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  • 8 September 2011
  • Posted By Parisa Saranj
  • 1 Comments
  • Culture

Cultures of Resistance: Spotlight on Iranian Artists

Almost every day, news and media cover politics or policy related topics on Iran with a concrete agenda. Behind this coverage, however, there is another voice desperate to be heard. It’s the voice of Iranian artists representing ordinary Iranian citizens. Trying not to be overshadowed by the common misconceptions about Iran, it is not easy to earn a forum for displaying their arts.

Fortunately, many non-Iranian activists who have noticed this phenomenon are turning their interests toward some groundbreaking Iranian artists. One  such group is Cultures of Resistance (CoR) an activist network using documentary and film as an outreach tool to promote peace and global justice.

Two short films featured on the CoR website deserve special attention, for they examine more underground and lesser known artists.

Tehran Ratz: Graffiti For a New Iran” takes a look at the works of two young Tehrani graffiti artists who challenge not only the ideologies of the Iranian government, but also question the broader understanding of issues such as peace and justice. While their work is “Iranian” in terms of using exclusively Iranian topics or cultural beliefs and figures, the universality of their painting is evident. This is a notable characteristic of the short film – it uses vivid images of graffiti to show the artists’ awareness of the social issues affecting their lives.  In this case, images prove to be more powerful than words.

The film exposes the audience to complex topics that the artists cover, such as gender inequalities, injustice in the legal system, and even war and death. Thus, forcing the viewer to go back and watch it over and over, asking more and more questions and wondering how the youth of a distant culture could produce an art comprehensive for people of all backgrounds.

Tehran Ratz: Graffiti for a New Iran from Cultures of Resistance on Vimeo.

The second short film (and my personal favorite) is called “Iran Inside Out: Explorations at the Chelsea Art Museum.” It looks at five different exhibits displaying the art of Iranian artists residing both inside and outside of Iran.  Even though it might just seem like a twelve-minute report on an art exhibition, the short film delves into a much deeper message about how Iranian people want to be portrayed as “human beings’ interested in peace, art, solidarity, and globalization than “oppressed people” or even characterized as the “axis of evil.”

Iran Inside Out: Explorations at the Chelsea Art Museum from Cultures of Resistance on Vimeo.

Given the fact that the Iranian regime heavily controls art and frames every social concept within an Islamic ideology, the bold and controversial topics such as sexuality, ideas of femininity/masculinity, hijab, body image and even clash of generations covered by Iranian artists at times make it impossible to distinguish between the arts coming out of Iran and those produced in America and Europe.

One might argue that art should not be political. However, these short films prove otherwise.  The reason is that ordinary Iranian citizens are constantly being influenced and monitored by an oppressive regime, leaving no choice for artists but to overtly produce censored art and covertly produce art full of political notions, activism, and hope.

Finally, what these Iranian artists and Cultures of Resistance activists have in common is the relentless questioning of assumptions and challenging of the stereotypes whether it is in Iran against its government or on the international level against the preconceived ideas about a particular country or a global issue.  And for a time when a non-violent democratic movement is the only option for the Iranian youth, what better tool than art to carry the cries of a nation for democracy?

In Iran, It’s Fun To Be A Rebel

If one asks the majority of Iranian youths why they want democracy, their immediate answers are surprisingly not freedom of speech, free elections or even a better economy. “Fun” is what most of them desire the most. Having fun without being told their behavior is un-Islamic or an attempt to topple the regime.

Since the Islamic Revolution, and the rise and fall of various government figures, the definition of fun in Iran has changed drastically. Often mixed with Islamic ideologies, some of the most basic social activities in Iran are defined improper for the youth and met with crackdowns, criticism and even arrests.

An event that aroused attention and hype in Iran last month was the gathering of over 800 Tehrani girls and boys in Water and Fire Park playing with water guns and bottles just laughing and wetting one another. The so called “water war,” which was originally organized via Facebook, spread to other major cities and became a cool way to pass a hot summer afternoon.

But a few days later, national TV aired its infamous confessions of those arrested with blacked out faces, speaking about the social media scheme in which young people had been seduced into toppling the regime through a water game.

How to respond to such serious allegations?  A mocking, sarcastic confession video of a young man explaining his extensive water gun training in Israel and America quickly spread via the event’s Facebook page. Mass emails containing photos of happy faces and soaked-in-water youth in the park made the rounds through Iranian inboxes.  Further events were planned, such as a kite flying gathering in Isfahan that promised to bring the youth together for celebration of the end of summer.  On the kites, young people would scribble a dream before flying them in the air.

Yet perhaps the allegations are true.  What seems to most of us to be a joyful assembly of young men and women could at the same time very well be a protest against a system that constrains its youth’s most basic dreams.

Unfortunately, Iranians have witnessed or directly experienced the brutal clampdown of the regime not only after Presidential election, but also through the aid it’s believed to be giving to the neighboring country, Syria against protesters of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. In the wake of the Arab spring , when hope for the future of Iran could rise from the ashes of 2009 turmoil, it is news like that from Syria which creates fear and intimidation for Iranians, leaving them to come up with alternative ways to voice their opposition.  What could be better than “fun?”

And what could be better than mocking–and reapproptiating–what the government legitimizes as proper. For example, each year, the Ministry of Culture holds a Festival for Twins of all ages–a night of (government-sanctioned) celebration, with music, performance and laughter. So, young people organized a slightly less official Gathering of Curly Haired Ones in Tehran’s Melat Park and, my personal favorite, the Festival of Bad Fashion. It has been through these events that larger gatherings such as water war were born.

Not every one is happy to see the youth of a country, who make up 70 percent of the population, coming together. So, the authorities will do anything to stop them–either with intimidation beforehand or constant crackdowns, which are promoted as acts of “restoring order” and “enforcing Islamic values.”

For those who cannot attend these events for reasons varying from obligations to fear and suspicions, social media is a great way to rebel while having fun.

Facebook invite for the "Happy and Fun Event of Raping and Splashing Acid in Faces"

Last week, I received an invitation on Facebook for an event called Happy and Fun Event of Raping and Splashing Acid in Faces with more than fifteen hundred attending RSVPs. For the location, organizers say the event will be held in every villa, street, garden, home and even public space.

It’s a perfect example of how Iranian youth have used sarcasm and laughter against the pressure, disorder and insecurity surrounding their lives.

Even though I don’t believe the behaviors of these Iranian youth are entirely and purposefully acts of rebellion, I do believe when you live in a country where everything you do–from what you wear and who you are allowed to sit next to on the bus, to what music you can listen to–is controlled by a select few, every opportunity you take to have a little fun can be, consciously or unconsciously, a way to rebel.

Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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