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Comment | No Laughing Matter


02 Feb 2012 05:12Comments


Iran's revolutionary images inspire unintended questions.

[ comment ] Last year while I was in Iran, I spent weeks trying to find someone to digitize my family's old photographs. I am still obsessed with images of my grandmother's makeshift beauty salon in Mashhad in the 1960s and the way it contrasts with a pre-1979 photograph of my father at an army barracks sitting next to Marxist and religious ideologues, fellow conscripts. The army, most likely acting on orders from the SAVAK or the secret police, had grouped all the anti-monarchists together. They were entrusted with neither guns nor significant duties, which left them ample time to debate the pros and cons of their opposing beliefs and the Shah's overthrow.

Though they wouldn't refer to themselves so now, my parents were once communists. They were drawn to the Hezb-e Tudeh, or the Tudeh Party of Iran. They were secular, but they initially didn't oppose Ruhollah Khomeini as vigorously as the Shah. As noted by the historian Ervand Abrahamian, Iranians welcomed Khomeini for different reasons, but one in particular united them all: behind the grand ayatollah's dark, intense glare was the luring promise of a sovereign Iran, free from Western domination.

The work of the great Iranian photographer Abbas Attar provides some of the most interesting illustrations of Iran pre- and post-Revolution. In one photograph from 1971, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi is seated center stage, surrounded by his entourage. This is after the now infamous celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy. Eight years later, Iranian revolutionaries are photographed by Abbas at a morgue, rifles in hand, standing over the corpse of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the Shah's prime minister. Hoveyda was charged with repressing and killing political dissidents during his more than decade-long premiership and was promptly executed in 1979 by the Islamic Republic's "hanging judge," Sadegh Khalkali.

On Wednesday, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency published photographs (see also here) that may also come to symbolize the Revolution. They show a large cardboard cutout of Imam Khomeini exiting a plane (that should have been an Air France Boeing 747) as he is saluted by young soldiers with roses in their hands. Khomeini's large paper ghost watches over them and a band at an event commemorating the Revolution's anniversary. As reported by Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari, the photos have become a laughing stock among Iranians at home and abroad.

Compare the Mehr photos to one by Abbas, showing a lone portrait of Khomeini exhibited among a doting crowd of thousands at the reopening of the University of Tehran in 1979. Decades ago Khomeini was considered the glory of Iran by millions of Iranians. Now absurd attempts at glorifying him and his legacy are inviting ridicule.

750939_orig.jpgBy laughing at these photos am I disrespecting the sacrifices of people like my parents who risked everything for their dream of self-determination and sovereignty? By asking that question am I ignoring the suffering of Iranians who are forced to live with a government they don't want?

I have made no sacrifices for Iran. I am not one of the thousands of innocent people who were tortured by the Shah's forces. Unlike hundreds of thousands of Iranians, I have been spared injury and death from the cruel and bloody Iran-Iraq War.

By that same token, I was not raised in Iran as a middle-class woman, educated and full of potential, but constrained by the Islamic Republic's heavy hand. I have only passing experience of how suffocating daily life in Iran can be for young adults with dreams. Perhaps I don't have the right to laugh at revolutionary ceremonies or question the meaning of laughing at them.

But I do.

Jasmin Ramsey writes for Al Jazeera English, IPS News, Guernica Magazine and Le Monde Diplomatique. Any opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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