Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Theater of Horror: From Aurora to Abadan

July 26, 2012


On July 20, 2012, I woke up to news of the horrific shootings that took place at the movie theater in Aurora, CO. In the wake of this carnage, we are left with the question as to why this happened? What would possess a person to commit such a monstrous and cowardly act?

It immediately took me back to a heinous crime that occurred more than 30 years ago on August 19, 1978, at 8:21 p.m. inside a packed theater, not in the US, but in Iran. I was sixteen and spending the summer with my grandmother in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran. That evening, alongside hundreds of moviegoers, I was watching a film at our family-owned theater: Cinema Iran. My grandfather, an Armenian who had escaped the Russian Revolution of 1917 and made Iran his home, had built the town’s first Cinema, showing films from around the world, dubbed into Farsi. On that warm summer night, thousands of miles away in Abadan, a city in southwestern Iran, around 430 people were watching the controversial Iranian film Gavaznha (The Deer) at Cinema Rex. When I woke up the next day, it was to news of a devastating fire at Cinema Rex and learning that over four hundred people had perished.

Cinema Rex, Abadan, before the fire

That morning, shaken and distraught, we gathered in my grandmother’s living room and joined the rest of the country in mourning. The initial reports of the fire placed the blame on faulty electrical wiring and the air-conditioning system. Additional stories reported that the exit doors to the theater were locked, trapping everyone inside. Newspaper reports wrote of a Good Samaritan with a pick-up truck who had offered to break through the entrance door, but was stopped and turned away by the police. Firefighters arrived at the scene nearly half an hour after receiving the distress call, only to find little water in their tanks. In the end, everyone stood helplessly outside the theater while hundreds of innocent people, trapped inside, died.

Cinema Rex, Abadan, After the Fire

The circumstances surrounding the fire and the incompetence of the police and rescue workers did nothing but raise the public’s suspicions. Since no one trusted the Shah’s state-run media, Iranians spun their own theories and soon two camps of public opinion formed. One camp accused the Islamic fundamentalists (who opposed the Shah and his regime and all forms of entertainment, e.g. the cinema) and the other pointed the finger at the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, for having orchestrated the fire in order to blame the fundamentalists and paint them as heartless militants. Regardless of who was responsible, the Cinema Rex fire was by far the worst act of terrorism in modern history pre-9/11.

As a teenager, the news of the 70’s was of wars and revolutions, and terrorist acts carried out by the IRA, the PLO, the SLA, the PFLP, the Red Brigade, and a host of other groups who went about terrorizing the innocent with bombings, high-jacking planes, hostage crisis (Munich Olympics), kidnappings and murders of politicians (Aldo Moro, the Italian Premier), officials (45 members of the OPEC) and children (J Paul Getty Jr. and Patty Hearst) of the super wealthy. But an act of terrorism so close to home had me shaken to the core. What would stop those who had set Cinema Rex on fire from not doing the same to other movie houses in Iran? In the days and months before the Shah’s overthrow, supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini marched the streets of Iran’s cities chanting angrily and blaming the country’s moral decline on the debauched lifestyles of people influenced by subversive art forms such as the cinema.

Fooled by the naïve optimism of my teenage years, I brushed aside my fears of doom and gloom, convinced that the fire at Cinema Rex was an aberration with little or no chance of replication. On Christmas Eve in December 1978, a mob chanting anti-Shah slogans set fire to Cinema Iran and my grandmother’s home. The fire destroyed the theater and our ancestral home. Fortunately, the attack on the Cinema occurred late into the night when the theater was closed and no one was inside. My grandmother was hundreds of miles away in Tehran with my parents and younger brother while I was in college in America when this happened. Soon after hearing that the Cinema had been burnt to the ground, my grandmother died of a heart attack.

The burning of cinemas in Iran became a symbol of the Islamic Revolution’s slash-and-burn war against the Shah’s regime, leading to its overthrow in January 1979 and ending Iran’s centuries’ old monarchical dynasties. Soon after installing the Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Islamic Republic waged its class warfare with merciless vengeance against anyone seen as a supporter or sympathizer of the Shah and the Western world. The new government, determined to blame the corrupt regime of its predecessor for the Cinema Rex fire, set about apprehending the arsonists. An army officer was arrested, accused of the crime and summarily executed. On hearing the news, the real perpetrator (one of four), an Islamic militant, came forward and turned him self in to the authorities.

It was as had been speculated earlier; the fire had been the work of four Islamic activists who had carried out the deadly mission as part of their allegiance to Khomeini and the Revolution. Only one of the arsonists had survived the fire. He had remained in hiding until he could stand his anonymity no more. He confessed to the crime because he could no longer sit and watch someone else getting the credit for what he saw as the ultimate act of sacrifice for the Revolution.

But the killing of four hundred innocent people, regardless of the zealot’s impassioned religious beliefs and loyalty to the Revolution, was something that the Iranian public was not willing to forgive and forget. In 1980, the Islamic Republic’s nascent regime (which had embraced other revolutionaries for rising against the Shah by seating them in positions of power and elevated those who had died for the cause as martyrs of the Revolution), under public pressure, condemned the lone surviving terrorist for the murder of over 400 people and ordered his execution.

In his recent Op-Ed in the NYT, David Brooks cites there were at least 11 spree killings in the 1990s, and at least 26 over the past decade. He writes: “When you investigate the minds of these killers, you find yourself deep in a world of delusion, untreated schizophrenia and ferociously injured pride.” We may never know what drove James H. Holmes on his shooting rampage at the movie theater in Aurora, CO. But like those who set fire to Cinema Rex in Abadan, thirty-four years ago, the shooter in Aurora may have been delusional and driven to commit the horrific act of violence for fame and recognition. And rampage killers set on a destructive path will use any means to get there, whether with an arsenal of weapons or a can of gasoline and a match.

But just as I was losing all hope in humanity, I came across an inspiring blog by Mark Morford that I encourage you to read here, “A deadly rampage of shocking kindness”. He writes of a tweet sent by a young woman, Helle Gannestad, after last year’s horrific massacre at the youth camp in Norway. She wrote: “If one man can cause so much pain, imagine how much love we can create together.” Her tweet has “become a bit of a national sentiment of Norway,” a sentiment Mark imagines “echoes all the way to Colorado, and beyond.” I know it is already resonating in my heart.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI
(Jasmin is currently writing her memoir “Cinema Iran,” a coming of age story set against the shadow of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.)

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Living in Rennes

July 19, 2012

Rennes - 11

I arrived in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, as an exchange student in September 1975. I was a 19 year old sophomore, who, along with 29 American students from my college, would be living with French families and taking classes at the university. My host family, the Louis, were a clan of women — Madame and her daughters, Catherine, 23, and Marie, 17. Monsieur Louis had died a few years earlier, hit by a truck right in front of the family’s apartment on Rue Marechal Joffre.

The family had hosted several Americans before me. These students, always female, were gregarious and outgoing. They’d bring Marie and sometimes Catherine on outings with other Americans, or they would bring Americans back to the apartment. My heart sank as I listened to these anecdotes. I was shy and introverted. I had difficulty making friends and spent most of my time by myself. I felt I was bound to disappoint the two sisters, particularly Marie, who had come to expect an exciting social life through her contacts with the Americans. Catherine, who worked full time in a record store, was often tired and distracted and was less interested in socializing.

I was fond of Mme. Louis. A tiny, bird-like woman who taught piano to make ends meet, she was my favorite of the three, a substitute for my own cold, distant mother. I enjoyed sitting with her in the dining room, drinking tea and chatting. She told me Americans were brave during World War II but the British were braver because they flew their planes lower. When I told her I was studying American literature she replied there was no such thing because America was too new a country to have its own literature.

The Vietnam War was ending, and there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment in France. President Ford was compared to Charlie Chaplin. Americans were seen as inept, uneducated boors. I had my own ideas about a 200 year old American literary tradition and the contributions of American soldiers during World War II, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

My classes were held at the Universite de Rennes. Because my college followed a 10-week trimester that did not match the university’s schedule, we did not take classes with French students. I took a course in French language, one in French culture and history, and an independent study on the teaching of English in French high schools in Rennes. Our term-abroad advisor was Paul LeClerc, who recently retired as president of the New York Public Library.

Every weekday morning except Friday, I left the Louis apartment and walked to campus, pausing to admire the jewel-like pastries arrayed in glass cases in the patisseries or stare at carcasses hanging in the windows of the boucheries. At first I ate lunch in the noisy university cafeteria, but the other American students had scattered after classes were over and I had no one to talk to. I started buying yogurt and fruit at local markets and eating alone in the park. My program provided for two meals a day with the host family, breakfast and dinner, so I did not go back to the apartment for lunch. Mme. Louis prepared light dinners: soup and salad or an omelette, so I lost five pounds that semester in spite of daily treats of tarte citron (lemon tart) or mille feuilles (Napoleons).

I was isolated not only by shyness but because I had not rented a mobilette, the ubiquitous motor scooters the locals used and the Americans adored. Some students, who lived outside the city limits and could not walk to campus, needed them, but most used the scooters just for fun. The Americans would gather after class and buzz around the city or explore the surrounding countryside. My mother had fallen off a scooter on her honeymoon and broken her foot, and that story, combined with my natural cautiousness, prevented me from joining the pack.

Then I met Shelley and Gary. And everything changed. I no longer remember the details of our meeting. None of us had mobilettes. And none of us fit in with the others. Shelley hated the provinciality of Rennes. She didn’t particularly want to learn French. She wanted to see the world and have adventures. She wanted to sleep with many men. Gary was black and gay. He wore multiple gold chains and spoke in a high, affected voice. He was kind, with a sharp sense of humor that he often turned against himself, probably as a way to survive.

We became our own group, the Three Musketeers. We bought baguettes, cheese and wine and ate lunch together in the park. We sat together on the train on school trips to Chartres or Saint Malo. I brought Gary to meet Mme. Louis and she adored him. At that time the French were curious about les noirs, and I think she thought of him as a male Josephine Baker. I don’t know how he felt about being an object of curiosity, but I don’t think life was that much easier for him back in the States. After all, this was 1975. He preferred Mme. Louis to his own French mother and was gracious and patient with her. But he was not an available male and Marie wanted nothing to do with him, or with me by that time.

Shelley did not want to meet Mme. Louis. On weekends she took the train alone to Paris or Amsterdam and would talk about men she had met in bars and cafes. I admired and feared her recklessness, and I didn’t want to hear too many details. I worried there was some chance she could end up floating in the Seine or the Amstel. One evening, she induced me to take a train with her far in to the countryside to listen to a concert of chamber music in a chateau. I remember getting lost in the woods after dark while trying to find the concert, and cursing myself for going along with her.

By the time I left Rennes, I spoke French fluently. And when I returned to college, I never saw Shelley or Gary again. The three of us reclaimed our usual routines and did not seek each other, as though we were embarrassed to acknowledge our former vulnerability and loneliness.

Rennes is less provincial now, more modern. The French have embraced our technology and the city dwellers have learned our language. But are we still the new kids on the block?

Nancy Gerber

Nancy Gerber

Nancy Gerber received her doctorate in English from Rutgers and taught Women’s Studies and English at Rutgers in Newark for eight years.
She is the author of Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving.

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Geography: Do you know where you are?

July 12, 2012

Old Globe

Geography: from Greek “geographia,” lit. “to describe or write about the Earth.”

It happened sometime during my junior year at college in San Diego. I was studying at the library for a midterm when a handsome boy (a business major in his senior year) whom I’d seen around campus, asked if he could sit at my table. Of course, I said “yes” and soon we began a flirtatious banter in hushed tones.

I don’t remember much of what we said, but I do remember him asking me what I was studying. “History of Latin America,” was my response.

“Oh, yeah, Latin America. That’s where there’s Brazil, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia…” he started to recite a mash-up of countries spanning three continents. When he was finished, he leaned back in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. He seemed so pleased with himself. I, on the other hand, sat frozen in my seat, speechless. Suddenly, he was no longer the boy I’d thought as handsome. His blatant ignorance of what I’d assumed was a given, or even more so, expected, of not just a fourth year university student but a high school graduate was embarrassing. How could this be?

Not knowing and yet thinking you’re right is a sad commentary on how many people go on about their lives these days. Nowadays, it seems that geographic mistakes and willful ignorance is the cool thing to do. Check out this video of some fellow citizens stopped randomly on streets on American cities if you want to see and hear this for yourself.

These geographic faux pas are even trickling down from the top. We can’t escape the slipups by our politicians who misname countries or mispronouncing them or can’t seem to distinguish one nation from another. The filmmaker Michael Moore had a point when he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that we shouldn’t go to a war with a country if we don’t know where it is on the map. Just take a look at some of the gaffes made by our geographically-impaired elected officials on this link and you’ll be shaking your head in disbelief.

My fascination with geography, knowing the capitals of the countries and where to find them on the globe or a map, the different languages, cultures, and topography has been with me since an early age. I remember studying geography at elementary school in Iran. We not only studied the geography of Iran but also of the world. My tuition in geography continued through high school in England. I so loved drawing and tracing maps that when I ran out of tracing paper, I– along with fellow classmates–would resort to using the standard utilitarian transparent toilet paper as a substitute.

But today, here in the US, geography has become the stepchild of social studies and history curriculum and in many cases ignored altogether. Geography acts as a pointer in man’s life and should be taken seriously and not ignored. The results of a 2006 poll taken by the National Geographic Society showed the following: “62% of US citizens were unable to locate Iraq on a map, 75% were unable to locate Israel and 24% couldn’t find the Indian subcontinent. They didn’t fare so well when asked about their own country. Nearly half of the Americans polled didn’t know where Mississippi was.” My brother remembers a classmate in a World History class in his senior year at a public high school in West Los Angeles who pointed at the European continent when asked by the teacher to locate USA on the map. Mind you, the word EUROPE was printed in bold across the countries of the region.

Geographic ignorance isn’t simply about not knowing where a specific country is on a map but also understanding why the borders are where they are, the placement or displacement of different cultures and people, language, religions, political ideologies. It’s not just about where but why there.

A curriculum that includes geography enriches the individual’s overall understanding of contemporary events and global environmental concerns. Geography is about the earth and the more we know the better equipped and inspired we are to care about the planet and one another.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI, Inc.

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