Saturday, 4 July 2020

Art of Persia



Samira Ahmed's three-part series Art of Persia, broadcast on BBC Four, was superb - though I'd say it was as much a history of Persia/Iran as it was about the art of Persia/Iran.

What a history though! And what art and architecture! What austerely beautiful landscapes! What magnificent camera work!

And Samira made for an enthusiastic, agreeable presenter. 

It was filmed over six weeks between March and June last year. 

It had taken three years for the BBC to secure visas from the Iranian regime but, as Samira wrote in the FT, the regime then proved to be very helpful, granting them "generous access".

She calls this generosity "an important olive branch". 

Indeed, she sees the series as a form of "cultural diplomacy", going beyond "the news headlines about the Iranian regime" and "offering the chance to make a connection with the Iranian people and gain a new perspective on the world. One that is less western-centric". 

I very much enjoyed it and marvelled at the clear, unashamed love of the Iranian people for their culture and history - very much including their pre-Islamic history. They won't be toppling statues from their past any time soon.

But Sue pointed out something she'd read: that the programme hadn't mentioned the regime. 

That was before the final episode, but when the final episode came I was surprised when it pretty much ended in 1979, with the bulk of its final section laying out the case against the last Shah of Iran and explaining why, through his un-Persian/un-Iranian folly, he helped bring about his own destruction and paved the way for the revolution. Of post-revolutionary Iran and the theocratic regime of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei and their attitudes to their country's heritage, there was literally just one, short, three-clause paragraph, and absolutely nothing critical of their rule. 


This left a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Yes, you're the BBC and you've been granted a huge favour by the Iranian regime, allowed in to glory in the country's past, to talk to its friendly people, and to go where no BBC presenter has gone before; you're allowed to see site after site, visit city after city, and look at rarely-seen hidden-away artifacts; and you show it all in the most glowing light, but you don't utter a single word of criticism of the rule of the Iran's latest rulers - the Islamist regime of the supreme leaders. Why did history stop in 1979 for this BBC series? Why such a slating for the Shah and no slating whatsoever for the cruel, despotic clerics who displaced him? Ah, because this is "cultural diplomacy", that's why, and the sharing of an "olive branch" with that regime. 

Oddly, it's only in her FT article that Samira Ahmed gives us the kind of information I think ought to have been in the series itself: 
After the 1979 revolution, there was a mood of purifying zeal. At Persepolis, Islamic revolutionaries turned up with bulldozers. But local people and the mayor of nearby Marv Dasht convinced them to turn back. In 1988, then president Ali Khamenei, now Iran’s supreme leader, visited the site and acknowledged its importance as national heritage, but also declared such places symbols of tyrannical monarchy (it is no coincidence that the Pahlavis, overthrown in 1979, keenly associated themselves with Persia’s historic kings). In recent years, protesters have gathered at Pasargadae, one of the last remnants of Cyrus’s capital city, adopting him as a figurehead of resistance to the regime.
Cyrus the Great was the king who freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return home. Ayatollah Khamenei is an antisemite who wants to expel the Jews from their homeland. Things don't always get better.

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