Their rulers at each other’s throat, the United States and Iran have just lost two towering icons of their respective art and culture scenes in the span of one day. On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin passed away, and a day later died Ezzatolah Entezami. Chances are, for every 10 people the world over who know who Aretha Franklin was, one would not know who Ezzatolah Entezami was. Oh, the mixed blessings of those who knew them both!
Where do we stand, we to whom both Aretha Franklin and Ezzatolah Entezami mattered, next to those who knew one and not the other?
What do Aretha Franklin and Ezzatolah Entezami have in common? A shared history of artistic defiance separated by a military coup in Iran and a Civil Rights Movement in the US.
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018) joined eternity on August 16, 2018. Agha-ye Bazigar, (Master Actor) Ezzatolah Entezami (1924-2018) died a day later on August 17, 2018. Aretha Franklin was called the Queen of Soul because of her unsurpassed power and presence in American soul and pop music. Ezzatolah Entezami was called Agha-e Bazigar because in a career that spanned some 80 years he commanded a towering persona on stage and screen.
It is the strange fortune of a person born and raised in the Shah’s Iran, mourning two towering icons of his life in Trump’s America, to bear witness to the passing of two pillars of his public memory in his twin homelands seemingly forever poised as each other’s bitter enemies. If the US and Iran are perennial enemies, why do I sit mourning Aretha Franklin and Ezzatolah Entezami at one and the same time?
What does Ayatollah Khamenei know of Aretha Franklin – did Donald Trump ever heard of Ezzatolah Entezami? The two militant warlords are dumb as two doornails when it comes to any knowledge, love, respect, or admiration for anything in their enemy’s camp. Theirs is a false and falsifying divide. Ours is the veritable truth of a common heritage. But where is that common heritage located – in Iran, in the US, or somewhere entirely different – somewhere beyond the fictive frontiers of here and there?
Caught between the insanities of two bitter enemies, it is the fate of my generation to sit elsewhere and mourn the passing of two constellations of bright hope that once catapulted me and thousands more like me from Iran to “Emreeka”. On that catapult, we have been the sojourners of a truth hidden to the provincial fanaticism on both sides.
Like the Twin Towers – but far apart
Like the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, or the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan, Aretha Franklin and Ezzatolah Entezami were two totem poles of grace and elegance, poetry and performance – now in our mourning souls.
Since her passing I have been listening to Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer for You and, like magic, shoot back to my late teens in the late 1960s – a provincial boy, an undergraduate student in Tehran – mesmerized by the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements in the US. We were not there, but in their towering voices, we heard their cries.
My generation was drawn to the US by the best of the US, by the music and the cry for freedom of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin … by the fierce defiance of Mohammad Ali and Malcolm X … and by the prose and poetry of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. We were not there to join the rallies and marches in person. We could only be there by listening to the music and reading the poetry that graced their revolt.
I read the name of Langston Hughes for the first time in a poem by one of our own greatest poets Ahmad Shamlou. Our Ahmad Shamlou, Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine, Faiz Ahmad Faiz from Pakistan, Nazim Hikmet from Turkey, Vladimir Mayakovski from Russia, Pablo Neruda from Chile, and Langston Hughes from the US sang similar songs in different poetic dictions. We knew them all. We loved them in the same breath.
I am now convinced that my generation grew up to the core of our moral convictions and the cadence of our political imagination in an aesthetic sphere beyond the banalities of borders and above the reach of false civilizational divides.
When she died, in my solemn remembrances I thanked Aretha Franklin for all her glorious songs with which I uttered my first English sentences, thanked her for being one among a constellation of beautiful stars that had guided me to her homeland! I bid her farewell and thanked her for her wondrous voice, for the joyous melodies – and I thanked her for making us more human by trying to be worthy of her songs.
The world of our own
For us Aretha Franklin was indeed a Queen of Soul, standing right next to many other such queens that graced our lives. The American rhythm of Aretha Franklin’s music was made meaningful to us with the Arabic poetry of Umm Kulthum and Fairuz, with the French lyricism of Edith Piaf, and of course with the Persian poetry of our own Delkash and Marziyeh. Aretha Franklin sang from the depth of her African American pain and glory and her voice reached our ears already trained by equally beautiful voices closer at home.
All of these musical harmonies happened at the time of the rise of Iranian cinema in the 1960s with Dariush Mehrjui’s film, Cow (1969), as the seminal event that revolutionised the Iranian New Wave. Though his theatrical career long preceded this film by about two decades, Ezzatolah Entezami became a household name with his miraculous performance in that seminal film – the story of a village man so devoted to his cow that he metamorphoses into his beloved animal when the cow dies.
The rise of Iranian cinema in the 1960s followed the effervescence of New Poetry (She’r-e No) in the 1950s as the first two artistic responses to the trauma of the CIA military coup against our freedom. The same racist forces that in 1953 conspired against our freedom in Iran were the ruling elite against whom the Civil Right movement was launched in the US. In black liberation in the US and our own struggle for freedom we saw a common cause – for racism and militarism (as now best evident in the occupation and theft of Palestine) are intertwined.
In the context of the rise of Iranian New Wave, Ezzatolah Entezami was an artist of transformative power and an unsurpassed gift for acting, with immense power and presence in his artistry. In his person, he connected the two disparate histories of Iran before and after the 1977-1979 revolution with a grace and a panache only an artist of his mastery could have done. Before doing so he had crossed another critical barrier between theatre and cinema when, decades into his career as a theatre actor, he mastered the art of cinematic presence.
The question today is the sense of aesthetic in those of us who are the beneficiaries of not just one but multiple artistic adventures – one in Iran and the other around the globe. To say we were richer in our aesthetic experiences is both a truism and an understatement. The experience was far more serious than that. Our sense of aesthetics was in and of itself intertextual, cross-culturally syncopated in its pulses and beats, contrapuntal in its poetic rhythms.
In our minds and in our souls, we variedly interpolated what we heard and what we saw and what we read – with an innate intersectionality definitive to the very cast of our minds. We were polyvocal in our sense of beauty and the sublime, we could hear a distant African pain in the English phrasing of a jazz composition, and we could speak Persian with a fluent Turkish or Urdu poetry.
This was of course not just between Persian and English, Iran and the US. This was translucent in multiple directions, from our immediate surroundings in Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, Russian, and Arabic extended into Latin American and African sights and sounds of our defiant and hopeful times. Europe and the US were neither shunned nor privileged. We went where the life of real people resonated with ours.
My elder daughter Pardis once in her teenage years asked me (with the sarcasm of the Persian soul in her Yankee spirit) how come I was not at Woodstock “with all your radicalism thingamajig”.
“I was in Woodstock my sweet,” I said, “but only halfway around the globe on the mirror side of your American imagination.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.