A murder spectacle, a film in jail

Mehru Jaffer

More than one thousand and one hundred years before great filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to prison in Iran, Persian poet Mansoor Hallaj was accused of blasphemy and publicly executed. This barbarism is continuous.

Last December, a court in Tehran sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and barred him from his profession for 20 years, for allegedly attempting to commit crimes against 'national security' and... against the Iranian Revolution.

The truth is that Panahi is being persecuted because he supported Mir Hossein Mousavi, the most popular presidential candidate in the 2009 elections. Panahi was in the frontline of protests against manipulated election results. Together with his daughter he had attended a service for Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old protester slain on the street. Both father and daughter remain in the forefront of the ongoing Iranian protest movement.

In early 2010, Panahi was shooting a film with filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof in his Tehran apartment when the two men were arrested for making films without permission. Before being released from jail, Panahi mortgaged his home to pay about €200,000 as bail. He got into trouble with the Islamic State again, for sharing his experiences in Iran over the telephone with the world outside.

Despite intimidations, none can stop Panahi from making films because that is the only medium through which he can project all his hopes and dreams. In an open letter to Berlinale 2011,where he was invited as a member of the international jury, Panahi says that he will continue to make films "in his imagination". "The reality is they have deprived me of thinking and writing for 20 years, but they can't keep me from dreaming that in 20 years, inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free-thinking," writes Panahi from prison. An empty chair was kept at the Berlinale as a tribute to him.

Here is a man accused of unpatriotic acts but who was a soldier in the war with Iraq in the 1980s. His only crime is that he makes films. And that he joined and backed the pro-democracy protests.

Hallaj liked to write poetry. It is believed that Hallaj was condemned because he called himself god. By punishing Hallaj, who had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca three times, the ruling elite believed that it was defending the unmatched glory of god.

The fact is that the ruler of the time had run out of ideas of good governance. He passed his days in fear and his nights with virgins bought from poverty-stricken families at throwaway prices. He drowned himself in drink and music. This is a period marked by historians as the beginning of the end of the golden age of Abbasid rule.

After being the light of the universe for over two centuries, the sun was setting on the Abbasid dynasty and the ruler did not know how to prevent that from happening. The Greeks raided Persian lands regularly and nomadic hordes threatened the border with Constantinople. Pointing to the miserable existence of ordinary people, some conniving members of the clergy reminded the crowds after the Friday prayers at local mosques how little the caliph seemed to care for the wrath of god.

Indignities continued to be hurled at the crown. The king's own courtiers conspired against him. He was forced to abdicate. Then, again, he returned to the throne. There was no end to chaos, killings, looting, and lampooning those in power.

The treasury was drained and soldiers of Turkic and other foreign descent did not receive salaries. There was rebellion and restlessness. Before the anger of the people could get the better of him, the ruler decided to host a public spectacle that would 'entertain' as well as inspire 'awe'.

Who could be the best possible scapegoat? Why not terminate the 11 years Hallaj had already spent in prison and convert it to a crucification in the city square?

Why not, the heartless sycophants responded.

And so this is how it came to pass. The powers of the time were so starved of humanity that Hallaj's body was chopped up into pieces, burnt and the ashes scattered. The hope was that no sign of the rebellious mystic poet should remain.

Instead, the elements only helped to keep his memory alive in contrast to that of Hallaj's murderer, who was finally beheaded on his own doorstep a decade later in the year 932, and whose name I defy you to recall.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2011

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