Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Mirhady Lecture 2024: The Existence, Purpose, and Metaphor of Prisons in Iran and Around the World

A Slide of Golnar Nikpour's Book Cover
After a four-year hiatus, which was not out of choice, the Mirhady Lecture with its focus on Iranian studies was finally back on the map again last week. The previous one was on March 1, 2020, which was a handful of days before Covid 19 officially became a pandemic and when subsequent safety measures and restrictions came into effect worldwide. It is interesting to note that this year’s chosen theme and focus was on prisons as we have had globally - due to the pandemic -first-hand experience of being locked in and isolated from each other for a substantial amount of time.

It is also a moment to reflect upon the history and practices of incarceration, which despite the narrow focus on modern Iran in this lecture has much wider, global, historical, social, and political repercussions, which were partly addressed and which I shall add to and expand upon at end of this post.

The invited speaker was Dr. Golnar Nikpour and her recently published first book The Incarcerated Modern Prisons and Public Life in Iran published by Stanford University Press. As a historian, she defined “modern” in this context as starting from the 18th century to the present, which were partitioned into three separate breaking points: the Qajar period, the Pahlavi reign from 1925 to 1979, and then, the subsequent Islamic state right after the ‘79 revolution in Iran up to the current day.

Interestingly, forced confinement was rare during most of the Qajar period. There were cases and occasions of corporal punishment on display, such as the public whipping of the soles of the feet but there was no systematic punishment via incarceration. In fact, there were no prisons to speak of at the time; they existed only in a makeshift form and fashion to keep and house criminals for a certain amount of time.

Nonetheless, this was about to change starting from 1910 due to growing lawlessness in the region. There was a decisive shift with a more systematic approach as uniforms were introduced in the 1910s and 20s and the concept and institution of the modern prison system starting to catch on and take hold.

This was what Golnar called the “public life of the prison” during which Iranians had to learn how to adjust and navigate around not getting arrested alongside ideas of good citizenship as opposed to more clear-cut criminal acts and behaviors of previous times. A new awareness of one’s own duties toward others and the nation began taking shape in the consciousness of its people with the introduction of the added punishment of being isolated and locked away from others and losing one’s liberty and freedom of movement due to transgressing and breaking the established codes, rules, and laws.

This was expanded upon by the Pahlavi period and different reasons and motivations were added to the fray. The immediate repercussion was that inmates increased from mere dozens to tens of thousands during that reign. Ironically, the post-revolutionary Islamic period, which had criticized the previous administration on its restrictive and inhumane prison system, rose and expanded to a quarter million, if not more, inmates.

The emergence of the modern prison system had various consequences on daily life. To begin with, despite the appearance and promises, justice was not necessarily enforced in a uniform and fair and balanced way. As there was not enough independent democratic oversight, it led to corruption and abuses, and not just an increase in corporal punishment but also the implementation of torture and forced confessions.

This changed the whole dynamic regarding power, citizenship, and incarceration. It also had effects on the psyche of its people around notions of freedom and unfreedom, the finer details and print between lawfulness and lawlessness as well as the distinction between what constituted good citizenship versus a more simplistic view of being a bad criminal.

Image of speaker with a slide of Iranian queen

That said, the purported intentions were not merely to punish but rather to reform and even train the ones who had allegedly swayed from the “good path.” While prisons were previously seen and referred to as places of council, during the Pahlavi period, it had a more therapeutic outlook, namely, to cure if not purify people from their criminal tendencies and to turn them into good citizens. Imprisonment was not presented as a punitive measure, but the inmate was treated as a patient and the prison was thought to provide the necessary albeit mandatory and enforced cure.

Yet, politics was always going to play a role and so there were political prisoners as opposed to ordinary or more common ones, i.e. those who had engaged in infractions ranging from minor to more serious crimes. Yet, political prisoners would always be a sticky point especially in less democratically inclined nations, where these inmates would be presented, represented, and framed as a national security threat or a danger to the public.

The lines would not be as clearly defined. Incidentally, many political dissenters ended up not only meeting each other in these confined spaces but they also created networks and learned from each other. In fact, Bozorg Alavi, a communist sympathizer, explained how “in prison, one read in earnest” and due to less distractions of daily life, preoccupations, or entertainment, their focus was more on learning and by extension to further their respective causes.

Alavi touted his educational achievements because it was thanks to prisons that he had learned Russian and English, which were most useful and helpful for his political aims and aspirations. Moreover, it was not uncommon to write and even publish clandestinely in prison and to even create political parties in confined and concentrated places like those.

Ironically, (note that history as well as politics tend to be filled with it), the prison system became the rallying cry of the revolution itself and many of them had had first-hand experience of being imprisoned. That did not, however, stop the new administration from creating an elaborate, even more restrictive, and punitive system themselves. Even so, the Islamic government may not have defined prisons as therapeutic, yet they considered them to be “virtue training schools,” where inmates were supposedly taught necessary life and vocational skills in addition to morality and Islamic values.

This is not too far off from the modern political system on a global scale. Even the term penitentiary involves a certain aspect of penitence, of having the criminal repent their sins and wrongdoing and upon release to be cured or reformed from doing evil. This is the blueprint or foundational structure of the prison system because it tends to see itself as a place of reform and rehabilitation. In some cases, therapy is an added element in addition to the establishment, support, and maintenance of law and order both within and outside of the prison walls.

It is something that both pre- and postrevolutionary periods have in common. The difference would lie in its focus, whereas the previous would be more secular, the other would be decidedly Islamic in nature and outlook. Nonetheless, the other aims of the modern prison system exist equally in various parts of the world, that is, to make society safer by incarcerating dangerous repeat offenders and keeping them off the streets for the benefit of the populace and society.

This becomes arbitrary when there is a lack of independent and institutional oversight with a less clearly defined and designated judiciary system. There is also both an overlap as well as a distinction between the role and purpose of prisons and mental asylums or psychiatric facilities. Yet, sick people, whether in the confines of a prison system or any other type of facility, ought to be treated humanely before there could be any talk of a potential cure.

Also, the prison system should not purposely aim to lock up troubled, troublesome, or troublemaking populations. Whether it is a social or political matter or a case of addiction and substance abuse, there need to be appropriate and distinct categories and measures applied to each case and situation.

In the current example of Iran, not only has the prison population exploded for a wide range of alleged misdemeanors and crimes but there is also more surveillance of its people. Ankle monitors are other forms of punishment and restrictions of movement that are being practiced and this includes people that are not officially counted as part of the prison system as they are not kept or housed within its compounds and premises.

There is, moreover, the use of biometric technology as well as traffic and police cameras to enforce rules established and enforced by the morality police for what are generally not considered offenses in other parts of the world. Technology has become part of a system that can in different ways lead to other types of control and punishment, which are not necessarily physical in nature.

The lecture by Golnar was quite insightful and thought-provoking as you can attest for yourself and as exemplified in the summary here. I found it most interesting that she kept referring to her book as a “book project” even though it has been already published. But I would like to take the opportunity to add some more thoughts to this topic of discussion and not just look at prisons as premises or means of enforcing and propagating ideas and ideology but also see it as a metaphor for our current socially and politically volatile times.

Prisons are not just social in nature but also in our imagination. Although Golnar briefly referred to it, her point of view was more about being controlled by others or government and elite forces, often perceived, designated, and judged as evil, malignant, and nefarious entities with a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda.

Yet there is a blind spot. By firmly believing and standing by her own point of view and interpretation of events and circumstances, she may be missing and overlooking important clues and opportunities. It is of course a tendency that people not only want to be right but to convince others that this is indeed so. It is not just her specifically I am referring to but also a wider culture around her that supports, encourages, and applauds her ideology, such as the institution of Simon Fraser itself.

Over the years, I have been to dozens of talks and lectures, and they claim and tout themselves in offering open dialogue as well as diversity. Yet with one notable albeit unintended yet utterly hilarious exception (I’d be glad to provide more details on this “colonial oversight” in the comment section should there be any interest), every single talk and lecture has been minor variations of a common theme and refrain. There is no element of surprise and no insight that does not perfectly if not artificially align with the established doctrine.

Those are taken as true undisputable and untouchable facts with no pause for reflection or allowance for any other points of views or observations that even slightly diverge from this “absolute truth.” This is hardly a case of open dialogue because it lacks and even prohibits a priori any type of openness or discussions.

Although there can be moments of insight and the furthering of education and knowledge, this is all framed within such an obvious and narrow agenda in mind that it can become rather counterproductive. An educational system ought to teach us how to think, not what to think, and sadly, our minds are not only being taken hostage here, but they are imprisoned as well as force fed, not unlike the system they tend to point fingers at.

Finally, prisons are not just places where movements are restricted, but the exact opposite can be the case where the place itself is off limits, so you are not able to go or move there at the peril of your own freedom and life while at the same time being away from it is a form of prison and punishment as it causes tremendous pain and suffering.

In the context of Iran, this applies to those who have sought political asylum abroad and may not be able to return to their homeland at risk of being punished, imprisoned, or worse. My father was one of those people who had deserted his homeland, sacrificing everything in the process, his home, his job and career, his family, and friends to save those who mattered most to him, us, his children.

Although we lived in different parts of the world, I do not think that he ever was at home or felt accepted. In Germany, that was certainly not the case, as we were unfortunately designated and branded as Ausländer (foreigners) despite living there for more than a decade and even if, as in my case, I did not have an accent, it was our looks that gave away that we did not belong.

In my own case, not having a home has been its own joy and cross. On one hand, it means that I am home wherever I feel at home and wherever my heart may be at a given moment, yet it also means that I have no specific home to speak of, no place to rest my weary head or be fully seen and accepted as who I am.

In ancient Greece, Socrates was first imprisoned but then he was given a choice, to either leave his home and live in exile or drink a cup of hemlock. He chose the bitter cup of poison because he could not imagine being away from his native home and country. He would rather die in a place where he was not free than be free in a place that was not his home.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Creating Space Within and Giving Yourself Room to Grow and Explore

Art Installation of colored glowing Walls
As children, it is often of paramount importance to us to have our very own room. Although for economic reasons, we often must accept shared accommodation with siblings, and in times of poverty or exorbitant and uncontrollable inflation, you may all find yourself in the same room, or if the situation is even dire, you may not have shelter to speak of, let alone your own space. Notwithstanding, it becomes clear that for each of us, it is important to have our own personal private and un-intruded space.

This is part and parcel of and even a visible and tangible sign of independence, yet at the same time, it also comes to represent the place where we can be truly and fully be ourselves. If we have liberal-minded and permissive parents, we may even have a say in how we wish to decorate it. Moreover, in the comfort of this space, we can engage in activities that we enjoy, that resonate with our inner core and that give us pleasure.

As life progresses, many of us lose that access or at least certain aspects to that sort of privacy. In our college days, we may have a roommate or types of shared accommodation where we can be ourselves and feel perfectly at home, but it may come with certain limitations. Later, when we are living with our partner, that space is lost physically, yet we may maintain it in our minds by spending time away from home, either with friends or on our own. It then becomes a figurative or invisible space where we can be completely who we are without any pretense or excuses.

Incidentally, I am currently writing this not from my home but from a café. The idea, or rather the reason I tell myself, is to be less distracted but that is not always the case and that is not the main reason I choose to do so. It is rather looking for a different kind of space where regular distractions are warded off against and where I can experience different facets of myself. Add to that, the unexpected where I could potentially run into someone or meet someone new, which, however, rarely happens not necessarily due to a lack of people but because of my own timidity.

Oddly enough, I find that ideas in this “other space” tend to flow more freely, which may not be too surprising as there are various others who appear to tap into the same vibes and frequencies or thought patterns. As a university student, I would indeed often “escape” my room, which was tiny, but it was purely my own living space as part of the residential college I was at, and I would go to nearby beaches, including a nudist one, to do many of my assigned readings. Reading outdoors is just more fun, whenever the weather cooperates of course, and the surroundings are not too distracting.

As you can probably tell by now, the room I am talking about here is as much mental as it is physical, if not more so. We all need a room of our own was a song by Billy Joel and it is also a previous blogpost of mine based on and inspired by a podcast I did with creativity coach Eric Maisel. His view was to redecorate and redesign our mind and mental space and give it the renovations, uplifts and upgrades that we wished to have.

The concept is very interesting, and I would like to add to it here. It is not so much the way the room looks, whether your curtains are grey, blue, or multi-colored but how big or small it is. Size does matter. We often take up a more unassuming space not only in reality but also within our mind and spirit. In the real world, it is often due to financial pressures or limitations, and it is no secret that the increased square miles come at a rather significant cost.

Nonetheless, we take on the same mentality and apply it to our psychological space. It may be due to modesty, humility, lack of confidence, or fear of being seen as pretentious, arrogant and ungrateful, or simply because we think we do not deserve the extra space and have to accept and deal and content with what we got and what we get in life as the Rolling Stones remind us that we can’t always get what we want in life.

But those are limitations that we are setting ourselves and sometimes even imposing upon each of us. I agree with setting boundaries to protect ourselves, whether it is physical or in terms of effort, time, and energy invested but I disagree with these types of artificial barriers that we may unconsciously fence ourselves in and with. It is not only about what our room looks, like Eric Maisel explains in his book and on my podcast quite eloquently and creatively, but also how much space we give and allow ourselves. And in our imagination, should the sky not be our upper and topper most limit?

I am saying this at a moment in my life where I find that I have been selling myself short. It comes with the fact that I feel I have come up short and that I have been generally underappreciated, which at the time I assumed was only my imagination until I realized that it was not. It had its roots and anchors in facts and reality. Yet, in all fairness, I have not been doing myself any favors with my own false sense of modesty. This is the type of modesty that lacks true understanding of the facts and actual situation and circumstances. It is false because consciously or unconsciously, it denies and even diminishes if not denigrates our own skills, talents, and abilities.

Put differently, I need to expand my (mental) room because it does not allow for my essence and talents to exist fully. I do not have to continue living in my shabby self-imposed apartment because it is not where I currently belong. Perhaps it is time to move out or move up or even move altogether to a new mental space.

Psychologically speaking, this small room has been difficult because I have been limited myself in many ways. This is what Dr. Carla Marie Manly would designate our jail cell, the place that may be our so-called comfort zone but where we are willingly staying and lodging because we have shut the door with locks and all and barely dare to look out the window.

On one hand, this limited space restricts movement. If your inner space does not have much “legroom”, you will find it hard to go to places. You are not free but often restrained and constrained. You are also filled with negative expectations that seriously hamper your outlook and chances. Anything that is beyond the room you are occupying is not seen as an invitation or a welcome challenge but quickly brushed off as simply not for me.

In our cocoon, we live in an artificially set comfort zone, which is not comforting in the sense of its culinary cousin comfort food, which, although often not the healthiest option out there, fills us up with warmth, pleasant sensations, and pleasing memories. Here, we just remain entrenched in our “home” and filled with fear. The small black-and-white television gives us comfort although we are aware that there are more modern and much better options and variations out there.

Additionally, to grow, we need the room to do so first. Like a potted plant, that needs a bigger pot, so we need an area to expand more freely. That means, we need to tweak our views, perspectives, and expectations. We also need to take a good look at our fear and insecurities, which often turn out to be defense mechanisms based on previous situations that are simply outdated and no more valid. But we hold onto it like our tiny black-and-white TV set in front of us in our shabby apartment space.

We need not only a room of our own but room to grow. And to get there, we need room for error. It is a misnomer that we can get it right just right off the bat. No one can really do that because it is not realistic or feasible. You cannot expect to play Beethoven without taking piano lessons and without those hours and hours of endless practice and millions and millions of fumbles and mistakes along the way. I do not think that practice necessarily makes perfect, but it certainly helps us to tackle things much better. Yet, all this involves both effort as well as the willingness to make errors and be ready and willing to occasionally or often fail as we do so.

Give yourself room for errors and failure. They are not the end of the world but as vital and necessary for your growth as learning scales on the piano. It may not always be fun but if you have your eyes and heart set on a bigger living space, then you must accept this as a part of necessity. Incidentally, once you give yourself the much-needed extra space, you will also give others more room in your mind. They also need space, but it is hard for you to see that when you yourself can barely move.

Finally, you must be willing to accept change and to welcome it into your life. This is a hard thing to do because we get used to and entrenched to certain things and places. We get accustomed to our room as it is the place we know, and we have lived in for a long time.

Moreover, the job that we have may be far from perfect but it is the devil we know. It is better than nothing, we tell or try to convince ourselves. The person we are with we assume to be the best possible option because no one will love us more or better out there. It sure beats being alone and lonely, we tell ourselves. The country we live in, whether it is our home or the home of our choice is simply where we belong, for better or for worse.

Certainly, all or any of this may be true, no doubt. This cannot be judged here without additional details and some scrutiny as well as complete honesty and after serious, intense, and intimate introspection and reflection. Yet, there may be a change in the offing or at the very least some room for improvement in your living space, be it physical or mental, in your relationship or at your place of work.

But if we are blind to it, if we do not see it or choose not to perceive it, it does not mean it is not there. The best way is to expand our room, to not only look out of the window but step out, and then take a second look and find out for ourselves. We may be surprised that we have been living in an unnecessarily confined place but no more starting from now on.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Ode to Supporting Actors And Actresses That Do Not Win

Ken from Barbie with shades on
The film industry’s award season tends to come to an annual end with the culmination of the popular, prestigious, and much-coveted Academy Awards. Although each award and film festival are precious and valuable on their own, combined they give weight and momentum to several selected individuals who then become the frontrunners at the Oscars.

There is a building and budding narrative that gradually takes shape and form over this period, and we often see certain trends emerge where a handful of specific movies, actors, actresses, filmmakers, etc. are favored throughout. For better or worse, all of this then culminates in the Oscars, the playoffs of all things movies and filmmaking.

Yet, more often than not (the occasional upset, snub, or surprise notwithstanding), we have an inkling or two of who or what movies are most likely going to win in their respective categories. It is not always set in stone, but the element of surprise may have less of an impact once we get to the award ceremony. That said, things become more interesting when there is a close competition or run-off, usually between two opponents that are just too close to call.

Although it may be a more muddled affair regarding Best Pictures (we even had a mix-up in which everyone had easily accepted La La Land as the year’s recipient when it in fact it had not won), it usually becomes more or less clear who the frontrunners especially when it comes to the acting category. This year, the leading actor with a realistic and probable shot was pretty clearly outlined, that is Oppenheimer’s proud Irish boy Cillian of course although Paul Giamatti had a good run and made a strong push by gaining some admirable momentum towards the end.

The Actress in a Leading Role category was an altogether different matter, however. It was a close and virtual tie between two powerful performances (sadly at the time of writing, I have not seen either movie so I cannot weigh in or make any credible or valid judgments on the matter) and up to the very end, it could have gone either way. At any rate, both deserved to win but only one had to be chosen.

Yet what about the other nominated actresses? Essentially, there was no chance for them to win. They started off the award season with high hopes and the potential to win, but they would have to be content with just being nominated. I mean, of course, it is an honor and accomplishment to be there (so many in the acting profession would envy them) but think of it how it must feel to put on your best outfits knowing fully well that you had absolutely no chance of winning.

This is not a matter of performance. The performance has already been done and it is finished now and all they can do is watch and hope for a miracle. Miracles do happen but this is one of the cases where there is very little one can personally do to make it happen or to bring it about. Unlike athletic events, you could have an exceptionally great day and pull off an upset, or the favorites may just have a bad and unlucky day, yet in this case, your fate is in the hands or fingers of voting members.

Many of these nominated actors and actresses know that they have almost no chance of winning and so they go to network and socialize and have fun. A funny incident in the television award season was Pedro Pascal who had given up hope and decided to get drunk only being shocked that he actually won! Yet, for the most part and for most actors and actresses, having a good time is what it is all about.

Yet, I am curious about what it feels like to go to each of the award seasons and not to win a trophy each and every time. Is that not discouraging or having a negative effect on one’s mental health? To say to yourself, here we go again, and we will yet again not win another award? Would one at times not prefer to be watching afar instead of facing cameras and subsequent social media scrutinizing each nonverbal gesture and response to the often expected announcement?

Although generally those in the acting profession tend to show up and they should be good at bottling or hiding emotions like anger, disappointment, frustration, all courtesy of their career, there have been occasional glaring absences, which may be due to involvement in other projects or simply because they do not wish to be there and go through the motions. Yet, here we go again, I am making pronouncements on things I will never experience myself and hence know next to nothing about. And yet, it is curiosity that makes me think and wonder about such things.

I do not have a solution or suggestion here. Except to ensure that those who are not on the winning side ensure that they do not carry negative feelings but instead focus on the positive aspects and experiences. To boycott those events when you know you cannot win would send decisively negative vibes to the entire award season and the film industry itself so showing up on the red carpet smiling and going through the motions despite knowing that there is little to no chance of winning still seems to be the best option out there.

But this is my ode here to support all the actors that do not win and including those who never get nominated. Some of the greatest actors and filmmakers have not won awards and it does not make them any less great. Quite to the contrary. They are who they are, and they (hopefully) know this deep inside.

Then, there are those who should not have quit their day jobs, but they did anyway. They may not be particularly good at acting or filmmaking for that matter, but they have a passion and a dream, and I would be the last person to step on those wishes and desires. You do what you do and if you are fortunate, you will be doing what you love. If awards and recognition come to you, it feels great but that should not be the end goal. The end goal is to do what gives you joy and if it happens to bring joy to others as well, it is definitely a win-win situation.

Maybe we can learn from Ryan Gosling who in my view had the best performance of them all. But like his character Ken, he is a ten, but he does not get what or who he wants. At times, life is such. No matter how hard we try or how much we desire something or someone, we are left wanting.

It is like waiting for a call or calling that just won’t come or materialize.  And yet, the best (and really only) thing one can do for sure is to give an awesome, inspired, fun, and memorable show (Gosling’s showstopping performance anyone?) and not take any of this too seriously. I mean, after all, it is just an awards program and there are other things to life than winning or not winning an award.