For many Iranians like me, it’s difficult to like Donald Trump. As if his views on the Iran Deal and general use of rhetoric regarding Iran weren’t enough, we now have to deal with various attempts to ban us from traveling to the United States.
Even though it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Iranians in the United States since the 1979 Revolution and subsequent Hostage Crisis, our struggle is more trying than ever before. My Iranian-American relatives and friends are indignant and unsure about their future, and some are even trying in earnest to move to Canada.
Yet, depending on how one looks at things, you could well argue that, despite all the damage he’s caused, Trump has – believe it or not – been a blessing for Iranian art and culture.
Before you hurl those tomatoes, hear me out. As I said, I’m not a Trump supporter; consider me a saffron-scented, pomegranate juice-dripping thorn in his side. But someone needs to tell it like it is: Trump is the best thing to have happened to Iranian art and culture in recent history.
Of course, whatever he’s done has been unintentional; I’m not going to argue for a second that Trump is an Iranophile, or that he has a soft spot for classical Persian poetry. But his motives are irrelevant. What’s important is their result. Iranian art and culture are enjoying a golden moment not only in America, but other corners of the world as well – and the Donald has much to do with it.
In direct response to Trump’s first travel ban, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) boldly decided in February of this year to replace the works of masters such as Picasso and Matisse with art from the seven countries in question. While pieces by Sudanese and Iraqi artists were shown, the majority were by contemporary Iranian artists. Appreciating Iranian art is one thing, but having Picasso make way for Parviz Tanavoli at the MoMA? That was, by any standard, a first.
The Davis Museum in Wellesley, Massachusetts had its own way of protesting the travel ban: around the same time in February, it decided to veil (and in some cases, remove) all its works created or donated by immigrant artists, Iranian and otherwise. In so doing, the Museum brought attention to the works of artists such as Iranian-American Sara Rahbar and emphasized the significance of their contributions to its permanent collection.
Similarly, an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art (Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet) at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum has attracted unprecedented attention from the Canadian media and become one of the hottest subjects in the city. Before, getting people in Toronto excited about Iranian art was, suffice it to say, a Herculean feat. Now, almost everyone I know is talking about the show, which, because of Trump and his travel bans, has assumed added significance and relevancy. Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s delicate Terrorist (2004) – one of the exhibition’s highlights – has perhaps never seemed more poignant.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi also recently bagged his second Oscar for Best Foreign Film, placing him in an elite category. While The Salesman was certainly Oscar-worthy and Farhadi’s win well deserved, there’s no doubt the decision was partly a protest against Trump’s travel ban, as many major publications were quick to point out (although, unfairly, since politics has long been an inextricable element of the Academy Awards). But, if the Academy decided to honor Farhadi partially in response to Trump’s travel ban and overall discrimination towards Iranians and Muslims, I’m not going to complain. Bring on the awards.
If North Americans and Europeans were curious about Iranian politics and the inner workings of the Islamic Republic before, they are now more eager than ever to learn about a country so many of their politicians have loved to hate. Who are these Iranians Trump is so wary of, and what do they have to say? What, exactly, is this faraway country all about?
People in the West are itching to know – so much so, that they’ve been visiting Iran in droves. That Forbes’s recent list of ‘Ten Coolest Places to Visit in 2017’ included Iran (at number nine) is but one of many examples of how Western attitudes towards Iran and Iranians have been changing.
Many might argue that President Barack Obama did more than any other American president to boost the image of Iran and Iranians worldwide. Yes, the Iran Deal, for all its shortcomings, was a breakthrough, and, yes, those images of the former president trying his hand (or waist, rather) at dancing Iranian-style were fabulous. But, when all is said and done, Trump has, unknowingly and unintentionally, also been doing a tremendous job in reminding the world of (or at least introducing them to) the richness of Iranian culture. In Trump terminology, this is perhaps what one could call – quite literally – the “art of the deal”.