Posts Tagged ‘Otherness’


Bodies that matter

October 12, 2008

11/10/08, Tehran

In the village of Gazor Khan, at the foot of Alamut rock, I was beckoned over by two young girls, Miriam and Sara. Following the usual exchange of queries concerning origin, age and work, and after learning that I lived in Lebanon, the girls were eager to see some of my photographs. The two things they knew about Lebanon were Hizbullah and Nancy Ajram (Lebanese pop star), and it struck me as amusing that two such diverse images could come to represent Lebanon in their eyes… Lebanon: the land of the Islamic resistance and sex-kittens.

Initially, I was reluctant to show them the photos on my digital camera, mainly because most of them were of beaches and parties, which meant there was a lot of skin being bared. There was even a whole sequence of photos from a holiday with J’s family in Cyprus, which has three generations of his family lolling around pools drinking cocktails. But then I though, no; it’s alright if they see people enjoying themselves in ways that are socially acceptable outside the dogmatism of the Islamic Republic.

They were fascinated by the photos, intrigued by arms, legs, and other exposed body parts. They were particularly surprised when I told them who these people were: this lady with the long blond hair and short dress is my mother; those men in the swimming shorts are my husband, his father and his grandfather. Those adolescents are my husband and his brothers and sisters. They alternated between semi-embarrassed giggling and voicing their admiration of the white skin glistening in the sunlight.

‘Are there Christians in Lebanon?’, Miriam asked. Yes, I replied, quite a lot.


Then Sara expressed curiosity about the clothes people wear there, and asked if women had to wear the hijab. No, I said. ‘In other countries of the world’, she continued, ‘do you have to wear it?’ No, I said again. Actually, there are only a few countries where you must wear it: Iran, Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries. I went on in my broken Farsi, explaining that in other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, you don’t have to wear it. If you’re a Christian, you don’t have to. And if you’re a Muslim, you have a choice: ‘it is possible yes, it is possible no’.

The girls digested my comments slowly, and I thought about the implications that my words, my photographs, would have on them. I figured that their exposure to other ways of living and interacting shouldn’t be conceived of as irresponsible. Indeed, I have always found the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ to be patronizing, because it assumes that certain types of knowledge should be restricted certain people.

And even after I left them, I began to think that it was in fact a positive thing for them to be able to see the ways in which ordinary people, families, can show their bodies publicly and banally without them being either sexual or shameful. Seeing pasty, middle-aged, beer-bellied English people sat benignly in their swimmers sort of smashes the interpretation that exposing skin is inherently indecent or immoral. If anything, it shows that in some contexts, the body can be released from weighty moral judgments and allowed to just ‘be’.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that showing Sara and Miriam my photographs of women with exposed bodies and hair in an explicitly de-sexualised context was healthy, because it contradicted the sorts of exposed bodies that they had obviously already had access to: images of Lebanon’s pop princesses. Those images probably constitute their idea of what non-veiled women are, which is exactly the line that the strict religious authorities wish to push: non-veiled women in revealing clothing are shameful whores. Women of the noble Islamic Republic, show your dignity and pride by hiding your bodies and rejecting such vileness! But if the internet contained as many photographs of grannies on beach holidays; nudist beaches; naked, bearded Hindu ascetics; hairy-arm-pitted feminists (loud and proud!); and other images of bodies in non-sexualised contexts as it did of digitally enhanced pornographic vixens, then the image of the non-veiled Other as intrinsically immoral that is pushed by Iran’s clergy would crumble.

I realise that it would be dangerous to assume the role of ‘opener of people’s eyes and broadener of horizons’, because that would inevitably imply some sort of neocolonial agenda. I do not intend to go round showing 22-year-old girls from remote Iranian villages photographs that are potentially subversive because they challenge the dominant discourse of the religious authorities. I do, however, think that responsibly responding to the curiosity of adults regarding their cultural Others can be a positive exchange. I have learned so much from so many people during my three weeks here in Iran, about individual’s perceptions of their culture, government, food, bodies, facial hair… And as with all cultural encounters as dialogical experiences, I have also shared my opinions. I can only hope that doing so has encouraged individuals to continue to quench their curiosities by seeking insight from sources other than mainstream representations by media or government, by challenging whatever dominant paradigm exists in that context.

These are ideals which I hold myself to. I believe that they are sources of growth and inspiration… Not the only sources, because growth and inspiration spring from infinite and often unexpected locations. But somewhere, somewhere inside this constant grappling with Self and Other, there are some valuable inklings, some fleeting illuminations; and we just have to keep scratching into the depths of those exchanges to discover them.


Tehran: Initial Impressions

September 20, 2008

Toilets in train station: unexpectedly spotless and squeaky clean.

The first two people we met (taxi driver and hotel manager) were vocally critical of Iran. In the words of the former: ”Mullah, no good”. The hotel manager, Ali, also spoke with disdain about the religious authorities, lamented the absence of discos and whiskey, and even went as far to say that he missed the days of the Shah. They also praised the countries in the world that are so often met with so much disapproval in the Middle East: the US and UK.
We later discussed such overt dissidence and uncommon appreciation for the West, and wondered whether they were their true opinions, or whether they were saying those things to either flatter us or provoke debate. Obviously, the history of Western intervention in Iran (CIA-supported coup of democratically elected government of Mossadeq in the 1960’s; proppoing up the Shah’s brutal regime thereafter…) is reason for distrust and disdain. But, thinking about more contemporary reasons for which the US and the UK are so despised in the wider Middle East, namely support for Israeli occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq, I realized that the view from Iran on such issues is bound to differ. On the former, despite the rhetoric of the Iranian government, I do not think that there is the same amount of identification with the Palestinian cause in Iran as in Arab countries (despite the fact that in many of these, such identification is largely rhetorical and substance-less). Culturally, religiously and linguistically, Iranians are distant from Palestinians, and therefore probably do not see the Israeli occupation as threatening their larger community, as is often the perception from an Arab perspective. I am as yet unaware of the extent to which the the disdain of the Iranian government for Israel is shared by the Iranian population, but I think that the whole issue is more a question of geopolitics than identity. Secondly, the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was seen as an infringement on a collective Arab or Sunni Muslim sovereignty, was in many ways positive for Iran: it toppled the man/regime with whom Iran had engaged in a brutal 8-year war (an end in itself), and thereby shifted the balance of power in the region in their favour.
And then of course it is simultaneously very possible that Iranians are tired of the impositions of their government. But is it dangerous to be so vocal about such views? I would guess that despite the fact that the security apparatus undoubtedly flexes its muscles when appropriate, most often with higher profile individuals (academics, activists, bloggers), the circle of fear surrounding the expression of dissidence in certain situations (ie to foreigners) is weakening…

Tehran bazaar is a combination of Souq al Hamidiyya in Damascus, the suave shopping district of San Remo in Italy and Ikea: beautiful old arches/ elaborate wooden windows/colourful mosque domes lurking round every corner, sheltering endless alleys of gold and silversmiths, watch retailers, fake designer clothing and the most stylish range of kitchen and housing supplies Ive ever seen! It is brilliant and bustling, and does not disappoint.

And yet Tehran is quieter and more low-key than I expected, which is probably because its Ramadan. But also, I feel it is much LESS alien to me than i expected it to be. I think it has something to do with my expectations of Iran being built on images of a staunch ‘Big Brother’ state, complete with massive posters of Imam Khomeini on every street corner, huge Soviet-style buildings and a strong police presence. Instead, in southern Tehran the buildings hardly exceed 2 or 3 stories, the police are few and far between and the political propaganda is not overtly omnipresent (although this could have something to do with having spent the past 9 months in Beirut, where political posters outnumber consumer advertising and there is a tank on every other street corner).
I suppose that Tehran does not live up to its reputation in the Western imagination as the steely capital of the demonised Islamic Republic. Nor does it strike me as overly conservative: alongside the many women in chadors, we have spotted Hermes scarves, Gucci and Dior sunglasses, nose-jobs, exaggerated fringes escaping from hijabs, dramatic make-up and long/spikey hair on men. I feel frumpy with my oversized salwar kameez and tatty black scarf, while my scruffy, untied Doc Martens have received more looks of disapproval than any amount of hair/lower arm/ankle that has peeked out from my clothing.

Its funny, because we claim to be aware of the impact of media distortion on the perception of Otherness. We fashion ourselves as ones who are able to deconstruct the discourses and power relations that inform the way that we think about distant cultures. We feel confident in your non-essentialist view of any religion or ethnic group. And yet, the extent to which we are taken aback by the way in which an encountered ‘reality’ differs from what we have been exposed to betrays the inescapability of our construction. Which is not a bad thing, because it is healthy to be reminded of our bias, our partiality, our preferences, and how those influence the way that we not only see Otherness but also how we behave in its presence.

For me, that is one of the most valuable aspects of directly encountering difference: it makes us as much aware of aspects of the Other as much as what characterises the self. I learned this the hard way, during a difficult year spent studying Arabic in Egypt. It is a reflection that i hope i will never forget, because by recognizing my own agency in experiencing foreignness, I will be less likely to react angrily to the difficulties that will inevitably be faced in that encounter, and look inside for solutions rather than attributing blame outside.