Peyman Vahabzadeh, The Art of Defiance: Dissident Culture and Militant Action in 1970s Iran (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Peyman Vahabzadeh (PV): The idea goes back to my 2010 book, A Guerrilla Odyssey—in particular, Chapter 7 in that book. I acquired self-consciousness, if you will, as a young man in 1970s Iran, and I deeply felt with my proverbial skin how forbidden and revolutionary arts echoed the way in which Iran’s militants, spearheaded by the People’s Fadai Guerrillas (PFG), challenged the violent and autocratic regime of the Shah (my 2010 book was, of course, about the PFG). So, in a way the idea behind the book has been simmering in my mind for about fifty years! I am still surprised that no one else has ever tried to study the relationship between literature and the arts, on the one hand, and politics or particularly the militant action that defines the 1970s, on the other. I was raised in a cultured family, and literature, poetry, play, cinema, ballet, music, and songs were a part of my everyday life. My father was a librarian and naturally a book collector and my mother a poet and teacher. All credit to my loving parents, I have been writing and publishing poetry, fiction, memoir, and literary reviews since my mid-twenties. So, with my undying interest in the complex and rich history of Persian literature, I decided to write this book. I already had a solid knowledge of modern (twentieth-century) Persian poetry and literature and had also researched the PFG a decade ago. So, all I needed was to bring the two bodies of knowledge together. The outcome was this book, with the stunningly beautiful and original artwork by Siyamak Ghaffari that captures its key themes.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PV: The book begins by asking how the PFG, few in numbers before the 1979 revolution, grew into Iran’s largest and most popular leftist organization right after the revolution until the violent and brutal repression by the Islamists in 1981 to 1982 and continuing until 1988. At this time, a PFG rally could bring out 300,000 participants in Tehran, and the group claims to have won about ten percent of the total ballot cast in Iran’s only free election in March 1980 (unconfirmed). This popularity certainly was not due to the group’s propaganda. So, I diverted my attention to the way the arts in the 1970s, and even prior to that time, popularized the image of the immortal freedom fighter—in our case, the Fadai Guerrillas. Because of their revolutionary but also, with emphasis, secular appeal, the PFG had had a deep impact on the consciousness of Iranian artists and writers who were solidly secular with social justice tendencies and who suffered in the hands of the Shah’s stringent censorship. It was not uncommon, as I show in the book, for a writer or artist, or even a singer (in the case of Dariush Eqbali) to be summoned by SAVAK (Iran’s brutal secret police) to attend a security briefing, to be arrested and interrogated for weeks and months, to be imprisoned, or even—in the case of Khosrow Golesorkhi—to be executed on phony charges.
So, the dissident cultural workers, feeling they were crushed by censorship, created the bodies of work—poetry, songs, short stories, and films—that promoted the cause of the militants fight for freedom.
The book begins by constructing a theory of event and myth, arguing that a public discourse transforms an event into collectively accepted myth and that the myth governs the grammar of engagement with the actual events. This allows for the tropes of resistance to emerge in artistic works. Tropes or metaphors are not directly connected to the militant resistance, but they consistently and unmistakably allude to it. The spread of such artistic works—and their tropes and metaphors and allusions—primed the audience in favor of the guerrillas and delivered the militants’ messages to the populace, not in an ideological way, but in a way relatable to the audience: through common lived experiences.
The book goes through poetry, songs, short fiction, and films (each in a chapter) to make its case. It concludes by identifying this phenomenon as a global and transnational one and argues that no movement will succeed without an artistic depiction of its utopia.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PV: I have several fields of research, and only one them pertains to Iran, and yet this is the area about which I have written the most. The focus of my study is the social and political movements between 1960s and 1980s Iran. As I mentioned previously, this book is, in a way, the “second volume” of my 2010 book, A Guerrilla Odyssey (Syracuse UP) where I offered an analytical history of the PFG and registered their debates inside and outside of the group, their dilemmas, and their limitations and possibilities. The Art of Defiance shows how the PFG inspired a whole array of artistic movements. The arts and literature of dissident artists and writers rendered the Fadai Guerrillas more visible in the eyes of different publics, and the artistic works made the guerrillas immortal.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PV: I think the narrative of the book is very readable and also enjoyable for not only those interested in contemporary Iran, but also for the readers interested in the roles that the arts play in supporting political movements. In particular, those interested in this period of Iranian political life; readers and scholars of modern Iranian and Persian literature and arts; students of modern Iran; and those interested in the intersection of arts and social movements. Remember the banner at Salvador Allende’s elections campaign, running for president in 1970: “You can’t have a revolution without songs.”! That pretty much applies to any art and any reader interested in this intersection, I imagine, will enjoy reading this book, which is full of fantastic poems, songs, stories, and lots and lots of social history of how specific works came to be.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PV: I am writing a new book on the fascinating, grassroots council movement of Turkmen peasants in northeastern Iran (1979-1980). Days after the revolution of February 1979, Turkmen intellectuals gathered together and created the Cultural and Political Association of Turkmen People. At the same time, Turkmen peasants, fed up with forced dispossession and appropriation of their traditional farm lands and pastures under toppled monarchy in the fertile area called the Planes of Turkmen, occupied their ancestral lands and created grassroots councils to manage these lands. The Fadai Guerrillas supported this movement and had connection with it. The peasants collectively cultivated these lands in 1979 and successfully harvested the products. Soon, a sophisticated council system emerged in the region and the Central Headquarters of the Councils of the Plains of Turkmen in a de facto fashion governed the Turkmen areas for about a year while the new regime’s forces and thugs were present in the region and conspiring against the movement. The reactionary, intolerant, and brutal Islamists finally crushed the movement by imposing a war on it in 1980, killing the movement’s leaders, and they gradually took over the councils and reduced them to nil. The Turkmen movement can be credited as an inadvertent pioneer of autonomous movements today, such as Zapatistas of Mexico and Rojava in northeastern Syria—movements that are spreading in various shapes in the world today. This first-ever, book-length study of the Turkmen movement is called For Land and Culture and I am hoping it will be published in 2023.
J: Why study armed movements such as PFG at all? What significance did they have?
PV: This question captures the concerns of our age. The PFG and similar guerrilla movements around the world, rural or urban, were the actors of the age of decolonization and national liberation movements. Their task was to imagine and fight for a new world, other than the colonial, exploitative, oppressive, and ecologically destructive world that we have inherited. Frantz Fanon captured this spirit when he said, “we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.” These movements failed to create a new beginning, but in trying, they contain lessons for the movements of our age and for present and future actors who are confronted with a very real possibility of ecological collapse, whose indications we have all experienced across the world through various shortages and rising food prices. From this point of view, my book is about two parallel imaginations, militant and liberationist, on the one hand, and artistic and freedom seeking, on the other. If you think about it, they both pretty much wanted the same thing. I believe we should return to that spirit and demand liberation. So, to echo a 1968 Paris slogan, “All power to imagination!”
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 5-8)
Following my previous books on the militant Left in 1970s Iran (Vahabzadeh 2010; 2015a; 2019b), this book offers a glance into this decade from a fresh angle. My personal recollections above, contextualised by my research, show how specific social, political and historical phenomena are received through lived experiences, thus constituting a specific weltanschauung for those who can (still) perceive the event that surrounds them. The ability to be touched by the event through what I will call an ‘art-experience’ is not a common capacity. Under normal conditions, the citizens of any state are hegemonised into subscribing to the state-propagated image of ‘good life’ and thus for the most part the experiences of the average citizen, to expand on Antonio Gramsci’s theory, are re-grounded by the weltanschauung of the ruling class (Vahabzadeh, 2007a). It is no wonder, then, that when the militants emerged in the Iranian political scene, the young people enthusiastically responded to their hailing in astonishing numbers, in spite of the mortal dangers that they were likely to face, just like our legendary little black fish.
The thesis of this book can be summarised as follows: at the time when Iran was undergoing rapid, authoritarian modernization that was meant to stabilise the country’s economic position in the periphery of capitalist world-system (despite the Shah’s claim in the 1970s that Iran was about to become the Japan of West Asia), the state’s policy of educational expansion resulted in building a large, educated middle class. With the growing state control, censorship, and wholesale crackdown on opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, on the one hand, and the rise of the short-lived urban guerrillas spearheaded by the PFG in the 1970s, on the other hand, in a dialectical fashion the arts produced by dissident artists—specifically poetry, songs, short fiction and film—both reflected the militant struggles under the country’s skin and immensely contributed to the creation of a public, larger-than-life, image of otherwise small groups of militants. These works of art and literature defied the state-propagated weltanschauung and allowed for public articulation of dissent to shape up. Militant action was translated into artistic expressions and vice versa. The arts of defiance thus swayed the young educated individuals, as well as certain layers of the public, to perceive the Iranian state through the eyes of its most radical critiques: the Marxist militants. This book proceeds to show that because of the arts, the PFG militants—who were few in numbers and whose literature and presence only resonated with the clandestine university student groups and informal intellectual circles—acquired disproportionate heroic dimensions in the eyes of the public and were transported into a mythic and symbolic universe beyond their actual militant existence, and thus, they permeated the collective consciousness of nonconforming Iranians as immortal liberators. A ripple effect also expanded the admiration for active dissidents beyond the PFG to other militants at the time. In A Guerrilla Odyssey (2010), which took eleven years to complete, I studied Fadaiyan’s political history and theories and alluded to how the PFG was represented in the larger sociopolitical context through the so-called ‘Fadai Movement.’ That study, however, did not investigate the reasons for the unrivalled popularity of the PFG. A subsequent article (Vahabzadeh 2015b) shed light on the path—art and politics in the context of PFG in 1970s—that eventually culminated in this book which focuses on the ‘aesthetic dimension of the movement’ (Katsiaficas 1987:230).
In short, this is a case study of the relationship between social movements, on the one hand, and poetry, literature, and film, on the other. This is a global story. Poets, writers, musicians and filmmakers have always contributed artistically to the social or revolutionary movements that they supported and with which they identify, but attending to this is beyond our study. I would like to tell the Iranian version of this global movement here. The arts’ contribution to the deep social protest that was embodied by guerrilla warfare in Iran, a movement championed by the PFG, has been acknowledged but never systematically studied. This book offers the dialectical connections between dissident art and militant resistance. I will argue that the PFG’s relative popularity in the 1970s, which grew fully and most visibly in the post-revolutionary times and in particular between 1979 and 1982 (during and before the state’s heavy-handed crackdown), is due to the myth-making aspect of the arts in the years prior to 1979. Within specific genres and styles, the arts created a ‘myth,’ following George Sorel, that brought immortality to the guerrillas. The myth achieved for the public in the 1970s what the PFG literature had tried to achieve for militant students in 1969–70: the myth rendered militant resistance against the Shah intelligible, even desirable. Through dissident arts, the Fadai Guerrillas—and by virtue of their approximation to the Fadaiyan’s codified, armed action, other militants like the People’s Mojahedin—emerged as timeless, selfless, and immortal liberators that were connected to Iranian cultural memory of resistances against oppression. This specific junction of arts and politics is therefore at the heart of this study, with universal implications beyond this particular case study. Myths work through a ‘delayed effect,’ and I will show that the guerrillas acquired superhuman proportions paradoxically by the time the militant opposition had significantly subsided. It was the arts that supplied dissident activists, largely caught in their ideological lexis and thus unable to communicate with the populace they intended to mobilise, with a greater public reach by symbolizing their struggles in ways relatable to larger audiences. In short, caught in the endless, high-entropy, all-consuming task of running an underground militant organization, Fadaiyan (and other militants) were not equipped with the cultural means for constructing of a public image of themselves, nor did they have the resources for that, while dissident artists, writers, poets and intellectuals created a myth of the immortal liberator beyond the wildest imagination of the activists themselves. But prior to this delayed effect, just like my personal memory above, the arts, poetry in particular, attracted many to the guerrillas: in the age when copies of underground and banned publications were circulated at a snail’s pace (see Ghamari 2016:62–8), scores of surviving activists were attracted to revolutionary action particularly through poetry or other fast-traveling media such a Behrangi’s children’s stories. We come full circle: either way, we end up with the arts.