Entries in Iran (7)


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

This article was also posted without the accompanying picture on Iranian.com.

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 Islamic Republic's 'Rastakhiz' Moment?

Rafsanjani’s decision not to contest control of the Council of Experts has been portrayed as a defeat to the veteran leader in his attempt to influence the Islamic Republic’s political process.  While Rafsanjani’s options for evolutionary change may have dwindled, ceding an important position without contest at a strategic moment could prove to be smart strategy after all.  By allowing Rafsanjani to exit the system, the government has precluded the last possibilities for incremental and evolutionary change.  Other autocratic governments, such as Iran in 1975 and Egypt in 2010, have lain the final straw on the camel's back by pushing their autocracy too far and Rafsanjani's departure might represent that for the Islamic Republic.

‘Stepping down’ in the interest of unity, as Mr Rafsanjani said he did in deference to Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani's bid for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, fits in with his classic pattern of slow, considerate action.  Rafsanjani has been subjected at this point to a long and intense villification by Iran's state-dominated media, but given his cautious and deliberate approach it seems likely that he will seek to minimise damage to whatever degree possible.  Like the meta-goals of Mousavi and Karroubi, which have included incremental gains and delegitimation of those who try to constrain the political space, Rafsanjani's tactics have the 'slow-burn' effect of making his opponents seem increasingly ridiculous to an increase number of people.

Since the contested elections of 2009, Rafsanjani has consistently played within the politics of the IRI while consistently supporting the opposition.  Even resigning from his post on the Assembly of Experts would have been a step that would have allowed supporters of the regime to attack him for ‘inciting’ sedition himself.  Rafsanjani has evidently failed to influence any changes in favour of the Assembly of Experts (such as encouraging it to fulfil its putative role of oversight over the supreme leader), so this gives him an easy exit.  This approach forsake unproductive political fireworks for the possibility of productive change, and that in turn is the only way to provide a ramp for a deeply entrenched and yet debilitatingly delegitimised regime to climb down.

In the early 1970s, the Shah's autocracy seemed firmly in place with a rubber-stamp parliament consisting of a ruling party and a 'loyal opposition'.  Such arrangements are typical of autocratic states, and risible, but they serve a real political purpose in that they provide at least a limited corrective to the main weakness of a non-democratic system--poor circulation of ideas.  This is why the key component of democracy is not simply voting, it is checks, balances, and institutionalisation and regularisation of change.

Husni Mubarak in Egypt, too, kept his hold on power through a complex system of gerrymandering, intimidation, and rigging, which allowed his National Democratic Party to win overwhelming majorities in elections.  All the same, some opposition figures from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Ghad did attain seats and thus a voice within the framework.

In 1975 the Shah decided that even the most meaningless of divisions was too much and merged both legal political groups into a single Rastakhiz party.  Because of the already stifling autocracy, it seemed irrelevant at the time, but it robbed the government of any internal checks on its actions as political dissent and finally protests escalated in the coming years.  In 2010 the Egyptian NDP's 90% take of seats was equally appalling and removed that much more credibility from the government.

Iran today has an extremely opaque party structure, with politicians being referred to by oblique references to their political affiliations or even marriage alliances.  In 1970s Iran and 2011 Egypt, the military ultimately provided the final check that forced the regimes in power to step down (although this proved too little, too late in Iran, where the state had been far too weakened by the time the army shifted).  The Guardian Council, Assembly of Experts, and Supreme Leader all create a closed feedback loop that excludes different opinions from even those who might still support the regime.  Aside from the obvious victims of government repression in the form of outspoken reformists and activists, large sections of the senior clergy have also been pushed out of the system.  Not only has the Iranian state removed many corrective mechanisms, its extreme opacity deprives it of warning signals that could usher in internal change.

Politics abhors a vaccuum and agendas will find their expression.  Just as the sequestration of the Green leaders will only engender more radical voices, the removal of Rafsanjani from the ruling elite hurts there grip on power by depriving them of another perspective.  Today protests are again gaining steam, and another new year is upon us.  The trajectory of the Islamic Republic is unsustainable but it could be that the loss of Rafsanjani will be looked on as one of the key events in its downfall.


Analysis of Recent Iranian Protests (14 and 20 February)


I was impressed by the turnout for Sunday's protests and for those of Monday which preceded them.  The only way the legitimacy of a government can be determined is through a transparent and accountable process, usually best understood to be elections.  The mass expression of civil disobedience by any number of Iranians therefore shows that at root the government has continues to have a legitimacy problem; or as I put it in June 2009, the Islamic Republic has we had come to know it ended.

Likewise, whether representative or not, the fact that the government feels the need to respond with force against the protesters further undermines it's legitimacy.  While pro-government elements have shown some savvy befitting their activist roots by engaging in social media and cyber warfare, it is also increasingly apparent that believing ones own rhetoric can be a fatal flaw.  Thinking that everyone is going to agree with you and reach the same conclusion, rather than keeping an open mind and encouraging dissent has been the weakness of ideological régimes everywhere.

The question has long since stopped being whether or not and how the 2009 Iranian elections were fraudulent, has become irrelevant and more fundamental issues about structural reform and freedom of expression have come to the fore.  Additionally the government's focus on Mousavi and Karoubi may have bought it some time, but it could ultimately bring about the dissolution of the Islamic Republic in much the same way that the Iranian state dissolved in 1979.  Focusing on two important personages ignores that the opposition is broadly based and encourages wholesale disavowal of the government.  The routine persecution of both the Shi'i religious establishment (in the form of its highest-ranking cleric, who have been stridently anti-government), opposition politicians, and middle-class activists simply encourages the formation of new groupings outside of these traditional opposition focal points.

The legitimacy crisis will go on, and in all likelihood protests and other small- and large-scale civil disobedience will too.  The Islamic Republic's previous claim to faim, the holding of somewhat competitive elections in a region with few, now holds little credibility.  Even if protests taper off now, they will invariably resurface again with 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.

Recent protests in light of the bigger picture

Before 2011, Iran arguably looked like the only state in the Middle East with an active history of change and the willpower to continue the struggle.  No we've seen almost too many revolts to count, and increasingly successful.  In every case unrepresentative and unaccountable dictators have loudly accused external actors and old bogeymen of being behind their problems.

Iran's USP used to be that it was the key defender of the people against The Man (whether man be the West, imperialism, or whatever).  To veteran observers of the area this argument was always problematic, but no doubt it convinced some people, and probably enough to beat protesters on the government's behalf.  Thanks to 2011 that's increasingly hard to believe.  Much poorer, historically more docile, and less educated populations than Iran are rising up to challenge their rulers.

I've had a number of moments of realisation recently concerning just how ridiculous the previous state of affairs was.  There was a lack of models around the region, and the "democratic" models of Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon have left a lot to be desired.  Well now we've seen it.  Home-grown anti-authoritarian movements that were not puppets of former colonial powers or suppressed by the intervention of those powers.  The shadow of 1953, where a British/American backed coup removed the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mosaddegh, might still have a hold on people's imaginations, but certainly less so.

The link between the Arab movements in Iran is not direct, but at base it in no way harms Iran's opposition.  Iranians who opposed the government before now can recognise the rhetoric of falling dictators and feel more confident.  At least a few fence-sitters will take note of the arc of history and be less supportive as well.  Amongst the opposition's consistent positions have been not just specific demands but rather a deligitimisation of the ideology and apparatus that have long supported state violence and repression of dissent in Iran.  Following that logic (with which I agree) it's not enough to just change a regime or overturn certain laws; to achieve a stable state the institutional violence of the Islamic Republic must be made to look ridiculous.  Looking out around the Middle East today, it does look more ridiculous.

The Limits of Coercion

A last point about the recent protests, in Iran and everywhere in the Middle East, is that they point the limits on states' use of coercion in most cases.  I've pointed out elsewhere the basic problems with ther coercion constraint.  Eventually it becomes harder and harder for people to carry out the dirty work of suppression, because what the coercive power (in this case the government) really needs is for people to change their minds.  Harrassing close relatives of Mousavi and Karroubi is designed to coerce them into changing their minds, because simply arresting them will not produce the change that government supporters want, and apology and announcement that protesters go home.  Attacks on family, increasingly sever house arrest, and intimidation of family members and supports are meant to ratchet up the pressure, but the government is running out of such means.  If a statement came from Mousavi today, many would simply disregard it as being not credible (because of duress), or ignore it because the opposition movement has moved beyond it's original leaders.

Effectively, the government finds itself in a conundrum whereby it cannot get support without opening up more to achieve broader legitimacy.  Any such action satisfies an opposition demand or strengthens the opposition.  I just don't see how the Islamic Republic can get out of this.