When does the English word “period” become an offensive word? Whenever it is used as part of a Persian sentence, according to one Iranian cleric —regardless of the context in which it is used.

Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, the head of Iran’s Court of Administrative Justice, recently lashed out at renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami for referring to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war — known by many in Iran as the Sacred Defense — as a “period”.

“This shameless term has recently been used to refer to the Sacred Defense by an alcohol-drinking and West-toxified thinker who has established himself in the West,” Montazeri said. “I am ashamed to even pronounce it. He called the Sacred Defense a “period” in Iranian history. He believes himself to be in love with Iran but he publicly addressed the nation in a rude manner.”

Kiarostami, who has been routinely criticized for his views of the Iran-Iraq war and often attracts the anger of hardline politicians, was talking about the films of Ebrahim Hatamikia, which largely focus on the war and its aftermath. Instead of using the Persian term for period or era, “doran”, Kiarostami made the mistake of using English.

Although many Iranians do not speak or understand English, like anywhere else, there is a general familiarity with the language because of exposure to film, music, fashion and social media. Could it be that “period” was one of the words Montazeri knew, despite being a devout cleric who operates outside of the “filth” of Western culture? Or perhaps he knows more than he is letting on, using the word as a simple tool to further vilify the filmmaker?

“Is it anything but surrendering to Western culture?” he asked his audience, a group of lawyers. “I warn you that we must be on guard so that, God forbid, something like this does not happen in the country,” apparently referring to a time when the Iranian public might be tempted to dismiss the eight-year war as something inconsequential – or worse, in some way comparable to a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle.

Montazeri’s comments had considerable impact on social media, with many people speculating over what the cleric might have been hoping to achieve with his misguided interpretations.


Routine Attacks

Kiarostami, whose films have played at Cannes and other international festivals, is no stranger to attacks for his allegiance with “Western” culture. Earlier this year, hardliner politicians criticized him after he quoted a comment from a website about Hatamikia’s films at a filmmaking workshop in Syracuse, New York. “Your films will not live on,” the comment read, “because you talked about a period in Iranian history in order to excite the young people to go to the front.” Many of Hatamikia’s films take the war as their subject, whereas Kiarostami’s film 1987 “Where is the Friend's Home?” makes no direct mention of the conflict, though it is set in that time.  So some conservative members of the Iranian elite equated Kiarostami reading out the quotation with a betrayal of Hatamikia, who is widely seen as a supporter of the government and a heroic chronicler of the Sacred Defense.

But Deputy Culture Minister Hojatollah Ayoubi, who is head of Iran’s Film Organization, called it an unjust distortion of Kiarostami’s remarks and pointed out that he was only quoting someone else. “Contrary to the allegations, this director loves the Sacred Defense”, said Ayoubi. “He has emphasized in many friendly gatherings that he likes to portray the Sacred Defense in his own way.”

Speaking about the controversy in an interview with Iran-Iraq war veteran and author Habib Ahmadzadeh, published by Mehr News Agency, Kiarostami said, “I believe that war is futile and this goes without saying.” “But the party responsible for war is the one who starts it, not the one who defends himself." He told Ahmadzadeh, whose book A City Under Siege: Tales of the Iran-Iraq War was published in English in 2010, "I will not retreat one bit from my statement that we got involved in a war that was utterly meaningless. But this war was imposed on us. It is impossible not to be grateful to those who were martyred in the war so that we can live in this relative comfort.”

Whatever the context —whether it be comparing films set in the same era, analyzing attitudes to war, using a taboo word when talking about a holy conflict or, as reported on October 1, taking part in a campaign pushing for a nuclear deal to be reached  — it seems Kiarostami cannot win when it comes to Iran’s conservative clerics. He is intoxicated with the West. He denigrates the sacred, and those who try to convey its value in Iranian society. If nothing else, he insults the Iranian public, and quite regularly. 

See Mana Neyestani's cartoon, "Hatamikia vs Kiarostami"

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