Lilith history’s first feminist

lilith by doodle_juice
lilith, a photo by doodle_juice on Flickr.

If you were a little kid in middle east you would remember when your Mum and Dad would say if you were naughty Lulu would take you away? Well here is her story. Our Lulu is known as Lilith. There are so many versions to her story. She is a female demon, deity, and Adam’s first wife. In some stories she is born before or at the same time as Adam. She is not a spare rib and was made from clay. According to Kabbalah writing she was created before Adam on the fifth day of creation as a water creature. But other writings mention that she was created from the same substance as Adam.

In Folk tradition because Lilith came out of clay just like Adam she demanded to be treated as an equal to him. Adam and Lilith quarrel so much and she runs away. Adam prays for help and God sends three angels to bring her back. ‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days. ’

When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she comes back  instead she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant. ‘ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, some still write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.

Another widely taught version of this is that the Hebrew cosmogony originally told a story of Yahweh creating Adam to marry a local Goddess-associated figure named Lilith. Lilith was a follower of the Great Mother Goddess, Inanna — later known as both Ishtar and Asherah.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh was said to have destroyed a tree that was in a sacred grove dedicated to the Goddess Ishtar/Inanna/Asherah. Lilith ran into the wilderness in despair. She then is depicted in the Talmud and Kabbalah as first wife to Yahweh’s first creation of man, Adam. In time, as stated in the Old testament, the Hebrew followers continued to worship “false idols”, like Asherah, as being as powerful as Yahweh.

Jeremiah speaks of his (and Yahweh’s) displeasure at this behavior to the Hebrew people about the worship of the Goddess in the Old Testament. Lilith is banished from Adam and Yahweh’s presence when she is discovered to be a “demon” and Eve becomes Adam’s wife. Lilith then took the form of the serpent in her jealous rage at being displaced as Adam’s wife. Lilith as serpent then proceeds to trick Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge and in this way is responsible for the downfall of all of humankind. It is worthwhile to note here that in religions pre-dating Judaism, the serpent was known to be associated with wisdom and re-birth (with the shedding of its skin). In Arabic mythology she is refered to as Karina.

Karina of Arabic lore is considered Lilith’s equivalent.

She is mentioned as a child-stealing and child-killing witch. In this context, Karina plays the role of a “shadow” of a woman and a corresponding male demon, Karin, is the “shadow” of a man. Should a woman marry, her Karina marries the man’s Karin. When the woman becomes pregnant is when Karina will cause her chaos.

She will try to drive the woman out and take her place, cause a miscarriage by striking the woman and if the woman succeeds in having children then her Karina will have the same number of children she does. The Karina will continuously try to create discord between the woman and her husband. Here, Karina plays the role of disruptor of marital relations, akin to one of Lilith’s roles in Jewish tradition. I think this is how in Iranian myth the story of “ Ham Zaad” or our shadow doubles must have come about. If you like this mythology then read the full story in the Wiki. http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Lilith

Tribute to the unknown Abadani man

Abdani man by doodle_juice
Abdani man a photo by doodle_juice on Flickr.

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution the oil rich city of Abadan where the main refinery plant pumped oil and money, an affluent class of Iranians spanned their wings and lived a stylish life style. First by the influence of the British then by a community of middle class professionals the local culture had changed. Kids with western clothes Rayban sunglasses would carry towels and swimming gear and be off to the nearest oil company club.

Perhaps extinct today, he is an unsung hero. He was the man who would cheer the place up, get a Bandari drum beat out of plank of wood. Make his own flute out of a bamboo shoot.

Abadan is a city in the South of Iran. There was a joyful  lay-backed culture about the place. Abadan had been under British influence for many years, it is where the main oil refinery was the one that produced the oil for the British navy during the second world war and powered the Empire’s economy.

When the British left, Iranian Oil workers took over and adopted a comfortable Western life style of Clubs, Swimming pools and leisure.

There was a pool of talent in that city. The local music which has a catchy drum base has its root in the music of Sailors who travelled there from the rest of the world, from places like Middle East, Africa, Portugal and it is still one of the most popular forms of music.

The stereotype of an Abadani is someone who would not be seen dead without his Ray Band Sun glasses. He also had a tendency to exaggerate his successes, which is why I doodled this cartoon as homage to that fun-loving unsung hero giving him a monument and why the caption reads Thanks for saving the Universe!

May he rest in peace!

Checkout my short story about Abadan

Regained Grandeur

Regained grandeur

When I was a kid I was fortunate enough to be awarded this comic book titled “Azemat-e Baazyaafteh” (“Regained Grandeur”) by my school. It is perhaps now a collector’s item as it was not sold in shops and I doubt if many copies have survived in Iran. Irrespective of your views on the late king, it is a fun book to read.

It just shows that whilst other kids read Superman and Batman comics, we were being nurtured on the milk of politics from an early . I recently saw an exhibition of Soviet Propaganda posters in Tate Modern, London and it was great. It is a shame that with our regular regime change, we destroy a lot of history but If someone ever opens a Museum of Iranian Propaganda in Iran, I might be tempted to donate this book after I’m dead. Although looking back I also see that age despite some social problems as a golden age for the Iranian people and certainly not all was Propaganda now that many of us are older, wiser and without a country!

The Lure of the East

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Note ( Published back in 2008, but I did not back-date the blog as it is still interesting and the painting are available in the National Portrait Gallery in London Trafalgar SQ).

The Lure of the East exhibition at Tate Britain that was showing paintings made by British artists of the ‘Orient’ (4th June – 31st August 2008).

In this context ‘Orient’ meant those parts of the eastern Mediterranean world, which could be accessed relatively easy, particularly after the development of steamboat and rail travel in the 1830s: Egypt, Palestine and Turkey but predominantly Muslim world that was under the Turkish Ottoman Empire coming up to our own Iranian doorstep.

According to the exhibition outline in 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East.

This debate resonates today as it did 30 years ago. The exhibition was divided under six different themes:

The Orientalist Portrait
Before 1830s private travel to Middle East for a purpose other than warfare and diplomacy was rare. Western travellers and residents assumed ‘Oriental costume’ for various reasons. Some felt safer moving incognito amongst the locals, some enjoyed the fancy dress element and there were those who had a committed solidarity with the culture of the locals.

Amongst these, there is the portrait of Robert Shirley and his Teresia Shirley. Robert as an envoy of Shah Abbas to the courts of Europe is wearing an impressive Persian court costume and carrying what seems to be the official diplomatic letter from Shah Abbas she is holding a pistol and pocket watch symbols of technologies Europe was providing to Persia. Teresia was a Circassian lady; Circassian women were famous for their unusual beauty, spirited and elegant and this reputation dated back to Ottoman Empire when they were taken as slave concubines in Sultan’s Harems.
There is also the portrait of James Silk Buckingham and his wife holding hands.

Buckingham was a journalist, who was an advocate of social reform such as an end into flogging used in arms forces, abolition of press-gang.

The Harem and Home
The design of domestic architecture in the Middle East was one of the most consistent motifs in British Orientalist paining.

The artists had a concern that the Orient as seen as a static world was changing under the influence of European design and town planning in places such as Egypt.

Genre and Gender
Genre painting, the depiction of everyday life, was fundamental to 19th century British art. Through such images British society was able to analyse itself, especially to reflect upon the little dramas of domestic life. But in the Middle East, so British artists complained, they felt excluded from local family life and so were compelled either to imagine life in the harem, or to focus instead upon the male-dominated public spaces of the cities they visited.

The Harem
The Harem was the defining symbol of the Orient for Western Europeans. The Western view was that women were kept as chattels, imprisoned in segregated spaces, the slaves or sex-toys of their masters.

Later treatments of the Harem theme adopted less violent but still eroticised tone, imagining the Harem as a place of refined female sensuality.

Amongst these is a painting titles Leila by Frank Dicksee that shows an image of a very seductive beauty from the story of Leila and Majnun. The beauty that drove her cousin Qays mad with desire.

The Holy city
Many British travellers felt that, as Christians, they had a personal stake in the Middle East. The name of Jerusalem, a city scared to Christians, Jews and Muslims, had long been embedded in British religious, literary and political life as the symbol of a longed-for destination imbued with Biblical antiquity.

But for most artists the city was disappointingly modern.

As the balance of population of Jerusalem shifted towards a Jewish majority in the 19th Century, British visitors often looked towards the city’s Jewish communities for the future redevelopment of Palestine. An interest in Jewish life, initially sparked by the connection to the culture in which Jesus Christ had lived, often grew into a fascination with Jewish tradition for its own sake.

British artists also admired Islamic culture on its own terms.

Frequent subjects were daily prayers in the great mosques, the gathering for the annual pilgrimage of Mecca and the life long study of Quran.

The Orient in Perspective
These were mainly landscape images capturing the remarkable colours and shadows of deserts and wilderness at dawn and dusk.

The desert landscapes appearing as not so dangerous but beautiful wilderness containing places resonant with the ebb and flow of civilizations, and where night brought a particular beauty special to the region.

Allegory in Iranian Art and Literature

Preface- This article was written for an Iranian audince back in

Here is a quiz question: – If I were to ask you to identify one single style of narrative that has consistently existed in our Iranian Art and literature for several millennium what would you say it is?

OK, I’ll give you a clue, what do writers and Artists do under repression and censorship? The answer is they use allegory.

More consistently for the last 1400 years, these allegories are signs of how as a nation we have taken bends and twists to comply, shape or live with Islamic law or live under tyranny of kings, sheikhs, Sultans and Khans and say what we want to say.

It is my understanding that to really appreciate how we live today, we must understand our history of culture and seek its truth rather than swallow the bull that our oppressors have dished out.

If today the Art Mogul of our new age Charles Saatchi finds a fascination with our allegory and angry art, this art did not grow on trees. One could be forgiven for thinking that because in terms of style this art is very close to other conceptual arts that you may find in other modern Arts Gallery that it is the product of Western influence but there is a completely different evolutionary path that has resulted in this hidden lyrical narrative.

From Shahnameh to Shirin Neshat’s ‘women without men’ or Shirin Fakhim’s ‘Tehran’s prostitutes’ we have turned from allegory that did not say it to your face to one that does.If we didn’t write it we would import it, as was the case with ‘kalila and Damna’ (or its proper name ‘Panchatantra‘). ‘kalila and Damna’ consists of many allegories about power, friendship, miscalculations and scams.

More consistently allegory is found in Sufi text. Sufism itself is our hidden religion/code of conduct to purify the spirit through altruism but embedded within the DNA of Islam.

Sufism was our forefather’s reaction to Islam and their way of maintaining their culture under Arab rule. The fact that it has mutated, or bloomed into different forms, or has sometimes been turned to fundamentalist zeal is another story.

The tradition of allegorical tales is used to teach wisdom and an alternative spiritual philosophy. Here are some examples of allegory you may or may not recognize. Of course often we tend to treasure but not read these classics: – Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – The story of Zahak is an allegory for living under Islamic rule. After discontent we import Zahak to rule us thinking that he will be more just than the local kings. Sounds familiar?

Attar’s the conference of Birds – The duck that washes its face with infinite ablution and obsessed with giving an illusion of purity. This symbolizes the ignorant followers of faith, or pretentious charlatans who have the pretence of purity but have a filthy heart.

Rumi’s Masnavi e Manavi
– The merchant and the parrot – If you are kept captive for the one thing that your captor values then you should trick him into thinking it has been lost. Perhaps a strategy used during the revolution when the oil workers went on strike?

Obeid e Zakani’s Mouse and Cat – The pious cat that fools the mouse. They all thought that surely such a pious cat is different from others!Here is a summary with beautiful linocut illustrations: –

When we were turned to a slave nation, our intelligence was demonstrated in architecture and even the fluid style of Nastalique calligraphy. Working under the constrains of dogma such as ANICONISM (absence of Icons) we managed to get round it by conveying art in different guises so in miniature painting it was thought that as long as depiction of 3-dimential space is avoided and with absence of shadows the image does not claim to imitate reality and therefore complies with the prophet’s condemnation of artists in trying to ape God’s creation.

Last but not least we have Samad Behrangi’s “The little Black fish” – An allegory for social justice.

The irony of this is that this resistance is always seen as the product and glory of the Islamic world!

So next time you go to a contemporary art gallery and you see one of these works be aware that it comes from a great tradition that includes a thousand year old struggle that shapes the history of Iranian people rather than Iranian leaders.

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