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Cinema | 'Zendegi-ye Khosoosi': The 'Private Life' of an Iranian Reformist

by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI

09 Aug 2012 11:03Comments

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A tale of a fatal attraction bears a host of ideological implications.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral student in modern Middle East studies at Queens College, University of Oxford.
[ society ] A provocative film recently graced Iran's cinemas, albeit for a short time, sparking controversy across the country. The hardline fundamentalist vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah (Helpers of the Party of God) sought to prevent Zendegi-ye Khosoosi (Private Life), directed by Mohammad Hossein Farah Bakhsh, from screening at numerous cinemas across the country after its limited release, and the film ultimately saw its license revoked. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has been heavily criticized by conservatives and fundamentalists for licensing it to begin with. Similarly, its screening at the Fajr Film Festival and the Best Actor award Farhad Aslani won there for his performance has been widely denounced.

Zendegi-ye Khosoosi charts the life of a man who at the outset of the 1979 Revolution is a zealous revolutionary, but who over the decades evolves into a reformist and fervent antagonist of the Islamic Republic's conservative establishment. Ebrahim Kiani (Aslani) is the editor of Mardom-e Emrouz (Today's People), a possible reference to one of the preeminent reformist dailies during the era of Mohammad Khatami's presidency, Sobh-e Emrooz, headed by Saeed Hajjarian and Ali Reza Alavi Tabar.

In this article, I have no pretension to partake in film criticism, something for which I'm totally unqualified; I'm far more interested in some of the political motifs and themes that the film raises and how they relate to the shifting geography of the Iranian political scene. In this respect, Zendegi-ye Khosoosi tells the tale of a onetime zealot who steadily loses faith in the revolution and regime he once so vehemently defended. As time passes, he transforms from an enforcer of orthodoxy to a critic from within. This tale has been told many a time, and will no doubt be told again. What is interesting about Farah Bakhsh's film is its vivid illustration of the tale within the context of Iranian popular culture; despite the odd cliché and clumsy turn of phrase, it addresses a complex and deeply controversial set of political issues.

During the twilight of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, a small genre of films emerged that interrogated the Soviet past. Some of these pictures examined in critical fashion the excesses of Stalin and the cult of personality that was constructed around him; Repentance, directed by Tengiz Abuladze, is a notable example. While Zendegi-ye Khosoosi is a far cry from Repentance and comparable films of its genre -- for instance the personality of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Imam, remains well beyond reproach -- it can be seen as a commentary on Iran's revolutionary past and its legacy. It also in a limited way breaks a number of taboos, while also raising many questions and problems of its own.

The opening scene depicts a bearded Ebrahim in the throes of the Revolution. With a group of fellow zealots, he attacks a cinema and tears down the posters plastered on its walls with various "provocative" scenes. While attacking the cinema, he bellows the obligatory "Allah-o Akbar," pumping his fist in the air. The crowd then proceeds inside the cinema to vandalize everything in sight.

As Ebrahim rallies a band of men who look like members of the Basij paramilitary force, he proclaims, "There is no difference between a badly veiled woman, and a woman without a veil -- they're infidels.... We must not allow this licentious group to trample on the ideals of our revolution. We must smack them in the mouth." One scene graphically depicts Ebrahim and his band of bearded men dead set on terrorizing and hunting down those women who fall short of their prescription for "Islamic modesty." As a terrified, screaming woman finds herself corned, Ebrahim pushes a tack into her forehead for being improperly covered. It has been claimed that this is a reference to Akbar Ganji, who was infamously nicknamed Akbar Poonez (Akbar the Tack) for the manner in which he reportedly confronted "badly veiled" women in the first years after the Revolution.

After Ebrahim leaves the woman writhing in agony, his friend pulls him aside and asks, "What are you doing?" "Executing the command of God," he replies with unwavering conviction. "With what license?" his friend shouts back. "We were only meant to caution [people]." With the unfaltering certainty of which only the "fanatic" is capable, Ebrahim barks back, "No matter the reason, if one doesn't prohibit evil, then one has sinned, you understand?" He turns around and walks off, impervious to his friend's entreaties that he exercise restraint.

While the credits are still rolling, there is a scene of Ebrahim wearing dark shades in a darkened room. While he lights a cigarette, we see a man hanging upside down, screaming in pain as the soles of his feet are lashed. Ebrahim appears to relish the sadistic scene. "Keep hitting him," Ebrahim says, "till he tells everything...monafegh [hypocrite]." "Monafegh" is the name used in Islamic Republic propaganda to designate the Mojahedin-e Khalgh, the Khomeinists' mortal enemy since the early 1980s, when Iran was on the precipice of civil war. The very fact that such a scene was included in the final cut is itself noteworthy, since it is essentially a depiction of officially sanctioned torture, the existence of which the regime has always sought to deny and erase from public discourse.

Jumping several years into the future, we see Ebrahim, minus the beard, exiting an official building after having been forced to resign his post due to allegations of corruption, allegations which he hints were the result of political infighting. Responding to a journalist's question in the tone and idiom peculiar to Islamic Republic officialdom, he says, "I'm a small solider for the nezaam [political system], and for the preservation of the values of the nezaam I am prepared to offer my life, namoos [honor], and livelihood...but will in due course reply and break my silence."

Now, in the film's present tense, Ebrahim is a well-known newspaper editor and "radical" reformist critic from within the system. At one point, he is compelled to say an "expedient hello" to a figure almost certainly based on Hossein Shariatmadari, the infamous hardline editor of Kayhan, widely regarded as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's primary voice in the media. Ebrahim and his paper have suffered several public attacks at the hands of their conservative rival, and the conversation quickly breaks down into an acrimonious exchange.

The hardline editor, referred to simply as "Hajj Agha," dresses down Ebrahim, telling him, "The things your newspaper's printing prepare fodder for the enemy.... I can't overlook deviance due to our past together."

Ebrahim firmly rebuts his erstwhile comrade-in-arms. "Anything that isn't compatible with your taste you deem deviant as you draw red lines around us."

The veneer of civility with which they began has disintegrated. Hajj Agha asserts, "Our red line is clear. The preservation of the regime is the most sacred duty of all."

Ebrahim parries with a rhetorical blow that ends the conversation. "These words of yours, do they spring from religion or from a lust for power?... In my newspaper, I write of the people's pain. Do you know as a result of your accusations how many people have gone to jail and families ruined? With the state of things created by you, one generation has lost hope with the Revolution.... It's true you buy political influence for yourself with backing from the Treasury."

The unambiguous nature of this scene and the depiction of an intra-elite argument between Ebrahim and a Shariatmadari-type figure is quite remarkable. Iranians regularly invoke comparable political leitmotifs in private conversation and debate, and they have even bubbled to the surface of political journalism and commentary, particularly in the late 1990s when the reformist press was at its vibrant peak -- exemplified by the work of investigative journalists Ganji and Emad Baghi on the Chain Murders. In popular culture, however, such allusions, and caustic ones at that, have been rare indeed.

After this heated exchange, Ebrahim takes a breather outside, where he encounters a young aspiring writer from London: Parisa Zandi, played by the well-known actress Hanieh Tavassoli. Parisa recognizes "the famous Ebrahim Kiani, editor of Mardom-e Emrooz" right away and expresses her desire to write for his newspaper.

Parisa subsequently submits an "erotic" short story, which he says he can't print because it violates the implicit "red lines" laid down for newspaper editors by the nezaam. In protest, Parisa tells him, "But your newspaper is the vanguard for breaking read lines." He replies, "Yes, political ones...political awareness is one of the people's demands." He adds, however, that Parisa's piece might be construed as "unethical" and if it is to be published in the newspaper it must be "compatible with the culture, customs, and laws of society." This could be said to reflect the state-reformist focus on matters of procedure in so-called "good governance," relating to the rule of law and accountability of state institutions, at the expense, say critics, of cultural and religious reform and self-criticism, particularly with respect to issues of sexuality and women's liberation.

As mentioned previously, Ebrahim Kiani fits the template of many, if not the overwhelming majority, of state reformists in Iran, who began their political lives as radical revolutionary devotees of Khomeini, with dreams of establishing a utopian-popular Islamic state at home and exporting Islamic revolution abroad. With their progressive exclusion from the political scene during the early 1990s, spearheaded by Khamenei and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, these onetime radicals underwent a period of reflection on the nature and trajectory of the Revolution. Individuals such as Behzad Nabavi, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Hamidreza Jalaeipour, Ali Reza Alavi Tabar, Ebrahim Nabavi, Mohsen Sazagara, Akbar Ganji, Saeed Hajjarian, and Abbas Abdi, who had previously been Islamist radicals favoring a strong state with powerful economic redistributive powers, would emerge as reformists out of a process that for many was long and often painful, culminating, albeit unexpectedly, in the 2 Khordad Movement and Khatami's electoral victory in the 1997 presidential election. It is not clear at times whether Zendegi-ye Khosoosi is parodying these individuals or praising them -- one of the reasons why it is interesting as a popular commentary on the politics of the time.

At a ski resort, Parisa quizzes Ebrahim on his past and motivations. "I am confused and don't know if you are the same person you are now, or those things that I have heard.... I heard that what you're doing today differs 180 degrees with your past; before you were a Sepahi-ye nezaami [Sepah is a common abbreviation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and now you oppose your old friends because your post and office were taken from you." Ebrahim nonchalantly, though with a bit of a grimace, replies as if he's heard the same story many times. "These days the atmosphere is one of firing off accusations. Everyone is accused in some way. One of subversion, one of being a hypocrite, one is a deviant, one is a mercenary; the fight is one of power, and we're in the game."

In an earlier scene over dinner, Ebrahim didactically tells Parisa, "The pursuit of truth was always attractive for me. I believe consciousness must be given to the people. We must dispatch the demands of the people to those in power." In this way, we see a contradictory mixture of power, pragmatism, and idealism, all three of which Ebrahim and the reformist elite could be said to embody, with the gargantuan task of reconciling those contradictions proving endlessly difficult, if not altogether impossible.

Befitting the moment, and echoing the audience's own skepticism, Parisa replies, "Don't your words have a whiff of sloganeering about them?" She adds, "I was thinking about how much you differ from what I had envisaged."

He asks, "What idea of me did you have in your mind? A 'chain murderer'?" (As Ganji and Baghi were instrumental in exposing, supposedly "rogue" Intelligence Ministry operatives led by Saeed Emami were responsible for those killings of a series of intellectuals between 1988 and 1998.)

"No," she counters. "I thought you would be a dogmatic religious type."

As if picking from among his bag of ready-made answers and in stark contrast to his onetime practice of accosting women deemed "badly veiled," he states, "I believe there have been different interpretations of Islam" -- a refrain often heard from Iranian reformists and "religious intellectuals" (roshanfekran-e dini) such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. He continues, "Islam isn't a religion of violence at all. I personally believe that Islam must be at one with the present."

That evening, they return to Parisa's home. When Ebrahim's wife phones, he claims he is at a late meeting. Ultimately, at Ebrahim's suggestion, he and Parisa enter into a "temporary marriage" (sigheh). This is a paramarital contract in Shia Islam that allows a man and woman to engage in "religiously permissible" relations for anything from a couple of hours to several decades. The man is usually supposed to solicit the permission of his first wife, but Ebrahim dispenses with this "formality." Despite being a modern and putatively Westernized Iranian woman from London, Parisa agrees and Ebrahim recites the relevant prayer to "sanctify" their union.

This may be interpreted as a reference to Atoallah Mohajerani, who as a minister of culture and Islamic guidance during the Khatami era was considered a liberal thorn in the side of the conservative establishment, providing the reformist press with licenses to publish their newspapers, journals, and books. Mohajerani was accused by the Revolutionary Guard-controlled Fars News Agency -- which is well known for fabricating "news" whole cloth for ideological purposes (e.g., a fictionalized version of Asghar Farhadi's speech accepting the Oscar for A Separation, a purported interview with Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi) -- of polygamy and having entered into a temporary marriage with a younger woman. Whether this is a not-so-subtle swipe at the former culture minister, who made a famous defense of free speech in Islamic terms to the Fifth Majles, one can only speculate. But it is certainly curious that the film uses charges leveled against high-profile reformists and critics of the regime by the conservative and Guard-affiliated press to circuitously impugn the latter's credibility. Farah Bakhsh was most probably trying to grope his way across the veritable minefield laid down by government censors and perhaps even placate them.

It is at points like this that the question arises of whether Zendegi-ye Khosoosi is also a critique of the Islamic Republic's reformists' perceived moral inconsistencies and failure to act on their rhetoric. While the view that they have been morally inconsistent can be found in the smear campaigns of the conservative Iranian press, and to a lesser extent the diaspora, the idea that the reformists failed to live up their rhetoric appears to be more broadly held. It was definitely seen in the University of Tehran student body's unenthused, even hostile reception of Khatami in December 2003, and Zendegi-ye Khosoosi certainly seems to be giving voice to such a sentiment.

In a scene set at the newspaper's offices, Ebrahim dismisses a proposed front-page byline on the basis that his enemies will accuse him of following the "BBC's line." He is, of course, referring to BBC Persian. In the next scene, ironically, Ebrahim watches BBC Persian's reportage criticizing the Islamic Republic.

It is easy to read this scene as a jab at the reformists, implying they engage in doublespeak -- radical in private, while publicly staying within the bounds laid down by the nezaam for purposes of political and economic expediency. It also implies that Iranian political personalities might themselves often rely on BBC Persian because of the dearth of journalism with a critical edge produced inside the country.

In another important scene, Ebrahim visits a former Revolutionary Guard commander who headed an important battalion in the Iran-Iraq War and lost two sons in the conflict. Attempting to persuade the former commander to give an interview on the state of the country, Ebrahim insists, "I am your servant, my newspaper is at your disposal."

We see the pictures of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei that adorn the veteran's office walls. Ebrahim presses on. "Hajji, the people should understand why the commander of Khaybar is in the corner of some factory.... The people of this country are in your debt."

"We are in debt to the next generation, not the likes of us."

"When I think of the past, I get distraught, how good and ideal it all was," says Ebrahim.

The veteran replies, "It could have been far better than this if we hadn't forgotten our ideals."

"Hajji, why did it end up like this? How did we come to this point?"

"I doubt it matters to you...I know your past," says the former commander. He continues,

You may listen, but you go your own way. You were always the same.... Do you really want to know? We staged a revolution for religion to rule, but the problems started when we forgot that Islam is also a religion of ethics; we clung to ahkam [Islamic law]. We put ethics on the shelf and forgot about it.... Imam Sadegh has a definition of "religion," Mr. Ebrahim: it's not merely a matter of the length of one's rising and prostration in prayer, but being trustworthy and faithful to one's promises. What have we done with the trust invested in us by these children?... From Islamic law, we learned only to send two cars into the street and cause the bodies of our youth to tremble.... From Islamic law, we learned that if two strands of a woman's hair are visible to plunge tacks into her forehead.... This is what happened to lead us to this juncture.... The perversion of the Revolution began with the likes of you, Ebrahim.... I heard you wrote in your newspaper that Imam Askari didn't have a son [i.e., the 12th Imam].... Ebrahim, I'm worried for you.

Ebrahim's denial of the existence of the 12th Imam is a clear reference to Akbar Ganji who, in numerous articles written since he left Iran in 2006, has endeavored to popularize the writing and research of individuals such as Hossein Modarressi, professor of Islamic Studies at Princeton University, whose book Maktab dar Farayand-e Takamol (first published in English in 1993 as Crisis and Consolidation in the Formative Period of Shi'ite Islam) proved most controversial, and Iranian researcher and polemicist Haydar Ali Qalamdaran, who advocated a puritanical brand of Islam during the 1950s and 1960s, and denied the validity of the Shia belief in Imamate and the special status accorded to the 12 Imams.

Because of the former commander's emphasis on ethics as opposed to legalism, the hardline Jahan News even took to linking the film to the writings of Soroush's well-known protégé Arash Naraghi, currently assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Moravian College in Pennsylvania. Naraghi has penned an interesting essay, "An Ethical Critique of the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult," which has provoked the ire of supporters of Iran's theocratic system. Since Naraghi is identified with the Green Movement, Jahan News, of course, also determined that the film was a machination of the "deviant current."

While the former commander concludes that young radicals like Ebrahim, who were distinguished from their ideological rivals by their fervent advocacy on behalf of the radical clergy, were responsible for the Revolution's "deviation," at the same time he rebukes the newfound radicalism of individuals like Ganji, who attack the foundations of Shia belief such as the occultation of the 12th Imam.

After Parisa phones Ebrahim's home, fueling his wife's suspicion that he is unfaithful, he meets with Parisa to end their affair once and for all. "What do you want me to say? I fucked up," he declares. "When I look in my wife's eyes, I feel guilty." Parisa then tells Ebrahim she has fallen pregnant. In disbelief, all he can muster is, "I'm not the kind to be a coward. I'll try to help you, I'll get a good doctor. Parisa, the quicker you get rid of it, the smaller the sin." Despite his earlier professions of progressive religiosity, Ebrahim characterizes "sin" in the crudest of terms.

Though Ebrahim repeatedly rejects the possibility that they can have the life together she desires, Parisa refuses to abort the child. Visibly perturbed, he tells her, "You've gone mad."

She angrily shouts back, "Why? Because I don't let you make my decisions for me? For a lifetime, I've been hurt by men like you. Before my divorce, I was pregnant and that bastard forced me to abort the child.... Ebrahim, I'm going to keep this child whether you're around or not."

"What do you want from me?" asks Ebrahim.

Parisa replies, "Nothing. Just a birth certificate for my child." Ebrahim storms off as Parisa calls out, "Where are you going?"

"Hell," he replies.

After dodging her calls for several days, Ebrahim comes home to an empty house and to his great surprise finds Parisa and his wife, Forough, sipping tea together in the garden. Oblivious to Parisa and Ebrahim's connection, Forough retells how after going shopping she realized two of her tires were punctured and she had no way to pick up their son, Meisam, from school. Parisa, whom Forough calls an "angel," "luckily" appeared on the scene and shuttled Forough around on her errands before dropping her home. This is just one of many instances in which Zendegi-ye Khosoosi slides into a stale, sanitized rehash of the popular 1987 film Fatal Attraction, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, albeit with an Iranian twist, in which female jouissance poses a potentially explosive threat beyond the control of law and order.

Here the film problematically blurs the lines between two issues: the case of a woman and her basic right to choose whether she has an abortion or not is conflated with that of a woman who threatens not merely Ebrahim's marriage, but his family's safety as well. Toward the end of the film, Parisa dowses Ebrahim's car in gasoline and sets it alight, and stalks both him and his wife and son. After admitting to having destroyed his car, Parisa tells Ebrahim, "I'll shame you and get my and my child's rights."

In a fundamentally asymmetrical and discriminatory legal system, the problems faced by Iranian women regarding the defense of the rights over their bodies and with respect to their children are persistent and all too real. Their daily struggles, which for the most part go publicly undiscussed, are metaphorically minimized by the manner in which Parisa's "erratic" behavior is represented alongside her demand that Ebrahim properly recognize her and their unborn child.

Despite claims to the contrary that the women who partake in sigheh possess a clearly demarcated legal status, in practice, they often find themselves with few if any rights at all, especially when the contract is privately concluded and only the involved parties are aware of it. In the case of Ebrahim and Parisa, she has no legal status or rights whatsoever, and for protesting this debased status is depicted as "mentally unstable" and "deranged."

In other words, the only "liberated" or "independent" woman in Ebrahim's life turns out to be a hysterical stalker, and thus the film in many ways perpetuates the typology of femininity propagated by the Islamic Republic that a "free," "independent" woman must be in some respect "abnormal" or a "problem," "incapable of keeping a husband," or even potentially "dangerous."

The archetype of the "hysterical woman" is at the same time complemented by the doting housewife (shir-berenj), who is for the most part none the wiser to her husband's transgressions. In this way, it could be argued the film undermines the very real fight and struggle of many women, both religious and secular, to retake possession of their bodies, even if at the same time it takes aim at reformists' lip service to women's rights. It is, for instance, abundantly clear that Ebrahim, even as a "radical reformist" and supposed "progressive voice" within the system, is unprepared to let this "hysterical," "crazy" woman disturb his cocoon of marital stability and dry conventionality.

Realizing that Parisa is not going to abort the child as he wishes or leave him and his family in peace, he lures her into a car, claiming he has changed his mind and decided to take responsibility for both her and the still unborn child.

As he drives, a relieved Parisa chats away about how she felt it necessary to put a scare into Ebrahim in order for him to assume responsibility and how she "would rather die than live alone and in fear." All of a sudden, while still driving, Ebrahim pulls out a gun and shoots her point-blank in the head. He then dumps her body and sets it alight at the side of the road.

An imaginary or perhaps even hallucinated dialogue then takes place before Ebrahim as he sits behind the steering wheel sobbing, apparently at the enormity of the crime he has committed.

Parisa: "Are you now at peace? Don't you feel guilty?"

Ebrahim: "When it happens, people come to terms with their sin. It would have been a bigger sin to allow you to destroy my credibility and bring shame to my life."

Parisa: "What about my child? It hadn't sinned, but you killed it."

Ebrahim: "Yes, my child was innocent, but sacrificed for a bigger cause."

Parisa: "You will pay for what you have done."

Ebrahim: "You're wrong.... This world is much filthier than we think. I'm not afraid, because I don't believe in justice."

In this way, just as Ebrahim says earlier in the film about the political realm that "khodi-ha [insiders] and gheir-e khodi [outsiders] have gotten all mixed up," we are shown that "right" and "wrong," "good" and "evil" are intertwined and yet inseparable, as the reformed zealot commits murder in order to "preserve his honor." In the name of preserving the "integrity" of his political career and family life, he comes face to face with his sinister side and casually brushes aside the most sacred of the Abrahamic commandments, "Thou shalt not kill." Not only does he murder the woman to whom he made a "sacred," albeit temporary vow, but an innocent child as well, snuffed out before it even had the chance to enter and see the world. One might contend that the child symbolizes the future generation, thwarted before it even had an opportunity to bloom, destroyed by brutal calculations of personal interest and political gain.

The circle of misogyny that began with the young Ebrahim pushing tacks into "badly veiled" women's foreheads ends with him torching the corpse of his temporary (pregnant) wife. And despite the retired commander's admonitions about the paramount importance of ethics, Ebrahim once again resorts to a Machiavellian mantra of the end justifying the means. Despite appearances, Ebrahim hasn't come all that far from his ignominious origins.

Whether intentionally or not, Zendegi-ye Khosoosi highlights the moral ambiguity of many high-profile Iranian reformists by way of metaphor, suggesting that even the most progressive among them have blood on their hands and that the political elite as a whole are rotten to the core. The veracity of this suggestion and the extent to which it may apply will be clarified not by film directors or actors and actresses, rather by historians and researchers, but what is interesting is that Farah Bakhsh's film gives vent to a familiar refrain of Iranians both within the country and among the diaspora -- all the more familiar after the controversies and unprecedented protests of the 2009 election and the ambivalent reception by some of Mir Hossein Mousavi's leadership.

The morally convoluted nature of political leadership with a past in the revolutionary order is both inescapable and seemingly indicative of its predestined failure. "Moral clarity" and "clean hands," if they can exist at all in the world of politics, are desperately sought after by many, but, at least according to Zendegi-ye Khosoosi and those likeminded, might be found only among the Revolution's so-called "burnt generation" (nasl-e sookhteh), that which rose from the ashes of 2009, namely, the generation to come.

by the same author | The Flexibility of Khamenei's So-Called 'Nuclear Fatwa' | Homa Katouzian on Khalil Maleki -- Part 1: Nonalignment and the 'Third Force' | Homa Katouzian on Khalil Maleki -- Part 2: Debunking Conspiracy Theory | Man Friday: Khatami's Vote and the Question of 'Reformism'

related reading | Howl in Farsi

Copyright © 2012

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