Blind Man with a Pistol

Free and Fair

‘Free and Fair’ elections is quickly becoming a registered trademark, patented by the West, used only in the negative against enemies of Western hegemony. To wit, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and most recently and most sensationally, Iran, all attract Western solicitude, debutante champions of ‘democracy’ soberly measuring the ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’ of brown people everywhere. When, I wonder, was the last time the Globe and Mail announced ‘Stephen Harper wins free and fair federal election’? Perhaps it would be better for Iran to follow the American-allied Saudi example: if you don’t hold elections at all, no one can complain about their legitimacy.

Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, calls the assumption of a fixed election in Iran a ‘social fact’. That is, it is no longer a question whether or not President Ahmadinejad and his followers rigged the election, a critical mass of Iranians now believe they did, and they are fighting with their lives. This makes it easier to ignore the frenzied Western media and their self-righteous braying in the name of free and fair elections (without, it is fair to say, a trace of irony), while still supporting the Iranian people and their struggle for democracy.

I don’t know enough about Iran to pass comment on the status of their revolution, so it would be prudent to start by contextualizing the West’s concern for the state of democracy in Iran. First: since, as written at Revolutionary Flowerpot Society, all elections held in Iran occur within a theocratic system. This means, contrary to what American and Israeli hawks have been successfully insisting since 2002, the presidency of Iran is not the highest executive office in the country: that privilege, as our media is slowly learning, belongs to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aside from the fact that such a heirarchy suggests that no election in Iran has been ‘free and fair’ since about 1951 (and the Americans and British made sure those results didn’t stick), the result of this incongruous mixture is that Khamenei has emerged in the Western press paradoxically as a grandfatherly, judicious sage, pleading for stability and pondering a recount, rather than a theocratic patriarch who remains the largest barrier to Iranian democracy (a fact, it should be needless to add, not lost on Iranians).

Furthermore, the incessant tendency of the Western media to deliver heroes and villains to its readership means that since Ahmadinejad is our demon, Mir-Hossein Mousavi must be our angel. Consider first that Mousavi and democracy are rather recent bedfellows, and second, that his chief supporter, Mohammad Khatami, was the recipient of George W. Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ prize in 2002 when he, and not Ahmadinejad, was president of Iran. Moreover, the reason that Ahmadinejad is grossly popular with the poor and dispossessed may have less to do with fundamentalist chicanery (although its draw cannot be ignored) and more to do with adroit local politics (h-t croghan), forging populist policies that afford full insurance to impoverished women and free university classes to Azeris. This toxic mixture of ideology and praxis defrauds the West’s monolithic view of Iran and pits oppressive fundamentalism against disenfranchisement of the poor, possible comfort to the Israeli-US war machine and potential of outright anti-revolutionary betrayal. An uncomfortable choice for a Western liberal not up to speed on 100 years or so of Iranian history.

More distressing is the inextricable relationship these elections and the attendant Western response share with the two imperialist wars in the Middle East, the subsequent occupations, and their genesis. The revelation that those who a few years earlier were advocating an American bombing campaign of the Iranian people are now suddenly concerned about their welfare should incite us to revisit what is motivating our desire for Iranian freedom and fairness.  Such an impulse, cognate with the liberal support in 2002 for the Iraq war, suggests that urging a bourgeois revolution in Tehran is consonant with murdering the people behind it; that is, the people involved in both scenarios remain invisible to us. Both are spectacles of our narcissism, fantasies of our media, and betray Western imperialist desire.

The only rational conclusion that can be drawn, then, is to support neither the neo-liberalism and cross-class appeal of Mousavi or the populist, yet theocratic craft of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, as outsiders, it is neither our responsibility nor our purview to comment (a sentiment, surprisingly enough, shared by the American president). The election itself, whatever degree of fraud we choose to apply to it, is no longer an issue. A recount, now counselled by Khamenei, seems like an absurd solution in the wake of recent events. Our obligation, therefore, is to keep our ‘free and fair’ label in our pockets—to support enthusiastically, joyfully and without reservation the struggle on all sides of the Iranian people  who can now glimpse a better world, plumbed from the depths of the delerious and frenetic soup of hope and tragedy in which they have been submerged.

Persepolis: The Transparent Veil

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a film adaption of her autobiographical graphic novels, won the 2007 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. In an era where serious journalism is becoming increasingly cartoonish, with villains like the “Axis of Evil” threatening our freedom and government agencies staging press conferences in dramatic mise-en-scènes, it is ironically fitting that a comic book should provide the most honest, complex and balanced analysis of contemporary geopolitics. Satrapi’s Persepolis 1 (2003) and Persepolis 2 (2004), traces the growth of an adolescent Iranian girl through revolution, war and fundamentalist oppression as she struggles to find her identity across two countries, continents and worlds.

Persepolis is named for the lost capital of Persia, a Muslim nation living in a western invention. In her article “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance,” Jennifer Worth points out that unlike the slate of female Iranian expat memoirs that have appeared in the United States over the last decade (Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad [2005], for example), Satrapi’s work is concerned less with “recounting the difficulty of resolving an identity caught between two worlds” than “the formation of identity itself.” Even as ideological revolutions and wars cynically backed by Western governments play out, as loved uncles are executed for political beliefs and neighbours’ homes destroyed by daily bombings, what remains most striking and affecting about Persepolis is the simple story of a teenager struggling for self-definition. Certainly Marjane, Satrapi’s self-fashioned protagonist, contends with the isolation, both home and abroad, that accompanies Westernized Iranians: an unwelcome immigrant in Europe, but rendered a stranger in her homeland by her continental philosophies and tastes. But Marjane must also negotiate between parental authority and adolescent rebellion, sexual desire and fear of rejection, personal integrity and the lure of superficiality.

While the novel has historically provided Eastern and Western women with a “safe” outlet into the public sphere traditionally denied them, the graphic novel foregrounds not only the ability to be heard, but, of special resonance to Iranian women, at least to women like Satrapi who object strongly to enforced adherence to the hijab, the ability to be seen as well. (However, despite her virulent criticism of the veil as a symbol of violent oppression, Satrapi equally objects to an enforced banning of the veil, as she articulated in this Guardian essay with regards to the French ban on “conspicuous” manifestations of religious belief.) Notwithstanding her objection to the veil, however, Satrapi’s identity remains indelibly tied up with it. In fact, Satrapi’s text internalizes somewhat the logic of the veil: it is both an image of and an attempt to remake identity. By rendering the veil transparent, Persepolis embodies Satrapi’s political struggleto uphold the honour of her native country while liberating it from the oppression she perceives.

The convergence of image and text in the rewriting and re-imaging of the body registers both the immediacy of identity performance (as Scott McCloud writes in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art [1994], in the graphic novel, “it is always now”) and the narrative of maturationan interminable process of becoming. Furthermore, the choice of the liminal literary form of the graphic novel ensured that Satrapi’s autobiography would be digested as a doubly marginalized text: the specialized form of graphic novel is even less mainstream than the comic book. “The goal of my life is always to be marginal, to be on the margins, not to be part of any group,” Satrapi insists in an interview with The Independent. Satrapi’s celebration of liminality, in both form and content, allows her ongoing struggle with identity in the face of pressures both personal and global, to produce a powerful, beautiful statement on life in the twenty-first century.