Monday, June 12, 2006

We Are Here: a San Francisco Bay Area Exhibit

The subdued gallery chatter is in Persian. The young women crowding the Iranian Yellow Pages collage hush each other genially, their giggles like Chihuahuas on dainty leashes. I have found my own display of pages to stare at, these ones yellowed with age. Khosro Golsorkhi stares back from a 1975 poster. “He had courage,” I used to say of the leftist poet who chose execution rather than ask clemency from the Shah. “Our death is eternal life,” the martyr said. “We leave this world so that our tradition of resistance remains.” He had a wife and a young son as I recall, and the Shah permitted a last visit before the execution. As a young college student I couldn’t understand why Golsorkhi turned down the offer. As a father with children I finally understand. His son would beg him to live, and the father’s resolve would not hold.

There’s another giggle, this one coming from a little girl prancing from display to display. She probably doesn't realize it but she’s making funny faces underneath a picture of an old Newsweek photo of Khomeini. “Iran thumbs her nose at grief,” is the title of this brief work of art. I named it that. The creators of this living exhibit, artist Taraneh Hemami and scholar Persis Karim would have been pleased to see it flicker to life then annihilate itself with the call of a harried mother. “I am here,” said the little girl.

Three older looking women have been inching their way towards me and Golsorkhi. Finally I can make out what they are saying.

“They were working for the Russians, right?”

Nah baba, they were great minds.”

“What a waste, they were so young and handsome.”

Yes, Golsorkhi was handsome. It was very stupid of the Shah to hold a public trial for a man of such poise, eloquence and naughty bright eyes. Killing him was the beginning of the end for the despot. Golsorkhi's sacrifice hasn't yet become worth it. I wonder where his son lives now. Under the Islamic regime, or has he fled to freedom?

Some laughter. The young women are following a happier trail in this jungle of memorabilia collected from Bay Area Iranians and laid out in a garage-sale format. There’s a poster of the Iranian theater group, Darvag-I almost ask "how much for this one." No one in Tehran calls a frog “darvag” anymore but in the Gilan province they still use this ancient word from the extinct Pahlavi language. “Dar” meaning tree in Pahlavi and “Wag” meaning frog, tree frog. “O darvag, messenger of cloudy days, when will the rains arrive?” asks the beloved Gilani poet Nima Yooshij (1897-1959). Golsorkhi wants to know the same thing. The dry season for freedom in Iran has lasted far too long.

There’s also a photo of the Bay Area Dance troop, Beshkan. Beshkan, the rhythmic snapping of the finger to dance music, the Iranian answer to flamenco’s palmas. Unlike the quaint darvag, Tehranis still use the word beshkan. It is from the Pahlavi root skastan, to break. The same root as for the word shekast, defeat. How Iranian to use the same root word in both joy and sorrow. Why am I thinking of etymology in a gallery, I wonder. A frivolous drift? Improbable, I am in the presence of art, in fact I am immersed in it. More likely I’m trying to tell myself something. Yes of course, a large part of Iran is missing in this collection. A part of us that does not have its roots in Pahlavi.

Some of Taraneh Hemami’s other works are keenly aware of Iran’s Islamic culture, but in this oeuvre she has surrendered the canvas to the Bay Area Iranian community to put on it whatever they have been saving in the attics of their homes and their minds. And no one it seems wishes to acknowledge Islam as part of their clutter of experiences. Well, not as Iranians anyway. The Islam in this exhibit is the Islam of America. A horrific collage, made even more ghastly because it is made up of children’s drawings, remembers a day of tragedy in America. Stick figures fall out as boxy looking airplanes crash into two towers. The word “Sorry,” is scribbled over and over again in clumsy letters. All over this wall of sorrow Iranian and American flags wave in sympathy and solidarity.

I detach myself from the content and look for evidence of talent in the drawings. Most pictures have the airplanes in them, but one of them shows the towers standing by themselves leaning towards each other and touching as though in friendship or love. This was how the world seemed before the towers were destroyed. This student’s drawing reminded me of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David. Many other Renaissance depictions of the youth show the hero exuberant after his victory over Goliath. Michelangelo’s David however has yet to put the rock in the sling. It takes genius to look for drama in the time before the event, when things could have gone either way.

I wonder what this Iranian-American Michelangelo will paint when he/she grows up to put 9-11 in an adult context. Will the question arise as to why American students were not asked to create a wall of sorrow for the 290 Iranian passengers of the Airbus that was shot down by the USS Vincennes? In what artful way will the cognitive dissonance express itself when this young artist begins to suspect that the event was not an accident but a murder to leave no witnesses to the accepted fact that the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters trying to provoke a fight? Swimming inside this volume of art created by Hemami I have experienced the range of emotions from nostalgia, to realization, to amusement, to sadness, horror, irony and now anger and guilt. Though his image is nowhere to be seen, I imagine President Ahmadinejad shouting slogans at me. ‘Where were you when we were dying by the hundreds of thousands? And you call yourself Iranian?” I try to move away but he follows me, Nima and Golsorkhi pleading with him to take it easy on me. “Where were you?” he keeps shouting.

I try to remember where I was when the Iran-Iraq war was at its peak. I flash back to that glass of Merlot by the poolside, the smell of suntan lotion on my shoulders, and women noisily waving me over to their game of nude water polo. The Ayatollahs had promised Iranian youth that if they died in the war, they would get to join me where I was in Santa Rosa, California. Enough young Iranians died to fill seven Santa Rosas, yet I never met any of them.

“Where were you?”

“I was here,” I mumble.

On my way out I see the mom helping her little girl write her name on a black board by the exit. The black board is a symbolic opportunity for Bay Area Iranians to say “We are here.” The little girl is intimidated by all the names written neatly in Persian script.

“You can write your name in English if you want, dear,” says Mom.

Write your name in Persian, I say to the girl in my mind. Then throw that chalk away and pick up a can of spray paint.


Anonymous said...

Your writing is beautiful, as usual, but my fundamental difficulty in this article is your equivocation of the shooting down IAF 655 to the World Trade Towers is faulty. IAF 655 was a series of errors culminating in a tragedy, 9-11 was purposeful. Big difference. Where are the ex-patriots of Iran, often I only meet Persians?


Ari Siletz said...

Thank you for your comments, Roberto:

Below is an exerpt from a Ted Koppel Nightline program which compares the initial reports of the IAF 655 incident with data that was retrieved from USS Vincennes’Aegis radar tracking system:

William J. Crowe Jr. (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral, U.S. Navy): [July 3, 1988] The suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor.

Ted Koppel: [voice-over] That was wrong. The aircraft was flying well within the commercial air corridor.

William J. Crowe Jr.: More importantly, the aircraft headed directly for Vincennes, on a constant bearing, at high speed, approximately 450 knots.

Ted Koppel: At the time it was shot down, the Iranian aircraft was actually turning slowly away from the Vincennes. Its top speed, a relatively minor point, was 385 knots.

William J. Crowe Jr.: There were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14.

Ted Koppel: [voice-over] The only electronic emission from the plane was its correct transponder signal, identifying it as a commercial aircraft.

William J. Crowe Jr.: Decreasing in altitude as it neared the ship.

Ted Koppel: That, too, was wrong. The aircraft had been steadily climbing from liftoff and was still gaining altitude at the time of missile impact.
Here's the link to the whole program:
Ted Koppel does state that he could never believe that an American warship would deliberately fire on a civilian aircraft. With the original coverup story this opinion is defensible, but with the facts pointing away from "a series of errors culminating in a tragedy," the burden of proof falls on the Vincennes.
I do however agree with you that there is a difference between IAF 655 and 9-11, but for a different reason. The very fact that a coverup existed suggests that the United States still believes it is WRONG to target civilians--even though at times she does--whereas the planners of 9-11 have made civilian casualty one of their main tactics.
You bring up an interesting point about Iranians hiding behind "Persian." Since the word "Iran" has been identified with the word "enemy," our deepest concern is that by telling you we are Iranian we may be implying that we are your enemy, which is clearly not what we feel in our hearts. I do not believe this harmless subtrefuge suggests a lack of patriotism.

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