Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Dear Editors,

In your issue of November 2001, I found an article on Afghanistan, by an Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Your editorial note introduced Makhmalbaf as “Iran’s most celebrated film maker and a political prisoner under the Shah.” However, to many of us (Iranian activists of the 70s and 80s), Makhmalbaf’s record is far from this strait forward presentation.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was imprisoned under the Shah’s regime for his attempt to disarm a police officer. Based on his own account, he was a young man with extreme religious tendencies, whose opposition to the Shah was colored by his hatred of the ex-regime’s policies of secularization (albeit superficial secularization). Following the revolution, Makhmalbaf became the regime’s most active watchman in the movie industry of Iran. In his early interviews (between 1979-1983), he proudly spoke of his role in purging the cultural scene from secular thought. His discourse frequently abused Iranian secular filmmakers, and vilified Iranian Left. During the first three years of revolution, he hailed the fundamentalist oppression of women, students, minorities, and Iranian Left as an authentic Islamic campaign against counter-revolutionary forces. =46ollowing the consolidation of power in 1981 by the fundamentalists, Makhmalbaf extended his cooperation by joining their campaign of terror. When mass arrests, brutal tortures, and summary executions were the order of the day, Makhmalbaf not only supported their policy of terror and torture, but also offered his film making expertise to launch an assault on truth.
For his movie, Boycott, he was allowed inside one of Iran’s most dreadful prisons. There, amid daily atrocities of torture and interrogation, he shot his story using actual leftist political prisoners who were coerced into playing roles for Makhmalbaf’s feature film. The story of this film depicted leftist activists as rigid Stalinist villains, worthy of contempt and scorn. Ironically, Makhmalbaf and company forced these political prisoners into such self-denigrating roles as part of a =93corrective exercise.=94 Tragically, not long after the completion of this movie, a number of these young activists were executed, and their bodies were hastily buried in unmarked graves. I have personally identified and traced the fate of these victims, whom many of us used to know personally. In the history of cinema, I can think of no filmmaker who has committed so blatant an assault on helpless individuals as Makhmalbaf has done without any shame or remorse. Nor, I can believe the indifference that the world has demonstrated with regard to his actions. Appallingly, one can readily purchase this film, a product of forced labor and torture, on videocassette via Internet!
However, in the late 1980s, Makhmalbaf made a face-about in his political attitude, and became an advocate of tolerance and open society. For this, his loyalist friends, whom he had faithfully served during their attempt to consolidate power in Iran, did not spare him. He was threatened and attacked by his ex-associates in the loyalist camp. This dramatic change happened when the fundamentalist regime’s failure in maintaining popular legitimacy was becoming clear to everyone, and specially to many members of their own rank. Despite these intimidations, he has had no problem massively producing, and internationally screening a chain of feature films, unparalleled in quantity and reach, in the history of Iranian cinema. In a country, wherein dissident intellectuals are not allowed to publish something as benign as an encyclopedia of folklore (i.e. Ahmad Shamloo, our national poet), Makhmalbaf and his family (his daughter and sister-in-law) maintain a profile of consistent production and international presence that makes any conscientious observer wonder. Although I condemn any intimidation that he has suffered in the hands of his ex-associates, I detest his obvious lack of integrity that he has skillfully practiced so far.
In today’s Iran, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Therefore, “there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” In ways similar to a morbid symptom, Makhmalbaf and the present brand of henchmen intellectuals tend to express real social afflictions as far as they can manage to compromise its essence and truth. This is what you may have sensed (but left unexplained) as you warned the readers about the political content of Makhmalbaf’s article. In fact, his article is saturated with the uncritical discourse of modernization and economic development that has malaised the aspirations of the people of the region. His pronouncements against the vices of the segmentary society (what he calls tribal society) reflect his deliberate and well disguised attacks on ethnicity and locality. What he has reproached as tribalism has to be renamed as ethnic and local forms of social life. Where he preaches the Gospel of national unity, it must be read as the eradication of ethnic diversity by an administered, homogenizing system. When he boasts of the absence of ethnic predilection among Iranian voters, he has to be reminded of the gruesome massacres of Iranian Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Turkmans, and Balooches, by the fundamentalist regime from 1979 on-ward.
In the “House of Pain” that Makhmalbaf and his associates have built for themselves and us a generation of Iranian political activists walked proudly to their death, as Makhmalbaf cheered on their bloody purge. To his disappointment, a great number of surviving activists are still resisting the fundamentalist rule, while Makhmalbaf is practicing the international fine art of mendacity and deceit. In fact, his humanity has failed repeatedly, and his abysmal failures by no means stop with militant activists. When young Iranian soldiers in Iran-Iraq war were openly named as one-time-use soldiers (a literal and exact translation) by the fundamentalist Defense Minister, and were sent as human waves to the front, Makhmalbaf endorsed the “great war effort to save Islam”.
The sorrow of those days still haunts many of us. Many suffer a silent, consuming agony, as Makhmalbaf’s voice is heard everywhere. =46rom prestigious international film festivals to the recent example in the Monthly Review, Makhmalbaf reaches an ever-growing audience, as his victims lie voiceless, in unmarked graves, and as his survivors are too hopeless to speak of their terrible tragedy. The whole world celebrates his talent, while the ghastly story of his real talent remains completely unsaid.
No one can deny that Makhmalbaf’s article reflects a rather intimate picture of the situation in Afghanistan. But, is this sufficient to include his text in the Monthly Review? No one denies that Makhmalbaf is a celebrated artist, and so does Leni Riefenstahl. Are you considering printing her works, too? No one denies that Makhmalbaf has occasionally said something worthy of hearing, and so did Ernst Junger. Are you about to give him coverage, too?
You suggest that Makhmalbaf’s article has to be read “as a deeply moral and humanitarian account of the tragic circumstances of the Afghan people and the callousness of the West.” It is a bitter irony that while you set out to remedy one example of callousness; you end up committing another one, yourself. For most part, this reveals a lack of awareness that stems from a lack of solidarity with the plight of the Left in non-western societies. Although European fascism and Islamic fundamentalism are diametrically different in content, the rise of fundamentalism for us has been as socially significant as the rise of fascism for European Left. How painful for you, would that be to see a prestigious leftist journal publish the work of the Revisionist Historians of the Third Reich, in an uncritical manner? Would you not rise with a cry of indignation and moral outrage? Would you not rush to defend the victims and to stand with the evidence? Would you not break in sorrow and rage remembering the final hopeless hours of Walter Benjamin and Marc Bloch? I believe that thus doing is the only decent and just choice.
I am aware that many members of Iranian left, today, applaud Makhmalbaf as a true convert. Perhaps, such counsel has influenced your choice, too. However, not so much unlike those among your rank who look to Carl Schmitt for inspiration, these people are invariably of the habit of getting lost in their own mystifications. Likewise, I have no doubt that there are people among us, who readily accept Makhmalbaf as a born-again social democrat, and to celebrate him as the newly baptized child of political pluralism. Ironically, those whose political imagination is raptured by these new converts of “open and civil society,” are promoting their new masters with complete secrecy about their past, lest people know what they are buying into!
Yet, if you are truly after “imparting a message desperately needed in our
times,” please consider making this note available to all your readers, in
its entirety. Perhaps, there is no better opportune time for us to be
heard. Perhaps, it is time to make the voiceless speak. Perhaps it is
time to strip human suffering of its murky obscurity. Until, we decide to
do so,

Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark,
And has the nature of eternity
William Wordsworth

Yours Truly,

Farzad Bawani.

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