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Iran Before Islam: Challenging Stereotypes Through Art

Tue, Apr 10, 2012

Multimedia, Press, Videos

Photo Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Atlantic/By Jennie Rothenberg Gritz & Massoud Hayoun

A Smithsonian exhibition of ancient Iranian objects offers a different perspective on the country than Westerners normally see.

Americans are bombarded with media coverage of the three-decade-old Islamic Republic and its nuclear aspirations. But there’s more to Iran than Ahmdainejad, as can be seen in the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries’ new project, Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, a new exhibition of pre-Islamic Iranian artifacts.

The Atlantic invited a panel of Iranian-American leaders to discuss the exhibit. Taking part in the dialogue are Azar Nafisi, the much-acclaimed Iranian-American author of long-standing New York Times bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran; Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic Art Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; and Mahnaz Afkhami.

Pre-Islamic Iranian history is believed to range from about 4000 BC to 651 AD. The roughly 40 pieces of luxury metalwork at the exhibit, many of which were used in elaborate religious ceremonies and bacchanalian banquets, offer glimpses into Iranian existence between 550 BC and the Islamic conquest of the region over a millennium later.

As they discussed the art objects, the panelists observed that media coverage of Iran can be at times short-sighted and superficial, reducing a 6,000-year-old history to three tumultuous decades and lumping the nation together with the rest of the Muslim world.

Nafisi, who recently spoke to The Atlantic about the Oscar-nominated Iranian film A Separation, points out that great works of art transcend the tumult of politics and power. She observes that Iranian youth have long used American art and literature as a window into the Western world and laments that Americans too rarely return the favor:

Over here the way people connect to Iran is not through the aspect of Iran that is enduring. Iranian people paid a great deal of respect to the rest of the world and to America, especially, by connecting to America, not through its presidents or its politics, but through its “golden ambassadors” — the Marx Brothers, Saul Bellow, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Hopper. The least any people can ask of the other is to respect them through trying to understand them.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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