A few months ago, flushed with adoration for all things Marjane Satrapi, I bought a slim volume by the name of My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes (2006), edited by Lila Azam Zanganeh.
While the cover bears the quirkily delightful renderings of Satrapi’s work, the collection of articles compiled by 15 Iranian artists, journalists, authors and filmmakers, provides an alternately humorous, thought-provoking, and insightful account of what Iran means to the writers, and to an extent, the West.
It is a hard task to select a paper that jumps out ahead of its fellows, as Azar Nafisi, Gedareh Asayesh, Satrapi, Reza Aslan, Mehrangiz Kar, Roya Hakakian, Azadeh Moaveni, [deep breath] Naghmeh Zarbafian, Daryush Shayegan, Abbas Kiarostami, Babak Ebrahimian, Negar Azimi, [almost there] Shohreh Aghdashloo and Salar Abdoh, provide a kaleidoscope of challenging and evocative works.
Should I be pressed to select but a few, I would concede that Asayesh’s ‘I Grew Up Thinking I Was White’, Satrapi’s ‘How Can One Be Persian?’, Kar’s ‘Death Of A Mannequin’, and Moaveni’s ‘Sex In The Time Of Mullahs’ held an acerbic wit that causes the article to pass before your eyes at great speed, to be followed by a greedy resentment that the author could not have written slightly more.
Asayesh, author of Saffron Sky, traces the evolution of the concept of race according to the country in which one dwells; almost like a currency, being white affords elevation in some areas, while the definition of being white changes in others:
In Iran, we worship, slogans notwithstanding, the khareji, the outsider. By this word we mean not the Afghans, Arabs, Pakistanis, and Turks who are our neighbors but the white Americans and Europeans who have held sway in the region since the Ottoman Empire. Growing up, I envied friends who ordered their clothes from the Spiegel catalogue. At school, a classmate with an Irish mother ranked as minor aristocracy. I was jealous when my cousins were sent to school in England. The whole family was agog when Caroline, an American friend, came to stay with us in Tehran. [p. 14]
Most fascinating is Kar’s observation of the social changes during the Iranian Revolution played out on the mannequins of Tehran’s store windows.
At first a point of humor, the mannequins evolved gradually from sprightly femme fatales to shrouded female forms, to mutilated sirens guilty of stirring the loins of the pious men:
The owners of the clothes shops finally came to the conclusion that they might be better off detaching the heads of the mannequins from their bodies altogether. The authorities were claiming that the lips of women were aphrodisiac and their eyes stimulating. The shop owners were confused and did not know what to do to save their businesses from the attacks of the regime. So all of a sudden, they cut the heads off their mannequins. …These beheaded mannequins were left with only a round face made out of cardboard. They had no eyes, no eyebrows, no noses, no mouths. The ideal woman for fundamentalists was a woman who did not have eyes to see, a tongue to speak, and legs to run away. [p. 35]
The narrative of Kar is sublime: her words lead you by the hand through the confounding changes that unfold so slowly, that the reader feels the shock of the change with each turn of the page.
It is beautifully horrific.
Satrapi, in my opinion at least, can do no wrong, and in this instance does not fail to impress.
Responding to the seemingly simple question of ‘How Can One Be Persian?’, the author of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, navigates the definition of the terms ‘Iranian’ and ‘Persian’ with cynicism and vivacity, concluding that: “Iran has extremists, for sure. Iran has Scheherazade as well. But first and foremost, Iran has an actual identity, an actual history – and above all, actual people, like me.” [p. 23]
Iran is a remarkable place, and as I have posted before, it holds an immense allure and fascination.
Nevertheless, it would be naive to venture that Iran is at all as appreciated – or understood – as well as it deserves to be.
Which is why, for those dipping their toes in the waters of discovering Iran, Zanganeh’s publication provides an excellent introduction and springboard onto the plethora of scintillating and enlightening works currently available.
A final note on the images: by the internationally acclaimed Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat, a few choice works – not including those posted here, except Fervor – feature in the publication, accompanied by her interview, ‘Women Without Men’.
Like the country that inspired the book, Neshat’s photography is the height of elegance, eloquence, and subtle profundity.
My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes is published by Beacon Press, 132 pages, 2006. ISBN: 0-8070-0463-4.