Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
Joseph Anton. A Memoir. Salman Rushdie. Jonathan Cape. 2012.
In early September demonstrations against the video The Innocence of Muslims, took place across the world. Wednesday the 19th of the month saw the French leftist satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo published, to more protests, caricatures of Mohammed.
Two days later, Tahar Ben Jelloun argued, in Le Monde (21.9.12) against any concessions to Islamist inspired rage. He began by asking why Islam seemed so fragile that fiction, cartoons, or a bad film, His answer was the some Moslem countries encouraged this reaction to stave off creating states based on individual rights. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was the template for this strategy. It been used by the Iranian regime to quash any criticism of Islam, and to cement an “appartence absolue à la communité” (absolute adhesion to the community). Jelloun had no time for the provocations of Charlie. Yet he recommended ignoring them, and turning to the transcendental spirit of Islam.
Tareq Oubrou, the Rector of the Bordeaux Mosque, wrote on the same Le Monde Débats page, even more clearly against those who wished to suppress ‘blasphemy’. “La liberté de conscience et d’expression est un aquis occidental incontesté et incontenstable. Une avancée et un progrès philosophical-moral réels de notre humanité.” – Freedom of speech and conscience are established, unchallenged, and indisputable facts in the West. This is a step forward and real moral and philosophical progress for humanity”. Oubrou did not just repeat the standard argument (even sued by some Islamists, in the absence of a state ruled by the Sharia) that Muslims should submit to French law. All criticism of writing and art should be within their own terms, “La critique d’art se fait par l’art, la philosophie par la philosophie, and les idées par les idées.”
On the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, at the end that Month Le Monde put the author on the front page followed by a long, respectful, article/interview. It dealt with Rushdie’s criticisms of “Actually Existing Islam” as well as the Satanic Verses and the Khomeini Fatwa that has marked his life.
The present work does not neglect this political-religious theme, “During the worst excesses of Soviet Communism…Western Marxists had tried to distance ‘actually existing Socialism’ from the True Faith, Karl Marx’s vision of equality and justice.” Now, with Communism’s faults there for all to see, “it was no longer possible to believe in a True Faith untainted by the crimes of the real world.” Yet, “as Islamic states forged new tyrannies, and justified many horrors in the name of God, a similar separation was being made by Muslims; so there was the ‘actually existing Islam’ of the bloody theocracies and there was the True Faith of peace and love.” (Page 356) The crisis is profound, and cannot be wished away by this appeal, Rushdie says, “something was eating away at the faith of his grandfather, corroding or corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutions, turning dogma with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fitted was Islam.”(Pages 356-7) Read the rest of this entry »
Review: From the Ruins of Empire. The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia. Pankaj Mishra. Allen Lane 2012.
Western colonial history is a popular section in bookshops. Attacks on Empire, and modern day Imperialism, are widespread on the left. But the history of the non-Western intelligentsia’s tangled and complex relation with the West is no so well known. Pankaj Mishra’s Ruins of Empire fills a gap for the wider reading public. Mishra appears on the left by beginning from the way the East was “subjugated by the people of the West that they had long considered upstarts, if not barbarians.” (Page 3)But he draws much wider conclusions, decidedly not left-wing, from biographical accounts of how “intelligent and sensitive people” in the East responded to the ‘West’s’ impact on their societies.
Intellectuals, notably Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao, and – to a lesser extent – Rabindranath Tagore, are brought to the fore. They were both ‘modernisers’, wanting to change, and defenders of their cultures against the West. Others appear, Indian nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose and Japanese writers, like Tokutomio Soho. This has the great merit of making these important voices heard. It has the great disadvantage of pinning a great deal of speculation about the shaping of the modern world on the – often extremely general – ideas clustered around these figures. It could be said that Soho, who moved from Western liberalism to unabashed champion of Japanese self-interest, illustrates Mishra’s main claim: the primacy of the Asian Cause against the ‘West’.
1905 Russian Humiliation.
Mishra begins with a flourish. The 1905 defeat of the Russian navy by Japan in 1905 in the Tsushima Strait. The rout of the Tsarist fleet, he says, reverberated around the East. “For many other non-white people, Russia’s humiliations seemed to negate the West’s racial hierarchies, mocking the European presumption to ‘civilise’ the supposedly ‘backward’ countries.”(Page 3) Ghandi, and Mustafa Kemal, to cite but two, were “ecstatic” at the news.
Like the spark that lit the prairie the effects were far-reaching. For nationalists, from Egypt to China, passing by Bengal and Vietnam’s “scholar gentry”, Japan became the symbol of successful resistance to Western Empire building. It gave rise to “A hundred fantasies – of national freedom, racial dignity, or simple vengefulness.”(Ibid) Modernisation could, it seemed, take another guise than a European one.
Mishra side-steps the effect of the defeat on Tsarism, – the 1905 Russian Revolution – the precursor of 1917. This perhaps would have some impact on European imperialism (and the use of the word itself). Anti-colonialism in the later 20th century would be incomprehensible without assessing the role not just of Soviet – Stalinist- Communism as a “messianic doctrine” but a political force. Mishra largely jumps over this, referring – mentions of Mao aside – to the post-1989 era when Marxism-Leninism is “discredited”.
The Western colonial empires were “wholly unprecedented in creating global hierarchy of economic, physical and cultural power through their outright conquest or ‘informal’ empires, of free trade and unequal treaties.”(Page 42) By the mid-19th century they had pushed back the Ottoman Empire, invaded North Africa, made inroads in China, and The sense of European racial superiority – which Mishra demonstrates infected even Woodrow Wilson while pontificating on the rights of nations to self-determination – cast a long shadow.
Subjected peoples were ‘humiliated’. The basis of their civilisations was undermined. Muslims felt, Mishra says, felt that the “cosmic order” had been disrupted. A rival that made them seem outdated and incapable threatened the ancient bureaucratic and literary culture of China.
Ruins of Empire portrays those who tried to grapple with this. There are sketches of Tagore’s complex reflections on Bengali and Indian culture faced with the British Raj, There is Liang Qichao who looked to a new China, and became disillusioned with the West after visiting an unequal America.
But it is the Persian born, wandering intellectual, Al-Afghani (1838 – 1897), who grabs most attention. He argued “the Islamic world needed a Reformation, preferably with himself as the new Luther.”(Page 83) In a variety of forms he advocated a “strong Islamic centre that would beat back the encroaching West.”(Page 89) He fiercely defended the place of scientific and technical knowledge in this renewal.*
Politics of the ‘Anti-West’.
What kind of politics did these figures foreshadow? It is had to tie them – with the very partial exception of Al-Afghani – to any specific party or state. Liang Qichao was pushed aside by Sun Yat Sen, Tagore was a respected poet and writer, but no politician. His wary attitude towards nationalism and reluctance to be politically manipulated were notorious. Al-Afghani seems at different times to be a hard-line (proto) Islamist and an almost liberal modernist. One wonders how exactly their contribution to the ‘shaping of the modern world’ can be gauged.
The reactions against the West, nationalism, and Eastern modernisation – in short the introduction of a full-blown capitalist system in these immense parts of the world – form a vastly complicated history. Mishra, as an essayist, and, biographer, is not obliged to over more than aspects of this. Nor does he disuss what Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit call in Occidentalism (2004) critics of the West in Europe itself and the impact these had on Asia. What he does it to look through one angle: the rise of ‘anti-Western’ types of modernisation.
After the Great War, when nationalists and anti-colonialists began to have an impact on Asia, Mishra notes the eclipse of liberal democratic thought. Japan, he considers, continued to be a pole of attraction. It was modern, with successful industry and a rising living standards. It was also very authentic – pure – and Japanese, or at least as the majority of the governing class considered it to be. It had admirers across Asia. The authoritarian ‘pan-Asian’ movements became, in their Japanese form, at least according to the Japanese Soho, a racial struggle. As war began he stated, “We must shows to the races of East Asia that the order, tranquillity, peace, happiness and contentment of East Asia can be gained only by eradicating the vile precedent of the encroachment and extortion of the Anglo-Saxons in East Asia.”(Page 247)
The unattractive history of Japanese militarism – which throve on the crushing of the country’s democratic ‘Western’ and indigenous intelligentsia and popular movements – is given favourable treatment. Mishra offers a version of history in which Japan’s invasions and punitive expeditions during the Second World War had some justification. There was, “Revenge for decades of racial humiliation motivated many Japanese un the battlefield.”(Page 247) The never-colonised Japan backed nationalists against the Europeans by running their conquered territories with some help from them.
The initial co-operation between nationalists, in Burma and elsewhere, and Japan illustrates the ‘Co-Prosperity’ Japanese Empire’ was an important movement n the fight for independence in Asia. One would be more satisfied if the influence of the ideas of national independence were explored in more details, The Indian Congress Party, to cite but one case, had support, even founders, amongst the British intelligentsia.
To take a couple of significant cases. Can one say that the Vietnamese, Laos or Chinese Communist Parties took on Marxist language purely to express national demands? The class struggles, the land reforms, the nationalisations, the political upheavals and horrors of these countries – not to mention Cambodia – have their own national histories. But Communism, with its impact across Asia, right to Indonesia and the Philippines, and India as well, which was and is always a global movement, fits askew from Mishra’s simple thrust: the ‘humiliation’ by the West and the ‘revenge’ of the East.
Islamism as the Anti-West.
The rise of Islamism is treated in terms of revenge for ‘humiliation. It has deep roots, perhaps in the human condition and the source of faith itself. Al-Afghani is praised for stating, “a totally secular society – the dream of nineteenth century rationalism – was doomed to remain a fantasy in the West as well as in the Muslim world.”(Page 102) Islam, it turned out, could spearhead an Anti-Western revolt, or at least in the late 1970s. “It is largely due to the Islamic revolution that today the basic principles of the first Muslim Westernised elites – that development entails the rejection of Islamic values in favour of Western ones – lie discredited from Tunisia to Xinjianh, and that Islam continues to serve as a focal point of resistance to authorities regimes in the Muslim world.”(Page 277)
Yet Mishra is less than favourable to the ‘authoritarian’ Islamic political regimes created in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Instead he looks to Turkey, “Turkey’s success confirms the validity of an ‘Islamic’ solution to the problem of adapting to Western modernisation, and the geopolitical implications of this unique achievement are immense.”(Page 285) This takes some beating. In what sense can the post-Atatürk regimes, the foundation no doubt of whatever success Turkey enjoys, be awarded to ‘Islam’? How exactly? Does the Qur’an run a state? Do the AK MPs’ prayers bolster economic growth? What of its failures? Do the suras inspire the crack down on the free press?
Mishra has written a lucid and stimulating book. We are better off knowing more about Al-Afghani and other figures. But can one understand the world through the principle that the “aggrieved natives always wanted to beat the West at its own game”? (Page 294) The underlying ‘dialectic’ in From the Ruins of Empire rarely rises above these, and other, hackyned thoughts. There is the struggle of ‘Asians’ against the ‘whites’ the ‘Europeans’ the ‘West’. Perhaps we all look the same to him.
Worse is to come. Like John Gray, another doomsayer, Mishra ends on a portentous note. The ‘revenge of the East” which now takes the form of the purist of endless economic growth is a “fantasy”. The global environment is set for “early destruction”. It “looks set to create reveries of a nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundred of millions of have-nots – the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.”(Page 309 – 10)
You have to ask: were these last sentences even worth reading?
* Mishra claims that Al-Afghani challenged the French Orientalist Ernest Renan on Islam. Renan famously believed that Islam has stifled scientific and philosophical freedom – exemplified in his extensive study of the reception and prohibition of the medieval Aristotelian Arab Averroes’s teaching. The Persian pan-Islamist defended, initial Islamic openness to science. Yet while Frenchman undoubtedly had many prejudices about ‘Semitic’ languages and Islamic culture in particular it is much less sure if anybody, Al-Afghani included, could prove him wholly wrong. Islamic authorities did persecute Averroes in Spain, and a much wider intolerance of philosophical heterodoxy was a long-standing feature of many societies based around Islam.
Thus as Al-Afghani himself noted, the issue therefore turns on a more general question of how religions relate to philosophy and science.
“Je plaide ici auprès de M. Renan, non la cause de la religion musulmane, mais celle de plusieurs centaines de millions d’hommes qui seraient ainsi condamnés à vivre dans la barbarie et l’ignorance ».
« Personne n’ignore, que le peuple arabe, alors qu’il était dans l’état de barbarie, s’est lancé dans la voie des progrès intellectuels et scientifiques avec une vitesse qui n’a été égalée que par la rapidité de ses conquêtes car, dans l’espace d’un siècle, il a acquis et s’est assimilé presque toutes les sciences grecques et persanes qui s’étaient développées lentement pendant des siècles sur le sol natal, comme il étendit sa domination de la presqu’île arabique jusqu’aux montagnes de l’Himalaya et au somment de Pyrénées. On peut dire que dans toute cette période les sciences firent des progrès étonnants chez les arabes et dans tous les pays soumis à leur domination. Rome et Byzance étaient alors les sièges des sciences théologiques et philosophiques ainsi que le centre lumineux et comme le foyer ardent de toutes les connaissances humaines. »
« Toutefois il est permis de se demander comment la civilisation arabe, après avoir jeté un si vif éclat dans le monde, s’est éteinte tout à coup ; comment ce flambeau ne s’est pas rallumé depuis, et pourquoi le monde arabe reste toujours enseveli dans de profondes ténèbres. »
« Les religions, de quelque nom qu’on les désigne, se ressemblent toutes. Aucune entente ni aucune réconciliation ne sont possibles entre ses religions et la philosophie. La religion impose à l’homme sa foi et sa croyance, tandis que la philosophie l’en affranchit totalement ou en partie. Comment veut-on dès lors qu’elles s’entendent entre elles ? Lorsque la religion chrétienne, sous les formes les plus modestes et les plus séduisantes, est entrée à Athènes et à Alexandrie qui étaient, comme chacun sait, les deux principaux foyers de la science et de la philosophie, son premier soin été, après s’être établie solidement dans ces deux villes, de mettre de côté et la science proprement dite et la philosophie, en cherchant à les étouffer l’une et l’autre sous les broussailles des discussions théologiques, pour expliquer les inexplicables mystères de la trinité, de l’incarnation et de la Transsubstantiation. Il en sera toujours ainsi. Toutes les fois que la religion aura le dessus, elle éliminera la philosophie ; et le contraire arrive quand c’est la philosophie qui règne en souveraine maîtresse. Tant que l’humanité existera, la lutte ne cessera pas entre le dogme et le libre examen, entre la religion et la philosophie, lutte acharnée et dans laquelle, je le crains, le triomphe ne sera pas pour la libre pensée, parce que, aussi, la science, si belle qu’elle soit, ne satisfait pas complètement l’humanité qui a soif d’idéal et qui aime à planter dans des régions obscures et lointaines que les philosophes et les savants ne peuvent ni apercevoir ni explorer. »
The point Renan asked, whether Islam when it is involved with politics, to the point where a form dominates a state, can develop ways that leave other faiths – and importantly non- and anti-faiths – with an unfettered influence over political life, remains a live political issue.
This is how he put it – in extremely provocative terms that are clearly racist (evoking the, ‘l’esprit sémitique’)”
« L’islamisme (à l’époque, sens général de « religion musulmane ») ne peut exister que comme religion officielle ; quand on le réduira à l’état de religion libre et individuelle, il périra. L’islamisme n’est pas seulement une religion d’État, comme l’a été le catholicisme en France, sous Louis XIV, comme il l’est encore en Espagne, c’est la religion excluant l’État (…) Là est la guerre éternelle, la guerre qui ne cessera que quand le dernier fils d’Ismaël sera mort de misère ou aura été relégué par la terreur au fond du désert. L’islam est la plus complète négation de l’Europe ; l’islam est le fanatisme, comme l’Espagne du temps de Philippe II et l’Italie du temps de Pie V l’ont à peine connu ; L’islam est le dédain de la science, la suppression de la société civile ; c’est l’épouvantable simplicité de l’esprit sémitique, rétrécissant le cerveau humain, le fermant à toute idée délicate, à tout sentiment fin, à toute recherche rationnelle, pour le mettre en face d’une éternelle tautologie : Dieu est Dieu (…) »
Kriegsspiel: How British Left Sees Middle East.
The British left has had a hard time adjusting to the post-Soviet international scene.
Dropping Marxism, which is based on the working class and democratic movements, some have adopted mixture of ‘anti-globalisation’ and an anti-imperialism.
Some have considered just about any country that opposes US foreign policy, from Iran even to Russia, to be progressive. Others have become obsessed with Israel, considered the epitome of evil. A few clung to the idea that Islamist movements, like the Moslem Brotherhood, were a repeat of the genuine struggles for liberation that marked 1960s anti-colonialism.
Their politics resemble a Kriegsspiel played by the cast of the Big Bang Theory.
The position of these ’anti-imperialists on Syria’s unfolding civil war has shown the confusion, political and moral bankruptcy of one of these political currents.
The Stop the War Coalition (StWC), to which most of the British left is affiliated (apart from, notably a miniscule openly pro-Assad band), must be going through a hard time.
It is opposed, rightly, to Western Intervention in Syria.
At one point it was allied with the Muslim Association of Britain. That is, the British arm of the Moslem Brotherhood, which now makes up a very substantial part of the Syrian Opposition. Indeed the Syrian National Council (Arabic: المجلس الوطني السوري, al-Majlis al-Waṭanī as-Sūri) according to Wikiepdia, includes many members of the exiled Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now the StWC carries prominently on its site an article by Abdel Bari Atwan, which is headlined.
“Reasons why western military intervention in Syria is coming soon: to protect Israel.”
Atwan is a strident Arab nationalist and former sympathiser with Saddam Hussein. He has expressed this view, Atwan opined (Here): “The events of 11 September will be remembered as the end of the US empire. This is because all empires collapse when they pursue the arrogance of power.”
On the StWC site Atwan discusses the recent furore about Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons.
He makes this peculiar argument,
What concerns the United States first and foremost is Israel. What the United States really fears is the possibility of these weapons being used against Israelis whether by the regime in a state of despair, which cannot be ruled out, or by the currently militarily stronger jihadist groups in the Syrian territories. When jihadist groups fight against a common enemy like the Syrian regime, this fight would be commendable, but after toppling the Syrian regime, as happened in Libya and earlier in Afghanistan, the Americans’ new enemy would be these very groups.
Overthrowing the regime in Syria has absolutely nothing to do with democracy and human rights, but with the Iranian nuclear programme. This does not mean that the Syrian people’s demands for democratic change are not legitimate. These legitimate demands have been and are being exploited and used by the United States, Europe, and Arabs to shatter Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
We assume, though it is difficult to unpick the reasoning from the rants in this piece, that he thinks that Iran’s nuclear weapons are a threat to Israel. That this is why – Syria interposed – the US wants an end to Assad’s regime.
Most would assume that the USA wants to establish allies in a post-Assad regime. The same motive, dressed up with ‘humanitarian’ concerns go for the French government, and other European states, which are funding the Free Syrian Army.
The former StWC allies, the Moslem Brotherhood, no doubt prefer this, and their Gulf and Turkish backing, to the mighty British left.
But there you go.
The article finishes with this even more curious defence of Syrian chemical weapons,
The Syrian chemical weapons were obtained to serve as deterrence against nuclear Israel, not to be used against the Syrian people or any other people. If the Syrian regime really uses such weapons against its people, something we doubt and strongly oppose, it would deserve any potential consequences. These are Syrian Arab weapons and must remain in Syrian hands. Neither the United States nor any other country has a right to seize or destroy them, as happened to Iraqi weapons, unless all weapons of mass destruction –biological and nuclear — in the Israeli military arsenal are destroyed.
The political degeneration of the StWC is clear.
They are unable to clearly ‘defend’ the vicious regime ruling Syria, they are unable to ‘defend’ the, predominantly Islamist (and anti-democratic) Syrian opposition.
They are fearful that the Free Syrian Army will become the US’s cats-paw.
They are in a complete mess.
Those who support Syrian democrats, oppose the Islamists, and are against Western military intervention, are unlikely to look to them to support their cause.
No to imperialist war! No to sanctions!
No to the theocratic regime!Active Soldarity with the Masses in Iran!
Hands off The People of Iran (HOPI) is holding a Weekend school at ULU Malet street.
The threat of war against Iran is growing. It is important that opponents of armed Western intervention also stand against the theocratic regime. HOPI is concerned about the role that Israel may play in any potential attack. But it will not ‘defend’ the Tehran regime, or try to find ever more ingenious excuses for Ahmadinejad (as this site here does).
On Saturday about forty people came to what were extremely useful talks and fruitful discussions on Iran and world politics.
Majid Tamjidi, an Iranian trade union activist, and political analyst, gave an important account of the position of the land’s working class and employees.
This is the background,
His intervention comes at a time when thousands of jobs are being lost. Many people have returned from the New Year holidays on April 1 to be told that their jobs have gone. Others haven’t been paid for many months. We know of many people who now have to move out of their homes, because they cannot pay the rent anymore.
The Iranian theocracy has played a big part in destroying the once so mighty Iranian working class – but the sanctions are doing the rest. Some believe that sanctions are an alternative to war. But in reality, they are a form of wardesigned to soften up a country for regime change from above. But the ruling elites in the US, the UK and Israel have no interest in establishing genuine democracy in Iran – or their own countries, actually. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan brutally underlined this.
Against those who imagine that Iran’s rulers are ‘anti-imperialists’ and that their regime has a ‘social’, even quasi-socialist, dimension, Tamjidi, outlined how Western ‘flexible labour markets’ are being imposed in the Country. This led to redundancies even before the sanctions, and subjects the working class to the same relentless pressure and precarity, inflicted across the capitalist world. Ahmadinejad’s sole social policy (after having reduced subsidises on basic foodstuffs) is to offer a small monthly stipend to those in need willing to support him.
I have highlighted this but there were two other major contributions.
The day began with an important contribution by Mike Macnair f the Weekly Worker on the geopolitical and economic context behind the threatened war on Iran. Mike argued that there was a “cyclical return of political irrationalism’. That the idea that globalisation would lead to hyper-imperialist harmony, and the possible creation of an international state of law, was misjudged. That the last half of the 19th Century, the epoch of Peace and Free Trade, has itself been the seed-bed for wars and clashes. That states were essential to the logic of capital (debt enforcing, guaranteeing property rights). Mike made interesting comparisons with late feudal states (Venice, Holland) and the fading of the British Empire. The main framework was the ebbing of the power and authority of the American ‘hegemon’. The decline of capitalism, for him, was an underlying cause.
In this context Mike said that the main British anti-war organisation, the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), was making futile demands for Western states to act rationally.
The audience responded with range of comments. Rather than dogmatic exchange, they ranged from in-depth counter analyses of the process of globalisation to specific points about the nature of just how far governments could act with a degree of certainty about what their interests were. Many questioned Mike’s claim that the series of Western interventions that began in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, were increasingly ‘irrational’ given that the conditions in which they took place were themselves ‘unreasonable’. It was remarked that we were not in a position to always describe the ‘rational’ (‘imputed class consciousness) of the ruling class and its political representatives.
Others (myself to begin with) began by observing that China did not look as if it was a sign of capitalist decline. It is possible to cast doubt on the principle that the kind of market state and rent-seeking private bodies living off public money that are so important in Britain, which do illustrate a decline in capitalist dynamism, are typical in a world where ‘new economies’ such as China, are emerging. Western decline in productivity, or in profit rates, (if this is the case) is not the same as a weakening in the mode of production itself.
In his reply Macnair compared China’s growth to the outer rim of coral reef which continues to expand long after the initial spark of life is weakening.
Moshé Machover talked about the role that internal Israeli concerns are playing in the threat to attack Iran. He outlined the potential use that the Tel Aviv government would make of this crisis to drive out sections of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories and expand Israel. contributors pointed to the wider context, from the Syrian uprising, and the position of Iraq, and the effect these might have on any potential assault on Iran.
The day was extremely productive.
HOPI will be playing a significant role in organising solidarity with the Iranian people.
It is important to support it.
The school continues today.
A Separation by Asghar Farhadi, has won a Bafta award and is now nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar.
The Guardian said that the Iranian film goes beyond class and gender.
It is, by contrast, a picture that stays with class and gender. Its taut narrative develops them within a generous humanism. A Separation also opens our eyes to some significant religious and cultural issues in Iranian society.
Nader and Simin are a couple with a daughter, Termeh. They live in a flat in Tehran. The family is, in European terms, middle middle class. Nadar works in a Bank. His wife, Simin, is a University teacher.
Simin want to leave Iran. While we are not shown exactly why. But there some clear indications that neither of the couple are happy with Official Iranian culture. In the kitchen there is a tin of Twinnings Earl Grey. Nader uses ‘merci’ for thank you (widespread in Farsi until the Khomeinist regime). Simin wears attractive coloured headscarves. There is a Table Football. Nader corrects his daughter’s teacher use of an arabic-based word to translate ‘guarantee’, offering a Farsi one. All the signs are that the couple do not support the dour Iranian regime.
But Nader does not want to leave. He wishes to keep looking after for his elderly father, who lives with the family and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Simin files for divorce when he refuses to go with her. The daughter, stays, a choice, we learn, she makes in the hope of bringing the couple back together. The Family Court rules that the divorce cannot proceed until things are clearer. Termeh stays in the flat when her mother moves back to her parents.
The drama centres around Razieh, a pregnant, pious woman from woman from the outskirts of Tehran. She is employed to look after the father. She arrives with her joyful small girl in tow. When the carer is faced with the elderly father soiling himself she phones up her spiritual guide to learn whether it is permitted to clean him. Razieh is rapidly exhausted by this work, and recommends that Nadar approaches her husband for the carer job.
The crisis comes when she has left the flat, for an appointment (we later learn – with a gynecologist), with her small daughter. The father is tied to his bed. He looks at death’s door. Nadar comes back, sess this, and is furious. Meeting a returning Raizeh he accuses her of this, and of stealing money. He pushes her out. She falls.
This is not the end of his problems. He learns that she has been taken to hospital. He meets her husband Houjat, and finds that she has had a miscarriage. He blames Nadar for pushing her down the stairs. Nadar is accused of killing the unborn child.
Shots of the Iranian legal process seems like organised chaos. The Court Official in charge conducts his interrogations in a crowded police station. Nadar is put in prison. The husband threatens him and his family, apparently without serious restraint. There is the menace that Nadar is not a ‘real’ believer.
The picture of the law’s attempt to unravel the truth sometimes look like the efforts of French Examining Magistrates. Sometimes succesful, other moments not at all. The stair pushing looks a less than likely cause of the still birth. Different explanations for the death emerge. There are no independent controls. Indeed there is no lawyer. There is, however, the presumption of innocence. The hope would be, one assumes, that as in the French system, the truth will emerge under rigorous investigation.
The film’s frame draws the viewer deeply into the plot. Minimalist and sparse is appears documentary without being didactic. The middle class drive effortlessly around the city, while Raizeh is trapped in weary bus journeys. The characters vibrant and at the kind of point where their culture crosses European’s to be both sympathetic and bewildering. It’s not the people but the depth of the cultural rules and the law which lie just outside one’s grasp.
The final scenes revolve around ‘blood money’ . The case does not go further to the formal Court. Payments for deaths rather than punishment, are acceptable, (if the injured family party agrees) under Sharia Law. Houjat’s lack of money helps him take this path.
But the Wergeld (as the Anglo-Saxons called it) does not get paid. How and why is the pivot of the film.
It ends with the daughter Termeh’s final choice yet unannounced to her parents.
A Separation well deserves its successes. (More here.)
No war on Iran! For regime change from below!
Against Western Intervention and for Solidarity with the Iranian Democratic Opposition see the campaign Hands off the People of Iran (HOPI) - here.