Memory, martyrdom, and mourning in the land of the noble
Looking out the window of a decrepit Peykan taxicab cruising through Tehran, inhaling a noxious medley of exhaust, esfand, and Bahman cigarette smoke as your sweat-soaked shirt melds with disintegrating faux leather and the late summer sun singes your brow, a truth dawns upon you: the martyr lives. No, you think to yourself, as you stare into a pair of youthful, forlorn eyes on a decaying edifice, he is not dead. He did not willingly walk over an Iraqi landmine in vain. He did not give his childhood hopes and dreams to the wind. Regarding him and his fallen brethren whose faded, ever-present faces adorn almost every other wall and building, you realise that in this moribund, ashen city, he is more alive than ever. He is not dead, he doth not sleep. He hath awakened from the dream of life – or so Shelley once remarked.
Like the proverbial murals and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, the shahid (martyr) occupies a central, unflinching position in the Tehran cityscape. His solemn, almost omniscient gaze follows you everywhere. Virtually every street, passage, and alleyway is named after him or one of his fallen brothers in arms. The tulips sprouted from his blood are strewn everywhere, it seems, embellishing the otherwise drab and industrial complexes dotting the city with an aura that is as romantic as it is banal. You can run, but you can’t hide. The martyr doesn’t want you to forget him. His mother, who visits the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery every week to wash the dust from his grave doesn’t want you to forget him. The authorities don’t want you to forget him, and in your heart of hearts, neither do you; although, with a presence like that, is there any way you could forget him?
The martyr in question made his sacrifice during the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) – a scathing memory which ever remains burned in the modern Iranian psyche, and a lasting reminder of Iran’s unlikely victory against all odds. The ‘imposed war’, as it is still popularly referred to, was yet another violent, bloody episode in Iranian history, which occurred only a few decades ago. Having been invaded myriad times by neighbouring nations and foes – Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks, to name a few – and having had its fair share of tyrants recline on the imperial throne, the martyr has always been a familiar face among the Iranian people. Among its many resplendent sons, it is perhaps the wronged heroes of a bygone age that have tenaciously endured in the hearts and minds of Iranian everywhere. The legendary Sivayash, the brazen patriots Babak-e Khorramdin and Mirza Kuchak Khan, the visionary Amir Kabir, as well as the Shi’a Imams Ali, Hossein, and Reza are but a few martyrs whose exploits are ever praised, and their tragic fates lamented. Since time immemorial, the land of the noble has been a nation of martyrs and mourners.
His pallor faded by exhaust clouds and the agonising passage of the past decades, his blood – as well as that of his contemporaries – yet gleams a brilliant crimson. On the television, bloodied faces of those who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time gaze at you indifferently as their last remaining breaths rise above a threshold of filth and smog. Even abroad, you are witness to the martyr’s plight as you flip through the local gazette, ridden with now-common tales of executions and assassinations. Blood, blood, and yet more blood. In a ceremony commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, the late Shah of Iran famously remarked, ‘Rest in peace, Cyrus, for we are awake, and shall ever protect your glorious legacy’. How fortunate thou art, O Cyrus, that thou cannot see what hath befallen thine children.
Indeed, it seems Iran’s glory and splendour have always been things of transience among chronic episodes of war, upheaval, and conflict, which have become defining chapters in the ongoing Iranian epic. Just as the Iranian people have not forgotten those brief moments of joy and respite, the dark side of their history has not seeped out of the confines of their memory, either. As Sayeh Sarfaraz’s recent solo exhibition, aptly titled Mémoire d’Éléphant shows, the Iranian people do not forget. Like the memory of that being which is as cursed as it is blessed, the Iranian psyche is a repository of all that is good, bad, and ugly.
Since time immemorial, the land of the noble has been a nation of martyrs and mourners
In the centre of the Iranian-Canadian artist’s exhibition at Montréal’s Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran lies the proverbial martyr in a picturesque field of tulips borne from his blood. Nearby, another fallen, tulip-strewn soul lies hapless among a mass inverted demonstration of figurines, chanting Marg bar diktator! (Death to the dictator!), as the large slogan they’ve gathered around suggests, in a not-so-subtle reference to the 2009 anti-Government protests in Iran. Away from these ominous scenes (though not far away enough for comfort) stands a gingerbread-style house, whose exterior resembles something of a war zone. In the Iran seen through the eyes of Sarfaraz, not even the household presents a safe haven from the constant bloodshed and turmoil, with martyrdom ever lurking in the background. While an elephant never forgets, death is a camel that sleeps outside everyone’s house, sooner or later, as the Iranian proverb goes.
Scrawled on the walls of Sarfaraz’s dreamlike diorama are exegeses of various terms, such as freedom of speech, human rights, personal freedom, control, and the search for truth, all from an authoritative perspective. Overlooked by an array of surveillance cameras and toy soldiers strategically placed around the exhibition space, to live in Sarfaraz’s world is to ever be under the scrutiny and avarices of Big Brother. Thus, we find that while the doe-eyed youths overlooking the streets of Tehran were martyred in fighting against an external enemy, the martyr as presented by Sarfaraz has died at the hands of an internal foe, closer to home. As well, while a good majority of the martyrs of Iran’s past fought in defence of their country – and in the case of the Iraq war, their faith as well – one beholds in Sarfaraz’s nightmare individuals who have rather died for their liberties and destines on a much more personal level.
In contrast to the rather dark and weighty theme of her exhibition, Sarfaraz has opted for a colourful, dreamy, and purposely childish approach, perhaps in an attempt to make her work more accessible. Combining the use of Lego figurines and a minimalist, miniaturist aesthetic – possibly owing to her Persian roots – Sarfaraz has created a haunting, ethereal landscape as disjointed and mishmash as Tehran itself. Surrounded by corpses, slogans, and militiamen, their every move recorded and played back to them on small television screens, the viewer is unknowingly lured into the artist’s colourful chaos, playing their assigned role.
In spite of the intensity and disarray of Sarfaraz’s miniature world, one’s gaze cannot help but ultimately be drawn towards the martyr, resting tranquilly among the freshly strewn tulips surrounding his humbled corpus. There he lies, his reddened face turned towards the firmament, serving as a sorrowful reminder of the endless bloodshed, war, and conflict the land of the noble has witnessed throughout the ages, lest the Iranian forget – if they can.