August 14, 2006

Self-Portrait in an Enclosed Space- (Stereotype)

“Each age and society re-creates its “Others.”

The Edward Said quote above is from his seminal book Orientalism. While the book itself is a dense, sometimes difficult book to read, the message can be summed up in the following passage:

…”the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority, (Throughout the book the Middle Easterner is called the Oriental) then we must be prepared to note how in its development and subsequent history Orientalism deepened and even hardened the distinction.”

In short, Said argues that because of a colonial history dating back to The Crusades, the West has always viewed the East as inferior and that these stereotypes are the roots of the underlining racism that feed the War on Terror and Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Throughout the Self-Portrait challenge process, I have wanted my portraits to be more artistic than political, but sometimes the line is difficult to draw. I guess the best way to wrestle art away from politics to make it personal. So here is my story and my portrait. Keeping with the theme of enclosed spaces. I have chosen the enclosed space of living in the Middle Eastern Stereotype thrust upon the Middle Eastern world by the West.

I was born in Iran in 1974, a relatively calm period in my nation’s turbulent history. Most people, American in particular, are not familiar with the fact that Iran is one of the only Middle Eastern nations that is not made up of Arabs. We speak our own language, Farsi, and while we share similar culture traits, we have a culture separate from that of our Arab neighbors.

But the War on Terror does not make these distinctions, and so neither will I for this piece. I will stand in solidarity with my Arab brothers and sisters, since I am persecuted in the same manner for being an Oriental. We, Iranians and Arabs a like, have been vilified for years. I cannot remember ever seeing a film that shows a rational, calm Middle Eastern man, or an independent woman, in the last twenty years.

Said goes on to say, “on the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other are Arab-Orientals; the former are rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.”

Our women are subservient, sheltered victims needing liberation from the West, while our men are angry, scowling demons hell bent on destroying Western civilization. The term terror has become synonymous with Arab. On the TV we are always seen in large crowds, often chanting and beating our chests, but never does the West see into our homes and private lives. Never do they see our woman dancing and clapping, never do they taste our foods, or hear our music. Never do they see our galleries, or read our poetry.

This racism is so deeply ingrained in the West that even I was infected by it. I left Iran in 1979 and spent the next twenty something years growing up in California. I finally made a trip back to Iran in 2002. Because of the through brainwashing I had received as a child during the Reagan years, I expected to see a country shrouded in grief and deprivation. I expected to see bearded soldiers, policing the state for accordance of Islamic law. But what I saw was a vibrant, dynamic, beautiful country. The people were generous, hospitable, funny, and diverse. Walking the streets of Tehran, I reconnected with my culture. The sounds of Farsi being spoken, the food, and music, all the thing that make us who we are were on display everywhere I looked. But nowhere in the West are these Iranians shown. We have been lumped in the crowd, and we have become the other. I am planning on taking my American wife and new daughter to Iran soon, so they too can experience the Iran I know exists, but I can feel her trepidation and fear. It is this fear that feeds the racism. It is the same fear you feel when you see me board a plane. It is the same fear that traps me in your version of who I am meant to be.

In my portrait, I chose to wear a Shemagh, this is a traditional Arabic headscarf and not traditionally worn in Iran, but if the West chooses to assume I am an Arab than I will stand in solidarity with my Iraqi, Palestine and now Lebanese neighbors. Although I grew up in the West, I still feel the claustrophobia of living in the shadow of Arab racism. I feel it every time I travel and I am asked to be searched a second or third time; I feel it every time someone mentions a terror act and looks to me for some kind of explanation, as if I somehow understand these insane actions.

All over the world we, Middle Easterners, are forced to live in the enclosed spaces of racist stereotyping and Western fear. I hope someday we can share our cultures as equals. I am normally not very nationalistic, and I frown upon patriotism, but I am very proud of my Iranian heritage. We are a kind, open, and sensual people. We need not be feared. After all we have been here since the beginning of civilization, we started the concept, so it is not fair to now be painted as the barbarians. Someday soon, the people of the world will unite and see that we have more in common than we have differences. I encourage you to go to Iran, see for yourself. I assure you will be welcomed with open arms

Self-Portrait: Enclosed Space of a Stereotype:


  1. beautifully said. and a captivating self-portrait image too.

  2. bz- it is unfortunate that everything that you have said is true. westerners have done this very thing since the dawn of our civilization. history is rife with racism- blacks, middle east folks, native americans- basically anyone who isn't a wasp or wasc. being a white, western female- i have a hard time wrapping my mind around what we are so afraid of. i have always wondered why we fear what is not like us. i understand your wife's fear- perhaps she is afraid iran will be invaded while you all are there. while it is unfair to lump everyone together- i knew iran had its own identity but most do not- the west seems to corner the market at doing just that. i wish i could apologize for all of the western world- but i can't. they wouldn't let me. excellent post as always.

  3. Excellent post! I thought it is sadly very true. The government are fueling the fires and I am afraid of more hate crimes. Your SPC was a powerful choice.

  4. bz- i just found your blog and enjoy your writing style, words, thoughts and images. you are very enlightened, so sad others are not. if only everyone could have their mind expanded...
    kaia is beautiful!

    i lived in sf for 15 years and the south of france for 4, now back in america and not liking it one bit...O what to do. i am a mommy of 2 beautiful little boys and want them to grow up in a peaceful, organic, open minded place...any ideas??

  5. I guess to some extent it is a natural human reaction to fear and stereotype that which we do not understand. Interestingly one of the TV news programmes here in the UK broadcast the news from Iran for a week a couple of months ago, just when tensions over nuclear power seemed to be at it's height. Unfortunately it wasn't one of the mainstream channels, but still. I was struck by what a beautiful place it was and the beauty of much of the architecture. But I guess the only way to even begin to tackle this is through information and often we only break through our stereotypes to appreciate other cultures and races when we get to know people on a one to one basis.

    Anyway, I am recently aware of how much my view of the Middle East and Arab nations has been formed by very negative steretypes. I'm aware how little I understand this part of the world. I'm not sure I agree with betmo however, that the West is the only part of the world that lumps people groups together and steretypes, I think every nation does this. There is just as much danger of stereotyping all Westerners, what even does 'the West' mean. But, the difference is in power. The West has more power, which has all kinds of implications.

    Anyway, excellent post and an excellent interpretation of the enclosed spaces theme.

  6. I guess, in answer, if I were to do a self portrait as stereotype, I might have to put horns on my head - many people to this day believe Jews have horns on our heads. Or drinking blood - people believe we sacrifice babies and drink their blood.

    Or maybe I should paint my face black, or red, in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters; or native American brothers and sisters; displaced by the slave trade and manifest destiny.

    The bottom line is this: the Rapture Right preaches fear. The Rapture Right teaches that anyone who is OTHER should be shunned. I recall people saying, as I grew up, that all Chinese people look alike, and lumped all Asians as Chinese - regardless of where they were from. Or all blacks look alike. Or all _____________ (fill in the blank) look alike.

    Prejudice is wrong. Racism is wrong. But we have to find the light within or we are doomed.

  7. Powerful and meaningful. Great words and pictures!

  8. Well said. I heard you. Keep on saying until others do too.

  9. Great pic. Wonderfully captured, the hawk of the desert.

  10. allonpaper9:26 AM

    Excellent post. And my, what lovely eyes you have.

  11. Very touching post and photo. I'd love to visit Iran one day!

    I did a photo very similar to yours a while back. Take a look.

    Have a great evening!

  12. Excellent, thought-provoking post and a really powerful self-portrait.

  13. bz - I came across your blog through the link on Boho girl's blog. I love your self portrait and I think that politics are personal and that the personal is political. Your portrait is at once artistically and aethetically moving and politically challenging. It is great work.
    I'm a New Zealander who has lived and worked in the Gaza Strip for several years and now lives and works in Afghanistan. I've been exploring blogs because I want to set up a blog to share some of my experiences. I want my blog to be both personal and political and I've found your blog to be a fantastic example of how that is possible.
    Thank you. I'll be back for more!

  14. BZ - I think that you're ignoring that many of your kaffiyeh-clad "Arab brothers" would kill you, a Persian man, as quickly as they would a Jew or a European. We're all bound by stereotypes, by hatred. No one is innocent of it.

  15. I very much like your self-portrait. As for your political opinion, I have to say I am in total agreement with RedSneakz.

  16. Thank you for this. I am one of the westerners that HATES stereotypes. I really get so upset when we as humans lash out in fear and hatred to those who have different beliefs or colors of skin or think differently... I am of the belief that we are all brothers and sisters and should try to treat eachother as such.
    This is a powerful and much needed statement you have made.

  17. be heard. don't stop advocating for peace.

    excellent post.

    thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  18. I think that the mass media perpetuates stereotypes...but not all people believe them or feel that way. I don't and it is not because I have open minded parents or was raised a certain way. I just have always believed we are all connected. Blogging has solidified my views that we are all one.
    In my lifetime I believe this truth will be shared by most of the world.

  19. It’s funny whenever you make some type of commentary about a group of people, their usual response is, “we are not the only ones who do this,” as if this justifies their actions. I agree that racism and stereotyping is a human phenomenon, and I am sure that there are plenty of ignorant Arabs that would kill me, but that is not what I was trying to say. I was simply expressing the frustration I feel watching my culture get dragged through the mud by the dominant global culture- The West.

    For the person who asked what the West is, I would say that it is the Judeo-Christian culture that started in Europe after the fall Rome and that eventually led to the Age of Exploration that colonized and carved up the world into a series of Empires. France, Spain, Portugal, England, Belgium, Holland, and Italy come to mind as the major players.

    I guess what makes me feel such antagonism toward the West is that Western Culture claims to have all the answers. Liberty, Democracy, the saviors of the world, but in fact most modern Western Democracy are soaked in hypocrisy. They use this hackneyed propaganda to further push their agendas of imperialism and global economic dominance. The age of colonialism is alive and well. The West simply pretends that it has ended. Just follow where the wealth has gone. Kasim is right, it is about power.

    Wow, where did that come from?

  20. nice pic, bro.

    I think the more racism there is, the better off the opposition becomes. Multiculturalism, pluralism, miscegenation, mongrelization. crossbreeding, whatever you want to call it - is the nouvelle vague du futur....there's no stopping humanity from creating a stronger, more beautiful species by mixing up the gene pool beyond its original makeup. Those who hold on to antiquated beliefs like racism will look more dated, outlandish, and retrograde in a world with dissolving borders and curious minds. The Arabs, Persians and Muslims are getting shitted on of late, but there's always an upturn to every downward spiral. It's proven in history to every ethnic and religious group, and it'll become reality sooner or later for the oppressed. for now, just keep doing your part by hybridizing the cultures and spreading your seed're opening doors and changing hearts and minds.

  21. funghi4:50 PM

    Hey...tell it to the man from Iran himself, here is his blog.

    Maybe you can convince Ahmadinejad that nuclear proliferation will support the "axis of evil" propoganda. Which in turn provides opportunity for US government to find further reasons to support he American military complex.

    Not sure Ahmadienjadif is very clever, or very stupid. I hope its the former.

    Either way the world won't change until the American people 1, realise what is really going on 2, and do something about it. This is unlikely to happen while government controls US mainstream media and white / jewish America holds the power.

    Hope is at hand though, through people like you 1, challenging the thought process and 2, having babies and educating them.

    The future is in the "browning" of America.

    The future lies with your children.

  22. This was one of your best posts.

    In the World Wrestling Entertainment, one character speaks actual Farsi, and was promoted as speaking Arabic.

    Imagine explaining Orientalism, to the mass culture. We could use Edward Said now.

  23. Aren't you stereotyping and labeling Westerners? You say you are antagonist toward us, too. I know I was somewhat offended by that, and I have no problems with whatever nationality you are. I am one of the "nice" people who basically accepts everyone.

  24. Geeez, the word in my above comment should be "antagonistic." Typing when I am sleep-deprived is a major mistake!