process in search of a “language” that communicated through sound rather than a linguistic system. Hughes used Avestan and classical Greek vocal elements in the mix and named the invented language Orghast, which became the title of the work.

Orghast I was staged before the tomb of Artaxerxes in Persepolis, and Orghast II, about seven miles further northwest at Naqsh-e Rostam. For Brook, exploring new intuitive possibilities and processes in space, time, language and performance in an ancient landscape and culture was an experience that marked some of his later work, including Conference of the Birds and Mahabharata.

Orghast rehearsal, 1971

Orghast rehearsal, 1971



Orghast I, Persepolis                     Orghast II, Naqsh-e Rostam

Orghast I, Persepolis / Orghast II, Naqsh-e Rostam



Two extraordinary works were presented from Japan, both by Shuji Terayama, an iconoclastic, provocative, prolific and extremely inventive avant-garde artist who worked in different mediums— poetry, film, photography, and “meta-theatre.” Terayama staged his Origin of Blood in Delgosha Garden (1973), and Ship of Folly at Saray-e Moshir (1976). The performances combined qualities of shamanic dreams and nightmares, magic, madness and lucidity, and the occasional suspension of belief as in Origin of Blood, where an actor descended from the top of the Delgosha Pavilion down to the garden, walking vertically, face-down, seemingly without any device to save him from the pull of gravity, only his will.

The effect of the illusion was shocking and beautiful.

Origin of Blood, descent from the façade of the Delgosha Pavilion, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp

Origin of Blood, descent from the façade of the Delgosha Pavilion, 1973. Photos: Jean-François Camp




The Ship of Folly program, 1976. Design: Qobad Shiva and Fowzi Tehrani


The festival presented a variety of American off-Broadway productions both by recognized practitioners of experimental theatre and others that were on the fringe and grew to become iconic in the 1970s following their performances at the festival. One great source of attraction for all dramatists at the festival was that they were free to choose their preferred venue, as available and feasible.

In 1970, Peter Schumann, founder and director of Bread & Puppet Theatre, was the first to introduce festival audiences to experimental American theatre with Fire and King’s Story. Before each performance an actor read a statement of protest against political oppression then another actor distributed freshly baked bread among the audience, which fit well with “theatre and ritual,” the main theme of the 4th festival, and the play was performed with the company’s trademark giant puppets. Schumann also decided to perform in a park and outside a prison, free of charge.

Bread & Puppet, Fire, and free show in the park, 1970

Bread & Puppet, Fire, and free show in the park, 1970

Three more plays in the experimental category were performed in 1971. Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre performed two ground-breaking collective “works in progress,” Terminal and Mutations, both in the university gymnasium. Andre Gregory chose a fruit warehouse for his production of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a program of the Manhattan Project. While meticulously designed, the performance was in the style of an on-the-spot improvisation and found an exuberant audience, some of them children perched on a treetop, which seen from “Alice’s” perspective— American actor Angela Pietropinto—looked like “a tree that was growing children!”

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol, children crowding treetops and Alice, 1971 Photos: Courtesy of Angela Pietropinto

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carrol, children crowding treetops and Alice, 1971. Photos: Courtesy of Angela Pietropinto

The most singular experimental work in the 6th festival in 1972 was KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE, staged by then-little-known Bob Wilson and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, with a mixed American-Iranian cast of live and cardboard cut-out characters totaling nearly 550 in the festival program catalogue.

Staged like a simple children’s play with no sophisticated lighting or technical support, the play was preceded by an Overture staged at Qavam House, an elegant 19th century residence in Narenjestan Garden where the audience happened across various members of a “family” posing scenes of daily life in extreme slow motion. There was no apparent storyline and the scenes, set in separate quarters, seemed unconnected. KA MOUNTAIN began the next day on a platform set up as a stage at the bottom of Haft-Tan, a hill named after seven Sufis who are buried in a nearby garden. The audience was free to follow the family here and there up the hill nonstop for 168 hours for an entire week and follow disparate scenes, also in extreme slow motion, dotted with fish, animals, birds—some real, others not, as if retreating to an earlier geological era—as Moby Dick was being read out on the platform below. On day seven, the play ended on top of the hill next to a giant cardboard dinosaur with people chanting the “Dying Dinosaur Soars.”

Juxtaposing real and surreal visual elements and slowing down time to the extreme led to a heightened awareness and meditative experience that, without a connecting narrative was, by definition, different for each spectator. And yet there was a unifying undercurrent, a quest and a progression toward an end, as if to evoke Attar’s Conference of the Birds where seekers travel across seven valleys to reach the final station atop Qaf Mountain.

KA MOUNTAIN happened because of the trust that the festival put into Bob Wilson’s creative impulses on the one hand and his willingness to believe in impossible things on the other.[34] The American actors and the Iranian participants—not everyone an actor—had in the director’s absence rehearsed fragmented scenes in Shiraz and built some props expecting the parts to come together as a whole later. Bob Wilson arrived in town at the 11th hour and framed the elements on the spot and situated them on the hill. The entire process was a daily improvisation and discovery for the creator himself, the actors, and the spectators. Nothing like it had ever been conceived in the history of theatre or attempted before. The mythic theatre that was born in Shiraz lives on and takes different shapes in the imagination even today.[35]


Bob Wilson, 1972

Bob Wilson, 1972


KA MOUNTAIN, Haft-Tan, 1972. Photos: Jean-François Camp

KA MOUNTAIN, Haft-Tan, 1972. Photos: Jean-François Camp


Bob Wilson returned to Shiraz in 1974 where he staged A Mad Man, A Mad Giant, A Mad Dog, A Mad Urge, A Mad Face in the Delgosha Pavilion, a play created collaboratively with Christopher Knowles. Andrei Serban produced Fragments of a Greek Trilogy: Medea, Electra, Trojan Women, with New York’s La MaMa at Persepolis in 1975, a powerful production that was rooted in his experience as a collaborator on Orghast. In 1977, he returned with Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It, a memorable La MaMa production that turned out to be the last U.S.A. experimental theatre at the festival. The audience merrily followed the actors across Delgosha Garden to hear the melancholy Jacques pronounce “All the world’s a stage,” the famous quote that gave birth to the phrase “too much of a good thing.”


Medea / Electra

Medea / Electra


Trojan Women

Trojan Women Photos of Fragments of a Greek Trilogy, 1975, courtesy of Andrei Serban 



Film program, 1969; Poster design: Qobad Shiva

Film program, 1969. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

Starting in the inaugural year in 1967, the festival screened films on a daily basis to packed audiences, most of them youth, initially at Paramount and Capri cinemas, and from the third year, at Ariana, a newly-built and well-equipped theatre owned and operated by the filmmaker and Shiraz native, Shahrokh Golestan. The programs covered international masterpieces on the one hand—including retrospectives of Brook (1970), Bergman (1971), Buñuel (1974) and Satyajit Ray (1971) —and contemporary films by the likes of Joseph Losey, Tony Richardson, Ken Russell, Istvan Szabo and movies by the new generation of Iranian filmmakers.


Retrospectives: Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, 1971; Luis Buñuel, 1974. Poster design: Qobad Shiva

Retrospectives: Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, 1971; Luis Buñuel, 1974. Poster design: Qobad Shiva


The first movie screened at the inaugural festival in 1967 was writer- director Fereydoun Rahnema’s Siyavash in Persepolis, a cinematic experiment with mythic characters from the Shahnameh wandering about the ruins of Persepolis and reflecting on the past and the present; the film had won the Jean Epstein Prize at the 1966 Locarno Festival for its innovative exploration of film language.


Siavash at Persepolis, 1965

Siavash at Persepolis, 1965

The festival organized an unusual and important program in 1970 when the theme was “theatre and ritual,” during which Jean Rouch, the French filmmaker considered a pioneer of visual anthropology, screened uncut footage of African rituals, among them, Dogon tribal ceremonies in Mali.

The programs that were organized around themes included, in 1975, musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond, and in 1977, “Japan: History through Cinema,” which included masterpieces by Ichikawa, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Oshima, and Ozu.[36]

On the 10th anniversary of the festival in 1976, the theme of the film program was “the East as seen by filmmakers,” ranging from silent movies to sound. The program included Grass by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1925), a silent documentary—one of the earliest of its kind—that follows the seasonal migration of a Bakhtiari tribe and their livestock across the Karoun River and snow-capped Zard Kuh in southwestern Iran, and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Heir to Genghis Khan (also called Storm over Asia) (1928), The Yellow Cruise (1935), a documentary on China co-directed by Léon Poirier and Andre Sauvage, and Azalea Mountain, a Chinese model opera made into film (1974).


Grass, 1925

Grass, 1925


Films on India included Jean Renoir’s, River (1951), Roberto Rossellini’s documentary drama, India (1958), and India Song by Marguerite Duras (1975).

The River, 1951

The River, 1951


 India, 1958  / India Song, 1975

India, 1958  / India Song, 1975


The “East” theme also included Sergei Parajanov’s masterpiece, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) (Sayat Nova, original title) that had been removed from circulation in the Soviet Union and was first shown at the festival in Shiraz; Giorgi Shengelaya’s Pirosmani (1969), Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1001 Nights (1974), Shuji Terayama’s Throw Away your Books (1971) and Pastoral Hide and Seek (1974), Shadi Abdel Salam’s, The Mummy (1969), Pharaoh by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966), and Jamil Dehlavi’s Towers of Silence (1975).

1001 Nights, 1974  / Pastoral Hide and Seek, 1974

1001 Nights, 1974  / Pastoral Hide and Seek, 1974


Iranian filmmakers in this category included Fereydoun Rahnema with his Pesar-e Iran az Madarash Bikhabar Ast (Iran’s Son has no News of his Mother) (1973). A number of banned Iranian movies were screened at the festival: two groundbreaking works by Dariush Mehrjoui, Gav (Cow, 1969) and Dayere-ye Mina (The Cycle) (1975); and Nasser Taqva’i’s Aramesh dar Hozour-e Digaran (Tranquility in the Presence of Others) (1970).

Gav, 1969

Gav, 1969


 Aramesh dar Hozour-e Digaran, 1970

Aramesh dar Hozour-e Digaran, 1970


The new generation of Iranian filmmakers whose films— feature-length, documentary or short— were screened at the festival included, to name a few, Mehrjoui, Aqay-e Halou (Mr. Gullible, screened in 1970) and Postchi (The Postman, 1972); Arby Ovanessian, Cheshmeh (The Spring) (1971), Parviz Kimiavi’s feature films, Mogholha (Mongols) (1973) and Bagh-e Sangui (Stoney Garden) (1976), and documentaries, Ya Zamen-e Ahou (Oh, Protector of Gazelles) (1970) and P Like Pelican (1973); Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Tabi’at-e Bi-jan (Still Life) (1974), and Dar Ghorbat (In Exile) (1975).


Cheshmeh, 1971 / Mogholha, 1972

Cheshmeh, 1971 / Mogholha, 1972


Postchi, 1972 / Tabi’at-e Bi-jan, 1974

Postchi, 1972 / Tabi’at-e Bi-jan, 1974

Other documentary filmmakers who participated in the festival were Ahmad Faroughi, Telephone (1966) and Parsiyan-e Hend (The Parsees of India) (1970); Jalal Moghaddam, Mashhad (1967); Taqva’i, Bad-e Jenn (1969), Zohr-e Ashura (1971), and Sadeq Kordeh (Sadeq, the Kurd) (1972), a feature-length film based on an historical event.


Daryereh-ye Mina, 1975  / Bagh-e Sangui, 1976

Daryereh-ye Mina, 1975  / Bagh-e Sangui, 1976

Iranian shorts included Khosrow Sina’i, An Su-ye Hayahou (Beyond Pandemonium) (1968); Taqva’i, Mashhad-e Qali and Arba’in (both screened in 1969); and Shokoufeh Shakeri, Sarab (Mirage) (1971); Nasib Nassibi, Che Harasi Darad Zolmat-e Rouh (The Fearful Darkness of the Soul) (1972) and Zendegi (Life) (1969), an animation by Nosrat Karimi.


Bad-e Jenn, 1969

Bad-e Jenn, 1969

The festival itself was the subject of several documentaries namely, Jalal Moghaddam, Shiraz va Jashn-e Honar (1967), Mahmoud Khosrowshahi and Tony Williams, Sound the Trumpets, Beat the Drums (1968), François Reichenbach, Festival dans le desert (1969), Kimiavi, Jashn-e Honar-e 49 (1970) and Taqva’i, The Fifth Festival of Arts (1971).


The 12th Festival

The 12th Festival of Arts was scheduled to open on 3 September 1978 at the end of Ramadan. By then the country, suffering from a severe economic malaise that was induced and increasingly fueled by the politics of oil, was in the grip of a popular uprising that was to culminate in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the summer of 1978 people were on the streets, tensions were high, government workers were on strike, massive demonstrations were organized by a coalition of activists from the left, right and center marching under the banner of religion, which engineered and unified the otherwise pluralistic and initially secular protest movement by billing itself as a democratic liberating force. On August 19, religious zealots set the Cinema Rex in the southern city of Abadan on fire, burning more than four hundred innocent moviegoers to death. The momentum was unstoppable. Given the turbulent and threatening conditions, the festival organizers decided to cancel the 12th Jashn-e Honar.

The performing arts were not new to Iran and had been cultivated, practiced and promoted by public and private institutions in the country for more than a century. Native and foreign forms of music, theatre, dance, and film were part and parcel of public life in Iran and were tolerated even by religious doctrinaires that considered most artistic activity sacrilegious profanity, especially where women were involved. The difference during 1967-1977 was that ten out of 356 days a year the Shiraz Festival of Arts distilled and unleashed the full power of creativity free of any political agendas or directives and not from a third world perspective but as an equal partner with the rest of humanity in the 20th century. As such, it stood out, eliciting admiration and accolades, but also a level of criticism and hostility beyond the standard share accorded all groundbreaking, high visibility cultural events around the world.

Interrupting the flow of the festival was “like tearing a page out of an unread book.” But memories linger, experiences are handed down, and historic paradigms are recalled and activated. The knowledge that it was possible to build and exercise a free, tolerant, creative, and diverse society in Iran—which is what the festival was all about—and the footprint of the cultural awakening that it elicited cannot be erased. The last chapter of Jashn-e Honar is yet to be written.

This paper was originally commissioned by Asia Society for The Shiraz Festival: A Global Vision Revisited, a symposium held in New York on 5 October 2013. It has been expanded considerably for this publication.

The sources in print consulted for this report are Festival catalogues, bulletins, program notes, 1967-1977, Tamasha magazine, 1971-1977, Kayhan, Ettela’at, and their companion English editions, Kayhan International and Tehran Journal, 1967-1977; interviews with Farrokh Gaffary (1984) and Bijan Saffari (1983), Foundation for Iranian Studies, “Program for Oral History,” and Sheherazade Afshar Ghotbi, Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts (1967-1977): Detailed catalogue of events, January 2018 (available online). First-hand accounts of the festival were contributed by Reza Ghotbi, Sheherazade Afshar and Arby Ovanessian; Parviz Sayyad and Mohamad-Baqer Ghaffari provided input on ta’zieh. All omissions and editorialized commentary in this report are the sole responsibility of the author.


[1]Enrico Fulchignoni, professor and director of UNESCO’s International Committee for Cinema and Television, first published in Il Tempo at the close of the 9th festival in 1975, translated in Tamasha 246 (1976): 74.

[2]Chapter headings in Mahlouji’s Archaeology of the Final Decade: The Utopian Stage, Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis (1967-77), a brochure available online that accompanied his exhibitions of the festival in Paris, Rome, London, Bergen, and Liverpool during 2014-2016.

[3]Pazhuheshi Zharf o Setorg o No dar Sangvareha-ye Dowre-ye Bistopanjom-e Zaminshenasi, lit., “A Profound, Prodigious and Novel Research into the Fossils of the 25th Geological Era.”

[4]Co-commissioned with the French Ministry of Culture.

[5]Launched in March 1967, NITV merged with Radio Iran in 1971 and was renamed NIRT.

[6]Excerpts from an address by Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi at the inaugural festival. Festival catalogue 1967.


[8]The festival’s principal programs were music, theatre, dance, and film (described separately below under “Programs”), seminars and conferences, daily round-table discussions and debates, and related publications. Poetry and painting, exhibitions of Persian carpets and handicrafts, children’s theatre and dance workshops and other special programs intermittently organized by the festival are not covered in this report.

[9]Khosrovani was only involved with the festival in 1967 but his lighting design for Hafezieh and Persepolis endured and defined the tone, ambience, and the accents of the outdoor venues for the next ten years through 1977.

[10]Photo credits have been provided in this report as available.

[11]The following is a partial list of other Iranian musicians, older and younger, who appeared at the festival: Fereydoun Hafezi, Ata’ollah Jangouk, Habibollah Salehi, Reza Vohdani, Houshang Zarif, and Nasrollah Zarrinpanjeh (tar); Nosratollah Ebrahimi and Jalal Zolfonoun (setar); Mohammad Heydari, Pashang Kamkar, Parviz Meshkatian, Majid Najahi, Mansour Saremi, Ebrahim Sarkhosh, Reza Shafi’ian, Fazlollah Tavakkol, Reza Varzandeh, Abbas Zandi (santour); Mohammad-Ali Haddadian, Mohammad Moussavi, Hassan Nahid, Mohammad-Ali Kiani-Nejad (ney); Maliheh Sa`idi (qanoun); Mehdi Azarsina, Davoud Ganje’i, Mohammad Moqadassi, Mahmoud  Rahmanipour, Ali-Akbar  Shekarchi, Siavosh Zendegani (kamancheh); Rahmatollah Badi’i (qeychak); Amir-Nasser Eftetah, Mohammad Esma’ili, Mohammad Farahmand, Nasser Farhangfar, Hossein Hamedanian, Morteza Haj-Ali A’yan, Arjang Kamkar, Bahman Rajabi (tombak); and singers, Ahdieh Badi’i, and Simin Ghanem, Iraj, Noushin Riahi, Parivash Sotoudeh, and Sowgol.

[12]Gorouh-e Jam’avari va Pazhuhesh-e Musiqi-ye Navahi.

[13]Financial Times, 9 October 1968.

[14]Renamed NIRT Chamber Orchestra in 1967 (following NITV’s merger with Radio Iran).

[15]Robert J. Gluck, “The Shiraz Festival: Avant-Garde Arts Performance in 1970s Iran,” Department of Music, University at Albany (2006): 217.

[16]All works commissioned by the NITV/NIRT Music Department.

[17]Terry Graham, Tamasha 8 (September 1972).

[18]Gluck, “The Shiraz Festival,” 217, 221, citing 25 December 2005 email correspondence with Carolyn Brown.

[19]In 1973, Iran was host to the 2nd Third World Theatre, a festival and conference held in Shiraz that was supported by the 7th festival on the organizational, though not on the programmatic level.

[20]For more information on Iranian plays mentioned in this report, see The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia Pacific, ed. Don Rubin, et al (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), 201-218.

[21]Ibid., 208.

[22]The title, Haza Habibullah, Mata fi Hubbullah, Qatilullah, Mata Beseifullah (All at Once Friend of God, Died in the Love of God, Slain by God, Died by the Sword of God), derives from Tazkarat al-Awlia by Fariduddin ‘Attar (d. 1221), a work in Persian prose on the life of Sufis.

[23]It is a paradoxical and tragic irony that in 1989, Nalbandian, unemployed and impoverished following his release from prison by the IRI for his role in the Theatre Workshop, committed suicide. On 5 October 2013, speaking about the essence and the trajectory of the Shiraz Arts Festival at the Asia Society Symposium in New York, Ovanessian closed his remarks with a reference to Nalbandian’s Nagahan…, the implication being that the festival was a voice of exploration, creativity and knowledge that was silenced not only by the 1979 Islamic Revolution but by the community of critics that have declined to write about the festival since.

[24]For the history and development of theatre in Iran, and a discussion of the numerous plays performed at the Shiraz Arts Festival not mentioned here, see The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, Asia Pacific: 204 ff.

[25]Gisèle Kapuscinski, Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, 1982.

[26]Savari Dar-amad Ruyash Sorkh, Muyash Sorkh. . . “There Appeared a Knight with a Red Face, Red Hair, Red Lips, Red Teeth, a Red Gown, a Red Horse, a Red Spear…”

[27]All participants contributed to content development: Ovanessian, director, Fozieh Majd, music, Ferdows Kaviani, Sussan Taslimi, Sadreddin Zahed, and the young boy Nima Mofid (actors).

29 Photojournalist Bahman Jalali’s image taken onsite in Shiraz (Alireza Rezai, “In Search of a Historical Battle,” Festival Daily Bulletin #4, 20 August 1977) shows the woman and the soldier in the outfits they wore throughout the play. A Squat archival image shows the soldier wore the same outfit in the play’s inaugural 1975 Budapest production and subsequently.

[29]Klara Palotai, New York-based digital archivist of Squat Theatre and a member of the group both in Budapest and Shiraz, has attested by email to this writer that both actors remained fully clothed, in Shiraz as in the original performance.

[30]Iraj Zohari describes the scene in his Yad-ha va Boud-ha: Khaterat-e Iraj Zohari. Mo’in (Tehran, 1382): 211, and refuting the rumors, scoffs at the Shirazi religious leaders for their uproar over what was a “symbolic gesture in a play.” This writer also attended the performance; I likewise verify that both actors remained fully clothed for the entire length of the play.

[31]  صحیفه امام، مرکز نشر آثار حضرت امام خمینی (ره)، جلد سوم، ص ۲۲۹-۲۳۱ (Center for Publishing Imam Khomeini’s Works, v. 3: 229-231, cites Khomeini’s edict along with a Persian translation of a passage in Anthony Parsons’ The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974-1979 (London, 1984).

[32]In 1974, CIRT was renamed Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT) to include theatre production.

[33]For a detailed discussion of Orghast, see Negin Djavaherian, Not Nothingness: Peter Brook’s Empty Space and Its Architecture, Ph.D. dissertation. School of Architecture, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, August 2010, available online.

[34]For Wilson’s perspective on this subject see Iran Modern (New Haven & London: Asia Society Museum, 2013), exhibition catalogue, 93.

[35]See https://vimeo. com/46089267, a 2012 video in which Bob Wilson outlines the seven-day progression of the play and ends with him chanting the dinosaur song. In his retelling, he describes Haft-Tan (Seven Bodies) as constituting seven hills; in fact, the play unfolded in seven stages on one hill.

[36]Other Japanese filmmakers represented were Yoshimura, Shinoda, Inagaki, Kuroki, Yamamura, Yoshida, Naruse, Kobayashi, Shindo, Okamoto, and Kinoshita.


The Dynamics of Resistance: Moral Concepts in Sīmīn Dāneshvar’s Sūvashūn

Magdalena Rodziewicz < mrodziewicz@uw.edu.pl> is an Assistant Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of Warsaw. Her research interests focus on modern Iran and its intellectual tradition. She has published on Iranian religious intellectuals and contemporary Shi’a theological and legal debates. Her second area of study is devoted to the ethical dimension of contemporary Iranian culture, in particular the concept of āberū.

Bar khyālī aleshān o jangeshān

Vaz khyālī fakhreshān o nangeshān

Imagined is their peace and war

Imagined is their pride and shame[1]


The centuries long history of foreign interference into the internal affairs of colonies may be perceived as a continuous struggle to keep honour and dignity in the face of dominative external powers.[2] Iran never gained the status of a full colony, yet it has been exposed to imperial—mainly British, Russian, but also German, and later American—penetration and influence for a long time. As a country with a so-called semi-colonial status, and geographic location as a buffer state, Iran’s independence was entangled in the interests of foreigners through politics, trade and economic influence. Although Iranian relations with the various empires was not straightforward, the country has been marked by the policy of supremacy, which influenced the Persian collective consciousness, shaping Iranian political and social life. Therefore, Iranians, as repeatedly shown by Hamid Dabashi, have developed their own national ideology of resistance,[3] as they perceived the political, economic but also cultural supremacy as a serious threat to their “self.”


The occupation of Iran by the Allied forces during the 2nd World War was one of many events that significantly affected the lives of the Iranians and prompted them, consciously or not, to reconsider their own attitude toward foreign dominance. Despite the country’s plea of neutrality, and due to Reza Shah’s sympathy for Germany among other reasons, Iran was invaded and its sovereignty impaired. The occupation was a serious blow to a country which, at that time, was already struggling with many internal problems, among others hunger, poverty, poor health care, and increasing animosity between central government and local tribes. These are the events that constitute the background of the story told in one of the most interesting modern Iranian novels—Sūvashūn by Sīmīn Dāneshvar[4]. The author sets the action of the book in southern Iran, in her hometown of Shiraz which was under British occupation. She narrates the story of a middle-class landowning family who try to conduct its everyday affairs in spite of the foreign presence and the turmoil and pressure this brings for the local community. The plot begins with Yūsūf’s—the main male protagonist—resistance to sell his crops to the British contingent and his decision to distribute it among local peasants. Criticized by his own brother, Abolqāsem Khān (Khān Kākā) but encouraged by Qashgai nomad leaders, Rostam and Sohrāb, he stands firmly by his decision, which eventually leads to his assassination. The main heroine of the novel, its narrator, Zarī—Yūsūf’s wife, —though initially reluctant to openly oppose the British and the corrupt Iranian local authorities, with time becomes more and more determined to support her husband’s stance and does so in her own way.


Initially, the question of resistance, so widely discussed within postcolonial studies in relation to African or Arab countries did not find a very broad application to the Iranian semi-colonial experience. The situation has changed with the beginning of the 21st  century which witnessed an increased interest in Iranian postcolonial contexts, both within national and foreign institutions.[5] New research perspectives have opened for scholars willing to investigate Iranian reality in various domains – its history, politics, intellectual thought, but also its literary creativity. Reading Sīmīn Dāneshvar’s Sūvashūn within this perspective should not therefore come as a surprise as the book directly refers to the Iranian semi-colonial experience and its impact on the Iranian psyche. In Iran, the novel still remains one of the best-selling titles with over a dozen editions and over half a million copies sold.[6] Its publication in 1969 was considered an important event on the literary scene that marked the introduction of a new perspective in modern Iranian fiction.[7] By elaborating on the Iranian hardship of wartime occupation Dāneshvar managed to introduce expressive characters who, as noticed by Ḥasan Abedīnī, were “so distinctive that each of them embody morality and action of (different) social group.”[8] Dāneshvar concentrated the action of her story around one house, which as Moḥammad Alī Sepanlū believes represents the whole of Iran on the metaphorical level, with Zarī as a symbol of a woman in general, and Yūsūf standing for the country’s intellectual elite.[9] Therefore, though limited to a space of a house, Sūvashūn resembles and represents the whole country and its society with its characteristic features which, as  underlined by Jaʿfari Jazi, turns the novel into a coded political and historical narrative.[10] Dāneshvar protagonists struggle and resist the foreign abuse, but their most difficult fight takes place in the confines of their moral imagination which was formed and moulded by prolific ethical patterns of the Persianate culture.[11] Furthermore, as observed by Anna Krasnowolska, the novel played an important role in shaping attitudes of the whole generation of its readers before the Revolution.[12] This also makes the book a good source material for the study of ethical motivations and the implications of this struggle.


Treating the story as a testimony of different attitudes toward foreign dominance among Iranian society, this study refers to two main research trends. It is based on an inquiry into the legacy of foreign dominance in Iran, while also attempting to reconstruct the anatomy and dynamics of Iranian resistance to this dominance. It therefore appeals to Iranian culture and its ethical concepts which Dāneshvar employs in her narrative.


The study begins with a close reading of the novel with a special interest directed toward the manifestations of characters’ objection to the socio-political reality. By analyzing the narrative, it will be argued that for the main protagonists of the book, the delicate question of nāmūs (honour), fear of a lack of mardānegī (manhood) and struggle to keep āberū (good reputation and esteem) and avoid sharm (shame) are the main motivational forces of actions. Firstly, however, it will be demonstrated how the political, economic and cultural influence of the British permeates the material and spiritual life of the Iranians in the story, in many occasions violating their sense of self-esteem, dignity, honour, reputation, social image and pride (in this article collectively referred to as āberū). Next, the study will focus on the two main protagonists of the book—Yūsūf and Zarī—and their response to the violation of their family, countrymen and homeland. In this section, it will be demonstrated how the behaviour of the protagonist can be understood through the above-mentioned moral concepts.


Material and Metaphysical in Sūvashūn

The presence of the occupant army on Iranian soil portrayed in Sūvashūn has consequences for its characters first and foremost in terms of material space, which has been captured and dominated in a physical sense. The physical or material presence of British troops and their interests affects the lives of the Shirazians on a day-to-day basis, as the army’s need for food products and infrastructure grows. The axis of the events told by Dāneshvar is built around this very thread. However, the presence of the British in the narrative is often invisible, as their behaviour is attributed to those Iranians who accept or favour them. It is also  symbolic, as it seems to mark not only the events of the Allied occupation of Iran during the 2nd World War, but signifies the entire foreign influence during which the world’s empires entered Iranian areas and obtained comprehensive rights to the country’s natural deposits. Foreign physical and material domination over the Iranian native space has already been suggestively portrayed in one of the first scenes of the novel. During a party held at the British headquarters, three characters—Zarī, Yūsūf, and Abolqāsem Khān—look at a map of Iran spread over one of the tables by the tent. The map is covered with colourful signs which prompts Yūsūf to say, “They have really chopped it up.”[13] The feeling of physical dominance of the British grows in Yūsūf as the action develops. It is also mainly he, whose—according to Kamran Talattof—“anti-colonialists position reflects the national aspirations of that time”,[14] who directly opposes the presence of foreign troops. In conversation with a friend, Malek Sohrāb, leader of the Qashgai nomads, Yūsūf regrets: “We khans have always had the best gardens in the cities, which are now the headquarters for the foreign troops, the best houses…”[15]

The foreign interference into Iranian material space is also accompanied by changes that take place in the image of the city and its inhabitants. As Yūsūf’s sister, Khānūm Fātemeh says: “The city has gone to the dogs.”[16] The complaining of an old woman expresses the grief of the lost tranquility of peaceful existence, a state prior to occupation. It is not only she who sees the changes that take place in the city due to British presence. The stay of Allied troops turns the town into a graveyard. As Yūsūf notices, “the most thriving part of the city is the Mordestān District.”[17] What he calls the “district of the dead” was in fact the north part of an old Shiraz, also named mahall-i darb-i shāhzādeh (the prince gate district,). In the novel, it is inhabited mostly by prostitutes.[18] By accusing British of sending the Indian soldiers to them[19] Yūsūf points to the foreigners as those responsible for the situation, treating Indians as a submissive and passive element. As for women serving them, this seems to be even more humiliating for Yūsūf than the occupation itself.

The interference into material space manifests itself, in a sense, also in the field of  technical progress that Iran witnessed due to British activity. Though Yūsūf sees the benefit of this growth, he treats it with sarcasm:

The situations here is such that the best school is the British school, the best hospital the missionary hospital. And when they want to learn embroidery, it is on a Singer sewing machine, the salesman for which is Zinger.[20]

A similar frustration can be observed in Sohrāb’s words when he complains about the government that: “They built a few mud houses in places where there was no water and said, ‘Go live in them.’”[21]

However, it is not the changes brought by foreigners, or caused by contact with the West such as the introduction of modern medicine or modern education into the lives of Iranians that are criticized by Western-educated Yūsūf. In trying to help little Kolū, the orphaned son of one of his shepherds, he intends to keep him in town and send him to school so that he might become a man (ādam) and be civilized.[22] Nor does modernization raise much opposition from the other characters of the novel who, like Zarī for example, enjoy the benefits of Western-educated doctors. It is the interference into the non-material sphere of the lives of the Shirazians that causes Yūsūf’s and others like him frustration.


According to Partha Chatterjee, a postcolonial theorist, this is exactly the metaphysical or, as he calls it, the spiritual domain whose violation raised objection among colonialized societies. While what is perceived as material constitutes the “outside” space where “the West has proved its superiority and the East had succumbed,”[23] and where this superiority has been accepted, as Chatterjee states, the “inner” domain, the locus of cultural identity becomes an area of resistance. Chatterjee concludes that, “the colonial state, in other words is kept out of the ‘inner’ domain of national culture (…).”[24] It is obvious therefore that any attempt to cross the borders of this sphere will be perceived as an act of violation of what is considered as dignified, precious and even sacred. This aspect of postcolonial theory has been already applied to analyze Dāneshvar’s writings by Razi Ahmad who studied the material and spiritual domains of colonial reality and its ideological use by the author. [25] The perspective indicated by Chaterjee turns out to be also of some significance for contemporary study.


The division into material and spiritual domains proposed by the scholar to some extent overlaps the Iranian perception of the world as reviling itself in two aspects— “outer” (ẓāher) and “inner” (bāṭen), which by William Beeman has been considered a fundamental cognitive dimension in Iranian social life.[26] āher aspect of reality constitutes what is obvious and easily accessible. It also functions as a veil or a cover for what is located inside, what is hidden. āher therefore acts as a barrier against what comes from the external world, and at the same time protects the inner reality (bāṭen) against the defilement that it brings.[27] This dual perspective is born out of the belief (present in Quranic exegesis, mystical philosophy and Iranian Sufism) that what is real and valuable is always hidden, and never exposed. This optic also works well with respect to human existence. It allows the constitution of the human “self” to be perceived as dual, with both ẓāher and bāṭen dimension. While bāṭen space is the locus of man’s soul, his inner ego and personality (shakhṣīyat), ẓaher reality constitutes the outer layer, the external shell that covers and separates it from dangers of the outside world. As accurately noticed by Hamid Naficy, “the constitution of the self as dual (…) necessitates an internal boundary, however amorphous and porous, which is encoded in the psyche as a veil or a screen. (…) this veil protects the core from contamination from the outside (…)”.[28] Following Persian concepts of ẓāher and bāṭen it can be indicated that in Iranian context, the safety of what Chatterjee refers to as the spiritual, inner domain of human existence, and what in Persian context can be called bāṭen, very much depends on keeping the external protective layer (ẓāher) intact.


Moral Concepts

According to traditional Iranian culture, in personal and social life, one is expected to use various veils that are physical such as a woman’s ḥejāb, spatial, like the architectonical house division into andarūnī and bīrūnī, and perhaps the non-material such as the strategic behaviour of ta’ārof to keep the bāṭen sphere, man’s inner personality (shakhṣīyat) untouched. This idea is perfectly manifested in a popular Persian proverb “ẓāheretān rā ḥefẓ konīd,” that is, “keep your appearance intact,” “save your outward, external image.” In Persian culture, this indicates the imperative to preserve one’s āberū—that is, good reputation, status, image (by some scholars believed to be an Iranian equivalent of “face”),[29] and in some contexts, honour, pride and respect in the eyes of the others. The veil of āberū (pardah-’ī āberū) as sometimes referred to in Persian, may therefore be considered one of the veils that help to protect the inner (bāṭen) sphere of human existence. Its violation, which may happen for various reasons, could be imagined as an act of tearing the veil (pardedārī), which results in exposing a person’s self to public criticism. This perspective is also manifested in the language in popular phrases like āberūsh rīkhteh/rafteh (his/her āberū dropped/is gone) or darīdeh shodeh (has been torn). Therefore, the violation of a person’s ẓāher, i.e. one’s āberū which stands for good social image and reputation, may lead to the infringement of one’s shakhṣiyat and one’s inner self. This claim finds confirmation, among others, in the words of Ayatollah Ḥoseyn Alī Montazerī who saw man as a possessor of a material, physical life (ḥayāt-i māddī) but also a spiritual life (ḥayāt-i ma’navī) which manifests itself inter alia in a social identity (shakhiyat-i ejtemāī). Montazerī claimed that man’s personality depends on āberū and ettebār, that is, a person’s good social image and credibility, to which a person is entitled, just as he is entitled to an innate dignity (kerāmat).[30] Hence, āberū understood as an outer veil, a shield to be used in social interactions, can be seen as a keeper of the locus of one’s real “ego.” Its violation may therefore endanger one’s “self” located within bāṭen.


That is way in traditional culture, keeping āberū, a good social image and reputation was considered crucial for the stability of human shakhṣiyat, as it translated itself directly into one’s prosperity in private and public life.[31] It was considered a condition for successful and fruitful personal, social, economic and political relations as well as the existence of the nation. Destroying someone’s public status and undermining his social position resulted in the loss of respect and regard from other people which could lead to exclusion from the community. That is why, under some conditions, it used to be perceived as more valuable than someone’s property or life.[32]


The loss of āberū could happen as a result of a disclosure of someone’s weaknesses, imperfections and sins—that is, everything that fits within the semantic field of the Arabic-rooted word eyb. In the moral context, eyb may also stand for everything that is considered shameful. Therefore āberū—one’s good name, good image and reputation which guarantee a stable social position and indicates a sense of honour and respect—might be destroyed by exposing anything that is considered against accepted social or moral norms. This directly connects it to the dichotomy of bāṭen o ẓāher, because as rightly observed by Saīd Mohammad Ḥoseynī and his colleagues, āberū might be destroyed when something that belongs to the inner (darūn) sphere of human existence penetrated into the outer (birūn) world.[33]


From  ẓāher to bāṭen

If we now turn to the source material and apply this perspective in our analysis we may notice that, indeed, the protagonists of the book are already disturbed by any attempt to violate what belongs to the ẓāher sphere of their existence. What frustrates Yūsūf the most are deeds and attitudes that violate public image and social status of Iranian people – their āberū. This can be observed in how Yūsūf speaks of prostitutes who sell their bodies to Indian soldiers, doroshky drivers who are on call for British officials and traders who, by learning a few English words and doing business, legitimize the occupant’s presence in Iran. This irritates him, as he is convinced that already in this outer social level, the British have entangled the Iranians into a spiral of dependency and subjugation. In one of the conversations Yūsūf says: “What I despise is the feeling of inferiority which has been instilled in all of you.”[34] In his opinion, by initiating technical and intellectual development, by establishing schools and organizing hospitals throughout the years, foreigners had turned the people into servants and given them very little in exchange. What is it worth, he says, that “the doroshky drivers, whores, and dealers have learned a few words of English.”[35]


However, this is just a symbolic scratch on the surface, as Dāneshvar provides the reader with more vivid examples of how Iranians’ āberū has been targeted by foreign powers or their collaborators. Some of the examples might even reflect the author’s own experience. Sūvashūn’s’ female protagonist, Zarī, just like Dāneshvar, received a missionary school education herself. That is how she recalls it:

In that same British school, you are right, the headmistress kept humiliating us in order to civilize us, to teach us manners and how to live. Zinger kept making us feel indebted to him because he was teaching us sewing so we would be able to make a living on our own. Khanum Hakim would say our recovery and cure was in her hands, but I knew in the bottom of my heart that they were only telling half the truth and that there was always something rotten somewhere. I knew that we were, all of us, constantly losing something, but we didn’t know what it was.[36]


The last sentence articulated by the female character carries perhaps the most important message here. What Zarī and her classmate felt was that they were losing their dignity. By undermining the girls’ self-esteem and revealing their helplessness in life, their āberū was impaired. Zarī recalls two other events in which the girl’s personal pride was targeted. While she was still grieving after her father’s death, she  was made to wear a white blouse during an official visitation at school. Her friend, Mehrī in turn, was ordered to break her fast and was forced to drink water given by the teacher. As we learn from the above narrative, Iranian customs and rituals were frequently referred to as superstitions at the school. Notwithstanding, perhaps the most symbolic, albeit peripheral, example of British behaviour toward the Iranians is portrayed during a party at the British headquarters where in the presence of Iranian guests, pork was served for dinner. The act, though of marginal importance for the novel’s plot, it symbolizes the lack of respect for Iranian customs and religious principles.


However, perhaps the strongest massage in this regard belongs to Yūsūf who, while addressing his Irish friend, a journalist and  war correspondent, the only foreigner in the story who clearly feels any discomfort regarding the occupation (due to the British policy toward Ireland), states: “Yes friend, the people of this city are born poets, but you have stifled their poetry.”[37] With these words Yūsūf accuses the British of depriving the Shirazians of their right to poetry—the Shirazians, the proud descendants of such poets as Sa’dī and Hāfeẓ. Reciting poetry in this case is not only portrayed as an artistic activity hindered during the turbulent times of war when the native inhabitants of the city must not only deal with their own troubles but also meet the expectations of the occupant. Reciting poetry is addressed as a way of life, the way in which Iranians praise their heroes, build their good name, their dignity and national pride, construct their identity as well as strengthen their āberū in the eyes of the world. As Yūsūf says: “You have emasculated their heroes. You haven’t even left them with the possibility of struggle so that they can write an epic and sign a battle cry. (…) You have made a land devoid of heroes.”[38] and so, Iranians “suffer the consequences without having tasted heroism or honorable defeat.”[39] Taking away the reason to recite poetry deprived Iranians of an essential element of their personality, it undermined their position as nation and—to use post-colonial terminology—made them an object of a history.


The struggle to save āberū

Though rarely articulated by any of the protagonists, the value of āberū seems to permeate the story in many ways. In its broad meaning—understood as personal reputation, self-esteem, good social image, and national pride—it is crucial for the dynamics of the resistance offered by Dāneshvar’s characters. Interestingly, this claim may also be strengthened by the parallel to the story of Sīyāvash, already highlighted in the novel’s title. The term Sūvashūn refers to the folk ritual commemorating the death of an old Iranian hero. In Iranian culture, Sīyāvash symbolizes innocence; however, based on the narrative of Shāhnāmeh, his life story indicates that many actions he undertook were motivated by the desire to regain his strained āberū— lost reputation and respect in the eyes of his father and the people of Iran. Slandered by his stepmother Sūdabeh, Sīyāvash decides to embark on a trail of fire to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, he is unable to fully regain his good name, previous position and respectability in the court. Rejected by his father, he leaves his home country and seeks shelter with Iran’s greatest enemy, Tūrān, where he is eventually killed by an old enemy of Iran—Afrāsyāb.[40] The resemblance of Yūsūf’s story to the narrative of martyrdom of imam Ḥoseyn, invoked by many scholars, may also serve as an evidence here. In Shi’a Islam, what the third imam did to defend his religious claims is commonly considered to be an act of ḥef-e āberū (act of saving good name and reputation). As argued by one of the contemporary Iranian religious scholars, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli with his own blood, “seyyed ash-shahada granted āberū to religion and mankind (…).”[41]




The danger of losing āberū became an important motivation for Yūsūf’s behavior. It can be observed, for example, in his conversation with his brother Khān Kākā when the protagonist gives vent to his emotions: “In the blink of an eye, they make you all their dealers, errand boys, and interpreters. At least let one person stand up to them so they think to themselves, ‘Well, at last, we’ve found a real man.’”[42]


For Yūsūf, becoming a servant to the foreign powers seems to be synonymous with the lack of mardānegī, literally “manhood” or “manliness”—that is, the right to be called mard, a “man.” In traditional Iranian culture mardānegī stands for honour, courage, generosity and even humanity and is a condition for public respect.[43] Being mard means being righteous and fighting injustice. Its loss may result from neglecting or undermining someone’s ability to fulfil one’s social, cultural or moral expectations, and may inevitably lead to the loss of āberū in the eyes of society and bring bīāberūī (disgrace and shame). Farzaneh Milani compares mardānegī to a “barrier as solid and as forbidding as a veil around their [men] private selves.”[44] As such, mardānegī may be perceived as something that strengthens one’s āberū and accumulates respect and prestige among others.


Many actions undertaken by Yūsūf result from this very concern for mardānegī, the lack of which may cause bīāberūī. While many heroes in the story engage in obscure activities like cooperation with the British (Khān Kākā), smuggling weapons (Ezzatoddoūleh), prostitution (women from the Mordestān District), civil war (Qashgai leaders), or communist activities (Mr. Fūtūhī), Yūsūf unreservedly fulfils all the traditional criteria of mardānegī. He presents a straightforward attitude which he argues: “But as for deceiving them, I have to be honest. I won’t lie and cheat, even if it costs me my head.”[45] Cheating and lying would deny his mardānegī which he strives to preserve in these turbulent times. Yūsūf is determined to sacrifice his life for this purpose. In one of the conversations with his wife, he reveals his motivation in the following way: “A land shall not be deprived of men.”[46] Just as he regrets the prostitutes who sell their bodies to the soldiers, he worries about Rostam and Sohrāb, Qashgai leaders who are overwhelmed by their desire for revenge on the central government for forced settlement and want to exchange Yūsūf’s crops for weapons. In a conversation with his friends he says: “You want food to give the foreign troops in exchange for weapons you will then use to shoot your brothers and compatriots? (…) Don’t you have any brains? (…) So, what happened to all that bravery, honour, and dignity?”[47]


What Yūsūf feels sorrow over is the reality in which his compatriots lose their mardānegī. This may be explained by the fact that revealing their cowardice and inability to act as mard (men) also jeopardizes their āberū and that of the whole country. By failing to follow the mardānegī pattern, a man proves his own failure and shortcomings and loses his honour, reputation and respect in the eyes of others. For Yūsūf, accepting foreign occupation means exactly this inability to act as a man (mard), which leads to public criticism and the judgement of future generations. The opposite attitude is represented by Khān Kākā, who sees no alternative to submission, and once tells his sister-in-law: “Make fun of me and say that I am not a man. But what can one do but submit and consent?”[48]


In Yūsūf’s moral dilemma another important ethical concept plays crucial role ­– nāmūs. Nāmūs is an interesting term that is believed to come from the Greek word νόμος meaning law, custom, or social norm. In Persianate societies beyond the meaning of God’s law, the term has also been given a social context and was used in relation to women’s chastity, female members of the family, that is, everything that should be protected and whose violation may bring shame. In Dāneshvar’s story, nāmūs is not limited to its narrow meaning of family honour, but refers to the whole country. Mard is obliged to defend his nāmūs—here his family, his people and his motherland—otherwise he will not only become nāmard (a coward) but will also be exposed to āberūrīzī, losing āberū and public disgrace.[49] The fear of shame and public embarrassment inscribed in the story is perfectly expressed at the end of the book in two verses of poetry cited by a family physician:

Let us do something, otherwise we shall be ashamed

On the day that our souls depart for the other world.[50]


The quoted fragment is a modification of one of Hāfeẓ’s ghazals, in which the poet encourages to rejoice before the end of days.[51] Dāneshvar changed the first misra of the poem and transformed it into a warning against dishonour evoked by a lack of reaction, here obviously understood as indifference toward the occupational policy. In this case, resistance seems to be the only way to meet the requirements of mardānegī, defend nāmūs, avoid sharm and retain personal and national āberū. These are the values that motivate Yūsūf and seem to strengthen his belief in the rightness of his choices.


The ideological importance of Yūsūf’s character, as suggested by many scholars of Persian literature, first and foremost makes sense in the context of political struggle, nationalistic aspirations and idealistic concepts of the time; his attitude, however, effects Zarī as well. The woman is motivated by her own observations of the world but also is encouraged by her husband who tells her: “Why shouldn’t you have the courage to stand up to them (…),”[52] and  slowly matures to resist the reality she faces.



Although as a woman Zarī is not obliged to follow the rules of mardānegī or defend nāmūs, she aspires to it as well. Her efforts are, however, focused on her struggle to gain mardānegī, rather than to keep it. Her desire strengthens as fear for her family grows. While Yūsūf, from the very beginning of the story, feels obliged to stand up against the violation of the Iranian “self,” Zarī matures to it with time. Her resistance is motivated by the threat to what she values and cares for the most—her family, her home that is what can be named harīm-i khuūī (private and safe space), as well as her personal and family āberū. When her husband feels a growing frustration towards the situation in the country, the young wife tries to convince him that he should reconsider his firm stand.[53] Yet, when later, as she admits herself, the war has been dragged into her home, the desire to resist is fixed in Zarī’s mind. Zarī’s transformation starts with the situation that takes place during the wedding of the governor’s daughter, an event that gathers the Shiraz and the foreign elite. Zarī is asked by the governor’s younger daughter to lend her emerald earrings to Gīlantāj, the bride, so she could wear them during the ceremony. The woman hesitates as the earrings are her wedding gift and belonged to her mother-in-law, although she is not able to decline the request. When she meets the bride after the ceremony, Gīlantāj unexpectedly expresses her gratitude for the generous gift. Zarī is shaken by the turn of events, though she does not say a word and only chastises herself silently for being too cowardly to object.[54] This event marks the birth of her self-awareness and ability to resist and results in her struggle to keep her pride and protect the honour of her family. The threat comes not from the British but from the Persians who seem to accept or even benefit from the foreign presence.


The second event that influences Zarī’s attitude occurs sometime later, when the governor asks for Zarī’s son’s colt for his daughter. Although he offers to pay for the horse, the act is an obvious abuse of power. Again, Zarī feels she is being robbed of something, she has the feeling of loss when someone wants to take away Khūshang’s beloved friend. She decides:

But this time, I am going to stand up to them. (…) I’ll go to the Governor myself. I’ll tell him, there’s a limit to everything. Is it only your daughter who can take a fancy to a horse? Can’t she stand the sight of anybody else in this city who has something nice? What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine too?[55]


Zarī’s decision might be dictated by the fact that the inability to resist (as Zarī puts it herself—her bī’orzegī, her stupidity—pakhmegī) puts into danger not only her ego, her “self” and her self-esteem, but exposes the reputation of the entire family. She says: “The man must stand up, and if they have gone to the winter pastures, their wives have to take their place.”[56] In the absence of her husband, Zarī tries to act as a mard, and follow the behavioural pattern of mardānegī to save the honour and position of the family. However, her original zeal weakens and despite the desire to ignore the governor’s request she agrees and sends the colt to his residence, while deciding to tell her family that the horse has died.


I had decided to resist, despite Khan Kaka’s insistence, and not to give into them this time. I knew that eventually we had to stand up to them. But I got scared. Yes, scared. I got scared of the gendarme who came for the horse.[57]


Zarī’s fear is irrational as she was in no way threatened by the low-rank gendarme who was her servant’s relative. However, at this point she was still afraid to say no, to oppose.


Zarī’s transformation takes some time but is accelerated by Yūsūf’s death. On the way to the shrine Zarī hears a police captain insult her late husband by calling him a “troublemaker” in life and after death.[58] She feels that the memory of Yūsūf has been disparaged and starts to complain: “the corpse of that unfortunate young man is not yet buried and you let them insult him like that?”[59] She seeks the support among other participants in the procession but all she receives is the arrogance of the officer and Abolqāsem Khān incompetent attempts to calm the situation down. This final violation of Yūsūf’s good name and the infringement on the family right to organize a proper burial for him causes Zarī to eventually grow into  her new role which she sees as a continuation of Yūsūf’s path, for she believes that “(…) my unfortunate husband’s was a sad unfinished story.”[60] Zarī is torn as she feels that to regain the previous tranquility and the control over the life of her family she might be forced to turn to violence. “I wanted to raise my children with love in a peaceful environment. (…) But now I will raise them in hatred. I will put a gun in Khosrow’s hands,” she concludes.[61] Supported by Yūsūf’s sister who expresses her regret that God hasn’t made her a man so she could show what manhood means,[62] Zarī responds to the violation of her dignity that  she experienced and retrieve all that has been taken away from her family and her country.




Regain what has been taken away

Regaining lost blessings, restoring what rightly belongs to a man, his haqq, his right to something, forms the common ground for Zarī’s and Yūsūf’s behaviour. The theme is highlighted in the novel on various occasions. The idea beautifully appears in MacMahon’s statement:

And what a calamitous day when our delights are taken away from us or we’re prevented from having them. Our children, our mothers, our philosophers…our religions…[63]

The same thought, expressing a sense of harm resulting from a strong feeling of loss accompanies Zarī, who at some point wonders: “If they take the blessings that you have away from you, what then?”[64]


This common motif of the novel—the sense of loss— arises in Zarī and in Yūsūf only partially due to oppression by the foreign powers. Another reason are the actions undertaken by their compatriots themselves. In Dāneshvar’s narrative the world is divided not only between colonizer and colonized. A certain role is also given to people whose behaviour in some way resembles what Hamid Dabashi calls a “native informer.”[65] Though Dabashi speaks of the intellectuals, writers and scholars who become a tool for the implementation of the empire’s worldview, the term may turn out to be justified here as well. In Sūvashūn, the spiritual domain is frequently violated not directly by the British who, as stated before, occupy the background in the novel, but by the hands of Iranians themselves. In some situations, these are Iranians who are directly responsible for endangering the characters’ “self” and targeting their āberū, as is particularly visible in Zarī’s story of the seizure of emerald earrings because of Ezzatoddoūleh’s intrigue. An aristocrat, a childhood friend of Yūsūf’s sister brings a green fabric to the wedding of the governor’s daughter, and gives it to the bride for luck. This prompts her to borrow Zarī’s earrings which will never be returned, as expected and anticipated by Ezzatoddoūleh. As she acknowledges later, out of jealousy “I decided to do something that she will always feel the grief of the lost earrings in her heart.”[66]


A similar dynamic can be spotted in Abolqāsem Khān’s behaviour toward Yūsūf and his family. In the novel, Khān Kākā represents a conformist attitude. He sells all the crops to British offhand, and reprimands his brother for not doing the same. Moreover, he accuses Yūsūf of risking his life and causing trouble for the others. Due to some obscure reasons, during Yūsūf’s absence he insidiously draws the governor’s attention to his nephew’s colt knowing that this will affect not only Khosrow but certainly his father as well. Internal animosities are what Dāneshvar indicates as one of the consequences of foreign interference. Just like the prostitutes who sell themselves to soldiers, brothers quarrel, compatriots shoot each other and the rules of social life are violated. All this contributes to Zarī’s transformation who decides to face the danger, although she knows that, as Khān Kākā once said, “blood cannot be washed with blood; it must be washed with water.”[67]



Even though moral concepts are not a leitmotif of the Sūvashūn narrative, they occupy a key place in understanding the motivations that stand behind the characters’ resistance. An investigation of the ethical dilemmas of the story’s protagonists helps to grasp the mechanism and dynamics of their process of decision-making. Yūsūf’s standpoint might be considered a sign of his care for his people’s and county’s nāmūs. It comes from his fear of not complying with the rules of mardānegī and the danger of losing āberū, which in traditional Iranian culture was considered as bringing shame and preventing the normal function of society. Zarī’s internal and external struggle also seemed to revolve around moral dilemmas when her own peaceful world, her self-esteem, her family’s āberū becomes violated. Although both protagonists know that, as Yūsūf says, “there is nothing surprising and new about foreigners coming here uninvited,”[68] it is difficult for them to get used to the situation in which Iranians are constantly being deprived of something—property, food, land, and dignity. Moreover, their lack of resistance leads to the violation of their personal shakhṣiyat and their nāmūs. The mechanism of resistance manifested by both male and female characters is motivated by a sense of loss, which permeates the story in many contexts. This resistance is rooted in their moral imagination and flows from a sense of moral duty to respond to injustice, olm, understood as an act of aggression against what rightly belongs to a man, and what should be protected by him at all costs.

[1]Moulana Jalaloddin Rumi, Mas̱navī Mā’navī (Tehran: Enteshārāt-i Hermes, 1386), 8 (own translation). These verses appear within the opening story of Rumi’s Mas̱navī Mā’navī. It is about a king who fell in love with a slave girl and seeks a cure for his beloved sickness. Devoid of hope, he is brought to the mosque where he prays for God’s help. Eventually, in a sleep he acknowledges that his prayers were heard and the cure will be brought by God’s messenger the next day. When the king sees the messenger, he realizes that the one he is in love with is not the slave girl but the newcomer. In Sūvashūn, Sīmīn Dāneshvar quotes these verses with some minor modifications. Sīmīn Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn (Tehrān: Enteshārāt-i Khawārezmī, 18th edition, 1380/2001), 177.

[2]Nonetheless, Francis Fukuyama seemed convinced that Muslim societies failed to maintain dignity vis-à-vis the non-Muslim West; see The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 236.

[3]See e.g. Hamid Dabashi, Iran: People Interrupted (New York, London: New Press, 2007).

[4]Sīmīn Dāneshvar is considered the first major modern Iranian female writer. She was born in 1300/1921 in Shiraz, southern Iran. She received a modern education, obtained her doctorate in Persian Literature form Tehran University and continued her academic career as a Fulbright fellow in United States. On her return to Iran she started to teach at her mother university, but simultaneously worked as a translator and engaged in creative writing. Her first short story collection, Atash-i khāmūsh, was published in 1326/1948; three others appeared in 1340/1961 (Shahrī chūn behesht), 1359/1980 (Be kī salām konam?), and 1376/1997 (Az parandah’hā-’i mohājer bepors). Her first novel Sūvashūn was published in 1348/1969. The book received a good response from readers, sold in the thousands, and had many reprints in subsequent years, though it was not fully recognized by literary critics at first. Today, quoting Farzaneh Milani, Sūvashūn is considered “one of the master-pieces of modern Persian prose in terms of style, structure, and substance” (“Power, Prudence, and Print: Censorship and Simin Danashvar,” Iranian Studies 18, no. 2-4 (Spring-Autumn 1985): 328. Its uniqueness has been recognized in the feminine perspective which enabled its author to create a female character neither idealized nor caricatured, recalling Milani’s opinion once more (184). As the first modern female writer, Dāneshvar concentrated on the experience of an ordinary women and a search for women’s identity in turbulent socio-political times and male-dominated spheres at the same time. In Sūvashūn, Dāneshvar managed to realistically reflect the circumstances and atmosphere of occupied Iran and successfully confront the stereotypical figures of women by creating a multidimensional heroine who not only stands at the epicentre of events but also narrates them. The novel Sūvashūn, however, is much more than just women’s literature; it is political and social, too. Her writing also had a strong autobiographical feel; see Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 187. The publication and success of Sūvashūn made Dāneshvar an important participant in the pre-revolutionary dispute on Iranian identity held by intellectuals, writers and activists, including her husband Jalal Ale-Ahmad. She continued her academic career until 1981 when she retired, never gaining her professorship. She died at the age of 90 in 1390/2012 in Tehran. See Masʿud Jaʿfari Jazi, “Sūvashūn,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition (New York, 1996-).

[5]Farah Ghaderi, “Iran and Postcolonial Studies: Its Development and Current Status,” International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 20, no.4, (2018): 455-469.

[6]Ḥasan Abedīnī, Sad sāl dāstānnevīsī dar Irān, vol.2 (Tehran: Tondar 1369), 76.

[7]See Ḥoseīn Alī Qābadī, Tahlīl-i darūnmāyehā-yi sūvashūn az naẓar-i maktabhā-yi adabiī va goftemānhā-yi ejtemāī “Pajuhesh-i zabān va adabiyāt-i fārsī” 3 (1383), 41.

[8]Abedīnī, Sad sāl dāstānnevīsī dar Irān, 76.

[9]Moḥammad Alī Sepanlū, Bāzāfarīnī-yi vāqeyat (1352), 418, 420. Cited after Abedīnī.

[10]Jaʿfari Jazi, Sūvashūn, Encyclopædia Iranica.

[11]On mytho-epic paradigms underlying Iranian cultural consciousness, also with regard to Sūvashūn, see Anna Krasnowolska, Mytho-epic Patterns in Modern Persian Literature in: Proceedings of the Third European Conference of Iranian Studies Held in Cambridge, 11th to 15th September 1995, part 2: Medieval and Modern Persian Studies, ed. Charles Melville (Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag 1999), 91–99.

[12]Anna Krasnowolska, Mythology and Ideology in Contemporary Persian Literature (Based on the Novel Suv a Šun Simin Dānešvar) [in Polish], “Prace Historycznoliterackie” 79 (1991): 113.

[13]In most cases I quote M.R. Ghanoonparvar’s translation of the Persian text. Only in a few instances did I decide to give my own translation. In the footnotes, the location of both versions, original Persian and English are given, unless the footnote refers only to the Persian text. Sīmīn Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn (Tehrān: Enteshārāt-i Khawārezmī, 18th edition, 1380/2001), 34; Sīmīn Dāneshvar, Savushun: A Novel about Modern Iran, trans. M.R. Ghanoonparvar (Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1991), 48.

[14]Kamran Talattof, “Iranian Women’s Literature: From Pre-revolutionary Social Discourse to Post-revolutionary Feminism,” International Journal Middle East Studies 29 (1997): 535.

[15]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 53; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 66.

[16]Ibid., 57; Ghanoonparvar, 70.

[17]Ibid., 18; Ghanoonparvar, 33.

[18]Ibid., 18; Ghanoonparvar, 34.

[19]Ibid., 18-19; Ghanoonparvar, 34.

[20]Ibid., 127–128; Ghanoonparvar, 140.

[21]Ibid.,47; Ghanoonparvar, 60

[22]Ibid., 145; Dāneshvar, 157.

[23]Partha Chaterjee, Whose Imagined Community in: Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakishnan (London, New York: New Left Review, 1999), 217.

[24]Chaterjee, Whose Imagined Community, 217.

[25]Razi Ahmad, A Postcolonial Reading of Simin Daneshvar’s Novels: The Spiritual and the Material Domains in Savushun, Jazira-ye Sargardani, and Sarban-e Sargardan in: Persian Language, Literature and Culture, New Leaves, Fresh Looks, Kamran Talattof, ed. (New York: Routlage, 2015), 141–162.

[26]William Beeman, Language, Status and Power in Iran (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1986) 238.

[27]See Beeman, Language, Status and Power in Iran, 11.

[28]Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema: The Globalizing Era 1984–2010, vol. 4 (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2012), 105.

[29]For more detailed analysis of the notion of āberū, see my “The Memory of Light: The Persian Concept of Āberū,” Iran and the Caucasus 22, no. 3 (2018): 274-285; “The Culture of Reconciliation: The Moral Aspect of Speech in Saʿdi’s Teachings,” Rocznik Orientalistyczny 71, no.1 (2018):109-126. On the study of āberū within a cognitive linguistics perspective see Saīd Mohammad Ḥoseynī et al., “Vajhe dar farhang-i īranī: Barresī-yi qoumangarāne-yi mafhūm-e āberū,” Zabānshenāsī va guyeshha-yi khorāsān, no. 17 (1396/2017): 17–32.



[30]Ḥoseyn Alī Montazerī, Resāle-yi ḥoqūq (Tehran: Seraī 1385), 47­­–48.

[31]Such a perspective is clearly visible in Shi’a religious narratives.

[32]See my “Contribution to the Study of the Persian Concept of Āberū,” Hemispheres: Studies on Cultures and Societies 29, no. 1 (2014): 113-127.

[33]Ḥoseynī et al., “Vajhe dar farhang-i īranī: Barresī-yi qoumangarāne-yi mafhūm-e āberū,” Zabānshenāsī va guyeshha-yi khorāsān, 21.

[34]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 16; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 31.

[35]Ibid., 18; Ghanoonparvar, 34.

[36]Ibid., 129; Ghanoonparvar, 141–142.

[37]Ibid., 18; Ghanoonparvar, 33.

[38]Ibid., 18; Ghanoonparvar, 33.

[39]Ibid., 34; Ghanoonparvar, 49.

[40]Abolqāsem Ferdawsī, Shāhnāmeh, vol. 1, ed. J. Khāleqī-Motlaq (Tehrān: Sokhan, 1394/2015), 303.


[42]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 16; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 31.

[43]The term however, is not restricted to men exclusively, and it can be applied to women, when expressing one’s ability to take responsibility, or loyalty to a given word. See Lorand B. Szalay, Iranian and American Perceptions and Cultural Frames of Reference: A Communication Lexicon for Cultural Understanding (Washington DC: Institute of Comparative Social and Cultural Studies), 6–11.

[44]Milani, Veils and Words, 201.

[45]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 24; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 39.

[46]Ibid., 18. Own translation.

[47]Ibid., 50; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 63.

[48]Ibid., 250; Ghanoonparvar, 256.

[49]The parallel of the term nāmūs (which traditionally refers to women as in saying that a woman is man’s nāmūs) with country or motherland was a characteristic element of the nationalistic discourse at the beginning of the 20th century when the term was used to construct a national identity. See Sivan Balslev, “Gendering the Nation: Masculinity and Nationalism in Iran during the Constitutional Revolution,” in Construction Nationalism in Iran: From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic, ed. Meir Litvak (London: Rutledge, 2017), 73.

[50]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 287; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 290.

[51]Hāfeẓ, ghazal 375.

[52]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 128; Ghanoonparvar, Savushun, 140.

[53]Ibid., 18–19; Ghanoonparvar, 34.

[54]Ibid., 36; Ghanoonparvar, 50.

[55]Ibid., 60–60; Ghanoonparvar, 74.

[56]Ibid., 61; Ghanoonparvar, 74.

[57]Ibid., 127; Ganoonparvar, 140.

[58]Ibid., 299; Ganoonparvar, 302.

[59]Ibid., 299; Ganoonparvar, 302.

[60]Ibid., 287; Ganoonparvar, 290.

[61]Ibid., 252; Ganoonparvar, 258.

[62]Ibid., 250; Ganoonparvar, 256.

[63]Ibid., 67; Ghanoonparvar, 80. Taking person’s legal right to something (ḥaqq-i kasī rā khordan) has been a powerful motivational force in Iranian social and political life that frequently stood behind people’s protest. In 2009, after the presidential election, by many considered to be illegitimate, Iranians went out into the streets and chanted “where is my voice?,” (ray-i man kū?) “return our voices!” (rāy-i mā rā pass bedīd!) That is how they expressed the frustration and anger of taking away their rights by undermining the importance of their votes.

[64]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 193; Ghanoonparvar, Savashun, 204.

[65]Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skins, White Masks (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 12.

[66]Dāneshvar, Sūvashūn, 88. Own translation.

[67]Ibid., 252; Ghanoonparvar, 258.

[68]Ibid., 16; Ghanoonparvar, 31.

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


Anja Pistor-Hatam <pistor-hatam@islam.uni-kiel.de> 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, http://kadivar.com/?p=15243: 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 HannahArendt.net. 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, www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/IRIndex.aspx [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,” www.kadivar.com, 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 http://kadivar.com/?p=15243.

[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 http://kadivar.com/ ?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 <simranbhalla2018@u.northwestern.edu> 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, https://www.wired.com/2015/08/amazingly-accurate-futurism-2001-space-odyssey/.

[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 <m.m.leezenberg@uva.nl> 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, www.mashreghnews.ir.

[2]Massoud Farrasati, “Excusez Moi,” www.massoudfarassati.com.

[3]“Resaneh-ye Honari: Forushandeh Filmi Aleyh-e Gheyrat va Qeysar Koshi,” Tabnak News, 16 August 2016,  www.tabnak.ir.

[4]“Naqd va Barressi-ye Layeh-i-ye Film-e Jodayi-e Nader az Simin” (A Critique of the Layers in A Separation), www.jc313.ir.

[5]“Enteqad-e Shadid-e Farassati be Jodayi-e Nader az Simin,” www.aparat.com.

[6]For journalistic accounts, see for example, “Khanevadeh-ye Irani dar Bohran Ast,” Alef, 27 October 2015, http://alef.ir/. “Bohran-e Khanevadeh dar Iran Jedi Ast,” 7 February 2015, www.tabnak.ir. 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, http://farsi.khamenei.ir.

[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