The Photographer’s Notes

Nasrollah Kasraian

Khosrow from the Other Side of the World
January 29, 2018

I think the second time I went to Père Lachaise Cemetery, it was for the anniversary of Hedayat’s death. Some people had gathered there. I remember Gholam Hussein Saedi spoke too, and I still hold both his tone in my ears and words from what he said in my memory . . . Interesting that the next time I went to Père Lachaise, it was for the funeral of Saedi himself, and I was only in Paris by chance.
Photograph by Nasrollah Kasraian

He says, “I’ve never seen you write fiction!” (I’ve recently learned how to Skype with him.) I say, “Khosrow, reality itself has become fiction; reality has turned into ultra-reality; the real has become surreal.” He says, “Write. Write . . . ”

He left shortly after the revolution. Seeing the extremism, he grew frightened. When he returned to Iran after completing his Ph.D. in sociology, they realized at the airport, thanks to his last name, that he was not a Muslim and confiscated his passport. It was then that he truly got scared. When I went to his house in Paris more than thirty years ago, I noticed that he had cut up a picture of the former warden of Evin Prison from a newspaper and hung it on his wall. He blew kisses to it and said, “I owe my life to this man. If I had not escaped the country for fear of him, perhaps I would have lost my life for no good reason . . . ”

I didn’t see him for a long time; for ages I didn’t even know where he was . . . He had disappeared. I asked around and finally found him on Facebook. A few months ago we met for the first time after some ten or fifteen years. I saw him in Rotterdam. He had just come back from Thailand. I believe he had gone there for research, and maybe some massages in between. After all, people are more in need of such things when they grow old . . .

He says, “Prostitution doesn’t mean anything here, it’s the economy, it’s the culture; they are either single mothers who ‘work’ to earn money for their kids whom they have left behind in the villages with their own mothers or grandmothers, or they are girls who, through this kind of ‘work,’ help support their parents.” I say, “Khosrow, it seems we were wrong to speak so poorly of capitalism. In the end, capitalism, by creating ‘jobs,’ has turned prostitution into an ‘industry’!”

Khosrow has read a lot. He is always reading, and I always miss him, miss his talking. Even though he talks a lot, it is not in vain. He talks with fervor, ferocious laughs from the bottom of his heart punctuating his conversation; I too sometimes laugh like this . . . I have seen few people keep their charisma for so long, the way he has done. We’ve known each other for forty-five years; we came to know each other in prison . . . It rarely happens that we talk and he does not mention In Search of Lost Time, the very book that I could not continue beyond the first two volumes no matter how hard I tried. He says, “Proust said he was translating whatever was in his mind . . . Do you get it? He says ‘Translate,’ not ‘Write’!” . . . It rarely happens that we talk and he does not say something about Citizen Kane or Orson Welles; every time he tries to remind me of the movies we saw together at the Paris Cinémathèque, and I do not remember anything of Citizen Kane except for the elongated shadow on the movie theatre screen . . . His memory is terrific . . . He says, “Do you remember when my car was confiscated and towed to the parking garage because I had used it to distribute political fliers before the Revolution?” And I don’t even remember that he once owned a car. He says, “Don’t you remember my green Peykan?” And I remember Peykans in every color, but not Khosrow’s green Peykan! He says, “Don’t you remember that after the Revolution, we went to get the car from the parking garage, and the attendant wanted to charge us for the two months the car was there and you told him, ‘Are you an agent of that regime or this regime?’” I say, “Khosrow, I don’t remember any of it, but I do remember the 5,300-toman loan that they made me pay back after the Revolution, which I had gotten from Maad (the university credit institute) under the old regime and had vowed not to return because of the fight I had with an employee there . . . ”

I say, “Khosrow, come back so that we can spend these last years of our lives together; after all, you haven’t done anything, it’s true that you are not a Muslim, but you are nonetheless of the Abrahamic religions.” He says, “But now I have another problem as well. Now I am a dual citizen!” I say, “But it’s not that they come after all dual citizens; that is a different story.”

How much he loves this country. Even after so many years abroad, his heart is still here. And while I encourage him to come back, I know that nobody really can give him any kind of guarantee . . .

Khosrow, unlike me, knows the exact meaning of words, which is kind of natural; he has worked with words more than me; I have mostly followed images, so when he tells me, “Write ‘fiction,’” I wonder what he means exactly and so I try to understand him by presenting some examples. Damn these hermeneutics! I say, “Khosrow, this cutting someone’s hand off in the twenty-first century, isn’t that ‘fiction’?” He says, “No, that is the religious narrative of the violence of capital.” I say, “Khosrow, someone noted that if the thief had not touched the sheep but instead dragged it with a rope, he wouldn’t be sentenced to having his hand severed. Isn’t that ‘fiction’?” He says, “No, that is the punishment for being technologically backward. These days nobody even touches money. Billions get transferred through banks’ virtual networks without any hands being involved, and so those who know the ins and outs of it won’t have to face any punishments . . . ” I say, “Khosrow, on Facebook I’ve seen the picture of a respectable middle-aged woman on the other side of the world whose eyes and the ways she looks at people are exactly like those of the poor girl whom I once saw, during my college years, in the southern parts of Khorram Abad. I fell in love from a distance and took a picture of her. And the eyes of both are like the eyes of Irene Papas, the actress in Zorba the Greek. Do you remember how, in the café, with her sorrowful eyes, she looked down on those who had taken her goat hostage? Do you think there is something of ‘fiction’ in this?” He says, “Write!” And I once again realize I have not really grasped what he means by “fiction.” I say, “Khosrow, perhaps you mean something like The Blind Owl?” He says, “You’ve got it right.” I say, “I too used to think Hedayat’s writing, or Kafka’s The Castle, or Orwell’s Animal Farm were ‘fiction,’ but now all of them seem to me to be sheer reality!” He says, “Fiction is not reality, but it is fed by reality.” I say, “Khosrow, two people have been put on trial in two corners of the world for the same crime. One has been indicted and the other sentenced to 175 years of imprisonment. Hasn’t justice become a ‘fiction?’” He says, “Write!” I say, “Should I write only about justice?” He says, “Write. Just write.”


The Neighbor
December 26, 2017

Some forty years later, Italy, Venice. Just a random picture! The exact date of the photo, 1994, is when I had an exhibition in Florence and from there headed to Venice . . . No one was bothering her, and she was bothering no one. She sunbathed. I took my picture. To each their own.
Photograph by Nasrollah Kasraian

Our houses were similar; the fruits of one contractor’s labor, built simultaneously; with white bricks produced in Qom; the ceilings made with crisscrossed iron beams, which were not that popular back then; two floors, on each floor two connected rooms that could be separated by curtains; mantels with stuccos of the protruding torso of an angel with little wings and large breasts on either side of the fireplaces; and sparse stucco decorations on the ceiling where the two rooms were divided. Along the hallway on the second floor was a small room that had been given to me, a room of around two by two meters (in the house that shared a wall with ours, the same room belonged to the neighbor’s daughter). The room naturally should have been offered to my brother, who was twenty days older than me, but since my father’s second wife (my mother) lived on the second floor, it ended up becoming mine; perhaps there had been arguments and physical quarrels over the room being given to me, of which I fortunately remember nothing. In our house, such fights, between my brother and me, often occurred, for one reason or another. He was both taller and stronger; I was shorter and more studious!

My room was not one of those rooms that would prompt Balzac to fill up ten or fifteen pages to describe its furniture: one zilu carpet, a nonstandard mattress the same size as me, a comforter, a pillow, paper and pen, and some books—chic solitary confinement!

I think I was thirteen . . . My older brother and I exercised regularly, and we forced others to exercise too; exercising at our house was almost mandatory; we sometimes even went to our father, who was blind by then; he would just get up and sit down once or twice from his cushion and then say, “That’s enough, I’m tired!” We would crack up and leave him alone. In the hallway, we had hung up a mirror to evaluate the results of our daily activities, on the lower edge of whose black frame we had written with white ink: “from powerfulness comes a man’s righteousness . . . from feebleness rises dearth and deformity,” and every time our sister’s husband, who was a smoker, visited, we rubbed this line from Ferdowsi’s poem in his face . . . Oh, how long did it take me both to become a smoker and to hate exercising!—I’ll never forget the day I got out of prison, already a smoker, and the first thing he said to me was, “Agha Nasrollah! I see you smoke now!”

The courtyard of our house was small, maybe eight meters by eight, with a small rectangular pool whose exact dimensions I need to provide here, for reasons you are going to understand later. Length: one hundred and twenty-one centimeters. Width: eighty centimeters. Depth: thirty-two centimeters. There was an exact symmetrical pool in the neighbor’s house . . . We would make the kids run around the pool. (Every time I think of this scene now, I remember the tableau Van Gogh painted of a prison yard!)

We would let the younger ones off after they had run around the pool forty times and done a few workout moves; then it was time for the older ones to do heavier exercises; the “older” brother and me, and sometimes the two younger ones. Boxing and weightlifting. I won’t say much about our boxing. The ring: a corner of the yard; our gloves: made of old discarded jeans that were stuffed with sheep’s wool; the lingo of our workout: phrases like “left hook” and “right hook” and “upper cut” (I have no idea where we had picked these phrases) . . . the results: bruised eyes and swollen lips . . . the intentions: to be prepared for possible enemies and sometimes to get even with one another on account of unexpressed grudges! In our workout, as the elders, weightlifting had a special status; it had its own story! (Our equipment though not really standard was truly eye catching: two large cement cylinders through the holes of which went the handle of a shovel from Tuyserkan—last year when I traveled to Tuyserkan, I realized after sixty years that the very strong wood of these shovel handles is of a special tree planted in the region, still planted in some parts—and of course it should be pointed out that later, as the weights we used got heavier, the shovel handle was replaced by an iron bar.) In the beginning we did a series of snatches, and clean and jerks, and the rest of the workout consisted of moving the barbell up and down while we lay on our backs on a bench (placed in a very specific location). This move was my favorite as well as my older brother’s. I knew my own reasons for liking this action but had no idea about his. We would continue with this move until we had no life left in us; it was as if an unspoken competition took place between my brother and me: fifteen, sixteen, twenty-three, twenty-four, thirty-five, ive, ive, ive . . . no one would admit defeat! I always looked, out of the corner of my eyes, in a way my brother could not notice, at the window of the two by two room of the neighbor’s house; I sometimes even noticed the movement of the curtains behind the window; there was no doubt it was her; and in my heart, I felt that she, perhaps through my sister, knew that my grades were better than my brother’s; so the only thing that was left to be done was to work out!

During the summertime, one day when I was looking at their yard through the curtains of my window, I saw her, wearing a bikini, having finished swimming in the very pool whose dimensions I already mentioned to you, lying down on the stone edges of the pool to sunbathe, like the belles I saw in the movies . . . This wasn’t a movie, it was happening in reality, and more importantly she was not taking her eyes from the window of my room . . . Back then, people could swim in the pools of their house or at beaches of the Caspian Sea, and others could take delight in such scenes with no expenses whatsoever; it was only much later when everyone had to go to such expense and travel at least to Antalya . . . There was no doubt left at all . . . Love, or whatever it was, was mutual. Oh . . . Finally one day, when I could not bear it anymore and felt I had made enough progress in my bodybuilding, I sent her a message, through my sister, saying something along the lines of “You are so beautiful!” . . . Not more than two or three hours later, my mother called to me, “Nasrollah! Is it true that you made a wisecrack to the neighbor’s daughter?” Devastated! I was devastated! And not just of shame! I had always told my mother everything; there were no secrets between us; neither had she expected such a “hideous” act from me, nor had I ever done such a thing. In that moment, I only had one wish: for the ground to open up and devour me. I had no choice but to confess to my sin and express my shame. There was no escaping; there had even been a witness to the crime, my sister! I don’t remember exactly, but it seemed that mother had done her research before confronting me. All this was just part of what was going on inside me; I felt like someone betrayed, and for some reason I could not understand why I felt there was some kind of conspiracy going on, that one or a few people had wanted to mercilessly disgrace me; I had no idea who or why . . .

Ten years later, I was twenty-three years old, a law student at the University of Tehran with a room close to campus. One Friday night, my brother, who was in the military and doing his training in Tehran, came from his base to visit me. We were remembering old memories when my brother said, “By the way, do you remember P.?” I said, “Why do you think I could have forgotten?” He said, “You know! Whenever you were not home, I would come to your room and, standing by the window, have a rendez-vous with her.”


Bijan and I
August 16, 2017

Wedding ceremony, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, 1976, published in two of my books, Gozar (Transition) and Gozaresh-e Yek Zendegi (Report of a Life).
Photograph by Nasrollah Kasraian

We’ve known each other for forty years or so; we are kind of bosom friends. We have travelled with one another more than you could imagine. He is a wonderful travel companion; I believe we have traveled some 300,000 kilometers together. Many times when we had no other choice but to sleep in the car, Bijan would spread his sleeping bag outside the car and fall asleep, and when he slept, it was as if a rock slept, and it seemed to me that he slept exactly as he slept on the therapeutic mattress in his own house. I too used to do the same thing when I was young and even more mindless than I am now—of course I don’t mean Bijan did this because he is mindless, no, he did it because he believes that if we don’t bother other creatures, they won’t bother us either; after all, he spent his childhood with the nomads and also studied zoology. I respect his perspective, but I prefer to sleep in the car! Anyway . . .

I remember, during a trip we took one early spring to photograph the nomads of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, when a song by a Spanish-speaking singer played on the car stereo, Bijan asked, “What is this dude saying?” “Do you want me to translate for you?” I asked. “Do you also know Spanish?” he asked. “My dearest Bijan, of course I know enough Spanish.” And I began to translate:

On the way to school I think of you
In the classroom I think of you
When I leave school too
Again I think of you
In front of the school
The ice cream man shouts, “Yay! Ice Cream!”
But I have run out of my monthly allowance
I see kids in front of the school
Selling books and I ask myself
Why don’t I have the guts to do things like that
Then, when I get home and you call
You ask why I do not speak
My love, you know I love you
But what should I do when I do not have the courage to live!

I noticed that he liked it—he usually enjoys listening to Qashqai music. The next day when once again we were driving around in the same area, and the tape came to the same song as the previous day, Bijan showed interest in once again hearing the translation of the lyrics. So I repeated:

I saw you not feeling well
Well, what should I say?
You always like to go “dancing”
You like
To play music, dance, sing
To get drunk
Every other day
To change your lovers
What should I say?
I know these words don’t have any logic behind them either
But I don’t know why despite all this
You are the only woman I love.

Bijan said, “But yesterday the translation was very different!”

“My dearest Bijan, yesterday was another day . . . ”


A photograph
July 13, 2017

Photograph by Hanna Noori

This photograph shocked me. This photograph caused me to lose sleep.

It has been a long time since a photograph had such an impact on me. This photograph has shaken me more than all the other apocalyptic photographs from Syria and Iraq. I have not forgotten the photograph of the child’s body on the beach, or the bloody terrified face of the four-year old Syrian kid in the ambulance. But this photograph is frozen in front of my eyes.

From the moment I saw this picture, I have wanted to write about it, and from that moment too many thoughts have invaded my mind for me to be able to write about it, until today, after a long night of insomnia.

I showed the picture to a friend who said, “When I think of the Saudi dollars and the violence and savagery these men have carried out, I am not terribly touched. Haven’t you seen the other pictures?”

And I kept thinking of brainwashing or the money this person had been paid to make it worth being taken captive under such conditions.

This photograph is frozen in front of my eyes. In the photograph, there is no trace of either the war machines one sees in action movies or of weird-looking weapons. Nothing that can be a sign of war is seen in it, not even the tip of the boots of the victors. And still, you can see everything about war in it.

It would only suffice to look at the eyes of the prisoner of war, at the way he sits, the red cloth with which his hands are tied, the empty water bottle, the mud-splattered wall of the room, the floor of the room, the half-visible guarded window, part of a barrel, and once again the terrified look of a man who is as if an animal caught up in a trap, having no idea what awaits him.

I didn’t know the photographer, but thanks to the blessings of the virtual world I was able to contact her, and I realized she is a young Iranian Kurd woman who now lives outside of Iran.  

She explained that they had been given only two minutes to take a photo of the prisoner. She spoke of the photographers flooding the room and their competitiveness . . . And I thought of the prisoner and his past; of what was going on in his mind in those two minutes; of his future; of his family seeing his photograph in that condition; of human beings; of the destiny of human beings; of war’s misery; of crimes; of violence; of ideology; of the dollar; of God; of religion; of Rex Tillerson; of Putin; of Erdoğan; of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he announced the establishment of the Islamic State in Basra, in Noor Mosque . . . of the moment people were lined up and decapitated in front of the eyes of the people of the world; of those who, whenever they reclaimed a territory, would bring the corpses of those left under the ruins, decapitate them, and proudly share their pictures on social media . . . of revenge! Revenge! . . . of the vicious circle of violence, of idiocy, of backwardness, of prejudices, of intolerance, and even of acid throwing . . .

She said no matter how much the photographers asked him to look at the camera, he did not do it.

She said she was the last photographer taking a picture of him.

She said many of the war photographers there were growing depressed that the war was ending . . .

And I thought of arms factories and all those for whom death is a profession, of those who give the orders, of those who are never tried, of corpse washers.

She said and the moment he finally looked at the camera, I could not bring myself to take a picture of him, I didn’t want to.

 . . . And I too end this note at this moment.

translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi