SUPERCONVERSATIONS DAY 70: NOOSHIN ROSTAMI RESPONDS TO HIWA K, “A FEW NOTES FROM AN EXTELLECTUAL”
In 1979, following the overthrow of Shah’s regime and the establishment of Islamic Republic’s rule in Iran, schooling for boys and girls were separated at all levels of education in the country. In fact, the educational system became increasingly Islamicized and learning Arabic mandatory for all the students so they could read and memorize the Quran in its original language.
Meanwhile the problem for me in particular was that even in the privacy of our home, I couldn’t really figure out whether my family was religious or not. There were periods of time that my father would perform his prayers and observe fasting during Ramadan. But then in a few months he would stop and instead, drink alcohol every night. Attending a religious school, however, was overpowering enough to sell me the idea of afterlife. One winter, sometime before I was 10, I thought to myself that I am ready to faithfully fulfill my divine duties, regardless of what went on at home. I would wake up before the sunrise when the house was still dark and, silent and everyone in bed. I would carefully find my way around the room to get the praying rug and holy stone, and quietly turn on the TV with a very low volume on channel one, waiting for the muezzin’s “Allahu Akbar” signal to start performing the morning prayer. Although I knew every word of these famous chants by heart, I had not the slightest clue as to what they all meant. In my head, the repeating rhythm would turn into a lullaby and when I went into the prostrate position, I would usually fall asleep, only to be later found by my mother, waking me up for school.
Back then, the Iranian national TV had 5 main channels with only pro-government programming. So it was only a matter of time for satellite TVs to skyrocket in popularity, and to become the obvious alternative despite being illegal. A glance at the city from a rooftop, and the repeating circular pattern of satellite dishes was the first thing one would notice. There were hardly any structures without a satellite and sometimes in big apartment buildings there were 40, 50 or more dishes installed which were begging for a signal other than the one sent by the Iranian state. Every once in a while the police would raid a neighborhood to collect satellite dishes. The process was to first go straight to the roof and drop whatever dish they had found to the ground and collect them in a pick-up truck. They would then knock on every single door in the building to acquire the receiver boxes and fine the owners. Common sense was not to open the door if they came to your building and pretend noone is home. The smart thing was to keep it quiet until they cleared the building and leave the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, when they finally came knocking on our apartment door my parents opened the door ever so welcomingly. It was one of those hot summer days in Tehran and I had just got home from school. I couldn’t wait to take off the suffocating scarf off my head, to treat myself to a nice cold beverage and put my feet up in front of the TV. But as soon as I opened the door, I saw two strangers in the living room. One was filling up some forms and the other one was snacking and chatting with my mother. My mom had her scarf on at home - which was unusual. She was cooking some food for them. They all noticed me coming in. An awkward moment of silence ensued, and then one of the officers noticed my puzzled face and said to me in a very endearing tone: “Come on in darling, we are guests of your parents. We are here to collect your old broken receiver and fill up some forms to report back to the station and will be out of here in a second.”
During the Iranian revolution of 1979, a common method of civil disobedience adopted by the people during the military curfew after 10 PM was to chant “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). In the summer of 2009 and right after the contested Iranian presidential elections and the emergence of the green movement, protesters demanded the resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the office and the reinstatement of the truly elected president Mir Hossein Moussavi. During the ensuing chaos caused by people’s street protests, the state violence and the responding violence by the protestors and rioters, after beatings, tear gas grenades, arrests and murders, people had to think more creatively to find safer ways with which to protest. Hence the return of the nightly chantings. After thirty years of going blank, The human signal was back on the rooftop in order to connect like minded people and show the Iranian state that people can’t be silenced so easily.
Every night at 10 pm in between the satellite dishes and the roof’s edges we gathered and chanted at the top of our lungs “Allahu Akbar” and “down with the dictator”. Except this time the slogans didn’t necessarily denote religious meaning, or an urge to overthrow a secular US-backed oligarchy, but to simply remind the Islamic government that the very divine signal that brought them to power can also be utilized to take them down. The chants were also the explosion of decades of bottled up collective political emotions, one of those cases in which the process is almost the only point. When one’s chant was responded to by someone from far away on some other roof a few streets down, It would became a signal transmitting fear, excitement, and hope.
Nooshin Rostami is a New York-based artist and educator. She is a member of The New Centre for Research & Practice.