The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran owns quite a number of modern artworks: Picasso, Cezanne, de Kooning, Giacometti, Andy Warhol and many more. It is one of the best collections of modern art outside the Western world, unfortunately sealed off from the public. But in 2010, the museum agreed to borrow one of its paintings to the Netherlands for an exhibition on Kees van Dongen’s work, ‘The big eyes of Kees Van Dongen’, consisting mainly of wildly colored portraits, especially of beautiful young women. The Dutch painting made its way back to Rotterdam all the way from Iran. For me, a Dutch Iranian, actually seeing a Dutch painting that has a life in Tehran was curious and inspiring. My two very different worlds suddenly were not that far apart as they usually are or seem to be.
Of course, paintings were borrowed from many other cities all over the world. When entering the exhibition, the information on the wall explains that the paintings come from cities such as New York, Geneva, Moscow and Tehran. There are over sixty paintings on display and only one portrait from Tehran, but nevertheless the organizers decided to mention Tehran explicitly. Why? Obviously because of its magnetic presence in such a list, because it is a rarity to see Tehran in such lists, even though there are plenty of famous Iranian artists. Seeing Tehran in such a list remains an ambiguous experience, very different from seeing Tehran in a list concerned with artifacts of the ancient past or this or that pre-modern dynasty. On the one hand, I know that Tehran is a curious exception in a modern list (I mean here modern art, not to be confused with contemporary art, which roughly begins in the 19th century and ends in the 1960s). On the other, I wonder how it would be if a museum such as Tehran’s Contemporary Museum of Art could claim its place alongside other esteemed art institutions. For me, as a Dutch Iranian, the significance of Tehran on such lists matters.
Young Dutch Iranians such as myself are often not perceived as truly Dutch
To a significant proportion of the Dutch population, there is an identity that we may describe as “truly Dutch” (described recently by Lammert de Jong in Being Dutch, more or less). For many Iranians, who have very successfully integrated into Dutch society, with relatively easy access to high culture and society, increasingly for those who attended primary school in this country, the phrase truly Dutch is strange, even annoying. Despite their great success in this country, young Dutch Iranians such as myself are often not perceived as truly Dutch. A beard is a beard, and it means that you’re an ‘allochtoon’, which in Greek literally means not from the same land, an outsider who is tolerated, but should not complain too much about fundamental issues because he remains a guest in a host country. “If you don’t like it, why do you live here? Why don’t you go back to your own country?” is an often-repeated response to criticisms aimed at Dutch practices. For some, this atmosphere strengthens their Iranian feelings of belonging while others stress their being both Dutch and Iranian. For the latter group, the essential plurality of identities, especially in a globalized world, is experienced as something natural and obvious. But our freedom to “assert our personal identities can sometimes be extraordinary limited in the eyes of others, no matter how we see ourselves” (Sen, p. 6).
Iranians who were raised in Tehran instead of Amsterdam all too often create clear demarcations of inside and outside as well. Those who have lived for many years outside Iran are not perceived as true Iranians. Coming from Iran, they feel that Westerners cannot understand, or cannot sense, what it means to be a real Iranian. “But my dear, you have no idea what it is like here” and “He doesn’t know, he is a fake Iranian” are really existing thoughts that fail to do justice to the multiplicity of Iranian stories. Iranians raised in Iran, who immigrated or fled later in life, naturally feel more confident in their Iranian identity. But those who were raised in a Western country that, despite all its great advantages, very often perceives them as outsiders are in a more sensitive position. In the eyes of the dominant beholder, we are neither truly Dutch, nor truly Iranian. In reality, we are both and should not suffer a “civilizational incarceration,” a reduction that overlooks the internal diversity of identities and the “reach and influence of interactions – intellectual as well as material – that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilizations” (Sen, p. 10-11).
For me, the memories of the war with Iraq are quite vivid, in particular the bombs that hit Tehran including the very street where I played as a child. My Iranian feelings of belonging had always been strongly shaped by the disaster that was the eighties and the experiences of my parents’ generation. The perception that I, and others like, me would not be true Iranians, expressed in very subtle and less subtle ways, comes as a great shock, especially because of the sense that Dutch society, where I live, has a hard time realizing that I can have multiple identities and do so de facto. The safety that the Iranian identity offers is then relativized in a negative, exclusive, manner. And what Iranians in Iran think about us, and what we think about them, does matter. Our perceptions of each other shape the other person, whether he or she likes it or not. This is most clearly expressed by the ambiguity that I experienced when thinking about the Green Movement. Was this a “we” that I belonged to as well?
For me, the rise of the Green Movement meant that I needed to stop doing whatever it was that I was occupied with, just freeze, and stop
For me personally, the rise of the Green Movement meant that I needed to stop doing whatever it was that I was occupied with, just freeze, and stop, immediately. In the summer of 2009, I visited Berlin but my mind was continually focused on Iranian friends and family. When reading about the 1953 uprising against the Soviets, I could not help thinking about the 2009 post election violence in Iran. Graffiti dedicated to Neda Agha Soltan on the walls of Berlin only strengthened my distraction, reminding me, in a way for the very first time, of the sad meaning of exile. My eyes were focused on incoming news. Often, pictures, videos and news reached those outside Iran faster than people inside. Absurdly, normal distinctions like private and public, inside and outside, believers and unbelievers, even men and women, were fading in a massive catharsis that was longed for and anticipated for years. This was an event, very much so in the sense of the word described by philosophers of the Event such as Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley. The Event called for my attention and shaped my subjectivity, the kind of person I want to be. The event of the Green Movement, especially being aware of the silent marching citizens of Tehran, showed its own truth, that which Hamid Dabashi describes as a “people interrupted” in his history of modern Iran. With this kind of truth Badiou and Critchley mean something else than a correspondence theory of truth, where something is true if it corresponds to a fact. The truth of the event of the silent marching of a people interrupted has much more to do with loyalty, with the Dutch ‘trouw’ and the German ‘treue’, being faithful to something. Even though I was in the West, I and countless others, experienced the silent marching as a call so that truth means being true to this call. In the words of Levinas, the call reminded me of the infinite value of the finite individuals who were acting together. Hearing this call is a fundamentally heteronomous experience, where the others define who I am. I am what I am because of them.
Time passed and one day my friend Golrokh decided to organize an empty chair protest for the empty seats of her classmates. I helped her and one day she asked me why my description of the action was so neutral, why I didn’t write “our classmates” in one of our blogs. I responded that I hesitated to use the inclusive “our” because that would include myself and that I didn’t want to be criticized by others: “Some people, they can be Western or not, don’t want to include Western Iranians to this “we,” which has made me weary of using that language. So automatically, I don’t use that word, but that is what I say to my own heart in private.” She immediately understood my predicament and wrote the following:
“I, who grew up in Tehran, have nothing in this city. Even my parents don’t live there anymore and I have no house or room for myself. But I always think this city is mine, as it also belongs to its millions of fellow citizens. Every day that I was in Tehran [during protests], I thought this city belongs to me. And in every corner of the street, the authorities were standing there and denying with their sheer presence that this city belonged to me as well. They said this with weapons. Others say these things in a different way, with words. Don’t pay attention to them! This city belongs to you and you can influence it. When people left their homes in Tehran and saw how much they are alike, the city was ours until weapons were used against us. But whether these police forces are there or not, this city belongs to us and we are alive and breathe. It all depends on what we choose to be … The Green Movement created a new house for us, it transformed who we are. The same goes for you. You didn’t sit still; you were strongly affected by what happened here and affected your Green friends as well. Home is where we share these experiences, a place where we are not just fellow Iranians but people who share common hopes and ideals… We can all be a part of the Green Movement. So don’t worry about criticisms and say “we” whenever you are talking about us.”
Of course, there still are good reasons to be careful with using “us”. Using “us”, for anybody, always requires a critical sense of fairness. It is my hope that Western Iranians will try hard to understand their fellows in Iran, but also that Iranians in Iran and the many who are coming to the West today try hard to understand their Western friends, in particular the multiplicity of their identities. A hundred years ago, Kees van Dongen insisted on working with many artistic groups and not just one. He did not want to be reduced to a single artistic identity. His joyous wisdom is important for the art of life itself, something which the Dutch fail to adequately respect today: “The joy of our time is that you can mix everything, blend everything: it really is the age of the cocktail.” (Quoted in the Boijmans en van Beuningen exhibition in Rotterdam)
Lammert de Jong. Being Dutch, more or less. Rozenberg Publishers, Amsterdam, 2010.
Hamid Dabashi. Iran, a people interrupted. The New Press, New York and London, 2007.
Simon Critchley. Infinitely Demanding, Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, New York and London, 2007.
Amartya Sen. Identity and Violence, the illusion of destiny. W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2007.