Both Iran and Russia have a long history of art cinema. It is not clear whether Tajikistan, a Persian speaking former Soviet Republic can claim such a heritage, but this film certainly belongs to both traditions.
Naturally many ‘art’ films do not have great potential to be box-office hits anywhere outside (or even inside) their respective countries of origin. This weekend, however, I viewed a film, “To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die”, that not only bridged the gap between Persian-language and Russian-language cinema, but which could also speak to larger questions that resonate with people all over the world. The film plays with Orientalist narrative structures and inverts many of the conceptual hierarchies inherent in discourses of ‘East’ and ‘West’. Unfortunately, the film’s message vis-a-vis Orientalism and “Westoxification” is lost on most of the film’s (Western) critics, but I can hardly blame them, as familiarity with neither post-colonialism nor the intricacies of social reality in Tajikistan are typically expected of mainstream film critics.
“To Get to Heaven, First You Have to Die”, directed by Jamshed Usmonov, debuted at Cannes Film Festival in 2006 to little fanfare. Based on the reviews of the film on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, it would seem that most critics missed the point of the film. While it is indeed a film that problematizes machismo, violence, and sex as key elements of masculinity, and yes, it is primarily a love story, the interpretations of it as a remake of an ‘American Indie thriller’ or a cheap knock-off of a ‘US teen sex comedy’ are off the mark. This is unsurprising given the remoteness of Tajikistan from most people’s consciousness.
The plot of the film is fairly straightforward, and it seems that this is mostly what the critics of the film have focused on. But, my position as a student of both Russian and Persian, as well as Near Eastern Studies more generally, allows me to see the film in a different light. From my perspective, this film is a commentary on the sexual aspects of Orientalism and the discourses surrounding it, and is therefore accessible to anyone who has studied this genre of art and literature.
The film opens with the protagonist, Kamal, traveling from his home village to the ‘big city’ (unspecified). He visits a doctor, concerned about his inability to consummate his marriage. The doctor examines him, declares nothing to be wrong, and advises him to find an experienced older woman to teach him what to do. For a good portion of the film, Kamal follows various women around the city, unsuccessfully attempting to get to ‘know’ them. That is, until one day he meets Vera, a beautiful Russian woman, with whom he connects.
Kamal stays the night at her apartment, and in the morning wakes to find her husband drinking liquor in the kitchen. The man assumes Kamal has slept with his wife, and forces him to become his henchman in a Mafioso network in exchange for his life. A series of criminal events gone bad leads to Kamal killing Vera’s husband and taking her for his own, before returning to his home village, and presumably, his wife.
What is at the heart of the thematic conflict in this film is the inversion of the gaze from West -> East to East -> West. As Edward Said’s groundbreaking book “Orientalism” made clear, the genre of Orientalist writing and art positioned the Orient in a subject position vis-à-vis the Occident. Orientalism was a language, a discursive system, and a genre of literature and art that sexualized and primitivized the people of the Orient.
Orientalism provided a justification for the West’s domination over the East, and was often put in terms of the victorious powerful male sexually conquering the prone defeated (but eminently beautiful) female. Take as an example Flaubert’s Kuchuk Khanom, the prostitute who symbolized the entirety of the Orient, a hyper-sexualized “other” whose purpose of existence was solely to provide pleasure to the victorious Western male subject.
Orientalist literature and art inspired similar bodies of work and thought to emerge in the Eastern world, sometimes called Occidentalism. This thinking sought to reverse the arrow of determination and to disparage the Occident for the crimes they had committed against the Orient. But it also spawned what may be called the Stockholm Syndrome of Orientalism, called ‘gharbzadegee’ in Persian, variously taken to mean ‘Westoxification’ or ‘Occidentosis’ in Engish. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the famous mid 20th century Iranian litterateur, coined this term as he rebuked the generations of Iranians who had fetishized Western culture and abandoned their own cultural heritage in seeking a modern, Westernized lifestyle.
This film centers on a cinematic and thematic exploration of the sexual aspects of gharbzadegee, which would never ever be possible in contemporary Iranian cinema. Kamal is unable to consummate his marriage to a Tajik woman; there is nothing physically wrong with him, but various comments he makes throughout the movie make it clear that the problem is with her. It is hinted at that his family forced him into the marriage, and in all likelihood, the woman is probably a close relative of his. He thus rejects his own heritage and culture, which is manifested through his impotence. Indeed, in Kamal’s wandering around the city trying to find his manhood, all of the women that he follows around are Russian, as opposed to Tajik.
This becomes the most important theme as developed through the rest of the film. All throughout the movie Kamal is forced to speak Russian; when he speaks in Tajik, even other Tajiks will speak to him in Russian. Vera’s criminal husband never speaks Tajik once in the film, even though he is very obviously a Tajik and not a Russian, therefore embodying Westoxification through his actions and words.
Furthermore, Kamal is only able to actually engage in a sexual act after having killed the very emblem of gharbzadegee (Vera’s husband) in the film. Vera’s husband was a Tajik who never spoke Tajik, who married a Russian woman, who stole Persian rugs to sell to Russians for money, and who showed no remorse in so doing it all. After conquering the symbol of Westoxification, Kamal is able to return home to his wife and his life as a Tajik Persian man.
In sum, this film is far more complex than its critics would have you believe. It is an excellent cultural and social commentary on the effects of Orientalism on non-Western societies seen through an emic lens. I would highly recommend it to anyone in Near Eastern Studies or to anyone interested in Orientalism. Don’t worry if you don’t know Tajik or Russian; the subtitles are excellent, and the denouement of the symbolic conflict posed by the plot of the film is well worth the wait through the sometimes slow-paced exposition.
I was invited to attend an Omani wedding last Friday, or rather, our team was invited, but I was the only person willing to go. And it wasn’t really the wedding so much as the reception, but either way, I couldn’t pass it up. I also figured it was a solid gesture of goodwill towards one of our local collaborators to attend a family wedding. My colleagues wanted to attend, but because we had entertained guests ourselves earlier in the day, they wanted to relax. Also they didn’t have time to get all ‘gussied up’ for the women’s reception, and all it took me to get ready was to shower and put on my ‘city’ pants, my blazer, and a bowtie. I would be remiss not to mention that wedding receptions in this part of the world are gender-segregated (as with many things…)
I arrived a little early, which wasn’t a faux pas necessarily, but it was kind of awkward at first. Also I was the only person not wearing a dishdasha, and obviously not Omani. So there was that. And that I only knew one person at the whole place. But I decided to stick it out. The reception occurred in the large back courtyard of the family’s house, which had been covered with faux-reed mats, held down from the wind by extra paver-stones. In most familial eating situations in Oman, meals are taken on the floor on such mats. One removes their shoes and sits around a plastic sheet on which the food is placed, and eats with the right hand. On this occasion, trays of fruits, halwa, dates, and coffee thermoses with bowls of water for washing hands were placed at regular intervals. Most of what was to go on with all of this (i.e. the proper way to eat, drink, say please and thank you, yes and no to more of anything) was a dated Arabic etiquette-for-business guide in the project library, so for the most part I just had to roll with the punches on matters of manners. I think I did alright, though there were some miscues there and there (nothing to cause great embarrassment or cause offense, however).
In any case, I understood going in that the person getting married was the older brother of the person who had invited us, but not that our co-worker was the one running the whole show. So he didn’t really have time to show me around. It turned out to be okay, however, as the older gentlemen he sat me with spoke passable English. Sitting with the big-wigs turned out to be great, as I got to see all of the fully ceremonial Arab greetings as people arrived and paid their respects to the clan elders. It also meant that I had to participate in this greeting ritual to the best of my ability. It also meant that I was served the choicest coffee, dates, and halwa, so I wasn’t going to complain, even if I felt slightly uncomfortable.
After a little while, the muezzin started up and all the older gentlemen left to pray. I tooled around for a bit because everyone was either gone or busy setting up for the big feast. When the men returned from the neighborhood mosque, the meal began. The young boys brought out large circular trays of rice, piled high with roast lamb. At such a meal there is no use of silverware or cutlery of any kind, so it was necessary to go wash hands afterwards. The family had a large outdoor showery-area, whose primary purpose was for ablutions, but which also doubled as a post-feast clean-up zone. I was of course, wearing socks, as I do not own any sandals, and this caused great amusement for most people seeing me standing there in a puddle of water. Luckily wool dries quickly, because it was quite cold and windy by Oman’s standards.
After dinner and washing, it was a general free-for-all with coffee, dates, and halwa. Omani halwa is different from that of many other regions in that it is basically date-fudge. It is made of dates boiled down in water, oil, and sesame (and sometimes almonds), and is eaten in chunks straight out of the bowl. Just stick your hand in and grab some and you’re good to go. I had quite a bit of halwa and coffee with a variety of different groups of young men, including some English speakers. This part of the evening lasted the longest, and I enjoyed getting to know the English-speaking members of our host’s generation.
And then out of nowhere, the guns! Someone outside the courtyard started shooting off a bolt-action rifle into the air. Bam, ch-ck, Bam ch-ck, Bam ch-ck, Bam-ch-ck, Bam ch-ck, Bam ch-ck! Six times he fired into the sky. Then he loaded up a different gun and shot that one off as well. I wasn’t sure if it was the groom, or who exactly, who shot the guns, because he was far enough away and it was dark enough not to tell.
Not forgetting about the groom, he only made a few appearances at the reception. He was clad in the same dishdasha and headcover as all the other men, but he differed in appearance by his having a matching scarf wrapped around his waist and a khanjar (traditional Omani curved dagger) stuffed in the scarf-belt. His accouterment were of an extremely high quality, and all things considered, from the meal, to the volume of attendees, and his dress, I surmised this was a family of some means. I could be wrong, but it seems like many of the men over the age of 20 were college educated, so that seemed to be a further indication.
Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures. I wasn’t sure if it was allowed, and I wasn’t really sure who to ask. It probably would have been fine, but I already felt like I stuck out too much just being me, so taking pictures would have added another level of distance to my interactions with people. I did, however, snap a shot of the bling’ed out wedding car, which I will upload later when on a better connection!
All in all, it was a good time, and I’m glad I went.
It has been a welcome slow start to proceedings here. As the team is only three for the time being and there isn’t much in the way of hard deadlines for things, we’ve been able to work at a comfortable pace. Neither have we had to get up at a punishing hour every morning, which is another luxury. Not to say that we’ve been lazy or haven’t accomplished anything, but that compared to my previous experiences with established projects, we have eased into the work. I imagine that when the bulk of the students and researchers arrive the pace will be more frenetic, but for the time being, things are pleasant and not exhausting, as fieldwork can sometimes be. After the semester I had, this past week has been a wonderful chance to learn in a relaxed atmosphere, and to relax in a beautiful oasis.
My job here is as the surveyor’s assistant. She has participated on this project in the past, and has also worked in Syria, Iran, and Australia. Her advisor is a really famous landscape archaeologist in the Near East, and her dissertation project is on the same region that I am most interested in and uses the same methods that I plan to, but just on a very different time period. So, we get along great, and I’m learning a lot from her!
Our job currently is to use the TotalStation to lay out a 5x5m grid over the sites that will be excavated in January and February. This grid delineates the units that the landscape will be broken up into for systematic surface collection and will form the borders of excavation units. Once we are finished with the grids, we will begin surveying the standing architecture of a newly discovered tower on top of a hill on the other side of the oasis. We will use the TotalStation to map the remains of the tower and then import our measurements into arcGIS in order to create a digital model of the site. None of these tasks are terribly complicated, but they can be formidably challenging for the neophyte, so it is a real blessing to work with such an experienced surveyor.
I haven’t learned that much about the material culture history in the area, but these things come with time. The various monuments are fascinating and there are several active projects in the region. Past research has focused on the highly visible mausoleums and towers that dot the landscape in and around the oasis. Some of the tombs are located along the high ridges in the valley, while others are situated on wadi terraces. The towers are too few in number to generalize about their distribution, but it seems that most are located at lower elevations. In the recent past, this project has primarily investigated the towers, but based on discoveries from the last few seasons has expanded to focus on the remains of domestic architecture and settlements. This is important research because this region was part of the Bronze Age polity of ‘Magan’, one of the entities involved in long-distance trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus during the 3rd millennium BCE ‘World-Trade System’. So as much as we currently know about monumentality in Magan and how they buried their dead, we know very little about how the people actually lived. This project aims to fill in some of these gaps in our knowledge.
My first trip to Oman was my true foray into excavation. Sure, by that point I had been on three ‘expeditions’, but never before then had I had as much responsibility, nor as much experience actually digging. Salalah was a magical place, and Madinat al-Haqq, even more fantastic. I will never forget those months spent living on the cattle ranch, eating Tajaddin’s biryani, hearing Jebali and Bengali more than Arabic, Faik on the Mic for company on the road, and writing the early drafts of my thesis.
And now I’m back in Oman. This time, north instead of south, al Dakhiliyya rather than Dhofar. This time, at a UNESCO World Heritage Site instead of a newly discovered settlement. This time, in a palatial town house with potable water and wifi instead of a humble country homestead with a view of the plateau and the ocean. It is shaping up to be quite a different experience.
For the past week it has just been one of the directors and I at the dig house. The third crew member arrives this afternoon. We comprise the advance team; our task is to set up grids for the excavations to come and to survey newly identified areas of the site. By the end of the three weeks I will know how to operate a total station on my own, and hopefully much more! The director, another student, and I will also prepare and run a workshop on GIS in Archaeology for the Omani Ministry of Culture (stick that in your CV and smoke it!).
More to come once field research begins in earnest.
I really meant to write up my experiences in Iran soon after arriving home, but in truth, the first semester of graduate school really sucks the energy out of you. I’m slowly rediscovering how to claim my own time to indulge in pleasure reading and writing for fun. I’m going back to Oman on Saturday, perhaps the lengthy itinerary will provide me some time to collect my thoughts.
I originally wrote this piece over a week ago, in Washington D.C. I was up in the air about posting it, but now, on the eve of my departure, I feel completely able to make my thoughts public. Turns out, there was nothing really to be concerned about all along in terms of putting this out there. My apologies for not having the time to update this piece to reflect subsequent diplomatic developments during the two weeks since this article was written.
In July, I received a strange, yet wonderful email. Of course, it wasn’t sent directly to me, but rather, forwarded from one of my research mentors. The ‘International Congress of Young Archaeologists’ had requested my mentor pass on the invitation to participate in their somewhat regularly held conference at the University of Tehran. The possibility of traveling to Iran was something I had long dreamed of, but having grown up during the Bush-Ahmadinejad years, it had not seemed like a realistic possibility. Yet here was the invitation, and I was faced with an important choice: to jump down the rabbit hole and see where I was to land, or to stay my hand, and be forever left wondering – what if? The decision was easy.
The invitation seemed almost an afterthought – the deadline for abstract submissions was only just days after I received the invitation. Not to mention the fact that the deadline was just in time to get the visas processed in order to even be able to go. Despite the many uncertainties, I went ahead and submitted anyway, even though I had no idea how the visa process works, no idea what our arrangements and accommodations would be, and no idea whether I could afford it. It seemed like a courtesy, it seemed like stage-setting for future endeavors, it seemed too good to be true. The other two invitees from my institution and I speculated quite wildly about what we were getting ourselves into. But sitting in the Iranian consulate of the Pakistani embassy in Washington DC, the only khareji (foreigner) in the room, it started to feel a lot more real.
As is well known, the relations between Iran and the United States have not been the most friendly since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, and have especially been quite hostile for most of my lifetime. But in the wake of the 2013 presidential elections in Iran, there has been what some have interpreted as a détente between the two nations. Indeed, according to Al-Jazeera English “more positive diplomatic developments between the United States and […] Iran have come to fruition in recent weeks than in the past three decades” (1). Less than a month ago, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, and Barack Obama spoke on the phone for the first time, an event dubbed “When Hussein called Hassan” (1). Mr, Rouhani has been portrayed as a reformer, despite his close relations with the country’s hardliners. Yet, as a former nuclear negotiator, he does have considerable diplomatic clout.
Mr. Rouhani does seem to have a mandate for these overtures, as he enjoys the support of parliament and media reception to his endeavors has been favorable, despite the usual warbling from hardline ideological mouthpieces such as Kayhan and Rajanews (2, 3, 6). While there have been clear showings of dissent (4), it is apparent that many in Iran, both in the civil society and in the government are ready for a change in their relationship to the United States and the rest of the world. We certainly shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that this has occurred in a vacuum. Indeed, the latest round of sanctions has run Iran’s economy in the ground, creating impoverished conditions that in some quarters resemble the years of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s (2).
I can’t help but wonder whether this invitation that I received is connected with this atmosphere. I have been told the last occasion on which Americans were invited to this conference was in 2004 during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s liberal predecessor. But this time seems different, for despite Khatami’s reformist leanings, his attempts to make such diplomatic gestures were stymied by hawkish posturing at home (6). Indeed, to quote Ali Vaez, it is as if “the biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken”, but I still wonder if what we are seeing is truly the “beginning of a new era”(5).
But, in light of all this, it is hard to not see this invitation as part of this larger process. I have no illusions, however, about what this means as far as spending more time in Iran is concerned. Wiser and more experienced voices here have made it clear that current conditions resemble ones that have arisen before. The door of possibility opens an inch, and if you miss the window of opportunity, it quickly slams shut again. And that door is open just to visit, much less to plan and conduct a program of long-term archaeological fieldwork. While Iranian and American archaeologists collaborated in the Jiroft project during the last decade, it remains to be seen whether that sort of work is yet possible. In this regard, my trip will likely be highly informative.
Ostensibly the reason why I have been invited is due to my work on Iranian prehistory. As an anthropological archaeologist, I have investigated complex societies in Iran at a distance for several years now, using archival collections and published materials to piece together a more coherent picture of excavations that languished without being properly published. My research up to this point has focused on the Gorgan region of northeastern Iran, a veritable mini-Mesopotamia wedged between the Alborz Mountains, the Caspian Sea and the Turkmen Steppe, with hundreds of ancient sites dotting the interfluvial plain between the Gorgan and Atrek rivers. My work has focused primarily on a site called Tureng Tepe (Pheasant Hill), which incidentally, was the very first archaeological site to be excavated by Americans in Iran (Olson in review). Frederick and Susanne Wulsin were diplomat-explorers, working as part of an American envoy to Iran in the 1930s (Olson forthcoming). Their mandate was to broker a renegotiation of the Iranian Antiquities laws, but they were also given a permit to excavate in the vicinity of Astarabad (Shahr-e Gorgan).
Between October of 2010 and the present, I studied the Wulsin publications, archival documents, and the collection of artifacts they brought back to the University of Pennsylvania Museum, in order to reconstruct their excavation and to further our understanding of this important site. The results of this work are what I will be presenting at this conference. How apropos, then, to be delivering a talk on the origins of the Iranian-American archaeological relationship at a time when relations between the two countries are just beginning to be resumed, however fitfully, provisionally, and perhaps ultimately ephemerally or abortive they may play out from this point forward. Indeed, I cannot escape the feeling that this fantastic opportunity will not ultimately result in much progress toward resuming archaeological field collaboration between American and Iranian scholars. Nevertheless, I am hopeful, and look forward to the discoveries that await.
As much as I would love to continue this archival work with fieldwork on the ground, I know that beginning a new project in the region is far beyond the realm of possibility at the present. While there are a number of Iranian archaeologists who work in the Gorgan, in addition to a British team investigating the Kizil-Alan Wall (sometimes called Alexander’s Wall), institutionally, politically, and economically speaking, it would be far too difficult to get the requisite permissions and raise the needed funds to conduct a dissertation project in collaboration with these scholars. Nevertheless, I am overjoyed to have the opportunity to meet the people with whom I have corresponded over the last few years.
The day the visa confirmation came through was a reality check. The ball was really rolling, so to speak. Decisions had to be made quickly – could I afford to pass up this opportunity, despite it being right in the middle of the busiest part of my semester? Could I actually pay for the tickets and hotels up front, could the university reimburse me? How long would that take? Regardless of the answers to these questions, I had to move quickly. The only option to move things forward was to go to Washington D.C. to visit the Iranian Interests section of the Pakistani Embassy (Daftar-e Hezafat-e Monafe’-ye Jamhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran).
The office is located in a commercial building in Georgetown, which is not well connected to the Metro system, but can be easily accessed via bus. When we first arrived, we walked right past it, as the office is quite unassuming. The only indication of what is located within is an Iranian flag in the window, and a sign in Persian and English indicating the hours of operation and the rules concerning documents. You go through security and head up the stairs into a large windowless room, with rows of chairs facing a window. You take a number and wait for it to be called. There is tea on one end of the room, and a large flat-screen tv on the other, broadcasting Iranian TV (tuned to the Islamic Republic’s International News Network). As it is a Friday morning, it is not terribly busy in the office. There are several families, young couples, as well as older folks by themselves, and me. I stick out like a sore thumb with my wild beard, tailored jacket, and distinctly non-Persian features. Everyone is speaking Persian (except for the young children) and all business is conducted in Persian. It takes me a while to attempt to make conversation with anyone for fear of embarrassing myself with my once lucid-now broken Persian. Either way, I’m glad I got here early, because by noon the room had filled up with people.
In the end, it took the better part of the day to get everything taken care of. An older woman, a retired doctor, took pity on me and we had a nice chat. She explained to me that the usual official was not present and the people filling in for him at the counter were just as frustrated as we were, given the volume of business that ended up materializing. It was a trying day, as I had come somewhat unprepared (I needed a physical copy of several documents that I only had electronic copies of, passport-sized photographs, cash, etc.), but in the end everything worked out. I am grateful for the patience of the officials at the Daftar and for the friendliness of the people with whom I spoke. I am hopeful that bureaucratic processes will proceed more smoothly for the remainder of this endeavor, but for the time being, everything is set and arranged. I have my visa, my flights are booked, my arrangements have been made. Now back to getting ahead of schedule on coursework so this jaunt doesn’t put me too far behind… it is the first semester of my first year of graduate school after all!
1) D. Parviz. (5 October 2013) “Analysis: Is US-Iran détente for real?” http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/5/analysis-is-us-irandetenteforreal.html
2) Ali Ansari. (7 October 2013) “Iran and the US: the Politics of Détente” http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C5252A87A796E0/#.UlhBpCifNUR
3) M. Etebari. (4 October 2013) “Iran Press Report: Reactions to Rouhani’s Phone Call with Obama” http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/iran-at-saban/posts/2013/10/04-iran-press-report-phone-call-obama-rouhani?rssid=foreign+policy&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+BrookingsRSS%2Fprograms%2Fforeignpolicy+%28Brookings+Programs+-+Foreign+Policy%29
4) Kayhan Editorial. “Rouhani dar payan-e safar-e panj-rouzeh az New York beh Tehran bazgasht emtiyaz-e naqd dadim va’deh-ha-ye nasieh goftim” http://www.kayhan.ir/920707/3.htm#N301
5) J. Mason & L. Charbonneau. (28 September 2013) “Obama, Iran’s Rouhani hold historic phone call” http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/28/us-un-assembly-iran-idUSBRE98Q16S20130928
6) Saeed Kamali Dehghan. (2 October 2013) “Obama and Rouhani’s telephone call of huge significance, says Iranian deputy” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/02/obama-rouhani-phone-call-us-iran