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posted on 02/28/2004 9:35:54 AM PST
(Until they are Free, "We shall all be Iranians!")
With an Oscar nod, the Iranian actress steps into the spotlight
By Wesley Morris, Globe Staff, 2/28/2004
If it were perfect, the world would have heard of Shohreh Aghdashloo before Jan. 27, 2004. But it's not, so Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, had to tell us: "Shohreh Aghdashloo in `House of Sand and Fog.' " It was the first name in the first category to be called the morning the Oscar nominations were announced. (Not to mention the first Iranian acting nominee ever.) And, as you might expect, Aghdashloo life's was changed irrevocably. But heaven knows it was fine before.
Over three decades, Aghdashloo, who was raised in Iran and has lived in Los Angeles since 1987, has starred in a handful of films and been a leading name in Iranian theater. As an activist, she writes and speaks out around the world, and she has even done political commentary on Jaam-e-Jam, California's popular Iranian cable TV network, looking fierce and smashing in beige pantsuits.
Suddenly, though, she was flung from the middle of American pop-culture nowhere to a teary appearance on the "Today" show, and anybody getting ready for work had to stop and compose themselves as Aghdashloo talked about her stern father's pride in her success. One of the best-kept secrets in America's Iranian community had become a full-fledged celebrity.
Her longtime fans were elated. Her husband was thrilled. But her 15-year-old daughter, Tara? Eh.
"When I was nominated, I thought she was going to jump up and down like myself," Aghdashloo says during a recent visit to the Globe. "She did not. She was in bed. I said, `I have been nominated!' She said," -- here Aghdashloo becomes a bleary, vaguely impressed teenage girl -- " `Cool.' "
It wasn't emphatic, exactly, but Aghdashloo was thrilled: "Are you kidding? Coming from her, it means you're the best."
According to her mother, Tara has been encouraging Aghdashloo and her husband, the actor and playwright Houshang Touzie, to do less Farsi film and theater and more movies in English. "She was always telling me, `You have to do things in the mainstream, you have to be part of the American mainstream. The stage is too tiring, mom. You cannot do this all your life,' " Aghdashloo says.
If you can feign ignorance of Hollywood's historical preference for young white women, you might ask why it took Aghdashloo, who's 51, so long to command our attention. Most people will never meet a more charismatic and charmingly intelligent woman. She's a grand raconteur, with the regality of a dignitary. When she popped into the Globe after a charity reading of "The Vagina Monologues" in Newburyport, the first thing you noticed is that she's nothing like Nadi Behrani, the character she plays in the movie. Both women are warm, but Aghdashloo is dynamic and witty. The second thing is her speaking voice, which is low, gravelly, and slightly accented.
You also notice the woman at her side. Jaleh Modjallal has been her good friend and manager for most of Aghdashloo's career. While her client is off being interviewed, Modjallal, who asks that you call her "Zsa Zsa," is working the phone, planning, among other things, the logistics of Aghdashloo's upcoming appearances. The next night Aghdashloo is on Larry King's TV show, seated beside costar and fellow Oscar nominee Ben Kingsley.
In "House of Sand and Fog," Aghdashloo plays a dignified Iranian homemaker married to a hubris-stained former colonel (Kingsley), as he battles a boozy Californian (Jennifer Connelly) for a modest house. Aghdashloo's performance segues from gentility to fear to fury back to gentility, then to some wrenching but holy place that seems recognizable to a moviegoer but, at the same time, unknowable and personal. As her family is dragged deeper into tragedy, Aghdashloo's Nadi, who speaks mostly in Farsi, retreats further into herself. But her compassion for the woman her husband is fighting never dries up.
The film is based on Andre Dubus III's 1999 novel, a copy of which Aghdashloo bought a few years ago when Oprah Winfrey recommended it as part of her book club. Dubus's cogent knowledge of Iranian culture floored her. "I asked him, at one point, `Andre, where were you? Behind the door, or under that table? You know everything, even the most intimate details between the colonel and his wife. Where were you?' " she recalls.
Dubus echoes Aghdashloo's astonishment. "She could not have more faithfully brought this woman to life," he says. "She's the soul of the film." When he saw the movie, and she appeared for the first time polishing the furniture in her home, "I literally gasped," Dubus says. "I forgot I had written the words she was saying."
Finding her voice
When Aghdashloo was a girl in Tehran, she used to perform for herself, which naturally led her parents to believe she was deranged. She would come home from the movies, intoxicated with the characters she'd just seen. One of the earliest was Claudia Cardinale in "Girl with a Suitcase," from 1960. Aghdashloo's father, an accountant, wanted her to be a doctor. And when she was 12, the Aghdashloos took their daughter to see a psychologist -- her Cardinale was that convincing. After a session or two, Aghdashloo wanted to know why she was there. The doctor asked back, "Why do you talk to yourself?"
She wasn't talking to herself, Aghdashloo said. She was playing characters. She wasn't crazy, said the doctor; she wants to be an actress.
When she was 25, the shah's regime began to fall apart, and Aghdashloo left for London, where she earned a degree in international relations. She never thought of herself as less than a liberated woman, which ran counter to the Ayatollah's propaganda, so leaving Iran was really the only option.
"It really disturbs me," she says, "when I see a voiceless woman, a voiceless human being who's been abused or molested, and can do nothing about it. It kills me." Nadi was one of those voiceless women. This was a character Aghdashloo says she knew she had to play, telling her husband, "You know if they don't cast me in this part, it would be really, really unfair."
After a fruitless search to find the right actress for the part, screenwriter and director Vadim Perelman and his casting directors scoured the Iranian entertainment industry for a prospect; Aghdashloo's name came up the most. She was sitting in her office, after a trip to Europe, when the phone rang.
" `Hello. Can I help you?' " Aghdashloo remembers asking. " `I would like to speak to, uh, Soreya Agodoslo,' " said the voice. " `That sounds familiar, but it's not my name. And we don't have a Soreya. But that sounds like my name.' "
The voice said, " `We have so many different spellings. Would you like to come down and straighten it out?' " Aghdashloo recalls.
It was Deborah Aquila, one of the casting agents on "House of Sand and Fog." She was calling to send over a copy of the script. But Aghdashloo wouldn't let herself get carried away. A friend who was in the room wanted to know what was wrong. Why was Aghdashloo being so tentative?
" `There are only four characters in the book,' " she remembers telling the friend. " `Maybe they want me to join their party or go to their wedding. Let me ask.' " She called back. The casting agent still didn't get the name right, but confirmed that they were calling about the key role of the colonel's wife.
"And it was then that I started shaking," Aghdashloo recalls. "I could not believe it. It was like a miracle coming true."
Aghdashloo had worked hard for this moment, but she always believed something amazing was coming. When she left Iran, she talked herself out of fearing failure. "I was on my own," she says. "I had no parents, nothing. I had to be my own parents. That's what I kept telling myself: `You're going to be successful. You're going to be successful.' Be an optimist. Be useful to your society, and then everything will return to you.' "
This is also a healthy way to feel, should she go home empty-handed at the Oscars tomorrow night. Or she could take the Dubus approach and get steamed. Aghdashloo is "the only reason I'm watching," he says. "If she's not holding that statue, I'm throwing my hammer through the TV and walking out."
He calms himself and adds, "This award is almost worthy of her." http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/02/28/shohrehs_turn/
Many Iranians express bitterness over conservatives victory
I think they awarded some of my votes to other candidates. I am very discouraged
People should take care of their votes, and if they see any wrongdoing, they should report it. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Council of Guardians, in the Feb. 15, 2004 issue of Hamshahri.
TEHRAN: The candidate was dull, cautious and watery, and his grotesque campaign extravaganza failed to draw any potential voters, other than his cousins.
But his campaign aid was nervous and talkative. And, perhaps guilty for having taken part in a campaign he never believed in, he was anxious to give me what he says were the secrets of Irans campaign 2004.
Everything you see here is a lie, said Morteza, a wiry 34-year-old who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution. I will tell you the real story.
Conservatives took control of Irans Parliament this month following a short, troubled political season during which many candidates were barred from running by the conservative Council of Guardians. Though a little over half of the electorate officially turned out to vote, the list of election irregularities was considerable.
At some precincts on election day I personally witnessed people suddenly lining up at polls and pretending to vote when myself and other reporters showed up.
I think they awarded some of my votes to other candidates, said Homa Nasseri, an independent liberal who failed to win a seat.
Based on my campaign supporters estimates, I thought I would receive 15,000 to 20,000 votes. Instead I had 500 votes. Im very discouraged. Some grumbled to me that schools and mosques were closed the day after the election, which they say was an unprecedented move that allowed authorities to replace ballot boxes.
In the run-up to the elections the countrys newspapers reported a stream of irregularities. Before it was shut down by the right-wing judiciary on the eve of elections, the reformist paper Yas-e-nou reported on Feb. 17 that the conservative-controlled city council distributed $3 million worth of discount coupons to Tehran teachers four days before the elections in an attempt to persuade Tehran citizens to vote for their candidates.
The centrist, government-controlled Iran reported on Feb. 16 that 3,200 observers from the Council of Guardians the same hard-line watchdog that barred thousands of candidates from running would be posted to guard Tehrans ballotboxes in an unprecedented move that worried other inspection observers.
Various critics told me that many voters simply cast ballots according to directives by influential conservative groups with government ties like the Basiji militia, which answers to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, whose son-in-laws political group took over the Parliament.
The right-wingers just declare that the Basijis have recommended these candidates, said Mohammad Hossein Salavati, an independent candidate in Mashad. And the right-wingers say, Its our duty to vote for these candidates. Theres no thinking or research.
Meanwhile conservative clerics, many of whom owe their posts to Khamenei, used their pulpits to call on people to vote. A week before the vote Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari, Tabrizs prayer leader, said voting was a religious duty while Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri of Shiraz, went a step further, asking people to vote for those who believe in clerical rule.
Many pious elderly people, who had vowed not to vote, changed their minds after their favorite ayatollah announced it was a sin to boycott the polls.
During the campaign, candidates took ads out in newspapers, plastered walls with posters and gone out onto the streets to press the flesh with prospective voters, in a burst of campaign activity following a political crisis over who could run in elections.
But Morteza, the campaign manager, told me much of this, too, was all for show, funded by the same forces who sabotaged a reform movement begun by the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. Other reporters throughout the country told me that many addresses for campaign headquarters led to empty offices devoid of activity.
It wasnt an election, Morteza said. It was a selection. The wedding salon that doubled as his candidates campaign headquarters, Morteza says, cost $400 a night, more than two months salary for most Iranians. But it was loaned to him by a powerful religious foundation that answers only to Khamenei. The head of the same religious foundation personally called the candidate, a manager of a company owned by the foundation, and asked him to run a liberal campaign, Morteza said.
In his heart, he didnt even want to run, Morteza said. He was forced to run by the right-wingers. Whether he wins or loses, he already knows hes lost.
Other candidates include the employees of companies run by right-wing organizations and the young relatives of hard-liners some of them boasting degrees from England and the University of Hawaii in their ads. They, too, he said had also been pressed into running.
Its the mafia, Morteza said. You cant say no to the mafia.
A small business owner, Morteza came up with a strategy to lure young people to his candidates cause. He came up with a catchy political gimmick: a sign with the words political arguments scratched out.
To appeal to young voters attracted more to the aesthetics of the west than the Taleban-lite look favored by the clerical regime and its supporters, Morteza got a bunch of his relatives to shave their faces, wear neckties and stand oustide the salon. He hired women to wear nail polish and headscarves with their hair peaking out. He put up signs touting the candidatess name in English and boasting a website.
I wanted to appeal to young people, the candidate himself told me.
On that particular evening, however, no young people showed up, heartening Morteza. Weve gotten too smart, he added. We are tired of this whole game. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/28_02_04/art31.asp
TEHRAN, Feb 28 (Iran News) -- Clutching at straws, dozens of angry reformist parliamentarians have demanded that President Mohammad Khatami appear before them to explain why he allowed the legislative elections to go ahead in spite of the fact that 2,500 of his supporters were barred from standing.
A member of the Majlis Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, Jafar Golbaz said more than 100 lawmakers are summoning Khatami to Parliament to explain his unrealized promises and his half-hearted positions in the face of hardline unelected bodies.
Reformist MPs were widely expected to show such reaction because they had demanded that the reform-minded president refuse to organize "unfree, non-competitive and unfair" elections.
Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh had also said that only free and competitive polls would be held. Eventually, President Khatami and his ally, Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karroubi, wrote a letter to the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promising to organize the poll on schedule--February 20.
Now, the outgoing reformist lawmakers can only query Khatami and his Cabinet ministers to open the way for impeaching the president, whose term ends in mid-2005. The incumbent MPs can no longer pass any piece of legislation to influence the political atmosphere. The top constitutional watchdog Guardian Council - comprising six hardline clerics and six jurists - will vet any legislation for conformity to Islam and the Constitution.
In the meantime, the conservatives are powerful enough to overpower the reformist legislators. A clear example was the 2001 probe into the conservative-run state broadcasting service. The reformist MPs investigated the working of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and drafted a disputed report, but the state media faced no consequences.
Political analysts and pundits are of the view that the reformist lawmakers are pulling out the stops to get a message across: What was behind the unfair parliamentary elections? Analysts, however, are unanimous on the fact that the embattled president will not face an impeachment. http://www.iranmania.com/News/ArticleView/Default.asp?NewsCode=23010&NewsKind=Current%20Affairs
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