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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