Ala Ebtekar


Here’s a great (Persian only) video profile of Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar, from VOA. Ebtekar has produced some really interesting work across various media, and in this video he lays out his background and what inspires his art. I’m partial to his drawings on book pages, like this one.

(Thanks, Charlie James Gallery!)

The Art of Mona Shomali

mona-shomali

Iranian-American artist Mona Shomali paints lush, vibrant images of Kahlo-esque nudes in Iran-inspired settings. We asked her about her art.

Pars Arts: Your work was featured in the all-female, SoCiArts-produced show, feminine, where it stood out because of its interesting use of nudity. Your current series is called “Naked Folklore.” Can you discuss your use of nudes and why you decided to pair nude women with Iranian motifs?

Mona Shomali: Naked Folklore is a series of paintings that pairs together brazen nude females with Iranian cultural artifacts of great significance. The women in the paintings can question and transform ethnographic taboos, assumptions, and traditional rites of passage of both Iranian and American culture without fear of repercussions. These women are surreal and provocative as they experience their own self-defined identities- regardless of what is possible.

 

Shab-o-Sher & Samovar - Mona Shomali

Shab-o-Sher & Samovar - Mona Shomali

 

The use of nudity was my way of challenging the images of Iranian women I saw in the American media—black shrouded formless sexless women. Besides the paintings, books and photo albums of my family members, the only contemporary images of Iranian woman that I came across were with a “chador”, literally translated from Farsi to English as “tent”. I wanted to explore the sensuality, volition and complex desires of the authentic woman who was underneath the tent.

Nudity is also very significant taboo within Iranian culture and Iranian art history. Although cultures from Europe, Africa and the Pacific Islands have had their own figurative art movements featuring nudity, Iranians have not yet enjoyed their own figurative movement. A figurative art movement becomes even more difficult within the contemporary Iranian state. The Islamic government’s position is that nudity in art violates the limits of Islam – it is prohibited and shameful. This is an ironic part of my identity because the Iranian position on nudity could not be more in contrast with the bohemian “American-ness” of where I was raised: the San Francisco Bay Area.

PA: You emphasize that your work is not Iranian but Iranian-American. What distinguishes Iranian-American art – your art – from that of your Iranian counterparts? How would you define or describe the characteristics of Iranian-American art vs. Iranian art?

MS: This series is a narrative expression of what it is to be an Iranian-American woman, an illustration of societal “Iranian-ness” and individualistic “American-ness” that is experienced from adolescence to womanhood. It is about finding a personal balance between modernity and tradition – sorting through clashing cultural ideas of what it is to be a “good woman”, “good wife”, and “good daughter” and choosing a standard for oneself. It is a story that reflects a very distinct and specific period in history. My narrative also reflects the era of globalization, both the benefits and disadvantages.

Iranian-American art can not be collapsed with Iranian art because the histories and narratives are completely different and must be honored in their own right. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Iranians who live in Iran have had their own rich and difficult experiences that translate to their own collective and personal narratives. Contemporary Iranian narrative art reveals politically charged stories from the Iran-Iraq war, the divide of close-knit families, harassment by the Islamic police, the unfolding of the hostage crisis, student riots, protests, imprisonment, and so much more.

It is essential that I distinguish myself from Iranians that live in Iran. My cousin recently emigrated to the U.S. from Iran two years ago and she keeps a blog for her Iranian friends. She writes, “My friends in Iran do not know what it is like to go outside and feel the wind blowing through their hair”. Her story is of an Iranian living in America. My story is of being Iranian-American. I have never worn a chador and I have no idea what that must be like for all my Iranian female counterparts.

My Iranian-ness was experienced in the Western world – not based on contemporary Iran, but based on stories of immigrant nostalgia and American media images. Growing up with Iranian immigrant parents in the suburbs in the 1980s, it was impossible to escape the tension between Iran and the United States. I remember that at age 11, it was the first time I sensed from my friends that being Iranian was not a good thing. Unfortunately, I even asked my mom to not speak to me in Farsi in public out of embarrassment and fear of my young classmates. This was because I had internalized the negative images of Iranians I had seen in the American media. The hostage crisis had resulted in a lot of resent and hostile feelings towards Iranian immigrants.. In my early teens, I remember feeling defensive when asked questions about being Iranian. I felt as though I was always trying to compensate and trying to show alternative and positive perspectives of Iranian culture. Personally, I found it very difficult to operate and behave within two opposing cultural standards. I felt most comfortable somewhere in between rebellion and renaissance.

Iranian-American artists express the tension between the two countries of our diaspora identity, and as a result, our “Iranian-ness” becomes more accessible to the non-Iranians in the countries we live within. For example, one of my favorite artists is Iranian-French. Marjane Satrapi’s storytelling is through her comic styled books and widely acclaimed movie “Persepolis” has allowed for non-Iranians to have such a deeper understanding of Iran. Her stories are authentic and personal, but they can also be universally re-affirming for Iranians all over the world that can recognize themselves in her art.

PA: In the last few years, there’s been an inordinate amount of attention on Iranian female writers, particularly in the United States and Europe, and it’s become a bit of a fetish. Is this happening in the art world, as well? If so, how does this affect you in your work?

MS: With the current American focus on the Middle East/Iran, there is an teachable opportunity that writers can take advantage of. Especially for members of the Iranian diaspora living in America, writing a personal novel is a very revealing and non-threatening way to introduce the issues that Iranian women face.

Furthermore, writers, like artists, are interested in creating their own stories and versions of history. Unlike a textbook that deals with the orientalist version of Iranian culture, Iranian women’s art can provide a much needed indigenous perspective of culture and identity. Unlike the exact and reductionist nature of science, art is not “wrong” or “right” when it recounts events and stories that have taken place.

PA: In “Naked Folklore,” only one painting depicts a man – the rest are all of women. Can you describe the meaning of the painting with the man, “The Strength of a Vulnerable Man”?

MS: One of the reasons my mother left Iran during the Islamic revolution was because she did not want to wear the chador that would soon become mandatory Islamic rule. I always was aware of the official stated reason for the chador: that the bodies and head are covered so the women do not tempt men other than their husbands, etc. In the Koran 24:31, it states, “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it.” The idea that women “tempt” men is not only restricted to the Koran. In both the Bible stories of Adam and Eve and Samson and Delilah, it is a woman that tempts the man towards sin, or betrayal of God.

In many Islamic governments, it is law that the women cover up and keep hidden in order to “prevent” the man from sinning. The restraints are not on the men’s desires, but on the object of their desires. This stems from an assumption that the sexual desire of a man is not controllable, that men are reduced to savage animals that can not control themselves. Simultaneously, it becomes the woman’s “fault” for tempting or provoking the sexual acts of a man.

I am aware that women globally have fought long and hard to shed the outdated patriarchal restrictions that have been imposed on women by men. What I can not comprehend is how the state imposed chador helps create more value and respect for women. I do understand that all of us are a product of our gender socialization and conditioning. From whatever cultural vantage point that may be, we ask, “what makes a strong man?” and “what makes a strong woman?” To what extent do we “naturally” behave like our own gender? For certain cultural belts running through the world, behaviors such as machismo, possessiveness, protection or even violence may be expected of strong men. For other cultures, male strength may be illustrated through sensitivity, rational choice, due diligence, and in the measure of self control. Personally, I acknowledge that women possess sexual power, but I also acknowledge the restraint that the modern man is capable of. This respectful restraint should not be underestimated.

 

The Strength of a Vulnerable Man - Mona Shomali

The Strength of a Vulnerable Man - Mona Shomali

 

These ideas of strength and weakness are so deeply embedded into our cultures that we rarely question them – until these ideas clash. Gender politics are most heated when the norms and expectations for gender and sexuality are in transition. Because of these juxtapositions and contradictions between male and female strength, I wanted to illustrate the opposite of a classic image between Adam and Eve. What if it was Adam that was really tempting Eve by offering her the forbidden fruit? Would the ideas of “strength” and “temptation” change? Who would be vulnerable, and who would have to resist whom?

5 Questions for Angella Nazarian, Author, Life As a Visitor

lifeasavisitor

Angella Nazarian is a writer and psychologist in Los Angeles. Her book, Life As a Visitor, chronicles her family’s emigration from Iran and is available now in stores. For more info, see her website at AngellaNazarian.com.

1. Your book traces your emigration from Iran and subsequent life and travels. Tell us about the process that brought the book to print.
Angella Nazarian: Life as a Visitor was inspired by my two sons, Philip and Eli. I wanted to give them a glimpse at what it was like for their parents’ generation and our emigration from Iran. Heritage and roots are our gifts to our children.

2. In addition to your work as a writer, you’re also a psychologist. How does this background inform Life As A Visitor?
AN: My training in psychology has taught me to be self-reflective and more aware of how my feelings and experiences affect who I am. I definitely think that my writing is more intimate and I truly wanted to offer a genuine piece of myself to the reader, knowing that it will resonate with the reader.

3. I particularly love the title of this book; do you still feel as though you are a visitor? What does this mean to you?
AN: The title has many different interpretations. I do think philosophically, we are all visitors that life is a short and beautiful visit. But I also wanted to highlight the fact that our 2-week visit to Los Angeles ended up becoming our 31-year stay. As I discuss in the book, I consider Los Angeles to be my home now. It is where my husband and I have made our life together and where we have raised our sons. My travel experiences have shaped my point of view and helped me work through my feelings of living my life as a visitor. The challenges I face help me to grow and change in every aspect of my life and every role I play. That’s part of the beauty of life it s about the journey rather than the destination.

4. Throughout the book, you write about your relationship with your sons. How do you think living life as a visitor has influenced your parenting?
AN: I think that for most parents, having a child is one of the most amazing experiences in life. In Life as a Visitor, I discuss my feelings when Phillip turned eleven the same age that I was separated from my parents and how my kids natural process of growing up and separating from me compares to my own forced separation from my parents. Also, I think my experience of being separated from my parents at such a young age has positioned me to really connect with my kids, embrace their youth, and appreciate all of the joys of childhood.

5. Tell us about the personal growth seminars you teach in Los Angeles.
AN: The personal growth seminars came about out of my own need to dig a little deeper to uncover my true potential as an individual. I am firm believer that different stages in life demand different skills from us and it is only with a positive attitude and commitment to growth that we can blossom into who we are meant to become. In my personal growth seminars, we talk about the psychological underpinnings of why we at times feel stuck and how to change our lives in a positive way. These kinds of discussions in the seminars have been one of the greatest rewards for me as a facilitator and teacher.

Interview with Amir Motlagh, Filmmaker

Amir Motlagh is a writer, filmmaker, and musician who recently released “Whale,” a feature film that follows Cameron, a young, unpublished Iranian-American novelist (played by Motlagh) who has just returned home to Orange County. We interviewed him about “Whale” via email. 

 

whale_feature film trailer_director Amir Motlagh from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.

 

Pars Arts: Your new feature, “Whale,” is about an unpublished Iranian-American novelist who comes home to the OC to find his friends haven’t really grown up, and neither has he. Where did the idea for this story come from?

Amir Motlagh: The story is really my sentiment towards a generation of people who are lost in a sort of middle-class vacuum. I had been noticing a mass of mid- to late-twenties people moving back to their parents’ homes, without a concrete sense of direction, with financial problems, somewhat disillusioned, without the family responsibilities that, say, my parents had when they were my age. Maybe they’re educated, maybe not, but they’re frozen because of circumstance. There is a certain belated sense of growing up that might be a generational zeitgeist. At first I thought that this might be somewhat related to Diaspora, but I think that might not be the simple explanation. 

So I wanted to present a story based in that type of backdrop, but without placing importance on those talking points. The film is really about the characters, with the region serving as a backdrop and possibly another functional character.  

PA: The dialogue in this film feels really spontaneous and natural. Since your actors were also your friends, was there a lot of ad-libbing in the film?

AM: Whale is both scripted and improvised. Also, there was a mix of both professional and non-professional actors (predominately amateurs), some of whom I have known for a long time. I cast the film in a way that would create a comfortable and safe setting, enabling a sort of realism to emerge based on personal history, and that way I could maneuver the fictional elements in a less constricted way. But the film is first and foremost a fiction, so the truth lies in fiction. Which elements are “real” and which are not is not a pressing concern as far as the film is concerned. And the ad-libbing that was done all came out of a script and was staged in a way that served the story being told.

PA: You play the main character, Cameron, and your real-life parents play Cameron’s parents in the film. I loved hearing them speak Persian. What was it like working with them?

AM: They have had to deal with their son carrying a camera around for many, many years. But as actors, my mother was very difficult. She is the biggest sweetheart and one of the biggest influences on my own cinema, as she introduced me to many independent and international cinemas early in my life, but nevertheless, our working relationship might be over. As far as my father, he took direction very well. It was a funny experience, but I think they thought of it in a very innocent way, and maybe, they didn’t really feel a movie was being made. I feel that the process of the film allowed me to get into places and use people that would otherwise freeze in front of a larger production.

Amir MotlaghAmir Motlagh

PA: How do you think the Iranian-American background of your film’s main character colors the film, if at all?

AM: This is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer, but the main character’s heritage affects the film in what it doesn’t do or show. This film is about a type of ethnic assimilation into a suburban setting. You are only aware of Cameron’s ethnicity from one scene in the film, and maybe from some off-handed remarks made throughout the film. I’m not sure if I have seen this treatment of cultural elements in a fictional narrative film that uses an explicitly Iranian-American lead, but maybe the culture itself will start to dissect the process of identity in a more subtle way. 

Cameron is certainly “whitewashed,” and this in itself colors the notion of the film on a subterranean level.  And the film’s cast is a mix of races, something that you would certainly see in the suburbs of Orange County. Suburban culture leads to a type of homogenization, which in some ways is an American ideal. In that regard, Whale is a completely American film, in the context of a melting pot type of scenario. 

PA: I have to be honest – I was a little wary when I read the description for “Whale” because I thought it was going to be like Garden State. It has a similar basic premise – failed artist coming home – but “Whale” is not like Garden State at all, and I think what really surprised me about “Whale” were Cameron’s interactions with his friends – I think viewers would really get the sense that these guys, who are all kind of lost and floating through life, really care about each other. I don’t think men are ever depicted this way in films – at least, not earnestly. Is this something you were thinking about consciously?

AM: Oh God, Garden State, I didn’t even think that the synopsis would elicit a memory from that work. But now that I think about it, I can see where the inference comes from. This might just be a vocational hazard.  This film is as far away from that type of cinema as can be. 

I was thinking heavily about the relationships in this film, which was largely a reason I cast the way I did. And since the work is largely based on a realism paradigm, there is a large sense of objectivism present (not fully, of course);  the viewer has to decide how they ultimately feel about these people, but the men in the film, no matter how disillusioned, share a camaraderie and brotherhood with their fellow “homies.” Certainly, it’s not a mainstream ideal to present male characters in this fashion, but historically it has been done on the independent level.   

PA: We recently posted an interview with Shaghayegh Azimi, a young Iranian who distributes Middle Eastern films. Can you tell us a little about your experience with distribution as a filmmaker?

AM: Well, since my function is filmmaker, my interest is in film production, and I’m trying to get my next project of the ground. Someone else should handle the distribution end. My job is to get people interested in the work, so that someone hopefully comes and acquires the work. 

I only engage in distribution when its my only option, since independent film is a fickle business, and in today’s state, in many ways jeopardized, and many filmmakers will be forced for better or worse to function as distributor as well, but this is not a sense of joy for me. I would rather make movies, build an audience, screen to an audience and engage. As far as Whale is concerned, since it’s a new work, I will approach the film festival as its first route, then take it from there. As far as my other work, some titles are handled by a distributor, and others are not. Eventually, my goal would be to release a DVD of those neglected titles soon – hence, taking over the distribution by necessity. The hope is that by that time, I would have generated enough interest so that the process wouldn’t feel excessively painful.

7 Questions for Shaghayegh Azimi, Founder of Willow Films and Iran Inside Out

Shaghayegh Azimi is the 27-year-old founder of Willow Films, a film sales and distribution company focused on Middle Eastern films, and originator of Iran Inside Out, a project “dedicated to promoting the development and distribution of online film and video in Iran” (see a short trailer about Iran Inside Out above). Azimi is also the driving force behind American screenings of the acclaimed, avant garde documentary, Tehran Anar Nadarad (Tehran Has No More Pomegranates), which finishes up its national tour in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. on March 4 and 5 (see the bottom of this post for more details).

1. Tell us about your background in film. When and how did you start your company, Willow Films, and what are you working on?

Shaghayegh Azimi: I have always loved movies, and as a kid, I wanted to be part of the film world somehow, but I never thought of pursuing a career in it until much later on. I got into film by chance. I come from a business-oriented family and it has been a natural part of my upbringing. But my heart wasn’t in it, and after graduating from business school at NYU, I wasn’t sure if I would be happy taking the corporate path. Not only did I not want to wear a suit to work, but I also felt geographically unsettled. I had been far from my family in Iran for too long, and the idea of committing to a corporate job in the U.S. scared me. I feared that I would get too lazy to move back to Iran, where my heart really was.

During the summer after business school, while I was deciding what to do, I met a guy who wanted to make a movie about finding his father in Iran. It was called Calling from Tehran, and he needed a producer who could work in both America and Iran. It seemed like such an exciting offer, and it was! It also allowed me time with my family in Iran and time to decide on what I wanted in life. So I ended up in film.

I started Willow Films about a year ago, but I had been thinking about it for a while. After Calling from Tehran, I began to think of a career involving not just film, but Iran and the Middle East in general. I traveled to Syria for a few months and learned Arabic, and then did a Masters in Middle East Studies. Willow Films allowed me to combine my experience in film, business, and the Middle East.

2. How did you become involved with Tehran Anar Nadarad?

SA: I was in Iran in 2006 and worked on selecting films for the first International Documentary Film Festival in Iran called CINEMA VERITE, run by the Documentary and Experimental Film Center. Massoud Bakhshi, the director of Tehran Anar Nadarad, was one of the key people behind the festival and this way I was introduced to his film. At this point, my idea for a distribution company was only hypothetical, but when I saw the film, I had found my first project… It’s a great film and I’m lucky to have started with it.

3. You started Iran Inside Out to help Iranian film development and promotion, specifically using the online medium. How have Iranian filmmakers responded to this project?

SA: The goal of Iran Inside Out is to open up opportunities for the hundreds of talented and passionate young filmmakers in Iran whose films are rarely ever seen outside of small festivals inside Iran. The project also aspires to show a different side of Iran to the rest of the world (i.e., a view from the INSIDE).

Online video is not very popular in Iran yet, because of a lack of high-speed Internet access and also because the Internet is not as much a part of people’s daily lives as it is here in the U.S. I also think that Iranians prefer to watch media in social settings with their family and friends rather than alone on their personal computers. But DSL is becoming more common in Iranian households and I see a change about to take place. Iran Inside Out hopes to provide information and resources for media makers to make the most of the online space.

The response from filmmakers to Iran Inside Out has been positive, but the project has some obstacles: first, I am not in Iran, and second, Iranian filmmakers are still catching on to the idea that online distribution could lead to recognition and distribution opportunities. Some participants do like the idea of showing a different Iran and they care enough to make videos for free, but others are not interested because there’s no financial incentive. Another major obstacle is that aside from a very small grant from Rising Voices, I have chosen not to pursue other funding for Iran Inside Out because I don’t want any strings attached. My wish is that Iran Inside Out will grow organically, on a grass-roots level.

4. Considering widespread censorship in Iran, including online, how do Iranian filmmakers mitigate for this to get exposure for their work?

SA: So far there haven’t been any issues with Iran Inside Out, mainly because the project is too small. Besides this, there is an informal selection process and I am very careful to comply with the so-called “red lines.” Filmmakers are also careful themselves, as they live in Iran and are in no way going to jeopardize their careers for a few minutes of online exposure.

Our intention is to contribute to a more positive and personal story of Iran. I am staying away from any political or analytical stories because I think those should be left to real experts. That said, whether a story is “negative” or “positive” is a subjective matter. For example, a few Iranians were disappointed by Tehran Anar Nadarad because they thought it didn’t show enough of the “nice places” and “good-looking people” of Iran. I think these kinds of expectations rise as a reaction to the negative media about Iran in the US and Western countries, but that they limit artistic and human expression because it makes us more concerned with proving ourselves than just simply telling a story.

5. As a distributor, what’s your advice to filmmakers, particularly Iranians, who are trying to get their films picked up for distribution?

SA: Tehran Anar Nadarad has been my first experience in distribution, so I’m still very new to the industry. But from what I have seen thus far, it is as hard as they say it is to get your film distributed, especially when the market is small, as it is for Middle Eastern films. I have had a very hard time working on this film because the market for an Iranian film is limited, and the cost of advertising and creating buzz far outweighs the profits. Online distribution is changing the industry, but so far it is still only benefiting a few; iTunes, for example, only accepts films from a handful of well-established distributors.

The most successful independent filmmakers are those that do the majority of the marketing themselves and who are able to create a small community of fans around their work. When this is in place, it’s easier to sell a film, even if it means releasing the film only on DVD to a limited audience.

My advice to Iranian filmmakers is to make the best film they can make – from the heart, without thinking of the audience too much – and to send it to as many film festivals, online platforms, competitions around the world as they can. Often times, filmmakers are discouraged by the festival circuit because they hear how tough the competition is or simply because they lack the language skills to research festivals and fill out applications. So another word of advice is to find someone who knows English to help you. After that, the art will speak for itself.

Another note I’d like to make is that filmmakers often worry that they need connections to get into a film festival or to get recognition. My input on this is that it’s true for most filmmakers around the world, but the competition for Iranian filmmakers in particular is not as fierce, because not as many Iranian films are submitted (as compared to American films, for instance). If an Iranian filmmaker has a good film and gets it out to festivals, it’s bound to get attention. So in a way, coming from an underrepresented country has its advantages. I think it must be much harder for a first-time filmmaker in the U.S. to make a name for himself/herself than it would be for a first-time Iranian filmmaker.

6. A lot of Iranian-Americans are creating films that explore issues of multiculturalism and identity. What issues or trends do you see surfacing in Iranian films made by filmmakers in Iran?

SA: I see a lot of short documentaries given to me by various filmmakers, but I haven’t watched that many fiction and feature-length films from Iran in a while, so I’m not sure how to answer this. My guess is that there isn’t a very definitive trend, but I am probably wrong. One thing I can say is that when it comes to documentaries, the majority are too serious, heavy, and often depressing to watch. I am not against documentaries for social causes and understand that these films do reflect on really important issues. But I also think that somewhere down the line, Iranian filmmakers started to think that sadness sells – and for me it doesn’t sell. So I would really love to see more lighter, colorful, and funny documentaries. Simply because it will help everyone’s mood, including my own.

7. What’s next for Willow Films and Iran Inside Out?

SA: When I look back to last year when I began Willow Films, I am amazed at how little I knew about the industry and that I decided to create my company anyway. Film distribution is very difficult, and I am making a lot of mistakes and learning from them as I go along (I hope). For now, Tehran Anar Nadarad is moving on to DVD distribution and I am planning a unique campaign for marketing the DVD and online downloads of the film. I’m also looking for a partner for Willow Films.

As for Iran Inside Out, I’m really passionate about it and cant wait to have more time to spend on it.

Tehran Anar Nadarad is ending its U.S. tour this week – catch it in SF or DC:

WASHINGTON DC 
March 4 & 5 - 6:15, 8:00, 9:45 p.m.
The Landmark E Street Cinema
555 11th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
CLICK HERE for tickets.

SAN FRANCISCO 
March 4 & 5 - 6:15, 8:00, 9:35 p.m.
Embarcadero Center Cinema
1 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111
CLICK HERE for tickets.

Interview with Iason Athanasiadis: Exploring the Other

Exploring the Other - Iason Athanasiadis

Photojournalist, writer, producer, and 2008 Nieman Fellow Iason Athanasiadis has spent years covering the Middle East, and he’ll be showing his work at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles from January 25 through March 29 in an exhibition entitled “Exploring the Other.” We asked Iason about his experience working as a journalist in Iran.

Pars Arts: An exhibit of your photographs of Iran and its people, “Exploring the Other,” is opening at CAFAM shortly. When/why/how did you become interested in Iran?
Iason Athanasiadis: In the 2004 Olympics, I was working for BBC World in Greece after having spent years in the Arab Middle East, including covering the US invasion of Iraq for al-Jazeera. After the spotlights went out over the stadiums and the large BBC Olympics team disappeared back to London, I wanted to take a year off and go back to university. Serendipity knocked when an Iranian friend of mine told me about an MA program being offered by an Iranian university that would also mean moving to Iran. I jumped at the chance. It was one of the best decisions I made in my life.

PA: You’ve spent quite a bit of time living in and reporting from Iran. What do you think is the biggest challenge for foreign journalists in Iran?
IA: Several issues, chief of which is how to reconcile on-the-ground narratives that are more conflicting and widely-dispersed than from almost any other place that I’ve reported on. It’s very difficult to do fact-checking when the narratives are sometimes diametrically opposed, the government bureaucracy unresponsive and the craft of ‘foreign correspondent’ is synonymous with ‘foreign intelligence operative’ in the minds of many.

Paperwork is required to work anywhere in the country, minders are ever-present, and official permits never arrive or come long after the news deadline has elapsed, However, Iran is also by far the most fascinating country to work on off-the-radar stories about society that break the dominance on the news agenda of stories about the nuclear program, human rights abuses and purported Iranian designs on the region. And however often we in the West say that the Iranians are paranoid and see conspiracy everywhere, my stay in the country often proved to me that “just because one is paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.” This recently-published story demonstrates the truth of this, I think: Revolutionary Inroads.

By far the best journalist writing from Iran these days is Thomas Erdbrink. His wife, Newsha Tavakolian, is one of the most talented of the next generation of photographers.

PA: The exhibit’s press release notes that your work “challenges visitors to question how media information is presented (and filtered).” As an experienced journalist, can you briefly explain this filtering process?
IA: The blame lies both on the side of editors suffering from an anti-Iran bias or not enough knowledge of the country, and on the side of a government that refuses access and hinders coverage of the country.

PA: As a photojournalist and non-Iranian yourself, what makes the images of Iran you’ve taken different from those your fellow journalists are creating? In other words, how do these images sidestep filtering, or make the filtering process more transparent?
IA: As a non-Iranian I see the country with a freshness that, unfortunately, I lack in covering my own country, Greece.

We always see the new through a different perspective than the one with which we view the familiar. Excellent work from Iran has been created by several photojournalists; the majority of them more talented and senior than me. Some of these are Reza Deghati, Majid Saeedi, Kaveh Golestan, Bahman Jalali, Paolo Woods, Mohammad Farnood, Jamshid Bayrami, Gilles Peress, Nasrollah Kasraian.

If we want to talk about sidestepping filtering, it’s easy to do this if the primary place where the filtering happens is in the head. I made sure to learn the language, read as much as I could about Iran and speak to those who could enlighten me about the true nature of the country. As for the second main place where filtering happens, the editor’s desk, as a freelancer I have the great luxury to choose not to work again with editors whose handling of my work I have issues with.

PA: You’ve had numerous photo exhibits around the world, including in Iran. How have Iranians in Iran reacted to images of themselves?
IA: I made a point of turning up to my Tehran shows every day of their duration and engaging with visitors on their perceptions of the images. I learned a lot of interesting things from these encounters.

For example, one visitor was pleasantly surprised to see the picture of the man with weighing-scales that he had passed by every day since he was a child in Hamedan’s main square, hanging on the wall; Iranians in Greece and the US have enjoyed seeing images of a homeland they have not seen since leaving it before or after the Revolution. Many of them express surprise, sadness, joy or melancholy at how their country looks today. Often these images do not jive with their own narratives.

I learned much from the criticism that visitors – thankfully Iranians are not shy about their emotions – expressed about my work, and tried to use it as a spur to improve my perspective.

Most memorable was the comment a Tehrani journalism made about my work. Of all the people depicted, she said, the majority look sad, disconnected. Why did I portray them like that? What was it in my own psychosynthesis that prompted me to click the shutter on these moments?

The comment stuck with me because it was true, and I questioned myself over it. Even in my current show, one of the rare images of people laughing is on the ski lifts in Shemshak, a place that at the time the image was taken effectively lay outside the orbit of public morality.

Maybe it has to do with me. Maybe it has to do with the way in which the citizens of the Islamic Republic present themselves in public.

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates: L.A. Screenings and Q&A with Director Massoud Bakhshi

Experimental documentary Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is coming to L.A. this week, with two screenings each on Wednesday and Thursday at the Landmark in West LA, at 7pm and 9pm (details at Sociarts). Watch the film’s opener above, and find out more about the film and its director, Massoud Bakhshi, in our Q&A below: 

Pars Arts: The narrative context of Tehran Has No More Pomegranates – the “musical, historical, comedy, docu-drama, love story, experimental film” you’ve created – is a report you’re writing that explains why it’s not complete. This self-reflexivity – referring to the process of creating the film, within the film – continues throughout. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to couch the story in this context and format?

Massoud Bakhshi: Personally, I am fascinated by form in cinema, and “film in film” or “making of” has always been a wonderful plattform for any narrative film to me. And I think here in Iran, stories behind the camera are more interesting than those in front of it.

PA: The idea of a story or film not being complete or finished seems especially appropriate for a story about a big city, because they’re so dynamic. It took you five years to edit the film: how many iterations of the film did you go through, and how did you know when you were done?

MB: I am always working with a script, no matter if it’s fiction or documentary. I had the complete story of this film in my hand in 2000! And then I changed everything in shooting and especially in editing. I think a good film never ends -it continues because it remains with its audience. But this film is “unfinished” in its form because I think nobody would be able to finish a film about Tehran! 

PA: I read that you were really limited by the equipment available to you to create the film (namely, a camera that didn’t record sound), and that’s partly why even the footage that’s not archival has a retro feel. In fact, for a person that doesn’t live in Iran, it can be somewhat difficult to tell if some of the color footage is archival or not. Is that something you were going for all along? Do you think you would have approached this film differently or had a vastly different result with different equipment? How much did the limitations of your equipment help or inspire (or interfere) in shaping the story you told?   

MB: I think limits make young people more creative, especially here in Iran. I had lots of problems getting 35 mm stock, because everybody asked “Why are you making this film in 35mm and not in video?” But from the very beginning I wanted to make this film in 35mm, because I wanted to give life to dead, archival film footage and I was quasi-sure that I was making a film that captures the face of a very changing city and society and wanted to transmit this picture for future generations. The fact that we couldn’t record voice forced me not to use 25 hours of interviews I had recorded in video, blow them up in 35mm, and to make myself content in using the 35mm rushes I had in a different way.

PA: There are sizable doses of both history lesson and nostalgia in this film, particularly in the narration of Nosrat Karimi and in all the different music you used, which I imagine resonate a great deal with Iranians around the world. Have the reactions of the Iranian diaspora to this film been markedly different from those of audiences in Iran?

MB: Well, I saw different reactions in different places, but among Iranians, young people and old people both loved the film and its music. I think the different music used in this film evokes many different time periods in Tehran and that’s why people from different generations like it.

PA: You’ve said that your aim with Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is to hold up a mirror and reflect back a true image of Tehran and the country at large. The movie seems to be the most critical of the city in certain scenes that are cut off, or when your voiceover clearly contradicts the reality of the visuals on the screen – and in fact your voice seems that of the classic unreliable narrator (or at least the narrator that’s not playing it straight). In fact, the only character that does seem reliable is Jafar, who emerges throughout as a sort of protagonist. Most of the other characters are just visual portraits. How did you settle on him as the truth-teller in the film?

MB: I think he found us himself and he put himself into our film. From the beginning, I was telling myself not to shoot poverty and the poor so that I won’t be accused of making a “geda-geraphy” film (a the term invented for filmmakers focusing on those subjects so they can go to festivals with their films). But Jafar was an exception. He is not acting – he’s just telling the truth about himself and about the city, and that’s why he’s a key in the film. I shot him for just five minutes and I think I used all five minutes in the film!

I ‘d love to screen the film one day in his presence, and I know that he’s still wandering the streets of Tehran, looking for someplace to sleep and something to eat.

Re-Interpreting Googoosh: An Interview with Musician Payam Bavafa

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Meet Payam Bavafa, songwriter/guitarist in a San Francisco-based experimental rock band called Sholi. The band’s most recent EP, “Hejrat,” features an awesome cover of Googoosh’s song by the same name. We asked Bavafa, the group’s sole Iranian-American member, what Persian music means to him, and why he and his bandmates – drummer Jonathon Bafus, bassist Eric Ruud, and keyboardist/percussionist Greg Hagel – decided to cover the Persian pop legend. Here’s what he had to say.

Pars Arts: Tell us about Sholi; how’d you guys get together, and how’d you pick the name?
Payam Bavafa: I started playing music with Jon (the drummer) in Davis, where we were both going to college. I wanted to have a Persian name for our group, and Jon liked “Sholi,” the nickname that my dad gave my brother and me when we wrestled as kids.

PA: Your newest release is a 7″ entitled Hejrat, which is the name of the famous Googoosh song you’ve covered. Why the fascination with Googoosh, and why did you choose the song Hejrat?
PB: Googoosh was the predominant soundtrack to youth in Iran in the ’70s. My mother came to the United States then as a college student, and like many other young Iranian girls of the time, she was fascinated with Googoosh… her voice, her looks, her dancing, her fashions. For today’s middle-aged Iranians, including my mom, listening to Googoosh’s music is reminiscent not only of Iranian ’70s music, but the family and the culture they left behind. Thinking about how powerful this inherently nostalgic music must have been to my mother and other Iranians struck a particularly strong chord in me.

My original idea was to do an entire album of Googoosh covers, reinterpreting them with Sholi as a means to turn American audiences on to her music and story. However at the time (November 2007), this seemed a bit ambitious, and also political rhetoric between Iran and America was escalating in such a way that I felt the urge to make a more concise statement right away – one that would turn an American artist’s fan-base on to Iranian music and culture and vice-versa. That is still pretty ambitious, I suppose…

It was also then that I read an essay by Hamid Nafisi called The Making of Exile Cultures, about the impact of media, particularly television, on Iranian expatriates looking back to images/sounds/relics of their pre-revolutionary past for a sense of cultural identity. This led me to thinking about how I seek out my own cultural identity, with Internet and new media playing a prominent role. The YouTube video and audio clips we sampled for the 7″ – the front-cover image of Googoosh on the TV taken from the Hejrat music video, the image of Joanna on the back cover taken from the Sprout and the Bean music video, and the audio clip of Iranians being interviewed about what they do for fun at the end of Sprout and Bean, are all a testament to Nafisi’s ideas and also the way I connected to the songs myself. My good friend Michael Aghajanian posed our parents watching Googoosh on television at his house in LA for the cover shot.

As for why I chose “Hejrat” in particular… it started with seeing the music video and being intrigued. After looking further into the lyrics and speaking with some Iranians, I realized that it’s commonly regarded as one of Iran’s most beautiful songs. I believe that the literal translation of the title is “Migration,” and it’s about a lover that has departed. I wanted to re-frame the song to be about Iran itself leaving the hundreds of thousands of natives who were essentially forced out of their homeland at the turn of the Islamic Revolution, a theme that I think Googoosh herself embodies.

PA: You’re the sole Iranian in Sholi’s lineup. How did you introduce Googoosh to your bandmates? Have you guys explored other Persian music, and do you have plans to do other Iranian covers?
PB: We don’t have plans for more covers at the moment, but I think that Persian music is something that is inherently explored within this band… in the melodies, rhythms, tunings, 1-chord song structures.

I introduced Eric (our bass player) to Googoosh’s music a long time before he was in the band. I could tell he was moved by it, not even knowing what the song was about. More recently I gave everyone “Googoosh: 40 Golden Hits,” a best-of compilation on Taraneh Records my friend Razmin turned me on to.

PA: The B-side of this album is a cover of the Joanna Newsom song, “Sprout and the Bean.” Again, an interesting choice, as Newsom’s ethereal folk-style contrasts so much with Googoosh’s 1970s disco-chic. What does Newsom’s music represent here?
PB: I think “Sprout and the Bean” is beautiful and poses an interesting counterpoint to “Hejrat,” thematically. The song climaxes with a chorus of voices asking “Should we go outside?” Googoosh’s answer, through “Migration,” the name and theme, is delivered on side A. The backwards sequencing here – implying action or “migration” preceding thought or choice or questioning – is suggestive of many Iranians’ sudden plight at the turn of the revolution. A large number of these exiles still look to the past for answers in their search for happiness and a sense of cultural identity. While Joanna’s and many Americans’ existential dialogue is far-removed from political pressures, Googoosh’s and the expatriated Iranians’ dialogue is heavily centered on their cultural displacement. Joanna embodies the fantastical and other-worldly, and works within an original, mystical universe that she’s seemed to have created all on her own. I think that her work moves the audience forward into a fantasy realm, rather than backward into a realistic, nostalgic one. It’s full of “danger of broad boats,” “hollow chatter of tadpoles,” among a myriad of other fantastical constructions that are characteristic of her free-flowing musical ideas. To me, what Googoosh represents now is a repressed cultural icon. Her songs have rigid, repetitive structures, and are mostly romantic in nature. Her work, in its current context, is most often interpreted as nostalgic, turning listeners back to the way their lives were before political circumstance changed everything.

PA: You’re touring now, with recent stops in Brooklyn complete. How has your music been received thus far, especially the Persian-language Googoosh cover? A couple of your stops were in my old neighborhood, Williamsburg – I’m so curious about what the hipsters made of your show.
PB: I think we were received well at [Brooklyn venue] Union Hall. The place was a strange combination of hipster kids and 30-something parents with their babies playing bocce. This Norwegian prog band called Ungdomskulen played with us. They were awesome.

Oddly enough, the Googoosh song has been the highlight of many shows among Americans and Iranians alike. In Portland, this very nice Iranian woman came to the show with her American husband, and they liked it so much they welcomed us to stay the night at their house! I feel like in some ways doing such a cover has allowed us to connect with a crowd of people who would have never connected to our music otherwise… the main example of that being my parents. Another highlight was a Take Away Show we recently did with director Vincent Moon (yet to be released). For one of the videos we walked through Dolores Park in San Francisco carrying guitar, cello, and bells, playing “Hejrat” to hundreds of unsuspecting listeners.

PA: What other Persian music has influenced your and Sholi’s music?
PB: Lately I’ve been listening to the Golha Radio Programmes (The Flowers of Persian Poetry and Song) on radiogolha.com. They are very beautiful and inspiring; it’s so nice that they’ve been digitally archived since their original broadcasts from 1956-1979.

When I was young, I listened to a lot of Andy and Kouros, and actually still do. I think Balla is one of the best Iranian pop albums. Besides that, Shajarian, Javad Maroufi, Ebi, Hayedeh, Marzieh, Dariush and probably a hundred other artists that I couldn’t name that my parents have filled the house with since I was young. A lot of traditional Persian music.


Hear Sholi’s music here:

Grow, Watermelon, Grow: Interview with Iranian Author and Illustrator, Charlotte Noruzi

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In her first children’s book, Grow, Watermelon, Grow, New York-based Iranian designer/illustrator Charlotte Noruzi uses both Western and Iranian themes to tell a story from her childhood. The resulting work is bright, cheerful drawings about a little girl who insists on growing her own watermelon.

Because much of the book relies on an elegant mix of styles and some pretty innovative tools (see below for Noruzi’s description of using actual watermelon slices to make prints), it’s also arguably one of the most sophisticated children’s books on the market, especially among those with an Iranian theme. Which is not all that surprising when you consider that Noruzi is a design/illustration professor at Pratt Institute and has a host of other accolades to her name.

I first saw this book and met Charlotte at Mehregan last year, where my friend and I bought her book even though she wasn’t at her booth at the time – we left our money with the sweet Iranian ladies in the adjacent booth and came back to chat her up later. After keeping it to myself for so long, fi-i-i-i-nally (as she writes in her book), here’s a Q&A with Charlotte Noruzi. You can buy the book here.

Pars Arts: Grow, Watermelon Grow is about a little girl’s (your) desire to grow her own watermelon. Why did you choose this particular story for your book?
Charlotte Noruzi: I never thought much about this event in my young life until I mentioned it to my friend, Ronnie Lawlor, three years ago. She was so taken by it and it was after her suggestion that I seriously took into consideration bringing this story to life. Little did I know that I would be starting on a journey of reconnection with my childhood, sometimes painful and sad and sometimes funny and joyful. In a way this book is about sharing myself with the world, bringing to light something kept hidden. On the cover, the girl’s face is half-hidden by the watermelon slice. The desire to plant the seeds, to have them sprout up out of the earth, is the desire to be seen, heard, to feel validated, and also, to see the “fruits” of perseverance, belief and determination. It was very important to prove to my parents that I could grow something too. I realize now the great significance of this simple desire to grow something of one’s own. It’s my hope that these messages come through in the story.

PA: The illustrations in this book really make it quite sophisticated… did the illustrations come first, or the words?
CN: Thank you. I started making one or two line drawings of myself as a child. I was taken aback by how natural this process was, of drawing myself and my family as we once were. The resemblance was shocking. The drawings flowed out as if it had been waiting for a very long time. After that I started writing. Somehow
words create an anchor from which the illustrations can flow. They create the imagery. I remember working this way even as a kid, always illustrating words.

PA: Do Iranian themes or motifs, either classical or contemporary, influence your other work? How about in the classroom, where you work with students as a professor at Pratt?
CN: Iranian themes and motifs influence my work quite often. I love hand-lettering and calligraphy and this comes right out of my Persian roots. The book is very much based on the patterns, colors and designs in Persian art and I was also inspired by Persian children’s books I grew up reading. I often introduce Persian and Middle-Eastern design and calligraphy in the classroom. There is a freedom of expression and strength of language that students seem to respond very effectively to and their work, in turn, becomes freer and more expressive, more unusual. The mix of Western and Middle-Eastern mark-making and graphics always creates rich and unusual results, in my opinion. I guess you can say that about people as well, who are a combination of those “graphics.”

PA: What’s been the response to your book from Iranians? What about non-Iranians? Do they recognize the Iranian elements in the story?
CN: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think people, both Iranian and non-Iranian, are truly touched by this story. I never imagined such a heartfelt response. There have been numerous moments of recognition/relating to the story when a person will exclaim after reading the first page: “My mother also told me never to eat seeds… I remember that!” or “I tried growing my own seeds once, too.” It’s so great.

Non-Iranians are more curious about the writings in Farsi that I’ve integrated into the illustrations. One person impressed me so much by recognizing the Farsi interwoven into the earth, leaves and worms of the illustration where the little girl is watering the seeds. I think I had an unconscious motivation to “secretly” place Farsi into the art. I did not think anyone would notice so much, which reflects the way I thought growing up, keeping my intrinsic identity a secret so that I was not criticized or looked down upon because of it. But now, people are open to, curious and impressed by my heritage and that is a good feeling. Iranians ask if the story is written in Farsi as well, and that has got me thinking about doing a Farsi version.

PA: Can you describe the process of illustrating this book? I read that you used actual watermelons for some of it…
CN: Yes, I dipped watermelon slices into pink ink and created mono-prints from it. I was curious to see the impressions that the watermelon surface made, the texture and the areas that remained white (where the seeds once were). There’s one print that contains a small “heart” shape, purely by coincidence. I also used the watermelon rind and intertwined my drawings in with them, to make the end pages.

The illustrations are a combination of pen and ink drawings and watercolors. All the art was done by hand. Then I experimented with them on the computer, where I layered patterns creating different visual effects, like batik or silk screen, for example.

Some of the drawings were done at the Secret Garden Conservatory in Central Park, NY, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I gathered artistic inspiration.

PA: You’ve self-published this book; what was that process like, and is it something you’d recommend to others who are looking to enter the children’s book market?
CN: The process of self-publishing was challenging, fun and extremely rewarding. I had initially priced the printing of the book in New York/the States, which at first discouraged me by being exorbitantly expensive. But then I googled printers overseas, choosing one in Hong Kong whose reputation, quality of work and service I was confident with.

I visited Book Expo America (BEA), a publishing event held in New York last summer that brings large mainstream publishers and indie publishers to one place, along with distributors, wholesalers and printers. Luckily, the printer I was going with had a booth there and I was able to talk about my project with their New York rep, who put my mind at ease. It was a little nerve-wracking to think of my book being produced somewhere so far away, where I had little control and no way of going on press to check the outcome! I had to trust it and there was much releasing (of control) I had to do in the process.

The whole process is pretty magical: you send a PDF across the world and a get a bound book in return. And the end result was better than I ever expected.

I would definitely recommend self-publishing as a viable alternative. Attending BEA was an encouraging experience as it gave me the opportunity to talk to several people that had taken that route successfully.

Initially, I wanted my book to be published by one of the big publishers and had it looked at by a few. Although
I received very positive feedback, they wanted me to change the story line and, having several colleagues that
published their work traditionally, I was well aware of the compromising I’d have to do with my artwork and
writing. I was not interested in doing that. I wanted full control. It is important that people also realize that a
publisher will give a nice advance when they agree to publish the book, but you’re book is one of many, and
most of the marketing responsibilities and initiatives fall on the artist/author. So it’s up to them to keep promoting it, not the publisher.

Self-publishing is a harder road, in a way, and there are times where I get discouraged and lose momentum and motivation. But you have to just keep going with it. This book so far had put me in contact with such a diverse group of people. It’s about connecting to others through your art and letting it take you where it will.

PA: Who are your artistic inspirations?
CN: Picasso has probably been the most influential artist in my life. His endless experimentation, curiosity and sense of play is something I have been very inspired by. For this book, I looked at Picasso, Paul Klee and of course, my own culture: Persian miniatures, calligraphy and children’s books, mainly an old one from the ’70s called My Room’s Lizard.

PA: Any plans for other books, either for children or otherwise?
CN: Yes, I have a couple of other books that are in the works and next on my list to be published but for now I am focusing on Grow, Watermelon and seeing where it takes me. I am interested in expanding the book into an animation, teaming up with watermelon farms, and even creating a clothing line, but all that is very much in the future and it’s one step at a time…I have to remind myself of that.

[Image: Grow, Watermelon, Grow book cover, Charlotte Noruzi]

Interview with Shahrnush Parsipur, Author

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Shahrnush Parsipur is arguably one of the most important Iranian writers working today. First published when she was just sixteen years old, much of her writing casts a spotlight on the lives of women, in a style that combines frank language with magical realism. Parsipur has been jailed under both the Shah’s regime and that of the Islamic Republic for her work, which is currently banned in Iran. Most recently, Parsipur was the first-ever fellow of the International Writers Project at Brown University, and her e-book was published in late 2007.

In our interview, Parsipur discusses the impact of manic depression on her work, and explains how writing fiction is like playing God.

Pars Arts: Your new e-book, The Continuing Stories of Men from Various Civilizations, is a series of stories, all of which were written in the United States at different times. Can you describe the process of writing this book?
Shahrnush Parsipur: In 1992 I was invited to go around the world to speak – I wanted to go to Sweden and Germany, but I was jailed in Iran. So after I got out of prison, I came to Los Angeles and traveled to different cities to speak. In every city, I wrote a story. My first impressions of America were in these stories.

The America of Americans exists in many other stories already; this book deals with the America of a foreigner. When we first come here, what we see and notice are billboards of Coca Cola ads or big bags of popcorn in the cinema. Or massive portions of food. Or the big Chinese, Jewish, and Indian influence here, seeing the number of restaurants. This is what a foreigner sees. Most foreigners don’t go to the Midwest, so they don’t see traditional American life. Mostly we go to the east and west coasts, the hubs of foreigners, and that is what I wrote about.

PA: Why did you decide to publish this as an e-book, rather than as a traditional print book? Have many people have downloaded the book?
SP: Nur Karlica Iverson, who created my website [and illustrated the e-book], asked why I didn’t sell my books online. So in October or November of 2007 we published these stories in an e-book. There haven’t been many downloads because I’m not sure how to market them. And some people have trouble with downloading it because they don’t have the right software.

PA: This book, like Women Without Men, has strong elements of magical realism. Why do you prefer this style?
SP: Old Iranian stories use this style a lot, like in One Thousand and One Nights. All of these elements are in this book. And I use this old style now because there are a lot of things that you can’t say plainly. When you write about a country like America, when you pass through it and see a bird’s-eye view, you can see a lot, and I used magical realism to capture this.

PA: You have noted Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Sadegh Hedayat as influences. In fact, this new book reminds me a lot of Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor (The Blind Owl), which relies on repetition with a difference as one of its main devices, as does your book. Why did you use this device in your e-book?
SP: When I was writing these stories, I was mindful of the differences that Iranians in Iran had with each other. Some people insisted on having beards, a symbol of tradition. Some people insisted that they were creative types and wanted to listen to music and drink; they’re the “tar player” of my stories. And others would shave their beards and just be ordinary. So I took these three types and decided to have fun with them and these stories came to existence from me playing with these three types of characters.

PA: You’ve spoken before about your struggle with manic depression. Many of the most successful writers in history have suffered from depression, including Hedayat. What role does this illness play in your work and in the way that you write?
SP: I didn’t have manic depression until I was 44 years old. I’ve now had it for 16 or 17 years. I think part of it is the influence of technology in my life; maybe it has to do with some electrical imbalance because of too much exposure to computers. Also, the times I spent in prison in Iran were a strain on me, emotionally.

The way that I’ve coped with this illness is that I’ve put magical realism aside. Before this, my mind would fly from place to place. Now that I’m manic, I try very much to keep my spirit calm and balanced. I stand in the way of my imagination, because I have to take care of myself. There’s no one else to take care of me.

In this sense, men who write are lucky and have an advantage. When they become writers, someone else usually cares for them – a woman. They go out and drink a lot and come home to collapse, and the women take care of them. But when a woman falls apart, there’s no one to take care of her. So because of my disease and because I have to take care of myself, my art, instead of moving forward, has perhaps suffered. When my mind wants to play, I don’t allow it to do so.

This illness started when I wrote Aghl-e Abi [Blue Reason, published in 1990 and not yet translated to English], and those around me didn’t think I was sick – they thought I was just very deep. So I lived with this for some time before I got myself treatment.

PA: Part of the reason, and maybe the main reason, your work is banned in Iran is its sexual content. Why do write about sex and why do you think sexuality is such a problem in Iran?
SP: Middle Eastern people have always been under attack and in wars and conflict, and this has made them take on a role of guardians of sex and sexuality of women; the attackers have always killed the men and sexually assaulted the women. So in a way the Middle Eastern society sees itself as guardians of women. But they’ve become such guardians that they’ve become oppressors.

Lately I write about my own sexual experiences for Radio Zamaneh. I see it as necessary, because as an older woman, I want to write about things that young women do and often feel guilty or bad about. Because I did those things, and maybe that helps them. But still I think sex will always remain a taboo for Iranians, because Iran is a central place that was always under attack. America is relatively far from its enemies, so there’s not that constant, unconscious fear or threat of rape.

PA: In the last few years, much of the most popular literature written in English by Iranian women has been memoir. Now we are seeing more fiction. Have you read any of this work and do you have any thoughts about it?
SP: Though I read many female authors, it’s mostly Persian work. I am aware that many women write memoirs, and I think this is because writing fiction is very scary. Writing fiction is like being a god. Getting to this point is a little difficult. Women are tiptoeing to this creativity by putting down their memories first. They write their memoirs, and when the fears go away, they can write stories.

Fiction was hard for me, too. When I finished Sag va Zemestan-e Boland [The Dog and the Long Winter, published in 1976], I felt like my entire being was empty. When I finished Touba, I felt like my being was shaking. And when I wrote Aghl-e Abi, I couldn’t believe it was me that wrote it.

Now, in America, I’m away from my homeland and no one understands my language, and I don’t understand theirs. When I publish a book now, ten people here read it and tell me it’s interesting, but it’s not a fortifying experience. If I was in Iran, the feedback would be more inspiring because it would come from a big community. For there to be a fire, there must be some fuel. When you live in exile, you burn yourself out.

PA: What are you working on now?
SP: I’m writing a book now that’s been about Iran and now I want to add a section about America, which I’m still debating about. Asiyeh Dar Miyan-e Doh Donya [Asiyeh Between Two Worlds] follows the life of an Iranian woman that goes from a village to the city and becomes a servant.

PA: How do you see your place in Iranian literature?
SP: I am a writer, age 61, and have a place among my peers. I don’t see myself as a very important person. But I was the second woman to write a novel in Iran, and I have written most of the novels about Iranian women. In this way, maybe I have a good place in Iranian literature.

[Image via Voices from the Gaps]