The Middle Eastern Modernities Project is devoted to recovering overlooked, suppressed, and forgotten histories from the Middle East’s long twentieth century. Through screenings, talks, and articles, radical, modernist, and avant-garde movements and moments are exhumed, reinterpreted, and reanimated.
Naturally, Bidoun has been keenly interested in printed matter, especially (other) magazines. (See Etel Adnan’s presentation of articles about radical little magazines.) But children’s publishing has turned out to be a surprisingly rich site of investigation. In 1970s Beirut, the Palestine Liberation Organization devoted considerable resources to Dar El Fata El Araby, a sort of engaged artists’ think-tank that produced kid’s books that eschewed what they considered to be bourgeois Mickey Mouse aesthetics. In Tehran, meanwhile, young Iranian artists and filmmakers gathered around the state-sponsored Kanoon e Parvaresh e Fekri, producing aesthetically curious and (occasionally) politically daring books for young Iranians, including one unforgettable book about a renegade fish by noted leftist Samad Behrangi. Prominent Kanoonis included Sohrab Shahid-Sales and Abbas Kiaorostami, who made their first films under its aegis.
Several articles, in fact, have charted the creative energies unleashed in the tumultuous decade before the 1979 Iranian revolution, including Benjamin Tiven’s conversation with Hossein Amanat, the Bahai architect behind the monumental Azadi tower in Tehran, whose efforts to forge a distinctively Iranian vernacular modernism were patronized by Empress Farah Diba, the Shah’s third wife — an enduringly enigmatic and polarizing figure.
One useful way of situating pioneering artists and writers has been to examine the infrastructure that supported them. In Turkey, the Hürriyet newspaper sponsored a contest to encourage aspiring musicians to create contemporary pop music in the Turkish language through its Golden Microphone competition — which subtended the musically and politically radical Turkish rock scene of the early 1970s.
In 1974, the children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arabi was launched in Beirut. Over the next decade, Dar El Fata — staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause — produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region. Bidoun sat down with Mohieddin Ellabbad, one of the cofounders of the publishing house and its first and most influential art director, as well as Nawal Traboulsi, a leading expert on children’s literature and reading habits, who got her start as an amateur illustrator hand-picked by Ellabbad to work with him making books.
Mohieddin Ellabbad: I remember the first time I walked into the Dar El Fata offices. Right away I noticed how plush the office was — wall-to-wall carpeting, a long row of telephones, fresh coffee and orange juice. I had come to Beirut under the assumption that conditions would be very difficult. In Egypt we had a fantasy that all things Palestinian automatically meant suffering. I imagined I would be sleeping in an iron bed with six other people in the room. But I was willing to suffer considerably for the cause. I had just scrapped a long-planned sabbatical in Paris, in which I had invested all of my savings, to come to Beirut and work with a novice publishing house linked to the Palestinians.
My first meeting was with Nabil Shaath who was the director of the Palestinian Planning Center and also in charge of the publishing house. He was also a member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah; later he would hold various positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. In Shaath’s office, I immediately noticed a stack of typewritten papers on the corner of his desk. In response to my inquisitive look, he told me that it was material he had approved for publication, and proceeded to dramatically ask one of his aides why it had not already been sent to the print shop. Another employee interjected that it was necessary to first design and prepare the manuscript. And of course, there was no designer. That was how I came in.
Nawal Traboulsi: Dar El Fata was the PLO’s cultural program, though there was no direct political guidance. Dar El Fata was very creative and progressive, although of course there was a definite, and genuine, enthusiasm for the Palestinian revolution. But the money came from the PLO.
ME: Actually, that’s not true. The money came from private businessmen. At the time, it was common for projects like this to be launched with private donations. But it was founded by Abu Ammar — Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre — after Black September and the expulsion of the Palestinians to Lebanon. An Egyptian doctor who had been imprisoned by Nasser in the fifties, a Marxist, donated a sum of money to Fatah with the suggestion that it be used to fund something that would signify the revolution’s persistence — its ability to take the long road when necessary. A document for the education of children was being drafted at the same time, and thus the idea of launching a publishing house geared toward making books for children started to gain currency.
NT: I was twenty years old, and I was studying philosophy at the French university in Beirut, drawing on the side as a hobby. I had some work in an exhibition at a cultural center in the city, and I was very lucky that Ellabbad saw it. Though they informed him that I was only a student, he insisted on meeting me anyway. He asked if I was interested in doing drawings for children’s books. To be totally honest, at the time I had never done any drawings for children. What’s more, he said that the publishing house was to be primarily about and for Palestinian children, and at the time I had no relationship to Palestine or the Palestinians. But Ellabbad told me not to worry, he would guide me in the process. And in fact, he was so authoritarian! We called him Monsieur Millimeter because of his sharpness and precision. I ended up illustrating around ten books. I got to meet artists like Nazir Nabaa, Kamal Boullata, and Helmi El-Touni. All these Arabs then living in Beirut, “foreigners.” For a Lebanese French-speaking student from the 1968 generation, Dar El Fata opened my horizon onto the Arab world. I was interested in where they came from, their conversations, their painting. But I preferred to stay in the shadows.
ME: When I started, it wasn’t clear what we were going to do. There was no marketing or distribution plan. I decided that if the publishing house was to survive, I’d have to come up with one. What soon became clear was that we needed to establish several distinct series for various ages, in different formats. I made our official goal to publish sixty-seven books by the end of that first year. It was a large but necessary number. We needed to have an extensive and diverse back catalog for the publishing house to establish itself, and to find retail outlets in the Arab world willing to carry our books. I had arrived in May 1974, and I wanted sixty-seven books by December. It was crazy. Somehow we actually, miraculously, met our target.
NT: Yes, and you managed to publish original works! At the time, the few existing children’s publishing houses were busy translating already published books and copying their images. Even more impressive was that you published modern texts about modern children, the children of the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, Dar El Fata was an Arab publishing house with authors and illustrators from every Arab country, which was a totally new and progressive practice. It was not a publishing house that merely reflected the owners’ tastes, as is common now, and at the same time it was not the property of any one country. Because it was dedicated to the Palestinian cause, which especially at that time was the cause of many Arabs, it was truly a pan-Arab endeavor. And it paid attention to children. Writing and publishing quality books for children was not common or trendy in those days — to even think about children was revolutionary!
ME: After the first year we conducted an internal assessment that pointed out the utter failure of our administrative and distribution system. What I suggested as a remedy was to become a much smaller operation, a sort of atelier de création, focusing only on the production of content. Nabil Shaath was very unhappy with my proposal, he wanted us to be something big, like Akhbar El Yom, the Egyptian newspaper giant, with their huge nine-story building. He wanted to be a big corporation that produced video for broadcast. I thought, “We can’t produce a sixteen-page book for children and distribute it properly.” He tried to convince me to stay, but I decided to leave after the second year. I returned to Egypt after the civil war erupted. Two of the office boys had already been killed in the fighting. But I did keep working with Dar El Fata through a project that I initiated in Cairo, the Arab Workshop for Children’s Books. We coproduced several books together.
NT: After Ellabbad left, nobody from Dar El Fata contacted me again. So it was a brief but influential two years for me. It was clear how crucial Mohieddin Ellabbad had been to the project. He was demanding about which artists he chose to work with, and he refused to have any artists forced upon him because they were Palestinian, or had certain political convictions. I remember that I was astonished to find that I was being paid exactly the same as other illustrators, although I didn’t consider myself a professional like they were. Ellabbad told me that he paid for the work, not the “name” of the person. It was a new and fair way of dealing, and I was proud to work in an institution that operated under such rules. Ellabbad gave Dar El Fata its Arab face — he made sure that it didn’t just become another tool for propaganda. He sought out writers and artists from Sudan, Morocco, Yemen, everywhere in the Arab world.
ME: To ensure my independence, and in order to keep the administration from interfering too much, I consciously made a point of doing my work away from their offices. I would keep the entire process under my control until I presented them with the final results. At this time, Hegazy, Adly Rizkallah, and Mahmoud Fahmy all came from Cairo and stayed at my house — four beds in a row, we lived and worked together. We worked so hard that we didn’t really have a chance to experience the Beirut you hear about, the Beirut of nighttime pleasures and good food. When we Egyptians went to Beirut in the Seventies, we made a bigger impact than is usually acknowledged.
One thing I remember unconsciously doing was to use the publishing house’s catalog as an opportunity to publish a visual manifesto of sorts. I collected different drawings and juxtaposed them to produce a cover for the catalog that represented the kind of visual world we were interested in. We got rid of Mickey Mouse and Tom & Jerry type drawings. The idea was to present a new “rough” aesthetic that was at the same time visually powerful and artistically complete — something that was local and that rejected the sentimental and bourgeois nature of the dominant form of illustration at the time. What we wanted were rats, dogs that looked like the ones you see walking down the street, cats smoking cigarettes. That was what I was looking for, not to be just driven by the demands of creating images for propaganda. Anyway, everything I suggested was accepted!
NT: I remember during the civil war a meeting that Mohieddin and I participated in where some colleagues voiced the opinion that instead of drawing killings and corpses we should be drawing optimistic and hopeful things. I was quite critical of this position, as I believed we should be drawing what’s around us, the terrible reality we were living. I had also become involved in the Palestinian cause by that point, and I agreed with Mohieddin that art should exceed reality so that the audience could register reality itself. The whole period was marked by revolutionary ideas everywhere.
ME: Dar El Fata being connected to a political organization still meant that there were pretty sticky situations sometimes. People I had never seen before would suddenly show up and stand there, watching us while we were working. In such situations, I tried to be both polite and firm. After the customary but curt greetings I would find out who they were, usually people from the Palestinian Planning Center, on some kind of investigation to find out what we were up to exactly.
In 1975, the Emirates paid for the media campaign that accompanied Abu Ammar’s historical address to the UN, and suddenly there was funding for us to do something cultural to accompany his trip. The decision was taken to translate a few of our books into different languages to demonstrate the kind of books Palestinian children were being exposed to. The mere existence of a children’s publishing house was already an achievement, but fortunately the books chosen were of an aesthetically high standard, not mere propaganda. But the problem with the administration was that they couldn’t always differentiate between propaganda and art. Our efforts were always bound up in propaganda, so in a sense we never fulfilled our true potential.
NT: Another artist and I made a postcard for the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian revolution. The image was also published in the An-Nawar newspaper, but it was attributed to a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl called Nawal Abboud, who didn’t exist. Although I felt like the Palestinian girl secretly existed inside me, like another secret me, and though I was happy that my work was selected and used for the Palestinian cause, as a poster and as a background for a Palestinian children’s play, it was ultimately an act of theft that didn’t respect the artist’s rights. But I didn’t say anything. I have a draft of the original illustration, and it seems, in retrospect, like a prescient illustration of the children of the Intifada in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
ME: It’s important to note that the experience of working in such close proximity to a political machine also influenced my practice positively, because it mixed up all the different channels. I used to work as a designer, a cartoonist, and illustrator — after Dar El Fata I started exploring the possibility of mixing all these different strands. There was a story by Zakaria Tamer called The Cat’s Banquet that I designed the cover for. At the time I was doing lots of caricatures about the infitah — Sadat’s economic open-door policy in the seventies — in which a vicious-looking cat is in the process of seducing a bird. I gave the cat a pack of Marlboros and a bottle of Coke.
This was the image of the enemy: extremely well dressed but with claws, like the West. Our original publications, while actually quite cheap, looked lavish. I felt that this was not fitting — to walk into a refugee camp with open sewers and to present such an expensive-looking book, which indeed cost 25 pt — a lot at the time. I did an analysis that showed that it was possible to produce a book for a quarter of the price, if we got rid of the cover. But that never happened. I also initiated a wall journal, in public, with spaces left for locals to fill in. We produced six of them. Other formal innovative and rewarding experiences include the work I did on a book by Zakaria Tamer, which was a sort of comparison between a free, wild horse and a domesticated, servile one. At the time, I came across an exhibition of paintings of horses in Yemen by Laila Shawa. So I asked her if she would like to illustrate this book for me. When she hesitated, I told her that we could do the book together. I said, “You do the paintings in whichever form you like, and just leave me some space for the text.” We laid out the book together, and it was really beautiful. I was always interested in finding new unknown or unprofessional artists who had something strong about their work. Like Nawal, Laila had just graduated from university and had a wonderfully free and naive style. But you need time to discover people, and time to work with them. Unfortunately, things were run quite erratically, and we also worked with people who were not really able to go beyond the dominant aesthetics of the time. Also, the goal of producing sixty-seven books that I had set for the publishing house dictated some of these choices. Sometimes you are not as big as your dreams, and the people you’re dealing with are not up to it. And maybe I wasn’t able to achieve the aesthetic criteria I had set forth in the manifesto.
NT: For me, my experience with Dar El Fata and the war afterward put me on the path I am on now. At the time it was part of a general ambience of revolutionary movements. I am from the generation that dreamed of creating a new world, a new Lebanon as a country of freedom and rights for all citizens, independent of religion, gender, or social class. The war went on to destroy everything in my life, but my work at Dar El Fata was the seed of everything I am doing now. For over ten years I have been engaged with children’s literature, libraries, and public reading. I’m one of the founders of the first NGOs in Lebanon to focus on the establishment and development of public libraries. Right after the war ended, Rafik Hariri was rebuilding the country in a bourgeois way, and a group of friends and activists began working on how to find alternatives through which to reconstruct this damaged country. So we focused on children, public schools, and libraries.
ME: After I left Beirut in 1976, the publishing house continued until the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, when it left with the mass exodus of the Palestinians. It then came to Cairo, and a significant change took place. I guess politics finally became absolutely dominant. I am only guessing here, but I think that the house acted as a secret channel of communication between the PLO and the Egyptian government, who at the time were not officially communicating. I continued to design some books, and did some stamps for them, like the now iconic Falasteen Arabiyya (Palestine is Arab) stamp. When Israel participated for the first and last time in the Cairo Book Fair, with a pavilion next to the Dar El Fata pavilion, we volunteered to hold different events to support the publishing house and to celebrate Palestine. Later on we discovered that the PLO had allocated a budget for these activities. I wonder where the money went. By then, in the mid-Eighties, it was really over. Every couple of years a book might be published. The house was finally closed down sometime in the early Nineties. No one ever called to let us know.
Before there was an Iranian New Wave, there was Kanoon. Founded in 1965 with the blessing of then-queen Farah Diba, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults — mostly referred to as Kanoon, an abbreviation of the Farsi name — produced books, audiotapes, and films, both animated and live action, for Iranian children from Tehran to Bushehr, Sistan, and Baluchistan. Stories such as Baba Barfi (Father Snow), Amoo Norooz (Uncle New Year), The Journey of Sinbad, or Khorshid Khanoom Aftab Kan (Shine on, Lady Sun) were tales that all Iranian children would come to know and cherish. Prior to Kanoon’s founding, most children’s books in the country were translations of Western classics. There was Pinocchio, The Little Prince, and Tin Tin — all in slightly clumsy Farsi.
The history of Kanoon is equally entwined with many of Iran’s most epic late twentieth-century stories, from Empress Farah’s cultural initiatives to the heyday of the Iranian left to the revolution. Kanoon would become a sort of incubator for some of the country’s most celebrated artists — including Ebrahim Forouzesh, Noureddin Zarrinkelk, and many of the protagonists of Iranian cinema, Sohrab Shahid-Sales, Abbas Kiarostami, and Amir Naderi among them.
The following is the first in a series of conversations in Bidoun about Kanoon. Here, Arash Sadeghi engages his father, the painter Ali Akbar Sadeghi, who is best known for pioneering a style that mixed traditional Persian coffeehouse painting and the surreal, and Farshid Mesghali, one of Kanoon’s most important graphic designers and animators. Among the elder Sadeghi’s most iconic projects during his time at Kanoon was Malek ol-Khorshid (King of the Sun, 1975), a magical animation inspired by the tenth-century Persian epic The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Mesghali is probably most beloved for his illustration work on the book Mahee Siya Koochooloo (The Little Black Fish, 1968). Here, the three discuss the founding of Kanoon and its activities up until the time of the revolution of 1979. One way to gauge a nation’s history, after all, is to look at what its children have been reading.
Arash Sadeghi: Can you tell me a little about how you entered Kanoon?
Ali Akbar Sadeghi: After all these years and at this old age, I can’t remember too many details. But I can say that two great people, Lili Amir-Arjomand and Firooz Shirvanloo, created a factory called Kanoon whose goal was to support creativity among the next generation of Iranians.
Now, how did I become a Kanooni? One day, Abbas [Kiarostami] told me that Kanoon was to publish a book and needed someone who could illustrate the text in classical Persian style. He asked me to come to their offices and, like that, with the book Pahlavan-e Pahlavanan (The Champion of Champions), my relationship with the institute began. I have the best memories of my life from my time there.
AS: Mr Mesghali, can you tell me about the birth of Kanoon?
Farshid Mesghali: I’m really excited. After all these years, someone is asking me to recount the story of the birth of a revolution. Let’s start.
Farah Diba, the last Iranian queen, had a close friend named Lili Amir-Arjomand. They had been roommates while they were students in France. When Farah became the queen, Lili, who had studied to be a librarian, was appointed head of the national oil company library.
After a short while, in 1965, Lili, with Farah’s support, proposed that a library be built in Laleh Park — it was called Farah Park back then — for children and young adults. This was to be the first specialized library for children in Iran, and they also planned to publish children’s books.
Their first book was The Little Mermaid, complete with Farah’s own illustrations. Many people do not know this and this first book and the establishment of the library were the starting points of Kanoon. In fact, in the beginning, Kanoon’s activities
were limited to translating and importing books from abroad.
In 1965, Lili officially launched Kanoon with Farah’s support. She would be the first director, along with a man named Firooz Shirvanloo.
I knew Firooz from many years ago, when I was working at Franklin Publications with Arapik Baghdasarian. Firooz is the most important person in the history of Kanoon, in part because of his political background. Firooz had studied philosophy in England and had come back with leftist tendencies. He was also a member of the Iran-Britain Student Confederation. They were known for their extreme revolutionary ideas.
After returning to Iran from Britain, he was the art director of Payk magazine for young adults, which was published by Franklin Publications. These days you can find the magazine in news kiosks under the name Roshd.
After the confederation became embroiled in a failed attempt to kill the Shah in 1965, Firooz was arrested by one of the Shah’s insiders in the Iran-Britain Student Confederation and sentenced to death. After his arrest, they feared me, too, and I was fired.
Europeans objected to the court sentence, and eventually the Shah forgave them, and the death penalty was reduced to a few years in prison. After winning their freedom, some of them were offered important positions so that they might “rethink” their leftist ideas.
Because of his experience in publishing magazines for children, the palace offered Firooz a position in the newly formed Kanoon. At the same time, Firooz had just founded an advertisement group called Negareh and hired a group of arts and literature students from Tehran University to work with him, including Abbas Kiarostami, Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Nikzad Nojoumi, Farideh Farjam, Arapik Baghdasarian, and myself. Eventually they would all migrate to Kanoon itself. But even after prison, Firooz held on to his leftist ideas, and many of the people he brought into Kanoon with him were leftist writers and researchers.
In 1968, Firooz commissioned me to work on one of Kanoon’s first independent books. With the publication of The Little Black Fish written by Samad Behrangi, we gained a lot of attention. I drew the illustrations for that book, and we won the top award at the Bratislava Children’s Book Fair because of it.
[The Little Black Fish is the story of a black fish who dreams of seeing the big blue sea. He faces many dangers, including a heron, which he kills with a dagger. The narrator of the story, a grandmother to many little fish, explains that the little black fish has disappeared by the end — a little like the martyrs who have died trying to find a better world. It was hard not to find political symbolism in this, along with other stories. Incidentally, its author, Samad Behrangi was an active socialist agitator who translated some of Iran’s most avant-garde poets, like Ahmad Shamlou, Forough Farrokhzad, and Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, into his native Azeri language. He drowned in the Aras River in 1967, and his death is generally blamed on the Pahlavi regime.
Also published around that time was Gol-e Boloo Va Khorshid (The Crystal Flower and the Sun, 1967), by Farideh Farjam, illustrated by Nikzad Nodjoumi. This is the story of a flower that miraculously shoots up amid the ice of the North Pole. For a period of six months, the little flower develops a close relationship to the sun. The sun tells the flower about the world and its people. At the end of six months, when the sun has to migrate, the flower asks to move with him. He gets so close to him that the flower wilts and joins the sun forever. Along with The Little Black Fish, The Crystal Flower was honored at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.]
FM: In 1969, Firooz moved to Kanoon completely and took his colleagues with him, launching a research department, a publishing department, and, upon Kiarostami’s suggestion, a film and animation department. Firooz directed all three, and in 1970, Kanoon’s first short motion picture Nan-o-Kooche (Bread and Alley), directed by Kiarostami, was produced.
[Shot in black and white, the film tells the story of a little boy walking home with a loaf of bread, who is confronted by a hungry dog. In the end, the two get over their mutual suspicions and become fast friends.]
In that same period, the first animations were born, including Agha-ye Hayoola (Mr Monster), created by myself, and Vorood Mamnoo (No Entrance) by Arapik Baghdasarian.
With the arrival of Ali Akbar Sadeghi in 1970 and the illustration of Pahlavan-e Pahlavanan by Nader Ebrahimi, and a host of international awards that this book brought for Kanoon, the institution gained more currency and, because of that, more support from the queen.
[Pahlevan-e Pahlevanan is the story of a grand champion named Pooriya-ye-Vali who hears of a younger champion who hopes to triumph over him. The young pahlevan (champion) comes from Sistan to Kharazm to wrestle with Pooriya-ye Vali. His mother accompanies him and prays for him every day prior to the fight. Pooriya hears her, but nevertheless, decides to fight his best fight. He loses to the young champion and leaves his hometown forever.]
Kanoon eventually launched the Tehran Children and Young Adults Film Festival. They were especially interested in Eastern Europe films, like those of Raoul Servais and Jan Oonk. Kanoon hardly let any commercial or empty American films enter the collection.
[Later, that very collection would be the fuel for the post-revolutionary media to broadcast un-American films with educational and cultural values far removed from ostensibly Western or capitalist ideas.]
With the establishment of the film department and the launch of the Tehran festival, Kanoon started to grow rapidly. Many young artists and writers flooded there to make films. Among them were Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Bezaie, Amir Naderi, Nasser Taghvai, Ali Akbar Sadeghi, Nafiseh Riyahi, Ebrahim Forouzesh, Nader Ebrahimi, Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Cyrus Tahbaz, and even musicians like Majid Entezami, Esmaiel Monfaredzadeh, Hossein Alizadeh, and Sheyda Gharachedaghi. Production increased dramatically.
AS: What year was that?
FM: I’m not sure of the year exactly, but I think it was around 1970, 1971.
Firooz was finally fired from Kanoon at the end of 1972. He had brought one too many leftists to the organization, like Mehdi Samakar and Dr. Rasoul Nafisi, to work as writers and researchers. SAVAK (the Shah’s intelligence services) had always had problems with the leftists, but for the most part Lili had been able to handle them because of her close relations with the palace.
But slowly things changed.
When Firooz had to leave Kanoon, the so-called dissident products inspired by leftists were removed. He went on to direct the Niavaran Cultural Centre. But we owe him a great debt for giving us all a start.
AAS: That was our golden age. We won many prizes from all over the world.
[Firooz Shirvanloo would go on to work for Empress Farah Diba’s office, and played a large role in amassing the state’s modern art collection under the patronage of the empress herself. That collection continues to be known as one of the best modern art collections outside of the West, with its Warhols, Hockneys, Pollocks, and beyond. To this day, it inspires a conspiracy theory or two in reference to what became of the works after the revolution of 1979, and that revolution’s insistence on eliminating all traces of Western culture.]
AS: Can you tell me about the libraries Kanoon founded and ran?
FM: Over the course of ten years, Kanoon built 150 libraries in cities and villages throughout Iran. We created mobile libraries to roam to distant villages and distribute books to the country’s nomads. If there were places the buses couldn’t reach, books were sent to children on the back of donkeys and horses. One can say that Kanoon was playing the role of an independent Ministry of Culture.
AS: How did Kanoon raise money and gain support?
FM: From the beginning, a board of trustees was formed and the queen was in charge of it. Its members were from the Ministry of Art and Culture, the Ministry of Education, the national airline (Iran Air), the Interior Ministry, the Oil Ministry, the Pahlavi Foundation, National Radio and Television, as well as nine major national and cultural figures.
Board members supported Kanoon through their affiliated organizations. For instance, Iran Air was obliged to give children Kanoon products as in-flight souvenirs, or the Oil Ministry would give Kanoon products to the children of the employees. Iranian painters painted for children, Iranian sculptors designed toys, the musicians played at events, and filmmakers were dedicated to making children’s works. Back then, Kanoon’s libraries were the best in the Middle East, and maybe even the world.
The libraries were quickly turned into cultural centers and started to attract children with free books, films, and theater. Children were crazy for Kanoon. There were weekly classes of painting, filmmaking, writing, music, theater, languages, and ceramics at Kanoon’s various centers and libraries.
Around three hundred libraries were active. The mobile libraries were also mobile cinemas and showed films for nomad children or children living in distant villages. By 1979, one million children were members of Kanoon. At least eight million children were touched by Kanoon products, and the books they published numbered over fifteen thousand.
We published all kinds of books, from religious tales about Shia imams to stories about ancient Persian heroes to fantasy and modern stories. Kanoon’s productions took account of all the people of Iran, from north to south, east to west, as well as the capital. There really was nothing else like it.
If you can picture only one building in Iran, it is probably Tehran’s Azadi Tower, a massive, white marble megalith, some fifty meters tall, set inside a landscaped island on the western side of the city, just a few miles from the airport. The Azadi (“Freedom”) Tower has become visually synonymous with its city — not unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, or even the Kremlin — a metonym for modern Tehran. Built in 1971 for the celebrations in honor of the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire, the structure was originally named the Shahyad — the king memorial. And indeed, its form seems fit for a king: its wide base tapers upward to a high arch, densely interwoven with lines of ribbing, which is itself the underside of the thick, beveled tower at the monument’s top. From different angles, the geometry can beguile: wide and squat from one side, tall and lean from another. The stone surfaces curve and flow like a ball gown, and its formal complexity suggests something at once deeply ancient and firmly modernist, a kind of trans-historical, citational mash-up.
Over the past four decades, the monument has played iconographic backdrop to a diverse — and often competing — array of political and social movements. In photographs from 1979, the newly renamed Azadi Tower is swarmed by swollen crowds hoisting Khomeini posters. In 2009, almost the exact same scene occurred — the masses thronging about the tower — except these crowds were wearing the color green.
The soft-spoken architect of this tower has had to watch its contested, very public life from a distance for the past thirty years. Only twenty-four when he won the open competition to design it, Hossein Amanat has since gone on to a significant career in global architecture. He has built institutional, residential, public, and religious buildings in Iran, China, the United States, and Canada, among other places. Besides the Azadi Tower, he is perhaps best known for a series of buildings called the Arc Complex — the core legal and religious study center for the Baha’i faith — located in Haifa, Israel, where the faith’s Persian founder, Baha’u’llah, died in exile in 1892. Amanat is himself Baha’i, and one of the faith’s most eminent international architects. He spoke with me in mid-November by Skype from his firm’s offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he has lived and worked since 1980.
Benjamin Tiven: You won the competition for the Shahyad Tower right out of architecture school. You were incredibly young when you got the commission. So I wanted to start by asking… what were you thinking?
Hossein Amanat: Well, as to how I conceived the Shahyad form — to be honest, I really do not know. The process of design for me is very torturous and dark… for every project, whether it’s a small house or the Shahyad. So when I started, I thought: It should be a portal of entry to the city. And then: It should be a tower. It should be… hundreds of things. I sketched and sketched for two months, and I only decided on it a few days before the deadline for the competition.
BT: Did your education prime you to produce that design? What was the architectural discourse like in Tehran in those days?
HA: Well, at that time, we were very much influenced — or dominated — by what we would see in the Western magazines. Every month we would read the American and British reviews, look to see what was in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The fact is that for quite a while, the Western impact on the thoughts and culture of my country was such that we had totally forgotten what we had, in terms of architecture. Nobody would have told us, “Look around you.” We didn’t think there was much we could benefit from in our own country.
BT: So, international modernism was the dominant paradigm. Who were its leading practitioners? How was it being produced and taught in the Iranian context?
HA: Well, Heydar Ghiaï was the professor at my studio at the architecture school, and he was quite well known. Ghiaï had a very modern look. He built the very modern Parliament in Tehran, which even now is a very good building. This is the Senate building, with the two bronze columns in front sculpted by the French artist and architect André Bloc, which they called “The Chains of Anushirawan the Just” after one of the Sassanid emperors. Anyway, the second year of my program Ghiaï was imprisoned because of some… well, some political upheavals… and so Hooshang Seyhoun became the head of the school, and also took over Ghiaï’s studio. Seyhoun was a Beaux-Arts graduate, too, but he was a different person. Seyhoun was really the first architect to refer to traditional Iranian architecture in his own work, to explore the dynamic tension between the possibilities of modern material and form, and the very old traditions of Iranian building. Many of us students would often travel with him to different cities, where we’d sketch a lot of buildings — sketch the bazaars and the beautiful textures of traditional Iran. There was a kind of hidden message in that, which we absorbed, about how you can use what you see in your modern interpretation of architecture. But this was not what was being taught elsewhere at the school, generally.
The Beaux-Arts approach was what our teachers passed on — you know, the idea that whatever you do, the plan should be functional. I remember they taught that you do the plan and then you do the elevation [laughs]. If you do a project for, let’s say, a library, the most important thing is how the light comes into the reading room and where are the books kept; how the user moves in it, how the staff moves. And then, of course, that the elevation should also look beautiful. That was how we were looking at it. But we were never directed to look at what was in our country, to inquire as to why some of those buildings were built like that. The understanding was that those were old buildings, and that new buildings required different things.
BT: And yet one of the things that seems to unite all your projects over the years — from the very beginning of your career — is an attention to those old buildings. You developed a very specific vocabulary, or at least a specific mode, that always seems to reference traditional Iranian architecture.
HA: Yes, well, I’m careful not to be prejudiced. What I have learned or experienced has been through Iranian things… But I think you could learn the same things in, let’s say, in some of those little alleys in the old cities of Italy. You can learn this anywhere — I mean, not just anywhere, but somewhere where the built environment has been done and evolved with sensitivity and scale and taste. And I think Iran was one of those places — and I happened to be born there, so we learned from those buildings and mosques and alleys and schools and houses that we walked through. Which I had seen as a child, and sketched during those trips at architecture school. I’d traveled abroad, too — I went to Europe in the third year of architecture school, and then I went to America in my fourth — and you learn a lot from everywhere you go. But I think what you learn from Iran is really significant. It’s a very, very interesting architectural environment. One gets very impressed by the forms in Iranian architecture, so rich and varied in terms of shape and volume… volume, particularly. One of the greatest messages is the sequence of the volumes: how a space, maybe an outdoor space, can give you an impression of enclosure, and then you come to a smaller space, or a lower or higher space, the interrelations of different volumes and proportions — the time it takes to walk through them, the amount of light you experience as you pass through. It’s very difficult to put briefly, in words… but if you can experience this symphony of volumes by walking into these buildings, it naturally applies itself to your architecture. Regardless of your tradition. Even now, when I design a building in California or here in Vancouver, that sense is with me. You design for people, you know, you design for human beings, and it’s the same user everywhere [laughs]…
BT: Let’s go back to the specifics of the Shahyad design. It is a unique combination of monumental forms — combining arch, tower, gate, and obelisk. It seems to gesture toward a wide range of citations all at once. What were you trying to accomplish?
HA: For me, there are two significant periods in Iranian architecture: Iran before the invasion of Arabs — before accepting the Islamic culture — and the period after it. They have a tremendous effect on each other, since old Iran has impacted all Islamic architecture, everywhere, since. In the Sassanid period, patterns were important, but in the Islamic period they became much more rich and varied, in architecture and also in poetry. the Shahyad tries to represent both periods: the central arch is a Sassanid arch — well, it’s not exactly, but it implies one — and the broken arch above it alludes to the second period, and they are interwoven together through a complex series of ribs. Again, this is not exactly what Iranian architects have done traditionally, but it makes use of traditional techniques; the shape is there, however subtle it may be.
BT: Yes, I’m looking at a blueprint of it now. It’s a doubled, embedded form. And even the patterns of its design, both structural and decorative…
HA: Yes. You know, I’ve talked about the pattern from the Vakil Mosque in Shiraz, in which a straight line shifts into a circle, through its organization of ribs, and if you look at it you immediately see where this concept for the Shahyad came from. But, it is not exactly what the guy had done in Shiraz. In architecture, when you have a square space and you want to put a dome over it, you have to solve for the corners. The Europeans had maybe three or four systems of trompe for this, but Iranians had many, many ways to do it, and this is one of those tricks — with the Shahyad, the base of that arch is a straight line and under the belly of it is a curve.
BT: It’s perfectly symmetrical.
HA: Yes, and the ribbing has connected the straight line to that parabola there, the belly of the building. On the other side, it’s an ellipse. In terms of conic geometry, this building is very interesting, and the reason we could define it and draw it and do working drawings for it was because we were taught conic geometry in high school, and I happened to know the difference between a hyperbola, parabola, ellipse, and circle. The Shahyad has interesting interior spaces that show this, too — although it’s a monument, so it’s mostly the look of this sculpture from the outside [laughs] that is meant to talk to the visitors — to bring a question to them, why it’s this shape; to tell them about Iran. But the inside of it, on its own, is quite interesting.
BT: Right, the underground museum space? That seems to have a lot of resonance with your later buildings, too, in the way it brings shafts of light down into an otherwise darkened space.
HA: Yes, it’s a museum. Initially, there were showcases in the tunnel starting from very early finds of Iranian civilization, like Marlik and Sialk, and as you proceed you enter the main hall, the visitor’s center, which showed the cylinder of Cyrus the Great that had been brought from the British Museum for the dedication of the monument.
BT: So it was specifically designed as an archaeological museum?
HA: All these museum programs were not part of the competition. I had to do a main hall, which became a museum.
BT: Someone else programmed the museum with changing exhibitions?
HA: Well, I chose most of the subjects, but I had the advice of the museum of antiquities, and I had access to their collections.
BT: I see.
HA: But it wasn’t just me. In any case, the idea was to enter this civilization mostly by way of script and writing. When you entered the hall, you would see the cylinder of Cyrus the Great, which is still a very important document. This was at the very center of the museum, and beside it was a gold plate, which had been laid under one of the columns at Persepolis by Xerxes, where he wrote, “I built this building and I will build many better ones in the future,” things like that. This beautiful piece of text in cuneiform scripture, like Hebrew, and then on the other side of the cylinder was a cube of stone, beautiful black basalt, on which Darius the Great had written how he built his palace — this is in Suza — and how he has brought wood from Zanzibar, and the blue stone from Afghanistan…
BT: Lapis lazuli?
HA: Lapis lazuli, from Badakhshan, which was part of Iran in those days — all these details about the materials and who built it for him — paid labor, it’s important to note, not slavery — and the greatness of his kingdom in those days. And, this was for me, the realization of my dreams. Just looking at these texts, showing the world what this country was — and this is really the source of the whole Shahyad, the whole history of Iran and the beauty of its culture. And the Shahyad is significant in terms of marking the history of Iran in its own time, the 1960s, because it was all done by Iranians. Except the structural design, which was done by Arup in London.
BT: Wow. This must have been not so long after they had worked on the Sydney Opera house, right?
HA: Yes, it was after. When I won this competition and signed the contract, my next step was to find a structural engineer. I had seen an article about the Sydney Opera House and the contribution Arup had made in terms of definitions of its geometry. I was really impressed, so I contacted them. And their role in the creation of the Shahyad is quite big — though it was difficult to get them confirmed for the project. I was just twenty-four when I won the competition, you know, and I had to learn to navigate a complicated and at times very corrupt bureaucracy. So when I signed the contract with Arup in London, I had to sign underneath it, “On condition of the approval of the Council of Celebrations,” who was technically my client. And I told the head of this council that I had the British structural engineer who had done the Sydney Opera House, and he — well, he was a nice man, a senator, named Boushehri, but he was quite old and very conservative about any step he’d have to take, and he was very worried that I was going to a foreigner. There was a lot of resistance from some Iranian engineers and their friends on the council. But it was eventually the Shah himself who settled it! He sent a letter to Boushehri that basically said, “Amanat is the architect, leave him be; let him do what he wants.” And I always appreciated that support, and it should be recorded that he had this trust in me… though I really don’t know why! And the queen was also very supportive. She would later give me the commission for the Iranian embassy in Beijing.
BT: Were you ever worried when working on the Shahyad? I mean, it was this absolutely enormous public commission — weren’t you at all frightened? Is that why you wanted to use Arup?
HA: Well, you can think that way. But the truth of the matter is that I am a very dreamy person. For me, the problem is the design — that’s what really kills me. I’m weak when I have to create. This is the part that intimidates me, you know? But I wasn’t scared about that. I was scared about the corruption in Iran. I was scared of not having enough administrative support, or that I’d lose the project to a rival plotting against me. I had to appeal to anyone I could, including the old headmaster of my high school, who had gone on to become the dean of what’s now Sharif University of Technology. In fact, many of the buildings on the Sharif campus were things I’d designed — they were my first commissions, granted while I was still waiting for my Shahyad contract to be finalized. I had to go to him for help, because I knew he was meeting with the Shah every week about the program of the university. And when we finally started the Shahyad project, there were only thirty months left until the celebrations.
BT: So did you make a foundation stone for the Shahyad itself, with an inscription? In the spirit of the artifacts you exhibited in the museum below?
HA: Yes. It’s funny when I think back to why we did it. It was a kilogram plate of gold, kept in a granite box, on which is written, “This building was built in such and such a year, under the rule of such and such a king, at such and such a time.” It was in beautiful Persian calligraphy, on this gold plate about a millimeter thick. The box was about five inches high, and about twelve inches square. It’s buried quite deep in the concrete. This was a stupid thing to do — nobody can get to it! In fact, I don’t even remember which part of the building we set it beneath.
BT: I imagine the opening ceremonies were quite a spectacle. Did you attend the events in Persepolis?
HA: You know, I was so busy in the days and weeks leading up to the dedication, twenty four hours a day on site, to get it all ready. And especially because a few days before they wanted to blow it up and things like that, which I never found out the truth of the matter, but —
BT: I’m sorry — did you just say they wanted to blow it up?
HA: Yes… I think somebody had gotten to the transformer that was underground, near the monument. And the security people said that they had wanted to blow the whole thing up. But really, I never got into these details. We were in the rush of cleaning and getting the Shahyad ready for the opening. I had invited Sir Ove Arup and his wife and another engineer from the firm, Duncan Michael. But I was so busy that one of my friends had to bring them from their hotels to the site, making it through all sorts of police lines and barriers all across Tehran, and they finally arrived at the ceremonies just as it was going to start. It was a beautiful fall day, about five or five-thirty in the afternoon, and the fountains were going, the floodlights on the building were lit, and there were rows of chairs along the plaza itself. If you look at the landscaping design around the Shahyad, you will see some curves, somehow coming under the arch and going outside again, confirming the geometry of the building and somehow fitting to the topography of the plaza. I had insisted that you should not walk down toward the monument when you approach it — you should go up toward it. But I couldn’t take the monument up because I had a height maximum of forty-five meters, and the ground was already set in the plaza — so what could I do? So, in the long axis of the approach to the plaza — and you know, the monument itself is not at the center of the ellipse, it’s asymmetrically located in the ellipse. And the long axis approach to it was the side nearest the airport, where guests were coming from, and the main fountain is at one of the focuses of this ellipse — that’s the round big fountain, which was working. So from that long axis you’ll come down to reach the main fountain, and then you’ll walk up toward the monument. And this difference of level gave me the opportunity to create tiers to sit around the monument at an event like that. So the chairs were set on those tiers, and guests from all over the world were there. Sir Ove and Duncan were my guests, and I was so happy they were there. And Sir Ove was a very exceptional, very humble man. He was an artist. Very kind to me. Anyway, he was there, very old, in his eighties, with his wife — and this is just before the sunset, and everything was looking quite nice, with the floodlight on the building, and I was somehow hidden in a corner. A very dear old friend of mine from architecture school was there, and he found me and said, “Why do you stand here? You should come forward.” So he brought me to the leg of the main vault, and I was the only person standing there, the rest of the people were all sitting. So, I’m this little guy under this high vault, the arch of the building! And these heads of the states, the guests of His Majesty, are all arriving. His Majesty is holding the arm of Haile Selassie, who was an old man in those days, and talking to him and the few other people around him, and there was the head of Pakistan, I think it was Yahiya Khan, and Spiro Agnew was following him. And, then the Shah saw me, and he beckoned me to come forward, and he introduced me to Haile Selassie and all the heads of the states, and said, “This young man has designed this building.” And he said it full of pride. I have no idea whether I said anything. Unfortunately, I don’t even have one picture of that day. I had a lot of pictures, but they’re all gone. In any case, he introduced me as they came under the arch and they moved to the museum under the building. I talked to a few different guests, including Princess Anne and also President Marcos’s wife, the shoes lady. I forget her name. Imelda Marcos.
BT: [Laughs] Indeed — the shoes lady!
HA: She invited me to come to the Philippines, which of course never happened. There were many interesting people there. It was an exceptional night. There are pictures from that. There is a film by the BBC in Persian about the monument and you can see some of those pictures in that film.
BT: Is there anyone else you can remember being there? Because Imelda Marcos and Haile Selassie in Tehran in 1971 is the most Bidoun thing I’ve ever heard.
HA: Spiro Agnew, the American vice president, was there, but the president did not come. The Queen of England didn’t come, but the Duke of Edinburgh was there, with Princess Anne. If you get ahold of those photographs, which I would love to see myself… I don’t know who was there from France, but they were all invited. They went to the Persepolis events in Shiraz and then they flew directly to Tehran airport and got on a bus and came to the plaza. But, you know, many years have passed. I’ll have to look at the pictures, and unfortunately, what I had is gone. I never had the time or means of getting to those archives.
BT: Can we go back for one second — you were saying that somebody wanted to explode the monument just before its opening. Do you have any idea who they might have been, and what they were aiming for? I don’t want to read this back onto the events that came a few years later, but…
HA: Yes, there is no question about that. There were forces in Iran against the Shah and the regime and they were trying to do terrorist acts. I mean, I’m not an expert in the events of the time, and I don’t want to say something wrong. But, I think Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who became prime minister under Khomeini, was one of the conspirators of this thing. And he was arrested and tortured or whatever as a result of these kinds of things, and this might be one of them. I don’t know. If you talk to the experts of these issues in Iran, many of them who have come out of Iran after the revolution, and they have divulged everything in interviews with the Los Angeles radio and TV stations and everything. Amazing, amazing stories have been related about the tortures, about how they plotted these terrorist attacks — everything has come out now. So, people who are experts in these affairs, they have the right thing to say. Unfortunately, I don’t. My thoughts are somewhere else.
HA: But these forces, yes. They existed in Iran. They were opposed to all these issues, especially the big state celebrations and their expenses, their ridiculous imitation of military parades. And some of the Shah’s expenditures, it’s true, they did go to some funny levels, which were not really necessary. But the sound-and-light show in Persepolis that the French people did, they did a beautiful job. I went to the festivals in Shiraz after, and I really loved the way they had prepared it.
BT: So did you often attend the Shiraz Arts Festival?
HA: Of course! I used to go with our friends. It was a fascinating time — there were amazing films that we used to see from Iranian directors. The film Tabiate Bijan (Still Life, 1974) — I remember well. Sohrab Shahid-Saless, the director, died in poverty in America, I think. I’ll never forget that. This movement of modern filmmakers in Iran, which started in that period — it’s an amazing moment. One of the manifestations of the developing culture of that time. People in film, music, sculpture, painting, architecture — there were so many talents there.
BT: Who else were you very conscious of? What other artists or writers or thinkers or architects were you in a conversation with, or felt yourself in a conversation with?
HA: You know, it was a very interesting time. My office was in a place called kakh-e shomali, North Palace Road, when I was doing the Shahyad. And a block below us, somebody had a little café called Quartier Latin, and we used to go there all the time. I was not married yet. And I used to sit and talk with Nader Naderpour, this great poet, very nice, very humble guy — I really cherish my memories with him — and he used to talk about people like Ezra Pound. He was the editor of a very interesting cultural magazine called Honar o Mardom (Art and the People). Of course Tahereh Saffarzadeh was another friend we happened to know. She was funny — she has quite a story, you know, and she has passed away now, unfortunately. After the revolution she turned out to be a bit of a traditional Muslim, which was amazing for me. She was a poet. There was a Mohammad Hoghoughi who used to teach literature in the College of Teachers — a poet, a great poet. The air in the country was just amazing in those days.
I regret never meeting Forugh Farrokhzād when I was young. Sepehri, I talked to him. I have seen his exhibits with other painters of his time. Pilaram was a friend of mine, he was part of that first group who were taking calligraphy as an element for their paintings; he was one of the very good ones. They were in our school, some of them — Morteza Momayez, who’s one of the greatest graphic designers of that period. Nobody has matched his talent yet. He did the layout for the book that I published for the opening inauguration of the Shahyad. There was Tanavoli in sculpture. Hannibal, Jazeh Tabatabai, and many others. There were all kinds of movements. Iran had been sleeping and had forgotten about what it had. It was becoming awake and flourishing; this flower was coming out.
It was a brilliant time for Iranian culture, but the political situation was not perfect. Even just — an event like the opening of the Shahyad, none of the people I’m talking about were there. You know what I mean? They should have been invited, but they were a different layer of society. Only the politicians and the relatives of this person or that person were invited to that event. I want to say that there was a lack of recognition at the highest levels, but the Shahbanou, the queen, was always very encouraging to these people. She was very kind to them, and she tried her best as much as she could.
BT: What do you make of the political life of the Shahyad monument in the years since? Because the diversity of ideologies it has been made to support is quite fascinating. First it was a monument to the monarchy, then it was renamed Azadi, “Freedom,” by the Ayatollah’s regime. Thirty years later, it became the iconographic background to the Green Movement. How does one form have so much leeway in its symbolic interpretation? Do you think its abstraction gives it an excess of openness?
HA: First of all, to be open with you — when I designed the Shahyad, I did not know that it would become so… successful, if you will, in connecting with the people of Iran. I didn’t know. I think that I gave myself to it… If you attach yourself to truth, the truth will prove right, and I think that’s what happened. That’s my only explanation, really. The Shahyad was like a poem for the place I loved and what I had dreamed about its history. My mind is as such that when I read about Xerxes taking all those boats to Greece, I can see it as if in a film; this was always in my mind, from childhood. When I saw Persepolis, it was an amazing, amazing experience. And, when I got this commission, I told the Council, “Look, this is not a contract for an ordinary building for me. It is what I have dreamed about.” And these guys looked at each other and didn’t know what to say, because I brought a kind of nonmaterial aspect to this contract. It was a spiritual connection for me. It was about my life, about what I had always thought of, and the pride I had for Iran’s history: every caravanserai in the desert, all the mosques that I had sketched, and the villages I had gone to with my schoolmates to see and measure or sketch — these were all there, and I knew this building is going to reflect them. I mean, I’m very careful not to claim some amazing stuff about it [chuckles], but when you ask these questions I have to go back in my psyche and see where it came from. And this is what I’m telling you. I don’t want to at all compare it to Hafez, not at all, but Iranians read Hafez and they connect to it, and love it, and each of them interprets it differently. This building is in no way to that threshold of a Hafez work. No way! But in this small way, it is similar. As Rumi said, “Har kassi az zann-e khod shod yar-e man.” (“Everybody sees it the way he wants to see it.”) So this is why it connects to everyone, I think, and how it has been sitting there under such different regimes, being called something completely different. As you say, it’s true that I built it for the Shah, but really I made it for all of Iran. It was for the culture.
BT: Yes, this is so interesting. I had wondered to myself before — why didn’t they just dismantle the building? It was a symbol of what they’d just overthrown, and they certainly had the power to do that. And I mean, you just said that they had tried to blow it up before the opening…
HA: They did that for the mausoleum of the Shah’s father. They eradicated it and put in toilets instead, which is the way they see the world. But the Shahyad… I think they didn’t do it because they knew how much people respect it. And it is the force of the connection of people to this building that’s stopped them from doing it. But Khalkhali, this crazy guy at the beginning of the revolution who personally executed Hoveyda [the Shah’s prime minister] and many other people — he wanted to tear it down. I think even in his book he mentioned that. Even now, two or three years ago, a writer in the newspaper Kayhan wrote that the greatest mistake was not tearing this building down. You read it in these commentaries, but I never even read these things… [Long pause] There is a ghost of darkness over my soul because of what’s happening in my country. I was thinking a few days ago that I really have this force on me, and I should not ignore it. It’s there. I’m really hurt. I’m not a normal person because my country is under this ghost, under this dark night.
BT: What year did you leave, can I ask?
HA: I left in November 1978. A day like today, in fact. It was still a few months before the fruition of the revolution. My wife wanted to go to England to give birth to our third child, and I accompanied her. We stayed a few days, and then the upheaval went higher and higher, and friends told me, “Just wait to see what happens. Wait. Wait.” And I never went back.
BT: So then when did you move to Canada?
HA: 1980. I had first come to buy some furniture for my building in Haifa, Israel, and this brought me to Vancouver, to see this new courthouse — some of its details and the office furniture they’d used. And I loved Vancouver. The next time I came I brought my wife, and we decided to come here. And the Canadians, they were very kind to accept us immediately — we got immigration in no time.
BT: Tell me more about the Universal house of Justice and the other administrative buildings you designed for the Baha’i Arc Complex in haifa. Beautiful, but strange — they’re dressed up in the visual language of the Parthenon.
HA: The reason why these buildings are in classic language, or traditional Greek architecture style, is because in the 1950s, when the Guardian of the Baha’i faith wanted to build the archives building, he felt that this classic architectural language had proved that its beauty is eternal. Of course, as a modern architect, trained in the Beaux-Arts school, nobody ever thought that one should do a building in classical style, either. It took me about nine months to design the first building; I really struggled with it. In the end, I did two schemes — identical, with the same colonnade around and everything, except that one of them had contemporary columns and the other classic ones, and I left it to my client to decide. Of course, they picked the classic one. But then, after I got involved with the details of the carvings, which was done in Italy, I realized there’s great spirit and mystery in classical architecture. I still think there is an element of heavenly inspiration in these details. I don’t know where it came from, but it is more than human ability, I think.
BT Sure, I guess all high modernists would believe the ancients were divinely inspired… but it’s still an odd set of choices. When you say details, which do you mean?
HA: I mean the order — how these proportions work, the flutes, the capitals, the intercolumniation — how you place the distances between each pair of columns. These are all recorded in Vignola’s text, and I did my first Haifa building according to his interpretation. But for the other two, I somehow was confident enough to depart, to do my own interpretation. I mean, I tell you, I had to convince myself to go into these classic terms, and in the eyes of many contemporary architects, I still did a very wrong thing. [Laughs]
BT: Do you think there’s a Baha’i aesthetic? Or architectural style, at least? As there really does seem to be a relationship between the Shahyad and the Arc Complex and, say, the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois.
HA: Well, I’ve definitely discovered one aspect of this, but I’ll have to write about it myself some day. I can say that a Baha’i temple must reflect the Baha’i belief in the unity of all mankind — so all temples should have nine entries, accepting people from any possible direction. Certainly, the Baha’i temple you mention is one of the most beautiful — and it was done by a Canadian architect, Louis Bourgeois, who put nearly his whole life into the minute pattern details. He drew them at 1:1 scale in his garage! That temple was inspired by the Soltanieh Mosque in Iran, actually; but then that temple in Illinois inspired Seyhoun, in turn, I think.
BT: Seyhoun saw it himself? Did he visit the US?
HA: No, no — but he saw a postcard, I think. You know, the other principle of the Baha’i faith I should have mentioned is the importance of beauty. Baha’ullah calls beauty a sign of God. So when you do a temple, you don’t think about budget. You just make the most beautiful building you can. That’s what Louis Bourgeois did, and that’s what Siamak Hariri from Toronto is doing right now in Santiago, Chile — which is a very complicated and amazing building. But nobody told him, you know, “Stay on budget!” or whatever. He is doing a very special building. So these two principles — openness to humanity and beauty — are the driving design principles of Baha’i temples.
BT: One last thing about the old days. Your website lists the Iranian embassy in Beijing as completed in 1983. Does that mean you took or finished a commission from the Islamic Republic? Do you still have some relationship with that government?
HA: No, I did that embassy in 1972, when it was awarded to me by the queen of Iran. And when the revolution happened, the building was eighty percent finished, so it was completed after revolution. But no, I haven’t had any contact with the government after that. Even for the repair of the Shahyad a few years ago, they never asked me anything… Actually someone contacted me, but then I think the official who did so was barred from doing that again. So they did it themselves. I don’t know exactly what they did, but… they cleaned it, that I know.
BT: They did what?
HA: They cleaned the building. They washed it, and cleaned off the graffiti. [Sighs]
In 1965 Hürriyet, an influential Turkish newspaper, announced the Altin Mikrofon. Analogous to the contests that were already creating legions of “garage bands” in cities and towns across Europe and North America, Altin Mikrofon was, in some sense, a glorified battle of the bands. And yet the golden microphone played a unique role in shaping the popular culture of Turkey at a vulnerable moment in its history. From another angle, it might be thought of as one of the most successful cultural nationalist projects in the golden age of cultural nationalism.
As Hürriyet explained, “The Altın Mikrofon contest aims to open up a new space for Turkish pop music, using techniques, formats, and instruments of Western music.” Some room already existed — Turkish musicians, some of them educated abroad, had been playing R&B and rock since the late 1950s. The Shadows had been highly influential at the start of the decade, not least because their flamboyant instrumental music could be appreciated without knowing or caring much about the English language.
But the Golden Microphone laid down a particular gauntlet: Contestants had to play Western instruments, and they had to play “Turkish music.” At a minimum, that meant inventing new Turkish lyrics to go along with borrowed melodies from abroad. But it could also mean seeking out songs from the rural areas far from Istanbul, played on traditional Turkish drums and stringed instruments like the saz or bağlama, and rearranging them for the standard Western guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards (and sometimes saxophone). It was like a pop-era cover of Ataturk’s retro-futurism: insisting on complete modernity while turning to the past for inspiration and a sense of belonging.
Contestants were evaluated first by a jury of music-related personalities. Ten finalists were then flown to perform three songs each at concerts for an array of VIPs in major Turkish cities, with the winner chosen by secret ballot from the crowds in attendance. The winner was promised a nightly gig (and monthly stipend) at a then-new club in Istanbul, The Oriental, as well as the chance to put out a 45rpm single, garnering any profits from sales. It was a national not-for-profit promotion and sales initiative that in turn helped spawn a consumer culture of record-collecting across the country.
Between the riches and the glory, nearly every aspiring musician was moved to enter the contest. An awesome hodgepodge of styles was presented alla Turka, including peasant songs and nursery rhymes; the twist and the cha-cha; bossa nova, swing, and surf. Ironically, the winner of the very first Altın Mikrofon was Yldrm Gürses, a huge-voiced crooner whose dirge “Gençlie Veda” (Farewell Youth) was among the least contemporary-sounding songs in the competition. But second place went to a fresh-faced five-man combo called Mavi Iğıklar (Blue Lights), whose song “Helvaci” sounded like a eerie yet cheerful collision between doo-wop pop and belly-dancing music. When the single was released, it was a huge hit. The newspaper was pleased, writing of itself: “If Turkey has a band called Mavi Isiklar right now, we owe this to the Golden Microphone by Hürriye.”
Over the next three years, Altın Mikrofon became an institution. New bands and new faces arrived on the scene, even as older groups splintered, traded members, mutated. The 1966 winner, Silüetler (Silhouettes) — an instrumental group obsessed with the Shadows — and 1967’s runner-up, Apağlar (Apaches, named for a Shadows song), combined to form Moğollar (Mongols), named for the conquering horde. Moğollar combined musicianship with an increasingly sophisticated take on what “Turkish music” should mean (and a deliberately unsophisticated idea of what a Turkish rock band should look like — where many of their contemporaries imitated Western hipsters, Moğollar made a point of wearing ethnic costumes and fuzzy white sheepskin boots).
The 1968 competition was the most epic yet. It would also be the last. Seven bands — thirty-two musicians and their families — set out by bus on a seventeen-day tour of the entire country, battling it out in the outer reaches of the Anatolian heartland. Moğollar placed third with “Ilgaz,” a love song for a mountain, while fashion plates Haramiler (Thieves) took second with “Arpa Bugday Daneler” (Pieces of Barley). The winner was T.P.A.O. Batman Ochestrasi, whose entry “Meselidir Enginde Daglar Meseli” (The Mountains Are Stronger Far Away) was a cheerful-sounding throwback to the Turkophone vocal groups and R&B acts from the inaugural contest of 1965.
But history, this time, belonged to the losers. The fourth-place finisher was a little-known group called the Erkin Koray Dörtlüsü (Erkin Koray Quartet). Though their entry, “Çiçek Dagi” (Mountain of Flowers), was danceable enough, it barely intimated the shape of things to come. Over the next decade, frontman Erkin Koray would create an unparalleled body of work, fusing metal, American blues, Anatolian folk, and Egyptian film music, all flavored with the smoldering fuzz of his electric guitar. (Koray was often referred to as the “Jimi Hendrix of Turkey.”) In 1974 he released his first studio album, Electronic Türküler. Türkü are folk ballads from the countryside, and on this album Koray achieved the comprehensive synthesis of his virtuosic talent for rock music and his consummate skill at arranging traditional songs. It was, you might say, the ultimate expression of the Golden Microphone aesthetic.
The Golden Microphone’s passing was mourned — another newspaper tried unsuccessfully to revive it a few years later — but it had achieved its goal. When Moğollar released its first album in 1971 — a stripped-down, wall-of-sound psychedelic fantasia — they called it Anadolu Pop (Anatolian Pop), and no one wondered that meant.
I was in Cairo, trying desperately to interview the aging pop star Ahmed Adaweya, whose penis, depending on whom you talk to, was or was not cut off by Saudi royalty. It was a uniquely American endeavor, mocked a friend of mine — invade the region with superior firepower, help topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, and then come in on a tourist visa to find a castrated singer.
“Next thing, you’ll probably want to steal this guy’s wife,” my friend said, way too loudly, waving in the direction of a Sayeedi in the corner of the coffee shop where we sat. “You’re like Genghis, but with loafers. You can just throw dollars at them. Or Michael Jackson records.” I looked nervously over my shoulder at the Sayeedi, who was wearing a green djellaba. Thankfully, he seemed oblivious to my home-wrecker plan, his eyes glued to the flickering television set. 50 Cent had his shirt off and was bragging about his magic stick. His abs were glistening; they seemed almost extraterrestrial in their beauty. No one in the coffee shop was immune to their strange and terrifying allure.
“This is not the story of 50 Cent as object of the Sayeedi gaze,” said my friend, touching my leg just above the knee. “This is the story of what you choose to see when you come to Egypt. All you see is castration.”
“Isn’t it better than being really into Umm Kulthum’s glasses?” I asked. “Or Nasser’s Hawaiian shirts? Or Sadat’s car? Or Muhammad Naguib’s presidency? Or Souad Hosni’s white dress?” Ruby started dancing on the television. “Or Ruby’s flared nostrils?” “Her nostrils are beautiful,” said the coffee-shop owner. He finished adjusting the coals on our sheesha and blew his nose on the hem of his shirt. “I could write a ghazal about her nostrils.”
“We’re talking about Ahmed Adaweya’s penis,” announced my friend.
“Not much to talk about!” Exaggerated laughter. “Now Ruby’s nostrils — there’s an object worthy of being a subject!” He whistled lasciviously and traced the outlines of the female form as imagined by a horny monk — an infinity of rolling hills.
As he walked away, I tried to explain my idea about Adaweya. Because we spoke in Arabic, I used awkward, muddled phrases, each ending with a questioning lilt: It’s about more than the rumored castration? It’s about the history of Egyptian pop music? About the shift from classically trained poets and composers to working-class louts? About technology and the cassette tape? About the man who sold a million tapes, even though the government wouldn’t allow his songs to be played on the radio? They were too lascivious? An allegory for the swamping of Egyptian nationalism by Saudi oil money?
“It’s just so crass,” my friend said. ”You like Ahmed Adaweya because he’s crass. You like him for the same reason you like this coffee shop, because it’s crappy.” He started pointing: the rickety wooden chairs with torn woven wicker seats, the dented, aluminum-topped tables, the grains of Keda tea floating in tepid water, the blanket of sawdust on the stained tile floor, the giant gap in the coffee-shop owner’s top teeth, the subtle stench of garbage wafting in from the side alley, the spidery cracks that spanned the length of the walls, the sharp smell of butane from the gas stove, the single bulb swaying on a thin wire from the sooty ceiling…
”What’s wrong with Umm Kulthum?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with being fascinated with Mahfouz or Abd al-Haleem Hafez or Fairuz? Something that requires a mastery of Arabic music or history or the goddamn language?”
“Yeah,” said the coffee-shop owner, his jowls quivering with excitement, “and why don’t you go to a nicer coffee shop?”
“I’m leaving,” the Sayeedi suddenly announced. He twirled his magnificent mustache, picked up his mysteriously bulky jute bag, and walked out of the coffee shop.
“Where is he going?” I demanded. My friend looked embarrassed. The coffee-shop owner ignored me. Outside, the Sayeedi hailed a minibus and got in, heading off to wherever it is that Sayeedis go. Where do Sayeedis go? Upper Egypt? Ain Shams? Ezbet el'Nakhl?
But this is not the Sayeedi’s story. Nor is it the story of the Sayeedi’s mustache, which nonetheless deserves a book-length study of its own. And it is most definitely not the story of Ahmed Adaweya, who is, let’s face it, kind of crass. It is, rather, the story of Naguib Mahfouz, who turned out to be worthy of fascination after all.
It turns out that meeting a Nobel laureate is far easier than meeting a washed-up and possibly castrated pop star. The difficult part is figuring out what to wear. In preparation for my interview with Mahfouz, I turned to the best-dressed man I knew, the owner of the corner store near my apartment. He was an old man, maybe sixty-five years old, and the very picture of worn elegance. He wore a three-piece suit to work every day and had four strands of hair on his head that he combed carefully. He even wore a fez, perched to display the four strands of hair.
He was very pleased that I was to meet Naguib Mahfouz. It was extremely important for a foreigner like me to meet someone like that. “There is no one alive in Egypt today who can take you into the heads of the people like Mahfouz can.” He advised me, gravely, that I should take a notebook. “He will explain Egypt to you, so you can explain it to America.”
He paused. “Of course, you’ve already read his books.”
“Of course.” Like everyone else, I had started and almost finished The Cairo Trilogy.
“Then you know that Ustez Mahfouz can describe anything.” He looked around his store, at the artfully arranged pyramid of toilet paper, at the dark wood floor and polished glass surfaces. He was rightfully proud of his store. Though he sold the same Lux soap as every other store in Cairo, he sold it with dignity. After a moment, he pointed out the window at the coffee shop across the street, where I had been sitting with my friend.
“Ustez Mahfouz understands what happens in Egypt’s streets and its coffee shops.”
Outside, the owner of the coffee shop was arguing with the mechanic who worked in the garage next door. Their daily altercations were a neighborhood ritual. The two
extremely large men would start yelling at each other about something minor, then about the color of their mothers’ vaginas. Then would come the climax of the fight: approaching within inches of each other, they pulled up their shirts and twisted their torsos violently from side to side to shake their corpulent bellies. Everyone on the street froze, mesmerized by the vast expanse of hairy flesh quivering in the hot Cairo sun.
We watched from the darkness of the store. “Naguib Mahfouz understands why those two men shake their bellies?”
“Of course. Ask him. He will explain to you why they choose to fight like that. He knows what they had for breakfast this morning, what they dreamed about last night, how many children they have…”
I interrupted. “Does Naguib Mahfouz understand what a Sayeedi thinks?”
He laughed. “He even understands the secrets of the Sayeedi’s mustache.”
I showed up to my meeting with Mahfouz wearing a new suit. The store owner had taken me to his favorite tailor, and after two hours of close deliberation, they settled on a gray wool. But something had gone wrong in the tailoring; the arms reached down to my knuckles while the pants barely made it to my ankles. It was not, in any case, an easy suit to wear in the heat of a Cairo summer. By the time I reached Ustez Mahfouz, my shirt was stuck to my back. The old men had made me buy a waistcoat (for the pocket watch I would one day buy, they said), and I could feel my sweat pooling up against the stiff fabric. To make things worse, I had worn bright white socks that day, and by the time I arrived at the Shepherd Hotel in Garden City, they were stained a dusty brown.
I met Mahfouz in the hotel bar. He wore a striking white linen suit that hung loosely over his small frame. He was lost in a high-backed leather armchair. I shook his hand gingerly — this was three years before his death, and everything about him seemed delicate. I was worried that Naguib Mahfouz would see my socks or notice the poor cut of my suit. When I sat down, I could feel the stiff neck of my new dress shirt grown damp with sweat and nervousness.
Not that there was anything to be nervous about; Mahfouz was asleep for most
of the evening. I was left alone with the coterie of men who made up the ranks of his salon, a group of intellectuals who filled the void of Mahfouz’s silence with talk of their own. When they found out I was American, they roared and began to lecture me on the necessity of American intervention in the Middle East, using exotic terms like “Drudge Report” and “Fareed Zakaria.” “America must push, push, PUSH on the Middle East!!” yelled one.
From time to time, someone would shake Mahfouz awake and yell a question into his ear: “Ya, Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of Ahmed Adaweya and shaabi music?”
“I love it.”
Cheers, applause, and laughter. “Ya Salaam, Naguib-bey!!”
“Naguib-bey still loves the music of the people!”
“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the situation in Palestine?”
“My heart goes out to the Palestinian people.”
“Naguib-bey!!! So kind!!”
A journalist from Al-wafd pointed to me: “Write that down and send it to America!!” I pretended to scrawl something down in my notebook. The pool of sweat had breached the waistcoat; even my jacket was sopping. I gulped down my water. I was completely mystified by Mahfouz, who never seemed to break a sweat.
“Naguib-bey, how do you feel about your recent birthday?”
“Praise be to God, I am still alive.”
“Ahh, Naguib-bey! So modest!!”
“Naguib-bey, what is your opinion of the movement toward democracy in Egypt?”
Silence, soft snore.
“Ahh, Naguib-bey is grumpy today.”
It took several attempts to get Mahfouz to answer the question.
Finally, he whispered, “Where is this democracy movement?”
“Ahh, Naguib-bey!! So wise! Where is the democracy movement, indeed!” “Genius!”
“Naguib-bey: still the most intelligent critic in Egypt!!”
“Write that down and send it to America!”
And with that, everyone joined in the master’s silence, content to watch Mahfouz doze peacefully. I wondered whether I should pay for my water and leave, but no one else seemed restless at all, and there was something calming about the sight of Mahfouz, he brightness of his suit set against the dusty red leather of his seat.
Mahfouz woke with a start and asked for the check. We all trailed after him as he made his way to his car, which, as I was informed several times over by a member
of his entourage, was the same car he had been driving for the past two decades and, indeed, the same car beside which he was stabbed a decade before. We stood outside to watch his driver help him into the car and slowly maneuver into the traffic on the Corniche. It was late evening, and the heat was still oppressive. I wiped my forehead with the arm of my suit, which was almost comically wet. “The car still exists!” one man exclaimed. “Naguib-bey’s car is with us still!! It is a beautiful car!! Naguib Mahfouz still exists! He is with us still!! Naguib-bey is a beautiful man!!! It is a beautiful car!! Today is a beautiful day!!!”
But this is not a story about Mahfouz’s car. Nor is it a story about his entourage and their multiple ejaculations. It’s not even really about Naguib Mahfouz. Rather, it is the story of his miraculously pristine white linen suit, its elegance unperturbed by its surroundings, its whiteness unsullied by his obsequious hangers-on, let alone by me.
In 1966, a small group of Moroccan poets, artists, and intellectuals launched Souffles, a quarterly review that would over time become at once a vehicle for cultural renewal and an instigator of efforts to promote social justice in the Maghreb. From its very first issue, Souffles was a unique experiment, a Moroccan and Maghrebi effort to liberate the country’s intellectual framework from fetid provincialism and lingering colonial complexes. It was a cri de coeur, a rebellion against the artistic status quo, a manifesto for a new aesthetics, even a new worldview. Its trademark cover, emblazoned with an intense black sun, radiated rebellion.
A decade earlier, the French protectorate of Morocco had managed to secure its independence as a kingdom while Paris concentrated on retaining neighboring Algeria, where a war of independence was just beginning. Muhammad V, Morocco’s new king and former sultan, and the unlikely hero of the nationalist movement, began to consolidate political power against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leftists battled conservatives for control of the nationalist movement, while Crown Prince Hassan maneuvered to position himself as the ultimate political arbiter of the young country. When his father died in 1961, the prince became King Hassan II.
For Moroccan intellectuals, students, and urban workers, the Sixties were a time of massive upheaval. Thousands participated in strikes and street protests that often ended in brutal clampdowns, arrests, and torture. Leftist political leaders such as Mehdi Ben Barka (who was assassinated by the regime in 1965, probably with French and American help) built links with progressive forces abroad, including Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, and Malcolm X. In neighboring Algeria, in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and countless African, Asian, and Latin American countries, progressive forces were associated with socialism or communism while “reactionaries” sought the backing of the US or former colonial powers.
Into this fraught picture entered Abdellatif Laabi, founder, editor, and publisher of Souffles. The son of an illiterate saddler from Fes, Laabi, like many of his collaborators, was a member of the petite bourgeoisie — neither of the country’s elite nor cut from especially humble cloth. He had attended colonial schools and taught French. His early poems combined surrealist invective and a rage against his own uprootedness as a Moroccan who was more comfortable expressing himself in the colonial lingua franca than in Arabic. Laabi launched the inaugural issue of Souffles with this prologue:
The poets who have signed the texts in this issue-manifesto of Souffles are unanimously aware that such a publication is an assertion on their part at a time when the problems of our national culture have reached an extreme degree of tension.
The current situation does not, as some may believe, speak of a creative proliferation. The cultural agitation that individuals or organizations would like to pass off as a growth spurt of our literature is in fact the mere expression of a cultivated stagnation, of a certain number of misconceptions as to what the real sense of literary activity consists of.
Petrified contemplation of the past, sclerosis of form and content, unashamed imitation and forced borrowings, vainglorious false talents — these are the tainted daily ration with which the press, periodicals and the greed of all-too-few publishers have bored us stiff.
Not counting its multiple forms of prostitution, literature has become a form of aristocracy, a badge of honor, a manifestation of intellectual prowess and do-it-yourself attitude.
Something is afoot in Africa and in other Third-World countries. Exoticism and folklore are falling by the wayside. No one can predict where this will lead. But the day will come when the real spokespersons of these collectivities really make their voices heard, and it will be like dynamite exploding the rotten arcana of the old humanisms. Severe patience and strict self-censorship were necessary to produce this review, which sees itself first and foremost as the organ of a new poetic and literary generation._
Souffles was not created to add to the number of ephemeral reviews. It answers a need that has never ceased formulating itself around us.
That essay, like several that would follow, lashed out at the bourgeois literary salons that wallowed in nostalgia for a colonial order and its Gallic canon, which was an integral part of France’s mission civilisatrice. Although a few Moroccan writers and artists had been promoted internationally during the colonial era, they were chosen for their exotica: ochre walls and minarets, Berber tribes and ornate handicrafts — the stuff of cruise ship advertisements.
A major intellectual reference for Souffles was Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, as well as early postcolonial writers — Aimé Césaire, Mario de Andrade, and René Depestre — and journals like Présence Africaine. The art critic Abdallah Stouky would, for instance, write on “nostalgia for Negritude” (of the Senghorian variety) at the Dakar International Festival for Negro Arts in 1966, accusing the organizers of fabricating a false “negro unity” based on the European enthusiasm for “primitive arts” that had been set off half a century earlier by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Matisse. Exoticism, as Franz Fanon admirably stated, “is a form of racist simplification. From that perspective, no cultural clashes can occur. On the one side there is a culture in which qualities of dynamism, growth, and depth are recognized. A living culture that perpetually renews itself. On the other side there are characteristics, curiosities, objects — but never structures.” In a later essay, considering his own poetic evolution, Laabi would cite Fanon and other critics of colonialism, espousing their ideas as a model for his own efforts of “de-alienation and restructuration, [of] struggle against cultural domination and imperialist ideology.”
Abdelkebir Khatibi, a novelist and sociologist whom Roland Barthes would later cite as an influence, was perhaps emblematic of the concerns that ran through the pages of Souffles. An essay he penned in the journal’s third issue would eventually lead to his controversial Le Roman Maghrébin (The Maghrebi Novel). The original essay was titled “The Moroccan Novel and National Literature” and published in the summer of 1966.
Let us consider now, not the problem of literature, but that of Maghreb writers. After the second war, the first group (Feraoun, Dib, Mammeri, Sefroui…) focused on describing local society, on establishing a relatively accurate portrait of its different social strata, in other words to say “here is who we are, this is how we live.” It has been said that this literature was first and foremost a testimony of an era and of a specific situation. In a sense, this description was salutary because it was already a type of appraisal of the colonial situation. But at this very level, it was already being overtaken by events that were taking place in North Africa. For instance, at the moment when Algerians took to arms to liberate themselves through violence, novelists were busy describing the minutia of everyday life of Kabyle villages and poets were singing the anxieties of their torn personalities._
Condemned to follow a reality that is in permanent transformation, the writer faces a dilemma: if he wants to follow the evolution of this reality in a continuous manner, he becomes a journalist. If he takes too much distance, he risks ending up producing disembodied literature. At every instant, an uneasy self-awareness (“mauvaise conscience”) risks to ensnare the Maghrebi writer.
The situation has become more complicated after the Algerian war. Some writers (Haddad, Djebar, Bourboune, Kréa…) tried to put their literature in the service of the Revolution. In their way, they helped to make the Algerian problem known. Unfortunately, for the most part this literature has outrun its course, it died with the war. Now that we face enormous problems of nation-building we must ask frankly and without detours the question of literature: in countries that are in large part illiterate, that is to say where the written word has few chances for the moment to transform things, can you liberate a people with a language that they do not understand?
The debate over language continued to be at the core of the early issues of the magazine. The Soufflites were aware that publishing in French, the language they had been educated in and through which they could reach an intellectual elite (in France and elsewhere), was limiting the size and scope of their readership. Although after 1968 Souffles would develop an Arabic-language edition, Anfass, the question of language would remain paramount — and not only for the Moroccan avant-garde.
Only a decade after Morocco’s independence, Laabi wrote of the linguistic anxiety of an entire generation of middle-class Moroccans who were raised with two languages, but who too often had mastered neither. In the fourth issue of Souffles, he expounded on the problem:
Thus, it is true that the linguistic frustration of the colonized went beyond, in the colonial context, the simple coexistence of two modes of expression. It weakened the psyche of the colonized and was a weapon for the depreciation of his own culture.
At the level of this repressive phase, the linguistic dualism was a tragedy. A tragedy that has not been overcome for many intellectuals of the independence period since even the cultural structures conveyed by the new modes of education and the improvised experience of arabization have not, in this domain, shattered in depth the basis of the colonial status quo. Not only does the problem remain whole but the new policies to recast education have led to a hecatomb with regards to adolescents’ command of a language of expression. The colonized adolescent, even if he was deprived of his maternal tongue, could still dispose of a vehicle for his thoughts through which he could express his rebellion, his ideas, one through which he could exteriorize his personality. The post-independence adolescent has lost this imposed vehicle but has not yet re-conquered the other. He is aphasic. His thought, his deep personality, only emerge in sporadic, imprecise scraps. His linguistic infirmity does not come from a conflictual position, but rather from the imprecision of his methods, from the uncertain negotiations in this phase of evolution or from the stagnation through which most newly independent countries go through. The tragedy has thus changed in nature — it has deepened.
Laabi would settle early on the question of whether there was any possibility of a “legitimate” language for the poet. For him, the question was not whether Arabic was better than French, but rather, how each language could be re-appropriated. “A poet’s language is first and foremost his own language, the one that he molds and shapes out of linguistic chaos, as well as the manner in which recomposes the fragments of worlds and dynamics that exist within him.” The far more pertinent question was how to carry out that recomposition.
Questions of cultural decolonization would continue to dominate Souffles in its early years, both in the essays Laabi and others wrote about literature, the plastic arts, education, and other topics and in the poetry that was the publication’s main feature during this period. Souffles would become a launching pad for many of Morocco’s leading contemporary poets and novelists. Along with Laabi himself, Mustafa Nissaboury and Mohamed Khair-Eddin contributed; the three are probably Morocco’s best-known poets, although that fame is mostly restricted to the French-speaking world. They initially wrote in French, but with the advent of Anfass, some poems, such as Nissaboury’s “Manabboula,” were republished in Arabic or even rewritten.
Souffles offered younger poets an opportunity to reach a larger audience than other publications coming out of Morocco at the time, particularly as it had captivated the attention of French intellectual circles who, caught up in the enthusiasm over decolonization and an emerging nonaligned movement led by third-world countries, publicized the new Moroccan literature to a wider Francophone audience. Tahar Ben Jelloun, perhaps the best-known contemporary Moroccan writer internationally, was among them. Ben Jelloun began writing in Souffles in 1969, a few years before he published his first novel. In “Planet of the Apes,” his first published poem, Ben Jelloun articulated the same identity issues Souffles had initially raised (notably, the interiorized Orientalism among Moroccan artists and writers and their pandering to French tastes for exotica), but combined them with a more violent critique of Western consumer culture:
The Club Maméditerranée is your salvation French atmosphere guaranteed, demanded, or your money back
Climb atop some dromedaries
your vertigo will be in the image
of your churning hunger;
your mouth will open to footnote
ruin and tears;
In the morning drink a little Arab blood:
just enough to decaffeinate your racism;
To your friend offer your tattooed souvenirs
a postcard of aluminum beatitude
obscure resonance of our morgue-skull;
And then fuck an Arab
he is natural, a little savage
but so virile…
Morsels of uprooted flesh will
Dangling by a thread
to your shameful memory
You will no longer be able to drive him
out of your phantasms
He will ejaculate humiliation and rape
onto your face
you will gather under the tamed trees
you will watch the stars dissolve in your
the fever will rise and you will spit blood
onto your good sentiments
the carrion will come to crucify you
in the shade of the wonderful sun of the
“Planet of the Apes” captured what Souffles was fast becoming: a firebrand publication that was more explicitly politically militant in the wake of the catastrophic Arab defeat of 1967 and the events of May 1968. The magazine grew more explicitly invested in the Palestinian plight, more critical of French influence (notably Francophonie, France’s cultural policy towards its former colonies) — more militant generally, forging links with the American Black Panther Party (some of whom were living in exile in Algiers), Egyptian communists, Chinese Maoists, and radical African and Latin American movements. This led to some unfortunate choices, such as the publication of a defense of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Enver Hoxha’s Albania.
Souffles’s editorial team could not help but be influenced by the leading debates of the day, notably over the Palestinian question. But the primary engine of the magazine’s political turn may have been the arrival of Abraham Serfaty, a firebrand mining engineer who would come to lead Morocco’s radical left and turn Souffles into its mouthpiece. Serfaty was born in Tangier to a middle-class Jewish family; during his engineering studies at the elite Ecole des Mines in Paris he joined the Communist Party. Upon his return to Morocco, he linked up with local communists and joined in the nationalist movement, earning him a six-year exile courtesy of the French colonial authorities. He returned after independence, and his education put him in high demand; he held posts in the Ministry of Economy and was a key architect of Morocco’s policy at the Office Cherifienne des Phosphates, the state mining company. By the late 1960s, however, Serfaty was at the forefront of a wave of strikes by miners and other workers. He was fired from his ministry post in 1968.
Serfaty met Laabi in early 1968 during political debates on the Palestinian question. Between this period and 1970, he slammed the door on a Moroccan Communist Party he found too ossified and created, with Laabi, the Marxist-Leninist movement Ila al-Amam (Forward).
Under Serfaty’s tutelage, Souffles’s poetry section shrank in favor of articles about educational policy, industrialization, the relationship between capitalism and imperialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the international banking system. This was not always to the taste of the review’s early contributors, poets who felt they had nothing to say about the mechanization of agriculture or the Rogers Plan. Indeed, poems by Nissabouri and Khair-Eddin slowly disappeared from the pages of Souffles. Even Laabi’s poetry took on a tone more explicitly linked to events of the day. “The Call of the Orient” was a poem published shortly after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death:
I saw Damascus Beirut
but it was not the mourning of Jerusalem
that covered the walls of Damascus and
the inscriptions spoke of a man
ignored the land
and Jerusalem its womb
in simian and tragic lines
behind the symbolic hearses
of the last pharaoh
fallen under the blows
and of Remorse
attacked by a mirage
reappeared on the other side of the Jordan
similar and yet different
Amman relieved it
so colossal was the massacre
In 1969, the changes Serfaty had brought to Souffles became even more evident with the publication of a special issue on Palestine (including an article by Serfaty distancing Moroccan Jewry from Zionism). The layout of the magazine changed, too. Gone was the abstract, blazing dark sun that had graced every cover since the first issue in 1966; instead Souffles became wider, thicker, squatter. Its covers featured pictures and illustrations.
The social and political crisis of Morocco in the early 1970s — massive labor unrest, political disenchantment with mainstream parties, rampant corruption, and the increasing autocracy of King Hassan II — had helped transform Souffles from a literary review into the country’s foremost political newsletter. In 1970 and 1971, years of permanent strikes at many universities and high schools, students held teach-ins where the latest Souffles served as textbooks, its articles templates for discussion and debate. It was not a magazine that one bought and read in one’s living room or at the café; it was a manifesto for a young and diffuse political movement.
Souffles’s new political direction, its association with Ila al-Amam, and the central role it played among the revolutionary student movements — which had adopted Laabi and Serfaty as intellectual leaders — would soon land the publication in trouble. Issue number 22, published at the end of 1971, featured an essay by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine titled “Toward a Democratic Solution to the Palestinian Problem” and another by Serfaty dismissing “democracy” and “dictatorship” as petit-bourgeois concepts. It would be the last to be published. In the first few days of 1972, Laabi and Serfaty would be singled out by the Moroccan security services as a driving force of the student movement. Serfaty remembered the day of their arrest in his memoirs:
It was that early in the morning of Thursday 27 January 1972 [that] the police came to get us at our respective houses, Abdellatif and I, to take us to the central police station of Rabat where we were, separately, immediately submitted to torture. It was the first time. I had received beatings and very hard blows when arrested by the colonial police, but torture is another ordeal. It’s not even fear of death: in December 1952, I had received blows that could have shattered my skull but had not said a word. Torture is a form of debasement that any being rejects, with a refinement in pain that horrifies much more than the naked specter of death. If one is not prepared to sacrifice one’s life for one’s ideal, one gives in from the first few moments. But there is worse: torture makes one mad, in [that] it is in this abyss of insanity that one risks losing all self-control, and thus to betray oneself by talking.
Their release was in part possible thanks to students who took to the streets in droves (often brandishing copies of Souffles) to demand their freedom. Laabi was subsequently rearrested and sentenced to ten years of prison for crimes of opinion. In 1980 he was released but forced into exile to France, where he still continues to write. Serfaty went underground shortly after the first arrest and spent two years hiding in safe houses, where he continued to devote himself to Ila al-Amam until the police caught up with him. He spent the next seventeen years in jail serving out a life sentence (on a charge of “plotting against the state’s security”) before also being exiled to France. Serfaty was one of several prominent dissidents who returned to Morocco after the death of King Hassan II in 1999, when he was made an advisor to a state-run oil exploration institute. He is now retired and severely ill.
Shortly after Souffles was banned, General Mohamed Oufkir, Hassan II’s right-hand man, ordered fighter pilots to shoot down the royal jet. They failed, and Oufkir was killed and his entire family imprisoned. It was the second coup attempt in a year and would usher in over two decades of repression and fear, the so-called années de plomb (“years of lead”) during which political and press freedoms were severely restricted and Hassan II’s political opponents systematically destroyed.
In recent years, with slightly greater press freedoms afforded by Mohammed VI, there has been a wave of new periodicals. Some, like Le Journal, have produced trenchant critiques of Morocco’s hesitant democratization under the new monarch. But in the thirty-five years since the demise of Souffles, no publication has matched its stature, appeal, or intellectual authority. The debates it inaugurated-on education, language, identity-are with us still, albeit in new configurations. Ironically, the postcolonial environment that Souffles emerged out of, centered on North Africa’s uneasy political and cultural relationship with France, has now almost entirely been replaced by a more uneasy relationship with American political and cultural power. And the inheritors of the humanistic legacy of Souffles face fresh opponents, most notably from Islamists. Nichane, a new secular-minded news magazine printed in darija, Morocco’s dialect, was banned in early 2007 for printing jokes about the prophet Mohammed. The editor of Nichane, novelist Driss Ksikes, was so embittered by the episode that he resigned. Since then Ksikes has been dreaming up a new cultural review whose inspiration will be the early Souffles, with a focus on the arts and literature rather than the often tawdry and convoluted turns of the Moroccan political scene. As to the later, combative, political Souffles? Time will tell.
For about ten years, Halim El-Dabh existed only as a mysterious footnote to almost every kind of music that I found myself drifting toward, and the trail that would lead me again and again to his name was always the same: once I’d become fairly familiar with the canon of a particular genre of music, be it modern classical, traditional Arabic, or electronica, I’d grow curious about the fringe artists in that field — the outsiders, the artists who didn’t fit in — the perverts. Without exception, that’s where I’d find him, as the very occasional, odd footnote. He was (as a few biographers have called him) a Zelig-like character, seemingly implicated in almost every modernist project of the 20th century, a maverick or “experimental” artist, who, for reasons rarely elucidated, wasn’t deemed worthy enough to be part of the official narrative of modernism.
In the pre–Google/mp3/Napster world, the question of who El-Dabh was proved difficult to answer. From about 1982, when I first heard of him — in connection to another “brother from outer space,” Sun-Ra — until the mid to late Nineties, I never heard one note of his music; it was impossible to find. Plus, the word on the street (specifically, in those histories of modernism) was that it wasn’t really worth the effort to find out who he was. Even the biographical information on him was confusing and skimpy. The impression I formed was of some sort of freaky recluse who may or may not have been cloistered in a backwater of ivory-tower academia, a composer who couldn’t make it in the real world. It turns out I was right about the freakiness and, to a lesser degree, academia. El-Dabh was born in Cairo, in 1921, into wealth and music. A member of a large Coptic family, he started to display his musical talents very early on but trained as an engineer and wasn’t really encouraged to take up music as a career. All throughout the 1940s, he was an active participant in Cairo’s cultural life — he’d studied piano and darbuka and played everything from jazz to classical to traditional Arabic music in nightclubs. At the same time, he was also experimenting with electronic music (more on this later).
The year 1949 was a turning point for El-Dabh. His performance of one his own piano compositions, It Is Dark and Damp on the Front, marked his arrival and became his ticket for a Fulbright grant to study music in the United States. One of my favorite stories about El-Dabh is how, upon arriving in Colorado in 1950, where Igor Stravinsky and John Cage were there to greet the young sensation, he basically took care of formalities and then headed straight to the Hopi and Navajo Reservations in the Southwest, where he lived and studied Native American music before returning to study with Aaron Copland. After that, El-Dabh found himself in 1950s New York, where he fell in tight and formed friendships and collaborations with most of the artistic innovators of the time — Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgar Varese, Otto Luening (with whom he composed one of his electronic masterpieces, Leiyla and the Poet), and Martha Graham (with whom he composed the score for her masterpiece, Clytemnestra). After the 1950s, El-Dabh’s activities are too numerous and varied to detail here. He did end up becoming one of the leading ethnomusicologists in the world. He also traveled the globe in search of indigenous music and culture, lived and taught in Ethiopia for some time, and composed the only opera ever written about the Kent State tragedy of May 1970 (Opera Flies).
This all brings me back to a CD called Crossing Into the Electric Magnetic, which was the first music by El-Dabh I actually heard. This was sometime in the late 1990s. Electric Magnet was a compilation of his early electronic music that included a piece of music that is not-so-arguably the first piece of Music-Concrete, recorded at The Middle East Radio Station, in Cairo in 1944,and predating Pierre Schaffer’s Etude Aux Chemin De Fer (which was the first piece of Music-Concrete) by a full four years. That composition, Wire Recorder Piece, completely blew my mind and helped me understand why El-Dabh had remained a footnote for so many years: modernism could never tolerate the figure of the holy fool. The truth is that El-Dabh was never a modernist, though he used the various streams of the movement as ritual and mask. To paraphrase the Sufi trope, El-Dabh was in modernism but was never of it. Take Wire Recorder Piece. It’s electronic music that walks and talks like a duck but isn’t. With the music sounding like some cross between Herschel Gordon Lewis’ splatter classic Blood Feast and Varese, it’s hard to tell if the piece is taking itself way too seriously or is some elaborate, exotic take on a genre that El-Dabh was making up as he recorded it. It’s this uncanny quality of being neither “good” nor “bad” (nowadays bad is called “kitsch”) that marks so much of El-Dabh’s art. And it’s only in the context of the magic circle (which El Dabh continuously redraws) of ritual, mask (the grotesque), and the holy fool that the space and time of his work becomes apparent; they form the thread that ties it all together. El-Dabh was (and is) always after bigger fish to fry and with the slowly encroaching death of modernism and all the post-isms of the last hundred years or so, El-Dabh’s touching and idiosyncratic commitment to sound as the primal source of transcendence may finally get its due.
Nestled in a small street north of Amirkabir University in central Tehran, Rasht 29 Art Club was once a legendary watering hole for artists. It was launched at a time when there were precious few places for artists to congregate. Although an Armenian-Iranian artist by the name of Marcos Grigorian had run the groundbreaking Gallery Esthetique from 1954 to 1960, and the Tehran Biennale had been launched in 1958, the modern art scene in Iran didn’t really take off until the late sixties. Most initiatives lasted for a few months or a couple of years, at most. And whatever they were like, gallery spaces were not gathering places, but rather, more like glorified living rooms — formal and regimented. What the Tehran scene lacked was a place to talk about art and life till the wee hours of the morning. Besides, respectable young girls didn’t go to cafes, and bars were a male bastion, as was the local kebab stand. Across from the British Embassy, Café Ferdosi was the domain of yellow-toothed leftist intellectuals pondering Marx and Shariati. At Key Club and Cheminée, the smartest discotheques in town, one could watch bar fights or dance to cabaret pop — but these were hardly places for artists to gather.
Kamran Diba, Parviz Tanavoli, and Roxana Saba, friends and artists, sought a place of their own, and in 1966, they opened Rasht 29. Inside the club was a record player with with everything from Zeppelin records to “Me and Bobby McGee,” tables and chairs spread about, and a U-shaped bar. Art of the time hung on the walls, and at the peak of the club’s success, Rasht 29 hosted the first auction of modern art in Iran. In many ways, the space, avant-garde in tenor, would be an incubator for the Iranian modernists, not to mention a dress rehearsal for the activities of the Shiraz Arts Festival, launched in 1967 by then-Empress Farah Diba. Bidoun talked to Kamran Diba and Parviz Tanavoli about the history of the club, its activities, and its afterlife. Tanavoli is one of the most important sculptors of his generation, while Diba is a noted architect and artist who, among other things, designed the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in the heart of Laleh Park (then Park-e Farah) and the Niavaran Cultural Center in northern Tehran. Diba was also the founding director of the museum.
Bidoun: How did it all begin?
Kamran Diba: I had recently returned from the US and opened an architect’s office at Number 29 Rasht Street in central Tehran. It was north of the Polytechnic (Amirkabir) University and close to Alborz College. The space was in a three-story, Bauhaus-style building. I had been renting the second floor for my own architectural office. At that time, a group of our friends would spend much of our time in Parviz’s studio. The core group was Parviz and I and Roxana Saba (daughter of the Iranian musician Abolhasan Saba) and Hossein Zenderoudi. Parviz knew a lot of people then; he taught at the university and was close to many artists. One day, we were talking about the fact that we didn’t have a place to hang out, and I wondered aloud about the first floor of my office building. Why not take our group and turn it into a club for artists?
Parviz Tanavoli: I had returned from the US before Kamran had and taught at Tehran University back then. It’s true, most of the time friends gathered in my studio in the Zarabkhaneh district in north Tehran. In the afternoons, after work, artists would come to my studio, and we would just sit around and talk. It was especially Diba, Zenderoudi, Parviz Varjavand, and some others at the time. There were many cafes around, but there was nowhere specifically for artists. We wanted a place, just as other guilds had them, like the construction workers, painters, plaster-workers, or drivers. They all had a coffeehouse where members of the guild would gather to find work or just see their colleagues. If you wanted a painter, you would go to the coffeehouse in a particular district and tell the waiter that you were looking for a good painter, and he would introduce you to a few. So we wanted to create a gathering place for sculptors, designers, architects, and musicians.
Bidoun: What was the place like? Did you decorate it yourselves?
KD: I had a friend named Arthur who had found a door somewhere downtown and had installed one in his own office and thought I’d like one as well. So together we installed a beautiful old arched door at the entrance of the Bauhaus building, put some colored glass in it, fixed up a bar, equipped the kitchen, and from there the club came to life. We opened for lunch and served dinner and had a menu of Iranian and foreign food, plus a well-stocked bar. We hired a domestic cook. He knew how to make Iranian dishes only, and I made the menu with the help of Hilary, my wife. Sometimes one of our friends, the sculptor Karl Schlamminger, went to the kitchen and made a dish. In my student days, I worked in restaurants, so I knew how to run the place better than my partners.
PT: I remember going to more traditional coffeehouses in the Shah-abdol-azim district to buy wooden chairs. Kamran and I went to Qazvin and bought traditional doors and windows. The place was a combination of a European-style cafe with some Iranian details.
Bidoun: And who came? Did artists start to come in right away? Could anybody walk into Rasht 29?
KD: You see, the generation of poets that frequented places like Café Ferdosi were older than us and were different. They wouldn’t sit at the table with their wives. They had very strong opinions about things. We wanted Rasht to be a more relaxed place for artists and art-lovers, so we made it a bit more private. We had someone who kept out the scoundrels and who would monitor the reprobates who would end up breaking beer bottles over women. We wanted to keep it affordable for the art crowd — but keep it to that art crowd.
As artists got to know the place, they would bring in their work, and we would put it up on the walls. Soon there were works by most of the well-known artists of the time, and collectors and others with deep pockets were able to see the works. Some notable members were Zenderoudi, Sadegh Tabrizi, Faramarz Pilaram, Sohrab Sepehri, Massoud Arabshahi, Yadollah Royai, Nader Naderpour, Reza Baraheni, Esmail Shahroudi, Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Bijan Elahi, Ebrahim Golestan, Hageer Daruish, Kamran Shirdel, Sadegh Chooback, and a host of architects. Karl Schlamminger and his wife Nasreen were permanent fixtures in the highbrow cultural life of Tehran and frequent visitors to Rasht 29. Everybody came.
I remember one day Zenderoudi kicked open my office door. He was extremely agitated. The Tehran police had arrested him and taken him to the station, and they had shaved a landing strip right down the middle of his bushy, fuzzy, and much-prized Afro. What made it even worse was that it was the eve of the opening of his exhibition. I called Tanavoli, and we laughed so hard that I fell off the chair and managed to disconnect the telephone. In the end, we went to the barber next door and just shaved off all his hair. Then I took him to a wig shop, where we spent several frustrating hours trying on a wide variety of possible hairstyles. Finally he made it to his opening, but with a slightly different hairstyle. Later I mentioned the episode on the phone to the queen, and she was extremely upset by what had happened. In less than forty-eight hours the chief of police had been removed from his office. I very much doubt that the Zenderoudi incident was the only significant factor in his dismissal, but it may very well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tanavoli and I often teased Zenderoudi that he must be a very powerful man to be able to dismiss the chief of police.
Soon enough, the reputation of the club had spread beyond the immediate circle of the old faithful, and since the nightlife in Tehran did not offer much swing, Rasht 29 soon became a popular destination for “discerning” tourists and flower children on the trail to India or Katmandu. Once they had been “spiritually enlightened,” many would return on their way back to Europe.
PT: When some of the artists gave us work to put on the wall, we would give them credit so they could eat and drink there for free until their credit ran out. It was a successful system! We even issued membership cards for the art crowd, so not anyone could walk in.
I always went to Rasht 29 straight after work, and even arranged my meetings there with my collectors and commissioners. Diba had his office upstairs, and he would often come down. We would spend time there with our wives, invite our friends, and throw our parties there.
Bidoun: Were there any special events?
KD: We brought fiddlers from the streets, knickknack salesmen, and Shahr-e Farang carriers — a kind of portable cinema showing moving images. Various entertainers would come to showcase their talents. But basically the idea was to amuse ourselves and our audience.
Once someone recommended a musician who we later learned played at, you know, infamous places [laughs], though we didn’t know that. So he came over one day and started playing and singing these very explicit songs that had everyone turning red. We had to ask him to leave.
But besides these minor incidents, Rasht 29 soon became a lounge for a section of the creative community, a meeting place to exchange and discuss ideas. Sometimes these encounters ended up in collaboration. For example, one day when I was working on my 1968 exhibition at Seyhoun Gallery, Pilaram walked into Rasht. Tanavoli told me that he was a first-class calligrapher. It was then that I approached him about writing on the Ab-baz zebardast panels, a series of paintings in the form of panels and boxes that together with a sound piece were elements of a larger installation.
PT: At the time, the hippies were very active on their way from Europe to Katmandu. They would stay a few days in Tehran, mostly at the Amir Kabir Hotel and other cheap hotels around that area. We would go to those among them who had an instrument, usually guitars, and ask them to come and play at the club at night. So each night something was happening there, some kind of entertainment that was unique compared to what you would find in other restaurants and clubs.
We also organized other programs, like poetry readings, and we would invite famous poets of the time to come and read their latest poetry. If there was anything going on in Tehran, we usually connected it to the club. For example, at the time of the annual Shiraz Festival, many important artists would come and spend a few days in the city. We would invite them to come to the club, keep a table for them, and open a bottle of champagne. Many of the prominent artists of the time — whose names I have mostly forgotten — would also come. I remember the conductor Zubin Mehta, for example. He was there nearly every night with a pretty journalist girl; it was probably 1967. The actress Elke Sommer, who was in Tehran for a film shoot, came one night with some friends. Many of the artists, before going to the Shiraz Festival, paid a visit to Rasht 29. And whenever [the American collector and patron] Abbey Weed Grey came to Iran, we would host a party for her and invite artists and critics of the time.
Bidoun: Did you also sell work at the club?
KD: You see, Rasht 29 wasn’t a gallery, but it became a place artists showed their work to those who may have been interested. Some became interested in collecting after coming to Rasht 29. I remember Sadegh Tabrizi was looking for a place to sell his works back then, so we put them on the pavement in front of the club, and he actually managed to sell most of the works. We also held the first art auction in Iran.
PT: No, I would say we were more like a nonprofit space. We all had other jobs. I taught at the university and had my work, Kamran was a successful architect. We were happy just to break even and not have to spend our own money. And we would spend whatever we made on the club. We encouraged artists to bring their cheaper works and sketches every Thursday, and we would have a street sale on the pavement in front of the club for those who wanted to buy less expensive works. This was very successful, and the artists would bring works and the passersby would buy them without a gallery commission or the standard flamboyant frames. We would do other things to support contemporary art, too. Each time an artist had an exhibition, we would invite him and reserve a table for him and his friends to come after the opening. They would be our guests. Each time an orchestra was playing or coming from abroad, we would keep tables for them to come after the performance and be our guests.
Bidoun: And how did the auction come about? What artists were included?
KD: You should remember that at the time there was not an actual art market in Tehran, meaning there just weren’t enough venues for the artists to sell their works. An artist would have a show at Seyhoun Gallery or somewhere, but after that he didn’t really have a place to put his work. So most artists were broke most of the time and didn’t really know what to do. We told them to come to Rasht 29, where we would organize an auction. We gathered works by most of the well-known artists of the time and invited some people like the prime minister and the queen and with them many other officials. We weren’t an auction house; we just did it to generate income for the artists. But events like this created a new interest in contemporary art.
PT: Yes. We held the very first contemporary art auction in Iran, and we invited many professionals, major contractors, officials, rich people, and even the queen, who also bought works. We had works by almost everybody with a name by now: Pilaram, Tabrizi, Zenderoudi, Arabshahi, my own works, many artists. I don’t remember all of the names, but there are some. Any time Queen Farah raised her hand for a piece, some of the collectors challenged her and bought those pieces at higher prices. At the time, I thought they were rude; however, I learned later that all those pieces were presented to her as gifts.
As Diba became involved with larger projects, he had to change offices and moved to a bigger space. Tanavoli was swept up with work and traveling exhibitions. For its founders, Rasht 29 became an extra lemon — to use an Iranian expression — to carry on top of everything else. The club closed its doors after hosting the Tehran art crowd for just under three years. And while in the early 1970s many more galleries and salons opened — places like Borghese, Zand, Saman, Mess, and Saba, to name a few — none of them quite resembled Rasht 29.
For some time now, public museums the world over have been implementing their own highly professional, big budget mises en scène of what international-standard contemporary art should look like, usually opting for something comparatively urbane, in a Duchampian wit meets iPod joie de vivre sort of way. On that count, the Muzeh-ye Honarhâye Mo’âser, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art — or the muzeh, as it is also called — begs to differ: not so much in that it rejects or transcends the modish iconography of the current circuit, but in that it simply cannot help but draw all the attention to itself. Though the museum does indeed decontextualize the work on view, it does so only to embed it within its own matrix of political rumor, historical heritage, and architectural detail so dense one ends up reading every single show as an experiment, another weird muzeh occurrence.
In the last few years alone, the institution has hosted group shows of “Islamic Art,” retrospectives of Iranian modernist greats, biennials of painting, mass exhibitions of local conceptualism, a tribute to British Artists, and much more. None of it really worked in the sense of slick curating, or clever conceptual choreography, or anything else that makes a visit to, say, Tate Modern a pleasant afternoon stimulus. Rather, it is the very interaction between any specific selection of artworks, good or bad, with the museum itself that is most striking.
The muzeh was founded by Queen Farah Diba only two years before the 1979 revolution. The actual building is something of a sprawling, uneven complex of minimal, sober design, built by Farah’s cousin, architect Kamran Diba. The visitor’s bewildering circular trajectory through it moves from generous hallways to small, quirky chambers and back again — sometimes leading underground, at other times offering delightful views of the surrounding park (complete with playgrounds, tea houses, the neighboring carpet museum, teenage lovers, unemployed day laborers and junkies on heroin).
Taking advantage of a slump in art-market prices, Farah swiftly invested sizable sums that actually saved several weathered American galleries from bankruptcy, and the collection quickly came to include a spectacular range of western canon masterpieces, from Gaugin to Leger to Rauschenberg and so on. After the 1979 revolution, the collection was stowed away in the cellar for almost two decades, but if you visited the museum any time during the past six years, you were likely to run into a refreshingly slipshod display in some corner, lumping together, say, two or three Miros with a handful of Rothkos. Meanwhile in the courtyard, some Giacomettis are being eaten away by acid rain, looking more measly and miserable than ever.
According to Bidoun contributor Serge Michel, the collection also includes some natty Adolf Hitler watercolors, which were presented at a 2001 press conference. The staff unveiled them with a vague air of embarrassment, then carried them back to the cellar with hardly a word of explanation.
Today, it is hard to overestimate the influence of the muzeh on the artistic modus operandi of the Tehran scene. On the one hand, the museum became more accommodating and attractive with the appointment of charismatic director Alireza Samiazar in 1998, who stepped down recently (amid a host of speculations on the actual reasons, leaving the museum to an uncertain future under a certain Majid Hosseini-Rad). But on the other, throughout Samiazar’s tenure, the space upheld a rather idiosyncratic definition of fair and critical professionalism, and it is hard to hold anyone accountable when living under a dictatorship, for the latter means you can always blame a fuckup on “the hardliners.” Be that as it may, international collaborations such as an extra large-scale cooperation with the Beyeler Foundation in 2002 had to be canceled due to highly erratic decision-making processes. My own, very modest curatorial endeavor at the museum five years ago, a week-long workshop/exhibition with Swiss artists, did not exactly gain in inspired ambiance when for some unknown reason on the third day, the museum guards started telling visitors at the door that the event was over.
In addition to logistical obstacles, the museum is known for embarrassing examples of petty financial mischief. Established Tehran painter Khosrow Hassanzadeh, for example, was once summoned as a court witness; he’d received a $300 per diem for a Beirut show, only a fraction of the money that had disappeared into staff pockets. The institution is also regularly accused of nepotism. If this is a standard occurrence affecting even minor institutions in any major city, what makes things more dramatic in the case of the muzeh is that there is so much at stake. For one thing, in an art scene suffering from considerable infrastructural shortcomings, the internationally well-known museum can easily dominate the fragile network of relations with foreign curators and institutions. In addition, any noticeable public funding for local artistic projects runs through the museum, which is often granted a decisive advisory role. Artists who choose to circumvent its tentacular sphere of influence must usually rely on private donors.
Since the museum never publicized a complete and official inventory of the work in its subterranean vaults (as, admittedly, few museums do), many local critics voiced concerns that it was bound to disappear sooner or later. Indeed, in early 2004, rumor held that Jackson Pollock’s Mural on Indian Red Ground had been sold to David Geffen for some $105 million. The sale was denied by Samiazar on national television.
Nevertheless, Ms. Diba’s collection was on show through most of last fall, under the terse exhibition title Modern Art Movement. Director Samiazar’s last muzeh show, including 188 artworks, was arguably a mature, dignified exit. It was seen as a sensation by much of the international press, if not so much for its curatorial prowess as for the wealth of journalistic soundbites it offers (the patchy censorship of various masterpieces, the air of Queen Farah glamour and 1970s nostalgia, the $2 billion collection in the hands of ayatollahs).
Admittedly, the exhibition’s amalgam of jumbled temporalities, political subtext, art-market history and sheer retro appeal is pretty jarring even by muzeh standards. To top it off, the show even included a helpful directorial statement by Samiazar himself, on “the Museum’s contribution to the universal endeavors to enlighten people about art,” along with several Warhol silkscreens, a Bacon triptych that was reportedly dismantled towards the end, and — surprise, surprise — Mural on Indian Red Ground.
In September 1974, the Mandala Collaborative received a letter of intent from the Iranian minister of culture and arts to design a new home for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. It was a prestigious undertaking for the young Iranian firm, a landmark project that excited the interest of the Shah himself. As in so many fields of endeavor, the ambition was to make a great leap forward, from backwardness to the cutting-edge. If the city’s several musical groups were ill-served by the small, overbooked, and understaffed Roudaki Hall, they would soon have one of the largest auditoriums in the world, with seating for 2,000 concertgoers and the finest acoustics money could buy.
It was an era of great plans and major projects. Tehran, which had just hosted its first international film festival in 1973, was to acquire a new museum of contemporary art next to Farah Park. A forward-looking “city of the arts” was planned for Shiraz, a research and performance institute to encompass sound, painting, sculpture, cinema, theater, ballet, poetry, and literature. As with Mandala’s Center for the Performance of Music, these various projects were meant to benefit Iranian audiences while impressing upon others the world-class status of a nation that styled itself “the most crisscrossed crossroads in the world” and the inheritor of thousands-year-old traditions.
The design concept for the symphony hall was based, Mandala claimed, on the “unifying organizational conceptions of Persian ‘place making,’” especially the garden, both the “hidden garden” — an open courtyard surrounded by indoor spaces — and the “manifest garden” surrounding the indoor spaces. The idea was to create a “concentric series of spaces” that would rhyme with and be expressed by the design’s centerpiece, a twelve-meter-tall ziggurat sloping up to the sky in rounded, circular steps. The whorled ceiling of the auditorium was at once functional — minutely calibrated to achieve optimal reverberation — and symbolic, evoking the graded textures of the walls at Persepolis, the ruined capital of the Achaemenid Empire just outside present-day Shiraz. Extensive rectangular gardens were meant to recall pardises — the ancient Persian ornamental gardens from which the English word “paradise” derives. The ceremonial staircases at Persepolis were reproduced, while the raised platform in the main hall echoed the Apadana, Darius’s audience hall.
The project, which also involved the American firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, proceeded slowly. Thousands of drawings and plans were devised; a model was produced and personally inspected by the Shah. It was very much a royal symphony hall, tailored to the needs of the emperor, with separate entrances for the conductor, the service workers, and the royals. The main entrance for commoners faced Pahlavi Avenue, near a proposed stop for the then-unbuilt subway.
By 1978, as the Shah’s repressive apparatus lost control of the country and Iran pitched into its revolutionary moment, the principals of the Mandala Collaborative fled the country. Yahya Fiuzi, the partner in charge of the design, had quit both Iran and Mandala the previous year; Nader Ardalan, Mandala’s founder, attempted to keep the project going from his new home in Boston. But as the clerical regime consolidated power, the idea of a royal symphony hall became an anachronism, yet another reminder of the epic waste and misplaced priorities of the Pahlavi era. Like so many things, it was a step too far, the latest in a long line of glory-mongering excesses.
In 1971, Mohammad Reza, Shah of Iran and self-styled “light of the Aryans,” celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the first Persian Empire with a party for six-hundred friends and admirers — celebrities, politicians, and potentates from across the globe, including Orson Welles, Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan, Pat Nixon, and Nicolae Ceausescu. Haile Selassie, the Negus of Ethiopia, had pride of place, as representative of the world’s oldest government. The events began at dawn on October 12, at Pasargad, with an apostrophe to the Shah’s most illustrious forebear. “After the passage of twenty-five centuries, the name of Iran today evokes as much respect throughout the world as it did in thy day,” the Shah said, standing before the tomb of the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. “Cyrus, Great King, King of Kings… . Sleep on in peace forever, for we are awake and we remain to watch over your glorious heritage.”
Xenakis was a frequent guest of the Shah and the Shahbanou, Empress Farah Diba, whose patronage made possible an array of cultural happenings, including the Tehran International Film Festival and the Shiraz Arts Festival. The first Shiraz festival had been held in 1967; over the next decade, the event brought a profusion of the West’s most progressive composers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, and directors to Iran, along with traditional musicians from the East. Orghast, the first project of Peter Brook’s radical Paris-based International Center for Theatre Creation, premiered at the Shiraz festival in 1972 with a mixed troop of European, Japanese, and Iranian actors and a script (in a made-up language also called Orghast and supplemented with Greek, Latin, and Avesta) by Ted Hughes. Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed there, as did John Cage. Modern and electronic music was particularly favored; Karlheinz Stockhausen received multiple major commissions, while Xenakis, who had presented several ambitious works (including a 1969 choral work dedicated to political prisoners, among them “thousands of forgotten ones whose names are lost”) was asked to be director of the proposed arts center in Shiraz.
Though the audience for the Shiraz festivals was mostly Iranian, the predominance of Western artists and the vast sums spent preparing Shiraz for visitors made them, like the imperial celebrations, a magnet for criticism. Iranian newspapers denounced modernist tendencies (like Stockhausen’s “meaningless” music). Liberal reformers sometimes echoed religious complaints, insisting that the monies spent on these foreign-dominated cultural events might be used to improve the lives of average Iranians. But the cultural dimension was always close to the surface. The 1977 Shiraz Festival featured Pig! Child! Fire!, a play by the radical Hungarian theater troupe Squat that evoked Dostoevsky, Breton, and Artaud while making use of graphic nudity, an animal corpse, and acts of extreme sexualized violence. Squat’s antics had gotten them expelled from various European cities and stripped of their Hungarian nationality; their appearance in Shiraz, in those late days of the empire, felt like the greatest provocation yet. Khomeini again weighed in, this time from Paris: “[I]t is difficult to speak of. Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz, and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and nobody says a word.” He needn’t have worried; 1977 was to be the final Shiraz Festival, and Khomeini himself would be returning to Tehran soon enough.
In his first speech to the new nation that he had done so much to will into existence, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared, “We don’t need markers of civilization… . We need markers of Islam.” In the years that followed, a host of new journals attempted to define the aesthetic sensibility of the Islamic Republic. Two of the most influential were Faslnameh Honar (Quarterly Journal of the Arts) and Sureh (Qur’anic Verses). Article after article denounced the art and architecture of the Pahlavi era as either slavishly Western or regressively Persian, or both, while working to recuperate the nation’s Islamic legacy.
Zahra Rahnavard, head of the Al Zahra School of Art, wrote in Faslnameh Honar, “Our Revolution has been a bridge between matter and meaning, between ‘us’ and the ‘divine.’” Revolutionary art, she said, should be ayeh gara (spiritual, Qur’anic, intuitive) rather than vaghe gara (realistic). In this case, her commentary was directed less at the imperialist West than the socialist East — specifically, socialist realism, with its blandly heroicized depictions of individuals making history, which Rahnavard believed was threatening to “dismantle the precious goals of our revolution.”
The idea of the museum itself was also subject to interrogation. An editorial in Faslnameh Honar demanded that, rather than catalogue or represent the arts of past epochs, the revolutionary exhibition would submit the work of art to the judgment of Islam. (Certainly, lovers of modern art feared the summary judgment of the clerics; the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art became a storehouse for the largest collection of twentieth-century art outside of Europe and North America, including pivotal works by Picasso, Pollock, and Grosz, as well as a silkscreen portrait of Empress Farah by Andy Warhol.) By this light, in fact, the perfect museum was the Qur’an itself, a space in which stories from the past could constantly be reevaluated to provide life lessons for all Muslims throughout time.
This indifference or hostility to the non-Islamic past extended across the humanities. One cleric, writing in Faslnameh Honar, lectured that what Iran needed was not a font of superstition like the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings,” the eleventh–century poem that was the holy writ of Persian nationalism) but a pasdar nameh (a “book of the revolutionary guard”). Archeology suffered, as well. The Institute of Archeology at Tehran University was closed; funding was slashed or eliminated for ongoing work at various locations, including Persepolis.
In June 1997, nearly two decades after his departure, Fiuzi received a phone call at his home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. It was a representative of the Iranian government, calling with a proposition: Could he lead the design and construction of a grand meeting hall, to be completed in time for the Eighth Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference — just over five months away. In the wake of Mohammad Khatami’s surprise election in May, the OIC summit was to be a watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic. Iran had boycotted the last five OIC summits over the organization’s refusal to condemn Iraq for the Iran-Iraq war, and the December summit was to be a kind of coming-out party. President Khatami would launch his “dialogue of civilizations” initiative at the summit, beginning with the assembled Muslim dignitaries, many of whom represented countries that the Islamic Republic had broken off relations with (including Egypt, which had briefly sheltered the dying Shah two decades earlier, in the first days after the revolution).
Fiuzi was tasked to revive Mandala’s design for the Center for the Appreciation of Music. His team proceeded to produce some 4,800 drawings, including designs for fabrics and furniture; many were 1970s plans re-rendered with AutoCAD. The new complex would feature resting halls, prayer halls, and meeting rooms, though the focus remained the circular center, formerly the main concert hall, now a tent-like auditorium in which to install some fifty-odd heads of state and their retinues. The timeline required Fiuzi’s team to carry out the design and the construction virtually simultaneously. Six thousand workers laboring around the clock ensured that the construction of the building was finished on schedule.
The new design had to be modified in form as well as function. In light of the occasion of its construction, the conference center was to represent the achievement of Islam, not the timeless glory of the Persian Empire. Fiuzi would have to gut the Achaemenid elements from the original plans and replace them with new design elements in an appropriately Islamic style.
Of course, the nature of Islamic style is itself an open question. Fiuzi, under fantastical time and budgetary constraints, provided a new theory of the project, replacing the old paradigm of “Persian place-making” with something he called heya’ti, “rushed style,” a kind of temporary architecture inspired by traditional Shia religious ceremonies. Heya’ti was the name of the ephemeral structures erected in conjunction with the annual mourning of the death of Ali during the month of Muharram. This justification seemed awfully subtle to some observers, including one high-ranking government official, who responded to the open, minimalist interior with a request for glazed blue tiles, massive chandeliers, and Qur’anic verse to make the space more recognizably Islamic. The morning after his site visit, buses bearing traditional tile workers showed up at the site to begin their work. Fiuzi managed to placate the leadership by, among other things, adding calligraphic verses about Muslim unity from the Qur’an to panels in the main vestibule, though even then the effect was minor, as the letters are carved out of the white surface of the architraves.
Neither the building nor the Islamic Summit Conference was a phenomenal success. The conference center received little attention in the foreign press, and it was heralded in Iranian media more for the “rushed style” of its construction than for its design. This was a monumental work built in record speed for comparatively little money, ninety-three percent of it from local sources (and hence only seven percent foreign — the press loved to quote the exact figure). The “dialogue of civilizations,” though adopted by the United Nations as a theme for the year 2001, did not lead to an epic realignment of thought or politics (or even normalized relations with the US). Yahya Fiuzi did go on to get other, more leisurely commissions in Iran, including work on the Tehran International Trade Center and a proposed Farabi Performing Arts and Cultural Center. Today he lives and works in Tehran.
In The Concealment of Beauty and the Beauty of Concealment, a widely distributed pamphlet based on a 1986 address to the Seminar for Studying Hejab, Zahra Rahnavard, head of Tehran’s Al Zahra School of Art, insisted that a woman could only discover her true nature by covering herself:
The body, which is destined to decay, to be mingled with the dust and produce (and be eaten by) worms, even at the pinnacle of its beauty is but an obstruction in the way to real beauty. The beauty of concealment, therefore, lies in the elimination of the physical values in order to revive the values of the real self of a woman in the mind of the society of man and woman.
This celebration of the hidden self and its attendant derogation of the physical was consonant with the general post-revolutionary disinterest in “civilization” and externalized signs of greatness.
But the concern for appearances is an old theme in Iran, an element of the Iranian personality emblematized by aberoo, “the glow of the face.” It is not simply an elite concern; even the poorest households maintain a room for visitors, a kind of sitting room, in which one’s prize possessions are on display for the enjoyment of the guests. Aberoo is the basis of hospitality, even generosity, but it also contains an element of falseness. Those who labor to keep up appearances often have something to hide.
The 2,500th anniversary events were a kind of aberoo, a presentation of Iran’s best face for the consumption of guests, in this case the hundreds of foreigners who descended on the country to participate in or document the celebration. In addition to the tent city and the outlandish meal and extravagant spectacle at Persepolis, the whole city of Shiraz (where journalists and lesser dignitaries stayed) was cleaned up: the prison painted, potted flowers lined along the main roads, caged songbirds hung on lampposts. Shopkeepers were issued handsome blue jackets. After the events were over and the guests had left, the city was stripped of all these ornaments.
The Islamic Summit Conference and its specially commissioned building was a different kind of project, a demonstration of piety and simplicity, the opposite of ostentatious. But it was a kind of aberoo, too. The building was meant for show. It represented an Iranian claim to a different notion of belonging — to the ummah rather than the mellat. As conceived by the regime, it was to be an emblem of the Islamic Republic rejoining the community of Muslim nations, the site for a dialogue of civilizations — which is also, perhaps, to say, the site for a conjugation of glories. For that is the secret of aberoo, and also of glory: It only exists to be talked about.