It is exhilarating to have such ambiguous political bearings. In Esfahan a few days ago, Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei spoke to a crowd of tens of thousands on Emam Khomeini Square. Our hotel was only a few metres away but when we tried to stand at the door to watch the throngs arriving, a policeman ushered us back in the nicest possible way. In Tehran none of the young people have any time for Khamenei. A taxi driver openly told us of the “death to Khamenei” chants on the streets after the recent Iran-Emirates football match. Everyone we talked to preferred-even adored-President Khatami and cheered when the European Parliament passed a resolution supporting him.
Back in our hotel in Esfahan-a city a bit like Paris in the desert, a jewel of Safavid architecture, where “Down With America” is neatly painted on the walls-it is a different story. Late on the night of the Khamenei speech, our young, trendy concierge Ali offers me tea and tells me how important the spiritual leader is. His deep study of the Koran is, for him, a rudder in secular times. The chief threat to the Islamic republic, he says, is that its young people do not know their history and culture: they aren’t even aware that Persians are Aryan not Arab. By chance I am reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana on this trip. First published in 1937, Byron relates an almost identical conversation.
Even ardent Ali is ambiguous about the west. He is learning English from what he calls a “book of poems.” When he fetches this it turns out to be a collection of Beatles’ lyrics. He opens it at Strawberry Fields Forever and is very surprised when I tell him that it is a song, with a melody. I am, alas, obliged to sing it for him in the lobby. Ali asks about the metaphors in the lyrics but when I offer to send him a tape of the songs themselves he declines at once, suddenly incurious. Later we hear that in his speech Khamenei denounced those who argue that Iran should extend the hand of friendship to America. We brace ourselves for some hostility on the streets as a result of this, but the extraordinary Persian warmth and hospitality is, if anything, even more exuberant in its wake.
Cinema has made an unexpected incursion into Iran’s political halfway house. Friends in the know in Tehran are intrigued that George W Bush has asked for a private screening of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film Kandahar, premiered at Cannes this year. Those of us who have long advocated the philosophical superiority of Iranian directors such as Makhmalbaf scarcely imagined that we would be counting a Republican president of the US amongst our number. Perhaps Bush’s request again demonstrates the unpredictability of the political geometry between Washington, Kabul and Tehran.
I would give anything to be a fly on the wall in that screening room. Bush, whose declared taste in cinema, like that of Ronald Reagan, is for John Wayne westerns, might find himself somewhat restless in his seat. Whilst Kandahar is a denunciation of the Taleban, completed in haste in the spring of this year many months before the attacks on America, its techniques are closer to Ren? Magritte than CNN. Like Magritte’s eerily veiled portraits, the women in the film are photographed mostly in full burkha, the dying light of the sun tantalisingly revealing details of their faces through the elaborate meshes of their outfits. At one point the travelling sister encounters M?dicins Sans Frontières field-workers awaiting delivery of artificial limbs. These are parachuted into southern Afghanistan; the images of them serenely floating earthwards are as dreamlike as anything by Giorgio de Chirico. In another scene, a male doctor tries to diagnose a woman’s illness whilst each is screened off entirely from the other’s view. A thick blanket hangs between them and only a peephole allows him to see sections of her body and perform his examination.
Some critics in Cannes judged Kandahar’s denunciation of the Taleban to be stolid, but for me it was a masterpiece and a great piece of surrealism (the other this year being, intriguingly, Mulholland Drive by American conservative David Lynch). In the end, Bush’s request to see this remarkable film is a fascinating one. A typically Iranian cinematic meditation on veiled women, solar eclipses and the metaphoric blindness of the Taleban is being pressed into the service of realpolitik.
The Tehran Times said in an editorial recently that despite Fukuyama, the big questions in history, economics and culture are yet to be answered. Whatever your beliefs on this point, Iran is still debating it and that debate, like the film Kandahar, is not taking place solely on a material, secular and verbal level. That speculative quality is what makes this country so open to interpretation, and its cinema so vital.