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Letter From Tehran: The Artist's Dilemma

The weather is cold and the skies are cloudy. As the Iranian poet Akhavan Saales wrote, it is the type of weather when “no one wants to say hello, everything is cold, [and] no one pulls out his hand to shake yours."

I took the cold, hilly, and winding road to see Mahtaab (not her real name) who lives in Lavasan, a bustling, trendy town, little more than a village really, on the outskirts of northeastern Tehran.

The town has also attracted members of the ruling regime, including a weekend cottage for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and several members of the Revolutionary Guard. I felt their presence as I encountered numerous checkpoints along the way.

Snowflakes swirled in front of me, hitting the windshield. I pulled the car away from the main road and into the dark mountainside streets towards Mahtaab’s house.

At first I thought I had got the wrong address as all the lights seemed to be off, but after ringing the bell and waiting for a couple of minutes, Mahtaab opened the door.

"I am sorry not to open the door sooner, I hope you don't mind. I don't open the door at all these days unless I have an appointment with someone," she said.
If poets talk about butterflies, candles, and birds, the government has an edge, they can proclaim that everything is normal

Mahtaab is an artist,* well known inside and outside Iran for her work, so it was surprising to see her hiding. She brought two cups of hot tea and instantly saw my concern.

“I am scared. I am so scared that I have developed a stomach condition to an extent that I have to use pills or be stuck in the bathroom," Mahtaab said.

I asked her why. She took a sip of tea and said: “I wake up every morning with a stomach ache. On my way to the kitchen, I turn on my laptop so that by the time I come back from making breakfast the computer is up and running. Then I check my emails, then Facebook, and by the time I am on my second coffee I have learned that some of my friends have been arrested.

"My phobia increases and it worsens my physical well being. I make different aliases, use different proxy software, and spread the electronic newsletters by erasing the senders names and email addresses.... I use different SIM cards to call different friends to see who else is out, healthy, or otherwise alive. Then I feel that I have not done any art and emotionally I feel that I owe it to myself to do something."

“So why don’t you?" I asked. "There are artists who are doing their usual things right now, why are you so hard on yourself?”

Mahtaab looked at me as if I came from another planet. “Well, the artists who are doing their usual things have always done so," she said. "What I mean is that an artist has to be honest with himself or herself. These days every work of art, if it can really be called art, has to reflect what's going on. So it is a statement, it is not just a job to do.”

Arrested Friends

She paced up and down the hallway as she spoke: “The artists that you are talking about, the ones that have received money from [Iranian President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad and [close ally Esfandiar Rahim] Mashaee, are the ones that look at art as day-to-day work. They don’t mind who is in charge, most of them were the ones who participated in making the “Green” video during the election campaigns supporting [opposition candidate] Mir Hossein Musavi. Now they are being paid off by Ahmadinejad. I don’t blame them. If the government changes right now and let’s say Reza Pahlavi takes the throne, the same artists would be supporting him. These people know that they can only survive with help from the government and its subsidies.”

We were hungry so decided to order a pizza. While she was talking on the phone, I began to worry. On her work desk there were pictures of different people, many of them journalists or writers, all of them arrested since June.

Mahtaab came back and continued: “I cannot judge any of these artists. Many believe that artistic sanctions don’t work. They say that not working is exactly what the government wants so if we don’t work, who will? I don’t think that way because I don’t see a long-term future for this regime and that is why I won’t do a single thing to give them an edge.”

I looked at her and asked: “edge?”

“If artists continue their normal work," she said, "if filmmakers make films as usual, if painters paint flowers or abstract work not related to any of the current events, if poets talk about butterflies, candles, and birds, the government has an edge, they can proclaim that everything is normal.”

“But shouldn't art be timeless?” I said.

“I have lived during the revolution, the war, the bombing.... After we were attacked by the police with tear and pepper gas I have developed a shortness of breath and cough all the time. I have nightmares of being arrested and interrogated every single night. I am extremely scared and the phobia is taking over my life. How do you think I can present a work of art describing how wonderful life is? Or make a photo gallery showing the warm and beautiful shores of the Persian Gulf to attract tourists into Iran? Can I sit still and see my friends disappear every single day?"

The pizza arrived just in time to calm Mahtaab down. We sat down in the cozy Lavasan flat in the dead of winter, fearful that the pizza delivery boy might be a government agent, and tried to be normal behind closed curtains.

* For fear of her identity being revealed, Mahtaab also wanted the specifics of her artistic work to remain vague.

Ahmad is a pseudonym for a journalist in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

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