Our Tehran, Sold

Our Tehran, Sold

Sohrab Ahmari: Our Tehran, Sold

?They never make films about us,? Granaz Moussavi, the Iranian-Australian poet and filmmaker, told my mother and me over a steak dinner in Boston last winter. Moussavi was in town for a screening of her debut feature, My Tehran for Sale. The dinner was a reunion pregnant with bittersweet nostalgia. Long before she had taken flight to the Land Down Under to pursue a career in film, Moussavi was a constant presence in my childhood home in Tehran?a modest two-story that often hosted many of the city?s prominent artists and intellectuals. My abstract expressionist mother and architect father had been divorced many years earlier but still cohabited in an arrangement designed to shield me from the pain of their separation. But their bizarre theater of matrimony was often more traumatic than the underlying reality it was meant to mask.

Still, my parents? clinging to a certain Persian bohemianism had its benefits, too. For one thing, as an only child, I had the run of that house. I could paint and draw all over my bedroom walls?perhaps not a major childhood freedom by Western standards but astounding by Iranian ones. I was surrounded by novels and poems, and frequently the novelists and poets who wrote them. An Armenian man by the name of Simon?Iran?s answer to Blockbuster Video?delivered our weekly ration of forbidden foreign films. (Under the Shah, Simon had been training to become a fighter pilot but was booted out of the program on account of his Christian faith once the mullahs came to power.) When a film crew showed up at our house to shoot a scene for a movie featuring the late Khosrow Shakibai, then the star of the most popular show on state-run television, I became, if only for twenty-four hours, the coolest kid in the neighborhood.

It was this milieu that Moussavi and a few other younger Iranian artists entered when they befriended my parents, who were several years older than they. For Moussavi, our household was a refuge from her own stern, traditionalist family?a place where smoking women were not frowned upon and where araq (Persian moonshine) flowed freely. And it was this ?us? that she was referring to all those many years later in Boston: Iran?s educated middle class, profoundly alienated from the Islamist regime and closely attuned to Western modernity. Yet, as Moussavi rightly complained, Iranian filmmakers had for many years neglected the personal stories of these Iranians. Auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, on the one hand, turned their gaze on remote, rural corners of Iran in search of fundamental, philosophical insights. Social and critical realists like Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi, on the other hand, focused on the abject poverty gripping the lives of Tehran?s most marginalized denizens.

In recent years, a younger cohort of Iranian filmmakers, Moussavi chief among them, has set out to change this state of affairs. Moussavi?s My Tehran for Sale stars her friend Marzieh Vafamehr playing a character by the same name, an actress struggling to stay true to her art despite the pressures exerted by the regime and Iran?s oppressive social realities. In many ways Moussavi?s film is reminiscent of Shadows, John Cassavetes? 1964 debut about the doomed relationship between a light-skinned African-American woman and her white boyfriend, set against New York?s vibrant intellectual scene. Like Cassavetes, Moussavi follows her subject, in non-linear fashion, from this underground poetry reading to that theater workshop, then back to an illegal rave, and so on. My Tehran for Sale, too, features a doomed relationship: between Marzieh and a young Iranian-Australian who has returned to his native home seeking a respite from his financial troubles in Australia and, perhaps, something approximating love.

Like Shadows, Moussavi?s film is an ode to a great city. The emotional centerpiece of My Tehran for Sale is formed when Marzieh and Saman, the expat boyfriend, visit the north Tehran cemetery where Forough Farrokhzad, a pioneering feminist poet, is buried. The scene is one of those magical Tehran moments, when the hustle and bustle of one of the world?s most polluted megalopolises suddenly gives way to a poetic oasis. Behind a little noticed wooden door lies a green gravesite where young lovers like Marzieh and Saman share solitude among some of the city?s long forgotten romantic spirits. Then, just as suddenly, they?and the audience?are transported back to the other Tehran: the quasi-totalitarian capital of the Islamic Republic with its Stalinist architecture and the gaudy additions inhabited by new elites.

Unlike the careless, young New Yorkers in Shadows, however, truly ominous forces threaten Moussavi?s young Iranians. By framing her subjects tightly and by hinting at the omnipresence of internal security forces tasked with crushing free thought, My Tehran for Sale captures perfectly the sense of paranoia that pervades the lives of Iran?s intelligent young, impelling them to live double lives or flee abroad. Moreover, what finally ruptures Marzieh?s relationship with Saman is something far more deadly than racial misunderstanding: Marzieh, it turns out, is HIV-positive. Upon learning of her status, Saman beats Marzieh and returns to Australia. She soon follows suit, finding herself detained at an immigration facility and facing unsympathetic Australian officials to whom she is just another troublesome Middle Eastern refugee. Before doing so, however, Marzieh auctions off a lifetime of books, paintings, musical instruments?the paraphernalia of dissident life in Tehran.

The tale is a familiar one in the wide Persian diaspora. My own family took a similar path, albeit under far less tragic circumstances. The two-story was sold off years ago, along with many of the paintings that once decorated its walls. My parents no longer keep up even the false pretense of a post-divorce camaraderie (though this is likely for the best). The old friendships have all been frayed?by distance, by time, by ideology. Then, this week, we learned that an Iranian trial court has sentenced the real Marzieh?who, along with her husband, the famed director Nasser Taqvai, also came by the old house?to a year in prison and ninety lashes for her role in the film. The charges are hollow. Moussavi obtained approval from the culture ministry?this was not a ?gonzo? film. It would have been irresponsible to take the approach preferred by other directors, she explained in Boston, to screen underground footage abroad while leaving cast and crew inside the country to deal with the risk. The legal technicalities aside, Tehran?s clerical rulers?impervious to irony?are clearly intent on punishing an Iranian actress for starring in a film about, among other issues, censorship. They have long sold off our Tehran and our Iran?and basic decency along with them.