The cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” was the defining sound of the 1978 protests against the Shah of Iran, during a revolution that toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Shah’s prime minister Major General Gholam Reza Azhari attributed, in 1978, the cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” from every street corner and rooftop, to cassette tapes. Though there is certain truth to the fact that the crowds were agitated by cassette recordings of the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s talks in exile in the months before the revolution, the prime-minister’s unwillingness to acknowledge the growing number of dissatisfied citizens and his corollary reference to the mechanical reproduction of voices — as a placeholder for actual cries -- denied in one stroke the thousands upon thousands that climbed the country’s rooftops nightly to protest the Shah and the Shah's rapid forced Western style modernization of the nation, by calling on the greatness of God.
The prime minister’s accusation prodded the 1978 revolutionary chant by anti-Shah demonstrators that went something like this: “Azhari Goosaleh, Bazam migi navareh? Navar ke pa nadareh” [Azhari, the calf, you still think that it is a cassette tape? Tape doesn’t have feet!] (Gheytanchi, September 18, 2009). In other words, “Look at us! We’re here and we’re marching with our feet!”
During the early silent protests in the summer of 2009 in the aftermath of a fraudulent Presidential election in Iran and in response to President Ahmadinejad’s claim that the burgeoning crowd of post-election demonstrators were “riff-raff”, disappointed soccer fans whose team had lost, Elham Gheytanchi reports that demonstrators donning “green wristbands and headbands carried a […] banner that read: “Doctor Kapshen pareh, khashak ke pa nadareh!” (“Doctor with a torn overcoat, riff-raff don’t have feet”) (Gheytanchi, September 18, 2009) In other words, “Look at us! We’re here! We’re marching with our feet!” The 2009 slogan against Ahmadinejad, on Revolution street (Enqelab), playfully unearthed the protest chant against the Shah’s prime minister as if it were being mined from the very soil, the brick and mortar of Tehran streets.
In the demonstrations that followed the 2009 election, dissenting bodies marched with cellphones held aloft onto Tehran’s avenues and squares. Crowds underscored their political force by unearthing, repeating, and reversing the slogans and chants of the mass uprisings of the late 1970s by mechanically reproducing their voices online, on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and there, likening the dictatorial rule of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, with the severity of the Shah’s rule. But the subjectivity of the protestors has changed, and the subjects' relationship to both space and technology has been significantly altered in the intervening thirty years since the Iranian Revolution. During the 2009 protests against the repressive measures of the re-elected President and his government, the nightly cries of “Allah-o-Akbar” from rooftops reemerged, and an anonymous poet recorded them, night after night, as video-messages to God.
In the third installment, following a night of brutal state violence against the protesting crowds, she cries tearfully, “Oh God! They’re calling you! Listen! If you’re sleeping, wake up! Listen so you won’t have excuses for us in the afterlife. So you won’t say, “I didn’t hear your voices.”… Don’t say, “You didn’t call me.” Listen closely! All of them are calling you!”
The video recording itself embodies a wake-up call to the sacred “and objectifies into technology,” as Setrag Manoukian rightly notes, “the operation of subject formation that is constitutive of language itself” (Manoukian, 255-256), “Listen!” she addresses God, “This voice comes from the depths of souls.” Not only is the video the carrier, the tool, but more fundamentaly, the sensory voice of a nation-as-subject-that-speaks directly to God.
This articulation of technology as the site of the sensory subject is easily associated with the project of the Islamic Republic from the time of its emergence. In the discourse of the state, the sanctification of technology aims to provide the national subject, and therefore the nation itself, with its own sovereignty. Purification aims to create an invigorated independence by ridding the national body from impurities associated with the ideology of the global marketplace and the codes of imperialism. Attached to the subject’s body, as the body’s senses, the technology differentiates the subject’s world from the rest of the globe. Its state of purification provides direct access to an other-worldly realm, a no-place (Na Koja-Abad) where the prophets and the Messiah reside and stand in service of the believer. In his philosophical works, the French theologian and scholar of Islamic mysticism Henri Corbin called this the realm of the Imaginal, and the site of the original image; a no-where that is everywhere, a ubiquitous realm of pure sensory experience. In this schema, the commodified image is a corruption of the ideal original image -- the imaginal -- and its commodified reality on screen, means the corruption of an ideal sensory world.
To counter the habits inscribed by dominant cinema onto human sensory experience globally, the “peeping tom” habits of spectatorship that commodify, fetishize and distance, Iranian cinematic technologies adopted new codes and conventions during the first years of Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule. Under the watchful gaze of the Islamic Republic, these codes signaled continuity between the space of the spectator and the diegetic space of the film drama. Addressing themselves to a spatial logic that informs both nation and cinema, the codes linked the film theatre to screenic space. They ensured that the spectator’s presence was felt everywhere in the diegesis. Against the imperialism of dominant cinema, these codes rejected the global conventions that mark the diegetic space of film as a space of “self-sufficiency,” a space, in other words, detached from the sacred realm.
Referring to the work of Joan Copjec, in my book Displaced Allegories, I suggest that “the moment of self-sufficiency in visual representation marks, in fact, “the point when the ‘post-sacred world’ is installed, that is the point at which moral and religious certainties are at once erased and melodrama springs into existence.” Post-revolutionary Iranian cinema’s resolve in foregrounding the film’s looked-at-ness against the absorption of the spectator’s gaze in dominant cinema’s own constitution reflects Iranian cinema’s continued insistence on the imaginal world of the sacred and emphasizes its antagonism toward "the melodramatic and scopophilic coordinates constitutive of the commodified image." (Mottahedeh,10-11). The resistance of the image is dual, then, taking, at once, a stance against the machinations of global capital, and rejecting, as well, the force of imperialism resident in dominant codes of technological production.
Generated by these codes, the new image in Iranian film and video is a purified vehicle by which the Iranian national body is articulated as “The Perfect Man” (insan-e kamil). The citizen maintains, by its means, a direct line of communication with the sacred realm. Sensorially sanctified by its attachment to purified machines, The Perfect Man, or as I would call it, the Islamic Cyborg is permitted access to an “other” world, a divine realm. The Cyborg’s purified cinematographic limbs -- her mechanical eyes and ears -- may roam the ubiquitous expanses of an ideal sensory world (Na Koja-Abad) and by these means escape the unlivability of this world, creating a different world by means of its altered, rarified sensorium. In this elated capacity, the sanctified citizen on a rooftop may place a wake up call to the sacred, so as to beg for the intervention of a divine being in the affairs of a people subject to a lawless state. This possibility in the relationship between bodies and film technology has only one geographic belonging — a space of unliveability we call The Islamic Republic of Iran."
Negar Mottahedeh is Associate Professor of Literature and Women's Studies at Duke University currently teaching as Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at Pratt Institute. Her work has been published in Camera Obscura, Signs, Iranian Studies, Radical History Review, MERIP, The Drama Review, Early Popular Visual Culture, and Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 2008, Duke University Press published her book on Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema entitled Displaced Allegories. Her first book, Representing the Unpresentable, on visual history and reform in Iran from the 19th century to the present was published in 2008 by Syracuse University Press. A perceptive theorist of Iranian visual culture, Professor Mottahedeh writes and speaks about culture, innovation and digital technologies. Her current research and writing on the uses of social media in uprisings for civil liberties and equality around the world, supplement her engagement as blogger and activist. She tweets as negaratduke.
Manoukian, Setrag. “Where is this Place? Crowds, Audio-vision, and Poetry in Postelection Irancomma” Public Culture 22:2 (Spring, 2010)
Mottahedeh, Negar. Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008)
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