Letter from the Editor: Je Maintiendrai
Welcome to the fifth issue of The Current Express. This edition touches upon one of the most self-reflective observations regarding the project — the fact that many contemporary Iranian cultural practices are globally dispersed, and perhaps more so than with any other nation currently. While various diasporas and expatriate contexts, especially in today’s world are increasingly common, the estimated 4-5 million Iranians and their descendants living abroad, basically equal to a small European country. And in some ways, the diaspora resembles a “country” outside the actual country, with economic activities and investments directed to the growing markets of Iran, as well as international visibility and cultural presence and production. While this divided condition is easily understandable from the point of view of an individual, as many opportunities are only accessible outside of Iran, the resulting cultural structure is unbalanced. Many things Iranian happen outside of Iran, resulting in a sort of displaced form of modernity.
Je Maintiendrai (I will maintain) is the national motto of the Netherlands, written in French below the country’s coat of arms. For a country in the stable heartlands of Central Europe, this aim might sound like an easy task, requiring merely to keep on. But for a cultural networked condition, existing both around the world as well as in a country where certain cultural practices are not able to operate, it is far more complicated set of questions: How to maintain, what to maintain — and what will be maintained? While the central inquiry of the Express is a focus on the moment of now, the question also becomes, is there a significant difference between what is created as current in different places and cultures? As we are increasingly sharing knowledge of a what is contemporary, does it matter where we are?
According to some estimates, Iran has the highest level of brain-drain in the world. This has not gone entirely without notice inside the country, but nevertheless some 150,000 people leave each year. However, never before have we been so connected as now that leaving is not anymore a leap into the unknown, something only based on stories from the overseas in a letter. Still, it’s personal. For many cultural practitioners (also visible in the works presented in this issue’s selection) the outside encounter is a major source for their work. But there are all kinds of limitations and aspirations. What does it feel like to leave? What does it feel like to arrive? What does it feel like being an outsider, or becoming an insider? Where does one actually operate? In the diaspora, or simply in the world?
In 2013, the 13th Istanbul Biennale asked Mom, Am I Barbarian? (Anne, Ben Barbar Mıyım?) — appropriating the title of Turkish poet Lale Müldür‘s 2006 book. The reference here is of course related to the word “barbarian” derived from the the Greek “βάρβαρος” used in the ancient world to separate foreigners and strangers from the Greek civilization. As further mentioned in the Biennale’s statement, Müldür’s book ends with the following exchange:
– Mom, am I barbarian? I wish I would have had no records in the archives!
– If you don’t understand the light and the high salons of the ‘Orient’, yes!
Perhaps there is something in this writing that is recognizable in many Middle-Eastern contemporary cultures. There exists a kind of simultaneous mixture of cultural celebration and suppression of things Oriental. For Iran, the question is perhaps even harder, as firstly being in the diaspora is not really always a choice, and secondly there are few contemporary platforms (like international biennials) that would dissect Iranian cultural issues. On one hand, there might be a need to break barriers and stereotypes, to educate and exist as ambassadors between cultures. On the other hand, it can be increasingly hard to cling on to the one or the other. It’s like asking, where do you want to be modern this time?
What exactly is the outside? If you don’t grow up in a country where it’s fairly common to leave, the question might never even come up. Ultimately, the idea of the outside world is a construct that requires the constant notion of the inside. And as one cannot truly inhabit both places at the same time, one will become at least in part a fantasy, whereas the other turns into reality. But is there actually anything wrong with this condition? Aren’t we always fantasizing and escaping into utopias, while living other realities? For certain things, you might need to always leave.
Or, can you stay and leave at the same time? Perhaps more than anywhere else, in the North-American context the idea of one’s heritage has turned into an easily definable, happy packaging. With perfect ease, a person can state being of “Lebanese descent, having a grandfather of Italian ancestry with some Canadian, Dutch, English, German, Irish, Scottish, and Swiss, while being raised both Protestant and Catholic.” (As a side note, this is a real example from a Hollywood actor’s bio). As such, it seems with time and an over-encompassing larger identity (in this case American), the smaller definitions of cultural heritage can become diverted from their original national identity (Olive Garden Italians vs. Italians).
But coming back to the works in the archive at hand, it appears that the difference of being of Iranian outside of Iran is often related to the unresolvedness of the contemporary condition. It’s that there seems to be no real choice for leaving. This persisting state of not-being-able turns into a more complicated question about the self. And perhaps here is the main reason to maintain one’s identity, preserving it, and fantasizing with it. There are many ways of operating in and experiencing a networked state of being.
The subject Amir of Maryam Iran Panah’s painting wears as facial mask and women’s pantyhose, in a cocktail of contemporary tragedy and Almodóvar-like whimsy. The painting (included in this issues selection of works further below) belongs in a series of works that visualize the surreal quality of the Iranian contemporaneity, and the ways of adaptation, forms of release and mental survival. Here is an excerpt from the story as told by the artist:
A mother who names her son after Cyrus the Great. His grandmother claims that when he is fully grown, he will bring back justice. There is no harmony between the picture that we see and the sounds that we hear. Neda says that she has liked Arabic dance since she was a child, but now her husband won’t let her dance. Her Faravahar necklace swings permanently in front of my eyes. Sogand tells me that she feels better since she started taking Xanax. She talks about the pleasures of sex and her own experiences. She says sex is as enjoyable for her as eating steak with mushroom sauce! Nowadays high-heeled boots have been declared an erotic article, but she wears four-inch heels. Parties with homemade schnapps. These days, Jahangir talks about the economy, which is in crisis. He speaks of the rising dollar and euro rate, the price of gold and the sanctions. …Ali said: “let us fly to Gran Canaria. You will be more relaxed. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you calm down?” At night we went to the Yumbo Center, where men wore women’s dresses, put make up on and danced. The freakier they were, the larger an audience they drew in to the clubs.
Elsewhere in the media, American-Iranian real estate agent Reza Farahan wears a mud mask in preparation for an interview. In comparison, to Maryam Iran Panah’s frantic description above of the mixture of traditional values and Western clichés becomes a nightmarish mixture, the mud mask of the out and proud reality TV star is merely skincare, captured by selfie on Twitter. So obviously, the public realm, too, has a global outside and a local inside for the same thing to visualize itself. And it’s not that being on TV is really the new normal, but it seems the latter experience is quickly becoming the more familiar one, regardless of where we are. It’s less and less shocking.
The Express Interviews
With each issue, The Current Express reaches out to artists, curators, writers, thinkers and other individuals with questions in line of the theme of the issue. From candid questions to reflections, the aims is to discover thoughts and insights beyond the visible archive.
Ali May is a broadcaster and an award-winning writer. He opened the London bureau of Europe’s most-watched international news channel euronews in 2010, covering a wide range of stories, as well as interviewing leading British and international politicians, public figures, artists and decision makers. Formerly, he worked for Bloomberg News as a Middle East reporter, focusing on Iranian politics, economy and society. Prior to that, he wrote a blog for the Independent called the Tehranologist. In addition, Ali has written for various magazines, and his book Geography of Attraction (2015) was recently published.
1. Do you consider yourself as a foreign correspondent, and if so, what does that mean, professionally, culturally — or literally?
Yes. That was my job title for a few years, when I ran the euronews bureau in the UK and reported on politics, economy, culture, etc. I understand where you’re coming from when you use that title “foreign correspondent.” However, I have a philosophical issue against the word “foreign” particularly when it is used to describe people who are non-Iranian, non-British, non-Dutch… I mean it’s a very alienating and divisive word, and I do believe words are important. So if necessary, I would rather speak of “cultural ambassadors” or so.
For me living in London has of course enabled me to pursue interests that would not have been possible in Iran. And this is probably the case for many others as well. Obviously we all have our cultural backgrounds, but for me, identity is a created matter rather than inherited. The things I have done in London have made me a Londoner. The fact that people come here to do their thing is in the nature of this global city, and for me from the beginning it really felt like a home I never had.
2. The idea of “being contemporary” is a central theme in The Current Express. Do you feel it’s funny that we are at times surprised by something interesting, alternative or even normal when discovering these notions in regions or cultural contexts we don’t usually associate them with?
This is the reaction I got after the publication of my book Geography of Attraction. It is a collection of nine erotic short stories, three of which are set in Iran. The response has been exciting, for instance I have been told that my Iran stories are really powerful, although I know my other stories set in the Pyrenees and in Sardinia are better written. But the fact that you open a window to a part of the contemporary culture that many are not familiar with has given me a very interesting insight and encouraged me to explore the field further.
3. Today the media’s narrative of things Persian spans all the way from the “Shahs of Sunset” to nuclear talks. What are the things you feel are still left uncovered, both outside and inside?
Atheism, critical thinking and sex. I think these three subjects deserve a lot more. For example, eroticism has not been a topic in visual culture, literature or in general for my generation. Because in addition to actual censorship, just by not openly talking about themes such as sex, certain things have been kept away from us and they carry unnecessary embarrassment and guilt. As for any plans of reaching the Iranian sphere more widely with my work, though I write in English, there are some thoughts and plans, so we will see.
Instant Telegraphy: THE BOOK CLUB
Telegraphy is defined as the long-distance transmission of textual or symbolic messages. Each issue of the The Current Express features Instant Telegraphy, a collection of items found in the instantaneous contemporary world, loosely or even randomly related to the theme of the issue. This 5th edition is all about books.
“I, personally, did not propose to be treated either as a peasant of a vizier in Persia. In order to avoid this I decided to go where there were no kings and princes and where every one was the master of himself, the king of his own soul.”
When I Was A Boy in Persia (1920) by Youel Benjamin Mirza
“As an American soldier assigned to duty in Iran (once called Persia), you are undertaking the most important job of your life.”
Pocket Guide to Iran (1943) by United States Army Special Service Division
“‘Keep on pouring some water.’ — Darius, the Achaemenid king of kings of the 6th century BC, tells the man to keep watering the contemporary Iranian (the plant), to help him grow.”
Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve (2011) by Slavs and Tatars
“My hand, the whole of my arm, my complete being felt paralysed. I was afraid that if I moved my hand she’d get upset and make a noise. I didn’t want to be caught.”
Geography of Attraction (2015) by Ali May
The theme of this edition, Foreign Correspondence, is ultimately a rather illusory title. The works gathered in this display are not purely visual results of cultural existence in or outside of Iran, but also works that consider the foreign and familiar quality of the world, somehow brought closer by the globalized condition as well life that merely happens.
In the works chosen for this issue, these lived and speculated observations range from literally slapping yourself (as in Why am I doing this to myself?) to adapting one’s appearance, from leaving-the-apartment to leaving-the-country and from hijacking Western culture into inviting confused friends over for caviar. In the end, the works display a variety of ways of being outside, inside and between.
Included in fifth issue of The Current Express are works from Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Negar Farajiani, Arash Fayez, Maryam Iran Panah, Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh & Ali Nadjian, Anahita Norouzi, Claudia Parwaneh Djabbari, Behnam Sadighi and Melika Shafahi.
Next Issue: The Business Special – 15 July
The Business Special of The Current Express is coming out on 15 July 2015.