Memories of Tehran

Becoming modern

Persian politics has often been entirely subordinate to an artistic vision. The Safavid state in the sixteenth century defined itself in terms of the Shia great historical drama, acted out during the Muharram celebrations. Even today these provide the perfect contrast to the nameless, faceless spectacle of European opera, where the closest objects are seen at a distance. Here everything is immediately present: the spectators tremble and weep as a mullah passes along the rows collecting tears in cotton wool, which he then squeezes into a bottle, preserving them with the greatest caution. Under the Safavids, opposing political factions were allowed to fight on the streets if they restrained themselves to sticks and stones. These violent clashes were representations of the turmoil under which the great historical crime against Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, had been committed. Grieving over Hussein's martyrdom slowly gave rise to the only form of tragedy indigenous to Islam, the Tazieh, but there was no irony or distance in these spectacles, with acting pennants given narcotics to better simulate death throughout the whole day, and no distinction between actors and spectators being accepted

During Muharram, the lamentations of the people were joined by brutal mortifications where hundreds or thousands of men cut themselves with swords and sharp chains in order to emulate the suffering of Hussein and from whose wounds blood would gush abundantly. The most grievous injuries were also a way to exhibit their naked bodies and demonstrate their prowess to the women peeping through their veils. These spectacles were recorded by numerous European visitors, who already in the seventeenth century were intrigued by the question of what separated Europe from Asia and saw in the strange and violent demonstrations, its fanaticism and full devotion to a single vision, the most obvious proof that they had indeed left civilized Europe behind. Today, in the arcana of the Islamic Republic, an artistic vision is still being pursued, often with the brutal methods of the Gashte Ershad, the infamous "guidance patrols" or "morality police."

As Khomeini took pains to explain, there is a great difference between all the various manmade forms of government in the world, on the one hand, and a divine government, on the other hand. Governments that do not base themselves on divine law conceive of justice only in the natural realm. You will find them concerned with the prevention of disorder and not with the moral refinement of the people. Whatever a person does in his own home is of no importance, so long as he causes no disorder in the street. Divine governments, however, set themselves the task of making man into what he should be, they pursue an image of perfection and beauty, as they define it. And this is not possible under any other government than an Islamic government. For Khomeini the idea that one can be a Muslim or a Christian or an atheist under a liberal regime leaving these matters to the individual is simply absurd. A man who believes in communism cannot order his life on the principles of communism while in England or America, for the capitalistic state system will extend to every corner of practical life and it will he quite impossible for him to escape the ruling authority. Likewise, it is impossible for a Muslim to succeed in his intention of observing the Islamic pattern of life under the authority of a liberal system of government. Islam is not merely a belief and it is not enough to preach it.

Because Western culture is so powerful, its influence seeping into every nook and cranny, it will always find a way to enter a foreign society - very often through mediate channels like law, technology or popular culture - unless the principles animating that society are also present in all areas, forming an impenetrable barrier. The great Asian religious traditions are a realistic, worldly and practical guide for human existence and social life, shunning theological or philosophical debates, abstractions and ideals. They are religions of the world, dealing with concrete matters. Islam and Hinduism may disagree about the role they confer on the state or social coercion as the enforcing power, but both Islam and Hinduism differ from modern European society by presenting a picture of human life where there is no place for individual expression and experimentation. In his daily activities a Muslim or a Hindu is bound hand and foot by taboos and injunctions extending to food and drink, clothing, entertainment, housekeeping and all the main occasions of life. For every question raised by practical life there is always one right answer and no contingencies are possible for which the state or society has not provided laws. Both in the case of Islam and Hinduism the tendency towards the control of daily life has been deepened and increased as a reaction against all kinds of foreign influence. In the case of Hinduism, the British presence in India came after the threat from Islam. It was an even greater threat: "The impact of Western culture through education in English was inducing the Hindus themselves to question their religion as it was and to change their outlook and habits of life. The Muslims had used force, the English held out temptations, and that was a greater peril" (Nirad Chaudhuri, Hinduism). One possible reaction for the old Hindu order was to adopt European culture as its own, another was to return to tradition with renewed vigor and make the entire system of control impervious to change or influence. India is still struggling with this question. In Iran it dominates everything.

This became clear to me when I visited one of the best Tehran contemporary art galleries. Contemporary art in Tehran is experiencing a moment of great, genuine vitality. Twenty years ago Iranian art had regressed almost to the basic function of all art - that of being the heart of a heartless world - as it helped exorcise the horrors witnessed during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. The eight years of war were years of extreme despair and isolation from the rest of the world. Coming back from the front those young men who had some talent for drawing and painting produced tepid images of ideal landscapes and flowers. Perhaps the first contemporary art gallery of the Islamic Republic was the Beheshte Zahra cemetery, where martyrs' photographs are covered with simple decorative elements. No one who has been through hell wants to relive it.

Today things could not be more different. Young Iranian artists are full of energy and ambition. They gather every evening in the courtyard and cafes of the Artists' Forum in Honarmandan Park, around which a distinct art scene has been developing. The Forum has become a sanctuary for artists. With so few outlets for expressing their irreverence and creativity, young Iranians have turned contemporary art into a powerful social force. For me as well the art scene quickly became a refuge from the oppressive conformity of Tehran life.

The Etemad gallery is located at the very edge of North Tehran, where the city climbs up the snowy mountains. Everything is different in North Tehran. The air feels incredibly pure if you have been exposed to the dangerous pollution levels downtown. Tiny streaks of snow water create an enchanting atmosphere. And then there is money, or rather opulence, which stands out in the fancy restaurants, sports cars and luxurious condos all around you. At Etemad I was entertained with tea and cookies while looking at metal rods which reveal themselves as "portraits of famous people" - including rather scandalously Khomeini himself - if seen from the right anamorphic perspective.

The next day I visited a second gallery and was again confronted with monsters and chimeras. The Aaran gallery, near Honarmandan, had just opened a solo exhibition by Mehran Saber. Both the gallery and the artist had a number of problems with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance a few years ago, involving long discussions about the possible copulating intentions of some abstract shapes on a painting. Mehran left Iran, but now he was back, perhaps trusting that there is a new openness from the censors. His most recent work depicts "shapes that are stretched, distorted and caught in suspended situations," as the exhibition catalogue puts it. "In his works reality is dismissed and even surrealism is distorted." Hybrid creatures, often twisted and pressured, push and pull. These are not aesthetic ideas but the very nature of life in Tehran. 

It was very late when I left. Stopping at Tajrish Square in North Tehran, where young people converge, I immediately understood what some Iranian artists mean when they speak of women as patchworks or what Mehran has in mind with his suspended situations. One young woman went up the Tajrish escalator wearing a black headscarf covering all her hair, very proper hijab few women in North Tehran are keen on, but she combined it with knee-high pink stiletto boots. Stunned and stupefied, the whole square turned to watch her walk.

Women in Iran must wear a loose overcoat and a headscarf. Those are the red lines, so to speak. Anything less will inevitably get you in trouble with the morals police. In everything else the rules are much less strict, even with respect to how much hair the headscarf must cover, so it is certainly possible, albeit risky, to push the boundaries to the point of making a mockery of the whole dress code. The rules are always present and always enforced, but the result is often a deliberately distorted version of the original idea. Interestingly, the regime often does the same to the images created by Iranian or foreign artists, clipping videos to censor an inappropriate scene or, as in a famous case, transforming a Francis Bacon triptych into a diptych after removing one of the panels. The inevitable result is that Iran will be increasingly populated by grotesquely disfigured images.

Europe had its own age of monsters. During the Renaissance and the early modern period, European culture was decidedly a monster culture. Circus troupes traveled the countryside exhibiting animalistic oddities. New atlases and travel accounts were everywhere full of the unimaginable creatures to be found in distant lands and oceans. Literature and art were preeminently concerned with a specific kind of supernatural, where human beings confront a monstrous nature or, as in Shakespeare, the monsters within themselves. Modern society emerges when what was previously believed to be a divinely ordained and meaningful natural order comes to be seen as open to endless manipulation and transformation. That is very clearly the spirit of modern science and technology, which forces nature into new forms and configurations, bringing forth something new and unexpected, both to make human life more pleasant and to reach closer to the permanent, unchangeable core of the universe. Experimentation is a human but also a scientific ideal.

The process has a certain negative character: the attempt is made to free oneself from the existing model only to realize this model has been replaced by a broader but still limited set of possibilities, which are in turn in need of being overcome, and so on in an iterative process. More importantly, perhaps, each society has its own modernization path. Each society starts from a traditional model and creates new abstractions from that starting point. As the whole world becomes modern, we should expect different or multiple modernities to develop rather than the cultural program of modernity as it developed in Europe to become universal. That program may enjoy a certain historical precedence and continue to be a reference point, but it is no more than one path. Talking to young Iranian artists, I learned one final lesson. While they were rebelling against the confined spaces of life in Tehran, they also insisted that they did not want to follow the same path as Europeans or Americans. Contemporary art had taught them that there is always a different way of seeing. Art must foresee other pictures, other worlds. Western modernity is for them just another form of tradition to be uprooted and overcome.