Once, I had stopped by at closing time and wondered whether his unsold loaves were going for half price. Perhaps he thought I was hungry; he gave me two artisan breads at no charge. Months later, amid signs that Iran was opening to the world, he told me he and his family were moving back. He was, he said, “returning home.”
A similar sense of longing exuded from the NYU audience, even if their reunion was in New York City, years after “free” Iranian elections marred by fraud and followed by bloody repression.
Three presenters, including film maker Maryanm Khakipour, evoked the magic of an Iran that only 30 years ago had homes with large back yards used as stages for artistic presentations. Khakipour told of “joy makers,” satirists sporting black faces the way clowns in America don funny wigs and over-sized shoes, made fun of the rulers as no ordinary Iranian could.
It was like that throughout the two hour presentation, Iran’s past and present juxtaposed to feed a palpable hunger of the soul.
The previewed documentaries were primarily from expatriates living in France and Sweden; it is nearly impossible for Iranian filmmakers to work in their own country. “Iran is shutting down,” proclaimed presenter Persheng Vaziri. Negar Mottahedeh spoke of how women helped lead the revolution against the Shah and now found life under the Ayatollah “unlivable.” Instead, Iranians had found their voice anonymously on the rooftops.
That discovery began with their attempt to topple the Shah, who claimed that the cries of “Allah-O-Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” were not real. Rather, he claimed, the cries really came from tape recorders. Riffraff, he called the phenomenon, blaming “foreign agitators.”
Then, just before his fall in 1979, Iranians lined the street. “Riffraff don’t have feet; we are here,” they shouted. Now, even while expatriate Asghar Farhadi's haunting “A Separation” has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film, Iranian leaders are in similar denial, said Mottahedeh. The Ahmadinejad government insists that state-controlled TV defines reality – a reality featuring “a purified image, the perfect man, the Iranian cyborg,” said Mottahedeh. All that is left for Iranians, she said, is reversion to the nightly rooftop cries.
The diaspora sat riveted at NYU as she presented the three minute “Poem for the Rooftops of Iran; Listen Closely.” The screen went grey, its only light coming from the white English translations at the bottom. Over wails of “Allah-O-Akbar” pouring in from all parts of Tehran, an anonymous woman’s voice spoke softly. And then, the translation screened.
“God, why are you sleeping? Why don’t you say something? We are all doing the best we can. Listen. This is our voice. Oh God, why do you leave us so defenseless?”
And I thought again of my friend Pasha. Did he have enough bread to eat? Could his magnificent heart get him through the disaster overtaking his homeland?
I don’t know. But from my New York rooftop, this American Jew uttered a new prayer. My prayer: “Allah-o-Akbar!” – God is Great. It is the prayer of the diaspora – and of those still waiting to be free.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist