Archive for the ‘Vitrine’ Category

Notes from Underground

February 24, 2009

Mohsen Namjoo farewell concert. Artaud Theater, San Francisco. Oct. 4, 2008. Photo for Tehran Bureau.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Tehran Bureau | vitrine

On a drive home from dinner not too long ago, I was introduced to the music of Mohsen Namjoo.

The setting for the first song, Biaban, or Desert — was appropriate: nightfall in Dubai. A mix of fog and construction debris had settled thickly over the desert city. From the comfort of the passenger seat, scenes of a semi-cloaked metropolis rolled past the window. As my friend fumbled through his CD collection for the perfect soundtrack, he described “an underground Iranian musician” whose songs were a mix of traditional and modern; they spoke the language of the great Persian poets, but had “a strain of Jimi Hendrix running though them.”

I didn’t want to be rude, but I dislike most Iranian pop music. Even in the 1970’s, when my aunt watched Rang-a-Rang, the popular music video program on TV, I fled from the room. For my dear friend, I held back and smiled politely.

As the song began to stream through the loudspeakers, a playfulness in the opening of Biaban faintly recalled the faux-American 1960’s melodies of Serge Gainsbourg, not the Iranian pop of Los Angeles. But I was not won over until Namjoo began to deliver the lyrics:

Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Cheragheh qaryeh penhan ast
Mojee garm dar khooneh biaban ast
Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast
Biaban, khasteh
nafas besh-khasteh
dar hazyaneh garmeh meh
aragh mirizadash ahesteh az har band

The translation does not do it justice (and I will make changes if any good suggestions come through):

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
The village lights are hidden

A warm wave pulsates through the desert veins

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over
the desert, weary

slowly perspires from every pore in the delirium of the mist

The lyrics are from an Ahmad Shamlu poem called “Mist.” It was published by Shamlu in “the choking social and political atmosphere dominating Iran after the 1953 coup d’etat that resulted in the overthrow of the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the subsequent suppression of political movements in Iran,” according to Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Kamran Talattof in their book on Nima Yushij.

Anyone can lift great poetry and sample it to song, but that would not begin to do Namjoo justice. Even when the lyrics are not his own, he delivers them with the authority of someone who wrote it, or as my friend put it more passionately, “as if he were there at the moment of creation.”

Another immediate favorite was “Toranj.” The haunting howl in the beginning of that song is transcendental. A few playful notes at the piano, and then boom!– it’s as if the hypnotic beats of a nearby zoor-khaneh flowed in and gripped him. The lyrics, as later explained to me, are a combination of Hafiz and Khajooye Kermani. The seamless rearrangement of the verses underscores Namjoo’s mastery of Persian poetry. Unlike others, however, he doesn’t put the masters on a temple and go down on his knees. He seems to play and live among them. When the inspiration hits him, they are also infused with his own lyrics. To the untrained ear, it’s often hard to tell where one leaves off and another takes over. Overall, what is created is essentially his own. If he is sampling, after all, he is getting at its DNA and splicing it.


Namjoo is hardly underground these days. His albums can be purchased on iTunes and dates for upcoming performances in Canada and Sweden can be found here.

Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory

February 19, 2009

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Why Iranian music has not taken its place on the world stage.

Tehran, Iran
Hafta Music Society | vitrine

Traveling was once the affair of adventurers, tradesmen, explorers and conquerors. On the road for many years, these travelers stayed in different places and had to familiarize themselves with the culture, tradition, art, literature and way of life of the peoples they encountered. They were usually accompanied by servants, guards, carriages, horses, cattle, food and various goods. They also carried with them entertainers — musicians, poets, storytellers, comedians and dancers. They were veritable cultural envoys of their times.

The dialects, manners of speech, new musical instruments, handicrafts and customs of these travelers influenced the way people of different lands saw their own cultures. Music was an important way through which cultures influenced one other.

As one of the key posts along the Silk Road, Iran has played a significant role in cultural commerce. There are ample records of musical instruments traveling from the Iranian plateau to China from the seventh century AD onwards. The flow of music and poetry from Bukhara and Samarkand to the eastern and western parts of the plateau shaped the music and poetry of the region.

With the emergence of new modes of transportation and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cultural relations underwent major changes, leaving Iranian music, compared to that of the region, on the margins of musical exchange. Did the cultural Airbus fly over Iran in such haste to overlook its rich legacy? What reasons lie behind this omission?

Exoticism in music and the global trend toward new discoveries

In today’s world, where geographical borders are cleared in minutes or hours, rather than months or years, musical styles such as ChaChaCha, Mambo, Salsa, Raga, Saga, Tropic Music, Qawwali, Afrobeat, Griot, Fado or Conga are no strangers to the ear. Central African music has met the South American Aymaras and ragas of India chime to the tune of Scandinavian polkas. The world has always been eyeing new discoveries in music. AfroCuban elements, Bossa Nova rhythms, non-European instruments, including oud and pipe, and Sufi music have a clear presence in pop, rock and R&B. New names such as Desert Blues, Fusion, Bollywood Music, and Sufi Trance have become part of the music lexicon.

Why is it then that we don’t hear the name of tar among the wide array of musical instruments that inform the so-called World Music Scene? The same goes for the Shur scale in Persian music. The rhythmic chahar mezrab is unknown to many. Musical modes that saw continuous expansion from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth are today left by the wayside. Meanwhile, Indian music, which shares numerous features with its Iranian counterpart, enjoys tremendous popularity the world over. Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, I want to offer some reasons for the disparity between the two musical traditions.

Why did the world take note of Indian music?

India, like other countries of the colonial world, accepted and incorporated many features of the colonial mainland. The infiltration of the English language may be taken as the most obvious example. It allowed for momentous interactions between the colonizer and the colonized. Migration to and from the colonies and the slave trade further blended traditions. Nowhere can we see this cultural fusion better than in music.

By the end of World War II, Europe and the United States entered a new phase of international challenges and crises. The division of Germany, France’s problems in Cambodia, the onset of the Cold War and the nuclear showdown, the appearance of a threat named Cuba as a symbol of communism just a few kilometers south of the U.S. border, the emergence of a superpower like China, the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, women and civil rights movements in the United States, all plunged the Western world into a vortex of confusion from the 1950’s onward. The threat of World War III loomed large. The world was on the verge of a meltdown and with it a thirst for peace and calm intensified among a new generation.

Who spoke of peace? What could turn the minds away from torrential crises that hit the shores of the post-War world? The political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, with its Hindu and Buddhism undercurrents, Eastern mysticism, Sufism, incense burning, Hare Krishna, sexual freedom, psychedelic drugs, among others, offered a way out. For the Western youth, the East, its culture and traditions, its music, was an escape.

Many factors played a catalytic role in popularizing Indian music: The Buddhist propensities of iconic figures like John Lennon and George Harrison, the use of sitar in “Norwegian Wood” from the Rubber Soul; Ravi Shankar’s confluence with Yehudi Menuhin and the production of West Meets East; the mystic magnetism of Jim Morrison and the Doors; the popularity of Psychedelic and Hard Rock and the taste of eastern melodies in the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other rock bands; concerts such as Woodstock and Bangladesh; the friendship between Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, and the musical theories of Peter Gabriel after his separation from Genesis are only the most immediate.

If in the beginning minor influences of Indian music caressed the ears of European audiences, today its music as a whole is recognized and appreciated. Considered exotic per se, audiences can easily sit and listen to its different tones (in different moods) for several hours. In other words, the transitional phase helped familiarize the audience who was a stranger to India’s musical tradition. It even helped promote the music of neighboring regions, like Tamilnadu (Susheela Raman) and Pakistan (the Qawwali music of Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan).

The same can be said about Francophone or Latin American music.

So, why did the world overlook Iranian music?

Iran has been at the crossroads of commerce and at the crossfire of wars and confrontations since time immemorial. Two major conquests (the Arab and the Mongolian) were instrumental in determining how people of the Iranian plateau would face the outside world. Although the country never became a “colony,” its people learned strategically how to serve the invading armies without relinquishing their integrity. In recent history, Imperial Russia and the British Empire tried to parcel the land between them. They met with some success but never achieved total political control.

These are some of the reasons why Iranians, unlike Indians, did not surrender entirely to the invasive culture; instead, they raised their defenses. Even when France, Germany, and more recently the United States, tried to achieve control in seemingly less hostile manners, they were met with resistance. The situation led to national traditions and customs being taken into basements. Iranian modernists chose to “coexist” with foreign influences or, better said, accept the outward appearances of the Western culture. Those who kept true to their ethnic culture chose to lock it in, while modern intellectuals blindly followed the Western model.

In major population centers there are no identifiable Iranian enclaves amidst the different immigrant neighborhoods formed around religious and ethnic registers. Sometimes it is even hard to recognize an Iranian by his/her looks, as Iranians seemingly melt into their surrounding pot. Meanwhile, westerners living in Iran enjoy the famous “Iranian hospitality.” Iranians, contrary to Indians, have prided themselves in playing the role of a host rather than the vanquished. Could it be that the combination of this social softness and the habit of taking traditions into hiding has structured Iranian music as well?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Iranians who had the opportunity to study in Europe brought back many offerings of Western culture into the country. In music, attempts were made to establish a “scientific” framework for Iranian classical music based on European notation and instrumentation; however, little has come of these attempts. In pop and rock music, too, the same tendency can be observed.

Today, we see strong traces of non-Iranian influences in the contemporary music of Iran. What’s more, the pattern of mass migration, especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has given birth to a generation of Iranians with feeble links to their musical past. Iranian music in exile may use Persian words but it rarely tries to build on the rich repository of its existing musical repertoires.

In the past century, the Qajar preoccupation with the lure of modernity, the Pahlavi attempt to create a secular state a la West, and the Islamic backlash of 1979 has created an identity crisis for Iranian music. We can identify three main tendencies among Iranian musicians: Those who want to preserve traditions at all expense and by ignoring outside influences, those who fully submit to the Western ways in the hope of achieving salvation from traditions, and those who allow for outside influences to shape their music without losing sight of traditions. The first two have been instrumental in obscuring Iranian music from the world stage. Only the third advocates exchange and dialogue between cultures. At the same time, the global mass media has been less interested in what Iranian music has to offer than in exoticizing musicians who belong to the third group, as if they were jewels in an ancient ruin called Persian music.

What does the future hold for us?

The world is looking for the Exotic. But exotica has a short lifespan, it has a date of expiry, though it will eventually leave its mark on the global music scene. World music is in dire need of new material. Ears are desperate to hear new sounds and voices, desperate for new roots, different traditions, and new forms of knowledge. With their current social conditions, many regions around the world show potential for introducing their music and culture to the world. Iran, Afghanistan, Asia southeast, the newly independent countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are only some of them.

One can visibly see this desire to reach out among Iranian musicians, especially those who have been exposed to Western music through the ages, from the Medieval period to the Classical and more contemporary ones. The Franco-Persian Nour Ensemble, for example, has tried to combine Spanish Cantigas and Gregorian Chants with Kurdish and Persian repertoires. Having performed their music live in Europe and in Tehran since 2000, the Ensemble is actively looking for what has been missing in the evolution of music East and West of the globe. The introduction of notations and the systematization of classical music in the West led to the elimination of certain aspects of music supported by oral traditions. Iranian music, on the other hand, preserved most of its oral, improvisational qualities. As such, Nour tries to introduce into Western music what it had abandoned since the middle ages — the art of improvisation. Collaboration between nice musicians, four of which are French nationals, has thus far led to the release of an album called Alba.

Examples of such cross-cultural music can also be found in the works of a rural band like Jahleh. Jahleh is a clay pot used as a water container in some villages of the Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf. Next to such folk instruments as ney jofti (a double reed-flute) and dohol (bass drum akin to the Indian mridanga), jahleh gives the music a timbre unique to this region. At the same time, the band makes great use of blues, rock, rap, and reggae rhythms and melodies to bring diversity to the music of the port city of Bandar Abbas, itself greatly influenced by the musical traditions of Ethiopia and Zanzibar.

The Paris-Tehran Project is the name of a 2003 live recording of a joint concert by French jazz players of the Alain Brunet Orchestra and classical Iranian musicians of the Shargh Ensemble on the occasion of the Day of Music celebrated in France on 21 June every year. Hermes Records and the Cultural Center of the French Embassy in Iran organized the concert, which was originally intended to be in three parts. In the first two, musicians of each group were to perform separately, coming together on the stage of Niavaran Cultural Center in Tehran for a third time in a jam session. However, the two groups had such chemistry between them that musicians decided to skip the first two parts.

Backed by ancient history, regional and ethnic diversity, various traditions and customs, and a rich literature, Iranian music surely deserves to be recognized, heard and seen. Today, the world of music awaits a newcomer and Iran may be the landing place for the cultural Airbus.

Ramin Sadighi is the founder of Hermes Records. This article was first published in the The Warwick Review in September 2007. The magazine’s Vol. 1 No. 3 issue was dedicated to Iran.

Iran Night on the Lower East Side

February 16, 2009

KGB Non-Fiction Presents Iran Night
February 17, 2009
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm

85 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003

Sohrab Mohebbi
is the author of “Hair is for Head-Banging” and a contributor to Urban Iran. A writer/art critic from Tehran, he is currently a student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York, and the founder of the 127 music ensemble.

Charlotte Noruzi was born in Tehran, moving to the U.S. in 1977. She is an author-illustrator-designer based in New York City. Urban Iran is a depiction of everyday life apart from international and diplomatic policies, giving voice to people living and working in Iran today while probing the complexities of contemporary Iran. Described and revealed by photographers, writers and visual artists, from street art to heavy metal bands and book publishing, Urban Iran documents how the Western media gaze influences how much of the world views Iran, but also how this gaze impacts how Iranians see themselves, especially in the realm of the creative arts.

Hooman Majd was born in Tehran, Iran in 1957. He worked at Island Records and Polygram Records for many years, with a diverse group of artists, and was head of film and music at Palm Pictures, where he produced The Cup and James Toback’s Black and White. He has written for GQ, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, Interview, and Salon, and has been a regular contributor to The Huffington Post from its inception. A contributing editor at Interview magazine, he lives in New York City and travels regularly back to Iran.

Manijeh Nasrabadi received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Hunter College. Her essay “Before I Knew Him” won the City University of New York Arts Gala Memoir Prize in 2005. She was a Hertog Fellow that same year and a 2008 recipient of a Hedgebrook writing residency. Her essay, “Souvenir,” appears in About Face, published by Seal Press in June 2008. She is co-director of the Association of Iranian-American writers and teaches creative writing at Hunter College. Her current project is Carry the Sand Away from the Walls, a memoir about her relationship with her Iranian, Zoroastrian, communist father.

The Other Revolution

February 11, 2009

Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution by Pardis Mahdavi

Tehran Bureau | vitrine

Since Iran’s revolution nearly 30 years ago which ousted the last Shah and instituted an Islamic Republic governed by Sharia law, Iran’s population has exploded. Rising in number in that time to nearly 70million, two-thirds of Iranians are under the age of 30 and constitute a highly educated and generally under-employed group; one that, by sheer power of numbers, will influence the shape the Islamic Republic will take in years to come. This demographic, a result of Ayatollah Khomeini’s post-revolutionary edict urging Iranians to give birth to a ‘revolutionary army’ and the early Islamic Republic’s banning of family planning services, constitutes a major change in Iran. As a result of post-revolutionary education policies, these ‘children of the revolution’ are generally well-educated (65% of university graduates are women), engaged with the outside world and plugged into global youth culture through the internet and illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television. The economic failures of the Islamic regime has given them education but scant employment opportunities, Sharia law gives them few sanctioned pastimes, and the post-revolutionary changes in the class system and urbanisation of the population have radically altered the social landscape. Nowhere is Iran’s current struggles with and transition into modernity more acutely obvious than in the challenges facing this younger generation, and how they choose to express themselves socially and culturally will undoubtedly have far-reaching consequences for the country and possibly even the regime.

Pardis Mahdavi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California, is a US-born and raised Iranian, who charts the changes she has seen taking place in Iran over a period of seven years from her first visit in 2000. As a young Iranian woman she has access to the country and its youth, as an American she brings an outsider’s perspective and as a Western academic she attempts to apply exacting methodology to her findings. However, Mahdavi’s book, in identifying the social and sexual changes among Iran’s younger generation suffers – a little like the youth she describes – from a confusion of identity. In essence this is an academic work – it has grown out of Mahdavi’s doctoral thesis – but it seeks also to engage the general reader who will be attracted by the book’s titillating subject matter (she does not shy away from describing sexual encounters and orgies for example). Mahdavi’s main thesis is that the changes occurring in the sexual practices and even in the sartorial choices of Iran’s youth indicate a ‘revolution’ that has political implications for the country, and she sets out to present these changes and analyse their implications through an anthropological framework that is not always convincing.

Mahdavi is aware of the limitations of her research, acknowledging that in drawing on interviews with only a small section of Tehran’s middle classes, “it is impossible to make generalisations about the majority of the nations’ population”. She concentrates her conclusions on the opinions and lifestyles of seven main ‘informants’, insisting that they are the trend-setters whose behaviour and style will influence the rest of the population. Flimsy though this hypothesis is, it is nonetheless an intriguing lens through which to observe the changing habits of a generation that has done more to push the boundaries of social freedoms than any other since the revolution. Risking severe punishments – ranging from fines and imprisonment to flogging and enforced marriage – for parties, drinking and pre-marital sex, the urban youth Mahdavi depicts embody an appealing pop culture sensibility that will enlighten those whose knowledge of Iranian society is restricted to the fiery pronouncements of Iranian president Ahmadinejad.

In outlining life in the Islamic Republic, Mahdavi’s insights are most satisfying when they involve her own experiences, and although she attempts to keep a scientist’s objectivity, her own love of and emotional investment in Iran sit uncomfortably with the academic impartiality she seeks. The resulting prose suffers from repetition that borders on the pedantic, but behind the academic lurks a writer with an attractive style and the passages in which she writes of the contradictions and bitter-sweetness of life in Iran are the most engaging.

Mahdavi depicts young Iranian women as strong and in control of their destinies – in direct contrast to the regime’s desire to control every aspect of their lives and the Western media’s depiction of Iranian women as disempowered and passive. This is laudable and every Iranian will recognise her depiction as nearer the truth. However to suggest that women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure – often outside marriage which offers the only culturally and legally sanctioned form of sexual contact – puts them in control of their destinies overstates the case. In fact, Mahdavi’s examples present the reader with a rather gloomy picture in which unfulfilled women in unhappy marriages pour their energy into looking good, partying and finding sexual partners in the absence of any meaningful control over their own lives and bodies. Marriage is still the unequivocal goal of women and the importance of making a ‘good’ marriage and gaining status through their men is paramount. While Mahdavi presents examples of working mothers who have managed to carve out successful careers with the support of their husbands, there are no corresponding instances of women who have been able to assert control over their own destinies in the absence of marriage.

The book becomes altogether more interesting when Mahdavi delves into the contradictions embodied in the ‘sexual revolution’ such as the continuing importance of the virginity of the woman on marriage when sex before marriage is now more acceptable – albeit secretly so – and the paucity of sex education on offer which leaves people with a shocking lack of real knowledge about their bodies, STDs and HIV and AIDS. The implications of the risky sexual behaviour that Tehran’s youth are engaged in from both a physical and mental health perspective are touched upon but not examined as much as the reader might like. In fact, Mahdavi concentrates her efforts more on expounding and illustrating her oft-repeated theory – that the changes in social and sexual behaviour constitute resistance to the regime – than in examining the long-term implications of such behaviour when the dominant culture remains traditional and those traditions are enshrined in the law.

Promiscuity rarely constitutes a social movement by itself. In order to truly represent a revolution, the said behaviour would have to have overt political implications and some form of politico-social organisation. In the absence of such organisation, the behaviour that Mahdavi depicts could be seen as mere hedonism or even nihilism. It is true that, as Mahdavi asserts, while the regime chooses to concentrate so doggedly on the way its people dress and behave then by extension any deviation from the norm can be said to constitute a political rebellion, it is doubtful that many of Iran’s multitudinous youth consciously wear heavy make up, inappropriately tight and provocative Islamic dress and attend illegal mixed parties where alcohol is served as a form of political dissent.

Mahdavi has charted an interesting phenomenon in this much-misunderstood country and she is to be applauded for bringing to light one of the most taboo subjects in Iranian culture – sex. Her book, however, overstates the case that there is a social and sexual revolution taking place. Rather Mahdavi’s thesis shines the light on subtle trends and shifts that are slowly changing Iran’s social landscape and shows how 30 years of clerical Islamist rule have shaped a rebellious counter-culture that rejects Islamic ideology in favour of what looks suspiciously like Western-style consumerism and hedonism born of boredom and the failure of the State to provide recreational and employment outlets for its highly educated populace. Mahdavi’s overly optimistic theory assumes that the State will continue to engage with the rebellion by giving in to Iranian youth’s demands for greater social freedoms. What she shies away from is the most interesting question of all, one that closes the book – what will happen to Iran’s youth if the regime, in fact, does not change?

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

The Art (and Politics) of Translation

January 23, 2009

Niloufar Talebi reading from her book, “Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World.” Rug Jones, San Francisco. Photo by Golnoush Niknejad

Read in Persian.

Save our literature.

New York City

Tehran Bureau | spotlight

In 2002, a poet friend of mine, Sally Lee Christian, was recruited by a few Uzbeks to help them translate the poet Delshod into English, a collaborative act she found so riveting that she set upon a campaign to recruit me to translate Iranian poetry with her. At that time, I had not so much as thought about translation, despite the fact that I had studied Comparative Literature in college, which meant I had read a good chunk of the classics in translation, and even though as an immigrant I was translating, on some level, all the time.

Her persistence prevailed on me. I eventually agreed — albeit casually — to try my hand at it. For our project, I naturally gravitated toward Forough Farrokhzad from my parents’ abundantly stocked library, which they had brought over from Iran. But my Persian was rusty. I had not really read Persian since 1984, when I left Iran as a schoolgirl. I picked “Tavallodi Digar” or “Another Birth,” which is one of Farrokhzad’s iconic poems, to start. With help, I began to understand each verse, stanza, and eventually the whole poem. Sally would drive 45 minutes to our sessions in my studio and after reading my drafts and notes about the original poem, we would discuss for hours Farrokhzad’s possible intentions, each defending our interpretations, sometimes tearfully as to whether to opt for ‘pool’ over ‘pond’ in a certain line, for example. It was in this process of understanding, interpreting and creating the translation of a poem that I began to understand the work, as well as the responsibility and pleasure of translation. In short, I fell in love, found myself in this activity that seemed to bring it altogether for me, and devoted myself to the art of translation.

In this pursuit, as I heard more and more of my friends refer to Rumi as the only Persian poet they knew in translation, I was overcome with the desire to introduce them to the many 20th century writers unknown to them. But I scarcely found literary translations of Shamlou, Sepehri, Al-Ahmad, Nima, Sepehri, Farrokhzad, Behbahani and others that had captured a wide readership. Rilke, Akhmatova, Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, Szymborska, Pushkin had all been widely translated, studied and enjoyed in English. So, I thought, why not contemporary Iranian writers?

I had a personal connection to the poet Ahmad Shamlou, who I had the great fortune of knowing in Iran. In the years between 1980 and 1984, he often visited my parent’s home, so finding a way to introduce contemporary writers in translation became not only a matter of principal, but a personal quest for me. As a result, in 2003, I founded The Translation Project, an organization dedicated to bringing contemporary Iranian literature to worldwide audiences. Since then, each time I am interviewed by the media, I receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions from Iranians asking to have their writings translated and published in the United States. Because the number of such emails are far beyond what I can reasonably reply to, and also becauase of the similarity of requests, I will respond here. By doing so, I hope to make Iranian writers aware of the challenges we face in bringing translated works to readers in the United States.

Let me start off by giving some basic facts about the state of translation in the United States, gleaned from information I’ve gathered from attending the American Literary Translators Association and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conferences, in addition to consulting sources such as the PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation, To Be Translated Or Not To Be, by Esther Allen (Ed)., and from experience accumulated by working in the trenches as a literary translator of contemporary Iranian literature.

The current reality is that very few works of literature written in languages other than English ever find their way into the U.S. market. Statistics suggest that of all books published annually in the United States, less than 3% are works of translation, a number which includes retranslations, reissues and non-literary works. The number of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry is closer to 0.3-0.7%, a number mainly comprised of works of European literature, since countries such as France, Germany, Greece, Italy, etc., provide support for the translation of their national literature into English and other languages. Recently, China has partnered with large publishers such as HarperCollins and Penguin to bring several Chinese titles into the English language and distribute them in the U.S. and U.K. markets. The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for the book publishing industry, held annually in mid-October in Germany, plans to feature China as its guest nation in 2009; and the Man Group investment company, the sponsor of the annual Booker Prize, has announced the creation of a new literary prize for Asian writers. These are all examples of large-scale, organized efforts on behalf of these countries to introduce their literature in translation. Apart from the small startup nonprofit that I run, and the limited way in which it can compete for attention in translating and publishing Iranian literature, there is no other organized, translation-focused effort to advance Iranian literature in English that I know of.

The 0.3-3% stands in stark contrast to the much higher rates of translation available in countries like Germany and Iran. We all know that one can (and I did) read the Western canon translated into Persian (Greek tragedies, Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Eliot, Cervantes, Kafka, Emile Zola, among others); but the treasures of Iranian literature — save for the handful of classical works — are scarcely available in translation in the United States.

The good news is that awareness of this general scarcity of translated works has spawned a trend in the United States since I started following these issues closely in 2003: The National Endowment for the Arts increased the funding — small as it is to begin with — it allocates to works of translation; PEN American Center’s PEN Translation Fund was established in the summer of 2003 by a gift from an anonymous donor in response to the disarmingly low number of literary translations currently appearing in English; websites like, and new publishers of literary translations such as Archipelago, and Open Letter have sprung up; veteran publishers of literary translation such as Dalkey Archive Press, New Directions, and Graywolf Press continue their dedication to publishing translations; literary magazines such as Circumference, and Two Lines publish translations only, and several blogs about translation, like Three Percent now exist.

Something else we have working in our favor is the mass Iranian migration after the 1979 revolution, which has produced a new generation of truly bilingual Iranian-Americans whose dominant language is English and who can provide a unique service in bringing this literature into English. (This does not implicate that being Iranian or bilingual is necessary for rendering successful translations, but this is a topic for another blog entry!). Now, slowly but surely, literary translations of Iranian literature, especially contemporary Iranian literature, are on the rise. Here is a brief list of publication in the past 5 years:

Women Without Men, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet (The Feminist Press at CUNY, March 2004)

Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, Tr. Richard Jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2004)

The Love Poems Of Ahmad Shamlu, Tr. Firoozeh Papan-Matin (Ibex Publishers, December 2005)

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad, Tr. Dick Davis (Modern Library, April 2006)

Selections from Saadi’s Bustan
, Tr. Richard jeffrey Newman (Global Scholarly Publications, 2006)

Strange Times My Dear, The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, Ed. by Nahid Mozaffari (Arcade Publishing, April 2006)

Sin: Selected Poems of Forough Farrokhzad, Tr. Sholeh Wolpe’ (University of Askansas Press, October 2007)

The Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, by Ferdowsi, Tr. Dick Davis (Panguin Classics, February 2007)

Touba and the Meaning of Night, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Tr. Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at CUNY, Jan 2008)

Missing Soluch, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Tr. by Kamran Rastegar (Melville House Press, June 2007)

BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, Edited and Translated by Niloufar Talebi (North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

Though all of these new efforts have somewhat strengthened the presence of translated literature in the United States, comparatively speaking, translations of Iranian literature are still not prevalent in America. With the tremendous shift in book reading and buying trends, causing the decline of the U.S. (and world) book market, in addition to the lack of any systematic support (the likes of which exist for countries like Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, etc.) for Iranian literature in translation, we might only hope for a slim representation.

Considering these factors, one fundamental question arises: How can we systematically plan and support the translation and publication of Iranian literature?

The answer to this question is simple: With proper funding from the many (Iranian) individuals who are in the position to contribute an endowment, we can establish a fully functioning International Institute of Iranian Letters capable of commissioning translations through the recommendations of rotating editorial committees, paying translators, and placing proposals with publishers to get the works published. Until there is support for such an organization, these efforts cannot be systematically fulfilled. And until then, I ask people who email me to consider that without proper support and staff, we simply cannot focus resources on every unsolicited manuscript we receive. Currently, our focus can only be on writers who have left an imprint on Iranian literature already — writers such as Shamloo. However, in order to address the numerous requests we receive, we are now offering professional translation, editing and proposal-writing services to authors at standard global rates in order to prepare them to pursue these efforts on their own. See our Translation Services Web page for information on this.

We welcome partnerships with larger art organizations, universities or other groups to realize our goal of launching Iran’s first International Institute of Iranian Letters. With proper partnerships, strategy, funding and leadership, we can make anything happen.

Niloufar Talebi is founder of The Translation Project, the editor/translator of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World (North Atlantic Books, August 2008), and creator of ICARUS/RISE, new Iranian poetry in multimedia Naghali.

هنر(وسیاست) ترجمه

January 23, 2009
هنر(وسیاست) ترجمه
نیلوفر طالبی
به ترجمه ی شهریارخوّاجیان

Read in English.

یکی از دوستان شاعر من، سالی. لی. کریستیان ، در سال 2002 به درخواست چند شهروند ازبکستان درآمد تا به آن ها در ترجمه ی سروده های های دلشاد به انگلیسی کمک کند، کاری گروهی که چنان برای وی جالب توجه بود که شروع به فعالیت برای جذب من برای ترجمه ی شعر های فارسی بهمراه خود کرد. من درآن زمان چندان به ترجمه فکر نمی کردم، و این به رغم تحصیلات دانشگاهی ام در رشته ادبیات تطبیقی بود که معنایش این بود که قطعات زیادی از ادبیات ترجمه شده را خوانده بودم، و حتی به عنوان یک مهاجر تمام وقت به نوعی مشغول ترجمه بودم.

پافشاری او مرا متقاعد کرد وسرانجام موافقت کردم- هرچند بطور غیر جدی- تا در این کار دستی داشت باشم. من طبیعتا ازمیان انبوه کتاب هایی که پدرومادرم با خود از ایران آورده بودند، گرایش به کارهای فروغ فرخزاد پیدا کردم. اما فارسی من در آن زمان آنچنان روان نبود ومن به واقع از 1984(1363) که به عنوان یک دختر مدرسه ای ایران را ترک کردم، فارسی نخوانده بودم. من سروده ی تولدی دیگر فروغ را برگزیدم که ازجمله ی محبوب ترین ونمادی ترین سروده های وی برای پرداختن به کارهای اوست. با گرفتن کمک، شروع به درک هر مصرع، بیت، و سرانجام تمامت این سروده کردم. سالی 45 دقیقه رانندگی می کرد تا به جلساتی بیآید که در استودیوی من برگزار می شد. پس از خواندن دستنویس و یادداشت هایم درباره ی سروده ی اصلی، ما ساعت ها درباره ی مقاصد فروغ بحث و هریک از برداشت های خود، با عشق و دوستی، دفاع می کردیم.

در این فرآیند درک، تفسیر و ترجمه ی یک سروده بود که شروع به درک ، و نیزاحساس مسئولیت و لذت از کار کردم. خلاصه اینکه، دلبسته ی این کار شدم و خودرا درگیر فعالیتی یافتم که بنظر می رسید که روح دو گانه ی مرا تسکین می کرد و خود را وقف هنر ترجمه کردم.

دراین راه، درحالیکه از شمار هرچه بیشتری از دوستانم می شنیدم که تنها رومی(مولوی) را به عنوان شاعر پارسی گو از طریق ترجمه ی آثارش می شناسند، این تمایل در من به وجود آمد که آنان را با بسیاری از نویسندگان (و شعرای) ناشناخته ی ایران قرن بیستم آشنا سازم. اما به کمتر ترجمه ‘ادبی’ از آثار شاملو، سپهری، آل احمد، نیما، فرخ زاد، بهبهانی برخوردم که بتوانم آن را به خوانندگان توصیه کنم. آثار ریلکه، آخماتووا، گوته، نرودا، ریمباد، ژیمبورسکا و پوشکین به شکل گسترده ای به انگلیسی ترجمه، خوانده و از آن ها بهره برده شده است. بنابراین، ازخود پرسیدم چرا آثار نویسندگان ایرانی به شکل گسترده ترجمه نشود؟ من رابطه ای شخصی با شاعر ایرانی، احمد شاملو داشتم و از فرصت بزرگ آشنایی با او در ایران برخوردار بودم. درسال های 1980-84(1359-63) وی اغلب به خانه ی ما می آمد، و لذا یافتن راهی برای معرفی نویسندگان معاصر از طریق ترجمه نه تنها مسئله ای اصولی برای من، که یک امرعاطفی شخصی نیز شد. درنتیجه، در سال 2003(1382) پروژه ترجمه را به راه انداختم ، نهادی که اختصاص به معرفی ادبیات معاصر ایران به مخاطبان جهانی دارد. از آن زمان، هر بار که با رسانه ها مصاحبه می کردم صدها پیشنهاد ناخواسته از ایرانیان دریافت می کردم که تقاضای ترجمه و انتشار نوشته های شان در آمریکا را داشتند. ازآنجا که شمار رایانامه (یی میل) های دریافتی بسیار فراتر از آنچه هستند که بتوانم به شکل مناسبی به آن ها پاسخ دهم، و نیز به دلیل شباهت این درخواست ها، پاسخ خودرا به علاقمندان دراین نوشته بطور یکجا می دهم. با این کار امیدوارم این نویسندگان را از چالش های پیش رو در ارتباط با معرفی آثار ترجمه شده به خوانندگان آمریکایی آگاه سازم.

اجازه دهید با طرح چند واقعیت مهم درباره ی شرایط ترجمه در آمریکا آغاز کنم، که حاصل اطلاعات گرد آوری شده از حضور در انجمن آمریکایی مترجمان ادبی و کنفرانس های سالانه ی انجمن برنامه های نویسندگان و نویسندگی و نیز مشورت با منابعی همچون PEN/IRL ، گزارش پیرامون شرایط بین المللی ترجمه ی ادبی تحت عنوان ترجمه بشود یا نشود ، نوشته ی استر آلن(ویراستار)، و از تجربه انباشته از کار به عنوان مترجم ادبیات معاصر ایران، بوده است.

واقعیت کنونی این است : آثار ادبی غیرانگلیسی انگشت شماری راه خود را به بازار آمریکا می گشایند. آمار حکایت از این دارند که کمتر از 3 درصد از همه ی کتاب هایی که سالانه در آمریکا منتشر می شوند آثار ترجمه ای هستند، رقمی که بازترجمه ها، تجدید چاپ ها و آثار غیر ادبی را نیز در بر می گیرد. شمار آثار ادبیات داستانی، غیر داستانی و شعر نزدیک به 0.3-0.7 (سه دهم تا هفت دهم) درصد است، رقمی که عمدتا شامل ادبیات اروپایی می شود، زیرا کشورهایی مانند فرانسه، آلمان، یونان، ایتالیا و غیره از ترجمه ی ادبیات ملی شان به زبان انگلیسی و دیگر زبان ها حمایت می کنند. بتازگی، چین در شراکت با انتشارات بزرگی همچون هارپر کالینز و پنگوئن چندین عنوان کتاب چینی را به زبان انگلیسی درآورده و آن ها را در بازار آمریکا و انگلیس توزیع کرده است. نمایشگاه کتاب فرانکفورت ، بزرگترین نمایشگاه تجاری صنعت نشر که همه ساله در میانه های اکتبر(اواخر مهرماه) در آلمان برگزار می شود، در نظر دارد چین را به عنوان میهمان ویژه ی سال 2009 خود معرفی کند. شرکت سرمایه گذاری Man Group، حامی مالی جایزه سالانه بوکر نیز مبتکر ایجاد یک جایزه ی جدید ادبی برای نویسندگان خاوردوری شد. این ها نمونه هایی از تلاش های پردامنه و سازمان یافته ی برخی کشورها برای معرفی ادبیات خود بصورت ترجمه هستند. جدا از این نهاد تازه کار غیرانتفاعی که من اداره ی آن را بعهده دارم، و امکانات محدودی که برای رقابت در توجه به کار ترجمه و انتشار ادبیات فارسی دارد، من کار سازمان یافته و ترجمه- محور دیگری را برای عرضه ی ادبیات ایران به زبان انگلیسی سراغ ندارم.

رقم 0.3-.07 درصد تفاوت فاحشی با ارقام بسیار بالاتر ترجمه در کشورهایی همچون آلمان و ایران دارد. ما همه می دانیم که می توان متون ترجمه شده به فارسی (تراژدی های یونانی، هومر، ویرژیل، افلاطون، ارسطو، اووید، شوسر، دانته، ولتر، روسو، بالزاک، الیوت، سروانتس، کافکا، امیل زولا، و دیگران) را خواند (و من خود خوانده ام)، اما گنجینه ی ادبیات فارسی- به استثنا ی معدودی از آثار کلاسیک- کمتر بصورت ترجمه در آمریکا وجود دارد.

خبر خوب این است: از سال 2003 که من این مسئله را دنبال کرده ام، آگاهی از کمبود کارهای ترجمه شده روندی را در آمریکا به جریان انداخته است : موقوفه ملی هنر بودجه ی تخصیصی به آثار ترجمه ای را افزایش داد (هرچند اندک در آغاز کار)؛ صندوق ترجمه پن وابسته به مرکز آمریکایی پن درتابستان 2003 به واسطه ی هدیه یک اهداکننده ی ناشناس و در پاسخ به شمار بسیار کم ترجمه های موجود ادبی به زبان انگلیسی، تشکیل شد؛ وب سایت هایی مانند و ناشران جدید ترجمه های ادبی همچون Archipelago و Open Letter سربرآورده اند؛ ناشران کهنه کار ترجمه های ادبی مانند
Dalkey Archive Press ، New Directions و Graywolf Press تعهد خودرا به انتشار کتاب های ترجمه ای ادامه می دهند؛ نشریات ادبی همچون Circumference و Two Lines فقط آثار ترجمه ای را منتشر می کنند، و اکنون چند بلاگ مانند Three Percent در ارتباط با ترجمه فعالیت دارند.

پدیده ی دیگری که ما به سود خود می بینیم، مهاجرت انبوه ایرانیان پس از انقلاب 1979(1357) است که نسل جدیدی از ایرانی- آمریکایی های دو زبانه به وجود آورده است که زبان مسلطشان انگلیسی است، و لذا می توانند نقش یگانه ای در برگردان آثار ادبی ایرانی به انگلیسی ایفا کنند. (این بدان معنا نیست که ایرانی یا دو زبانه بودن لازمه ی انجام ترجمه های موفق باشد، اما این موضوعی برای یک مقاله ی دیگراست!) اکنون، ترجمه ی ادبیات فارسی بویژه ادبیات معاصر ایران، آهسته اما پیوسته، رو به افزایش دارد. موارد زیر نمونه ای از این روند افزایشی است در پنخ سال اخیر:

زنان بدون مردان ، نوشته ی شهرنوش پارسی پور، ترجمه ی کامران تلطف و ژوسلین شارلت
(The Feminist Press at CUNY, March 2004)

گزیده هایی ازگلستان سعدی، ترجمه ی ریچارد جفری نیومن
(Global Scholarly Publications, 2004)

سروده های عاشقانه ی احمد شاملو، ترجمه ی فیروزه پاپان – متین
(Ibex Publishers, December 2005)

دایی جان ناپلئون ، نوشته ایرج پزشکزاد ، ترجمه ی دیک دیویس
(Modern Library, April 2006)

گزیده هایی از بوستان سعدی، ترجمه ی ریچارد جفری نیومن
(Global Scholarly Publications, 2006)

روزگار غریبی است نازنین ،جنگ نامه ی پن درباره ی ادبیات معاصر ایران، ویرآستار ناهید مظفری
(Arcade Publishing, April 2006)

گناه : گزیده ی سروده های فروغ فرخزاد،ترجمه ی شعله وولپه
(University of Arkansas Press, October 2007)

شاهنامه ، کتاب شاهان ایران،سروده ی [حکیم ابوالقاسم] فردوسی ، ترجمهی دیک دیویس
(Penguin Classics, February 2007)

جای خالی سلوچ ،از محمود دولت آبادی ، ترجمه ی کامران رستگار
(Melville House Press, October 2007)

طوبا و معنای شب ، از شهرنوش پارسی پور، ترجمه ی حوا هوشمند و کامران تلطف
(The Feminist Press at CUNY, Jan 2008)

دلبستنگی :شعر های جدید ایرانیان سراسر جهان
ویراستار و مترجم نیلوفر طالبی
(North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

هرچند همه ی این تلاش های جدید تا اندازه ای حضور ادبیات ترجمه ای را در آمریکا تقویت کرده است، ترجمه ی ادبیات فارسی هنوز در مقایسه با دیگر کشورها متداول نیست. با توجه به دگرگونی فوق العاده در امر کتابخوانی و خرید کتاب که موجب افول بازار آمریکا (وجهان) افزون بر فقدان هر گونه حمایت سیستماتیک از ادبیات ایران (از نوعی که در کشورهایی مانند آلمان، اسپانیا، فرانسه، ایتالیا، یونان و غیره وجود دارد)، فقط می توان امید به نتیجه ای محدود داشت.

با توجه به این عوامل، یک پرسش بنیادی مطرح می شود : چگونه می توان از ترجمه و نشر ادبیات ایرانی حمایت و برای آن برنامه ریزی کرد؟

پاسخ این پرسش ساده است : با کمک مالی بسیاری از افراد (ایرانی) که از موقعیت کمک به یک موقوفه (بنیاد) برخوردارند، ما می توانیم یک نهاد بین المللی فعال در رشته ی ادبیات فارسی تاسیس کنیم که بتواند از طریق توصیه ی کمیته های ویراستاری نوبتی سفارش برای ترجمه دهد، به مترجمان پول بپردازد، و طرح پیشنهادی ی نوشته یا کتاب را برای انتشار این آثار به ناشران بدهد. تا زمانی که حمایت از چنان سازمانی شکل بگیرد، این تلاش ها نمی تواند بطور سیستماتیک به بار نشیند. تا آن زمان، از کسانی که برای ما رایانامه می فرستند می خواهم که توجه داشته باشند ما بدون حمایت و نیروی انسانی کافی نمی توانیم منابع محدود خود را صرف هر متن ناخواسته ای کنیم که به دست مان می رسد. در شرایط کنونی، توجه ما فقط به نویسندگانی است که عملا اثر و نشانی از خود در ادبیات ایران بجا گذاشته اند- کسانی همچون شاملو… با این حال، در مورد درخواست های بیشماری که دریافت می کنیم، ما اکنون خدمات ترجمه ، ویراستاری حرفه ای و طرح- نوشته به نویسندگان با نرخ های استاندارد جهانی عرضه می کنیم تا آن ها را در پیگیری این کارها به یاری خودشان آماده گردانیم. برای اطلاعات بیشتر Translation Services .به صفحه ی وب رجوع کنید

ما از شراکت با سازمان های بزرگتر هنری، دانشگاه ها یا دیگر گروه ها برای تحقق هدف مان در راه اندازی نخستین نهاد ایرانی ادبیات فارسی، استقبال می کنیم. با شراکت، راهبرد، بودجه و رهبری مناسب می توانیم هر کاری انجام دهیم.
The Translation Projectنیلوفر طالبی، بنیانگزار
مترجم و ویرآستار دلبستنگی : شعر های جدید ایرانیان سراسر جهان
(North-Atlantic Books, August 2008)
است. multimedia Naghali شعرهای جدید ایرانی در

A Conversation with Kiarostami

January 5, 2009

Photo by Arsalan Mohammad

Tehran, Iran
Tehran Bureau | vitrine

You screened Shirin at the Venice Film Festival. Shirin is a very unusual way of making a film – just the faces.

Venice was very predictable, actually. What was not predictable was the bad quality of the projection and organization. The film for the media was actually projected with English subtitles, which were going on and off all the time and in 10 minutes, there was a total absence of subtitles, which made it totally impossible for the audience to understand what was going on.

In spite of that, glory to the audience, because they were very patient! Shirin is a very difficult film which needs a lot of patience, especially when you don’t have the right subtitles – although without the subtitles, you can just look at the faces and that is it. But having the subtitles on and off as a matter of fact, distracted the audience. And they weren’t even in sync – a scene with a boy screaming ‘Shirin!’ and forty five seconds after that it was written! So it was really a mess, an uncontrollable mess.

I find it amazing that such a respected film festival could screw up a screening so badly… especially as you had just been awarded a lifetime achievement award!

Like our own country and I understand it very well, they have a very old civilisation like ours and countries with very old civilisations always have the same problems – we are experiencing it here and it is familiar to me, nothing new, no surprise. When it would go really badly in my nerves, I would say to myself, it’s OK, they are like us. Part of our own country!

Before, I was saying, for me it was a very good reaction from the audience, despite the problems and the complexity of the film which would make it difficult for them to bear two hours of sitting there and watching that, they actually sat there for two hours and watched it. I had many different reactions from the audience – some didn’t like it, some liked it – and that was the history of the projection at the festival. Now Shirin is going to take her own journey in the future and we shall see what we have.

You are coming from far away, so yes, we can talk about film.

This idea of watching the audience watching the film – an unusual idea. What were your aims in doing a film from this perspective?

I feel like I am not authorised to talk about that because it is too soon, too early. Shirin is too young, we should wait for her to grow up a little, and then talk. I like to see the audience’s reaction and then read the critics understanding of the film and then add something to that, if there is something to add – and then see how close we are to one another.

There is so much analysis of your work from around the world, so many different interpretations. How do you feel about this avalanche of analysis and how accurate do you feel people’s perceptions of you are?

Now are we are facing a second difficult question, I think I would prefer to answer the first one! From my very first movie, what was my concentration, my inspiration, was I didn’t want to narrate something, I didn’t want to tell a story. I wanted to show something, I wanted for them to make their own story from what they were seeing. And in Shirin, I think I have touched the limit in this kind of attitude towards art. Actually, I am putting the storytelling outside the main frame of what is really happening and what you can see is your own story, being seen on the face of the person you are looking at. Therefore, you have so many different stories, so many complicated stories, that you know the story but yet you don’t know it. You can guess the story just by looking at them, without knowing exactly what they are telling. It leaves a lot of space, for you the viewer to look at it. I am not telling you the exact story, but it is there for you to find out about. That is my idea of the art of cinematography. I would love actually, for Shirin, to be shown to people with the sound off, for me especially in this movie – which is the ideal in not telling the story – this story is really outside the frame. What you are hearing, is not to do with what you are seeing. I don’t know if you have seen 5, but for me, Shirin is the logical continuation of 5. Those faces are like looking at nature – it is like looking at the sea, or other natural scenes. When you look at those faces, you are seeing a continuation of nature and the expression is natural – so, for me, this is the logical step after 5.

So this is equating the natural flow of emotion in a human face with movements in the natural world, trees, seas, etc

[Laughing] You’ve got it all, you’ve got it all! Something else, I need to mention is the relationship between cinematography and photography. Taking a picture — this storytelling coming out when taking a pic is just freezing a moment, taking it out. I missed that one – I said about my photography why I liked photography is because I didn’t have to tell stories.

Competing with the actual official cinema, what we know as modern cinema is at this time, very difficult. Because I do not want to use the same means – the violence, anxiety – I understand for the audience which has been very very lazy til now, being seen something that was already digested for them, ready made, ready to use, ready to wear, the culture is there – therefore it is very difficult to propose to them something that simple for me, that complicates it for them. They are too lazy to find out what is going on. I just show nature and ask them to understand it as it is. It is very difficult. The majority of audiences are going the other way, I understand that, I respect that. I might get a few viewers, which will be enough for me!

Why do you think this is?

For me, the mistake is about the function and theory of cinema right now. People expect entertainment from cinema, they expect the same thing that they get at home while watching the TV and having their dinner. The TV dinner is a thing that – watching serials, they expect the same thing. Even if they want to say a good thing, they’ll say, ‘I didn’t feel the two hours passing by!’ They didn’t get anything in these two hours. I think they just want to kill their time. Cinema should have another function, it’s not a TV series you watch when you have your dinner. It should make you think. People are lazy right now. They want a ready made thing.

You think much modern cinema is like fast food McDonalds type consumerism, as opposed to an intellectual pursuit?

You can’t compete with McDonalds!

But it offers the same, instant quick-fix solution. That is ultimately lacking in nutrition!

I just read an article today about Shirin – a critic who said, ‘I don’t understand what he wants to say, really, it’s complicated, I don’t even like it, but what I know for sure is that he is saying something. Let’s give him time, to see actually what he is saying – give us time, then we’ll understand what he is saying. I am sure he is saying something, he has something to say.’

Everybody knows that I am not usually patient enough to actually sit down and watch one of my own films from the beginning to the end, I never do. But this time, I have seen Shirin for the 30th time. This is because there is no story. It is like watching something happening through a keyhole. The same difficulty – you have to go like – this – and bend down and watch through the keyhole. You see the difficulty. Each time I see someone blink in this film, it is like a new discovery for me. Each time I go through it, I see something new. It is an unfinished story, each time you project it, there is always something new, something happening in it.

This film represents a point where you say from your first film to Shirin – represents the end of a cycle. Many of your past films have almost seemed to have grown out of each other – a germ of an idea will be in one film and then explored fully next time round. So, where do you go from here?

Now I was just filming a sequence with a friend and he was saying, which part do you think you’ll end up using? And I said, I’d rather take the frame in which the two people are out of the frame and not in the frame. The frame is empty, we know they are outside the frame and that is the best part. I think that is what we are talking about when we talk about taking the next step, the story is outside the frame. Maybe it is not in the context of the interview, but this is what I am filming. There’s a marriage going on, a ceremony, somewhere in Iran. Everyone is covering their face, even the bride – and throughout the ceremony they don’t take it off, even for photographs. The photographer tells the bride, ‘It’s not my problem but 20 years from now, you’ll want to know how you looked today – so what I can do is I’ll leave the room, I’ll set the camera, you stay in here with your husband and with the click of the camera, you can have at least a souvenir of your wedding.’ So, he goes out, but the two of them don’t know anything about the camera, and we are watching the movie, we see an empty frame, they aren’t in the frame, they are out of it. And you have the feeling, that the two of them are somewhere near the frame but not in it. So you follow the story without seeing it, I am very tired of showing everything. Everything is showing us all the time – I am tired of showing everything, everywhere. Pictures, it is like voyeurism in the end, I don’t want to show everything, I rather the viewer thought about it.

You’d rather give the space and freedom for the viewer to come up with their own explanation?

I want them to be active, when a new neighbour comes around – everyone from this house knows what is going on! Why should I be the one who explains everything! People are usually creative, I don’t know why when they are sitting in the movie theatre we have to give them everything. Every detail. They can create for themselves.

“Good cinema is truth…” you said once.

You are very right, quoting me on that. The film I am working on right now, I don’t know what it is going to be – it is like a baby. I am thinking of making a baby, but I don’t know if it is going to be a boy or a girl, what size or anything, but the plan is there. But what I know for sure, is that it is going to be as real as possible, no paraphernalia, no extras, nothing. It is going to be as real to what I am thinking as possible. Showing without showing. You can see what you can see. It is there and not there.

People will almost feel anxious that they don’t “get it” – that they don’t understand what you are trying to say, it worries people that they are not getting the correct interpretation.

The beauty of it is that there is no truth to grasp – what you see what you think – that is the truth and reality. It is what you see and what you think. That is the truth.

The way you use amateur actors and non pro’s. Is there a link from your early career working with children to the way you direct actors now – using non actors? How difficult is it to work with amateurs?

You pointed out a very important function for me, because it came exactly from that time when I was working with kids. For children are not conscious of their face, how they look, their elocution, how they pronounce – they are not yet conscious of all that. They don’t play games in front of the camera. So you need a different policy with them, which is why I use non-professional adults. Each time I have had to use different policies. Each time it changes – the main thinking behind it is that same. I don’t want them to play.

They don’t get scripts, they get scenarios, they improvise?

Yes, that’s exactly it.

I haven’t specific situations to talk about but I know that without that spontaneous energy that comes up in these situations, I wouldn’t have the energy to go on talking about my films. Just a blink of an eye can make my day – it’s like fishing, I like to compare it with fishing. The fisherman provides the net, the place, the rod – everything is planned – but he doesn’t know exactly what kind of fish he is going to catch – he may even know the kind because he knows the site to fish – but that net will be full of surprise. That is what happens to me – I prepare everything, but it is going to be full of surprise because I let the fish play in that net and as I told you, a blink of an eye can make the day and give me the energy to go on to the next day of filming. Without that, I couldn’t work, without that surprise, everything is planned and organised – that doesn’t make me feel right!

You know Deborah Young, the critic? She saw Shirin in Venice and she said those viewers who had the patience to stay in the theatre actually had the award of seeing it all, it was worth it. It tells you the personalities, they don’t know what is going on. They don’t believe that they are just going to see faces. It is very connected to the photography exhibition this is a very unique occasion of viewing 117 faces of women in a very exceptional situation – it is such an internal emotional feeling you can see on their faces, it is a very unique occasion. You don’t have that much portrayed in that time usually, it is very rare.

It reminds me of films like Blue, by Derek Jarman.

I haven’t seen Blue, but I feel I could have felt a lot while watching it. The question for me is why people disagree with it? It is like going into a gallery and seeing so many portraits, one after the other. But instead of walking around, apologising, because you have stepped on someone’s foot – you just see in the gallery walking around – why shouldn’t you like this? Why are we always trying to define cinema separately from photography and music – they are connected, they mingle and are interwoven? Why do we like to have something very specific and defined? If that was the case, then the person who likes cinema shouldn’t go to the gallery or vice versa. We have to have them all together. When you go to a mosque, you should not try and see the effects of a movie, especially when you are a fanatic. If not, then why should we not intermingle all that.

Is cinema is an extension of photography?

But so many people say, this is not cinema, for instance, this is an installation! So what – then watch it like an installation. Why be like a fanatic and say, I can’t watch this because it is not cinema. OK, enjoy it.

But this comes back to what we said earlier, about how people new to a work need a framework, a context within which to try and understand and experience it…

They feel cheated. ‘They promised us cinema, mama! They gave us an installation! I feel cheated!” I think they are lazy.

OK, photography. Do you remember the first photograph you took which had a profound effect on you?

My photographic career started, as a matter of fact, when I went to buy a camera for a friend. It was a thousand something dollars, and I thought, I want to buy one for myself too. At that time, I used to go out of town very often. The first photograph I ever took, was the one sold at Christie’s for $130,000, that was the first one I ever took. If I knew, if someone had told me then that you have just spent $1000 on a camera and then in the future you will sell just one photograph you took today for hundred times more, I would have a horn on my head! I would be astonished. I took so many, one after the other, it was such a pleasure. And then for ten years, I took more and more and I happened to show my collection to a friend who had a gallery here, in Golestan. And she said, why not have an exhibition? So she arranged that.

The exact year of the revolution, 1975, no 1979. That is when I started taking photographs. We had a lot of spare time, because of the revolution, we couldn’t make films and we were very depressed. So we took ourselves out of the town and deal with our depression. I had this camera, a Yashica and started shooting. It was a cheap camera. After that, I bought a Leica, but in the snow white exhibition, I took them all with the Yashica and the Leica and I couldn’t tell the difference. But that was a very famous Yashica. The one who bought it, they all knew that it was an exception in the Yashica production. SW is an exhibition that built up over thirty years.

A very distinctive approach to photography – lots of nature, the elements that coalecse into a whole. What is the trigger that makes you click a photo, how do things combine to create that perfect balance of elements in a photo?

Definitely. In the same exhibition, there is an isolated tree that they say is 800 years old. I passed by it loads of times, took hundreds of photographs of it. And one day, there was a magic in the air, that I could say, this photograph is going to be the one. I knew it. And the scenery was so strong, it said to the light, to the Yashica, you go your way, you have nothing to do with this magic. I am the magic, the scenery is the magic, the light is the magic, the moment – and either of you can do the same job. You’ll see this photo in the exhibition and you’ll know by the moment that that was the magic moment.

Where was this shot?

Two topics have been always inviting for my photography – trees and roads. Therefore after 25, 30 years of photography I had these two different topics, trees and roads. So I separated them in two different exhibitions and the photography you are going to see in this show have been taken over 25 years.

Another thing, there is a lot of space, a very strong sense of loneliness and isolation. You once said, “Not being able to see nature with someone else is a form of torture – that is why I started taking photographs.” You wanted to internalise those moments of passion and pain. Is that equal to the SW series, the roads – is that something you’ve always felt?

If you can feel it and see it in SW as well as in Roads, then yes, there it is – and if you can’t see it, I have to say, yes, there it is still! That’s right. You should know that the external revolution, the Islamic revolution which was going on at that time, was hardened by an internal revolution going on in my personal life.

All taken in Tehran?

Not in Tehran. East and West of Tehran. The country.

Do the actual roads hold any special significance? Are these special roads? Or any roads?

I can separate – myself from the roads of course, of course, the way I was looking at the roads would be very different to say, the way someone looking at the way the roads needed improving would look at them. They were two different ways of looking at the roads, two different ways of thinking. That was my way of thinking, my emotions at that moment made it this way. With my own emotions, I could see them this way. When you look at them, your own emotion is coming into in and influencing it. For instance, if you know nothing about the experience of loneliness then you wouldn’t understand this. But with the experience of loneliness, it will help you to understand my loneliness through those roads. No, it wasn’t the roads themselves. I never decided to take those photos, or I didn’t choose a topic. The topic chose me. I am sure that many photographers passed through those roads, on the way to shoot fishermen on the seaside or something. It is the same road, but it is the way you look at it that makes the difference. Right time, right place! The things must reach an agreement with each other, right time, right place.

A lot of commonality between photographic and filmic methodology here, the serendipitous nature of films and photography.

I’ll tell you a story about the tree. I had passed by that tree lots of time when I was making A Taste of Cherry. The quality was not good – I sent for a print, but the print quality was not good. I knew exactly the location of the tree – and I wandered with my new camera to the same tree – same light, same time, same angle, – but you are not going to believe me, it was not the same at all. So I knew when I took that photo the feeling of loneliness was there. It was there from Taste Of Cherry I had the excitement, I knew I was going to use it for the promo poster, something to look forward to – I was like a business man looking at that tree like a project. But it was not the same. It was not happening any more. I showed it to so many people and they would say, it’s the same – but I don’t know why this one is better, the old one. So kept that old one, it’s the one. You can feel the loneliness, that’s when I understood, you usually believe in the sensitivity of the negative, not your own. It counts, it changes everything. The same photo, the same location, but the feeling is not there.

I just want to talk about A Taste Of Cherry… seeing as you mentioned it. I have like, eight million questions on that. One of the most famous films you have done, so many issues addressed by it. 11 years on, how do you feel about the film?

As I said before, this is one of the films I have never seen from start to finish! Even at the screening at Cannes, this was one of the films I was fearful that people were leaving – I was closing my eyes and opening them every three minutes to see if people were still there! Another three minutes – the joy of seeing people were still there. But I don’t know what I can tell you about it, I remember working on it of course, but I haven’t seen it all the way through. So what I can talk about my plan, what was my intention.

Are you happy with the results? Do you remember if at the end of the shoot thinking, I got it right?

Of course, I had to stick to technical choices and options while making the film, while the two people were talking I had to have close-ups of course, and then the long shots – I wanted to show something far away, what I want to emphasise right now after all we have discussed, all the limitations, the techniques, all the planning imposed on you by external reasons, that is not what makes a good movie. What made it a good movie – if it is a good movie – is that sensibility that is going on and going on during the making of the film. And all this passion you are talking about, the same as the photography, the same passion was there. Maybe now, afraid of looking at it once more and thinking, Oh my God, why do they like it so much, it’s not that good. OK, let it be there, let them say it is a good film and let’s leave it there!

In poetry, you’ve found a lot of solace and comfort. Could you tell me which poets you admire, which poems have inspired you and given you comfort?

I am going to repeat myself as I don’t have a better answer, but I have to confess I am a restless person. A lonely, restless person. When you cannot go filming, when it is Friday night and everyone is out having fun somewhere, nobody is ready to work with you, you can’t take photographs – or there are people with whom you can talk, but they can’t satisfy you at that moment. Sure, in Tehran, I am invited every night to places, but I can’t be satisfied with that – I want to do something else. Going out, seeing people, filming, taking photographs – that lonely moment is when I read or write poems. The collection of poems I had published has the same storyline as the photographs, I have them scattered all over the place, a few lines here, a few lines there, a few poems in this place or that place – and circumstances decided to collect and print them, encouraged by friends. A good thing about poetry is that you don’t need anything – no camera, no light, no instrument – you can still write. In a nightly court, when I was being judged, the poems saved me. In the total darkness, poetry is still there, and it is there for you.

It is very precise, economical, almost haiku-like. The minimalism in the film and photography is here too, in a big space.

Thank you. [laughs].

Can I ask a couple more quick questions?

I hope it is not one of those short questions that need a long answer!

OK. Are you a film maker or an Iranian film maker?

No sense of nationalism, or patriotism. I am a citizen of the world. I never decided to be born here, so there is no honour to be living here. It could have been much better – I am not ashamed of being Iranian, even if it was much worse. It wasn’t my decision to be Iranian. To stay after the Revolution was my choice – and I did, I was happier here, I had a better life.

So people say ‘Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami’ is wrong – you prefer to be thought of as just a film maker?

When I am outside the country, it feels good to be recognised as an Iranian director. I belong somewhere, that is the most important thing. This is the geographical credit, let’s say. It’s like giving an address, it’s just that I come from that part of the world.

But the work transcends local borders.

Thank you! I hope so.