Archive for the ‘Iran-AfPak’ Category


This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.


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Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamabad, February 25 2012 (Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest NYRB has a must read essay by Malise Ruthven on anthropologist and Islam specialist Akbar Ahmed‘s latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, published by Brookings. Money quote:

As an anthropologist with deep knowledge and direct experience of tribal systems, Akbar Ahmed demonstrates in The Thistle and the Drone how richly Tolstoy’s thistle metaphor [of 19th century Russia's wars with the tribal peoples of the Caucuses] applies to contemporary conditions in regions, distant from urban centers, where clans resist the writ of government while also engaging with it. He points to their “love of freedom” to act without external constraints, as well as “egalitarianism, [and] a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies…. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”

Ahmed is especially troubled by the use of drones against Muslim tribal groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but his analysis of the nature of the state and its relation with tribal peoples has application far beyond the condition of Muslim tribal societies. As he sees it, the use of unmanned aircraft as a leading counterinsurgency weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples generally, with the US president disposing of “Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity… Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.”

There’s this fascinating passage on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen borderlands, and notably the Asir region

Ahmed, by contrast, sees ethnicity or tribal identity as the crucial factors in the recruitment of the hijackers. “Bin Laden,” he states, “was joined in his movement primarily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes… Indeed the only one of the nineteen hijackers without a tribal pedigree was Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian architect who led the operation and had much to do with its planning.

The Asiri background is highly significant because of the region’s history. For centuries the terrain, which is divided between rugged highlands with peaks rising to nine thousand feet and the coastal plain, or Tihama, was riven by tribal conflicts, as in the Caucasus and Waziristan. Like the Pukhtun clans of Waziristan, the Yemeni tribes of Asir are organized in “segmentary lineages” (i.e., prone to splitting) without formal leaders. The clans tended to quarrel among themselves when not coalescing in the face of outsiders. In 1906 the charismatic scholar-king Sayyed Muhammad al-Idrisi, connected to the Sufi or mystically oriented Sanusiyya order in North Africa, was invited to settle disputes between these warring tribes. His rule was in many ways similar to that of Shamil in the Caucasus, as described by those Russian observers, better informed than Tolstoy, who recognized that his diplomatic skills were as impressive as his military ones.

Al-Idrisi’s domain grew rapidly as tribes, attracted by his reputation for piety and justice, rallied to his cause against the Ottomans. After backing the Allies in World War I, he hoped that the victors would reward him by preserving Asir’s independence. All such hopes were dashed, however, following his death in 1922, when the region came under the sway of the reinvigorated tribal empire created by the emir of Nejd, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In his aggressive drive for territorial expansion (which included expelling the Hashemite rulers of Mecca), ibn Saud swallowed up most of the region, leaving the southern part to al-Idrisi’s inveterate enemy, the imam of Yemen. Some 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the course of this conflict.

The Saudi annexation was followed by an invasion of religious clerics who imposed their narrow Salafist practices on Asiri society. Asiri males were known as the “flower men” from the flowers they wore in their hair (an indication perhaps of their status as cultivators rather than nomads). Even their turbans were adorned with flowers, grasses, and stones. Asiri women were clothed in spectacular explosions of color, their headdresses glittering with coins and jewelry. The Saudi clerics forced young males to remove their “un-Islamic” locks and headgear as well as the traditional daggers that symbolized their masculinity. The women were obliged to adopt the niqab (full facial veil) in place of the traditional headscarf.

In short, says Ahmed, while Western countries were appeasing the Saudis in order to secure their oil supplies, the Saudis were systematically destroying the Yemeni-Asiri culture. During the 1960s this process was exacerbated by the civil war that brought into Yemen 70,000 Egyptian troops who used poison gas alongside conventional weapons. Represented in the West as a Spanish-style conflict between “progressive” republicans backed by Egypt and “reactionary” royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, the war was really a conflict between tribal systems that had been drawn into supporting different sides.

Saudi Arabia: the Evil Kingdom. I’ve said it before and will say it again.

Ruthven’s essay may be read in its entirety here.

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

Protest against US drone attacks, Sanaa, January 13 2013 (Photo: AFP)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

US drone strikes in Yemen. (New America Foundation)

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Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Kabul 1962 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Check out these great photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s and ’60s, in The Atlantic. Ah le bon vieux temps…

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Last October I had a post on Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who I called the front-runner in the June 2013 Iranian presidential election. He ended up a distant second, with 16% of the vote. I hadn’t heard of Hassan Rouhani back then. Not that I’m an Iran expert or anything, loin s’en faut, but, FWIW, my wife asked me a few hours ago, while we were walking to our neighborhood movie theater, what I thought of Rouhani’s stunning first round victory. My instant response: it’s great news (duh), as (a) it shows that the Iranian people are moderate in their majority, want to live normally like any other normal people, and would quite certainly cast off the regime of the ayatollahs and mullahs if they possibly could; (b) it incontrovertibly proves that the 2009 election was fraudulent, as the result in that one was close enough so that the regime could rig it, whereas this one was simply too decisive for that; as we say here, le pouvoir iranien était obligé à se rendre à l’évidence; (c) everyone knows that Ayatollah Khamenei institutionally calls the shots and that the president of Iran is the rough equivalent of a French prime minister hors cohabitation—but without even the formal constitutional powers accorded a French PM—, but that the president can influence domestic policy nonetheless, and, above all, induce a relative liberalization of the moral order imposed (mainly on women) by the basij, who can do what they want when the conservatives have the upper hand, but less so when relative liberals are in the ascendancy (so much as I understand how Iranian politics works); and (d) the already minimal prospect of a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is now reduced to near zero الحمد لله; with the moderate Rouhani’s victory, it’s just not going to happen, period.

Voilà my 2¢. For a take by a veritable expert, see the instant analysis (2½ pages in PDF) by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Shaul Bakhash, on “Rouhani’s surprising election.”

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Syngue Sabour


My post yesterday on Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Le Passé’ reminded me of this very good film I saw a couple of months ago (English title: ‘The Patience Stone’) and had intended to write something on. It’s set in an unnamed Muslim country in the throes of civil war that is rather obviously Afghanistan—and specifically Kabul, with the panoramic scenes of the city shot there (the interior and street scenes were shot in Morocco)—, is in the Persian language (called Dari in Afghanistan), and stars the sublime Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who’s in almost every frame. The film, directed by the Afghan/naturalized French citizen Atiq Rahimi, is based on Rahimi’s best-seller novel of the same title (which won the Prix Goncourt in 2008), about a 30ish woman with two small children whose mujahid husband lies at home comatose (from a bullet in the neck), leaving the woman to fend for herself (and in a war torn society where the status of women, even in the best of times, is one of the worst in the world). For details, see the reviews here and here (and French reviews here). All I’ll say about the film—apart from giving it the thumbs way up—is that Golshifteh Farahani’s performance is a tour de force. She’s one great actress, rien à dire!

For the record, I should mention an Iranian film I saw last fall, ‘A Respectable Family’, by Massoud Bakhshi (who usually does documentaries), about a university professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad and gets caught up in some sinister scheming of his sleazy, corrupt family (thus the ironic title). The pic is, as one may guess, a backhanded critique of a lot of what goes on in the Islamic Republic, of the moral code—or absence of—that guides the actions of a certain number of people there. The plot is complex and I will admit to getting lost halfway through, which I attributed to briefly nodding off a couple of times—due to fatigue, not the film itself, though its pacing did not exactly have me riveted to the screen (it’s not ‘Fast & Furious 6′, loin s’en faut)—, during which I no doubt missed crucial information. And sure enough, one of the reviews said that “[t]his is one of those movies where you can’t miss a single subtitle” (other reviews are here and here; French reviews here). So voilà. If I come across the film on DVD, I’ll watch it again (and this time wide awake).

a respectable family

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Khomeini rises

Adam Shatz has an excellent review essay in the latest LRB of James Buchan’s Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences.


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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below]

Saw this at an avant-première a couple of nights ago (it opens in France on Wednesday). The structure of the film is fairly conventional and one knows that it won’t have an unhappy ending—it is a Hollywood movie, after all—, but it’s riveting nonetheless. I was on the edge of my seat almost throughout. It’s a top notch geopolitical thriller. Before seeing the movie I of course knew that it was about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis but apart from checking Metacritic’s score (86: universal acclaim) and getting the thumbs up from a couple of friends stateside, I pretty much went in to the theater cold. In fact, I thought it was going to be about the fiasco of the failed rescue attempt in April 1980, which it was not. Now I happen to be fairly knowledgeable about modern Iran and closely followed the hostage crisis at the time, but will admit to having no memory of the “Canadian caper”—which is what the pic is about—or of President Clinton’s 1997 revelation of the CIA’s involvement in it (a news story that must have come and gone, and before I had full Internet access). Having seen the movie, I now know. And what a story. The movie is not an entirely faithful reenactment of what happened—and as one may read in this 2007 account of the episode (that should be read after seeing the film)—but that’s okay. Movies about actual events invariably employ dramatic license and distort the historical record in parts. The film does have a few implausibilities and anachronisms—and particularly in the dramatic airport scene at the end—, and I wanted to rewrite the historical introduction, but no big deal. The details—historical, cultural—are pretty good on the whole and Istanbul was the right place to shoot the pic (though perhaps Ankara would have been even better). One error, for the record: it is inconceivable that the American/Canadian women would have been able to walk through the Tehran bazaar—or anywhere in the city—wearing no head covering.

As it happens, today is the 33rd anniversary of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran. I was living in New York City—and through the entire hostage crisis—and remember the day well. Though my politics were solidly leftist—more so than they are today—I was indignant at the televised scenes that day from Tehran and remained so for the duration of crisis—though was also indignant at the wave of Iran-bashing in the US (e.g. the “Fuck Iran” buttons worn by more than a few on the streets of Manhattan) and acts of physical aggression against Iranian students—whose numbers were huge in the US at the time—, or those assumed to be Iranian (funny true story: American in a store menacingly asks a Middle Eastern-looking male in his 20s, “Are you an eye-rainian student?” Answer: “No, I’m Persian.” Response from American: “Oh, okay”). But the great majority of American leftists I knew—including close friends—declined to criticize, let alone condemn, the Iranian regime during the hostage crisis. Not that they endorsed taking the US diplomats hostage but there was no indignation; moreover, there was an effort to see things from the Iranian regime’s point of view, indeed to apologize for the SOBs. I was not on that page. And then there was the conference on Iran at the New School in the spring of  ’80, where Mansour Farhang viciously attacked Mangol Bayat for her temerity in (gently) critiquing the Iranian regime in her talk. She was visibly shaken at the virulence of Farhang’s verbal assault. And no one on the panel or in the audience stood up for her. Seeing Farhang on 6th Avenue afterward, walking with his alpha academic male pals Edward Said and Samih Farsoun, I had a visceral moment of disgust toward the lot of them (though did remain a fan of Said’s through the decade). Fahrang naturally became an opponent of the Ayatollahs later on. I wonder if he ever thought to apologize to Ms. Bayat for being such an odious jerk that day. Oh well. Back to the movie, do see it if you haven’t already.

UPDATE: In the interest of balance here is a critique of ‘Argo’ by Iranian-Canadian journalist Jian Ghomeshi, that was just sent to me by a friend who was a Canadian diplomat in Tehran in the early ’90s (and where he met his wife, so his link to the country is ongoing). Some of Mr. Ghomeshi’s criticisms are well-taken, though I do think he is being overly sensitive. And it is not true that “there is not one positive Iranian subject in the entire story” (e.g. the housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s residence). As for his calling the 1991 Hollywood potboilier ‘Not Without My Daughter’ “a particularly racist film about the U.S.-Iran experience,” he is not wide of the mark here, though what I remember most about that one—apart from its general trashiness—was Vincent Canby’s review, in which he referred to the Sally Field character as the type of American, who, if she were a tourist in Paris, would insist on eating at McDonald’s. On ‘A Separation’ Mr. Ghomeshi may rest assured that this film has been seen by many in the West and that since Khatami’s election in 1997 and, above all, the 2009 Green Revolution, the prevailing image of the Iranian people in the US and Europe has been a positive one: of a people who are, in their majority, not anti-American or anti-Western, and who would like nothing more than to throw off the yoke of the ayatollahs and join the modern, democratic world.

2nd UPDATE: French reviews of the film are tops for the most part, with the expected handful that are negative (and the negativity of a couple are not political in nature). The contre one in Télérama—opposing the pour—is particularly inane. As for the spectator reviews on Allociné, they’re even better than those of the critics. Where I saw it (UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles) part of the audience applauded at the end.

3rd UPDATE: Journalist and author Michael Totten, who has reported from the Middle East over the years, has a good review of the film in City Journal. He says it may be enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans alike. I agree. He links to a couple of knuckleheaded leftist reviews of the pic that I had missed. I should say that I do not share Totten’s assertion that Hollywood films about the Middle East and terrorism have a “leftist bias,” and I make it a point to see all of them. The problem with Hollywood films on the region is simply that they’re bad, period. The best film on the Middle East and terrorism I’ve seen in a while—and that is fast-paced and action-filled—is ‘Labyrinth’, by Turkish director Tolga Örnek, which I wrote about earlier this year.

4th UPDATE: Brown University prof Shiva Balaghi slams ‘Argo’, calling it “Jingoism as history.” Ouch! (February 21, 2013)

5th UPDATE: Critic Kevin B. Lee writes in Slate that ‘Argo’ is “the year’s worst Best Picture nominee” and tells the movie to go “f—k yourself.” Strong language. Lee criticizes the film for what it isn’t more than for what it is. IMO he would be better off f—king himself. (February 25, 2013)

6th UPDATE: Adam Garfinkle weighs in on ‘Argo’ on his blog. He liked around 99.44% of the film, so he said, but the remaining 0.56% grated on him. His explanation, while overly long—as is his wont—, is worth the read (his critique differs considerably from those of Shiva Balaghi and other tiersmondistes). (February 28, 2013)

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Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Graham T. Allison Jr., a well-known political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, on why Benjamin Netanyahu has backed down on his blustering threats to attack Iran. The entire Israeli defense and intelligence establishment is vehemently opposed to it—and, above all, of Israel going it alone without the United States—, and the US is not going to give Israel the green, or even yellow, light to send its bombers to Iran—and no matter what anyone says, Israel cannot launch such an operation without at least the tacit assent of Washington. And all the more so because, as Allison and Feldman point out, the Iran nuclear threat has deepened the US’s strategic alliance with Israel, implicitly making it ever less likely that Israel would, or could, do it without America and in the face of the latter’s objections. I have been saying for years that Israel will not attack Iran, mainly because it can’t (here, here, and here). But the US won’t either, as just about everyone in the American defense and intelligence establishment is dead set against going to war with Iran (Robert Gates warned last week of the “catastrophic” consequences of an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites). In the vice-presidential debate on Thursday Joe Biden said, in effect, that the US was not going to get into another war in the Middle East—with Iran or in Syria—and Paul Ryan, though criticizing the Obama administration’s policy, did not indicate that a Romney administration would do otherwise. The Iranians will no doubt do their part to insure that the US does not have a pretext to attack, as it is almost inconceivable that they would ever announce that they had reached Bibi’s red line. So there’s not going to be a war with Iran, and even if the Mittster wins on November 6th (which is, alas, not out of the question).

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I’m mainly focused on American politics at the moment and will remain so for another month at least. The way things are looking in the presidential campaign as I write—with Romney pulling even with Obama, and even ahead, in national post-debate polls—it’s going to be one stressful month, like being in a plane flying through an electrical storm. Hopefully the plane will land safely. Then again, there’s always the outside chance it will crash. Obama will have two chances to at least partially repair the damage from his debate debacle of last Wednesday: next Tuesday at the town meeting in Hempstead NY and the following Monday in Boca Raton. One may expect that the final debate, on foreign policy, will have a question or two on Iran and what the US should do about its nuclear ambitions. In formulating their responses I hope that Messrs. Obama and Romney will read at least the executive summary of a report just out on an aspect of the issue on which there has been almost no discussion, namely of the likely civilian toll of an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The report, The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities, is authored by Khosrow B. Semnani, a Salt Lake City-based engineer and philanthropist, and published by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and the Omid for Iran foundation. Its conclusions are terrifying. The Atlantic had an article on the report last week by Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which thus begins [emphasis added in bold]

Maryam sometimes thinks about what would happen if there were a military attack on her city’s uranium-conversion facility. The plant lies on the outskirts of Isfahan, the historical city that she calls home. “It scares me, of course, even though I don’t have any information about the likely impact on people like us,” says the 55-year-old.

Experts believe the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility – which contains an estimated 371 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride – is one of the four Iranian sites likely to be targeted if Israel or the United States were to decide to take military action in an effort to delay or cripple Iran’s nuclear program. The University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and the NGO Omid for Iran teamed up to produce a study that concludes that a military strike on the facility could have tragic consequences for Maryam and thousands of other residents of her centrally located city, which has a population of 2 million.

It’s unlikely that Maryam would die as an immediate result of such a bomb attack. But she could be among the estimated up-to-70,000 people who would be killed or injured after being exposed to toxic plumes released as the result of such strikes. They would reach the city within an hour. Such a scenario would mean that the people of Isfahan could experience a catastrophe similar to the gas leak in Bhopal or the nuclear meltdown at Chornobyl, says Khosrow Semnani, the author of the report, which is titled, “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble.”

“People’s skin could be burnt [when coming in contact with the plumes], they could become blind, their lung could be destroyed, their kidneys could be damaged, and in the future they could face other health problems such as skin cancer and [other forms] of cancer,” Semnani says. The report analyzed the impact of preemptive conventional strikes on four key nuclear sites: Isfahan’s uranium conversion facility; Natanz’s fuel-enrichment plant; Arak’s heavy-water plant; and Bushehr’s nuclear power plant. Workers at those sites — who include scientists, workers, support staff, and soldiers — would be among the first victims of a bombing campaign. The report estimates that the casualty rate at the sites would be close to 100 percent.

I have been 100% opposed to an attack on Iran—and regardless of the rhetoric of its leaders and/or progress of its nuclear scheme—, mainly on account of the regional and geopolitical consequences, which would be catastrophic, and about which there cannot be the slightest doubt. But after reading The Atlantic article and skimming the report I am now 200% opposed. The US and/or Israel has no right to inflict such death and destruction on the Iranian people. If one or both countries do so, they will be guilty of war crimes on a massive scale. Period. And one may be sure that, at some point in the future, what goes around will come around. Hopefully the moderator of the Boca Raton debate will see fit to ask Messrs. Obama and Romney a pointed question on this. Inshallah.

BTW, the above photo is of Isfahan, the crown jewel of Persian civilization.

UPDATE: An alert reader has informed me (see comments thread) that the above photo is in fact of Yazd—also a crown jewel of Persian civilization—, not Isfahan (and despite Isfahan being written on it in Persian, in the upper right corner). So I have added the photo below, which is indisputably Isfahan.

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Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf

We’ll likely be hearing a lot about Mr. Ghalibaf beginning next year, as he is the apparent front-runner to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad next June, according to this article by Sabina Amidi, a young Iranian-American journalist who travels regularly to Iran. Ghalibaf, who is not well-known outside Iran—but all-too-well known inside it—is the current mayor of Tehran, former chief of the national police, and, prior to that, a Major-General in the Revolutionary Guards and commander of Basij troops. Sounds like a lovely guy. Amidi informs the reader of

a little secret of which few people outside Iran are aware: Plenty of Iranians think they’re going to miss Ahmadinejad, albeit relatively speaking, because they fear he is going to appear benevolent compared to his likely successor.

Oy vey. What else to say?

On the nuclear issue, at least, it won’t matter at all, as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calls all the shots. FWIW, the well-known ‘neocon’ Iran analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht had a lengthy portrait of Khamenei recently, entitled “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.” No less. I will let those who know Iran better than I judge the accuracy of RMG’s analysis.

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On the anniversary of 9/11 I offer the above, which was posted yesterday on the Facebook page of C. Christine Fair, a South Asia specialist at Georgetown University. Yes, anyone who gives the slightest credence to the so-called “truthers” is indeed a f***ing idiot. And then some.

BTW, Professor Fair—who is a fluent Urdu speaker and a regular on Pakistani TV (here)—has an article in Foreign Policy arguing that President Obama should “blacklist Pakistan,” not just the Haqqani group.

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A couple of weeks ago I had a post on the fine Egyptian film ‘Cairo 678′, which focused on sexual harassment in Egypt and the desperation of the women subjected to it, who want nothing more than to navigate freely in public space and live their lives normally. On the subject of living normally, I saw not too long ago Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s latest film, ‘Normal!’, which has precisely this as its subject. It’s a quirky film, definitely not for le grand public—or even for most cinephiles—but is worth seeing if one is interested in the younger generation in the Arab world today, and particularly in Algeria. The pic is set in 2011 and with the Arab uprisings underway, and focuses on a young film maker who brings together the cast of a film he had shot two years earlier—on the problems of youthful artistic creation in the face of state censorship—but hadn’t completed, so they could view the rushes and talk about how to finish it. The film is basically the cast—late 20s-early 30s—talking: about the film, the frustrations of the younger generation, and the thirst to simply live normally, which is almost impossible in Algeria and for all sorts of reasons, but primarily due to the twisted, tortured gender relations of Algerian culture (though it was not precisely put in these terms in the film). But though the youthful film crew craves to live normally, they also get caught up in their own contradictions in regard to gender issues, thereby reinforcing the ambient abnormality. Again, I won’t recommend the film to everyone but I found it interesting. The film web site with trailer is here. As it surely won’t be coming to your neighborhood theater or videothèque, it will have to be seen via streaming.

Another film seen in recent months on Maghrebi youth—from an altogether different social class—who seek to live normally—or simply to live—was the Moroccan ‘Sur la planche’ (rendered in English as ‘On the Plank’, or ‘On the Edge’), by director Leila Kilani. The film, set in Tangier, is of four women in their 20s—two of whom are migrants from elsewhere in Morocco—who work in factories in town, two peeling shrimp—dirty jobs at the bottom of the status ladder—and the two locals in the much higher status Free Zone, where working conditions adhere to European norms. The migrant women engage in petty theft and occasional prostitution after hours to make ends meet and try to pull the higher status women into one of their illegal moneymaking schemes, while using them as ins to gain access to the Free Zone and its coveted jobs. It’s a good film about ambitious young, lower class urban women in Morocco trying to move up. The actresses, all non-professionals, are first-rate. Reviews are here, here, and here (scroll down), a trailer here, and a podcast interview (en français) with the director here.

To the seeking-to-live-normally-in-the-Middle-East genre may be added Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz’s ‘Circumstance’ (in France: ‘En secret’), which I saw not too long ago. Set in Tehran the pic is about a teenage girl from the haute bourgeoisie who frequents wild North Tehran parties—with loud music, alcohol, drugs, and sex—, has a lesbian relationship with her best friend, all while trying to deal with her older brother—a recovering drug addict to whom she is very close—who finds religion and becomes an Islamist. She wants to live a normal life, as do most young people in Iran, but her brother doesn’t want her to. It’s not too bad of a film. It opened last year in the US to mostly good reviews. French reviews were likewise. Watching the party scenes I could not believe that the film was actually made in Iran, even clandestinely or using ruses (as was Bahman Ghobadi’s ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’). In the scene where the characters are looking out over Tehran from a hill, I was quite sure that it was in fact Beirut where it was shot, and it was indeed.

Finally, I will mention the documentary ‘Tahrir: Liberation Square’ by Italian film maker Stefano Savona, which opened in France in January to stellar reviews. The director spent those heady days in January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square with a group of liberal activists, whom he filmed throughout. They were in the vanguard of a movement to make Egypt a normal country. They’re not in much of a vanguard today, hélas

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[update below]

The other day I read this article on the normally high quality Foreign Policy web site, on how Israel may have “bought” airfields in Azerbaijan, to use to as staging grounds for an attack on Iran. Though dubious on a few points my reaction was “well, that’s interesting.” But I neglected to note the author of the article, Mark Perry, whom I have unapprovingly written about a couple of times already. How foolish and negligent of me, as I normally note the author’s name of anything I read. Had I seen that Perry was the author, I would have accorded the article the seriousness that it merits, namely little. But I only learned that Perry wrote it after reading this by Ehud Yaari, whom I respect rather more. He rubbishes Perry’s piece, which is not hard to do. From now on, when reading anything, I will make sure to look at the author’s name.

UPDATE: On Israel-Iran, the new leader of Kadima, Shaul Mofaz—former IDF chief-of-staff and defense minister (and who was born in Iran, lived there to age nine, and speaks Persian)—has strongly criticized Netanyahu’s approach toward the Iranian nuclear threat

“[Netanyahu] wants to present himself as the defender of Israel. All the evaluators believe there is more time. Iran is still not a nuclear country. The US is leading the effort against Iran, and it has to stay that way.” Mofaz warned that a premature military operation would be “disastrous” and limited in its effectiveness.

Very good. For this reason alone I hope he becomes Israel’s next PM.

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American too. I came across a good op-ed from January in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Jacques Hymans, who teaches IR at USC, entitled “Crying wolf about an Iranian nuclear bomb.” Voilà the article’s highlights

  • The United States and Israel’s fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb is bringing the countries closer to war.
  • American and Israeli policymakers, however, have consistently exaggerated Iran’s near- to medium-term nuclear potential.
  • To date, Iran’s pace of progress has been incredibly slow, and there is no reason to expect that this will suddenly change.

Hymans concludes by asserting that

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are surely a cause for concern. But the current climate of hysteria is unjustified and counterproductive, a major impediment to the sober pursuit of a diplomatic solution.


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The drums of war on Iran have been beating, in both Jerusalem and among the usual suspects in the US (Republicans, the Israel lobby, the so-called neocons, etc). I’ve had posts over the past year arguing that Israel won’t attack Iran because it logistically cannot do so (e.g. here and here) and that if such an attack were to happen, the consequences would be catastrophic (most lately here). Not just for a generalized conflagration in the region but also for the world economy, which would plunge into recession—if not depression—following the inevitable spike in the price of oil and as high as $200 a barrel (asserted most recently by Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer here). This is rather obvious, I think. On the conflagration, Israel would be hit not only by Iranian missiles but also by Hizbullah’s, which, as one may read in Nicholas Blanford’s new book, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel—favorably reviewed here by the right-leaning, Israel-sympathizing journalist Michael Totten—, can hit the Dimona nuclear power plant and take down any skyscraper in Tel Aviv. Lovely. It seems to me that anyone who seriously advocates an Israeli strike on Iran needs to have his or her head examined.

But as I’ve been saying, an attack on Iran simply won’t happen. America will not allow the Israelis to do it on their own and will not launch one itself. À propos, the Vanity Fair web site had a must read interview on the subject earlier this month with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, who explained “why Israel couldn’t take out Iran’s nuclear program even if it wanted to.” Voilà the conclusion of the interview:

Who in the administration or in the Department of Defense is pressing for a military strike?

Inside the Pentagon, civilian and military, I cannot find a single voice in favor of striking Iran.

What happens next?

Here’s another tidbit for you. I was in Havana when Ahmadinejad was there. I can’t reveal my sources, but not only did the Cuban government give him a third- or fourth-level award—which really made him angry because it wasn’t the top or even the second-level award—they also delivered him a message from Fidel Castro: get off this nuclear kick. Fidel is very anti-nuclear, as you might imagine, given his experience with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think he, Kennedy, and Khrushchev all realized that they took the world to the brink of extinction. Here’s our archenemy in Cuba advising our archenemy in Iran that they’re on the wrong track.

Mind you, if we attack Iran, the Chinese will be ecstatic. Not only will we be mired in yet another interminable war, but from this one we might not recover for half a century.

As it happens, the Israeli public is also not keen on bombing Iran, as has been reported in several sources the past few days, e.g. here and here. But… Aluf Benn, the sharp editor-in-chief of Haaretz, had a column the other day on how Netanyahu has rhetorically painted himself into a corner and may willy-nilly be compelled to launch an attack on Iran. And there’s this from Daniel Pipes, who no doubt has good sources in the Israeli power structure

The perception may be, in the words of a Washington Post headline, “Obama assures Netanyahu on efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program” but I am not convinced that is the real story. For example, it might in fact be the possible Israeli use of nuclear weapons to attack the Iranian infrastructure.

I don’t believe for a second that the Israelis would be this insane. But still… As we say here, ça fait froid dans le dos. And then some…

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A friend in Canada—who knows Iran well—sent this to me. It is the testimony of McGill University international law professor Payam Akhavan before the Canadian Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade this past Wednesday, arguing strongly against a military attack on Iran (by America or Israel, obviously, as it’s not too likely it would come from Canada). It is very good. Here’s the text in full, with noteworthy passages highlighted by me in bold.

Senate of Canada

Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Hearing on Canadian Foreign Policy Regarding Iran,

Its Implications, and Other Related Matters

Testimony of Professor Payam Akhavan

McGill University Faculty of Law

February 15th, 2012

For the past decade, I have maintained that a lasting peace in the middle-east can only come about with the democratic transformation of Iran.  This view is shared by many in the Iranian human rights movement.  But today, it contends with the looming threat of war, foreshadowing a catastrophe that could set back the region for many years.  In this light, how can we best understand the context within which Canada must craft a just and effective foreign policy towards Iran?

Prior to the rise of Iran’s “Green Movement” in 2009, pundits and analysts ridiculed us for suggesting that an emerging civil society would profoundly re-shape the middle-east.  While we laboured to educate students in Ghandian philosophy, or to train them in non-violent resistance at secret workshops, those in the corridors of power considered only two options: war or appeasement.  When millions of Iranians poured into the streets calling for democracy, the post-9/11 image of a “clash of civilizations” with Islamic fanatics and suicide-bombers was confronted with a radically different reality.  While President Ahmadinejad distracted the world with his Holocaust denial and hate-mongering, the Iranian people exposed the other veiled face of their country: a youthful, idealistic, and inspiring generation, engaged in a heroic struggle to reclaim its lost humanity.  It was this unprecedented “Twitter Revolution” that became the prototype of the Arab Spring two years later.  The difference was that after thirty years of suffering totalitarianism masquerading as religion, Iranians had arrived at a post-ideological, post-utopian ethos, with human rights as their unifying theme.  Despite brutal repression, this movement represented a seismic shift that seriously undermined the legitimacy and future prospects of the Islamic Republic.

With the exclusion of Islamic reformists, the prospect of gradual change within the existing system has become increasingly remote.  Iran has become a mercantile-militaristic state – as much a kleptocracy as a theocracy – intensifying the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the regime’s enforcers: the IRGC Revolutionary Guards.  This radicalization is reflected in the dramatic increase of show trials and hate propaganda, widespread imprisonment and torture of dissidents, and an alarming rate of executions.  According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, there were at least 59 executions in January of this year alone. The picture that emerges is that of a regime terrorizing its citizens for want of power; a regime that is weak and fighting for its survival.

Given this duality, we argued that the international community must pursue policies that empower the democratic movement while isolating the regime and its principal instruments such as the IRGC.  We argued that human rights rather than the nuclear issue should be the focus of foreign policy.  We lobbied for years to subject those responsible for crimes against humanity to travel bans and asset freezes: a policy finally adopted by the US and EU after the atrocities of 2009.  As a first step in bringing such leaders to justice, we established the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre in 2004 as part of a campaign of “naming and shaming”.  Our Report on the post-election violence in 2009 – prepared with support from the Government of Canada – became a basis for blacklisting individuals by the US and EU.

In this context, you can only imagine our astonishment to discover in September of last year that Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the head of the Iranian National Bank – the financial lynchpin of the IRGC, Hamas, and Hezbollah, not to mention Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program – was granted Canadian citizenship in 2005 and thereafter lived an opulent Toronto mansion!  For too long, we in Canada turned a blind eye as the Islamic Republic’s insiders made our country into a haven for their ill-gotten fortunes and spread their networks and influence to silence dissidents abroad.  In that light, to the extent that economic sanctions isolate the regime, they may be a positive development.  But this is not without qualifications.  First, the sanctions are linked to the nuclear issue rather than exacting a cost for human rights abuses.  Second, we must not remain oblivious to its effects on ordinary Iranians.  When, for instance, students at my university cannot pay their tuition fees because of a complete freeze on banking transactions we have to consider whether certain adjustments are required on humanitarian grounds.  So we must bear in mind that the purpose of sanctions should be to isolate the regime, not to punish the Iranian people, and that we must incentivize respect for human rights rather than focusing exclusively on strategic threats, not least because the two are closely related, as I shall explain.

In addition to sanctions, we should also consider whether our practices in other areas such as immigration policy are consistent with our condemnation of Iran’s human rights record.  For instance, while we are using diplomatic channels to prevent the execution of two Iranian-Canadians – Hamid Ghassemi-Shall and Saeed Malekpour – who have been sentenced to death on spurious charges, our immigration officials are in the process of deporting Kavoos Soofi – an Iranian dissident in Toronto – despite Amnesty International’s view that he faces a substantial risk of torture or execution.  If we truly believe that Iran is abusing its citizens, then we should be increasing our intake of refugees rather than deporting the likes of Mr. Soofi.

I turn now to the most pressing issue; namely, the nuclear question and the threat of war.  Like the vast majority of Iranian-Canadians, I am against a military confrontation, because of its impact on innocent civilians, and its unpredictable consequences on sectarian violence in the region.  Consider for instance the 2006 study in the reputable Lancet Survey medical journal, putting the number of excess civilian deaths in the Iraq war at 650,000.  But beyond humanitarian considerations, allow me to explain why war is such a bad idea by looking at the current situation through the logic of the Islamic Republic’s leadership.  First, the “Green Movement” has dealt a serious blow to its legitimacy and remains a threat.  Second, the power struggle between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad is reaching a point of crisis.  Third, its sole regional ally – the murderous Assad regime in Syria – is facing collapse, and with it the capacity to send weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Fourth, Hamas has been lured out of Iran’s orbit by Turkey and Qatar.  And fifth, economic sanctions are taking a heavy toll on the regime’s finances.  Under such dire circumstances, what is the only thing that can save the leadership?  The answer is war with Israel and America!  It is the one thing that can rally the masses behind the leadership, and under the cover of war, provide an opportunity for mass-execution of thousands of opponents, similar to the atrocities justified in the 1980s by pretext of the Iran-Iraq war.  At best, a military attack will delay the acquisition of nuclear capability by two years, whereas the democratic movement would be set back by at least a decade.  It cannot be disregarded that the problem is the nature of the regime rather than nuclear capability.  Consider for instance, how in the 1980s, the newly established democracies in Argentina and Brazil dismantled the nuclear programs pursued by prior military regimes.  In this context, talk of war is exactly the distraction that the regime needs to bolster itself at a time of weakness and vulnerability.

It is useful to recall the situation after the September 11th terrorist attacks, when the reformist Khatami government played a crucial role in helping the Americans defeat the Taliban.  This cooperation was rewarded with threats of a military invasion of Iran, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  Not surprisingly, it was the hardliners that benefited most from these hawkish policies.  Ironically, it was Saddam’s overthrow that helped transform Israel and Iran from unwitting strategic allies against a common enemy to regional rivals.  During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, while Ayatollah Khomeini called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, the Islamic Republic was enthusiastically receiving Israeli weapons shipments, just as the United States and the Europeans were arming Saddam Hussein, while he bombed Iranian cities and gassed his Kurdish population.  These are the cynical power politics that have brought us to the unfortunate reality we face today.  There is no doubt that nuclear proliferation would destabilize the balance of power in the middle-east and lead to an arms race.  But by buying into the Islamic Republic’s inflammatory apocalyptic rhetoric with alarmist rhetoric of our own – namely, the suggestion that Iran intends to use nuclear weapons in a suicidal attack against Israel – we are giving the regime the enemy that it needs to survive.  By invoking Armageddon, we are throwing the hardliners a life-line just as they are finally drowning in the morass of treachery that is of their own making.

It cannot go unnoticed that even the likes of ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Israeli Defence Forces chief-of-staff Gabi Ashkenazi have serious misgivings about the wisdom of war.  In the words of Yossi Alpher – Defence Minister Barak’s former Senior Adviser – there is an “obvious disagreement” on Iran between hawkish elements and “a more cautious and less alarmist camp that comprises much of the professional security community”.  Now is a time then that our leaders should avoid the politics of fear, lest it lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy with catastrophic consequences.

In conclusion, Madam Chair, you may recall that we first met in Kiev, in September 1990, at the first UN human rights workshop in what was then the Soviet Union.  We could have scarcely imagined what was to transpire in the coming months and how it would irreversibly change the world.  Beyond attempting to grapple with the current crisis, Canadians should also look with hope and imagination into the shared destiny that awaits the peoples of the middle-east.  I remember from my childhood that Iranian and Israeli tourists could take direct flights between Tehran and Tel Aviv to visit each others’ countries.  Surely that too is a possible scenario for the future of the region.  As Rumi wrote almost a thousand years ago, war is “unnecessary foolishness” because just beyond “there is a long table of companionship.”

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In October I had a post on a couple of films from the Middle East with women at the center of the story, Nadine Labaki’s droll comedy-fable ‘Where Do We Go Now?’, and Iranian director Mohammed Rasoulof’s ‘Good Bye’. Since then I’ve seen another three films from the Middle East-North Africa with different aspects of the status of women as the theme. The highest profile one, ‘La Source des femmes’ (English title: The Source), by Romanian-French director Radu Mihaileanu, premiered at Cannes, where it received either a rapturous reception or a mixed one (reports differed). Mihaileanu is best known for his ‘Live and Become‘ and ‘The Concert‘, both of which were loved by just about everyone I know who saw them (I thought both were good enough though not flawless—and particularly the former, which had problems in its second half).

This one is set in a remote mountain village in an unnamed MENA country but that is rather obviously Morocco (it was shot in a Berber village in the High Atlas), and inspired by an apparently true story from Turkey. The women in the village do all the backbreaking, heavy labor—notably hauling water in buckets from the spring up the mountain—while the men sit around, play cards, and don’t do a damned thing all day long. They used to be warriors in generations past but that’s all in the past and there’s no work for them nowadays. As hauling the water causes the women to fall down, injure themselves, and have miscarriages, they get fed up and demand that the men do something about it, like put pressure on the public authorities to install a pipeline to transport the water to the village (suggesting that the men do the water hauling was apparently too revolutionary an idea for the women). As the men are lazy f—offs and seem not to mind their womenfolk breaking their backs, the women caucus in the public bath and vote to go nuclear, to not have sex with their husbands until they act. They stage a sex strike (a “no-nookie regime” as one reviewer put it). The men get all up in arms and go crazy but the women’s solidarity, though tried at various moments and with the usual backbiting, proves unbreakable. And of course they win in the end.

That’s the movie. It’s feel good and with heavy doses of bons sentiments, no question about it. French reviews were mixed. US critics at Cannes were not overly impressed themselves, though saw some commercial potential for the pic outside the production countries. Hollywood Reporter thus called it a “[l]ively and saccharine Maghreb dramedy,” and a “certifiably crowd-pleasing slice of world cinema…boast[ing] an Arthouse for Beginners appeal that could reach broad audiences beyond Europe.” But though the pic had positive facets—technically and in terms of cast—there was “an unwieldy, bordering-on-kitsch side to Mihaileanu’s storytelling…[that] tends to walk the line between a soap opera and an advertisement for Royal Air Morocco.” Variety‘s critic was a bit tougher on Mihaileanu’s “formula of equal parts schmaltz and stereotype,” asserting that “this overwrought fable proves a difficult concoction to swallow,” though “the colorful, lushly designed Arabic-lingo pic might seduce undiscriminating audiences and ride the coattails of current interest in the North African revolutions…”

Not stellar recommendations for the movie, though I have to say that while disagreeing with none of the above critiques, I found it entertaining and not all bad. Above all, I loved the cast, which was All-Star for this kind of film, with three top under-30 beurette actress: Leïla Bekhti—sublime as always—, Hafsia Herzi—typically excellent—, and Sabrina Ouazani; the Algerian actress Biyouna; and Israeli-Palestinian stars Hiam Abbass—toward whom I am very partial—and heartthrob Saleh Bakri. All had to learn Moroccan dialectal Arabic for the film, which was quite an accomplishment (particularly as Mihaileanu doesn’t speak a word of it himself). It was also beautifully shot; technically very good. So unless one has a low tolerance for one-dimensional schmaltz and bons sentiments, it’s a film that may be seen.

I should mention a polemic provoked indirectly by the film, notably between me and a Franco-Moroccan friend. The day after it came out France 2’s news magazine show ‘Envoyé spécial’ had a half hour report on the making of ‘La Source des femmes’, focusing specifically on the villagers—mostly illiterate and almost all poor—, who served as the extras in the film (the report may be seen here). They were interviewed on what they thought of the experience, as well as the theme of the film (which was unclear to many) and if such a sex strike would be possible in their village (answer from the women: interesting idea but would never happen). They were simple people and the whole thing had been a little over their heads. The reporter accompanied the lucky ten villagers selected to go to the Cannes festival for the film’s premiere. So one saw the excited villagers take the one-hour van ride along bumpy mountain tracks to Marrakesh—where some had never been—to buy clothes for the event (and blue jeans for the girls, who had never worn them before), board a plane for the first time in their lives and for the undreamed of trip to France, stroll along the Promenade de la Croisette with all the tourists and glitterati, walk the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals, do a traditional dance and decked out in traditional Berber costumes (from another region; no one in their village had ever dressed that way, so one said), and receive a standing ovation from the audience at the film’s debut. Forty-eight hours later they were back in their dirt poor village.

I thought it was a fine reportage and didn’t have a problem with it, but it outraged my friend (I had already seen the film, she hadn’t). We had a rapid-fire exchange of text messages right after the report, followed by a phone conversation, during which she expressed her indignation at what she saw as the shameless exploitation—during the film’s shooting and at Cannes—of the bemused, economically impoverished villagers, and who were treated at Cannes like exotic primitives at a colonial exposition from a century ago. She wondered how much monetary compensation they had received for their participation in the film, if they had been reimbursed for the clothes they bought in Marrakesh (a huge expense for them), and if they and the village would at all benefit from any of the film’s box office receipts. Based on comments on a web site that immediately posted the ‘Envoyé spécial’ report, my friend was not alone in her à chaud sentiments. After the lightening trip to Cannes the villagers, not knowing how film festivals work, were surprised and disappointed that the film did not win any prizes, and indeed wanted to know what the financial payoff would be for them and the village. My friend was so indignant that she fired off that night an email to Mihaileanu, expressing her mauvaise humeur and informing him that she would refuse to see the film. Her message was polite but firm in its arguments. Mihaileanu, who was in Morocco at that moment, replied to her immediately, in a message that was respectful and almost contrite in tone. Taking her objections to heart he tried to address them—e.g. that 48-hour trips to Cannes are the norm for everyone whose expenses are paid by the festival—, expressed regret at her decision to boycott the film and hoped she would reconsider, and said that he would be returning to the village to project the film, and where he would apologize to the villagers—and to my friend as well—if they felt he had not shown them sufficient consideration.

Well, it was quite a response from Mihaileanu. And to his credit. I thought my friend made valid points (particularly on the song-and-dance skit at Cannes)—and which I conceded to her—but didn’t change my overall view. Mihaileanu had a good story and for a mass appeal, feel good film and wanted to make it as authentic as possible. Having Moroccan darija as the film’s language was an audacious and smart choice (cf. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s calamitous ‘Black Gold‘). As for what the villager figurants were paid for their participation, I would need to know what the going rate is for this kind of thing, in Third World countries and the West, before passing judgment. The Cannes trip: I thought it was nice. Better a 48-hour trip to France—the trip of a lifetime for the villagers—than no trip at all. As for an eventual responsibility of the film’s director and producers toward the village as a whole, to transfer some of the box office receipts to help it out materially, I would say that the lack of water, electricity, and other infrastructure there is a matter for the Moroccan state, not a film production company. If there are regions of Morocco that are impoverished, with no schools or infrastructure and where the population ekes out a subsistence living, this is a political issue for the Moroccans to deal with, particularly in view of the extreme inequalities of wealth in that country, the opulence displayed by its elite (take a spin around the Anfa district of Casablanca if you want to see it up close; if you can’t do that, see this movie), and the massive corruption at the summit of the state. It’s really not the responsibility of Radu Mihaileanu, and whose eventual charitable action wouldn’t change a thing.

Another movie seen recently on women in MENA: ‘Stray Bullet’ from Lebanon. Reviews in France were somewhat mixed, though Le Monde liked it. Variety did too. As its review begins

Theater helmer Georges Hachem makes his film debut with “Stray Bullet,” the literate, deeply felt story of a woman attempting to take control of her life. Set in 1976 during Lebanon’s civil war, this absorbing chamber piece avoids feeling stagebound thanks to considered lensing and editing that are beautifully modulated to evoke time, place and psyche. Star Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) should provide initial enticement for international buyers who’ll then be wooed by the pic’s force, notwithstanding a few overdrawn moments. Regional arthouse play is likely to make a mark, while fest exposure could lure Euro satcasters.

The film takes place in a Christian area near Beirut and among middle class Maronites, but where women are still bound by tradition and constrained in their choices. One of the female characters moonlights in a militia, where she murders in cold blood. Her discourse around the dinner table on the sectarian conflict is chilling. And no doubt realistic for that time.

The other movie seen: ‘Ephemeral Marriage’, by France-based Iranian director Reza Serkanian, which focuses on the Iranian Shi’ite practice of temporary marriage, that enables couples to licitly “do it” and with no strings attached. Great deal, maybe for women, definitely for men. The protag is a widowed woman in her 40s. I think it’s set in Mashhad but am not sure. Reviews in France were good on the whole. It so far seems not to have been seen by an American critic. It won’t be coming to your local multiplex, that’s for sure.

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i.e. Are you crazy? On the matter, Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli left, has an on target column on the latest Israeli bluster about bombing Iran. Avnery correctly dismisses the notion out of hand. Says it won’t happen. I agree and have been saying so for years, most recently in this blog post from last April. Pure, total folly.

But if the Israelis were to go postal and try such an attack, what should the US do? There are only two options: order the Israelis to turn the bombers around before they reach their targets or, in the event of Israeli disobedience, shoot them out of the air. That’s it. Not that it matters one way or the other but if Obama were to do neither—or worse, get the US in on the act—, I don’t think I’d be able to vote for him next November, regardless of the opponent.

UPDATE: Aaron David Miller has a piece on the Foreign Policy web site on the “five reasons that Israel and the United States might want to think long and hard about preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.” He’s right, of course, though understates his case IMO.

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This film, just out in Paris, is the second by Lebanese director-actress Nadine Labaki (whose first was the 2007 ‘Caramel‘, loved by everyone who saw it; everyone I know, at least). It is a comedy-fable, set in a mixed Christian-Muslim village during the Lebanese civil war (Lebanon is never mentioned in the film nor is it situated historically, but it’s rather obvious what it is). The village has not been caught up in the surrounding war and the communities get along fine—everyone knows everyone else—but the slightest incident can set off quarreling and worse. In order to prevent their excitable menfolk from dragging the village into sectarian bloodletting the women of both communities band together and hatch a madcap scheme. The film is quite funny and with some great moments, among them the hilarious ending. It won the audience award at the Toronto film festival last month. The audience at my suburban Parisian neighborhood cinema—middle-aged and older, middle class French—manifestly liked it too (a lot of laughter). Reviews in France have been tops. À ne pas louper.

Last month I saw a new Iranian film, ‘Good Bye’, which also focuses on women—or a particular woman, played by the sublime actress Leyla Zareh, who is in practically every scene—and with a contemporary political theme. But it is absolutely not a comedy. The lead character is a Tehran lawyer, pregnant, and whose politically engagé journalist husband is on the run from the authorities. It’s a slowly paced film—not one for the masses—and which pretty effectively depicts the political horror of the Islamic Republic, and particularly for women. It showed at Cannes this year (as did Nadine Labaki’s) but director Mohammed Rasoulof could not be present, as he was sentenced (along with the great Jafar Panahi) to a six-year prison term last year by a Tehran kangaroo court, for his participation in the 2009 Green Movement. An outrage. For reviews, see here and here.

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Iranian Beauty

This story is getting a lot of play today—I heard it on France Inter this morning and now see it in the NYT—about the jaw dropping interview on the BBC with the London stock trader, who talked about how recessions are great for making money, not caring about fixing the economy, Goldman Sachs ruling the world, etc. One of course wishes to take him and his finance capitalist ilk, send them here, and then parade them around like this. In the NYT piece—which was on the paper’s Lede blog—one learns that the trader is of Iranian origin and has made videos about Iran, one of which extols the country and its beauty. Scroll down to the bottom and watch it. Beautiful songs. The country too. One can only imagine what it would be if it were rid of that wretched regime and women could dress any way they wished.

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