A Little Bit Everywhere: A conversation with an Iranian/Kurdish artist

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Ghazal Sotoudeh's art is currently on exhibit at Gallerie Mourlot in New York until 14 January.  She has plans to bring it to London and Paris as well.  I got to know Ghazal when we were both working in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.  I was happy to hear that she was forsaking the world of aid workers in order to become and artist.  We conducted this interview over email.

Who are you?

Ghazal. 30 years old. Born in Tehran. Fled my country in my mother's arms and on a horse in ‘83.  Grew up in Paris and now am a bit everywhere...

What are your main inspirations?

I like very much stories that underline the ability or inability of our human nature to compose with the unexpected; revolutions, any form of violence, a break up, a beautiful encounter, torture sessions, death of a loved one, an illness diagnostic, etc.  Any events that lead us to walk aside from the trails that we were planning to take because usually “we just go with the flow”.  What I find fascinating is the way we manage to be and remain in harmony with our moral values—or not.  And also how do we manage to identify and deal with our weakness, what's the process of being an opportunist person and actually being fine with it?  All this contradictions have an aesthetic form.

You’ve had a diverse education, including a law degree.  Has that had any effect on your work, and if so what?

My main education is actually music (piano). My academic background goes from literature to philosophy and indeed, I went to Law School for 6 years. The more various is your experience, the more inspirational you get… and you have just better means to express yourself in your art or in your life choices.

For example, piano influences my writings and the way I feel things, so it has definitely an impact on the way I see and shoot. It also gives me a room to absorb silences in another way. Silence in music tells a lot… And this is exactly what I like about photography. It says a lot, without “noise”.

How did you come upon the photographic material underlying your compositions?

I was working in a law firm as an intern 8 years ago. One day, I saw a file with the name of my father on it.  I was shocked because my father was executed while my mother and I were fleeing the country a couple of years after the revolution.  I was 3 and I never got to know him.  It was just very strange.

So here I am, 20 years later, in this French Law Firm, with the surname of my daddy floating around on a yellow file.  So I ask the secretary what is this file about and she replies: "Oh it's just an Iranian photographer." And that was it!

I go home and tell my mum about what I thought was an incredible story: "Oh you know, there is a photographer with the name of my dad and he lives in Paris!!".  And then she goes: "I think he was also in jail with us!" (My mother was a political prisoner during the Shah's regime from 1977 to 1979, like my father who was detained from ‘73 to ‘79.  She was 17 years old when she got arrested)

I thought, life is weird as usual, but again, that was it.

A couple of months later, I was with my little cousin on a random sunny day at the Parc du Luxembourg and I did not know that this photographer was actually closing his “itinerant exhibit ".  I was very intimidated and shy but I couldn’tt really fake not knowing him.  So he was there, signing some autographs and I approached him to introduce myself.  I ended up asking him if he knew my dad.  His eyes sparkled.  That's how we met and how I started to work with him. 

Of course, I got totally inspired by his work in Afghanistan, by his world, his photos, his way of thinking, his artistic approach.  And that's how photography came to me as the best way to illustrate stories that I wanted to share.

Please explain the form and media of your work in your own words. 

It's portraits that I shot in Afghanistan where I lived and worked for two years.

I wanted to focus on the faces of people who are referred to as being plain and simple numbers in our western media.  I wanted to tell stories from war through the faces of the people who are suffering the most from it: civilians.  I think that we have to open our eyes and realise what's the real meaning of these political choices that we justify so easily.  It applies also to the recent choice of bombing in Libya for example. 

[Famous Iranian poet Sohrab] Sepehri's poems describe this reality with so much accuracy and eloquence that it was just obvious that both media should be combined together.  And the best way to keep Sepehri's poetry was to add an aesthetic touch on the photographs that were maybe in a way, too “journalistic”.  That's how I got the idea to use calligraphy.

I collaborated with an amazing calligrapher who is my aunt, and who's presence in my life really made me who I am.  She gave me her own Sepehri book when I was a teenager and it's the only book I kept preciously with me during those two years in Afghanistan.  It was through the reading of this book that I managed to find peace and relief from what was surrounding me.  It's as if Sepehri was also witnessing what was going on and describing it with so much beauty.

Also, my aunt was arrested when she was 13 years old for allegedly being politically involved, which was, of course, totally untrue.  From the ages of 13 to 19 she lived in Evin prison.  So her insights about life in general as well as her artistic approach inspire me a lot.  We chose the poems together following several months of conversation about what was going on over there [in Afghanistan].  The match of these poems with the photographs is just magic to me.

A central part of your work has to do with your mixed Iranian/Kurdish/French identity.  How do you feel towards those different strands of identity? (Or if they’re not relevant or primary, why?)

I would like to think that the central part of my work has to do with rhythm and melody...

So usually, I would say that they are not really relevant in my artistic work. But indeed, the stories that I think are worth being known and that I share are linked to this cultural background… I just feel lucky despite the many difficulties encountered to find a right balance between all these “strands of identity”. Very difficult to grow as an Iranian in Paris, very difficult to be considered as an Iranian in Iran... On top of that, my step father is Kurdish, so he added beautiful stories from his own cultural background on my original mix identity. It took a bit of efforts to be fine with all this but in the end, I see how lucky I am to see what’s good and wrong in the western culture and what’s good and wrong in the non western one... 

Can you please explain how your thinking with regards to Iranian and Kurdish issues has evolved?

Kurds in Iran were in the past an amazing force against dictatorships (from the Shah's regime to the present) and they will remain so.  Interestingly, they’re the only “ethnic” minority in Iran to have this position.  Of course, it is linked with its geographical situation, totally split-up between five countries and able to create alliances with Kurds from other sides of the borders, they have found a potential to destabilise the central government in Tehran.  Even though sometimes, it’s been the fight against the regime that led some political Kurdish leaders to find friends in the wrong side, Kurds in Iran fought the regime with incredible devotion and a lot of dignity.  I’m very proud of my family’s background but I also feel very sad with the way politics destroyed each family member’s life forever, and I’m not talking only about the dead ones.

My aunts were the first women in Iran to be executed on the orders of Khalkhali.  They were nurses, not politically involved at all, just pure and simple nurses.  I know that a lot of Kurds in Iran have, in one way or another, these kinds of stories in their closets.  That’s why they’ll remain an important opposition force; because they have lost a lot in the battle and they did not and cannot forget. Another interesting point is that any Kurd in Iran feels above all Iranian first.  But this is not preventing them from rightly fighting for the preservation of their cultural heritage, especially teaching Kurdish at school.

What for you is the relationship between art and politics?  Do they hold any relation for you?

They do.  Especially if you’re an Iranian, politics inevitably crosses your path and especially if you’re an artist, censorship will make you feel this violence that makes anyone in the society struggle for the respect of their basic rights.  You can live happily anywhere in the world if you choose to close your eyes to what’s going wrong; repression, illegitimate use of force, censorship etc.  You can be happy by simply staying at home and being neutral; just eat and sleep.  Artists are observers; they can’t close their eyes.  Otherwise, what they express is purely boring to me.

How do you see your art evolving in the future?  Are there any future project you would like to mention?

More and more photos and more and more stories...will keep u posted of course.


The Humanitarian Cluster...

One of the things that I most looked forward to coming to Libya, was the chance to see how all of the things I (over-) learned in Afghanistan apply here.  I can go on at length about similarities and differences, but let me just focus on one thing that I see remaining the same.  There seems to be an inability or unwillingness to accept the meaning of the word ‘principle’ in humanitarian principle and hence an inability to approach the politics inherent in working for an NGO, or for that matter to see the big picture.

Libya is an aid effort in a pretty heavily developed place (electricity and paved roads galore here), and with all that sundry rule of law lying about, the effort seems much more structured here.  The UN and the major donors from the NATO states take the lead and the first-tier NGOs are chasing them about and going to the meetings they schedule.

This leads to a lot of exhausting discussion about rather useless topics (Benghazi or Zarzis take your pick) like which NGOs are too allied with the rebels to support.  And this is where I, the good realist liberal, want to tear my hair out.  See we have this principle of trying to be neutral, but we have to be realistic and realise when we cannot.  There is no civil society behind Qaddafi lines because his quixotic dictatorship has not allowed any to form.  Pretty much everyone trying to help Libya, like the vast majority of those within Libya are supporting the opposition, which allows NGOs to operate freely.  Moreover, if you or your organisation hopes to have any credibility in future Libya, the only question that will be asked of you is ‘what did you do for the opposition?’

So here is why it’s useful that humanitarianism is a principle and not a set list of things.  We can employ humanitarian principles by working with a Libyan organisation who might be pro-rebel but still tries to distribute aid widely to all (again rebels support things like this while the former regime does not).  Sometimes such nascent civil society organisations will say inappropriate things at meetings when included.  That’s okay; it’s how the discussion evolves.  What if we excluded the UN and its employees for every inappropriate thing they did and said?

Just as was my past experience in Afghanistan, a lot of the response to this crisis could get bogged down in NGOs’ self-perception.  Non-profit and non-government are happy coincidences; I’m still encouraging NGOs to think of themselves as non-state actors (and no, that doesn’t mean you need to be armed).  It may be nice to have a few governments recognising an organisation to lend it legitimacy, but we exist outside the state system and our lack of state-based identities make us better and more able to focus on the task at hand.  It also means we’re independent political actors trying to enact our political platform of neutrality.

I came to Libya support liberalism, to support the people here, to get some perspective on the 2011 revolutions.  I did not come here just to implement some lines on a TOR.  Everybody can and should do their work and the immediate task at hand, but I really hope no one loses sight of that bigger picture.


Rethinking Regime Change for Libya

The salient feature of dictatorships is not always their repression.  Rather it’s their lack of three related phenomena, which together constitute what we think of as democracy: transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  Positing democracy and authoritarianism as a binary and not a continuum, Western liberal democracies pursued a red herring for much of the last ten years trying to turn zeros into ones.  Toppling the authoritarian regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq, many policy wonks spill a lot of ink discussing what the criteria might be for such regime change.

And now, in Libya, we find that we are at it again:  regime change.  No matter what anybody in NATO or one of its member states tells you, that is the goal.  And that goal is actually within the framework of UNSC Resolution 1973.  There will be no end to the threat against civilians in Libya until the regime that actively tries to kill those civilians (Libyans) is gone.  The Taliban were bad, Saddam Hussain was bad, and so are Bashar al-Asad and the Saudi royal family.  So how is Qaddafi different?  For liberal internationalists like myself the only logical and consistent conclusion was often to throw up our hands for fear that selective justice might be worse than no justice.

And yet I support regime change in Libya.  I don’t think that it can be extrapolated to other regimes in other places necessarily; for me it just seems like a clear intersection of the desirable and feasible—and yes, it has saved civilian lives.  As much as I tire of state actors and their petty nationalisms and geographical limitations, they are a reality and those state actors have to be dealt with.  There is no higher international body that can universally fix failings in transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  We have to deal with threats to justice and dignity on an ad-hoc basic until the willpower, institutions, and legitimacy for a truly global enforcement mechanism emerge.

An air war is feasible in Libya in a way that it is not in Syria, Yemen, or Bahrain.  The country is not wooded and the population is fairly spread out.  There are rebels and an active insurgency in government-controlled areas.  Qaddafi had lost legitimacy in almost unprecedented ways.  There’s also no question that civilian lives have been save in this intervention.

The terrain does matter.  It’s hard to hide a tank in Libya.  In the case of the Nafusa rebels, the rebels were controlling towns at the top of a long escarpment, with Qaddafi forces below trying to seize the high ground.  There’s no way for the QF to attack without moving their armour, or rocket launchers, or troop concentrations out in the open where air strikes can get them.  It’s also significant that as of this writing, the air war has not been escalated to the maximum of what’s possible.  Bombing a few key points in infrastructure would severely impede the regime’s ability to move reinforcements in, since there are fairly few roads in the country.  If the rebels cry uncle and demand it (up till now they have been emphasising that they want Libya’s infrastructure in tact), this could be something to watch out for.

In Libya, there are actual rebels that have legitimacy and running parts of the country, not just dissidents.  Before you ask, “who are they and how legitimate are they?”, please consider the case of Mr Qaddafi.  Repeat after me: Incumbency does not equal legitimacy.  Just because a government has been there a while does not make it legitimate.  The real reason that political elites fear calling out a government’s legitimacy is that they’re worried about domestic cans of worms that it might open.  And yet there are black holes of sovereignty on the global map, and sometimes there’s an easy solution that involves recognising the de facto reality.  Libyan rebels have a long way to go before they master the art of democratic politics, but on the other hand Qaddafi has really done some crazy stuff.  Even a somewhat authoritarian regime in Libya with the odd political prisoner is preferable to the whimsical and capricious madness of the Qaddafi years.

The wholesale loss of Qaddafi legitimacy is another thing sets Libya apart.  Like it or not, there are a whole bunch of people in Syria and Yemen that support the regime.  There have been actual verified mass protests in their support (even though I think these governments probably are doomed).  Qaddafi could never muster that.  Journalists can and should be sensitive to the possibility of real pro-regime sentiment in Libya (relatives and civil servants), but the rest of us can afford not to equivocate and see the difference.  Yes, the only way to get real legitimacy is with an election, but the only way we will get to an election is with rebel control.

Following on the issue of legitimacy, let me also point out why a negotiated solution was never realistic.  There was no will for it from amongst the regime, or at least amongst those holding the power within it.  Qaddafi wants to fight, defines himself by the fight, and will fight.  The day the NFZ was declared, Moussa Koussa, the then foreign minister (since defected) declared a ceasefire.  Whether he meant it or not is not clear, and if he did it’s even clearer that he had no ability to enforce it.  Adhering to that early one would have probably insured regime survival, but whoever controls the Brigades could not even think that far ahead.  With so much terror and unkept promises it’s hard to see how the rebels could take seriously an offer to negotiate even if it were earnest.  Many perceive themselves to be fighting for their lives.

Qaddafi had not just lost legitimacy with most Libyans, but has pissed off the international community to the point where even Saudi Arabia and Syria wouldn’t mind his ouster.  Bashar al-Asad may be on his way to claiming Qaddafi’s bad-guy prize, but the reality is that there are still folks—some of the sovereign—who wouldn’t like the precedent set by his ouster.  Not so with Qaddafi.

Civilian lives have been saved in Libya so far.  About Iraq we’re not sure.  According to the Lancet’s extremely thorough study in 2005, in that situation more people probably died in the aftermath of Hussain’s fall than the man manage to kill under his regime.  The number of civilians killed in Benghazi and Misurata is much less than if Qaddafi had been able to come in unopposed.  The violence of the Brigades is still on show at the moment, where they blindly shell populated areas that they have no hope of holding and which does nothing but incite rebel fighters to continue at all costs.  Near the Wazin checkpoint I had the opportunity to see the Brigades in action.  Troops who couldn’t communicate over distance were running around blindly and trying to shell in the direction of the checkpoint with guns they couldn’t aim very effectively.  It lacked tactics and strategy beyond simply inflicting damage.

It’s not at all clear to me weather it’s by intent or accident, but the NATO strategy of providing the rebels just the right amount of support to actually win but then to also feel some ownership over the new Libya seems to have emerged.  After the rebels’ failure to advance west of Ajdabiya, the breaking of the siege of Misurata and subsequent advances have been vital to the revolution’s sense of self-worth.  The argument about boots on the ground is often misleading too.  As much as I dislike the security industry and private security companies (PSCs), NATO’s war has made good use of them and their plausible deniability in Libya.  Why have British or American boots on the ground when those same boots can be hired by a PSC and then seconded to the Qatari government as “military advisors” for the Libyan National Army (rebels)?  The narrow and unnatural constraints of sovereignty and of the state system provide a way out by their own narrowness.  As long as said personnel are not technically working for one of the NATO members, that member has not committed ground troops.  The fiction is useful diplomatically, but it’s also a clever exploitation of loopholes in the state system.  The NATO intervention now has the look of a very full and consistent intervention with quite a bit of the state-building frontloaded into the fighting.

And lastly, the media narrative is going to tend towards stalemate until almost the end.  Traditional media outlets are doing what they’re supposed to do and reporting what they can verify.  People post what they hear and see on Twitter first, or blog about it.  The rest of us pick up reports from people who have proven to be credible over time and check them out and add weight.  Necessarily the major outlets are rarely where the action is occurring.  It’s hard to verify the ongoing protests in Tripoli or the latest gains in Nafusa.  But slowly the rebel claims have by and large been borne out, and what’s emerging is a pattern of consistent military advance by a force that started from zero.  Currently rebels are effectively surrounding Tripolitania, depriving Qaddafi of his main supply routes from Africa, with the sole exception of restive Gharyan.  There’s no centrepiece battle to point to yet, but from the vantage of those in Tripoli the end will likely appear quite sudden.  Until that time, journalistic balance will consist of stories to the tune of ‘Qaddafi’s not going anywhere’ versus ‘the end is nigh’.

Reality is usually greyer than the black and white of Libya.  Here you have a situation where the most good for the most people would clearly be served by a Libya without Qaddafi.  Distasteful though al-Asad is in Syria, my analysis there is that an intervention would be counterproductive, so I don’t support it.  Changing a regime doesn’t solve all of a country’s political problems but sometimes it’s worthwhile and every time and place requires a different constellation of methods and political forces.  But no state is sacred, and no state or regime has right to exist.  These things are only as good as the good they do for the people they are intended to serve.