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Jul 02, 2009

To Iranians in New York and L.A., the violence in the streets of Tehran hits very close to home.

By David A. Ross

Of all those who have been captivated by the media’s coverage of bloody protests on the streets of Tehran since the presidential election of June 12, none have been quite so poignantly affected as the million-plus Iranian expatriates living in the U.S.

Concentrated in New York City and L.A., they are among the smallest but best-educated minorities. Many of them began their exiles as university students around the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Whether stranded in the U.S. by the revolution or later alienated and spat out by it, Iranian Americans—most of whom have become U.S. citizens—express a deep but not uncomplicated sympathy with the people in the streets of Tehran, whose plight they do and do not share.

Virtually every uprising in the Iranian capital has been echoed by a supportive protest in New York City or L.A. Artists have been prominent in both nations’ demonstrations, and the medium of choice in this curious call and response has been video—a riveting blur of Twitter and Facebook violence from Tehran, a composed but no less anxious body of work from video artists working in America.

Two of the most prominent of these Iranian-American artists—Shirin Neshat and her husband, filmmaker Shoja Azari—were at one recent demonstration in New York City’s Union Square, along with the journalist and novelist Siba Shakib.

In the crowd were dozens of artists, writers and intellectuals, including former presidential candidate Akbar Gangi, who was imprisoned for his opposition to Ahmadinejad. In his 2005 Republican Manifesto II, Gangi laid out a blueprint for political change that called for precisely the sort of civil disobedience that was even that day being practiced in Tehran, with bloody results.

Iranian-American writers and artists in the crowd are far from unanimous in their view of events in Iran. Shakib, a successful Iranian-German writer, focuses on the role that fear has played in suppressing change in Iran and puts her faith in the common people—both Iranians, who have met such challenges before, and their sympathizers elsewhere. “The attention and solidarity of the people around the world,” she says, “is the life blood of the current democracy movement in Iran.”

A filmmaker who left Iran in the mid-1980s after the Iranian Revolution turned fundamentalist and freedom of expression was no longer possible, Azari has been collecting the street videos from Tehran posted on YouTube, circulating them on his Facebook page and incorporating them into a larger work. Azari finds the root of Iran’s current unrest in a “clash within the ruling class” and the contradiction implicit in a “republic within a theocratic system.”

Neshat, perhaps the most famous Iranian artist in exile, left Iran before the revolution to study art at Berkeley. Her forthcoming feature-length film, Women Without Men, chronicles the role of women in Iran’s democratic movement, and she puts her faith in Iran’s women to lead it out of the present crisis. “A new generation of women in Iran,” she says, “don’t believe that you have to be masculine to be vocal.”

FLYP spoke to these three Iranian-American artists after the Union Square demonstration, in the quiet of Neshat and Azari’s studio. There, they reflected with both passion and ambivalence on the unfolding events to which they feel at once so close and so far away.


Shirin Neshat came to the U.S. from Iran in 1977 to study art at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received both her B.F.A. and M.F.A. She uses photography and video installations to juxtapose Western and Islamic cultures. In exile for eleven years after the Islamic Revolution, she experienced culture shock when she returned to her homeland and has lived in the U.S. ever since. Winner of the Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize in 2006, her first feature-length film, Women Without Men, will be released this fall.

Shoja Azari
was born in Shiraz, Iran in 1958 and has been living in the U.S. since 1983. In 1998, he wrote and directed The Story of the Merchant and the Indian Parrot, a half hour-long film that is based on a parable by Rumi, the 13th-century Iranian poet and mystic. Imprisioned by the Khomeini government in the early 1980s, he moved to the U.S. after his release and now lives and works in New York City.

Siba Shakib is an Iranian/German filmmaker, writer and political activist. She was born and raised in Tehran. Her bestseller, Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep, has been translated into 27 languages and won a P.E.N. prize. Shakib’s second bestseller, Samira and Samir, was published in the U.S. by Random House and is now being made into a feature film. Her latest work, Eskandar, is a novel about the early 20th-century history of Iran, told from the perspective of a young Iranian boy who decides to become a woman. Shakib lives and works in New York, Italy and Dubai.


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Turbulent is ‘Spooky’. While the male has performed and then faces his video audience as if listening to and looking at the female with a look of confused curiosity, examination of a foreign object if you will. The Female sounded and looked like she was singing about the catastrophic anihilation of the female soul. Strong stuff. ck

Colleen Konheim
Aug 6, 2009