Interview with the artist Parastou Forouhar

Iranian society in shock

Every year German-Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar travels to Iran to commemorate her parents who were killed by secret service agents. This year, the funeral service coincided with the nationwide protests in Iran. Interview by Farhad Payar

Parastou Forouhar is one of the most prominent voices in Iranian contemporary art. She fell out of favour with Iran's rulers because of her struggle to solve the politically motivated murders of her parents Dariush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari. One of her works of art earned her a prison sentence. Nevertheless, the artist continues her activities to preserve the memory of her parents and the political murders in Iran in the 1990s – in her works, at political events and in the international media.

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Ms Forouhar, bearing in mind you hold a memorial ceremony for your parents every year in Tehran, did you experience any harassment this year from officials?

Parastou Forouhar: Until three years ago the memorial was banned. However, my immediate family and I always spent the day in my parents' house, the venue of the event, subject to certain conditions – for instance, we were not allowed to leave the house. Nevertheless, many people attended every year and, standing at the barriers, refused to be deprived of their right to remember and honour the victims. For three years now, however, the security authorities have not taken any action in advance. That said, we do not know until the last minute whether or not the memorial will be prevented. This year, the event was advertised for 22 November from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., but by noon, many plainclothes police were already standing in the lane leading to my parents' house.

How was this year's memorial?

Forouhar: This time the memorial took place when the unrest was at its height. The whole country was in a state of emergency. The oppressive machinery of the system was in full swing.

A choice of correspondence and texts, documenting the effort to reveal the political murders of autumn 1998 in Iran (source: parastou-forouhar.de)
Parastou Forouhar's parents, Iranian dissidents Darius Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, were murdered by the Iranian secret service in 1998. She has worked untiringly ever since to ensure their memory is preserved and their fate not forgotten

We, like many others, thought the ceremony would be banned. The government had blocked the Internet. So we couldn't issue any invitations via social media and the telephone network only worked sporadically. As a result, we only managed to publish one advertisement in the daily newspaper Etelaat, which appeared on the deaths page.

Few people attended the ceremony than in previous years. Although the plainclothes officers did not harass the visitors, they had remarkably large cameras with them and photographed them all – intimidating in its own way. For the last two years we have always remembered my parents in silence, but this year I gave a couple of readings.

What kind of readings?

Forouhar: Passages from texts I have written over the last twenty years, memories of my parents, texts about the importance of memory, or about my insistence that political crimes in Iran be addressed.

What was the mood like in Tehran?

Forouhar: I arrived on Friday 15 November, the first day of the protests. During the flight I had heard nothing of the riots. When I was picked up by friends at Tehran airport, I sensed the stiflingly depressing atmosphere immediately. My friends said that everyone is simply in shock – both the rationing and the petrol price increase came completely out of the blue. Then they told me about the roadblocks and petrol station blockades by angry citizens. I was speechless.

How did you experience the unrest?

Forouhar: It was like walking through fog and knowing that violence was going on here and there, but there was no way of getting the right information about what was happening. The Internet was down and the national media acted as if everything was in order. It was like being in communications quarantine.

Smoke rises during protests against a rise in petrol prices in Isfahan, Iran (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photos)
Violent backlash inevitable: "for decades, people have tried using the legal means at their disposal to persuade the government to recognise the rights of citizens, stop corruption, curb nepotism and take steps against mass impoverishment, but to no avail. People taking to the street are beaten up and arrested by the police. There is a huge danger that society will become more radical as a result," says Forouhar

There were occasional reports of unrest on the outskirts of Tehran, where the demonstrations were most violent – of violent clashes, deaths, the destruction of cars blocking the roads by police officers, and of arson attacks.

The government says it was a small minority, instigated by the USA and Israel. What do you say?

Forouhar: As far as I am concerned, people – very many people – are angry. My conversations in Iran were coloured by their frustration.

Where does this anger come from?

Forouhar: For decades, people have tried using the legal means at their disposal to persuade the government to recognise the rights of citizens, stop corruption, curb nepotism and take steps against mass impoverishment, but to no avail. The anger and the volatile atmosphere are understandable. People taking to the street are then beaten up and arrested by the police. The violent backlash is inevitable. There is a huge danger that society will become more radical as a result.

Did you get an inkling of this yourself?

Forouhar: The massive presence of the security forces could be felt everywhere. Wherever there were crowds, in the main streets, in large squares and at crossroads, they stood in rows. One image particularly stayed with me: at a large intersection stood the so-called anti-terrorist units, shoulder to shoulder, hundreds, behind them a row of paramilitary basijis, and next to them normal everyday life was taking place: the shops were open, people were coming and going as usual. It was like a collage, displaying the simultaneous existence of everyday life and the machine of oppression.

Apropos collage: how do Iranian artists and creative feel about the current developments?

Forouhar: My stay there was too short, so I was unable to spend much time with them. The means of communication were also paralysed. But then, ten days later, an open letter was issued from dozens of people involved in culture condemning the state's action against the protesters. This is a new development, because many of them had so far remained silent about human rights violations in Iran. I welcome this measure, which is why I signed the letter.

Have Iranian artists abroad adopted a similar position?

Forouhar: Not that I know of.

In some of your works you combine the beauty of ornamentation with politically difficult content or your own experiences with the Islamic regime in Iran. Will you be processing your latest experiences in Tehran artistically?

Forouhar: Artistic processing of one's own experiences is a long-term thing. Of course, observations and experiences always flow into my artistic work, but I don't have any specific plans for processing my experiences this November.

Interview conducted by Farhad Payar

© Iran Journal / Qantara 2019

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