From Zahak to plastic prostitutes of Tehran

Thousand year old struggle that shapes the history of Iranian people rather than Iranian leaders


From Zahak to plastic prostitutes of Tehran
by ramintork

Here is a quiz question: - If I were to ask you to identify one single style of narrative that has consistently existed in our Iranian Art and literature for several millennium what would you say it is?

OK, I’ll give you a clue, what do writers and Artists do under repression and censorship? The answer is they use allegory.

More consistently for the last 1400 years, these allegories are signs of how as a nation we have taken bends and twists to comply, shape or live with Islamic law or live under tyranny of kings, sheikhs, Sultans and Khans and say what we want to say.

It is my understanding that to really appreciate how we live today, we must understand our history of culture and seek its truth rather than swallow the bull that our oppressors have dished out.

If today the Art Mogul of our new age Charles Saatchi finds a fascination with our allegory and angry art, this art did not grow on trees. One could be forgiven for thinking that because in terms of style this art is very close to other conceptual arts that you may find in other modern Arts Gallery that it is the product of Western influence but there is a completely different evolutionary path that has resulted in this hidden lyrical narrative.

From Shahnameh to Shirin Neshat's 'women without men' or Shirin Fakhim's 'Tehran's prostitutes' we have turned from allegory that did not say it to your face to one that does.If we didn't write it we would import it, as was the case with 'kalila and Damna' (or its proper name 'Panchatantra'). 'kalila and Damna’ consists of many allegories about power, friendship, miscalculations and scams.

More consistently allegory is found in Sufi text. Sufism itself is our hidden religion/code of conduct to purify the spirit through altruism but embedded within the DNA of Islam.

Sufism was our forefather's reaction to Islam and their way of maintaining their culture under Arab rule. The fact that it has mutated, or bloomed into different forms, or has sometimes been turned to fundamentalist zeal is another story.

The tradition of allegorical tales is used to teach wisdom and an alternative spiritual philosophy. Here are some examples of allegory you may or may not recognize. Of course often we tend to treasure but not read these classics: - Ferdowsi's Shahnameh - The story of Zahak is an allegory for living under Islamic rule. After discontent we import Zahak to rule us thinking that he will be more just than the local kings. Sounds familiar?

Attar's the conference of Birds - The duck that washes its face with infinite ablution and obsessed with giving an illusion of purity. This symbolizes the ignorant followers of faith, or pretentious charlatans who have the pretence of purity but have a filthy heart.

Rumi's Masnavi e Manavi
- The merchant and the parrot - If you are kept captive for the one thing that your captor values then you should trick him into thinking it has been lost. Perhaps a strategy used during the revolution when the oil workers went on strike? 

Obeid e Zakani's Mouse and Cat - The pious cat that fools the mouse. They all thought that surely such a pious cat is different from others!Here is a summary with beautiful linocut illustrations: -

When we were turned to a slave nation, our intelligence was demonstrated in architecture and even the fluid style of Nastalique calligraphy. Working under the constrains of dogma such as ANICONISM (absence of Icons) we managed to get round it by conveying art in different guises so in miniature painting it was thought that as long as depiction of 3-dimential space is avoided and with absence of shadows the image does not claim to imitate reality and therefore complies with the prophet's condemnation of artists in trying to ape God's creation.

Last but not least we have Samad Behrangi's "The little Black fish" - An allegory for social justice.

The irony of this is that this resistance is always seen as the product and glory of the Islamic world!

So next time you go to a contemporary art gallery and you see one of these works be aware that it comes from a great tradition that includes a thousand year old struggle that shapes the history of Iranian people rather than Iranian leaders.


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To answer some of the questions:-

by ramintork on

Thank you for your generous comments. The truth is that I was beginning to wonder if within our IC community anyone still read or had an interest in such articles hence producing the abridged version of an article that deserved more bricks and mortar to be saved from a leaky roof.


At the very least I wanted to provide some useful links to an English reading Iranian audience who would benefit from being exposed to a treasure trove of works that they could find only a click away.


So here I am at the early hours of morning adding comments that may cause more mayhem or be half-baked but hopefully not!


First lets deal with the issue of age! I am not as young as this picture and although often when vanity creeps in, I feel humbled by someone, or something and think I was born yesterday; my shaving mirror has a mind of its own and has its own lines to read. So here are answers to some of the questions: -




“I wish you'd elaborated more on the last paragraph and made your connection to your introduction more explicit.” I’m sure that there are prominent scholars who know their subject in depth but at the risk of showing my ignorance I have summarized the messages that I have read.


This is perhaps a terrible generalization that I am about to do, it is like turning a multi volume dictionary to an A-Z but it may answer the question: -

What are the allegorical messages send by the authors through the ages?

The message that comes across from Shahnameh is “As Iranians we are valiant in our nature, we cherish our code of chivalry that maintains our active role in caring for the society. We value justice, when we don’t have it we seek it. When the people in our land are in danger we protect them, when our kings become tyrants we topple them. When we have trusted in aliens we have failed. We are human, and the best of us are vulnerable to weakness yet we endeavour to hold our higher values. The division that our weak leaders create causes many of our perils, we must be united and stay focused on our responsibility despite this. Our women have rights they choose their men as Rustam was chosen. I am writing this epic to remind everyone of what we are and what we have been turned into!”.


The message that comes from Sufi text of “The conference of birds” is :-

“To reach truth you must purify your soul. Be true to real love. Without bloating your ego serve the society, value justice, do not be afraid to look like a fool in order to do the right thing. Trust in the triumph of universal justice. When divided people fail. When the greater calling comes, forget about your personal doubts and serve the bigger purpose for the greater good. I am writing this as a set of instructions to teach and make you realize the alternative path to faith and social justice. There is an alternative way to mainstream faith, one for a worthy few who are big enough to see themselves as worthless.”

The message in our pre-revolution literature such as “The little black fish”: - “The world is a bigger place than this stagnant stream where we have stuck with our beliefs that hold us back. We must be brave and grow for our new age but care for society. We must not quarrel amongst ourselves and be divided. We must be valiant and put the benefits of the many before our individual interest.  We must stand-up to bullies, injustice and charlatans. I am writing this to mak you stand up beside me and ask for justice.”


The message that comes across from some of our conceptual art, first the feminist message: “Look at us, our women have become marginalized. In our black veils we have become like a congregation of crows, gathered like cattle, acting without individual will we have become dehumanized? In this society a woman without a men is considered lost. We are treated as sex objects. We seek justice as we do not have this On our heads we wear veils and carry guns but etched on our fibre is the old poetry of women like us.

Then some others: Our proper state holds integrity. We are traditional, colourful and with immense energy we sleep, seeking an awakening that brings back our valour we wait. We want our respect and self dignity back”.


So although the extracts are different, the  messages are similar.


Ari Siletz


Allegory that didn’t say it to your face to one that did.


The type of allegory that was not subtle enough usually did not survive the greater establishment so most of the ones that have survived have camouflaged themselves in tone of the mainstream faith or cultural directives.


The ones we see in contemporary art are more open in their social criticism, they almost shout. I am guessing that in the age of AhamadiNejad they haven't caught on to this.

The messages are what you would find from a people living with injustice and oppression.


Here is the link to Ganjoor where you can find persian poetry written in persian rather than English. Mohammad Ala blogged the link back in March 2008 so we have him to Thank for introducing it:-




Young & Wise

by Reesh Dar Asiab (not verified) on

Ramintork, is this your high school picture or are you realy this young? Because if that's true, you are wise beyond you age. Proud to call myself your HAMVATAN. I enjoyed reading your article. Didactic or not I have learned from it and made me think deeper about the subject. Thanks!



by Mehrban (not verified) on

Thank you so much for reminding me again of Samad Behrangi, that Mahi siah kochooloo who vanished one night in the river even though he spoke in allegories.

I am proud of you to remember.


Any links to Mathnavi in Farsi?

by mrlayl on


Thanks a lot for starting an intelegent discourse. Double thanks for the link to Mathnavi in English. I'll be triple thankfull, if anybody knows a site for Mathnavi in Farsi.


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Your convergent evolution theory regarding Iranian art reaching the same point via a different route is intriguing. Please expand on the following:  "we have turned from allegory that did not say it to your face to one that does."

What is an allegory that says it to your face? More clearly, what characteristics of traditional allegory do you see in new Iranian non-allegorical art?


Excellent work. Finally,

by teapot (not verified) on

Excellent work. Finally, something original on IC.

I wish you'd elaborated more on the last paragraph and made your connection to your introduction more explicit. It's outstanding that our youth are finally thinking outside the box. Look forward to more of your writings.


Dear ganselmi

by ramintork on

Thanks for your criticism. I shall improve my tone in future articles.



Masnavi Manavi

by ramintork on

I noticed that the link to Masnavi Manavi was broken, so here is a link that works:-







by Anonymous192 (not verified) on

di⋅dac⋅tic   /daɪˈdæktɪk/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [dahy-dak-tik] Show IPA Pronunciation

1. intended for instruction; instructive: didactic poetry.
2. inclined to teach or lecture others too much: a boring, didactic speaker.
3. teaching or intending to teach a moral lesson.
4. didactics, (used with a singular verb) the art or science of teaching.



by mollahnasredin (not verified) on

He or she means that ramintork sounds like he's trying to teach us something or enlighten us in a condescending way.



by Fatollah (not verified) on

What does it mean? didactic?



by ganselmi on

I like your message ramin tork, but damn you sound didactic.