Dirty Little Secrets Of The Caspian

A streak of black for depression, blue for nostalgic memories of home, red for love, I put above all else, yellow for the hatred of injustice, green for the life I chose to not end, white for the peace I desperately seek. Here is a portrait painted with words.

It was time. After much encouragement and practice with my beloved husband Payam, I finally picked up the phone. I drew a deep breath to steady myself and dialed the number to my girlhood best friend in Iran.

One beep, two beeps, three beeps, four beeps…

“Why is she not answering?!”

Both relieved and annoyed, I knew that calling anywhere in the Middle East usually took a few attempts before one finally got through.

I tried again.

After two beeps, she picked up. “Hello.”

I was speechless.

“Hello? Hello?” My friend Delara’s familiar cracked voice came from my iPhone speaker.

I sat on the cold floor of our studio flat in London, gazing out through the window onto the wooden fence.

Frozen, heart racing, unable to speak.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes… Hi… It’s me… Raha.”

After twenty-three years, I was finally speaking to my childhood best friend, whom I had tried so hard to wipe from my memory.

After the initial shock and an avalanche of emotions, we were able to catch up.

She asked me how things were, and I told her that I was going to therapy, but I didn’t say what for. I told her that I was also taking a short biography writing course.

Payam helped me with the translation a few times; my Farsi had grown rusty without use. When I told her the name of the course in Farsi, she couldn’t believe it.

“Do you remember trying to convince me to write our life stories just before you left Iran? You even started yours in a notebook. I still have it.”

“What notebook?”

“The wounded birds…don’t you remember?”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

She continued, “You had written poems in the beginning of the notebook. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the shrieks in the silence of the mountains’… Remember now?”

As soon as she said that, I remembered the notebook and the poems… and the consuming pain I was trying to exorcise out by writing.

“I don’t know why I haven’t called for twenty-three years.”

It was a lie. I knew exactly why I had not called her; I just couldn’t tell her the truth because I was afraid of the impact it would have on her.

After what felt like a long pause, she said, “I feel the same way. I think I just wanted to hold on to the good memories. For some reason that I haven’t worked out yet, I think I was afraid of what would happen if we spoke. It was just too difficult. Maybe, because when you left for Pakistan everything happened so quickly and we didn’t even say goodbye properly. I heard through the grapevine that after Pakistan you were in Australia, and now married that famous guy everyone is obsessed with and moved to London. Is that true? How did you even meet him?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” I said.

“You know, I left our tiny old town too, left university, got married, had a baby and moved to North of Iran, near the Caspian Sea.” she said.

Every time I think about ‘The Caspian Sea,’ a breaking wave of anxiety sweeps me off my feet into panic. But this time, I gasped for air in an attempt to keep my anxiety in check.

I asked if she had moved north into her grandparents’ house, which also happened to be one of my father’s hideouts from the authorities, and where our families had spent one summer together just before I was smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan.

“Yes, for a while, but recently we moved a few houses down the road from them, not long after this beautiful boy was born,” she said in a peaceful voice, “I’m actually looking out onto our garden as I am speaking to you.”

“Wait… so does that mean you still see your grandparents and… umm… and your uncle?” I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say his name.

“Yes, they are all here – at my grandparents’ same old house.” she said.

My heart stopped. That house was where her uncle sexually abused us both, when we were nine—twenty-three years ago.

“Can you tell from my voice that I am freezing here in London?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I just couldn’t bring it up.

I promised to call her again. It has been one year, one month and a few days since that day.

To be continued…

By Tellurian Writes

www.tellurianwrites.com
@tellurianwrites

Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)

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Maps without borders: Stories of civic science in action

This storytelling exhibition at University College London showcases powerful aerial maps created by citizens using kites, balloons, and point-and-shoot cameras. They explore how people around the world are harnessing the power of Do-It-Yourself techniques to address local environmental, social and political matters.

Sitting around a proverbial campfire, they will tell four stories of unsung heroes in the U.S. and the Middle East, who have crafted tools and gathered evidence that has reconfigured the perception of space, place, and issues that shape their lives.

For more information…

The Celebrity Interview: History, Aesthetics, Method

Writing in a late 1870s ‘confession album’, a young Oscar Wilde answered the question ‘What is your aim in life?’ with a characteristically cocky ‘Success, fame or even notoriety’. Intriguingly, the term ‘confession album’ points towards the darker, more menacing undercurrents of a format often dismissed as idle celebrity gossip, and there is a ring of eerie foresight in Wilde’s youthful bragging. Almost twenty years later, Wilde was tried for ‘gross indecency’ and found himself subjected to gruelling cross-examination, during which he gave a brilliant performance of rhetorical bravado, but during which he also passed, as he observed in De Profundis, ‘from a sort of eternity of fame to a sort of eternity of infamy’.

The most recent event in OCLW’s ‘Life-Writing and Celebrity’ series cast a spotlight on the history, aesthetics, ethics and methodology of the celebrity interview as a form uneasily positioned between the public and the private, art and commerce, individual agency and appropriation. Its complexity is rooted in its paradoxical double nature: promising intimacy, privacy and access, it is yet firmly embedded within the public sphere; successfully creating an illusion of authenticity, it is yet blatantly staged and orchestrated, a key site for self-fashioning and performance, subject to editorial conventions and the constraints of the medium – print, television, radio; live or recorded. As a metaphorical dialogue between revelation and concealment, the interview format therefore lends itself to a fruitful interrogation of the forces at play in the production and consumption of celebrity.

Drawing on her foundational research on the genre of the literary interview, Becky Roach (King’s College London) in her talk outlined some of the basic premises underlying a ‘theory of the interview’. The interview is fundamentally concerned with the transfer of specialised knowledge, but, at the same time, points towards the insufficiencies and pitfalls of mediation. Catering to our desire for imminence in an age of mass communication, it offers a platform for deception, ghosting, false portraits and variably serves as a vehicle of rambling chatter and communicative clarity. Moreover, the audience was reminded that the interview promotes two versions of subjectivity: the highly constructed personal identity of the interviewee, promising an accurate portrait of psychological depth and interiority, and the frequently de-emphasised personhood of the interviewer. Even though the interview is generally considered an autobiographical life-writing genre, its authorship is shared, raising questions of attribution and ownership. The role of the interviewer often uncomfortably hovers between self-effacing listener and highly visible co-protagonist on a spectrum that ranges from observation to dialogic participation and and can even take on the form of coercing the narrative of the interviewee.

Providing intriguing insights into the form of the ‘staged last interview’ by renowned public intellectuals and writers, Anneleen Masschelein (University of Leuven) highlighted the ethical dimensions of the celebrity interview. She began by outlining the historical and socio-cultural contexts of what German art historian Peter Geimer calls the ‘Dramaturgy of the Last’: the memorial function of the death-bed conversation and the ars moriendi tradition. Masschelein’s case study focused on the legendary last interview given by dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter, broadcast by Channel 4 in 1994. Seemingly unedited and unmediated, it features a chain-smoking and champagne-drinking Potter, who frequently interrupts the interview to take a sip from his flask containing liquid morphine. What uncomfortably strikes the viewer as turning death into a spectacle feeding audience voyeurism is in fact a minutely choreographed performance that serves a concrete agenda – in Potter’s case, to self-reflexively engage with his authorship status, secure his legacy and ‘go out with a fitting memorial’. The staged last interview, Masschelein suggested, is symptomatic of a new ‘death style’ that emerges in the late 20th century as a response to the biopolitics of life-style and the possibilities of staging and performing our deaths just like our lives.

The two talks on the history, aesthetics and ethics of interviewing were meant to be followed by a practical demonstration of the art and method of interviewing by Hermione Lee and Mark Lawson, two ‘celebrity interviewers’ par excellence. With train security alerts and unreliable Skype connections preventing both Mark Lawson’s physical and virtual appearances, the planned meta-interview turned into a master-class of how to deal with the unpredictability of interview situations with professionalism and aplomb. Hermione Lee thus shared with the audience her rich experience as seasoned interviewer and interviewee in her multiple roles as academic, biographer and broadcaster. She emphasised the interviewer’s need to remain flexible and readiness to abandon their tactics and agenda in order to respond to the interviewee’s moves and potential refusal to play along: “Sometimes you need to throw away your notes, you need to go with the flow.” She impressively drew attention to the power games between the interviewer and the interviewee that can make the interview situation go off kilter and the importance of silences, encouraging interviewers to resist the temptation to fill in those pauses, excruciating as they may be.

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The evening was an apt reminder of the need to pay more critical and scholarly attention to a format that can hardly be dismissed as a mere self-marketing tool or vehicle for spreading trivial celebrity gossip. Participating in different types of discourse and serving a whole range of different purposes, from market research to psychotherapy, it is impossible to ignore its ubiquity in contemporary society and its importance as a platform for articulating public and private identities.

On 6 June there will be a second chance to experience Mark Lawson, one of Britain’s leading arts journalists and broadcasters, in conversation with Hermione Lee about the pitfalls and opportunities of the celebrity interview.

Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.

Photo by Samuel Zeller (CC0 1.0)