Culture comes out of the closet

31 May 1996

The video cassette promoting the work of the Islamic Propagation Organisation's (IPO's) Arts Centre in Tehran opens with eye-catching clips from Western and satellite television programmes. Without breaking stylistic stride, the glossy video goes on to list the centre's ground-breaking activities in the arts - ranging from sculpture to music to filmmaking.

The Howzeh Honar (arts centre), as it is commonly known, would arouse little interest in most other countries. Much of the work it is doing may be pedestrian and the boast of its director. Mohammad Ali Zam, that the howzeh is 'a centre for avant garde and experimental art may seem hard to justify.

The work taking place behind the drab exterior of the centres headquarters in Tehran could, however, turn out to be among the most revolutionary and historically important since 1979 Here, a group of daring young clergymen and artists are engaged in what amounts to a crash programme to make up for a thousand years of lost cultural development.

The significance of the apparently routine activities promoted by the centre becomes clear in the context of the ambivalence with which the 1979 revolution seemed to greet the arts in general. Music, theatre and cinema faced serious restrictions. Women could not sing in public. Sculpture was seen as idol-worship; painting did not fare much better, except as poster art.

To some, the Islamic revolution seemed to signal the end of the arts in Iran. Even today, the IPO and Zam himself come under occasional attack from conservatives. However, Zam has support from the highest places, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the widely respected Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani and the radical Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, former head of the IPO.

Above all, Zam is known to have enjoyed the blessing of the late Imam Khomeini himself. Zam was put in charge of the arts centre in 1979 and Khomeini soon gave him his unmistakable public support, telling Kani and Jannati that the work being done in the arts was 'a hundred times more valuable' than anything else being done to propagate Islam.

Surrounded by works of art and handicrafts set off against untypical white office fumishings, Zam is not phased by potential controversy. 'Most young clergy think like I do,' he says. 'And so do even some of the older clerics who have young hearts'.

Zam describes his work in terms of a mission to help 'reconcile Shiism and the arts'. For a thousand years, he says, the Shias did not deal with the arts 'not because the arts were un-Islamic' but because they were the purview of illegitimate rulers or outsiders.

'The arts were originally considered good, but because their practice was left in the hands of the taghout (the religiously corrupt), they became haram (forbidden),' Zam says. In the cultural arena, the most important thing that has happened since the revolution 'is that after 1,000 years the arts can once again be part of Islam'.

The arts centre and sympathetic theology students in Qom have devoted an inordinate amount of time since 1979 to reconciling religious attitudes towards sculpture. This was at a time when some wanted to destroy all statues in the country, including the ancient monuments in Persepolis.

'There is nothing in Islam against sculpture,' says Zam. 'No one worships idols now anyway.' The centre has in recent years been commissioning sculptures for public places such as squares - most recently in Khorramshahr.

The centre pioneered music at a time when there was pressure to ban it, setting the pace with the first officially sanctioned cassette recording of classical Persian music two years after the revolution. It has since been holding music festivals, including the first national singing contest, held over a 15-day period.

The arts centre has also played a crucial role in reviving theatre and cinema. It nurtured the country's most original and exciting film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf - although they eventually parted company - and has produced 50 feature films, 100 shorts and 400 television shows, including serials.

They are all produced on a commercial basis and 'have to earn their way'. Three films - including the controversial Snowman, which upset some conservatives because it appeared to allude to transvestites, and a love story set in Bosnia - were sent to the Cannes film festival in 1996. The centre has 100 movie theatres across the country.

Sensitive subjects

The IPO centre is not averse to taking on issues which some consider too sensitive. On intemational women's day in 1994, the centre staged a play with women wearing wigs instead of the usual head cover.

Most sensational will be when and if the centre presents a female singer to a mixed audience. The absolute ban on a woman's singing voice being heard by men in public has already been relaxed to the point of allowing female choruses, but no one has yet dared to arrange a solo performance.

In the first such public comment by a clergyman, Zam says there is no inherent Islamic objection to a female singer performing in public. 'The only problem is people's attitude... formed in the Shah's time when women singers had a bad reputation.' Cultural issues take time to change and one needs to look at the long term, he says. 'If you want to reform rather than destroy something, you start at the edges.'

Zam says there is a great deal of thought and research being put by the clergy into all aspects of religion and society. Within 20 years, the theological heartland of Shiism in Qom will have undergone major changes, he predicts.

He himself looks upon his mission in the arts in terms of a 30-year plan. Having started as a precocious 23-year-old fresh from the street barricades of the revolution, the first 10 years were set aside 'for laying the foundations' and the second decade is for 'consolidation'.

The arts centre is increasingly self-reliant in financing its activities, says Zam. Only 20 per cent of its budget comes from the state. From a single building in 1979, the centre has expanded to 700 staff and 2,500 contract employees, and provides training, including university courses, for 1,500 students.

Zam sees finance as a major constraint on developing the arts, particularly cinema. But the solution, he says, does not lie in state subsidies. 'To be able to match the West, we have to have a purely commercial approach,' he says. Many of the centre's projects, especially films, are done in joint venture with private investors.

But in getting ready for the last phase of Zam's ambitious 30-year plan, the centre requires the kind of resources that are not available through the usual channels. So, in 1995, the arts centre set up the Sare Oil Company and obtained a license from the Oil Ministry to build a 230,000 barrels a day export oil refinery. 'We are now choosing the site for the refinery, probably in Chahbahar, and will be inviting foreign companies to join us as partners,' says Zam.

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