Desiring and Refuting Nostalgia

Mohsen Namjoo

Artwork by Shay Xie


We are always unable to perceive and explain “the present moment.” It is always harder for us to analyze the situation in which we find ourselves than to yearn for the past. Being proud of an (Achaemenid) era in which every day-laborer’s wages were engraved on earthen tablets is much easier than to think about why it is that in the year 2013, of the 180 countries on the corruption perceptions index, Iran is placed 168th. Contemplating civil rights in our country or in our neighbors demands more time and responsibility than to talk of Cyrus’ human rights charter. In 2013, the present author witnessed how at an event in Los Angeles the affluent got together and collected 250,000 dollars to be spent on showcasing that earthen cylinder for four days in a square in Beverly Hills. Accepting responsibility and thinking about how even one two-hundred-fiftieth of this money can free a prisoner in Iran or support a woman in Lorestan province, for example, to hire a lawyer and save her child from her husband’s family, how much more is such a gesture aligned with reality? To the bitter reality of our present time? But what a joy it is the sweetness of the past. A hallucinatory past. What a joy it is to remain a child! What a joy it is to escape the consequences of one’s actions and thoughts. We are not responsible for that Lor woman. She deserves whatever falls upon her, because she has chosen the Islamic Republic, and the responsibility of everything is upon those cunning mullahs. They have expelled us from there, so there is nothing left for us but to take pride in our past. And whatever the background of our family, neighborhood, and city doesn’t even matter. This is the West and “Wherever we come from, we are all Iranians.” They do not return to “Iran.” They return to [their good old] Iroon. A place that only exists in the world of imagination and in the sphere of language.



Even when all signs of our life, opportunities, and relations evoke a release from the past, we still do not wash our hands of it. I look at all the Iranians who have settled down in the West during the past thirty or forty years. Whatever criteria I use to categorize and analyze them, I see how the rope of the past still hangs around their necks. From the professor who directs the Iranian Studies department of so-and-so university in Virginia to the carpet seller in Hamburg. They all breathe the air of the West, they all take advantage of the opportunities of the free world, but they do not add anything to it other than an active or passive concern for a country that pains them inside and out. Not only has history wronged them and left them empty-handed, but the politics presently in place have also made them run away. They won’t ever let go of Iran as an image from the past. Without this past, their identity expires. And as they’ve lost the present of Iran physically and geographically, the hidden wound of their affection opens up, irrationally and romantically. They might not know what the latest law passed in the Iranian parliament was, or what new literary or humanities works were recently translated; or they might not be able to locate Tuyserkan (or even its whereabouts) on the map, but they drown themselves in the sea of Iran’s past as deeply as possible. From Cyrus, Ferdowsi, and Rumi, to a yearning for the glorious times when with their Iranian passport they didn’t need a visa to travel elsewhere. When one is drowning in something, one surely does not have the ability to simultaneously see it from outside. Which one of the Iranian professors of literature or humanities working in the universities in the West have studied topics other than Iran? Which carpet seller from Hamburg who has been to Shajarian’s concert fifty times has ever wondered how sixty-year-old Germans of his age entertain themselves or which spots in town they visit? And rest assured that not many sixty-year-old Germans have the means to enjoy as wide a range of entertainment as him. You might say a carpet seller cannot be blamed if he does not go to the museum or opera. Ok, you are right. But what about the leftist refugee? What about the literature professor? People in the arts and culture circles? Why haven’t most of them, in their roles as professors or cultural figures, added almost anything to the shelves of the academic libraries where they teach? Translating Eight Books by Sohrab Sepehri is as passive, futile, and a result of the inherent laziness of Iranians, as living in the heart of Europe for fifty years and being to only a few Kurdish tanboor concerts. Or a performance of Zahak in front of the surprised eyes of western biracial children (the moment the nervous hero of The Book of Kings raises his sword for the hundredth time). Or a conference on the battle of Rostam and Borzoo in Harvard University, presented in English, while only four of the fifty people in the audience are non-Iranians. This passive and blind love for the past is not just typical of immigrant and exiled Iranians. The same is true inside Iran. And in that regard, the copy is exactly the same as the original. What is produced and presented is simply repetition and imitation. In an imitation or recreation of the past, there is no creativity. It is obvious that such a lack of creativity in intellect and lifestyle (from lovers of Rumi to vanguards of safeguarding the Iranian culture, from commoners to academics to artists to engineers) is rooted in the disease of “passéism”—in loving a sick past. Wasting money and holding festivals for something that we fear is lost. If something exists, it is not the past. It is a present that is far away from us, and because it is far away, it becomes stranger to us every day. This present time is not at all as glorious as the false image we have from the past. This present time is something unknown and foreign to which we have no access. Therefore, in our mind, it is all vice and evil. And nothing is sadder than this for a people. This present time is a combination of being increasingly crushed and charged up in the face of media freedom for its young generation and avarice, corruption, and misery for its elderly. There is no water left for farming and for realizing the foolish dream of the country becoming self-sufficient; there are no dreams and ideals left, no self-belief, and no self-confidence. We are not worried about the void inside us, about the emptiness of our mind and our soul. Instead we constantly check ourselves up and down in the mirror of others, worried that we look good enough. Looking good in front of others suffices and calms us. That is the standard for a generation that has piled up so many complexes that the statistics of its nose jobs rises above that of the Asian continent. There is no life left in this present time, but our misery is that we have no option that is more certain than this very corrupt “present.” “Imagine that they are gone; who is going to replace them?!” I don’t know of any question that’s more detested than this. Not for what its response might be, but because whoever raises this question (almost all of us) is irresponsible and lazy, one who is not ready to pay any price and wants to disassociate themselves from the issue of destiny and their own role in it, and that too with a pose of being tolerant and democratic. 



There is no escape from this awful present with its awful mood. There is no remedy except to accept this wound. The smallest trigger will definitely lead into an irreparable scandal. As we’ve seen it happening in our close proximity. Is there anything sadder for Iranians? To have to love their wounds and put up with them for fear that they might be replaced by cancer? We have a dictator who has turned us into vagrants, but in the midst of the wounded swamps that have spread to his left and right, he is like an island proprietor whose perspectives—at least up to now—have also brought political stability. We have fraudsters and rentiers who—at least to keep up appearances and please the public—we seize by the collar and hold to trial. But we don’t have law-abiding fraudsters of the western type who, in the past century, have learned genius ways to massacre softly. Who has ever seen the head of an insurance company who has legally sucked the blood of millions of Americans for years, stand, like a Babak Zanjani in the US, in front of the people, confess to his frauds, and ask forgiveness from the court of justice? We dedicate all our leftist ideals to revealing the economic gap between the wealthy and poor in Iran and we keep roaring at the top of our voices. But we never bat an eyelid about the fact that the gap between the lives of the residents of Union Park in Manhattan and those in the slums around JFK Airport in East Brooklyn is much bigger, more unjust, and more reason for roars.



We can’t make any cultural efforts to influence western society, because we are a subculture, not an official culture. How much have all the cultural activities of Iranians in the west engaged the western man? We are like the Iranian “Center for Safeguarding and Promoting Music,” but what we do is merely safeguard and not promote. Iranian professors working on intellectual topics and cultural research in European and American universities, what books have they written on subjects other than Iran? How many volumes? How invaluable is their work compared to western research? I, myself, the author of these lines, was for a while teaching Iranian music in an all-around western university (whose directors are of the type of westerners so culturally and economically advanced that they feel guilty and thus want to spend some money on the activities of an “eastern musician”). I succeeded in attracting a few black and white and yellow students from Ohio and Atlanta to go and enthusiastically look for pictures of Mazandarani kamancheh and Khorasani zurna. I will forever remember the satisfaction, joy, and sense of victory in my employers’ face-to-face interactions with me and in the content of their encouraging emails. Was the impact of my work, really, anything other than childish entertainment or pastime, compared to the most ordinary, empirical research in the field of musicology in the history of that department? Why do they wish to cover up differences? Why do they hide differences? One day, what differentiates you and them will eventually knock you over, tearing you apart, spreading you all over the floor. I am spread all over. The westerner sees this, but pretentiously keeps quiet about it. There is no space for me as an artist or cultural figure in the west. We either need to yield to the pitiful image of the human coming from the Middle East and swallow the way directors of festivals or university departments eye us both with surprise at seeing this two-legged creature and with respect, empathy, and admiration; or else we should remain a subculture and not make the vain claim of “I am simply an artist, not an eastern artist” or other such effusions. I was part of a subculture in my own country too. Wasn’t I? Which official culture ever gave me a podium so that I would now, longing for it, desire the past? I hate this concept of subculture. I hate the concept of “exile art.” Not just because of the contempt embedded in it, but also because of its (once again) nostalgic desire for that official culture [it is exiled from], the culture that does not really exist anymore, neither with us nor with the west.



And now the second danger: that of the nostalgic west: Why do they accept us? Is [Jafar] Panahi’s haphazard cinema anything but a nihilistic, populist act out of laziness, ineptness, and opportunism, next to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s cinema? Is the whole of our cinema in recent years—putting aside the exceptions of course—anything other than sewing a suit for a button you’ve got? Vulgar, trite, and mediocre suppositions, simply good for entertainment and to pass the time. But of all of this cinema, what catches the eye of the west or in other words what it drills into us, is nothing but romanticized reactions to intellectual concerns.

The attention the west pays us is, however, not necessarily a result of feeling guilty; sometimes it is out of respect or even because of finding the other’s (the eastern human’s) narrative of the world interesting. But the west is, in my humble opinion, afflicted with guilt. This return to the past and attention to narratives of the others, to eastern Jazz, to the arabesque in miniature and illumination, to the shoddy sensation of freedom-seeking in Tunisian songs, to the ridiculous game of Malala Yousafzai, and worse than that, the even more ridiculous game of the “rights of the delicate women of the Middle East,” is a way to cover some kind of guilt. Or deny some kind of fear. The fear of losing the status gained through a two-hundred-year-old modernity. They feel boredom, loneliness, and some kind of fear from the cosmic distance left between their Ferrari and our jalopy. Overtaking all the other cars results in nothing but driving all by oneself on the highway. The west feels nostalgic towards its own past. To resolve its boredom, it needs us. And how stupid we would be to think that playing with the child of the wealthy neighbor means we are equal with and equivalent to him. Even for one second, for one second even, this is not what’s on his mind. He is never devoid of feeling superior to us. My hatred is not for him. My hatred is for the eastern human who hides this distance.
For your whole life you have hidden what differentiates you and them
In the end, what differentiates you and them knocks you over
You are torn apart, you are spread over the floor.
The danger of the west growing nostalgic, this passéism, and this looking at us as a form of its own past, has itself two consequences: on the one hand, it supports the least talented easterners and as such causes an undermining of the creative act and a diminishing of artistic values to a (merely) practical, functional level; on the other, it causes an instantaneous forgetting of the fact that some time ago (a long while ago), these cultures that are now receiving the attention of the west were once (actually) humiliated by it; some time ago, when the west was galloping at full speed in the direction of the presumption and myth of development.

As proof of our insignificance in the west’s eyes, it suffices to note that they are not curious about the depth of our work, rather they want to treat this temporary shared game of fusion in a fast, easy, and instrumental way. A typical example is the ridiculous honoring of what was performed as Iranian opera by one of the least talented Iranian singers in Germany. Or the performance of the song “Gol-e Sangam” [“Lichen”] by a classical singer in Europe. One can similarly surmise the status of bands from India, Africa, or the Arab world that are paid attention to by the Europeans. This is a result of the westerners’ unawareness of and foreignness to the culture and cultural background of the east. Sometimes the geographical knowledge of US foreign ministers, in recent decades, has been far less than that of porters in the Isfahan Bazar in Iran. It is thus to no surprise that the point of entry for their public, and even for their elite, into the thousand-year-old music of India turns out to be the four dandy, spoiled brats of The Beatles. They hop in a taxi at Delhi airport and the first person [they run into] in the busy, dirty streets who plays a large, funny (yes exactly read funny) instrument happens to be called Ravi Shankar. Straight from there, they head back to the airport and to their godforsaken west, carrying the message that they’ve discovered the jewel of India, without any one of the millions of Indian music devotees [ever] asking them, Sirs, maybe you should have searched more, perhaps in the next street you could’ve found a better, deeper example. But neither those four young men nor the west have the patience to consider us in-depth. We are only important enough to entertain their kids (read cultural activities) at noon. And lucky for them there is not a scarcity of poor nations. One day it is Nigeria; the next, the Philippines. As such, the westerners’ taxes are spent on humanitarian causes and their guilt is quieted down, too. This second point is significant. And I, we, don’t have any other choices either. And there are not going to be any revolutions or transformations. Getting cross with the spoiled, wealthy child of the neighbor is out of question. The tragedy is that even our getting cross with him won’t become part of news. We have no other choice but to feel satisfied by the encouragement and attention of the west. There is no “I’m not coming” or “Go play by yourself.” My “Sanama” track that had been a cause of laughter and ridicule of me for many years, turned out to become the most avant-garde and prideful piece of music whose gem of a creator had not yet been discovered, the moment it was taken notice by a Netherlandish orchestra and performed in an official event in front of the royal family. We even know ourselves through the eyes of west, through the approval of west.

Have you met with westerners who love the scent of Ghormeh Sabzi, and who, when they travel to Iran, are charmed by the slow rhythm of time and the people’s freedom of choice in managing time ineffectively? They are enamored by our “in God we trust” and being a people of fate and destiny. I am sick of the white westerner who wants to learn the setar. This causes a strange sense of mistrust in me. I will humiliate him/put him down as much as I can. So that he can realize/understand the futility of his existence, so that I have an opportunity to get rid of my complexes. You for one don’t need to become a setar-player. Let us die in our own misery, sir!

translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi

This is an excerpt of one of the essays from the author’s book Four Essays, which was published in the original Persian, accompanied by an audio book narrated by Namjoo himself, by Naakojaa, Paris, 2018.