Monday, December 14, 2009

Ditto that!

I remember it vividly. About exactly a month ago, I woke up to the image of a sheet of carbon paper left over from some dream in the early morning hours and, too, to the smell of fresh school copies made on cranked copiers. Strange nostalgia! I don't remember ever seeing one of those machines -- whatever they were called-- and I had to ask around if anyone remembered them.

As a kid, I was always suspicious of a test if the page didn't stain my fingers with that warm, light blue or purple ink. It wasn't fresh enough, was it? But more importantly, no hand-out, no test, was really that important or that good, if it didn't have that intoxicating smell you remember if you are of my generation. The ditto sheets, made by spirit duplicators, belonged in our childhood classrooms. We did our French verb conjugations on them. Churches had them too, if you were so inclined. And, yes, it may just have been "the spirit", yes that intoxicating smell of alcohols in the solvents used as "inks" that eventually banned the "Banda" machines from schools. As much that, as the "high-volume xerox copiers" that displaced them. The memory of those spirits still excites us.

But why all this nostalgia?

Just reading the Wikipedia entry on the ditto sheet, had my friend Chris and I nearly in tears.

For my part, at least, looking back, there was an atmosphere surrounding those ditto sheets that never really returned after I was done with school. I remember the sheets in my college classrooms, too. Vaguely. But it was the collective ritual of raising up the sheet and smelling the spirit of the verbs to be conjugated; the ritual of standing outside in the school yard in the freezing cold, wrapped in our hats and gloves, and feeling the wet snow pressing through our leather boots and our thick woolen socks and talking and talking and talking endlessly over the answers to the questions on the test, as some smoked and some cuddled and massaged, or jumped up and down to stay warm... It was that whole sense of belonging to each other, to that place, to that light, to that piercing northern air, and to that moment. All of that was summed up in the fragrance of the ditto sheet. And as strange as this sounds: There was aura there, reproduced over and over and over again, as my world turned.

I clung to every single one of those sheets we got in school, put them carefully in my folder, and kept them perfectly neat through all my years in Norway.

Today, even the most important xeroxed papers get left behind after my faculty meetings. I insist to have the URL of the website to "what-ever-it-is" rather than lug another pile of paper home, folded, soiled with chewing gum and torn up here and there for a to-do list, an email address, or a book mark.

The generation before ours doesn't really have that nostalgia for the ditto sheet. Not really. They remember cutting, I mean literally cutting and pasting paragraphs together to write their essays with scissors and glue. That generation gets worked up by the sound of the typewriter. And frankly it doesn't care much for our texting habit.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Of Veiled Men & Revolutions

Most upheavals and revolutions have failed in their attempt to achieve their goals once the so-called "opposition" has come to power. This is as much true for the Algerian War of Independence of the 1960s as it is for the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s. Women took to the streets, shoulder to shoulder with their men in both revolutions and when the war was won, those very women were forgotten. Once again, banished to their apartments. Assia Djebar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade speaks about this in a poetic language that still haunts me now almost 20 years on.

In the Algerian War of Independence, men donned veils to hide weapons and women walked "naked" in the streets of Algiers to accomplish various missions "dressed" like European women in the Quartiers. So the use of the veil as a technology, as a weapon of war, is not new. In Iran it dates back beyond the Babi movement of the 19th Century.

In our time, in our upheaval, Twitter, YouTube, Flicker and Facebook are the technologies by which global involvement in the post-Election crisis of 2009 in Iran has been accomplished. Much has been exchanged and acheived in the last 6 months since the June 2009 election in these very media: images of Neda's martyrdom were circulated on social media, videos of student protests were distributed and then, later, appropriated by traditional media networks, and global pleas for Human Rights were voiced and campaigns launched through them.

But had you told me yesterday, the day before the six month anniversary of the election, that I would see my male friends and colleagues veil to support a tortured and humiliated student activist (Majid Tavakoli) in Iran -- a man photographed in a veil in Iranian State news because of a speech he gave in public, I would never have believed you.

Last night and today my friends, my heroes, and my colleagues appear in social networks in green and black and blue and multicolor headscarves, acknowledging the plight of both men and women in a State that does not recognize the rights of a people to be free.

Here are some of them:

Babak Takhti (the son of the great wrestler Gholam Reza Takhti)

Hamid Dabashi (the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, the oldest and most prestigious Chair in his field.) Photo credit: Golbarg Bashi

Pascal Uccelli (The great French poet and writer who also loves Beth Hart)

And the many many hundreds of Iranian men and boys on social media who call themselves Majid. They veiled. They caught us completely off guard. And stunned our senses in the most revolutionary ways!

UPDATE: Pascal Uccelli has translated this piece into French. Awesome!

UPDATE 2: To suggest, as some have, that these gestures are mere acts of "postmodern transvestism" is to disregard their function within the long history of forced veiling and forced unveiling in Iran and to ignore the many roles played by the Iranian chador in the nation's uprisings from the Babi movement to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

This archival video from March 1979 shows the early demonstrations by women against the imposition of the veil (hijab) on women in Iran:

(My deepest gratitude to Golbarg Bashi for drawing my attention to this archival footage. Golbarg Bashi is a Swedish-Iranian feminist and a Professor of Iranian Studies at Rutgers University)

Placed in the proper light of history and in the blinding glare of a bloody struggle for civil and human rights in Iran today, only fools would call this quiet show of strength and resilience in the face of brutal force, a gesture of "postmodern transvestism". In one stroke these brave "Majids", have openly shown their resistance to an enforced gender apartheid, their opposition to a State that consistently violates Human Rights, and voiced their desire for civil liberties. In this, they have just now arrived to stand proudly next to their sisters who have been at the forefront of the movement for basic rights for all since the early years of the last century. In looking at the photographs below, I am reminded of the words of the great Persian modernist, `Abdu'l-Baha : "...let it be known once more that until woman and man recognize and realize equality, social and political progress here or anywhere will not be possible. For the world of humanity consists of two parts or members: one is woman; the other is man. Until these two members are equal in strength, the oneness of humanity cannot be established, and the happiness and felicity of mankind will not be a reality."

UPDATE 3: BBC World Service's The World and Woman's Hour and CNN's Fareed Zakaria follow up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I <3 my Tweeple!

That's me in awe of the "devastatingly charming" @mbhulo! He set off a lot of bells and whistles at Heathrow.

What I love most about being on Twitter is the unbelievable mix of amazing people I get to meet in real life. In the last two weeks I met a number of the people I adore on Twitter on a trip to Europe. I met @redjives and @seddigh at a conference in Leiden, @mbhulo at Terminal 5 in Heathrow, and @marxculture in South Kensington. While in England, a friend @dariushimes to whom I was initially introduced through my Twitter friend @toddicus, suggested I go and visit the Hackelbury Fine Art Gallery. There, a favorite photographer of Darius and mine, Masao Yamamoto, was showing his newest work.

It was also on Twitter that I met @secondcinema a while back and had the opportunity to give an interview on my work on Iranian Cinema at the Carolina just before I headed to London. I love the Second Cinema interview which I have embedded below. But what thrills me more is that I can now say that I am iTunes downloadable. And you know what? THAT rocks!!!

Here is a video I captured of the Masao Yamamoto exhibit:

Here's a video from the conference on Iranian Cinema that @redjives & @seddigh attended and which I spoke at

And finally here is my interview with the sparkling Hilary Russo @secondcinema on Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema

Monday, September 21, 2009

Counsel Returns

A few weekends ago, I met my new friend Andre Blackman at Madhatter for a brief breakfast and exchange. We were first introduced by Jody Ranck who I have only met on Twitter . Both Andre and Jody tweet on public and global health issues and though my work has very little overlap with the work that they do, I am invested in following their work and interests online as well as in "RL".

Andre told me about his vision for public health and his idea for using Social Media in the context of global health that morning, and as he was doing that, I decided to turn the microphone on and ask him to say some of the things he was telling me to my friends on Twitter. Here's the recording.

To my surprise, as we were getting ready to go, Andre asked if he could ask me some questions on camera about the uses and influences of film and social media on public health. Here is his interview with me on video.

Interview with Prof. Negar Mottahedeh - Impact of Film from Andre Blackman on Vimeo.

As I say in the interview, the fact that I've been working on the films of the Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, brought his 2001 film A B C Africa to mind.

In A B C Africa, Kiarostami captures a documentary focus on issues related to AIDS in Uganda with a celebratory joy that permeates the lives of the people he encounters throughout.

To me, this film is a document of the possiblities of social media. It is Kiarostami's first digital film, one in which he handles his own camera and thus experiences the camera's democratization. But A B C Africa is also a film which combines important "information" regarding a global threat with something which I refer to as "counsel"-- the imparting of lived experience, of wisdom, of life. Walter Benjamin has suggested that "counsel" or "wisdom" "is less an answer to a question than a suggestion about the continuation of an ongoing story" ("Storyteller"). Counsel is the gesture of weaving experience into the fabric of life. To tell stories while creating things with our hands is a form of counsel that contrasts with the dissemination of information-- which according to Benjamin is devoid of the aura of a lived life and largely the function of newspapers and some forms of documentary film.

As I was talking to Andre, I saw how social media can functionally transformation a world dominated by information. In fact I realized that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, allow us to broadcast moments of our lives and experiences --counsel-- as we share critical information about a world that concerns us. Knowledge, once again, is imbued with life experience in our time.


Andre followed up on our conversation this week with a post of his own on "The Promise of Film and Online Video for Public Health" in his blog Pulse + Signal. Check it out! Here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Elegant and Elemental

I never tire of watching Abbas Kiarostami's Five. The combination of natural, elemental forces, and the human and technologically mediated incident simply bring me to life and charge me with wonderment and delight.

I have for some time now enjoyed my exchanges around art, books, photography, music, philosophy, literature, technology and the wonders of our age with my friend Darius Himes. And we have, off and on, both remarked on our love for Kiarostami's work. Then suddenly yesterday, amidst the hustle of the Duke-at-work-Saturday, I discovered that Darius had used one of our favorite Social Media tools to make a short film about the book and the wind. I love it. It reminds me of passages in Kiarostami's Five. Elegant and elemental. Wind and paper ... then, movement, the essence and object of cinematic fascination from the start. (Remember the rustling of the leaves in Lumiere's The Baby's Meal [Repas de bebe, no. 88, 1895]?**)

Follow Darius Himes on Twitter here. I do.

** In Lumière’s Repas de bébé, of 1895, it was not the relatively repetitive activity of feeding the baby that captured the attention of the audience, but the small matter of leaves rustling in the background, moving discontinuously in an otherwise imperceptible breeze. A small matter perhaps, but for an audience familiar with the closed circuit of mechanical illusions of motion (via such devices as thaumatropes, zooetropes, phenakistascopes) the discontinuous demarcated the territory of the real, and confirmed the verisimilitude ceded to the camera. --Thomas Zummer "Arrestments: Corporeality and Mediation"

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Iranian Cinema in the Twentieth Century: A Sensory History

I presented this essay as talk in Toronto for the 40th Anniversary of Iranian Studies.

The essay addresses itself to the century long history of cinema in Iran, focusing on the history of the senses as they combine with and are extended by film technologies. It argues that Khomeini’s aim was to produce a transformed and Shi’ite Iran by purifying the sensorial national body by means of film technologies. I thought you would enjoy reading it.

Sensory History

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Press Pass to Picasso and the Allure of Language at the Nasher

It's pretty incredible to think back and remind myself that I started The Negarponti Files only last semester, and that I started writing it with the intention of thinking through social media and frameworks for social action in the context of art, culture, politics, education and innovation.

The Negarponti Files received its very own press pass today to go to the preview of "The Picasso and the Allure of Language" at the Nasher Museum of Art. It was also the first time that the Nasher invited bloggers to come to their press previews, and that was all Wendy Livingston's doing.

She and I connected via Twitter when I posted a note on the upcoming Picasso exhibit at the Nasher, an exhibit I became aware of when a friend and professor at Duke put it on her Facebook feed. All this to say, that none of what happened today would have happened without our ability to collaborate and connect through social media networks, across disciplines and between institutions at Duke.

The Picasso exhibit is truly inspiring! It opens on August 20th,2009 at the Nasher. It has already showed at Yale where it was originally curated by Susan Greenberg Fisher.

Focusing on the writers that influenced Picasso and those he represented in his paintings, in particular, the exhibit itself blurs the lines between writing and painting and highlights collaborations that just happen to happen between artists because they are friends: Picasso's many heads of Balzacs (1957), his illustrated letter to Leo and Gertrude Stein (1906), his glowing illustrations of Pierre Reverdy's Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead, 1948)

In her opening remarks, curator Fisher discussed a little piece, a collage, that represents the kernel of the exhibit:

The little collage by Picasso was created out of a calling card left by his long-time friends, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tokias, one day when Picasso wasn't home. Fisher asked us to notice the fold on the top right corner of the card, a fold which people apparently left on the card if the person they were calling on wasn't home. The collage includes a pack of cigarettes, a reminder of Alice B. Tokias smoking habit.

I don't know what it was, but more than the flow of images and words, it was Picasso's poetry that stuck with me on a Wednesday morning. This one in particular delighted me:

"...and later now ten minutes to three my fingers still smelled of warm bread honey and jasmine." ~Pablo Picasso

If you can get to Nasher, I encourage you to also visit the "Africa and Picasso" exhibit which showcases some of the Nasher's holdings of masks and figures from colonized territories in West Africa. I made a little video in that room and it is below. Be forewarned: my reading of this text (captured below with my phone camera) and my filming of the objects in the exhibit is awful.

But if it is awful, you should know that I'm just learning to love my new camera phone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picturing Ourselves: 1953, 1979 and 2009


Picturing Ourselves: 1953, 1979 and 2009

A Conversation with Negar Mottahedeh

By GOLBARG BASHI in New York | 12 July 2009
Published Tehran Bureau

[TEHRAN BUREAU] The surge of stunning photos and videos from Iran over the past month have gripped the attention of much of the world, prompting comparisons of protests there with the Tienanmen Square uprising of 1989 in Beijing and other historic moments in the past century. Most of the pre-election images were captured by professional photographers bearing the familiar logos of the Associated Press, Getty, Life, and others. The majority of post-election images, however, have been taken by ordinary people using their cellphones and small digital cameras.

The outpouring of these images via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, amplified by an intense two-week long media coverage of Iran, have had an incredible impact on the popular imagination; they have moved even icons such as U2 and Jon Bon Jovi to immediately express their solidarity with the green movement in Iran. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International immediately responded as well, with extensive reports on the brutal police crackdown on peaceful protesters. Many Iranians living outside of Iran have been embraced by friends and colleagues desperate to find ways to help.

Some of the most poignant images have been of girls and women numbering in the hundreds of thousands participating in the pre-election campaign and in post-election protests, giving many a crash course on Iranian women’s studies in a matter of days. To wit, CNN anchorwomen and anchormen corrected each other on the 63% statistic of female university graduates in Iran.

As a friend jokingly said, “Iranian is the new black.”

Even seasoned journalists who have covered the most atrocious and spectacular events on our planet have been moved to the core when they found themselves in the midst of Iranians singing, dancing and marching to the voting booths, and later protesting what they believed was a fraudulent election, and for which they were brutally beaten, arrested, tortured and in some instances even killed. These journalists reported seeing people courageously rescuing one another, even members of the riot police. And again, it is the images of women that they report having carried home with them.

In a moving column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, he writes,

“No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt. I confess that, out of Iran, I am bereft. I have been thinking about the responsibility of bearing witness. It can be singular, still. Interconnection is not presence. A chunk of me is back in Tehran, between Enquelab (Revolution) and Azadi (Freedom), where I saw the Iranian people rise in the millions to reclaim their votes and protest the violation of their Constitution… Never again will Ahmadinejad speak of justice without being undone by the Neda Effect — the image of eyes blanking, life abating and blood blotching across the face of Neda Agha-Soltan.”


As someone who grew up in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, I have very different memories of the public perception of Iran and Iranians: Sally Field in the role of Betty Mahmoody, the battered and imprisoned American woman trapped in Iran by her abusive Iranian husband, men pounding the air with their fists, and Ayatollah Khomeini. The images conjured by Roger Cohen’s columns were those I was desperately looking for when I was a 13 year-old kid confronting Iranophobia in Sweden.

There is more, much more, in the flood of pictures coming from Iran than the tragic end of a young woman’s life who has become the face of this defiance. To gauge the meaning of some of these images and their significance, I turned to Professor Negar Mottahedeh, one of the most perceptive theorists of our visual culture.

I opted for a comparative analysis and shared with her pictures from three successive uprisings: 1953, on the heels of the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry by Prime Minister Mossadeq, which resulted in the CIA-engineered coup that ousted him; massive street protests from 1977 to 1979, which resulted in the Islamic revolution; and finally the June 2009 presidential election. In these three iconic periods, we are witness to three generations of Iranian women participating in the democratic aspirations of their motherland. If indeed pictures do speak more eloquently than words, then what is it exactly that they are telling us?

GOLBARG BASHI: Thanks Negar for agreeing to this conversation. In two previous books, Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran (2008) and Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (2008), you have laid a solid theoretical foundation for our study of the relationship between visual and political regimes — particularly in how the central issue of visibility, or public visibility to be exact, is definitive to the cultural production of modernity. Now, I would like to ask you to look at these pictures, from 1953, 1979, and 2009, and tell me what comes immediately to your mind? In what ways have we changed – regressed or progressed, if these are in fact accurate concepts — in our public presence? What do you see, how do you feel, when you look at these pictures, these three consecutive takes in our modern history?

NEGAR MOTTAHEDEH: Thanks, Golbarg, for the question and for the amazing images.

What strikes me immediately is, of course, the camera’s attraction to what brings wonderment. And it is precisely the presence of women in the public sphere in these photographs that continually amaze and attract the camera gaze in 1953, again in 1979 and again in 2009. I bring this up because it is important to understand that the history of camera technology — its ability to capture the present — corresponds globally with the transformation of the public sphere and the threat of the feminization of power. The camera’s important historical role has been to disseminate modernity and modernity’s impact on the transformation of the public sphere globally from a largely homosocial sphere to a heterosocial arena in which women participate, produce and consume. Even in its attempt to capture the quaint cultures of the other, the camera has been used to contrast quaint representations of fading traditions and customs to images of European modernity. This is as true for the 19th century photographs taken by Antoin Sevruguin in Iran as for orientalist photographs collected by Malek Alloula, where Algerian women were photographed to suggest that they lead leisurely lives in the colonies while modern French women worked shoulder to shoulder with men in factories and as carriage drivers in 19th century Paris.

So in all of these photos, what the camera is drawn to, reflects the camera’s own role in the production of culture, namely its part in the fabrication, circulation and consumption of modernity. Hollywood images are the best example of this from the early days, because Hollywood understood the historical role of the camera, and, hence, the efficacy of American movies worldwide. The effects of Hollywood’s empire were economic and ideological, certainly, but they were most importantly sensate and intimate. While the processes of modernization, urbanization and industrialization as well as social movements (such as the impact of Western feminism) shifted both social and gender relations, modern technological developments — trains, automobiles, and cameras — produced new ways of sensing, seeing, and organizing vision, new ways of thinking about time, space, architecture, changes in the urban environment, in advertising, and in fashion. Photographs as part and parcel of these developments in culture have as their role to frame and circulate this modernity and it is clear in these photographs that that’s what they’re doing. What’s modern and therefore attractive to the camera is these photographs, particularly, is the presence of women in the public sphere.

Photographs are thought of as documentary evidence, but in fact what they document is a moment. In other words, they are indexical of a momentary exposures to light.

Speaking to their chronology, what all these photographs mark indexically is the important and integral role of women in social movements in Iran over time. By recording light in critical moments in history they show us that the active presence of women in the civil rights movement of 2009 is not something new. Period.

In the photographs from 1953, women in chadors walk shoulder to shoulder with women wearing dresses mildly influenced by the Western fashions of the time. Some men wear European hats. Women’s hair is Rita Hayworth-esque in style through and through and little wonder. These fashions arrived and had a mass circulation via the camera, through fashion magazines, newsreels and Hollywood movies.

While men and women of different backgrounds and ideological persuasions participated in the 1979 revolution against the Shah and revolted against his forced Westernization of Iran, the fashions are very much reflexive of 1970s Western fashions. This is especially evident in the second of the two photographs from 1979.

While we witness a certain uniformity in the coiffure and dress of the 1950s and 1970s photos, the uniformity in dress of the photos from 2009 feels very different. Here, the young women especially, show a desire to alter a set uniform — a state-enforced hijab — playing with hair, headbands, colored headscarves and alternative ways of tying them. By contrast in the 1950s and 70s, fashion dictates a conformity in culture even as the women protest Western intervention in national politics and economy.

Again, these photographs are indexes of moments that pass and that are followed by new moments in time; but there is a joy, a hope, a radiance — clapping, chanting, the waving of green flags, balloons and posters, playfully tied wristbands, headbands and tied green rings — in other words, a communal conviviality and creativity, that emanates from the photographs from 2009. This is quite absent from the LIFE photographs. But then again, to be fair, the 1953 photographs are long shots, and people behave differently vis-à-vis the camera close-up. The bottom two photographs from 2009 in particular capture a multigenerational presence of women, again shoulder to shoulder with men. We think of the public sphere in the Islamic Republic as a largely male, homosocial sphere, and yet, the camera insists in nearly every shot to capture the heterosociality of this sphere just as it did in the earlier moments.

GB: I am very intrigued by a number of things you see. Let’s begin with this notion of “wonderment”. If you were to look at these pictures chronologically, do you see the same visual registers of wonderment — is camera as amused by the presence of women in 2009 as it was in 1953? Do you see perhaps a sense of “normalization” about the public presence of women at all, so far as the camera is concerned. Notice also the changes in technology, that today mobile phones and digital cameras seem to have less an intruding presence than the old fashion cameras with their monumental gadgetry. In 1953, the camera stood outside the crowd, today it is joining the demonstration. And then a related question is the transformation that you see from a homosocial to a heterosocial space where modernity is taking place. What do you make of this shot in 1953, where women are encircled by men holding hands by way of what it seems to be a gesture of “protecting them”. Protecting them from what? They are already in public? There seems to be also a secondary kind of heteronormativity at work where veiled and unveiled girls and women are mixed together, which might be accounted for by class, generation, or some vague conception of piety. Your thought?

NM: It strikes me that the camera is just as preoccupied with the presence of women in 2009 as it is in 1953, and as you say it’s the technology itself that has become more manageable, and journalism has, perhaps by necessity, become more participatory. It strikes me though, for the number of cameras and mobile phones that we see in YouTube videos of the events in 2009, there is only one camera present in this set, and it’s in the first image. It’s pointed in the direction of the women’s gaze. While the photographs from 1953 inscribe the distance that separates “us” from “them”, the photographs from 2009, inscribe an immediacy and accessibility that is unmediated and exclusive to “our camera”. In fact both the second and fourth shots flatten the distance between “us” and “them” bringing the events closer. “Unmediated” and “accessible” are really how the post-Election events felt to those of us living elsewhere: their struggle became immediate to those who chose to pay attention. Internationally, all the songs written for Neda and in honor of the struggle for freedom and civil rights testifies to ways that digital technologies have flattened this distance that separates us from them in 1953. The photographs inscribe this historical fact in their framing.

Yes, I noticed the men holding hands to protect the protesters in the photographs from 1953. Do you think it has to do with “gheirat”, with shame and the unseemliness of women’s presence in the public sphere? Perhaps so. Then again there is that big truck full of men in police uniforms sitting on the alert in the second photograph. That is cause enough for concern. That, and other men. The thing is, and I’m glad you bring this up, regardless of the ways in which modernity is marked by the presence of women in the public sphere globally, what constitutes heterosociality and perhaps even heteronormativity is remarkably different nationally and locally. It’s the men that are holding hands in public, not men and women in the 1953 photographs. So while women are present in public, national notions of heteronormativity call for the protection of their honor, be it by the inclusion of pious women or by the presence of men whose function is to be protective shields. Also while the photographs from 1953 emphasize the presence of multiple classes and generations in the struggle side by side in one frame, the photographs from 1979 show these groups as insular. That generational, class-based and gendered insularity is shed in the photos from 2009. The photograph that frames the old lady with a look that has rarely met the camera testifies to that deep sense of national unity.

GB: I want now to turn your attention to the element of militancy. Compare the “proper manners”, the pretty dresses that women are wearing, sporting nice sunglasses, etc in 1953 with the young woman about to throw a stone in 2009. This is not to disregard the extraordinary evidence of festivity in the 2009 pictures, but the undeniable elements of raised fists, coming face-to-face with the security forces, and even throwing stones. What seems to me happening here is a bodily defiance in the public space that is quite new. Here of course we need to remember the presence of young women in such militant guerrilla movements as Cherikha-ye Fada’i Khalaq or Mujahedyn-e Khalq in the 1970s and 1980s. But nevertheless, here we are watching ordinary young women who are throwing stones with manicured hands. Your thoughts?

NM: The Islamic Republic gained its distinction and identity by addressing itself to the senses. In Displaced Allegories I try to show how Khomeini’s revolution was a revolution under the skin. Khomeini’s regime sought to create a new national body and it did so by aiming its regulations, its system of modesty, on the body of women. The manicured nails, the threaded eyebrows, the strands of hair, are all markers of bodily defiance in public space and these acts of physical defiance have been practiced, regulated, and reinvented over and over again since 1981 when the system of modesty and veiling finally became mandatory for everyone. So, a stone in a manicured hand is certainly a violent response, but in terms of bodily defiance to a regime that inscribes itself minute by minute on women’s bodies — to cover up your arms, to lower your gaze, to move through public space unnoticed — the physicality of the response of a generation brought up under laws that address themselves to the senses, to eyes, ears, mouths, voices, to hands and bodies, is far from surprising. Part of the function of restrictions is that they make us acutely aware of the tools we possess, don’t you think?

GB: Let me now turn to what you rightly call “national body”, but in its specifically female dimension, or what we might call the figural representation of Iranian women. If you look at the unveiled women in the 1953 demonstrations you see the ideal-type of a typical urban, educated, suave even, “modern” woman, a figure that later on, after the coup of 1953, during the Pahlavi period was perhaps best represented in the way the former Queen Farah Diba appeared in public — in a way as if she had just walked out of a Christian Dior catalogue or stepped down from a catwalk in Paris. Now, as you well know and in fact have demonstrated in your Displaced Allegories, that image was radically revised over the last 30 years, since the Islamic revolution, whereby a veiled and as you rightly say regulated female public persona was projected. That veiled figure later repeatedly appeared and consolidated in the mass media, and later on particularly on the cover of a number of books patently critical of the repression of Iranian women under the Islamic republic, as on the cover of books by Betty Mahmoody, Azar Nafisi, Mahnaz Afkhami, or even most recently Janet Afary’s Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, where we invariably see the face and visage of an incarcerated woman, a woman in jail, a woman behind bars. What I believe we are now witnessing in the face and figure of Iranian woman in these demonstrations categorically challenges such projections and their political assumptions, for these pictures in fact show politically defiant, socially assertive, and beautifully self-confident multiplicity of characters from within the social experiences of the last 30 years. In other words, they are neither going back to the former Queen Farah Diba’s public persona nor are they arrested and incarcerated virgins in a Harem waiting to be liberated. Do you see this new public bodily register, a new and totally unaccounted for comfort zone for the feminine public persona? Don’t you think that the assumptions people have projected of Iranian/Muslim women have in fact been seriously challenged throughout these past couple of weeks?

NM: From what I gather from the conversations I witness amongst folks on Twitter, in the news media and in my local community, yes the assumptions people have had of Iranian/Muslim women have been seriously challenged and there has been a shift perception. This shift in perception has extended to the way that people relate to Iran as a nation. In truth, much of the West has received notions of what a Muslim or Iranian woman should look like and these are reinforced by images that equate female veiling with images of incarceration. To me, language too says a lot about how we are thinking and what we are thinking. This whole confusion that has occurred that equates all gestures of veiling with the burqa suggests in fact that contemporary Western, and especially American, conceptions of veiling derive from a very specific and highly mediated visual encounter — the encounter with Afghanistan post-9/11. The confusions of the terms of veiling has then become generalized and extended to our perception of all Muslim women… But Golbarg, we’ve talked quite a bit about the photographs from 1953 and 2009, and I am curious how you respond seeing the photographs from 1979. What do you see? How do they make you feel? How does your response to them compare to your response to the other photographs?


GB: I see very similar expressions in the 1979 pictures to those I see in 2009. In fact I see more anger, but no stones. Obviously the technology has evolved and in 2009 the camera is far more intimate and in fact amidst the crowd, in the hands of the protestors themselves (the picture of the old woman seems to have been taken with a cell-phone or a small digital-camera). Again I see a multiplicity of classes in 1979, but one thing that may differ from the 2009 images is that in 1979 women seem to be visibly segregated from the men. You see in the first image, three women and a child, they seem to be related and are walking along in a female procession, whereas in 2009, women are mixed with men. What I feel when I look at the 1979 pictures is sadness. I see a genuine struggle against autocracy and I see women as an integral part of that struggle. But fast-forwarding 30 years later, I see that the little girl who must have been my age in the picture with her mother and aunts has not seen the fruits of their struggle. The women in the second picture very much look like my mother, her friends and my female relatives, most of whom were professional, with their (Farah Fawcett) hairdos, the polo-shirts, etc, and in this way I see a huge loss on part of my mother’s generation. In 2009, I see my little sister and cousins and their friends in Iran (all of whom have university degrees, are incredibly creative–they are trained and exceedingly talented DJ’s, bloggers, filmmakers, poets, painters, engineers, doctors–but very few of them hold a steady job) and I see that our mothers’ heartache and pessimism have not prevented them from entering the streets and creating a public space and presence for themselves. Ultimately, I see my grandmother in 1953, my mother in 1979, and my little sister in 2009.

But perhaps most importantly, what today we see in the pictures of 1953 and 1979 is through the sad lenses of our maternal generation not achieving what they fought for, whereas even after this violent crackdown we still look at the 2009 pictures with a sense of hope. The obvious question is how will my own children, my little daughter Chelgis see in the 2009 pictures two decades or so down the line.

But let me now ask one last question regarding mediation — you and I are both on Facebook, as friends, and as you know much of what we are now sharing, including these pictures, is mediated through social networking. Do you think that mediation has an effect on how we are looking at these pictures? There is a cyberspace socialization through these pictures, which would have remained matters of library archival research for scholars. But they are now almost instantly subjects of comparative visual chronology, we can see how we were and how we have become. I am also very much aware of the limitations and drawback of internet-based social networking — so perhaps you could open and examine this connection.

NM: I so enjoy having you as my Facebook friend, and in all honesty I think social media have created modes collaboration and interaction that mark the future of scholarship in the digital age. I think what we see happening on Facebook is the future of scholarship. People have remarked that the whole architecture of journalism fell apart in the course of the Iranian post-election uprising because news arrived on Facebook and Twitter, not on CNN. I think we’re seeing the future of scholarship in that decay as well. Already, my colleagues with any interest in Iran, be it through sports, social movements, news media, film, video, photography, new media, politics, gender, human rights, you name it, they’re all turning to blogs, Facebook , YouTube and Twitter to put together their sources. The immediacy with which these media allow us access to events elsewhere and to each other and the ways that they allow us to build on each other’s contributions — using the share button and the comment area — really suggests the future of scholarship in the digital age, where contemporary Web 2.0 technologies by their very centrality will demand our consultation and collaboration on levels that especially the Humanities has yet to witness. In part, this will mean the opening up of the university and I am all for it.

But I digress. Digital photographs like the ones we are looking at circulate often without captions. We add the captions and date them; we personalize them and attach meanings to the images, meanings that others may not have found. We cannot underestimate the power in that and the impact that the personal value we bring to each photograph has on our circles. Just think how different it would be if we were poring over newspapers together like the two girls who then become the cover of Nafisi’s Lolita. We’d see a photograph of protestors confronting the police. We’d notice the date on the top of the paper and read the caption the newspaper gives to the photograph. We’d realize that when we were out shopping together at Saks, people elsewhere were demanding basic human rights — Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Community”. Now the same photograph shows up on our Facebook feed with the caption “The day that Neda died” or “My friend Ali is standing to the right of motorcycle” and just think how that changes the impact of the image on the hundreds of people who we “friended” at some point, people we played with in kindergarten and never saw again until they showed up with an “it’s complicated” status on Facebook. The photograph we post with our caption reflecting its part in our life becomes an integral part of their life. There is an intimacy there… Our captions to photographs on Facebook and Twitter have a different power and immediacy that has to do with personal relationships in real life. We may look at a photograph of crowds in the streets of a foreign city, a photograph we also saw on CNN that same night. But when we read the caption: “I grew up in that neighborhood” on our Facebook feed, we are pulled in immediately. The event becomes ours, it’s woven into the fabric our life.

Thank you so much Negar for this conversation. I have learned so much as I am sure our readers will too.

Thank you so much, Golbarg. I’m such an admirer of your work and your interviews and it’s been lovely discussing these amazing photographs with you. I have also learned a great deal from our conversation.

Negar Mottahedeh is Associate Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota in 1998. In 2008, Duke University Press published her book on Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema entitled: DISPLACED ALLEGORIES. Her first book, REPRESENTING THE UNPRESENTABLE, on visual history and reform in Iran from the 19th Century to the present, was published in 2008 by Syracuse University Press.

Golbarg Bashi is a regular contributor to Tehran Bureau, where she writes on women’s issues and feminism. She teaches Iranian Studies at Rutgers University. She recently completed her doctoral thesis on a feminist critique of the human rights discourse in Iran.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tehran: A city transformed by love and silenced by force.

Before my baby brother, Kasra ,was born, and before I fell in love with the English language, leafing through a small dark-blue Oxford English dictionary; and actually, long before my family moved to Norway and I became acclimated to a different climate and culture, I spent my days on my grandmother's kitchen floor in the Yousef Abad neighborhood of Tehran, waiting for a taste of her divine fereni simmered perfectly, and flavored with rose water and pistachios.

The radio was always on, as I remember it, perhaps to drown out the din of the streets outside.

My heart skipped a beat every time I heard the radio announce: "Inja Tehran Ast. Radio Iran" ("This is Tehran. Iranian Radio Broadcasting") as if that next hour would be the defining one in my tiny life. I remember that I loved Persian music very much. The little turntable- gramophone I carried around everywhere, along with a handful of singles, played my favorite tunes over and over, until it drove the whole household up the wall. I loved Haji Firooz who came around sometime around the Persian new year, Naw Ruz. The Muharram ceremonies were captivating to me, too, if they were allowed by the Pahlavi regime, and if I was allowed, by my parents, to go outside and watch them on the streets of Yousef Abad.

Tehran, the city of my childhood, is a city I cannot recognize from the cry of the roof-top poet who asks "Inja kojast?" ("Where is this place?"). Tehran is a transformed city. A city transformed by love and silenced by force.

As I listen to the fleeting cries of Allah-o-Akbar from the roofs and balconies of the city of my birth on YouTube, I am reminded, that this fleeting call, this ephemeral voice, though etched in tradition, has the power to transfom our consciousness and call us to action in a different way worldwide, in part because of the digital structure of a world that connects.

I learned the lesson of the transformative power of the digital and ephemeral from the arts and the tromp l'oel movement of light on a structure, captured in this video and posted to Facebook by one of my friends.

This week, in the aftermath of the Iranian 2009 elections, another fleeting image of young Iranian student protesters helping a beat officer to safety (at 2 mins into this
video)--a fleeting image captured on an ephemeral online video with an Italian voice-over-- changed the way I saw Tehran, forever. I realized in a flash and amidst a pool of tears, that these courageous men and women, whose phone-camera videos and pictures we continue to click and forward, whose cries we hear from the rooftops and the city-scapes of cities unknown to most of us; these courageous ones, are brothers and sisters --comrades --who shared the same bread and cheese, who were trained in the same schools, who studied the same books, who received their military training in the same army, who slept in the same barracks, who listened to the same music and who called to a power greater than themselves with the same sigh rising from the depths of a heart wanting to be free.

It was in this fleeting moment of comeraderie, a moment of love, steeped in the tethers of the old (that bread, those barracks, those school books) and the words Allah-o-Akbar, that I realized that one thing and one thing alone will bring about the freedom and change that the city of my birth is calling into being. And that one thing is love.

Another work of art, a
ceramic piece that my friend Leili Towfigh made, taught me an important lesson
about our efforts to create in the world. I learned from it and from her blog that what we want to see in the world has to match what we hold in our hearts and minds. The inside and the outside must match.

If we fail, no, if we fail at that, what we end up creating, Will. Crack.

In the world of ceramics, it's called "dunting". In the world that we are fabricating breath by breath from the weave of our lives, anything less than love, anything less than a conscious return to the loadestone of justice, respect, and collaboration is doomed for failure.

For there to be love --for there to be justice--for there to be peace--for there to be freedom in this, my world-- I declare myself into being as that love.

And so, for that vision, I sew these words into the fabric of my being:

"You should be the change that you want to see in the world." ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Human beings are members of a whole, In creation of one essence and soul, If one member is afflicted with pain, Other members uneasy will remain." ~Sa'adi

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall - think of it, always." ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

UPDATE: I just received this file. A video from Kerman, Iran. Protesters bringing flowers to the police. Such sweetness. Such love. Where is this place, Iran?

She returns on June 20th to wake God up: Listen Closely

(For captions click on the bottom right corner)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

I have been, of late, exploring a conceptual framework for action within my own disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, I have come realize that one of my "unshakeable" beliefs-- a framework out of which I act -- is that every human being is born a contribution to the planet. Something like a spiritual principle, this notion of "human being as contribution," governs my views on Web 2.0 and collaborative learning as the core of my work in the college classroom.

Yet, as I foreground this principle and my reliance on a mechanism by which I bring the principle to life, I want to make a distinction between what makes up an initiative and what constitutes a vision.

As new media initiatives are being introduced into the educational environment in the Humanities, my colleagues at Duke University are slowly warming up to the possibilities that these technologies provide. The much publicized iPod initiative at Duke garnered faculty involvement, as did the Duke Digital Initiative. While the digital initiatives have clearly generated interest in Duke as an institution and have produced inter- and intra-institutional collaborations, I feel moved to ask the following:

Where is the people factor here? Where is “the who” that is in collaboration? How are people interacting and how are they bringing about changes? If collaboration is important, is collaboration being applied as a model throughout the system, or is part of the system, of change in particular, moving forward in an adversarial or confrontational or monopolistic manner? (These are some of the most provocative questions asked by Michael Karlberg in Beyond the Culture of Contest.)

As I see it, it is the competitive nature of grading in the educational system (for students) and the accolades that accrue in doing research and writing as individual scholars (for faculty) in the Humanities that often force members of academic Humanities to shy away from collaborative work. (The defeat at the University of Maryland of the vote to institute an open access policy for research by its faculty is an instance of this resistance to open collaboration).

So let me ask: Bottom line: What does it mean to collaborate?

To collaborate is to be in relationship. It is to place consultation at the core of our interconnectedness. To collaborate is not about the doingness of a project, but the being. It is the attitude, the vision of interconnectedness that we bring to the process, first and foremost.

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

It is in consultation, within a dialogic back and forth of reflection, discussion, and application, and repeated reevaluation --a consultation in relationship between the individuals involved-- that we as individuals and our institutions gain in identity, grow, learn and generate knowledge. Within projects, consultation is the basis for collective growth and the safe-guard for justice in human relations. Consultation also protects knowledge from the orthodoxy of any truth. For any discourse that establishes itself as an orthodoxy is stagnant and dangerous.

As I see it, no one institution, and no one individual scholar is self-sustaining. Establishing greater networks of consultation for academic institutions supports a vision that says that we envision the world as a place where we gain new levels of consciousness, together, in an interconnected way. As Isaac Newton once said: "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

New technologies are presently available to generate a conversation on a grand scale that would allow us to think as a global community about any local or global concern, especially those that might impact and address the future of humanity, its knowledges, its cultures and its well-being. As a recent Time article on Twitter suggests, “We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds, and ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways to put these tools to use. There's a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”

Much of this kind of work, this interconnection and constant consultation takes place as a necessity in the Sciences, but in the Humanities, we cling firmly to old and outworn traditions of scholarship and teaching, refusing to include both our students and scholars at other institutions in our day to day work, to involve them in our research, our thinking, our applications, our questions, our writing and our teaching. Also, truth be told, don't we work with the assumption that all scholarly contribution has its beginnings and finds its end-point in the academic institution itself?

What would happen if we provide for mechanisms that allow for an open exchange of ideas to whoever wants to be involved in the evolution of knowledge? What would happen to Humanities scholarship then? How would we change as scholars? Who would we be? And who would we become?

What are we really afraid of?