Saturday, 29 August 2009

Part 2: Parting Company, The Image And The Life

Pictures Continued
This post continues to look at the way images are used to build the story of Iran’s resistance to its current tyrannical regime. In the post below, I introduced the story, such as it is, of Taraaneh Mousavi, whose image has become so closely associated with the campaign to expose and indict the perpetrators of rape as a method of torture, of social control and, in some instances, of death, in prisons and police stations across Iran.

The Story And The Life

The post below attracted two comments, one of which states that, ‘a healthy dose of scepticism’ is required when reading the stories of Taraaneh for which the writer provides some links, which, I have to say, leave me none the wiser. I am aware of the highly contested nature of this story and I do want to emphasise again, that in this series of posts, I am not so much concerned to set out the facts of the lives of the three individuals named below, there are others far better placed to do this, but rather to set out the story. I am differentiating here between ‘truthful’ reportage or ‘documentary truth,’ and an examination of how a story grows, why it grows, what its meaning is and how this is built through imagery and the use of those images. Whatever the evidence of the life and death of Taraaneh Mousavi ultimately reveals, and my strong feeling is most of us will never know for sure what happened, what is beyond question is the strength and nature of the feeling the story has aroused and what meanings have become attached to it. Like it or not, it is now and probably forever, the single image that most frequently appears associated with rape-to-kill and rape as torture. The collection of images above are all from one jonbesh e sabz demonstration in London, outside the Iranian Embassy, on Sunday 23rd August 2009, (photo credits Iman Nabavi).

A Sign
In the case of all three individuals introduced in post below - Neda Agha Soltani, Taraaneh Mousavi and Sohrab Araabi, the image has already started to part company with the life of the woman or man represented. This is more obviously the case with Neda and Taraaneh, as I think is clear from the story of ‘Neda the Christian martyr’ which can be seen in the proliferation of blogs which emphasise her crucifix, and in Taraaneh, whose highly formalised, almost impersonal image, lends itself so well to the notion that ‘this might happen to any of us.’ I think, and I hope it is not too harsh to suggest it, that she is almost more of a signifier of a ‘victim of the worst excesses of the Islamic Republic’ rather than a real woman from whom we might then differentiate rather than identify ourselves. Sohrab Araabi is usually pictured as 'the protester hero,' the beautiful young man cut down in his prime. My guess is this is how he'll stay. I assume he was many other things too, not just a protester but, as far as his image is concerned, he has now become, 'any (male) protester.'

What Counts As Rape

I should also add that, in spite of my searches of the life of Taraneh Mousvi, I am still not clear what part of her story is seriously contested. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that she was raped or that she is dead, or that the two are in some way connected. There are endless questions concerning who when where and why which could be the source of the doubt. A possible interpretation of this may be connected with how rape is constituted legally, socially and morally – in other words: what counts as rape. English readers will be very familiar indeed with this since it regularly arises here in the form of ghastly, legalistic expressions such as, ‘she was guilty of contributory negligence,’ which means she was out on her own late at night, or was wearing a short skirt or was drunk or some such thing. The equally offensive offering is, ‘she was asking for it,’ or ‘she was a prostitute,’ which apparently means she can’t be raped because prostitute women ‘don’t count.’ In short, the entire discourse of rape in Iran has many parallels to the discourse here in England. The whole notion of rape is subject to disbelief and blame. This of course makes it even more likely that this image will be forever attached to the Iranian rape-in-prison, rape-to-kill reports, precisely because, as always, it is contested. The story can reasonably be said to be typical - it is ‘any woman’ and, in this case, ‘any man.’

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Building The Story In Pictures, Part 1: Neda Agha Soltani, Taraneh Mousavi, Sohrab Arabi

Neda Agha Soltani: About A Picture
‘Oh, that’s the girl that was shot isn’t it?’ Asks the policeman.
Earlier the same day my sister had asked the same question when she saw my banner peeping out of my bag with the unmistakeable face of Neda Agha Soltani, her head tilted slightly to one side, loose hair and a bright, unaffected smile.
‘Why Neda? I mean why her in particular?’ Asks my niece.
‘She’s very pretty,’ comments my sister, suggesting this might be why her death was singled out among so many. She is, but I can say with confidence that this is not the reason.

The death of Neda was intensely shocking because it happened in public, in daylight, at short range and was witnessed live in real time by hundreds and, having been captured on camera, by millions.

A Picture Outside Its Context

There are other qualities and details about the picture above, however, which suggest that her face will forever be associated with the Iranian resistance as it emerged in response to the coup d’etat (‘election’) on June 12th 2009. If you google, ‘Neda Agha Soltani’ and press the ‘images’ key, you will find hundreds, perhaps thousands of blogs which include this image. Studying these began to raise questions in my mind about the delicate balance of mourning, of expressing overwhelming sorrow and how easily that can tilt just too far and become a kind of exploitation or fetishisation. It’s hard to imagine how this might feel to her family and friends. It may be uncomfortable or of no consequence at all to them. It is, ultimately, a photograph. It is not Neda.

On many of these blogs, this image has a red circle on it. If you look closely at the image, you will see, not quite concealed under the shirt, she is wearing a crucifix. It is this that is circled.

I don’t know if Neda was a Christian of not, and don’t consider it a matter of importance. That she wears a crucifix does not automatically indicate Christian faith or practice. However, this picture has been adopted by numerous Christian minority communities all over the Middle East, the Arab and North African regions and in the Far East. If the blogs are anything to go by, it is a matter of immense importance to them.

The second significant point is that in this photograph, Neda in not wearing hejab. At a single stroke, this renders this image more understandable and more sympathetic to non Muslims. Put simply, she could be the girl next door, your sister, your friend. There is a kind of simplicity about her appearance in this image, she becomes ‘any woman.’

Taraneh Mousavi
Taraneh Mousavi is also pictured above, wearing hejab. This black and white image of Taraaneh is, as far as I know, the only one we have which is available for download and therefore is the only one to appear on placards and banners. Her image too has become strongly associated with brutal treatment of protestors after the elections. Taraaneh Mousavi was gang-raped unto death. She died as result of the multiple rapes and was subsequently burnt. Her image has become widely used in conjunction with ‘stop rape-to-kill’ placards and the emerging campaign to indict the perpetrators. Very little is known about Taraneh. It is thought that her family have been severely threatened. As a result they do not talk.

Sohrab Arabi
Sohraab Arabi is the third image which is becoming well known. Again, this is partly because we have a number of images of him as a living protestor and as a young man preparing to go to university. So our encounter with his sudden and brutal death is all the more shocking. We also have several images of his mother angry and in deep distress. She has given an interview as has the mother of Neda. The alive-ness of both Sohrab and of Neda is in sharp contrast to Taraneh around whose death and memory is a dense silence.

Three Stories, Three Pictures
Neda’s death is unequivocal and uncontested. We know exactly what happened, when and where. About Sohrab, there are many unanswered questions. Days elapsed between his disappearance and the identification of his dead body. We don’t know if he was tortured to death in Evin prison, or shot dead in the street or if he died of his wounds or what. The first is widely suspected. About the death of Taraneh, we have even more questions.

The three images provide a parallel to the three dominant stories of the disappeared. The first is the story of the protestor of bystander shot dead in the street: a crime committed in public with absolute impunity. The second is the protestor shot or arrested, detained in prison and tortured to death, but about whom there are still questions needing to be answered. The third is the story of the disappeared, found dead, obviously raped. This story is also the one that has come to stand for the use of ‘rape to kill’ and ‘rape as torture.’ It was ever thus. Rape has been used by police against young women and girls in police stations as a tool of social control since the dawn of Islamic Republic. It was used against all the female prisoners in Evin during the 1980s and 90s. Only now, however, is it being widely and openly discussed. That it is now being talked about among the political classes is entirely new.

Short Story Of Two Pictures And Some Rain

I have two banners, one of Neda Soltani and one of Taraneh Mousavi. On the tube, returning from one of the most rain-soaked demonstrations I have ever known, I began to wipe the excess rain-water still clinging to their surfaces. With 30 years experience of demonstrations in this country, I knew how to prepare. Everything was covered in plastic. I had only to wipe them clean with a cotton cloth. As I began the task, the other passengers looked on, fascinated. The man opposite opened his bag, got out new packet of tissues, and offered them to me, in what was a simple but obvious and extraordinarily touching gesture of solidarity. He was also showing, as were other passengers in other ways, that he knew who they were, what I was doing, and why I cared enough to do it. This small collection of gestures and glances, gathered together on a train journey, left me with no doubt as to the power and potential of a simple image. Though I worry sometimes about an over reliance on images of the dead and the disappeared, I certainly can’t doubt their power to inform and affect, in a way that images of defiance, much as I love them, do not, or not in the same way.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

About Jonbesh e Sabz, or Iranian Green Movement in London

(For this post, and on this blog, I’m going to refer to the ‘jonbesh e sabz,’ or ‘green movement’ in London as the just ‘sabz’ to avoid any confusion with ‘The Green Party.’)

The ‘jonbesh e sabz’ is, or was, allied to that constituency that voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi - although I think the green was associated originally with the Mousavi campaign (?) However, it has now broadened considerably. Here in London, it is more of a big green umbrella, appropriately enough for this summer. The Sabz includes people who voted for Mousavi or Karoubi; many of the ‘old left,’ the campaigners from the original, 1979 revolution, before it was Islamised; it includes people who didn’t vote at all and wouldn’t dream of so doing because they don’t believe in or want an Islamic Republic anyway; and various other odds and sods, like me, who join because we believe in solidarity, used to live in Iran and / or because we have much loved friends or relatives in Iran.

So the Sabz in London is diffuse, slightly confused, a bit disorganised, is eager to be inclusive, is working on being bilingual - meetings and social relations are conducted entirely in Farsi, but the facebook site, is a mix of Farsi and English - the news of demos, meetings etc are in English, the discussion groups vary. Sabz is also allied to United 4 Iran, which is international, in intention anyway, and is primarily focused on Human Rights. So some people in the group are more focused on the welfare of their protesting friends and family at home, in Iran, others on campaigning for Human Rights in Iran, others on developing practical campaigns in the UK that can be supportive to the protesters in Iran, such as the Boycott Nokia campaign. These are, we could say, all part of the colouration of the group. They are not differences as such.

We are highly resistant to being rearranged into some kind of organised, command and control, ‘party in exile.’ I think the Sabz are somewhat resistant to the idea of leaders at all, although of course, there are dominant characters. They let me in, so they must be pretty flexible. I think I’m right in saying that they/ we are wholly committed to non-violent means. Any notion of military action is absolutely out of the picture. It is also for this reason that, as it says, somewhere on the facebook site, we are not concerned with ‘regime change.’ The expression is redolent of war, bombs, guns and misery, to say nothing of the absence of democracy.

Most of the people I’ve talked to so far and certainly all of my personal friends would prefer a secular government. However, they are working with what is actually there at the moment, which is an Islamic Republic which, as I said in the previous post, is the source from which Mousavi springs. So, you can say that there is an inherent contradiction at the heart of this – hooray- I like contradictions. I guess I like them because it gives you something to work with. It’s when you try to form something that is perfect from the outset, that you know it’s doomed to failure.

So, if you’re interested, do come along. Have a look at that link again. Scroll down a bit to find the current information on the demonstrations. At the time of writing and for the foreseeable future, we are opposite the Iranian Embassy, Princes Gate, London, (Knightsbridge is the nearest tube), from 6.00-9.00pm Thursdays and from 4.00-7.00pm Sundays. It’s a good idea to wear something green and something black, especially if you’re obviously not Iranian, because then people know that you’re there to be with them. Slogans are in English and Farsi, so don’t worry if you don’t know any Farsi, you’ll get to shout too, and placards, flags etc are provided. Bring an umbrella. Next post, I’ll provide examples of slogans and songs, with some stuff about what it all means. Shall also try to find out more about this Nokia campaign.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Is Mousavi the real deal?

(About the relationship between Mr. Mousavi and Green Movement, and what it all might mean.)
The five images above were taken in Tehran in the first couple of days after the election. The top image is our protest in Hangar Lane, London, outside the offices of Press TV - see the last paragraph of this post for comments on that.

'Is Mousavi the real deal?'

This question, which my niece asked me a couple of days ago, has been bobbing about in the back of my mind for some time now. It is, of all the questions, the one which most often surfaces, not least among Iranians.

The first thing I want to say is that there is no ‘real deal’ for Iran. There is no ‘saviour.’ Iran cannot be 'saved' by one leader or another, either from within the country or from outside. It is in process – a long process, I suspect, and probably a messy one. This work–in–process, I believe, is as much social as it is political: it has as much to do with the way social lives are conducted as it does with the actions of government.

Mir Hossein Mousavi is wholly of the Islamic republic. He conforms to the model of the ‘mainstream, traditional, small-c-conservative, Muslim,’ as does Karoubi and, for that matter, Khaatemi. He, and others like him, are a necessary part of the equation which needs to be worked out. This process can’t happen without Mousavi and his ilk being involved, of that I am certain. I just can’t imagine what they can do with the unholy Trinity of the Basij, the Revolutionary guard and the Supreme Leader – I have a feeling Ahmedinejaad is almost irrelevant in this set up – he could be exchanged for anyone.

‘Mousavi has killed a lot of people,’ says one of my Iranian friends, herself a refugee. She is referring to the 1980s, when Mousavi was Prime Minister and many people were indeed executed and killed in prison. ‘Has he really changed?’she asks. This question is repeated by many.

I have no idea. I do know that people sometimes change their strategies though, particularly when the context changes. And the Iranian context has, unquestionably, changed: its social context has changed beyond recognition from the time when M. was prime minister, as has the economy, as has have the surrounding international relations, and on top of all of that, mass communications have extended the reach of all of those changes.

I hope that Mousavi does not attempt to be too much of a ‘real deal,’ – the martyr / hero talk worries me, but martyr / hero talk always does. If he ever does become President, then I hope he rolls up his sleeves and is a bit boring and serviceable. Iran doesn’t need any more drama queens and the most inspiring sort of leader would be someone who wasn’t too inspiring, just very practical and good at building things - socially and poltically, I mean, they've got more than enough fancy mosques and noxious government buildings.

It’s just come to my notice that His Royal Loathsomeness, George The Glistening Turd of Galloway, has a programme on PressTV, (shame on you), called ‘The Real Deal,’ in which, presumably, he broadcasts his ignorance to the Nation with his customary, matchless pomposity. If this is the real deal then I sincerely hope Mr. Mousavi isn’t.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Payande Iran! (Viva / Long Live Iran): Iranian Protests in London in support of the protestors in Iran.

(An account of a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy In London, August 6th, 2009 in very heavy rain, with comments on the Iranian Election of 2009 and introducing the green movement / Sabz here in London.)

I remembered, last night, why it was that God created the Victoria Line. It is there not to punish commuters on exceptionally hot days, of which, let’s face it, there are relatively few in London, rather it is there to dry out soaking wet demonstrators. We could consider it London Transport’s contribution to participatory democracy. Or we could just consider it a giant mobile drying machine – one which was particularly welcome at 9.30 pm on Thursday August 6th, the first day of the second phase of demonstrations, actions and, which is most important, movement-building for ‘jonbesh e sabz e Landan’ or London’s Green Movement supporting the protestors in Iran.

We arrived outside the Iranian Embassy, Princes Gate, London, at 6.00pm. A hot airless day produced a sudden stream of cool air and small spitting raindrops. By 6.20 it gushed and verily it continued to gush, torrentially and relentlessly, yeay unto the very last minute of our demonstrating and lo the mighty torrent rushing in the road did swell and roar and threaten to carry off our flags and banners – to say nothing of the long-suffering police sent to keep an eye on us. It takes a good deal more than that, however, to silence the voices of distraught and angry Iranians. Undaunted by somewhat inhospitable English weather, they gathered, as they have done, day in, day out, since June 13th, the day after the fraudulent elections, and howled their disapproval and fury at the Embassy.

I have not witnessed all of them, although I well remember the arrival of all the images of Neda Agha Soltani at the demo on Sunday the 21st of June, the day after she had been shot dead by the Basiji in Tehran. The daily gatherings of thousands of Iranians outside the Embassy continued until, at the request of the police, it was reduced to twice weekly, Thursdays and Sundays. We added different venues on different days. We went and hurled invective at Press TV, one of George Galloway’s little hang outs, on Mondays, and we’re still trying to get at the Russian Embassy, only they’re probably all too busy having punch-ups with grizzly bears to notice us. This week we gathered Monday and Wednesday to protest the inauguration and reinstating of Ahmedinejad as president. This evening, Friday, they will gather outside the Islamic Centre in Kilburn to mourn the murdered and to demand the justice for the detained and disappeared. We shall be doing the same on Sunday and Thursdays and Sundays hereafter outside the Embassy, until the police ask us to move on or until the cracks in the regime finally split.

Ahmedinajad is not the elected the president of Iran. The election was a grotesque travesty of democratic process, an obscene charade, as are the carnival of show trials now in process. It can rain all it likes. The Victoria Line will still be there to dry us out and we shall continue to get soaked.