On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




Georgia: at the crossroads

HAVING SHRUGGED off the jealous embrace of Russia, and after beginning a stumbling approach towards Europe, Georgia is coming into its own. Georgians like to think of themselves as the original Europeans, yet EU membership remains a much-longed for but unlikely dream, for the time being.

In a recently released movie The Loneliest Planet (what was inspiration for that title!?!), a young couple endure travails and challenges to their relationship while trekking in the Georgian Caucasus. Despite not overly positive reviews of the film, it might go some way to putting the country on the radar of Western travellers.

tbilisi-from-metekhiCertain others, however, have already discovered the delights that Georgia has to offer. Georgia is establishing strong business and tourism links with the Middle East. The largest Georgian airline, Airzena, has recently launched direct flights to Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Kurdish holiday makers are availing themselves of the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast, visa-free no less. It appears that few Georgians are returning the compliment, that is taking the return flights, even though the Kurdistan region is the most peaceful and by all accounts beautiful region of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been for some time making a bee line for Georgia, having similarly launched direct flights and dropped visa requirements in 2010. Economic ties are strong, and there is considerable two-way traffic, with Georgians commonly seen haggling in the bazaars of Iran, and Iranians joining in the clamour of Georgian markets. The two countries have some shared history – if not always entirely happy. In fact it was the threat of ongoing Persian domination that prompted Georgia’s King Erekli II to ask Russia, a fellow Christian nation, for protection in the late 18th century. That ‘protection’ lasted until the 1990s.

In Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s wonderful novel Paper, a tale set, to my mind, somewhere on the cusp of Persian territory and the Caucasus (even though the back cover blurb says it’s in Central Asia) during the Qajar era, a wily  Georgian envoy milled amongst Persian mullahs and other characters, while a tormented scribe hankered after the eponymous paper. (Note to self: must reread this some time.)

I once encountered a wily Georgian of my own in Tbilisi. On my final day of my visit I marched into a carpet shop that I had been circling for some time and announced that I wanted to buy a Georgian carpet. The carpet seller, a woman with a bad peroxide job partially grown out, produced several options, assuring me that all were authentically Georgian. When I had chosen and gone through the haggling process and all was agreed, the woman let slip that this was a carpet ‘from a Georgian village near Tabriz’. I didn’t remonstrate, figuring that there was at least some Georgian aspect to the item. On a later trip to Tabriz (the Tabriz that’s in Iran!) I saw many a carpet very reminiscent of my ‘Georgian’ purchase, and was roundly told that there was no such thing as a Georgian village anywhere nearby… A dodgy carpet seller: who would’ve thought…

tbilisi-castleGeorgia is also establishing stronger links with its neighbour to the west, Turkey. There is a sizable Turkish community on Aghmashenebelis street in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili in Tbilisi, and I have encountered Georgians working (usually at menial jobs) in Istanbul. In fact, there was a long history of Georgians playing significant roles in the Ottoman hierarchy. Relations between the two countries are again strengthening, with plans afoot for the construction of a new mosque for the Turkish community in Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. In return, Turkey has pledged to contribute to the refurbishment of derelict Georgian churches in the valleys in and around Yusufeli in the northeast of Anatolia.

I recall visiting a church near Dörtkilise, in Turkey’s so-called ‘Georgian valleys’, in the mid-1990s. The church, a sturdy structure in golden stone, appeared along a remote track, surrounded by robust greenery but no other constructions, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Inside: whizzing bats, dim  light coming through slim, arched windows. On a bare stone altar, delicate curlicues of Georgian script. And on the back wall, conflicting graffiti scrawled in charcoal in Turkish: ‘one day Islam will rule the world’; and ‘we must protect this church’.  There is hope now that the latter sentiment may be acted upon.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the recent experience of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not indicative of Georgia’s prospects as it embraces its near neighbours: on a recent trip in Turkey he fell off his bike and broke his arm…

Christmas in Iran

IT MAY SEEM incongruous, but every December Christmas decorations appear in Tehran. Perhaps it’s not such a weird idea, after all, there was a Persian at the nativity – so the legend goes – but no Westerners as such: Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, was a Persian scholar.

Received wisdom, meantime, may generally equate the Islamic Republic of Iran with an attitude of extreme intolerance, and a monolithic populace conforming to some (misperceived) Islamic stereotype. In reality, pluralism and diversity are part and parcel of the Iranian social fabric. So, while Khomeini’s stern visage may glower from oversize billboards, in some shops you will find Christmas trees, cards and even nativity scenes.

si-o-se-isfahanIn Tehran, this is likely to be a middle-class phenomena, evidence of the pro-Western stance of significant segments of Iranian society. In Isfahan, in the neighbourhood of New Julfa, south of the Zayandeh River, Christmas is more than an aspirational Western affectation, for this is the Armenian quarter, home to a centuries-old Christian community that has long been embraced as an integral part of the Iranian nation. Here, Armenians celebrate Christmas with gusto on January 6th as is the case with the Eastern churches (for the Western churches, this is Epiphany).

New Julfa is in effect a part of Armenian that has been picked up and placed in the heart of historical Persia. The centrepiece and focal point of the neighbourhood is the imposing Vank Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, but there are a dozen churches, schools and an Armenian cemetery. Far from a cowled, tremulous, oppressed community, Armenian identity here is proudly upheld and displayed. The language that rings through the streets here is Armenian, not Persian.

The exterior of Vank Cathedral, with a central dome reminiscent of a mosque, is bulky and commanding; the interior reveals more lightness of touch, more artistic flourish. The artwork here – allegorical frescoes, tilework – are a hybrid of  Eastern and Western styles: some floral motifs are apparently painted in a Persian miniature style, but to my eye would not be out of place in French baroque cathedrals.

vank-cloistersIn the cloisters, Armenian girls, no less sassy than their Persian counterparts, congregate and chatter. They wear a jeans-sneakers-tunic-headscarf combo to comply with Islamic dress restrictions, but they carry it off with a certain insouciance, headscarfs slipping back from mahogany tresses.

The Armenians were brought by Shah Abbas to his new capital in the early 17th century, shifted wholesale from Julfa, on the Caucasian fringe. Abbas intended them to act as his agents in political and economic dealings with the West. As detailed in a post on Ajam Media Collective, the Armenians  slotted neatly into the Persian socio-political framework, forming a relatively autonomous merchant oligarchy.  At the time, the Ottoman Turks to the west had made it illegal for their subjects to trade with Shi’ite Persia, so the Armenians stepped into the breach, creating flourishing trade networks across the Ottoman realm and further into western Europe.

The Armenians became an integral part of the upper crust, as it were, in Abbas’ Isfahan – notable Armenian families invited the shah to celebrate Christmas. However, as Monash University scholar James Barry points out, Abbas did not necessarily champion the Armenians’ cause out of the goodness of his heart, or some benevolent notion of multiculturalism. In fact, Abbas was being much more pragmatic. It was political and commercial expediency, pure and simple. Abbas distrusted the Persian (Muslim) commercial classes – and perhaps feared a strong Persian merchant bourgeoisie as an oppositional power – so nurtured and promoted the Armenians in their stead.

There are Armenian communities elsewhere in Iran, including Tabriz, another important trading city. St Mary’s Church, near the Tabriz bazaar, proved inviolate behind firmly closed iron gates when I passed through in 2008, but in The Way of the World, his outstandingly wonderful travel memoir, Nicolas Bouvier relates living in the Armenian community of Tabriz through the winter of 1953. He tells how on his first night there the locals came to see he and his travel companion, “these foreign Christians, escaped from an easier world”.

tabriz-bazaarWith exquisitely dexterous prose Bouvier details the freezing winter and evokes the sense of community, local rivalries, characters and dramas, including the saga of an Armenian girl who took her own life because she’d fallen in love with a local “Muslim”(it is not specified whether he was Persian, Kurdish or Turkish). To the modern reader, Bouvier’s book recounts an altogether less-troubled world. They drive in a Fiat from the Balkans, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan without any of the attendant issues that would waylay modern travellers. However, the fragmented nature of the world-wide Armenian community is apparent: as Bouvier observes them tuning into the Patriarch of Echmiadzin (at that time within the Soviet Union). “Each Christmas he sent to his brothers in Iran faint but politic encouragement over the air-waves of Radio Baku,” Bouvier tells us.

Meanwhile, communal relations between Persians and Armenians remain strong. Armenians are free to celebrate Christmas in Iran, and increasingly Iranians journey to Armenia for their holidays, including Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Iranians head north into Armenia to enjoy the more liberal atmosphere, to escape the constraints of Iran’s Islamic dress code and to hear Persian music acts that are banned at home. This is all made possible by a simplified visa regime between the two countries that has come alongside strengthening ties between Armenia and Iran and that makes zipping across the border relatively straight forward. Interestingly, however, Armenians appear to enjoy holidaying anywhere other than Armenia, heading in increasing numbers into  Georgia, or even Turkey.

That Armenians would choose to holiday in Turkey strikes me as particularly incongruous given the historical controversies and modern acrimonies that pollute relations between these neighbours. The Turkish-Armenian border remains closed (despite the protestations of many on both sides of the border) and diplomatic relations frosty. The closure of the border, in turn, hobbles the economic development of Armenia, meaning that significant numbers of Armenians, many of them women, head to Turkey (passing by way of Georgia) seeking employment or economic opportunity. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Armenian women are working in Istanbul, centred on the historical Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapı. As they are without papers, they effectively form an economic underclass, however they perform an important role in certain segments of the economy.

The contrast with the buoyant and assured entrepreneurial class in Abbas’ Iran could not be more stark. In Istanbul are women performing menial roles – often those that Turks won’t do – raising their families alongside them in straitened circumstances and sending money home to relatives in Armenia. This is in contrast, too, to the status of many Armenians in pre-20th century Istanbul, and other cities of the Ottoman realm, where Armenians often played prominent roles in politics, trade, society and literature. (For example see Mavi Boncuk’s post about Armenian lexicographers who played an important role in developing the Turkish language.)

The Armenian presence was all but expunged from Anatolia during the poisonous events of 1915. This was a tragedy for the Armenians, and I would assert that it was a tragedy for Turkey as well, as yet unreconciled. It means that in İstanbul, and elsewhere in Anatolia, where Armenians lived for thousands of years, Christmas may not be (openly) celebrated. Meanwhile, across the border, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the mullahs hold sway, the Armenians are busily exchanging Christmas cards and adorning shops with decorated trees.

Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.

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…

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…

Another view of Iran…

SQUEEZING IN another blog post before the end of the month, I’ll include a link to a story I wrote for Eureka Street, pondering the recent Oscar win for the Iranian film, A Separation, and the Persian Cultural Crossroads conference I posted about earlier. You can read the Eureka Street story here.

The most positive thing to come from the Oscar win is that Iran made headlines for something different: not war or weapons or bellicose utterances from some official or “mullah”, but a cultural acheivement. Ashgar Farhadi, writer and director of the movie, recognised this as a moment to capitalise on, trumpeting Iran as somewhere with a rich and venerable culture rather than just as somewhere that is anti all things Western. It’s a valid point. Iran boasts millennia of cultural achievement; the anti-Western tilt of the Islamic Republic is little over 30 years old, and, I’d wager, not very deep rooted.

The Tehran regime had no time for conciliatory statements or expressions of friendship such as Farhadi made. State TV initially trumpeted the award as a triumph over Zionism, on the basis that the Israeli film Footnote was also nominated for Best Foreign Film. However, Reuters reports that Israeli and Iranian filmmakers came together at the Oscars, leaving aside such petty rivalries, the Israeli stars of Footnote remarking on the warm-heartedness of the Iranians.

Iranian hardliners subsequently criticised A Separation for its depiction of the grim realities of Iranian life. Yet the Iranian movie has been enthusiastically received in Israel, attracting praise from critics and large crowds of movie goers keen to gain a window into Iranian society.

And it would appear, on the basis of the movie’s international acclaim and the enthusiastic attendance at the State Library of Victoria’s Love and Devotion exhibition, that there is considerable interest out there, people who want to be able to see beyond the sabre rattling and see what really makes Iran tick.