The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions

The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions

Last week, BBC 4 screened The Past, a film by Asghar Farhadi. He’s the Iranian director, Oscar-nominated for his most recent film The Salesman, who has pledged not to attend the ceremonies even if he gets exemption from Trump’s travel ban. Previously I had seen Farhadi’s celebrated A Separation which, like The Past, takes the story of a seemingly straightforward divorce before developing, by way of a succession of unintended consequences involving a group of equally flawed yet decent characters, into a complex and challenging exploration of what forms moral behaviour.
Continue reading “The films of Asghar Farhadi: stories of unintended consequences that pose moral questions”

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times

Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us opens with a panoramic shot of a car making its way along a dusty track winding through a bare landscape dotted with occasional trees. In the car a group of film-makers argue about directions to the village where they have arranged to make a film. They are looking for a turning that should be near a single tree. One of the film-makers quotes a line from a Sufi poem: ‘Near the tree is a wooded lane/Greener than the dreams of God… .’

In those few seconds of film are encapsulated several of the defining characteristics and concerns of the films of the Iranian director, whose death was announced earlier this month. Years after seeing his films, images from them still haunt my imagination. Continue reading “Abbas Kiarostami: his love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times”

Maalouf’s Samarkand: ‘words to scorn are scatter’d, and mouths stopt with dust.’

Maalouf’s <em>Samarkand:</em> ‘words to scorn are scatter’d, and mouths stopt with dust.’

Rubaiyat Folio edition 1955

Sometimes in Samarkand, in the evening of a slow and dreary day, city dwellers would come to while the time away at the dead-end Street of Two Taverns, near the pepper market. They came not to taste the musky wine of Soghdia but to watch the comings and goings or to waylay a carouser who would then be forced down into the dust, showered with insults, and cursed into a hell whose fire, until the end of all time, would recall the ruddiness of the wine’s enticements. Out of such an incident the manuscript of the Rubaiyaat was to be born in the summer of 1072.

These are the first sentences of Samarkand, an early novel by Amin Maalouf that I read recently, drawn to it because in it, Maalouf weaves together fact and fiction in a story that has at its heart the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam, written in Samarkand in 1072.  I’ve never read the Rubaiyaat in its entirety, but I have dipped into a rather beautiful edition of Rita’s, published by the Folio Society  in 1955 (above).  During all the years that this little book has been in the house, I knew little of the man who originally penned its verses a millennium ago, only that they had been translated by the Victorian scholar Edward FitzGerald.  I suppose it was the verses that celebrated the pleasures of earthly life – wine, love, song – over the uncertain promise of the afterlife which held my attention:

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
“Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.”

Ah, fill the cup – what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn Tomorrow, and dead Yesterday,
Why fret about them if Today be sweet!

One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste –
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing–Oh, make haste!

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came stealing through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!

The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.


One of the first illustrations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from a manuscript c1500.

FitzGerald’s purpose was not to produce a literal English of the original (for which there exist only manuscript copies made 300 years later, such as the copy in the Bodleian Library in Oxford).  Instead, he created entirely new lines, images and even whole quatrains, leading some critics maintain that it is really an English poem with Persian allusions. He restructured the Persian source so that the poem moves from dawn to night, and interwove echoes of Greek and Roman literature, the Bible and Shakespeare, so that ‘the Rubáiyát seems at once exotic and familiar, as if its lines have always existed’.

Decorated title page of Rubaiyat

Decorated title page of an early manuscript of the Rubaiyat from Shiraz, dated 1460, Bodleian Library

Each quatrain or ruba’i (a verse of four lines whose first, second and last lines rhyme) is a meditation on the fleeting nature of life. Human life is a bubble poured out with wine or a piece removed from a chess board:

And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour.

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

In Samarkand, Amin Maalouf traces the story of Omar Khayyam’s manuscript through the relationship between three  prominent 11th century Persians who may (or may not) have sworn a lifelong pact of friendship and mutual support while they were students: Omar Khayyam himself, poet, mathematician, and astronomer; Nizam al-Mulk, vizier or chief minister to the second Sultan of the Seljuq Empire, Alp Arslan; and Hassan-i-Sabbah, who later established the Shia sect which came to be known as the Hashshashin or Assassins, directing its operations from his mountain fortress of Alamut.

Rubaiyat illustrated by William Morris_Burne-Jones

British Orientalism: an illuminated manuscript of the Rubáiyát by William Morris, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones, 1870s.

Blending historical fact and fiction, Maalouf paints a picture of 11th-century Persia, its courts and intrigues, in evocative and languid prose.  But this is more than an exotic tale of power and romance: Maalouf offers a novel of ideas which aims to reveal the distant roots of 20th (and 21st) century conflicts and the history that is common to the Middle East and the west.  He achieves this in the first half of the book by telling the stories of Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan Sabbah, each of them a scholar and thinker, but who each draw different conclusions about religion, politics and the meaning of life.

In the second half, Maalouf jumps forward to the late 19th century and the story of an American journalist, Benjamin Lessage, who develops an interest in the Rubáiyát and, learning of the existence of an original manuscript, embarks on a quest to find the book. The journey takes him to Persia, where he becomes involved in the revolt of 1905 which demanded that the Shah establish a democratic state with a constitution. Maalouf shows how the attempts by Persians  to create a democratic state were thwarted by the colonial powers – Russia, France and Britain.

Woven through these events is Maalouf’s fictional saga of Khayyam’s own manuscript of the Rubáiyát – seized by Hassan Sabbah, leader of the Assassins sect, then lost when the fortress of the Assassins is destroyed, rediscovered centuries later, only to be lost again when it vanished on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.  Fiction, too, is Maalouf’s account (based on a probably apocryphal story recounted by Jorge Luis Borges) of a pact formed between the young Nizam al-Mulk (at that time known as Abdul Khassem) and his two friends, Omar Khayyam and Hassan-i-Sabbah. They agreed that if one should rise to prominence, that person would help the other two to do likewise.

Nizam al-Mulk is the first to achieve prominence, appointed vizier to the sultan Alp Arslan. To fulfil the pact he offers Omar Khayyám a position as the sultan’s chief spy.  Omar refuses, realising he is ‘being offered a paradise shackled to a hell’. Preferring to stick to poetry and the study of mathematics and astronomy, he tells Nizam, ‘When it comes to secrets and those who reveal them, I am on the side of the secrets. … My curiosity about people and things is expressed in a different way’.

Nizam respects Khayyam’s decision and magnanimously sticks to his promise, awarding him a handsome annual retainer, as well as building him an observatory. Khayyam makes a further, fateful, decision – to recommend for the post his friend Hassan, who accepts the appointment, and years later plots to depose Nizam as vizier, before fleeing and eventually conquering the fortress of Alamut, from where he establishes the Assassins. One of Hassan-i-Sabbah’s many victims would be Nizam al-Mulk, assassinated in 1092 by a member of the Assassins.

So the poet-astronomer Omar Khayyám, whose poems reveal a philosophy that advocates living for the moment, questioning certainties in an uncertain world, and living for this life  not the next; a man accused in his lifetime of being an atheist and deemed by Sufis who read his poems as one of their own, was instrumental – at least, according to this tale – in assisting at the birth of Islamic terrorism.

An agent Order of Assassins (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092

An agent of the Order of Assassins (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092. (Topkapi Palace Museum)

Hassan-e Sabbāh founded his community in the late 11th century at Alamut in the Alborz mountains of northern Iran. There, Hassan devoted himself to study; for 35 years he found solace in austerity and frugality, and never left his quarters.  As well as philosophy, he was well versed in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, medicine, architecture, and the major scientific disciplines of his time. Meanwhile, branches of his sect spread throughout Iran, Syria and beyond.


The remains of the Alamut fortress.

Samarkand was first published in 1992.  The contemporary parallels to the events in Maalouf’s narrative are unstated but clearly intended by an author whose personal destiny has been shaped by events in the Middle East in the last 40 years. Soon after the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Amin Maalouf, then a journalist in Beirut, took refuge in his ancestral mountain village. It was a war in which he refused to take sides, and one that ultimately forced him to join other members of his family in exile. Maalouf left for Paris, where he has lived since 1976. Three years later, covering the Islamic revolution in Iran, Maalouf was perplexed by a religious revolution in the late 20th century, and it is this puzzlement that underlies Samarkand: ‘I wanted to understand the relationship between politics, religion and culture in that part of the world.’

His novels are marked by his experience of civil war and migration, the feeling of being ‘poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions’. Their characters range across a Mediterranean and Levantine world that vanished at the end of the First World War, a world where Greek and Italian mingled with Arabic and Turkish, and Druze rubbed shoulders with Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims (a story that has been told in Rageh Omaar’s excellent BBC2 series The Ottomans that concluded last week).

Perhaps the most powerful conclusion that flowed from Rageh Omaar’s final programme was the sense that, in the Middle East, the legacy of the First World War is still with us: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the carving up of its territories by Britain and France into countries whose borders make no sense, the western pursuit of oil and profit, and the terrifying consequences of nationalism.  Towards the end of Samarkand, when the American Benjamin Lessage finds himself swept up in the events of the Persian constitutional revolt of 1905, he listens to another young American, a teacher, who explains his sympathy for the revolt against the Shah and the colonial powers who determine the country’s fate:

When I arrived in this country, I could not understand how grown and bearded men could sob and work themselves up over a murder committed twelve hundred years ago.  Now I have understood.  If the Persians live in the past it is because the past is their homeland and the present is a foreign country where nothing belongs to them.  Everything which is a symbol of modern life and greater freedom for us, for them is a symbol of foreign domination: the roads – Russia; the railways, telegraph and banking system – England; the postal service – Austria-Hungary….

Samarkand, city of the book’s title and the place where Omar Khayyam penned the poetry of the Rubáiyát, had fallen under Russian rule in 1868; after the 1917 revolution the city became the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is the second city of Uzbekistan.

Samarkand, Richard Karl Karlovich Zommer, 1910

Samarkand, Richard Karl Karlovich Zommer, 1910: an example of Russian Orientalism

In Murderous Identities (1998), Amin Maalouf  wrote of how, as a Lebanese Christian, ‘the fact of simultaneously being Christian and having as my mother tongue Arabic, the holy language of Islam, is one of the basic paradoxes that have shaped my identity’. The Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman has commented, ‘at this time of fundamentalist identity seekers, Amin’s is a voice of wisdom and sanity that sings the complexity and wonder of belonging to many places’.

Maalouf is sceptical of all religions:

I have the profoundest respect for people who behave in a generous way because of religion. But I come from a country where the misuse of religion has had catastrophic consequences. One must judge people not by what faith they proclaim but by what they do.

At the Tomb of Omar Khayyam, Jay Hambidge, late 19th century

At the Tomb of Omar Khayyam, Jay Hambidge: late 19th century American Orientalism

Let the last words be those of Omar Khayyam:

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.

Knockin’ on heaven’s door?

Image: protestors invoke Dylan on the streets of Teheran yesterday.

In his Tiananmen epic, Beijing Coma, Ma Jian develops the theme that two things were happening in parallel in China in the spring of 1989: on the one hand, a power struggle among the Party elite, on the other the student movement, ragged, prone to extremists, but heroic and glorious.  Although cultures differ, there appear to be parallels with developments in Iran this week: probably what will really determine the outcome will be the power struggle in the religious leadership. And yet, who knows what the silent but determined and courageous marchers of Teheran might achieve?

There’s a thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of mass movements by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today:

It is the most terrifying group activity on earth. It brought Lenin, Hitler and the ­ayatollahs to power. To the ancients, it “takes men close to madness”. Irrational, inconstant, violent and destructive, it is the enemy of order and the dread of monarchs and democrats alike. It is the crowd or, if we dislike it, the mob…

In his work on the power of crowds the philosopher Elias Canetti referred to the mystical transformation of ­persons into groups. Individuals ­”discharge ­difference to become ­miraculously equal”. As a result, moral and social constraints evaporate. Crowds assume a licence to anarchy, to smash, burn and kill. They are proto-armies. The demonstrator is as ­reckless of his own safety as of others. He is swiftly reduced to a blind cruelty, ­ultimately to the murderous rampages of Rwanda, Somalia and Kenya.

Surveying the moral wreckage of the mid-20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against the eulogising of the crowd, observing how people tend to behave worse in groups than they would ever do as individuals. He contrasted “moral man and immoral society”. His plea for a politics of patience – “nothing worth doing is ever completed in our lifetime” – is as disregarded now as ever. The mob remains the embodiment of “When do we want it: now!”…

The mob may be “poor man’s politics”, in the same sense that revenge is poor man’s justice. It may not ­represent a majority and is usually a gathering of urban, often middle-class, youths far removed from the provincial and proletarian masses.

But the forces that drive men and women to take to the streets remain potent. They are the last resort of self-determination, what people do when they believe they are cheated by their rulers and all other redress has failed. People cast aside all concern for safety and attempt, however inadequately, to take power into their own hands…

In Iran there is no mob but courage, and the mystical power of the crowd. People have cast aside their concern for safety in a unified, unmistakable protest at a sense of being cheated by their rulers

Also in today’s Guardian, Azadeh Moaveni writes that it may feel as if the discontent among young Iranians has blown up out of nowhere, but explains they have been growing steadily more angry for years now. She emphasises the role of women in the protests this week:

Of all the images I’ve seen emerging from Iran this week, those of fiery women beating policemen and leading protests have moved me the most. Throughout the past decade, Iran’s extraordinarily sophisticated and well-educated women have sought for peaceful change through the existing system. Accounting for 60% of university students, Iranian women emerge from university armed with career expectations and modern attitudes toward their role in family and society. They have patiently petitioned the state to grant them more equitable rights before the law. But at each opportunity, they have been treated with contempt. Their vibrant presence in these protests is signalling to the government that they will not tolerate its discrimination and disdain any longer.



To FACT to see Persepolis,an adaptation by the Franco-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi of her autobiographical graphic novel, the story of  a girl growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran in the 1970s.  When the revolution arrives, Marjane’s parents and their cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking, idea-discussing and life-enjoying friends at first welcome it. But soon, with the entrencment of the Islamic state, things become intolerable, most of all for women.

Here is the BBC’s short review:

Graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi has lead a fascinating life, which she tells in an original fashion in Persepolis. This animated feature shows the young Marjane growing up in a communist family in Tehran, becoming politicised and rebelling at college in Austria. The predominantly black-and-white animation is used to amusing effect as Satrapi gently pokes fun at her youthful exuberance and innocence, making serious political points easy to swallow. The lack of sense of direction is the film’s only let-down.

Despite dealing with adult themes such as interrogation, imprisonment, drugs and sexual awakenings, there’s a delightfully childlike element to Persepolis. Initially, much of the action is seen through the bright but naive eyes of the young Marjane, a playful, feisty child who’s quick to judge – a trait that is frequently funny. Gradually, she learns the severity of the political climate in which she’s living: it’s the 70s and 80s, and civil liberties in Iran are being drastically tightened. A few key scenes effectively demonstrate the personal cost to Marjane as family members and friends are increasingly affected.

Satrapi is also very observant when it comes to gender relations, humorously describing her early fumbles with male students with a cunning eye for detail. Such scenes should help young women, in particular, relate to a film that might sound off-puttingly serious in principle. It’s a very personal film, and therefore far from definitive when it comes to its political message. But it’s an engaging and accessible story of a very eventful life.