Winner of the 2013 Agha Khan Award
Your love should never be offered to the mouth of a stranger, only to someone who has the valor and daring to cut pieces of their soul off with a knife and weave them into a blanket to protect you.
In a post last week I noted a new book that purports to expose Western propaganda about Iran’s nuclear programme. Its co-authors are Peter Oborne, the Telegraph columnist, and David Morrison, an obscure figure whose denial of the demonstrated historical facts of the Srebrenica massacre places him on the sinister fringes of political opinion.
Even so, before reading the book, I was prepared to accept that the authors’ depiction of Iran as a civilised country was nothing worse than an unfortunate ambiguity. It is beyond argument that, as a Times leader put it not long ago, “the civilisation of Persia is among the greatest in history”. I had assumed that this is what Oborne and Morrison meant too.
Our argument as a newspaper is that Iran has an historic civilisation and an appalling regime. Now that the publisher has sent me the book, I can see that my assumption that Oborne and Morrison would also make this distinction was wrong. Here is how they explain (pp. 19-20) the breakdown of relations between Iran and the US after the 1979 revolution: “One of the greatest theologians of all time, [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s teaching contained insights which went far deeper than anything the rationalists and materialists of the United States could imagine.”
Oborne and Morrison don’t say what these insights were, but I’m sufficiently hidebound an empiricist to suspect that they fell short of, say, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, stipulating “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.
I can understand an argument critical of the diplomatic policies of recent US administrations. But I’m stupefied that Oborne and Morrison favourably contrast the philosophy of a repressive theocrat with that of the author of the seminal argument for religious liberty.
The authors complain (p. 15), by the way, that “western newspapers and television channels have disseminated fabrications which have fuelled hatred and suspicion, and sowed misunderstanding”. Yet one notable fabrication that they refrain from mentioning at all is Holocaust denial, and specifically its espousalby President Ahmadinejad of Iran.
You may feel that this silence about a fraudulent claim that demonstrably fuels hatred and suspicion is an odd omission. I’m afraid it makes complete sense in the narrow universe of this tendentious tract.
A few weeks ago, Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi wrote a provocative treatise for Al Jazeera on the state of the Iranian cinema, lambasting the Islamic Republic’s continuing campaign of censorship and repression for having created a “brain drain” that’s effectively obliterated the country’s ability to foster a healthy filmmaking practice. Of the many contentious claims made by Dabashi—including his baffling dismissal of the latest films by Jafar Panahi as “self-indulgent vagaries”—perhaps the most challenging is his assertion that Iranian filmmakers living in exile, whether of their volition or by state mandate, are by the nature of their exclusion no longer producing genuine Iranian films. He cites a number of the country’s most acclaimed filmmakers, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahram Beizai, Sohrab Shahid-Saless, and Bahman Ghobadi, and summarily ejects them from the national cinema to which they once definitively belonged, shrugging off their emigrated efforts as failures to remain culturally relevant.
Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the most important Iranian filmmaker of his generation, has spent the last decade shooting films both at home and abroad, starting with the Spanish-set nonfiction piece “Ten Dedicated to Ozu” in 2003 and culminating in his two latest international efforts, the Tuscan puzzle romance “Certified Copy” and the Japanese drama “Like Someone In Love.” “Scarce his compatriots have seen this films,” observes Dabashi (whose frequent misuse of the word “scarce” is the subject of another post entirely), “let alone have any affinity with them”. Though these last two films, in particular, represent major efforts in Kiarostami’s long and fruitful career—they’re not only among his most widely acclaimed works, but also far and away the most successful internationally—neither “can hardly be called an Iranian film”. Dabashi’s argument relies not only on a conception of a coherent, knowable Iranian cinema, within which he is free to include whichever films he sees fit, but also on a clear understanding of what exactly constitutes a national cinema to begin with.
Your filmmakers are no longer your own.
The films don’t need to be filmed in Iran, in Persian, or about the plight of Iran or Iranians. It’s helmed by an Iranian auteur. That is enough. Besides, the films of all of those directors mentioned, and especially Kiarostami, have always been centered around the universal human condition. Their local and people are just plot devices.
Happy Nowruz (New Year) to Persians all over the globe. Here’s a view of Qods and the outskirts of Tehran from orbit.
This is the best.