Part of Tunisian memory turned into ashes

by Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle

You had to search in the small section “Faits divers” (various news) in the state run newspapers to find the information that one of the most important libraries in Tunis – Institut de Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA) – had been victim to a serious fire on the 5th of January . 60 percent of the library was destroyed by fire and water, and its director, Father Gian-Battista Maffi died in the flames.
IBLA was established in 1926 by the order of the White Fathers, a Christian society of the missionaries of Africa. The White Fathers’ society was founded in Algeria in 1868 by (the French) Archbishop of Algiers Mgr Charles Lavigerie. In Tunisia the White Fathers established a “Study House” (Foyer d’Etudes) and over the years they have collected irreplaceable books, periodicals, reviews, articles and handwritings concerning Tunisia, the Maghreb and Africa. The library was a treasury for researchers especially in the humanities. You could often find sources here which were not found in other libraries. Now 10-12000 of these volumes are gone to ashes. As a researcher you have to lament this incident. As one Tunisian blogger wrote: “Part of our memory turned into ashes”. This actually signifies the importance of IBLA. Here it was possible to find different memories, other stories and identities than the ones that have been told by the regime ever since the founding of the nation. Many Tunisian bloggers joined the general depressive mode of those concerned about culture in Tunisia on the occasion of the fire at IBLA. They are concerned about the low – if any – current priority and status of culture in Tunisia.
But as another blogger ironically says with a cartoon on his blog: “Since when can you eat culture”.

Ibla brænder

Another version of this cartoon which is often heard in Tunisia is: “Since when can you eat democracy”. A full stomach and the sisha in the hand (water pipe), then the Tunisian is happy. “Just don’t touch my pocket money”, one young business man says as an ironic stereotype of the Tunisians. They are very happy with the arrival of strongholds of consumerism such as Carrefour, Benetton and Zara. And with the “Mega Projects that will change the face of Tunisia” such as The Rades Bridge, The Enfidha Airport, The information technology City of the Century, and The City of Culture with seven studios for musical, theatrical and dancing production, an 1800-seat opera house and a media library.
But hold on! A city of culture as a mega project? Then why are the bloggers, the intellectual, cultural Tunisians and the well educated young businessmen whining over the state of the culture in Tunisia? Over the ignorance of both the regime and their fellow Tunisians of local culture? Exactly because the new culture house is a mega project. A prestige project which they first of all see as a monument of the regime. The fact that The City of Culture is the neighbor to the headquarters of the ruling party does not reduce this impression. At the same time, dozens of local, small theatres close to the populations have been closed for years because of lack of money, the famous critical Tunisian cinema has remained unproductive for more than a decade and people lack means of expression of their history, their traditions and their local culture. Consumerism – and satisfaction of this longing for consumerism by the regime – has become so important that the news about the fire at IBLA was to be found under “Faits divers” while the front page’s breaking news the same day was the government’s priority of speeding up the development of infrastructure, technology and industry. As one blogger puts it: “On the priority list of the young tie-guys comes first “khobza” (bread)”. Remember: Just don’t touch my pocket money and take my bread away. The blogger continues: ”Then comes information technology and communication. To them Tunisia is in phase with time because the country is number 66 of the world in application of information technology and communication in public administrations while holding the low position of number 142 of the world’s countries in democracy”. Well, since when can you eat democracy?
With the fire at IBLA an important part of the memory of Tunisia turned into ashes. Literally. 12.000 periodicals, reviews, articles and handwritings are now lacking to current researchers and coming generations working on other versions of history, culture, politics and traditions than the narratives prevailing since the birth of the nation state.

Is Kiarostami taking a stand? Or is he just too busy?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Remember the whole Bahman Ghobadi / Abbas Kiarostami thing? Ghobadi, representative of a new wave of Iranian cinema, severely lambasted one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Abbas Kiarostami, for not taking a political stand during the 2009 post-election violence. Well, now he might have.

At least, that is how the Iranian ‘reformists’ have interpreted the story that Kiarostami has allegedly turned down an offer to act as jury in the state-run Fajr Film Festival in Tehran this year. JARAS, a Mousavi-affiliated website has stated that Kiarostami – who is often a jury in international film festivals and has himself received the Palme d’Or of Cannes – has turned down the offer ‘for unpublicized reasons’.

Of course, there can be a number of reasons for this. Maybe Kiarostami is simply too busy? What does, however, give JARAS’ implicit speculation of this being a sign of political protest some credence is the fact that several other prominent members of Iran’s cinema community have also turned down this offer, including Farhad Towhidi, Fatemeh Godarzi, Minoo Farshchi, Ezzatollah Entezami and Asghar Farhadi.

However, until we hear from Kiarostami himself, we cannot be sure. This may also be part of the ‘buzz’ these days in a country where even coughing can become a political tool of passive resistance.

A secular cartoon crises?

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

Needless to say that visual portrayals of the founding of father of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, are object of scrutiny. Any portryal which may seem insensitive to the national sentiments of Turks, or disrespectful and degrading to the memory of Atatürk is obviously met with resentment and anger by many Turks. Hence, it should come as no surprise that Turks in the Netherlands have reacted to the use of the iconography of Atatürk in relation to an advertisement for a travel agency.

The picture used in the poster, which according to the newspaper is to be found in a variety of public spaces and can for example be observed while waiting for the bus, shows a Turkisk Lira bill (featuring the picture of Atatürk in the middle). Below the bill is a pair of hald covered women’s breasts. The poster is put togteher so as to look like the head and shoulders of Atatürk continues into the full bosommed woman. Let’s hope this is not the beginning of a secular cartoon crises….

Ashura in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today is an important day in Iran for several reasons. It is Ashura, the culmination of the mourning rituals marked by Shiites throughout the world, remembering the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 680 AD. It is also the 7th day after the death of the leading ‘reformist’ cleric, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. In other words, there is much at stake and emotions are high.

I wont be able to liveblog today (as you may have noticed, I’m taking some time off from the blog in order to write my thesis!); however, if you want to stay updated, I recommend Enduring America’s blog here and the New York Times’ The Lede Blog here.

Presidential election in Tunisia

Presidential election in Tunisia: Repetitions, news and consumerism before political engagement

by Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle.

The number 7 is printed on Tunisia’s notes. 7 is also a logo for many public authorities. And 7 is the name for one of Tunisia’s two state-run television channels. 7 stands for the date of November 7, 1987 where Tunisia’s incumbent president Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali took power. Thus, on November 7 this year Ben Ali could celebrate being in power for 22 years. That November 7 and Ben Ali’s being in power will also be celebrated the next five years was ensured a few weeks before at the presidential and parliamentary elections in October. The elections were not a display on how to develop a democracy. It did, however, elucidate a number of equally important areas of development in Tunisia.

No news in 2009 elections: Same game – same critique

According to the official results from the election, the president achieved 89,62 percent of the votes and his party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) also won the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies with 84 percent of the votes. In many ways, the election as well as the campaign was almost a tedious repetition of the elections in 2004 and 1999. Ben Ali held lavish election events. For example, one of these took place at the national stadium – suitably called 7th November Stadium – filled with 60,000 cheering sympathizers. The governing party had once again established what could almost be described as an election village in Tunis where arts, children’s entertainment and IT technology in big tents promoted Ben Ali and his party. Election parades were held in all greater cities and the opposition tried to keep step with its own, less pompous election meetings. Once again, the usual parties supported the president’s candidacy while the usual opposing wing complained about election fraud. Ben Ali was heavily exposed in newspapers and at the news agency while the opposition was hard to spot.

To many people, the result of 89 percent is highly unlikely. The result is often used as an ultimate proof of the election being a false maneuver set into action to proof towards EU and the USA that a domestically political process is taking place towards democracy and pluralism. However, Tunisia after the election is precisely the same as the country was prior to the election. No change towards more democracy has taken place. This view is supported by a report made by Freedom House earlier this year. The report illustrated the degree of freedom in a number of countries and placed Tunisia lowest in an Arabic context right after Saudi Arabia and Syria. In the field of Middle East research it is, however, possible to make an analysis from another point of view. Even though there are no visible results regarding the development of democracy, other changes and developments may have taken place. Seen from this point of view, the Tunisian election can be used as a starting point for understanding other important aspects that are central to Tunisia.

News in the continuities: The family takes positions

However, in the middle of the election, it was remarkable how the president’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, took over more and more of the space normally left exclusively to her husband and how she created a profile of her own. Up to now, she has played a humble role at the official scene. However, during the election campaign Leila came more and more into focus in the pictures the state controlled news agency used to illustrate the news which also increasingly was about “The First Lady Leila”. There were even news from the campaign that was solely accompanied by photos that showed Leila and not Ben Ali. She gave speeches to big congregations without her husband, initiated comprehensive charity projects and was interviewed by important European and Arabic magazines. After the announcement of the election result Ben Ali is once again the center of the attention. In explaining why Leila Ben Ali used the election to expose herself you have to look closer at the family relations in the presidential family, the liberalization that has taken place within the last decade as well as the families’ struggle to secure their power.

Shortly after his takeover in 1987, Ben Ali was separated from his first wife and married Leila Trabelsi. The fact that Ben Ali has been married more than once means that there is one additional family that tries to position itself towards power in Tunisia. With his first wife Ben Ali has three daughters who have all married into highly-placed business families. With Leila, Ben Ali has a fourth daughter who recently also married a young, active and rich business man. Finally, there is Leila’s own family, the Trabelsis, who is running some of Tunisia’s largest companies. Along with a number of prominent ministers these 5 families make up the leading élite and a close inner circle around the president. Together with the president, these are the people who really govern the country. There is a parliament but power is always named as “The Palace” referring to the president’s home in Carthage outside Tunis. On several occasions it has become obvious that these five families compete about the power and money.

When seen in this context Leila’s act during the election campaign can be viewed as taking full advantage of the possibilities the election gives her in order to achieve fame an popularity.  However, during the election she has also strengthened the Trabelsi family as well as her daughters in-laws compared to the three other families-by-marriage. This is a head start which may be used over the next 5 years to strengthen her wing of the family to be able to gain power at the next election where Ben Ali will retire as president.

Leila’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr El Materi, is known as an important business man and was furthermore elected member of the Parliament for the governing party. His dynasty includes the running of Tunisia’s harbour, import of cars, production and import of food, running of an Islamic radio channel and banking. Until the mid-1990’s, all these activities were state monopolies originally established in 1956. Later, arising from the belief that an economic liberalization would lead to increased political liberalization, the West and the EU increased their pressure on a number of Arabic countries in order to make them privatize the state owned enterprises. Thus, the Tunisian state chose to sell a number of their activities. However, giving up economic power also means giving up political power. The state may very well have sold activities, but the buyers have primarily been branches of the five families surrounding the president. This way, the regime has met the demands from outside while at the same time secured that power remains within the family with no regards to future election results and any strong opposing groups.

“Economy first” and consumerism

The new economic activity has not only benefited the five families. Great changes have taken place in relation to the inhabitants of Tunisia. Improvements, as the Tunisians would call it. Supermarkets have emerged with refrigerated counters and endless rows of yoghurt, biscuits, coffee, diapers and hardware. There is now full network coverage for mobile phones, fashion shops with international brands and large furniture stores. This is what the youth wants. Furthermore, since his takeover in 1987 Ben Ali has improved the infrastructure to include electrical power, water and asphalt roads in even the smallest and most remote villages. Brick houses have been built to the many people who previously lived in poor sheds and all cities now have a part of town called November 7 with large schools and high schools. Even among the journalists, who are used to being limited in their work, optimism is expressed even though it is moderate. It seems that it is now possible to take up subjects that were previously tabooed. The new privately held radio stations have discussion programs that have never been experienced before. Journalists can now cover stories that would earlier on have been censored because they were conceived as staining the government’s image.

Thus, gaining 89 percent of the votes during the election may seem as a high number, but many of those Tunisians who went to the polls do vote for Ben Ali and the governing party. Even those who are against the party. They cannot neglect the fact that things are actually going well and that progress is taking place. It may only be small steps, but it is, however, steps in the right direction. Keep in mind, the Tunisians say, that we are a young nation which has only had two presidents within the last 60 years.

Afghanistan: a new Vietnam or a new Iraq?

Guest post by Søren Schmidt, PhD and Researcher at The Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

Afghanistan– a new Vietnam or a new Iraq?

Lecture for The Danish Societ for Central Asia, University of Copenhagen, November 10, 2009.

  1. Introduction. We have now been in Afghanistan for eight years. The government seems to be weaker than ever and Taliban stronger than ever. The more soldiers the West sends to the country, the worse it goes. What is the problem and how can we understand what is happening? I will try to answer on two levels. My comments are on the general, long-term level. Although it is important to see the general picture, this does not mean that from this we can deduce what should be done in concrete terms in the present situation. First, I will try to outline what I see as the problem in Afghanistan, and then use the two historical narratives – the surge in Iraq and experience from Vietnam – to try to understand the strategic situation in which we find ourselves.
  2. What is the problem? We are in Afghanistan because of Al Qaeda and 9-11. International terrorism is a security problem for us, which requires us to act. We invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. In the meantime, a so-called mission creep has occurred, and the originally simple goals have expanded into helping Afghanistan’s government, which we helped to power in 2001, gain control of the country in order to prevent Al Qaeda from returning. In short: nation building. This is where the problems start. Because Afghanistan, like all other third-world countries, is engaged in its own historical state- and nation-building process, which involves determining how to organize the country and how to divide power. This process has developed into a regular civil war – as in so many other places – between the city-based political coalition based, on one side, on the northern alliance of the country’s ethnic minorities and selected warlords and based on the narcotics economy, and on the other, a religious extremist Pashtun movement, which is also in alliance with selected warlords and partly financed by narcotics, and whose political programme is to establish an Islamic state with Shari’a as the law of the land. We know that Afghanistan will never become stable without a local partner with sufficient legitimacy and political influence to govern the state. While it is difficult to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, it is not difficult to see that we are siding with the losing side, which in addition to lack of support in the south is now also in trouble with large segments of its support among the Tajik minority group. So this is the problem: We want to contribute to stability, but we need a local partner to work with who can unite the country. Instead of contributing to reconciliation between the two sides in the civil war, we have instead become part of it.
  3. Iraq. Can we turn developments around as we did in Iraq with the ’surge’, when we became allies with Sunni-Islamist groups in Anbar Province to fight against Al Qaeda? Can we become allies in a similar way with local Pashtun militia groups in the fight against Taliban? While Al Qaeda were foreigners that ravaged Anbar, Talibans are Pashtuns who had not only ravaged but have built up a real alternative social system that provides law enforcement and an ombudsman system to ensure against abuse of power. Before we see concrete evidence that it is possible to fight Taliban in this way, I think it wise to be sceptic regarding this strategy. Another important difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that in the Iraqi civil war, we sided with a strong Shia-Islamist coalition with roots in Iraq, since 60 percent of the population are Shiites, and with a well functioning patron-client network base and a loyal militia that received uniforms and could function as the national security force – and on top of that had support from the neighbouring country, Iran. We have no reason for any optimism regarding the Karzai government’s ability to emulate Malik on any of these points. As already stated, Karzai has a very narrow power base; in addition to the old warlords, whose behaviour was the direct cause of the birth of Taliban, he does not have a similar patron-client network, and he receives no support from the neighbouring country, Pakistan. Rather, just the opposite!
  4. Is it then Vietnam that provides a frame of reference for understanding the strategic situation? After he retired, the former American defence minister, Robert McNamara, characterized the Vietnam War as a great misunderstanding, which over two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers died for. The Vietnamese nationalists believed that USA was an imperialist power, which like France wanted to dominate and exploit their country. USA, on the other hand, considered Vietnam to be part of the communist block, and it was therefore necessary to stop communism in Vietnam as part of the global fight against communism. None of this was correct according to McNamara. The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war. We sided with the weakest side; and the strongest side was not fighting on behalf of world communism but for Vietnamese nationalism. Their alliance with China was tactical, not strategic, which became obvious when South Vietnam collapsed in 1975 and USA withdrew. Already in 1978, war broke out between communist Vietnam and communist Cambodia (an example moreover of a successful humanitarian intervention), and the year after between communist Vietnam and communist China. Is what we are witnessing today also a mutual misunderstanding? Taliban (and Al Qaeda) consider us imperialists who will repress their national Islamic culture, while we consider them to be the frontline for a global Islamist movement that wants to defeat us and destroy our way of life. I think that to a great extent this is the case. While we fight Taliban, because they are allied with Al Qaeda, Taliban, it seems, is mainly allied with Al Qaeda, because we have turned both into our enemies. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar said recently: “Taliban government came to end in Afghanistan due to the wrong strategy of Al Qaeda”, indicating that they have different interests and, having learned from their experience, is likely to act differently today in relation to Al Qaeda.
  5. Conclusion. The mixture of nationalistic and international terrorism is a dangerous cocktail that needs to be unmixed, if we wish to protect our real interest – which is to fight the latter. If we examine the relationship between the two variables – our military intervention in Muslim countries, and the strength of nationalistic and international terror movements – we find a causality that goes both ways. The more we strengthen our military presence in the Muslim countries, the better we can fight them. Unfortunately, I believe the opposite relationship is even stronger: the greater our military presence in Muslim countries, the stronger the terror movements become and the more we weaken those on whose behalf we intervene. The net effect is therefore negative. This understanding ought to form the basis for our long-term strategy. The really difficulty lies in combining this with the short-term necessity to combat international terrorism and make sure that the pursuit of the long-term strategy does not, here and now, cause the presently low-intensity civil war to become red-hot.

Islamism in Sudan and the “trousers-gate” scandal

by Anders Hastrup.

This summer and autumn brought news from the Sudanese capital to the front pages of the Western press and media agencies as the journalist Lubna Hussein was arrested in a Khartoum cafe along with several other women for wearing trousers, forbidden by the country’s Islamic law. Islamic law was introduced as early as 1983 in Sudan, and has been enforced vigorously in the early 1990s since the coming to power of the present Islamist military dictatorship. Although Islamism has cooled down immensely since the 1990s and the terrorists have gone elsewhere, the case is a reminder of the inherent contradictions of a imposing a stern Islamist rule in a country with one of the strongest, independent and well- educated female elites on the African continent.

Muslim dress, again

I initially ignored commenting on the Lubna Hussein case of this summer/autumn, as I was annoyed by the fact that it is only when stories of women and Muslim vs. Western dress emerge that the Western press bring news of Sudan, home of two of Africa’s most devastating and longest running civil wars. The war in the South is erupting again. It looks as if the CPA, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended the North South war is failing. The past 6 months have seen acts of war and violence in the South that by far exceeds events in Darfur in their sheer brutality and number of people killed. The culture of impunity and violence still engulfs the entire region of Darfur where as many as 2.5 million people are internally displaced relying on food aid from the international agencies in the most expensive continuing relief effort in the world.

Where is the analysis of the interconnectedness of Sudan’s real tragedies? Why is Western media obsessed with a discussion of pants vs. dresses? There are more interesting and important stories that come out of the biggest country in Africa, I thought, and decided not to devote any further attention to the matter. However, the story continued to grow as Lubna Hussein, a strong and powerful journalist from North Sudan refused to the accept the punishment of flogging and took the case to court. And to the Western media. Lubna Hussein’s position as a UN employee gave her an international backing and a direct link to the world of international media. The case blew up in Western media much to the embarrassment of the ruling elite in Khartoum.

Relations with the West

The Khartoum government’s relation with the Western countries is ambivalent and ambiguous. On the one hand, the ICC indictment of President Bashir over war crimes in Darfur have worsened relations and cooled down a lot of recent improvement in diplomatic ties between Khartoum, the US and the ever amorphous “International Community”. While promising genocide lobbyists in their own country to take a tougher stand on Darfur, the Obama administration has signaled a new beginning and a fresh look at Sudan-US relations much to the dismay of the protagonists of the Save Darfur movement, the biggest civil movement on overseas matters in the US since the anti- Vietnam movements of the 60s and 70s.

Khartoum doesn’t really need the US that much right now. They are perfectly all right with leaving the mayhem of Darfur to the international aid agencies and ill equipped and understaffed AU and UN forces. Money is pouring in, Khartoum is a booming city thanks to the increasing oil revenues and the industrious Chinese who are completely remaking the Northern Sudanese infrastructure and constructing the Meroe dam on the Nile. The Chinese don’t ask questions. Khartoum is doing more than ok at the moment, thank you very much.

The Lubna Hussein “trousers-gate” scandal is embarassing because it gives the Sudan exactly the coverage it doesn’t like in the West as (yet another) of the backward-looking Islamist regimes, which it certainly is not. In this way the “trousers-gate” scandal echoes the scandal over the British schoolteacher who named a teddy bear “Mohammed” in 2007 and was imprisoned and expelled from Sudan. The case blew up in Western media and the teacher ended up receiving a Presidential pardon.

The elite in Sudan are tired of this portrayal. The Sudan Northern elite are among the oldest educated elites on the African continent, a real cosmopolitan bunch who have very successful diasporas and are doing very well where ever they may roam. This is true of both women and men. They are as far from the Taliban as you can get. The “trousers-gate” scandal is a threat to the Sudanese Northern elite, not because of negative publicity in the West, but because of this publicity’s negative internal effect on the elite themselves.

The Turabi fatwa and the role of women in Sudan

Sudan is a country characterized by many things among them strong, willful, articulate and independent women. They are the real glue that holds the country, especially the Northern elites, together. Sudanese politics are fragmented but held together to a large extend by intermarriages of the families of the ruling elite. Secular, Sectarian, Communist, Islamist, all of these fractions are intermarried and a large network of wives can to a large degree be thanked for the coherence of North Sudan.

Losing the women of Sudan would be a far more devastating blow for the survival of the Sudanese elite than any economic sanctions, ICC indictment, UN missions or anything else imposed on Sudan from the outside. This is well known in Sudan and caused Hassan al Turabi to issue a most controversial fatwa in 2006 allowing Muslim women to marry a Christian or Jewish man.

Although an Islamist, and indeed the chief architect and ‘Ayatollah’ of the Islamic revolution in Sudan of 1989, he is also a pragmatic figure navigating through the (ever) changing political landscapes of Sudan. The fatwa is a pragmatic tool to hinder the brain drain of Sudan’s women, who see their opportunities dwindling in the “unnatural” limitations imposed on them by Islamism. The “trousers-gate” scandal of Lubna Hussein is precisely an internal scandal for the Sudanese elite, who, hopefully, feel increasingly alienated from the police forces cracking down on immodest behavior in the public space. Sudan cannot survive without a highly educated, articulate, strong and independent women like Lubna Hussein in the long run.

Hopefully the realization of this will teach the Sudanese forces to treat their women with greater respect, not clamping down on their freedom of movement, expression, dress and their possibility to put on trousers if they so desire.

Catfight? Or time for a new direction in Iranian cinema?

By Rasmus Christian Elling.

Saturday, when I got back from watching Bahman Ghobadi’s new movie ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’, I was excited, almost in a trance, and felt I had seen the best Iranian movie in years. Actually, last time I had this feeling was when I saw ‘The Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine’ by Bahman Farmanara, some eight years ago.

I’m no film critic or cinema expert, but in my world, ‘Persian Cats’ is nothing but a masterpiece. In a style reminiscent of Fatih Akin’s  ‘Crossing the Bridge,’ Ghobadi introduces us to the Iranian underground music scene while telling a gripping tale of two young Iranian talents who wish to go abroad, where they can express themselves freely as indie rock musicians. They are trying to assemble a band to do one last illegal show and raise funds for a tour in Europe. During their quest to find musical soul mates and get the visa- and passport-problems solved in Tehran’s underworld, we see and hear some of the best in modern Iranian music: beautiful soul and blues in underground studios, pounding hip hop beats on construction sites in the asphalt jungle of Tehran, thrashing death metal in a cow house and much more. The musical journey is interwoven with a visual journey of extremely beautiful pictures, cutting up Tehran’s urban sprawl music video style.

‘No One Knows About Persian Cats,’ which won the Jury’s Special Prize at 2009 Cannes Film Festival, shows an Iranian music scene that – not unlike Iranian cinema itself – has grown in its inhospitable environment of repression and censorship into something wild and beautiful. Something uniquely Iranian. The fearless, passionate actors on this scene are not blindly imitating the West, they are not an Iranian MTV generation. They represent an authentic declaration of love towards music across borders and boundaries, and a drive towards defining what it means to be Iranian in the 21st Century. Among its many fascinating characters, we meet Hichkas – hands down, Iran’s best rapper and my personal favorite. In contrast to the protagonists and their dreams of khârej (outside of Iran), Hichkas makes a patriotic assertion of love to the fatherland, and he rejects an invitation to go abroad. We have rock musicians who quote Persian poetry and take equal inspiration from Western rock and Iranian traditional music. The scene is homegrown, 100% Iranian and 100% underground.

That said, ‘Persian Cats’ – like so many other films – also represents a utopia: the idea, so thoroughly cultivated and romanticized by Western journalists, exile-Iranian memoir writers and fans of Tehran’s cosmopolitan youth. This is the sometimes-exaggerated dream of a wild, secular and democratic generation waiting to burst through the cement walls of Islamic theocracy and conservatism. Surely, this idea, unless balanced with a view from ‘the other side of the story’, is a fantasy based on a false dichotomy. It is a projection of ‘our’ hopes and dreams for Iran on a canvas that is, in reality, much more nuanced and complex than a battle between modernity vs. tradition and freedom vs. religion and art vs. censorship. All young Iranians do not share the perspective presented in ‘Persian Cats’: not all are driven by the exact same passions we see in the protagonists and not all share their views on the sublime greatness of indie rock and hip hop. Not all speak, dress and act as they do.

Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to state firmly that since the late 1990s, the Iranian underground scene has exploded. It has taken over the space in Iranian popular culture once occupied by the exile-Iranian music scene in Tehrangeles, California, with its torrent of mindless pop. Statistics also speak their clear language about brain drain, and anyone who has traveled or lived in Iran will probably agree that many young Iranians do dream of going abroad, of being able to speak up and of not fearing the authorities. This is why ‘Persian Cats’, while being part fantasy, is also part reality. It is a fictitious documentary, ‘based on a true story’, and starring many of the people who actually live this life every day. This is not a one-eyed Western glance at our heroes in the Gucci Generation. It is a reflection on a profound cultural movement. An evolution much more powerful than Mousavi, Khatami and Karroubi’s ‘reformist wave’.

‘Persian Cats’ differ greatly from other ‘festival-type’ Iranian movies in its format, language and goal. While there is an underlying, sad story of despair and desperation, well known to fans of Iranian cinema, literature and poetry, ‘Persian Cats’ differ by being… well… funny. There is humor, there is the speed-talking streetwise figure of Nader, the lovable remnant of pre-revolutionary gangster flicks in Hajj David and the fast-paced motorcycle trips through Tehran. All together, it is an experience that is miles away from, say, Abbas Kiarostami’s slow-paced, lo-fi rural realism – and even from Kiarostami’s recent attempt at upbeat urban social critique, ‘Ten‘.

So is that why Abbas Kiarostami hates ‘Persian Cats’? We may soon find out, because today Bahman Ghobadi released a shocking open letter to the Grand Man of Iranian New Wave Cinema on the net. The ruckus allegedly started when Kiarostami gave Ghobadi a scathing critique after a screening of ‘Persian Cats’ in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago. Iranian media quoted Kiarostami saying ‘If Bahman Ghobadi thinks there are better circumstances for creating movies outside of Iran, I congratulate him. But for me, personally, I don’t believe in leaving Iran. The place I can sleep comfortably is my home’. He added that he had never seen anything good from those Iranians who left the country and that he would always want to create movies in his homeland and in his mother tongue. However, he might also have said much more than that, at least to Ghobadi himself, at least according to Ghobadi. Indeed, Ghobadi’s letter that surfaced today is, well, very harsh.

In it, Ghobadi states that he has always had great respect and much love for Kiarostami, and that before this, he wouldn’t even had dared to write Kiarostami a letter; but that, now, he is forced to respond:

‘It all started that damned night. The night when you grabbed my arm and pulled me aside and told me you didn’t like my movie. I wasn’t angry, but surprised. You didn’t see the movie for the first time in Abu Dhabi, but in my own home several months before. And you said you liked it’, Ghobadi begins. At the Abu Dhabi screening, however, Kiarostami instead lambasted not just Ghobadi, but also Ja‘far Panahi (Kiarostami’s former assistant director and winner of several prizes) in phrases Ghobadi had never expected from the Grand Old Man: ‘You accused me, and other filmmakers who have heard the voice of the people in the underground, in the closets, homes, streets and backstreets of our city, of lying in our films’ … ‘My dear and respected Master! I, and all film-lovers, respect your opinion on cinema. But that does not mean that we can allow you, in the manner of dictators, to tell everybody in the art world what to do, or to judge any film that is not silent, voiceless and unrelated to the troubles in society, like your own works, as worthless’.

Ghobadi continues to state that Kiarostami does not have the right to accuse and criticize filmmakers like Ghobadi for the ‘social responsibility’ they express in their films. He argues that Kiarostami’s criticism is a way for the Grand Old Man to justify his own ‘silence and conservatism’ vis-à-vis the acute problems in Iranian society: ‘In all these years, you have created films without the slightest influence from politics and society, which of course, is your right and your choice. Silence is also your right, even though if you were to open your mouth and criticize the rulers’ oppression and the chaotic conditions in society, you would still enjoy much more safety than the rest of us … The United Nations [would] stand by you. Nonetheless, as I said, staying silent is your right. What is not your right is to utter words that will become headlines in Iranian pro-government newspapers, [words that] make the regime happy. How can you allow yourself, with nasty words, to mock filmmakers who try to support the oppressed people, and worse, to state, in the language of religious dictators, what is forbidden? What has happened since we must hear these words, which we used only to hear from state officials [working with] cinema and from journalists at Kayhan, from you?’.

‘What is forbidden’ – nahi az monkar – is part of a Quranic quote used as an Islamist slogan by the Iranian state to forbid certain behavior and culture, and Kayhan is the vicious mouth-piece of Ayatollah Khamene‘i that is used to brand opposition politicians, intellectuals and artists as foreign agents, spies and sell-outs. That should give you an idea of how severe this counterattack sounds when read in its original Persian.

‘Earlier, you have stated that Iran is the best place in the world for making films’, continues Ghobadi. ‘Maybe for filmmakers such as yourself and for the kind of films that you make. But you are perfectly aware that filmmakers who are concerned with an independent and intellectual cinema, and who are concerned with Iran and Iranian society today, are suffering under military base-like conditions in the film industry. How can you claim that a country that enforces the strictest censorship on film is the best place for filmmaking in the world? In a situation where our filmmakers, one after the other, is forbidden to leave the country, and in which some of them, such as Ja‘far Panahi, lose their opportunity to partake in major, international projects due to [these restrictions], how can you – instead of defending and supporting them – reproach them for not making their films in Iran, which is, according to you, the best place to do so in the world?’

Ghobadi asks Kiarostami if he was joking? And if not, why he himself is making his next movie in Tuscany, Italy? And then Ghobadi retorts to the question of his leaving Iran: ‘I have never left the country by my own will and wish. They threw me out of my country. They closed all doors to filmmaking before me. Despite all these problems, and while you were preparing your new film in Italy, I created my last film in the heart of Tehran’.

Ghobadi indicates that Kiarostami has blamed him for making young Iranians want to leave Iran with ‘Persian Cats’, and then he returns to Kiarostami’s statement about sleeping comfortably at home: ‘How can you sleep peacefully when the whole world knows what is happening to Iran’s young people every day? How can you sleep calmly when the people of Iran can not; when they live in fear of a dark future for their children? Do you even know how it is to make a film in fear and terror and without a permit? Do you know how it is to be imprisoned due to your film’s success in Cannes, or interrogation due to things you said abroad? I have experienced all this on my own body, and that is why I cannot sleep comfortably at night like you. That is why the Iranian society is more important than film to me today. In order to help my compatriots who live in pain and injustice, I am even ready to leave the film industry and do my service to them’.

The part of the letter that really caught my attention (which has to do with my own research) was the following, in which Ghobadi relates to Kiarostami’s earlier statement about creating movies in his one’s ‘own country’ and in one’s own ‘mother tongue’. Ghobadi writes: ‘They have never forced you to silence because of your being Kurdish and your being a Sunni Muslim. But in that same country, which is also my country, they have never allowed me to make a movie in my own mother tongue [which is Kurdish], and one of their reasons for stopping my films was exactly that. Like you, I too want to make films in my own country and in my mother tongue. I am also in love with my country and my home. But all this has been taken away from me because I wouldn’t stay silent. And you have all this, paid for by not speaking up and by staying silent.’

Ghobadi finishes the letter: ‘Dear Mr. Kiarostami! In these sensitive and crucial days, whether you want it or not, whether it is right or not, the only criterion for dignity, honor and pride is to follow the people and not to follow those who oppose the people. With your statements, you have forbidden us to protest and to support the [Iranian] people at [international film] festivals, or to create films about social and political problems. The people will not forget the silence of artists. The people is the best judge of history.’

Harsh words, indeed. So is this a ‘beef’ in the industry – a catfight between two huge egos? Or is it indicative of a paradigm shift in Iranian new wave cinema? I believe it is a combination of both. Parts of Ghobadi’s letter is somewhat embarrassing, and having personally met Kiarostami and seen his films (including Ten, which certainly is not the clean, conservative and pro-regime material Ghobadi wants you to believe Kiarostami represents), I cannot help feeling that it is too much and too harsh. Of course, we do not know exactly what Kiarostami said to Ghobadi on that ‘damned night’ in Abu Dhabi. But calling Kiarostami a representative of the same stuff we read in Kayhan seems a little bit too over the edge. Blaming Kiarostami for not speaking out against the violence and repression in Iran lately is maybe not the right way to use your energy.

However, Ghobadi may also have some salient points in his implicit criticism of the Kiarostami-esque cinema: it does seem at times to lack balls. One problem is that the type of cinema Kiarostami creates, or used to create (and that Ghobadi, Panahi and several others, for that matter, have until recently created) were for many years the only type of cinema we in the West saw of Iran. A lot of exile Iranians became fed up when all we saw from their homeland were simple villagers, innocent children and handicapped people, refugees in barren mountains or desolate wastelands, never ending panoramic shots of rural landscapes and poetic meditations on ‘small things in life’. I’ve been at practically every screening of Iranian films in Denmark for the last ten years, and there were always a couple of Iranians who would get up and leave the cinema a few minutes into the films. ‘Why do they always portray Iran like this?’ would be the question. Film experts, on the other hand, would celebrate this type of cinema as unique and would tell us how the glance of an actor in a particular shot was actually a profound criticism of society, how a girls movement in another shot indicated intercourse, that Iranian film had developed its own secret language of criticism despite and because of censorship, and so on. It is my impression that many ‘ordinary’ Iranians – that is, non-film experts – really didn’t care. They wanted to see and feel the daily struggles and dramas of the homeland, and not the underacted contemplative art house stuff that so excited Western film critics.

With movies like Panahi’s 2000 ‘The Circle’, Rakhsan Bani-Etemad’s 2001 ‘Under the Skin of the City’ or Dariush Mehrjui’s 2007 ‘Santuri’ – and, as mentioned, Kiarostami’s 2002 ‘Ten’ – Iranian new wave artists of the first generation have take off the gloves, even several years before Ghobadi. Indeed, Iranian cinema has a long tradition of social critique. However, second-generation artists like Ghobadi – whose fiancée, the journalist Roxana Saberi were imprisoned on charges of espionage during this summer’s unrest in Iran – have now not only taken off the glove, but also grabbed a club, and started to hit back. He may expect others to follow suit and live up to their obligation as socially aware, critical intellectuals – like filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, touring the world as a Dalai Lama-like representative of The Green Movement or like the singer and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, who has told Iranian state media not to use his music anymore after the 2009 state violence against the opposition. Or Ghobadi may expect people such as Kiarostami at least not to criticize him when he hits back at the Islamic Republic.

So, is Ghobadi right in lashing back at the Grand Old Man, so publicly and so fiercely? I’m not sure. But it is certainly a debate that will help shape the future of Iranian cinema. Now go watch ‘Nobody Knows About Persian Cats’. I love that movie!

Signs of increased tensions between Saudis and Iranians

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I do not have time for an in-depth analysis, but the following pieces of recent news points to an escalation of the conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia:

Iranian Arabic channel taken off air

“The operators of Nilesat and Arabsat cited a breach of contract according to Egypt’s MENA news agency, but al-Alam said they had not been given a reason. Analysts say some Arab governments are worried about the channel’s popularity and Iran’s growing regional influence.”

Iran warns Saudi-Arabia against continued fingerprinting of pilgrims

“Tehran has shown strong reaction to the new rules set by the Saudi officials against Iranian pilgrims.”

Yemen accuses Iranian ‘religious institutions’ of backing armed rebellion

“Yemen, the poorest Arab state and a known base for al-Qaeda, is fighting a vicious war in the northern mountains near the border with Saudi Arabia against a Shia tribal group known as the Houthis. The authorities now claim to have seized an Iranian-crewed vessel carrying anti-tank missiles off the Yemeni coast near the Houthi stronghold on Monday.”

Iran is expanding its activity in the Red Sea

“Tehran aims to turn Yemen into a regional arena for conflict, as part of its ongoing dispute with several countries in the region”

Saudi air force bombs Yemen rebels

“Arab countries allied to the US, such as predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Egypt, fear Shiite power Iran could gain influence in Yemen through the rebels.”

Yemeni Shi’ite cleric and Houthi disciple ‘Issam al-Imad: Our Leader Houthi is close to Khamene‘i

“In the interview, Al-Imad describes the religious, ideological, and political affinity that has evolved between the Yemeni Houthis and the Iranian regime, saying that the Houthis have effectively converted from Zaidi Shi‘a to Twelver Shi‘a, which is Iran’s official religion”

What to make of all this? Discuss!

Reactions to Sunday’s attack on Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Sunday, a small radical Sunni group again attacked Iran. A suicide bomber targeted a meeting close to a small town on the border with Pakistan in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Among the around 40 dead were six or seven high-ranking Revolutionary Guard commanders. This is the latest act in a long-running small-scale war with insurgents in a volatile corner of multi-ethnic Iran. It is also yet another good reason why many Iranians feel their country is under attack by its many enemies.

According to the state-owned Iranian Press TV, Jondollah (aka. Jundullah, Jundallah) – a Sunni Muslim, Baluchi terror group – has claimed responsibility for the  (read more about Jondollah here). For at least six years, Jondollah has been behind several acts of terrorism, including ambushes on military convoys, assassination, abductions and execution of officials and soldiers.

Reportedly, a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders, Shiite and Sunni clerics and local tribal leaders were supposed to congregate at a ‘Unity Meeting’, where they would discuss security issues in the province, which has been marred for many years with drug smuggling, terror and armed gangs. Among the Revolutionary Guards were Brigadier Nour-Ali Shushtari (deputy commander of the Guard’s ground forces, head of the local main base), Brigadier Rajab-Ali Mohammadzadeh (provincial commander) and commanders of major cities and towns in the province. Several of the tribal leaders and both Shiite and Sunni clerics also died.

The terror act has been described by Iranian officials as a foreign-sponsored blow to the Iranian state’s endeavor at reconciling Shiites and Sunnis, and as an attempt at disrupting security and creating ethnic and sectarian strife in multi-cultural Iran. Namely, the US, Britain and Pakistan have been accused for supporting Jondollah. This is not the first time Iran makes this accusation, and there is still reason to take this claim seriously and not dismiss it categorically as just another piece of propaganda or political paranoia. In particular, there have been speculations for several years whether or not the US have been in contact with Jondollah, or maybe even trained and equipped them (see here, here, here and here – also see Press TV interview with Jondollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi’s brother here and here).

Just as with earlier episodes, Iranian officials have again linked Jondollah to ‘Talibanism’, Al-Qaeda and Wahhabism, and thus there is also an indirect accusation against Saudi Arabia, whom Iran has accused before for supporting not only Baluchi militants, but also Kurdish guerillas (see Uskowi Iran’s analysis here).

The Iranians have been very clear this time that the Jondollah is using Pakistan as a safe haven. Ahmadinejad stated that certain elements in the Pakistani state support the Jondollah. I interpret his statement as condemning not an overall Pakistani strategy, but rather the notion of rogue elements from within the Paki intelligence and military establishment – autonomous elements who share anti-Shiite tendencies with various extremist factions in Pakistan. The Iranian parliament demanded swift military action – including attacks over the border and into Pakistan. I don’t think this will happen unless the Pakistanis agree (maybe unofficially, as seems to have happened in the case of Iran attacking PJAK on Iraqi soil). Indeed, Iranian media have reported that during a phone call, Ahmadinejad and Zardari agreed to coordinate actions against Jondollah.

However, instead of dwelling on the different (conspiracy) theories and whether or not they can be true – including the admittedly interesting question of whether the US is (still?) supporting Jondollah – I will focus on the impact on Iranian public opinion.

It is my impression that Iranians in general do not perceive Jondollah as a group fighting for ethnic or sectarian rights – and certainly not for democratic values. The Iranian state-run media, government officials and the clergy have thus succeeded in planting the Wild East image among ordinary Iranians: that Sistan-Baluchistan has always been ‘wild’, plagued by unruly tribal marauders and drug gangs. The Jondollah is thus perceived as bandits (ashrâr) and not as political activists, symptomatic of a primitive barbaric culture that has more to do with ‘Afghanistan’ than ‘Iran’.

Pundits in Iran, however, are very well aware of the several layers of political and social implications in Jondollahs activities, whether ethnic, sectarian, regional or international.

In general, ‘opposition’ bloggers – that is, those bloggers who generally support a major democratic change in Iran, whether through the ‘reformist’ alternative or through overthrow – certainly do not cheer for Jondollah. Even though these bloggers are among the most ardent critics of The Revolutionary Guards, they forcibly condemn Jondollah’s suicide mission. One example is this blogger who is clearly not a fan of the Islamic Republic. His view is that of the classical Persian nationalist, and his blog post is introduced in the name of the Zoroastrian diety:

“This act clearly underscores that [Jondollah] do not care the least bit for Iran. They are a bunch of extremist Wahhabis, who are abusing the diversity of the Iranian people. They want to create ethnic strife, and on top of it, religious-sectarian strife. The existence of such people in Iran is a disgrace for all Iranians. The age of ethnicity and tribalism is over, and our country must discard all ethnicities in order to enter the new world – even though we’ve never actually have had ethnic units in our country”

Another ‘Green’ (that is, pro-reformist) blogger condemns the attack on ‘defenseless people’ and identifies the two sides of Sunday’s fight, The Revolutionary Guards and Jondollah:

“The Guards are now known to everyone, and they do not need thorough introduction. They are an organ, the members and employees of which may be of the Iranian race but surely do not share the positive traits of the people of this country… We have all witnessed how they violently and vehemently attacked [their own people] … But Jondollah, on the other hand, is no more than a bunch of bandits and thieves: people who stop innocent and unarmed civilians on the road, in the middle of the night, tie their hands and shoot them all down [referring to earlier Jondollah ambushes].”

He continues to portray Jondollah as ‘rabid dogs’, ‘hungry wolves’, ‘wild pigs’ and rhetorically asks those who have named Jondollah a ‘popular resistance movement’ exactly what good Jondollah has ever done for Iran. He states that the group’s leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, has never been and will never be a representative of neither the Iranian people nor the people of Sistan-Baluchistan. He concludes:

“I would personally never want my name alongside that of the Revolutionary Guards … and would certainly never cooperate with them. However, if I should ever be forced to chose between the Guards of the Islamic Republic and Jondollah, without doubt I would chose the fortress of the Guards, and I would fight to root out the terrorism of this extremist religious and Taliban-esque [Jondollah] …”

However, the more or less nationalistic view on the issue – i.e., Jondollah being a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and not the regime of the Islamic Republic – is also supplemented with more nuanced views. Indeed, in the Persian blogosphere one often encounters an understanding for the bereaved, extremely poor people of Baluchistan, as well as sympathy for civilians who are inevitably going to get caught up in the ‘bloody revenge’ promised by Iranian authorities. One commentator on a website wrote that ‘tomorrow they will surely round up four random, innocent guys and execute them in public as “terrorists”’.

As usual, there are several conspiracy theories floating around cyberspace. One blogger – identifying as an Iranian woman – argues that this bombing should be seen as the latest in a string of ‘IRGC eliminations’: in other words, she is implying that the killing of the Revolutionary Guards commanders is part of a wider attempt at eliminating the old cadres of the IRGC in order to let the younger members take over. That theory seems a bit too far-fetched, but nonetheless reflect how widespread myths and ideas about the IRGC are in Iran today.

However, in my interpretation, the main point that shines through most cyberspace writing in Iran is the belief that Jondollah is a mercenary group. Thus, both the regime and the ordinary people will see the latest attack as the mindless spilling of (more or less) innocent blood by foreign powers pursuing their own geostrategic agendas through proxies such as Jondollah.

In February this year, the US State Treasury branded PJAK, the PKK-affiliated Kurdish guerilla group fighting the Iranian state, as terrorists. It will be interesting whether or not the US under Obama’s administration will also place Jondollah on the list. According to this article from ILNA, an Iranian news agency, Obama’s administration is considering to do exactly that. It would be the only decent thing to do. Jondollah is an extremist and opportunist group, willing to work with anyone, and willing to shed the blood of both civilians and military personnel. It is not a ‘popular resistance group’, as VOA once introduced them. Jondollah is a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less.