Iranians & Israelis: singing from the same song sheet?

WAR-MONGERING statements from politicians make for good headlines. And they tend to inform public perceptions. On the basis of Ahmadinejad making threatening statements towards Israel, or Netanyahu in response highlighting Israel’s readiness to take pre-emptive military action, received wisdom would have it that there is an unquenchable and insurmountable antipathy between the Iranian and Jewish peoples.

Music industry cognoscenti would see it otherwise. Witness the latest album from one of Israel’s biggest pop superstars, Rita Jahanforooz. My Joys, an album of Iranian songs sung entirely in Persian, went gold within three weeks of its release in Israel. And anecdotal evidence is that Iranian music fans are snapping it up as well, albeit illicitly and in a plain wrapping.

Rita is one of the 250,00 Iranian-born Jews living in Israel and her album reveals her ongoing affinity with the country of her birth. The songs come across as a seemingly unlikely but ultimately triumphant mélange of klezmer – oom-pahing bass, alto sax and squeezebox – and skittish Middle Eastern musical idioms bristling with staccato drums, shimmering zithers and sing-along choruses. They are certainly catchy and beguiling. Listen here and here.

It’s not just music lovers who are willing  to forge links across the apparent Israeli-Iranian divide. Earlier this year concerned Israelis launched a website – Israel Loves Iran – intending to reach out to Iranians. Multiple messages on the website, coming both from Israel and Iran, and elsewhere, demonstrate that on a person-to-person level there is enormous goodwill, curiosity and affection, and great desire to communicate. As with many social networks there is something of a naive belief that such forums can have a real impact (room for debate here…), but the sheer number of messages is remarkable and in their delivery they are overwhelmingly positive. One notable signatory is Joshua Fattal, one of the American backpackers detained by the Iranians for ‘spying’, and imprisoned for over two years.

A similar initiative is Tel Aviv’s Farsi-language Radio Radisin, which broadcasts Iranian music and poetry with the professed aim of fostering peace between the Israeli and Iranian peoples.

Meanwhile, although the Iranian regime may routinely bang the drum making belligerent statements towards Israel, it is not the case that the Iranian state – or people – are essentially anti-Semitic. Iran reserves a seat in parliament for a Jewish deputy and it remains home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East (outside of Israel, of course). In fact, Iran’s 25,000 Jews are well ensconced and live a life largely untroubled by the comings and goings of international relations. The Guardian noted that a campaign arranged by expatriate Jews in 2007 aimed at attracting Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel by offering sizable cash incentives was a flop. The Society of Iranian Jews dismissed the offers as ‘immature political enticements’ and the vast majority of Iranian Jews stayed put.

After all there is a great depth of Jewish history in Iran. There have been Jews in Iran far longer than there have been Muslims and there are numerous Jewish holy sites in Iran (these are holy to Muslims too). The Jerusalem Post reported in 2011 on a rabbi who visited Iran making a tour of the various significant sites. Rabbi Israel Meir Gabbai visited and prayed at the burial place of Biblical prophet Daniel in Susa, the tombs of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan and graves in Qazvin. He came upon sites preserved with “dignity and sanctity” where Muslims also came to pray. Wearing the garb of a haredi rabbi no less – so it was hardly as if he felt the need to travel inconspicuously – Gabbai encountered no animosity and in fact in several places was approached by locals who requested his blessings.

And on the issue that most creates tension between the two countries, it seems that the Iranian leadership may have severely underestimated its own people’s enthusiasm for the nuclear project. A recent online poll run by Iran’s state-run TV was hastily pulled from its website when the results came back with two to one Iranian respondents willing to forego any “natural right” to enrichment in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Perhaps Tehran should leave off the nuclear fusion and start making musical overtures…


Re-imagining Tbilisi

GEORGIANS like to claim that they are the original Europeans. It wouldn’t be a push to classify the Georgian government as “aspirational European”. In seeking to distance themselves from overbearing neighbour and long-term “protector” Russia, and endeavouring to strengthen ties with the West, theirs is an entirely Westward tilt. And in aspiring to be a part of “modern” Europe, some Georgians are briskly modernising their capital, Tbilisi.

Long regarded as the most attractive city of the Caucasus (including, by no less an authority than Lonely Planet!), Tbilisi betrays a diverse architectural heritage replete with Persian, Russian belle époque and native Caucasian influences. On my one visit to Tbilisi in 2007 I found its old town to be an intriguing warren of narrow cobbled lanes, stately churches and distinctive housing. Buildings feature a range of idiosyncratic flourishes; broad cantilevered balconies, wrought iron embellishments, intricate wooden lattice work, decorative architraves add charm, whimsy and human warmth to neighbourhoods that buzz with street life and appropriately neighbourly goings on.

There is no denying that parts of Tbilisi are quite dog-eared. Balconies sag, masonry is chipped, gutters sprout with tufts of grass and wild fig. Tbilisi’s elegance is faded, like a grand dame fallen on hard times. This, apparently, will not do for the city’s developers, or rather it presents opportunities for them. Gentrification is happening apace – too fast for some people.

According to this report, building works are often started on the premise that they are “restoration” projects when in fact what results is redevelopment. Even iconic buildings and locations are not immune. Gudiashvili Square is one area boasting notable buildings, yet developers have waded in with little understanding of the significance of buildings or awareness of the sensibilities of residents and have thrown up concrete and plate glass monstrosities, sometimes with plastic detailing in imitation of local styles.

European cinema-goers may already be familiar with some aspects of Tbilisi through the marvellous 2003 movie, Since Otar Left. This film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; it’s a loving and detailed portrait of Tbilisi in the immediate post-Soviet period. There are plenty of bleak panoramas, and the film documents the electrical black outs and financially straitened circumstances of the era whereby the heroines of the film have to sell heirlooms to get by. But the central European ambience of the city is also exquisitely captured: the depths of the Metro, dusty buses, post offices with terrazzo counters and glass partitions, the long summer gloaming, the explosions of greenery within residential districts, garden plots and plum trees, steep cobbled streets where neighbours tinker with cars and children kick footballs, grassy verges bursting with Queen Anne’s lace. And the distinctiveness of the Georgians and Tbilisi are on view: Georgian singing and conviviality, a city that is a medley of stately architectural styles and Soviet design motifs.

In fact, Tbilisi, like the other major cities of the Caucasus, has a very multicultural history. The city saw centuries of foreign control as Byzantines, Ottomans, Mongols, the hordes of Tamerlane and Persians rumbled through, and numerous peoples commingled. As recently as 1899, Armenians were in the majority, alongside sizable Georgian and Russian communities, as well as “Tatars” (Azeris), Ossetians, Persians, Greeks, Jews, Germans and Poles. In fact, the significance of Tbilisi for Armenians is strong: it was the birthplace of the great Armenian film auteur Sergei Parajanov, and – as was pointed out to me by some Armenian youths in 2007 – Sayat Nova, the celebrated bard of the Armenians.

What was noticeable on my visit was that Armenian Cathedral of St George (which houses the tomb of Sayat Nova, incidentally) sits just a short distance from Tbilisi’s only mosque, a place where the local Shiites (ie. Azeris) congregate to pray – proof that the two peoples can comfortably live side by side despite the bloodletting that has been unleashed on occasion in Yerevan and Baku. There is also a noticeable Turkish community centred on Aghmashenebelis gamziri in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili. I wondered past several Turkish restaurants, a Turkish Airlines (THY) office and heard the familiar cadence of Turkish banter. In the early evening near the Metekhi Church on the imposing cliffside plaza gazing across the Mtkvari River at the old town I heard groups of Turkish tourists chattering on their mobile phones to people back home in Istanbul.

There is also a faint Persian ambience in Georgia, something that distinguishes the entire Caucasus from other parts of southern Europe. The Safavid Persians took Tbilisi temporarily in 1522, then reappeared in the 17th century when the region was the scene of a wrestling match between the Safavids and the Ottomans. It was the Persians’ sacking of the city in 1795 that prompted Georgian king Erekle to seek the “protection” of the Russians. Interestingly, despite being a staunch US ally, the Georgians are now experiencing a warming of relations with Iran, having dropped visa requirements for Iranian tourists and enjoying an increase in two-way trade.

Getting back to my original discussion of the “restoration” of Tbilisi, I will end by remarking that it is not unreasonable that Georgians should want to refurbish their capital city and it may be trite for a distant observers like me to lament the loss of quaintness and hail Tbilisi’s ragged elegance. But the wholesale trashing of the city’s architectural legacy would be a shame, particularly because, if tourism numbers from Europe are to increase, as the government hopes, Tbilisi will be the primary magnet. Peter Nasmyth in his fabulous In the Mountains of Poetry, an account of post-Soviet Georgia, remarked that the Georgians are forgiving of any job that is not perfectly executed as long as the task is undertaken with heart, but it appears that in Tbilisi redevelopment is being undertaken only in pursuit of faux-Western modernisation and heart does not enter into it.

Incidentally, another fantastic book about Georgia is Tony Anderson’s Bread & Ashes – highly recommended.

Images from Afghanistan, art inspired in Persia

ONE OF THE curators of the fantastic “Love and Devotion” exhibition of Persian manuscripts that ran at the State Library of Victoria asked me to write a review of some associated exhibitions for The Asian Art Society of Australia Review. Turns out I missed the deadline, so I’ll put the review up here, along with some of my own random pictures from the bazaar in Shiraz (somewhere there are a lot of Hazaras milling around).





The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was, for many observers, one of the great tragedies of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The yawning holes left in the gritty sandstone cliffs after the Taliban’s determined and systematic dynamiting where once stood the imposing Buddha figures were pivotal images in the recent exhibition of photographs at RMIT Gallery by  Afghan-Australian photographer Abdul Karim Hekmat. Yet Hekmat’s exhibition served to highlight not only the loss of the Buddhas but also the difficult plight of the Persian-speaking, Shiite Hazara people, long resident in Bamiyan province and elsewhere in central Afghanistan.

Through his lens Hekmat observed makeshift schools attended by willing Hazara students, Hazara villages destroyed at the hand of Kuchi nomads competing for grazing land, the first faltering steps of democracy in Afghanistan at the election of September 2010. The result is an unflinching portrait of a desperately poor corner of the globe that receives little international aid and the people who inhabit it.

Here running water, electrical services and paved roads are unheard of luxuries. Yet Hekmat encountered moments of pathos and human warmth, such as in his image of donkeys wearing certificates of appreciation presented by their Hazara owners. These certificates, whimsical though they may sound, were also a form of protest against government neglect, awarded to the donkeys so they “should not forget us like others [do]”.

If all of this seems like dispiriting subject matter, the resilience and humanity evident in the photographs is heartening. The eagerness to learn is apparent in the eyes of youthful students at lessons conducted under canvas; serenity and stoicism is clearly written in weather-beaten faces. Similarly Hekmat’s images capture the harshness of the remote, rugged terrain but also sudden and surprising elements of beauty such as the intense lapis blue of the lake of Band-e Amir west of Bamiyan.

Running concurrently with Hekmat’s photographic exhibition was Only from the Heart Can You Touch the Sky, a collection of Persian-inspired artworks that also highlighted the plight of the Hazara. Taking its name from a quote from Maulana Jelaladdin Rumi, the exhibition featured the exuberant Persian script of Iranian-born researcher, poet and playwright Mammad Aidani, the calligraphy of Kabul-based artist Ali Baba Awrang and the paintings of Khadin Ali.

Inscribed in a large and flowing hand on a partition wall, Aidani’s script – excerpts from Rumi – greeted visitors as they entered the space. Ali Baba Awrang’s calligraphy is of an altogether different tenor. Discrete, intense and sometimes claustrophobic his creations are composed of home-made inks on handmade paper. Repeated brushstrokes layered one over another create images out of Persian script, with elements of duck-egg blue, gilt or brilliant red emerging from intricate lattice works of black. The works of Khadin Ali, now based in Sydney, display a similar intensity. Drawing on the ages-old Persian tale of The Shahnama, his own experience as a Hazara and classical miniaturist techniques, Ali incorporates mythical figures, elements of calligraphy and opaque washes of colour in his allegorical works.

Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan and Only from the Heart Can You Touch the Sky were held at the RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne, 12 April – 9 June 2012.

Life as politics in Iran

NEGOTIATIONS, or perhaps horse trading, are ongoing regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, with a new round of meetings between the members of the UN Security Council and Iranian officials scheduled for this week. In the meantime, it seems that sanctions are having some impact and are keeping the Iranians at the negotiating table. Still, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, is resigned to their effects. The New York Times reported him saying, “We have learned how to cope with these problems.”

Iranians clearly have a knack for overcoming adversity, and creating opportunity where circumstances are against them. The conservative Iranian regime is putting on a brave face, soldiering on despite its massive wealth being curtailed; at the same time Iranians on the street have long been adept at getting around societal restrictions imposed by that very regime.

Kamin Mohammadi, expat Iranian and sometime Lonely Planet contributor, recently reported on the various measures that Tehranis, young and old, take to pursue aspects of life that the regime seeks to prevent.  Her report brings the lie to notions that Iran society is dry and sexually repressed. In fact, prior to the creation of the Islamic Republic after 1979, Iranian society was noted for its progressiveness.

Despite the impositions of conservative mullahs that have been the norm for the last 30-odd years, it’s still relatively straightforward to find a drink in Tehran – home brew or black market depending on your fancy – and many young Iranians enjoy degrees of sexual liberation as their counterparts in the West do. More examples – as if any were really needed – demonstrating that legislating piety, or perhaps in this case “morality”, just doesn’t work. The Islamic Republic goes to extraordinary lengths to segregate the sexes, forbidding “illicit” meetings of unmarried couples. But as Mohammadi points out young Tehranis have simply taken to meeting in taxis and orchestrating frotting sessions by squeezing into shared taxis, which are routinely packed with as many people as can fit into them. Pretty tame really, but proof that hormones and fluttering hearts can’t be stifled by disapproving religious authorities or self-appointed “morals” police.

Societal strictures are one thing, but in recent years as authorities have clamped down on any form of collective action or social protest, Iranians have found sometimes ingenious ways of signalling their displeasure with the country’s political situation. Immediately after the disputed presidential election of June 2009, those convinced of the illegitimacy of the election outcome – which returned the incumbent, regime-sanctioned candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidential palace – took to the rooftops of Tehran and other cities to cry, “Allahu akbar” into the night sky. Such an action may hardly seem reactionary to Western observers, but  it is the height of irony that people should invoke the name of God to in defiance of a regime that claims for itself a pillar of religious legitimacy. It is a double irony that protesters who brought this regime to power in 1979 uttered the same cry against the Shah, whose system of repression, cronyism and unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth they were desperate to be rid of.

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, massively attended street marches were brutally disrupted, with large numbers of peaceful protestors taken into custody by government operatives. The clamp down was relatively slow in coming, but once it came the regime brooked no dissent whatsoever: no pretense of civility or rule of law, allegations of rape, widespread human rights abuses. So Iranians, ingenious as ever, devised other ways of signalling their displeasure. Time reported on a sly coordinated campaign in Tehran where dissenting locals turned on household appliances en masse in an attempt to overload the electrical grid. Subversion by toaster, iron and bedside lamp: you’ve got to love the gumption of it! Later campaigns, as reported in The Guardian, included boycotting products that were advertised on state-run TV, and a boycott of Nokia products – and this in a country that is mobile phone crazy. Nokia was alleged to have sold communications monitoring systems to the Iranian government, systems that were subsequently used to track down people protesting against the election result.

Three years on from the disputed election and Iranians have recently staged another don’t-buy protest. In campaign that appeared to be spontaneous Iranians refused to buy bread and milk in protest at escalating food prices. It seems that international sanctions imposed in reaction to Iran’s nuclear programme are having an impact on the domestic economy, so despite Khazaee’s bravado it may be that the Iranian in the street does not want to have to cope with shortages and rampant inflation. The milk and bread boycott gained momentum through social-networking sites and blogs, and as the Wall Street Journal reports, there were significant falls in grocery sales.

All of these subtle yet determined gestures from ordinary Iranians are examples of the politicisation of the everyday, a phenomenon identified in Asef Bayat’s intriguing scholarly work, Life as Politics. As Bayat argues, within authoritarian-ruled states it is often the case that ordinary citizens find mechanisms to voice their concerns and assert their political identities in understated ways, determinedly adopting positions that send signals of displeasure to the prevailing regime but that cannot be construed as subversive. A Tehrani may refuse to buy bread, thus signalling his displeasure with the status quo, but no regime, no matter how repressive, can prosecture him for not buying groceries. In Bayat’s model, people on the street may have no political voice and only restricted scope for political manoeuvring, but acting in concert they push as hard as possible against those boundaries, operating within that restricted space in the hope of bringing about change. Bayat calls these ‘non-movements’.

Of course, laying further irony on top of existing ironies, it was effectively one of Bayat’s ‘non-movements’ that brought down the Shah and saw the creation of the Islamic Republic. The more things change… perhaps…