Make Love and Music, Not War: Siavash (1998); Dir. Saman Moghaddam

For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I take a look at Saman Moghaddam’s Siavash.

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The Iran-Iraq War was the longest “conventional” war of the 20th century, dragging on for almost a decade. The slaughter was immense. An entire generation was wiped out. Children volunteered to be martyrs, cannon fodder. The Martyrs Cemetery (one of the largest graveyards in the world), south of Tehran, has a fountain that (to this day) runs with red water to show the blood that was shed. Every town has a cemetery like that one, except on a smaller scale. The war touched everyone. The war lasted from 1980 – 1988, and the younger generation – those born in the 80s – have no memory of it, yet it impacts their lives on every level. Everyone has lost a family member, or three or four. The 1979 revolution was solidified by the hostage crisis and then the war with Iraq.

But imagine if you were a kid born in 1987. You have no memory of the revolution. The sacrifices of your parents may seem rather meaningless, especially in light of the hard economic times and the brain-drain that Iran has experienced ever since the revolution. Like every country, there is a generation gap. The older generation wants the younger to appreciate how hard it was in the past. The younger generation wants to do its own thing, and not constantly have to live in a reverence for a past they did not participate in.

Siavash, the powerful and angry film directed by Saman Moghaddam, is all about that. It expresses things which cannot be expressed, easily, in a nation where censorship is still fierce. It asks questions about martyrdom and war, but it also shows that the younger generation – without a war to galvanize them – are left adrift. They want to “do something”. They want to show that they are somehow as tough as their parents. But how? Where?

Siavash (played by the beautiful and sensitive Ali Ghorbanzade), is a young man whose father was apparently killed in the war with Iraq (although his body was never found). Siavash is a musician, living aimlessly, trying to connect with a father he never knew. He is angry and introverted. As things start to break down for him over the course of the film, his aggression starts to come out unexpectedly. He, like the young Alexander Hamilton, wishes for a war to clarify his intentions, to fire him up, to make him relevant and a worthy man.

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As the film opens, we see his band preparing for a series of concerts. He is late for a rehearsal because he has gone to visit his father’s grave. He kneels by the grave, and, in voiceover, we hear him ask for his father’s blessing. It becomes apparent that his mother has shacked up with another man (Siavash only refers to him as “that man”), and that she torments Siavash with how his dead father would disapprove of his bohemian lifestyle. Siavash knows he has chosen a different path from his father. There is no war for him to fight now. He wants his father to know that he is not a “punk”, and he wishes his father would give him a sign that he is proud of him.

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At one of his concerts is a young photographer from a woman’s magazine, played by the gorgeous and wonderful Hedye Tehrani (she’s on my 20 favorite actresses list). She is there on assignment.

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After the show, she gets into a confrontation on the sidewalk with a guy who is harassing her. He appears to know her. He is haranguing her about her behavior, and she screams back at him, “Why don’t you leave me alone? I am here for my job – this has nothing to do with you!”

Siavash, coming out from backstage, sees the confrontation happening and tries to help. I am sure the fact that Ms. Tehrani is so beautiful has a little bit to do with his knight-in-shining-armor impulses, but you also get the feeling that he’s basically a nice guy. Sweet. He steps in. “Why don’t you leave the lady alone?” A fight breaks out, and the harasser runs off into the night, leaving Siavash and the lady alone.

There is immediate chemistry. I love the first scene of their meeting. She obviously is not a shrinking violet (we just saw her shouting at a guy on the street), but she also has a gentleness to her, a sweetness. She senses something in Siavash: his need to protect, obviously, but she plays the scene with a clear understanding that she senses his attraction to her. Because this is Iran, these things cannot be spoken out loud. In a way, it makes such moments even more powerful, because it has to be done subtly, through behavior and pauses and body language. Not to condone censorship, but I am struck over and over again by how much Iranian filmmakers “get away with”, making their art, as they do, in a theocratic society.

Against the laws of the land, Siavash and his friend Ramin drive her home. (Her name in the film is also Hedye).

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She sits in the back seat and they ask her what was that guy’s problem on the sidewalk. She regales them with stories of how she was in college with that guy, and he was obsessed with her. But instead of trying to court her like a normal man would, he reported her to the college authorities for not wearing proper “Islamic cover”. She got in trouble at school. In retaliation, the next day she showed up to class wearing a cardboard box over her head with two holes cut out for her eyes. Siavash and his friend start laughing. She still can’t see what is funny about it. Ramin says, “I’m in college myself. That is a funny joke.” The image of her showing up with a cardboard box over her head is delightfully subversive, really angry, actually – and it makes me love the character. She has gone on after college to become a reporter and photographer, and she would love to interview Siavash about his music. The paper she writes for is called The Women’s Weekly and Ramin jokes that he doesn’t want to be seen buying a copy of such a paper. She says she will send it to them.

The main focus of the scene is the unspoken attraction between Siavash and Hedye. But how, in such a country, do you ask for a girl’s phone number? You can’t date. You’d be arrested (which eventually happens in the latter half of the movie). She is still taken up with annoyance over her harasser, but she was touched by Siavash standing up for her.

Through a series of coincidences, they see each other again. She interviews him.

Siavash lives in an apartment by himself. The walls are a deep yellow and dark green. He has a fish tank. He sits on his bed playing his guitar, but you can tell his thoughts are elsewhere. On Hedye, on his father. The phone rings, but someone keeps hanging up. On the walls of his bedroom, he has a huge collage of gruesome photographs from the war with Iraq. It is a shrine,evidence of his obsession. In the middle of the photos of carnage, is a portrait of his mother, vibrant-looking beneath her head-scarf.

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He believes that no one can really know him, unless they know his feelings about the war, his obsession with it, with his father.

His friend Ramin tries to talk him out of his depression, but it is not easy. Especially because Ramin knows something that Siavash does not know: The week before, a bunch of POWs were released from Iraq, and Siavash’s father, long-thought dead, was one of them. The POW foundation has contacted Siavash’s mother (who has now, of course, moved on and is living in sin with the same man she has been with for 13 years) but no one has told Siavash yet. Ramin is supposed to give the news to Siavash, but he is afraid for his friend’s state of mind.

The man we first saw harassing Hedye on the sidewalk was not just an excuse for an Iranian “meet-cute”. He becomes a truly menacing character in the film. Hedye said earlier to Siavash and Ramin, “This is what happens when you let the classes mix. We Iranians are not ready for all of that. We haven’t been brought up right,” a fascinating look at the class divide in Iran, and the issues the upper class feel when confronted with the more traditional (and radical and conservative) element in their midst. The guy from college just can’t deal with the fact that she has a life, that she has a job, that she does her own thing without bowing down before him, the male. He is in love with her, obviously, but he is so blunted and violent he can’t recognize the softness within him. There are more confrontations, and they get worse. And finally, he attacks her so violently he puts her in the hospital.

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Interspersed with all of these dramatic scenes, is footage from the various concerts given by Siavash and his band. The music is amazing and I yearned for a soundtrack. Sometimes melancholy and sentimental, sometimes thrumming and drum beats (reminding me a bit of music to riverdance to), it is the kind of music that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

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Ali Ghorbanzade, playing Siavash, does not have an easy job as an actor in this role. He has to be sensitive and sweet, but not a drip. He has to spend the entire movie on the verge of tears. He has long shots where he sits in silence staring at his fish tank, holding his guitar. It could have been a parody of itself, the Brooding Young Man Iranian Style. But Ghorbanzade manages to suggest the deep fissures in this young man, the competing interests: the growing love for Hedye (the moment with the rosebuds in the restaurant literally made me catch my breath), his increasing bitterness towards his mother, his feeling of helplessness in the Post-War society he lives in – the feeling that his life means nothing compared to the former generation – and then the chaos of learning that his father is actually alive, and what will THAT mean for him? Ghorbanzade keeps all of these balls in the air with his quiet heartfelt performance.

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There are moments when he is up onstage, at the keyboard, playing, and Hedye sits out in the audience, and he manages to show us that he is starting to play just for her. Just having her out there makes him start to feel like a man, it “stiffens the space between his shoulder blades” (thank you, Odets), and gives him pride in his work. These are sexy moments. The music hums and beats, and she stares up at him, a small smile playing across her lips.

She learns that Siavash’s father is now alive and she begs Siavash to go see his father. She doesn’t say, “I cannot be with a man who doesn’t resolve his family issues” – but you get the sense that that is her stance.

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Hedye Tehrani has one of the most expressive faces in cinema. She’s beautiful in an almost distracting way, but she is so fascinating to watch, because her inner life – whatever it may be – is always playing across her features. She acts between the lines. To say she “acts” is almost incorrect. She lives – onscreen. Sometimes she smiles and there’s a beautiful mischief to her, and she’s got a temper, and a sense of outrage.

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Here, she plays a woman you really like (and that’s a change for her, as an actress.) Tehrani, despite her beauty, can come off as rather dour, serious, even bleak. The parts she plays (Fireworks Wednesday – my review here, Half Moon, Hemlock) show her fearlessness as an actress. She is not interested in being liked. There is a depressive quality to her. She has played two suicidal women (that I am aware of, I haven’t seen all of her movies), and it really works. You get the sense that this woman goes deep, that she has known despair, she has known loss, and it has cost her. But here she does something quite different, showing her range. She is feisty, smart, kind, and persistent. If there is a woman out there who could deal with Siavash’s particular personality, it is this woman.

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The last moment of the film, with its sudden burst of drum-heavy music, is startlingly angry and moving. The flags of Iran flutter in the background, blurry, and in the foreground, we see the flowers on the grave, the flickering candle, and Siavash and Hedye, walking off together. It is not a neat resolution. The Iranian consciousness will be dealing with the fallout from the war with Iraq for years to come. Their losses were acute. The younger generation has inherited a whole different set of problems, and what are they to do with it all? Where are they to go?

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Siavash came out in 1998, a decade after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. In many ways, it is an anti-war film, although it also honors the dead and those who made the sacrifice. It looks at the unseen consequences of huge world events, and also the haunting that can occur in an entire culture in the wake of such a war.

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16 Responses to Make Love and Music, Not War: Siavash (1998); Dir. Saman Moghaddam

  1. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Sheila:

    “We have nothing left. They had the Spanish Civil War; we do not even have our own war. We have nothing except ourselves, our face and our voice. But maybe that is what is important: recognizing the sound of one’s own voice.”
    — Jean-Luc Godard, “Le Petit Soldat” (1960)

    That movie’s about the Algerian War. John Talbott’s book about that conflict calls it “The War Without a Name.” Is there a name for Iran’s war with Iraq, or is it too a war without a name?

    When I haven’t seen a movie you review (and I haven’t seen this: my one experience with Iranian film is Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up,” which I don’t remember very well), I often have a sense of being torn. You make me think, and you make me want to comment, but I often have the feeling that the comment isn’t relevant to the matter at hand…or here, belongs with the 1770 link for Alexander Hamilton.

    Because as beautifully as you assessed Siavash’s character, thinking about a wish for a war disturbed me. It’s a young person’s wish (Hamilton was in his teens; Siavash is probably only a little younger than *The Glass Menagerie’s* Tom Wingfield, when Tom welcomed war as making adventure and romance everybody’s dish, not just Gable’s) and the reality of even a “good war” (as Orwell wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War”) is still sordid. I wish Siavash well but I don’t wish him the hands-on rude awakening of, say, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

    “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    pro patria mori.”

    You never fail to send me. I hope you don’t mind if it’s not always to the places you intended.

  2. sheila says:

    Thank you, Charles.

    My hope is that people who haven’t seen these films will be curious enough to check them out. With Netflix, it makes it so easy! Iran has its huge stars – Panahi, Kiarostami – but I watch anything I can get my hands on, even grainy video-transfers of what amounts to Tehrani Lifetime-Television movies.

    War brought the generation together, ruptured by the Revolution. It solidified them against a common enemy. If you look up pictures of the Martyrs Cemetery, you cannot believe its size. It would take a lifetime to visit every grave. This was a giant fissure in Iran – a huge gap between one generation and the next. And so now there is a generation of talented aimless fatherless men, who can’t get work, who can’t go to school, wandering through Iran, looking to find a meaningful life. Feeling cut off from the well-spring of togetherness that the war with Iraq brought the country. Thousands of years of human civilization provided war as an important rite-of-passage for young men. Without it (especially in the wake of such a devastating war as the one with Iraq), many men don’t feel like men at all. (This is especially true if the older generation, who fought the war, keeps throwing it back in your face.)

    Siavash is really all about that and I really loved it. Hope you (and others) check it out.

    And Hedye Tehrani rocks.

    Additional thought: I have family in the military and many friends who are either soldiers or married to soldiers. I’m also not a pacifist, at least in the political sense. So I totally get the desire/urgency to get close to the action. For career reasons, certainly, but also: you’re in the military, you didn’t join the military to sit behind a desk. in Iran, of course, this all manifests very differently as seen in Siavash. Siavash is not about career-military people, but about a nationwide debacle – which gave one generation a sense of martyrdom/purpose, and the other generation a sense of helplessness and rage.

  3. sheila says:

    But – judging from the student protests over the last decade, this generation of young men (and women) have had it. They are OVER it. Their eyes are on the future.

  4. Kent says:

    Sheila, I hate to keep reusing the word watershed, but it truly defines the last decade of Iranian film. Like Charles, I’m now looking forward to seeing Siavash. With so much turmoil in the world right now, it is still hard to guess when Iran will explode, or what the ultimate outcome of struggle will be. There is incredible pressure internally, and also externally, along with a sea of expatriates around the world, who dream of returning to their homeland, and who also have their eyes on the future.
    These movies are glimpses of lives that must be lived in the middle of violently opposing forces. I find great inspiration in them, though they are dark and devastating. They remind me so much of early Rossellini capturing the transitions at the end of World War Two in ROMA, or Adrzej Wadja capturing Poland as the Nazis departed in KANAL. These are not pacifist films, but pictures of life lived at gunpoint, under opposing forces, sometimes in the face of violent struggle. They are vital now, brilliantly full of life, and will continue to be in the future as human documents of a time of tremendous turmoil and transition.
    Also, have been meaning to mention to you how much I enjoy your talent for portraying movies in words and pictures. You perfectly convey the essence of a film without giving everything away. Not only have I come away with a deep appreciation for a film I haven’t seen… and now MUST, but you have often provided a deeper understanding of a movie I HAVE seen, which is a wonderful and truly appreciated gift!

  5. sheila says:

    Kent – and this is another movie, like Half Moon, that has chicks playing those big awesome drums! Can’t get enough of them!

    I find inspiration in these films, too, and I love your comparison with Rossellini. I think that’s right-on. Because, you know, politics happen, and upheaval goes on – and on the ground, people are still trying to just do their thing – hook up with a girl they like, or have a job they enjoy, or even just move into a nicer apartment. Seen against the backdrop of the Iranian regime and all of the opposing forces going on there right now (like in Black Tape) – these personal struggles take on huge universal meaning.

    And I really really love that.

    I hope you see it soon! And thanks for the compliment.

    As you can tell from the images, the copy is not great quality, unfortunately – but I just was so in love with these two actors’ faces. Lots of nice really emotional closeups.

  6. Kent says:

    Beautifully done, Sheila! I can only dream that world events somehow spark a Rossellini revival, so much of his fine work remains virtually unseen in America. And

    OHHH YEAH!!! Rally for CHICKS and BIG drums!! The best of Iranian filmmakers seem to know how to play on your conditioned expectations for film, cleverly subvert that, and still celebrate existence while giving you a political power shampoo in a filthy bowl! THAT takes REAL talent!! AND BIG drums with good beats…

  7. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Something you doubtless know, but I had to look up:

    If the Algerian War didn’t have a name, the Iranians have given names to the conflict with Iraq: “The Imposed War” and “Holy Defense.”

    Your comment about a generation with their eyes on the future made me hopeful (as long as they remember the past, needless to say, because Santayana said something wise about people who didn’t and what they’d suffer as a result) and then made me amused, for I found myself thinking of the Beatles’s encounter with a man on a train in “A Hard Day’s Night”:

    “Don’t take that tone with me, young man,” says the man on the train. I fought the war for your sort.”

    “I bet you’re sorry you won,” replies Ringo.

    According to the Android Sisters, war isn’t a word so much as an acronym. It means “We Are Right.”

    Can you recommend a good history of “The Imposed War”? I think I have some homework to do.

  8. sheila says:

    Robin Wright wrote a very good book called The Last Great Revolution – which isn’t specifically about the war with Iraq – but it’s mentioned extensively, of course. Then there’s Elaine Scolioni – she’s a bit in the pocket of the regime, or at least she has in the past, so take her with a grain of salt. But her book on Persian women (Persian Mirrors) is very good. Again, it’s not strictly about the 80-88 war, but it’s covered. My favorite author Ryzsard Kapuscinski wrote a book called Shah of Shahs, about the fall of the last Shah and the rise of Khomeini – well worth reading. It’s more of the lead-up to the war with Iraq – 1979 into 1980. Fascinating. (But then all of his stuff is). And just read a really good book last year (more of a travelogue) called The Soul of Iran – by Afshin Molavi – an American of Iranian descent, who details his trips to iran over the last decade.

    My “Iran/Central Asia” bookshelf is overflowing.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, and Charles – Robert Kaplan wrote a book called To the Ends of the Earth – a political/travel book about his time in West Africa, Iran, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. He is a bit hawkish for some tastes but I’ve always loved him and his writing. Ever since Balkan Ghosts. I’ll read the guy’s grocery list. To the Ends of the Earth is not a scholarly book – none of these are – but well worth checking into. He visits the Martyrs Cemetery in the book with his guide and another friend. Big section on the 80-88 war with Iraq.

      I’ll get to Iran someday. I’ve been wanting to go for, what, 25 years?

  9. sheila says:

    I’ve written about all of these books and my whole Iran-obsession on this site numerous times. Shouldn’t be too hard to find all of that stuff.

  10. sheila says:

    Kent – yeah, their films have a great mix of social issues, everyday life problems, and melodrama of the almost noir-variety. It’s rarely didactic. Well, I haven’t seen all of it – I am sure that some films get the stamp-of-approval by the regime, and those very well may be didactic.

    Just watched Children of Heaven again this weekend – I saw it here at the Angelika when it first came out. Have you seen it? When I saw it, parents had brought their kids. The kids there at first didn’t know what to do with the subtitle situation – you could feel the kids’ restlessness at the beginning of the movie (“Wait a minute – this is a movie – I have to READ it???”) – until the kids finally got so caught up in the story that they were literally cheering by the end (the whole movie ends with a bunch of little boys participating in an exhilarating slow-mo running-race). I’ve seen it a bunch and the climax of that running race never fails to make me nervous and want to shout, “GO GO GO GO.”

    Anyway, I watch that movie and could pontificate about all of the class/social/gender issues – it’s ALL THERE – but on another level, it’s just this amazingly entertaining and engaging story about a little boy who loses his sister’s shoes – (the family can’t afford another pair) – and all of the tricks and hijinx and crazy things the two kids end up doing so that their parents don’t find out that he lost the sister’s shoes.

    FANTASTIC film.

    I think critics and film fans can often make films sound too ponderous. It scares people off. I was just so pleased that some smart parents in New York City had read a review of Children of Heaven, saw what it was about, and took the risk to bring their kids to see it. If the critic had gone on and on about social/class/gender issues – that theatre would not have been packed with kids – and what a bummer THAT would have been. These kids in the audience were literally gasping out loud and crying out “OH NO” out loud, and shouting, “RUN RUN” at certain points – when some other disaster befell the little kids in the movie. The kids in the audience totally got it.

    Know what I mean??

    • Kent says:

      Film writing very rarely rises to the level of the film being written about. The internet and digital video offer new ways of expressing love of film as well as helping a movie find an audience. I enjoy writers who personalize their experience with a movie, or making a movie. James Agee, Eisenstein, Graham Greene, Manny Farber, Godard among the iconic masters. I loved Godard’s Histoire du Cinema visual essays.
      The internet has many great stylists who approach each film writeup from their own angle. Yours seem to jump off the screen with cinematic skill, inviting the reader/viewer into the film while experiencing it, without actually watching it or fully giving it away. They build and maintain a little mystery about the films. It is unique and interesting to compare this approach to more traditional clip/narration pieces. It’s all very personal, and new media movie writing is still in infancy… with a fascinating unknown future. Just like Iran and her movies. But, yes… helping a film reach an audience, and letting it speak to that audience openly, unhindered by didactic dullness is an art all its own. No, haven’t seen Children of Heaven. I’m currently working my way simultaneously backward and forward with Ghobadi to pick up his earliest (rewatching A Time For Drunken Horses) and latest (No One Knows About Persian Cats) as well as rewatching Black Tape again to explore it from Noir relationship angle… and then the new ones I’ve picked up here at your festival-a-thon await!

  11. Sheila,

    This is a splendid review. The opening few paragraphs are especially striking.

    I get the feeling that the film’s more ambivalent about the revolution than one would expect. You describe the point where Hedye laments the mingling of classes, which sort of betrays a nostalgia for a Shah-like rule. I think there is a complex, push-pull relationship towards history there.

    I haven’t seen any Iranian film that confronts history so directly like the one you review here. In fact, I think all the Iranian films I’ve seen talk about the ‘present’ and rarely about ‘history’ as such. I’m bookmarking this one.

    Thanks so much for the review.

    Cheers!

  12. sheila says:

    JAFB – thank you for reading! It’s these second-tier films that I find most fascinating in many respects. Not the art-house films, but the more popular conventional films.

    The revolution was a failure. You get that loud and clear here. These people were hijacked in their hope for liberty and equality by the theocratic set. The revolution had started as a call for the Shah to step down (the rallying cry being, “THE SHAH MUST GO”) – and Khomeini saw his opening and took it, and wrenched the revolution’s more liberal aims into a theocratic Islamic aim. There are many people today in Iran who still feel betrayed by that. Their revolution was hijacked. They wanted to get rid of the gross inequities of the Shah’s regime – they didn’t want mullahs to be in charge of their nation. (If I am telling you things you already know, please forgive me! This is mainly for anyone who DOESN’T know about these things.)

    But Siavash seems to find the Revolution to be mainly irrelevant – perhaps the most radical thing about the film.

    It was the war with Iraq that bonded the nation together – and now, years later, comes the fallout.

    This is a pretty straight-up drama – a love story – a man trying to deal with his past in order to accept the love of a woman – but it is so worth it to check it out. Would love to hear your reaction!

  13. sheila says:

    But yes: your point is true: Hedye is a member of the elite. Most of the elite fled in the wake of the revolution. (I know, first-hand, that my own university town was flooded with educated Iranians in 1979, 1980). The elite who stayed are horrified and disgusted by the peasant-morals of those in charge.

    The lunatics running the asylum.

    That’s why I love the more overt popular dramas, because in the middle of a conventional love-story, you get a comment like, “We Iranians are not ready to mix the classes” – and an entire WORLD of understanding opens up!

  14. Charles J. Sperling says:

    Sheila:

    Many thanks for the recommendations and for an extra spur to read Ryzsard Kapuscinski (William Boyd’s *Bamboo* made me file him away for “one of these days”; now I must change that to “sooner rather than later”).

    Apropos of the ways revolutions go:

    Have you ever read George C. Chesbro’s *City of Whispering Stone*? It’s a mystery novel with a most unique hero (Mongo, a dwarf who is also a genius, a former circus acrobat, a then professor of criminology at NYU and a private detective), and it takes him to Iran in the late 1970s. The Shah hasn’t fallen (Mongo meets him and finds him quite pleasant, though still a deplorable dictator), but there’s much speculation on where Iran will go once he’s out of power…and Chesbro gets just about everything wrong. He envisioned a secular, progressive state, and the idea of a theocracy never seems to have occurred to him.

    It’s the one book Chesbro is reluctant to reference in later adventures, save as it deals with the love life of Mongo’s brother Garth. Given the reality of what happened in 1979, it’s hard to blame him. Even in a series where science-fiction merges comfortably with the mysterious and there’s a President named Kevin Shannon, you shouldn’t be as off as that.

    I hope you do get to Iran one day, and that it’s to a country where far from The Sheila Variations being banned, it’s the blog that everybody reads.

    Not everybody who’s anybody — everybody, period.

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