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September 28, 2010

GUEST ESSAY: One Iranian American wrestles with ‘Xerxes’ and ’300′

Posted in: Comics,Movies

As reported at Hero Complex, Frank Miller is well underway with “Xerxes,”  a follow-up to the graphic novel “300,” and filmmaker Zack Snyder is also laboring on a screen adaptation that would take moviegoers back to the battlefields of antiquity shown in the 2007 surprise Warner Bros. hit.

That first film touched off international debate: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bitterly denounced it, and the Iranian Academy of the Arts filed a formal complaint through the United Nations that framed the movie as nothing less than an attack on the historical identity of a nation — especially with its portrayal of Xerxes (portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) as leering and androgynous and the Persian army as a demonic horde. Now, with a looming companion comics series and probable feature film on the horizon, are we ready for another round of the East-versus-West fight?

Xerxes (Frank Miller)

Round 2,500 is set to begin — ding! — as Miller’s new graphic novel,  hits bookstores next year and, eventually, movie theaters. As an Iranian American, I am sadly right in the middle of this never-ending conflict. Can we ever find reconciliation in this battle seemingly set for infinity and beyond?

After all, the two sides have waged justified and glorified war for 2,500 years, without lasting security and prosperity. Surely, there must be another path. Sadly, entertainment has become a leader in exalting the false achievements of violence. To get a sense of how “Xerxes” might interpret my tribal history, I recently watched director Snyder’s “300″ for a second time. One scene in particular caught my attention: As a Persian antagonist talks down to the Spartan queen, she replies, “Only Spartan women give birth to real men.” (By the way, please excuse my interchangeable use of the words “Persian” and “Iranian” as references to one cultural group. My grandfathers will still be my grandfathers, whether I call them “Iranian” or “Persian.”)

I thought about that scene and was ashamed to know that women in Iran today live as second-class citizens. But as I sank into my couch, a saving memory of Iranian women nonviolently and courageously resisting on the front lines of last year’s street protests turned my shame into hope. After the questionable Iranian elections of 2009, I personally witnessed the civil force of the Iranian protesters and their potential in ending the Mideast’s violent imperial and home-grown exploitations. Millions risked their lives for liberty without an ounce of violence in return — in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “I will sacrifice my life for my country’s liberty, but I will not take one life in her defense.” One of those protesters, Neda, a 25-year-old woman, died with the heart of a lion in front of our YouTube eyes.

As I dreadfully consumed the Spartan queen’s line, I wondered what type of man Neda would have given birth to. And as I continued viewing “300,” I began to resist the movie’s depiction of Iranian women as deviant sexual teasers pimped out by their King Xerxes. When a “300″ protagonist yelled, “Persians, you motherless whores,” I yelled back, “My mother is Neda!”

As my tribal emotions soared, I realized I was barking back at my TV set. I said to myself, “Relax, this is just a movie. No one is calling you a motherless whore. … Forget politics for one night and enjoy the amazing artistry and graphics.” As an entertainer, I can appreciate the distinctions between art and reality. But at this pivotal point in our human history, entertainment should evolve from the violent path it has embraced. Like it or not, entertainment has become the strongest form of education. Today, the majority of that education accepts violence as the solution to our problems. Our peoples have become numb to violence and consume it as truth.

The Spartan queen of “300″ continues, “Send our army for the preservation of our children, liberty, justice, law and order, send it for reason and for hope.” As a child, I grew up in the Iran-Iraq war. While Saddam Hussein’s Western-made bombs fell on our heads in Tehran, I could not find the “reason” or “hope” in a bomb. All I could sense was fear and anger as I grabbed my 2-year-old brother and ran to my parents’ bed for an imaginary cover. How could violent means bring about the ends of lasting security and justice?

If “Xerxes” is anything like “300,” it will be a graphic tale that takes place during the 492 BC Greco-Persian Wars of Marathon and Artemisium. We’re in the final naval battle of Salamis/Artemisium, in which Athenian politician and  general Themistocles saves humanity and Western civilization from Iranian demons and demigods, from the East’s mysticism and tyranny, and paves the way for a state of individual liberty enjoyed today in the West. The story may give a message that we in the West should never forget the cause of men such as Themistocles and Leonidis, and that the inferior Eastern race is still on the warpath and, if not violently confronted, our democracy will be lost.

Xerxes

Now, how can I buy into this message as an Iranian American? The very existence of hundreds of friends and family members — and millions of countrymen, -women and -children — here in America and in Iran will not allow me that fateful outlook. Themistocles, the Greek protagonist of “Xerxes,” ends his life as a governor in the Persian kingdom. If this epic identifies Themistocles as the father of democracy, then today his children are fighting on the front lines of that battle in the streets of Iran. Giants of history such as Cyrus of Persia and Themistocles shaped one world; they did not divide the West’s destiny over the East’s.

In an open society, all have the right to depict history as they see it. However, we the public have the inherent duty of dissecting these depictions. The filmmakers of “300,” whether unintentionally or not, have poured fuel on today’s American/Israeli conflict with Iran. Today, in one moment’s blindness, the Persian Gulf can become a burning mirror of the naval battles we are set to witness in “Xerxes.” Only now, the roles have reversed: The West has the dominant moving army, while the East holds court. Back and forth we go.

Instead of repeatedly promoting our violent divide, entertainment should focus on our common achievements. In 550 BC, Iranian and Israeli people together created the first chapters of human rights and religious secularism in Babylon. King Xerxes’ own wife, Esther, a Jewish Persian queen, sacrificed herself and protected her people from religious persecution. She planted the seeds of nonviolent resistance found today in millions of protesters like Neda. Hebrew, Greek and Persian ancestors helped form the backbones of our modern science, culture and art. Their collaborations — not their wars — created our civil progress.

On its face, “Xerxes” probably won’t be all bad news: The new graphic novel is set to explore King Xerxes’ development into a megalomaniac, a self-proclaimed man-god. It will be a chance to openly talk about religion and the fact that self-serving divine proclamations are found today in modern politicians and religious figures. That we allow this type of false rule and rahbar parasty — Farsi for “leader worshiping” — to continue is our fault, for it is a lack of education and self-worth that creates these kinds of delusional leaders, just as it has for thousands of years. The moment we refuse to submit, their power ends. The moment we put our weapons down, their armies and nuclear arsenals become obsolete. The moment we realize none among us is chosen, and none among us is infidel, their religious and tribal divisiveness and control end.

Rodrgio Santoro as Xerxes in "300" (Warner Bros)

Last year, I worked in front of the camera for the History Channel’s “Nostradamus Effect.” The show tells of an inevitable religious Armageddon to come in the Middle East. It’s a sectarian prophecy, questionably interpreted through Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This nightmarish realization will and can only happen if we the masses buy into it. Should we continue the use of religion as a weapon, or can we rediscover faith with our neighbors? Divide and conquer has one end, Armageddon.

I ask ingenious educators and entertainers such as Miller and Snyder, is there room for secularism and reconciliation in your interpretations? Are your stories able to reflect the triumphs of democrats past and present? Our generation is the one that can link our ancestors’ truths to our children’s future. It is time for us to fearlessly build what is ours; it’s time to bridge our world. I will never be afraid of you again, and you should never be afraid of me. The American people and Iranian protesters must connect and form a front that demands an end to the violence waged by our governments. Our true commonwealth and patriotism does not lie under the so-called protection of nuclear weapons or preemptive wars. The courageous path of nonviolence has always led our world to higher plateaus — what can it do for us now? Entertainment has repeatedly banked on our violent wars. Now, it’s time for it to portray our true warriors and patriots.

– Farshad Farahat

Farshad Farahat is an Iranian American actor living in Los Angeles.

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