Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 12, June 2003



F. Parsa


Letter from Tehran [1]



Today is an official holiday. It is Thursday the 11th of Ordibehesht or the 1st of May and it is a public holiday here. But this isn't because it's International Worker's Day, but because of the anniversary of the death of the prophet Mohammed. But for those of us who are second-class citizens (or to use the term that Mesbah Yazdi has coined for us merely 'ambulant pieces of flesh attached to legs', for those of us who are of no use to the 'Islamic regime' -- which should in truth be referred to as 'the greatest human tragedy in the memory of recent human civilization') it makes no difference what day it is. I was up all night glued to the computer screen 'to earn my daily bread'. (Here I use the hackneyed expression 'to earn my bread' to mean precisely that and nothing more). At about 6:30 or 7:00am I fell sleep and managed briefly to flee the weight of my troubles, the totality of which I am now used to, knowing all the while that they will one day spell my end: exhaustion, back aches, eye strain, headaches, heart palpitations, and the thousand other terrible things. I was shattered. What do Mullahs know about such things?


At around 10:30 or 11am Afshin calls to say that Mahmoud Vakili has been arrested. My brain is still asleep. I concentrate and try to understand what he is saying. He says Mahtab, Mahmoud's sister, called him to say Mahmoud had been arrested on Tuesday and had been taken away. She had said that we should not contact their house directly. Afshin says he doesn't have Ali's number and asks me to call Ali and let him know. He is lying. He is lying when he says he doesn't have Ali's number. He is too afraid to call Ali, afraid of getting himself caught in some kind of trouble. Ali is well known. Just last week he was telling us that his phone was tapped. Not that he's a political activist. Oh no! All he is is a film critic. He writes about the arts. He like us can now be found guilty of this new crime. This is our lot. We, the lucky few, in this hell hole. My brain slowly kicks into gear. I too am afraid, why lie? I am afraid too. We are those simpler souls, who sought to steer clear of any sort of political fuss in this accursed corner of the planet. We eliminated every shred of ambition from our lives and instead of seeking solace in morphine or heroin, in acid, joints, gangs, bribes, theft, womanizing or any of a thousand other afflictions that may have afforded us comfort, we chose instead to turn to culture and art and cinema. We chose to step into a dream -- the dream of things we don't have. But now they have chosen to shatter this dream with sentences of so many lashes of the whip and jail time and torture and dishonor and accusations. This makes us afraid, you see. Can you understand that we are afraid? What do Mullahs care about such things?


Who is Mahmoud Vakili, the man who has been arrested? Unlike Kambiz Kaheh and Abdi and Amir Ezzati and Yassamin Sofi and Sina Motallebbi he is not well known. So there are no protests when he is arrested. No one even knows. There was a time when his entire heart and mind was consumed by books and by films. He would not conform; unlike the rest of those in this society. One day he finally understood that here you can't live in peace if you chose to be yourself. You must conform. He became one of the many hundreds of thousands who came to the conclusion that in this land of gold and power, of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and of ignorance in the name of god and of the crushing of human dignities, here in this land there was no place for him. This was many years ago. Together with his sister Mahtab and her young child they set out. For a year they traipsed around Holland and Austria and Germany and Italy and Bulgaria and Turkey, hoping that perhaps one of these well-fed individuals in these 'anti-war' countries would afford them protection. These people who care enough to protect the rights of animals and of the environment and who greet news from America with a 70's tinged nostalgia redolent of rock and electric guitars, pot-smoking and memories of the Cold War, the red flag and that sort of rubbish, and who without understanding much at all set out to march and chant anti-American slogans -- Mahmoud Vakili wandered these peoples' lands in the hope that perhaps someone there would understand or care about what it was he wished to escape. Perhaps someone would afford him and his sister their protection. But no one did, no one, no one at all. And a little more than a year later, sadder, ever more broken and more crumpled, they returned to the rubbles they had sought to leave, to Iran.


Mahmoud Vakili fits nowhere in the 'system'. There was no crack or fissure through which he could gain entry. Finally he became a 'filmi'. A term and an occupation which must not exist anywhere in this world other than in this wasteland. He collected films on tape and on DVD, threw them in his shoulder bag and rented them to people. But there was this very great difference between him and all those others who rented films: in his archive you could find films by Ford and Hawks and Von Sternberg and Griffith, as well as by Lynch, Jarmusch and Kusturica and Aronofsky and Almodovar and Von Trier. You could see films by genre, or choose a historical period to study, watch New Wave films or American Independent cinema, you could start in Mexico or Brazil and go all the way to Greece and Giorgia or Kazakistan and always see good, thought-provoking films. Mahmoud never sold out. Even after he chose a profession such as this, devoid as it was of any apparent glory, he remained faithful to himself and stayed his course. In doing so what he did for his customers -- that would be us -- was that he created a moving institute of film and culture. Over the course of years, the days we were to see Mahmoud 'to get films' were good and happy days in our sad lives and every time we went to his house we chatted for a couple of hours about films and cinema and topical issues of the day. We were able to distance ourselves a little, albeit for a short while, from the soiled atmosphere and from all the anxieties that suffocate us here in this lost land. We were a small society unlike anything to be found around here these days. We had a space where we were able to unburden ourselves of our latest grievances and we knew the others would listen. That was all. We plotted no conspiracies or revolutions. That's not our job. But what do the Mullahs care about what we have to say?


On Sunday, that was the last day we saw Mahmoud, he wasn't feeling well. He said that Reza Jayeri his partner had been arrested and that he was worried. He was afraid. Just like Afshin was. Like I am. Like all those who deal with culture and the arts and who steer clear of the noisy heroics and pretences of freedom-fighting are now afraid. We said: 'Should we stop coming?'; and he said: 'No, keep coming.' We said: 'Get your films out of the house.' But I don't think he had time. Ali said he had seen Kambiz (Kaheh) who is free on bail awaiting his trial. Ali said Kaheh said nothing. Nothing at all. He said Kaheh was not working, was not watching films and he was not writing. Of course not. How simplistic to imagine that he would be capable of doing any of these things. Those in charge act as they do because they seek this very result. Theirs is a silent terrorism directed at individuals. It is a terrorism of minds, of thoughts. It seeks to drive its victims into solitary isolation. They know exactly what they are doing. What can a Kambiz Kaheh -- and so many others -- do if he stops watching films and writing and thinking? Those in charge know full well what they are doing. Carefully and patiently they have identified the most complete collections and archives there are and have proceeded to destroy them: Amir Ezati, Kambiz Kaheh and Mohammad Abdi's film and book archives were among the greatest resources available in this barren land. Now they are gone forever. Another such archive was Mahmoud's. We worried for it and rightly so. It too has now been eliminated. Now our Forces of Law and Order (!) will, as promised, mount an exhibition to proudly demonstrate the eradication of the roots of corruption. Oh yes . . . all vestiges of AIDS, of petty thefts and robberies, of corruption, unemployment and mafia relations have been eradicated . . . Oh joy! And later, after the exhibition, we know full well what will become of the films and books. Certain films, if they contain action scenes or perhaps titillating scenes, and a few others like _Ben Hur_ or _Gone With the Wind_ will end up in the homes of this or that official or some parasite or other who lives off government hand-outs. The rest will be destroyed. That will be that.


Is it Mahmoud's fate that I mourn? Or the fate of all the others? Or is it my own fate? Or maybe that of all those films? I look at the films I had picked out this week. How pleased I had been to get a DVD of Lynch's _Lost Highway_ and of John Ford's _How the West Was Won_. How delighted I had been that a decent quality copy of Polanski's _The Pianist_ was already circulating in Iran and that we could watch it. Oh! How I regret my decision not to take _The Enigma of Kasper Hauser_ and to leave it till next week. What are those parasites going to do with it now? I look again at the DVD of _The Pianist_ and my whole being is permeated with bitter cynicism. Who will tell the story of our Auschwitz? The one that is as big as Iran? In it the life of your body is left intact but your heart and your mind are eradicated. Do you think the Mullahs have seen _Fahrenheit 451_? I feel the few films I have in hand have been spared the destructive fire. It is now my responsibility to protect them.


Name any porn movie, from the most banal to those in which humans are atop animals and vice versa, to films showing private parties and naked women in pools. Any one of the frustrated and unemployed young men who populate the country -- themselves the fruit of the Revolution -- can easily get their hands on these tapes to take the edge off of their myriad longings. At every public intersection and every busy square these films are readily available. And it really makes no difference where you live: Shahrakeh Gharb, Tajrish, Enqhelaab Square or Dowlat Aabaad; Tehran or Qom or Mashad now forsaken by God or Ali Aabaad Katool. [2] Furthermore, the dealer's face is identical, recognizable, familiar. It's a dirty face. It's always the same men, wearing the same greasy slightly long hair and moustaches and ugly leather jackets, handling prayer beads in one hand. While a stone's throw away a scumbag in uniform harasses a young woman whose hair may have slipped out from under her scarf, while some young man walking along with a young woman friend has to answer to the scumbag to avoid being sentenced to lashes of the whip, and while, not far from them an unfortunate prostitute steps into the 30 or 40 million toman vehicle belonging to this or that devout Haji to sell herself for 10 or 20 thousand tomans and not go hungry; at this very same moment one of those greaseballs murmurs in your ear, 'tapes, CD's films'. Ah! Do you think he is offering you the latest film by Alfonso Cuaron or Walter Salles or Zhang Yimou? Do you think the Mullahs understand such things? You are wrong. They are stomping on the flames they have lit and are laughing at you and I. They are laughing out loud. They stand in prayer and mourn Imam Hossein and take Haj Khanoom, the wife, to Mecca and to Syria; they take temporary wives and buy stocks in Free Port trade zone projects. They engage in smuggling, acquire exclusive dealerships, export girls and at the same time they attend Friday Prayers and chant Death to America. But it is we who are dying not the Americans. This is our death sentence.


Neither George Bush, nor Mohammad Khatami, neither the anti-war Europeans nor the 'innocent' Palestinians nor the Conservatives really give a damn about us. They all have their own agendas. The reformists care about their reforms and their so-called freedom and democracy. Meanwhile our lives are plundered. Often we quote Osip Mandelstam who said that everything in this world could be regained but hope. Hope has fled the weak flicker of our gaze. There will be no miracles. In our 20s and 30s we are already old and will become older still. Our pale and broken faces will only know serenity in death. They will bury us and scatter the earth over us and ululate. But there will not be a soul. Only when this land is cleansed of the evil countenance and terrible names of this strange generation of third millennium vampires; then will a smile graze our lips.


Translated by Dorna Khazeni





1. Translator's note: I receive an email update every day from _The Iranian_, an online publication serving the Iranian community abroad. The editor Jahanshah Javid is eclectic and extremely democratic in that the articles he publishes reflect the views of Iranians across the social and political spectrum. On May 6, 2003, I saw this headline in _The Iranian_ email I received:


'Iran: May Day; 'A Letter from Tehran', By A Tehrani. This is a letter I got from a friend of mine in Iran. I felt very sad when I read it. I found it powerful. I sent him an email and asked him if it is ok to forward it to others or publish it somewhere on the net. He said he will be happy if many people read it and know about his own and his generation's feelings. -- S.'


Curious I clicked on the link and read on. The letter from Iran was one that I found quite gripping. As an Iranian living in Los Angeles who marched against the Iraq war, as a vegetarian, environmentalist, pet-lover, I can safely say that my views likely diverge from the political point of view of the author of this letter. And yet I was shaken and moved after reading it. There was no doubt in my mind that the sentiments of a cinephile living in hell were as authentically expressed as I had ever read them anywhere. I contacted Javid and asked if I could translate and circulate the article. He said that the author wanted nothing better than for his experience of life in Iran to be made public in the West.


To contextualize the story, I must add that in a sweep last February several film journalists were arrested in Iran. These included Kambiz Kaheh, Said Mostaghasi, Mohammad Abdi, Amir Ezati and Yasamin Soufi. Kaheh, a film magazine journalist, and Mostaghasi, of _Haftenameh_ magazine, were arrested at their homes on 26 February 2003. Abdi, editor-in-chief of the monthly _Honar Haftom_, and Ezati, of _Mahnameh Film_, were arrested on 28 February. On March 1, film music critic Yasamin Soufi was arrested by officers from the Adareh Amaken force -- the department that usually deals with 'moral crimes'. Other journalists Abbas Abdi, Hojjatoleslam Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, Akbar Ganji, Hossein Ghaziyan, Siamak Pourzand, Khalil Rostamkhani, Said Sadr and Nasser Zarafshan are all serving sentences of between five and eleven years imprisonment for the non-violent exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Many thanks to Jahanshah Javid for help with the translation. (Los Angeles, June 2003)


2. Shahrak Gharb is in the West of Tehran and is an upper middle class area. Tajrish is in the north of Tehran and is a very well-off area. Enghelab Square in midtown Tehran is middle class. Dowlat Abad in downtown Tehran is lower middle class Mashad and Qom are both large extremely religious cities Ali Abad Katool is a very small provincial town.


Copyright © F. Parsa 2003


F. Parsa, 'Letter from Tehran', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 12, June 2003 <>.


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