words sketched onto the night’s taut skin

Elhum Shakerifar

Elhum Shakerifar reflects on Maryam Tafakory's film Nazarbazi, and the prohibition against touching in Iranian cinema that is the film's recurring motif.

A few months into the (still unfurling) pandemic, discussions about young people learning to cope with being apart, particularly from dying elders, seemed to dominate the airwaves — in this new normal, everyone was learning to grieve alone, from afar. Once again, I reflected on erasure and invisibility. On how little migrant narratives have been valued, appreciated, even understood in the UK. It is not new to any migrant (or their families) – exiled by choice or not – to live far from loved ones. To have to communicate however they can. To celebrate and to mourn alone, apart, separate.

It reminded me of how precious the minutes of an international phone call once were. Of going to my Dad’s office on a Sunday to send a fax to our cousins in Tehran. Of patchy cassette tapes carrying songs sung for our grandparents, and dreadful recorded renditions we were adamant they had to hear. Of omnipresent camcorders capturing moments for those who were far away, and who were similarly recording every event, birthday, wedding, funeral and holiday. Distance has always been our ‘normal’. Our grief has never been the subject of anything — not even discussion. Distance just was, and remains, woven into our reality.

So I felt a deep pang of familiarity when I first saw Nazarbazi. Instinctively, I knew that its film-weaver had spent months of the pandemic far from loved ones, in the company of beloved films. In the familiarity of scenes she'd seen hundreds of times, with the comfort of a language — half spoken, half intuited. With cinema — as a space where we touch without touching. Nazarbazi is Maryam Tafakory's reflection on distance and its measures, on the vulnerability of longing, on the need to feel closeness when such a thing is impossible. Through resurrections of words and images of a disembodied past, Tafakory's homage astutely takes the pulse of this 'strange time' [1].

Based between London and Shiraz, Maryam Tafakory is a filmmaker and researcher whose work interweaves poetry, ethnography, archival and found material. Her research and widely exhibited work explores plural and inauthentic subjectivities, the self/other binary, womanhood as well as depictions of erasure, secrecy, [un]touchable and [un]spoken prohibitions. Her artistry is often grounded in a meticulous attention and a deep familiarity with Iranian cinema, and poetry. Here, and with graceful precision, she draws from 87 films (selected from 417 viewed) spanning 28 years (1982 to 2010 in the Gregorian calendar) to create Nazarbazi: an interweaving of images and scenes with text — poetry, theory, her own words. She magnifies delicate observed moments: a stray flower gliding along the current of a river [2], caught unexpectedly by a pair of hands; the choreographed movements of a tense and wordless couple, entering an unlit home [3]; two hands diving together to pick up a dropped fruit knife, one holding the handle, the other awkwardly clutching at the blade [4]. An increasingly foreboding tone titillates suggestively, but never crosses over. Instead, what appears at first glance to tend toward crescendo – blood, fire, the repetitive jangle of bracelets – establishes itself as circular [5].

Nazarbazi, translated here as the ‘play of glances’ is itself a container of multiple meanings. The word nazar, from the Arabic, accordions out to many subtly related definitions: from the visual (looking at, beholding, seeing, gazing upon, viewing, turning the eyes of the mind to, sight, vision, view, look, glance); to the conceptual (an oversight; considering, pondering, weighing, measuring, rating, valuing, estimating; price, self-esteem; doubt, uncertainty, perplexity). Bazi meaning 'play' — the expression itself suggests flirtation, sometimes love, lust. “I wanted the film to be about distance and nearness and their interchangeability: about the touch that doesn’t touch yet touches too much; about desire and its language of silence and poetry; about miscommunication, confusion and our struggle to utter inner feelings and sensations; about how distance creates further nearness," Tafakory tells me. The words' visual connotation indicates that the nazarbaz is one who plays with or tricks the eye; nazarbazi was once translated as illusion.

One might use the word collage, but stitching feels more apt. Whilst rupture bubbles under the surface, Tafakory sutures — her craft hinging on fragile lines between the intimacy of the domestic, the precision of the medical, the interpretative permission of the artistic. She makes patterns out of these seams, thematics that simmer under the skin of the city she's in, echoing the one she left behind. Indeed, she continues, "restraint is a universal language we all speak bodily — a form of self-censorship that is practiced worldwide. The Iranian cinematic tactile prohibition only gives this invisible distance a more tangible and glaring form."

I remember watching the popular thriller Ghermez (Red) by Fereydoun Jeyrani (1998) one summer in Tehran, in a packed cinema, with my cousins. It was the highest grossing film in Iran that year, with two of that era's screen stars: Hediyeh Tehrani and Mohammad-Reza Foroutan. I don't recall much of the film, but seared into my memory is the reaction to a scene in which Hasti (Tehrani) slaps Naser (Foroutan). The auditorium was swept by a loud collective gasp. I turned to my cousin to ask if I'd misunderstood something — the slap felt expected given the plot so far. She understood her London-born cousin's confusion instinctively and whispered in explanation: they touched.

A teenager at the time, this was more than anything a lesson in storytelling. I saw the embedded codes floating around the film's narrative and reflected on how it had been conceived. Touch was the unexpected element of this scene — its undercurrent felt viscerally in the collective, instinctive response of gathered cinemagoers; packed in, close together in the public/private space of a shared dark screen.

Codes are the subtler ingredients of storytelling grammar, leaning into personal, social, cultural dynamics, history, muscle-memory. This one felt somehow subcutaneous. It was a reminder that knowing a code is not in itself a key. You don't feel shock for simply knowing that something can be interpreted as a transgression or a celebration, if you don't instinctively feel or know it to be so.

Tafakory's 2020 film essay Irani Bag, made as part of the Asian Film Archive's ‘Monographs’ series, explores the codification of bags as mediators of touch between two people in post-revolution Iranian cinema.

                                                                                               How do we touch               

                                                                                                             when we can't?

Flashes of English text are for the benefit of the unversed audience — it is a translation, code to word. Whilst less necessary to an audience who reads it instinctively, translation is positioned as bridge, as a hand to hold on to.

In Nazarbazi Tafakory employs text to different effect. The film’s opening lines (from one of Iran's most revered and celebrated modern poets, Ahmad Shamlou's Anthem for the One Who Left and the One Who Stayed Behind, translated by Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh) appear in a different order in Farsi than in English, by necessity of how each language works. To someone who understands both, it is not the full meaning of the line that we read between the languages simultaneously on screen, but allusion to the discrepancies between what words (can) carry in each.  

In Farsi, the words of a sentence can be threaded together in any order but a verb always closes, pulling all the threads together [6]. As such, you wouldn't make any assumptions of understanding until the end of a line has been reached [7]. Is this a story of love, of lust, of violence? Is this friendship, kinship, courtship? “In all cultures desire and violence intermingle (...) The 'clean' deceitful images of the west are so exhausting, and so are the westerners who speak to me as if I was a victim back home,” Tafakory tells me. Building on this, she deploys textual interplay with great pleasure — teasing out assumptions before cutting them short with wry humour.

when they banned touch

we screamed

we forgot everything with pangs of hunger

I've often reflected on being a bridge – between languages, between mediums, even of bridging films with an audience – and regularly come back to the formative experience of translating the work of poet Azita Ghahreman, working closely with wonderful English language poet Maura Dooley. I felt that I was a bridge not only between two poets, but also between two languages, two worlds. It was an uneasy space to occupy at times, leading me to ponder whether the codes of/in one world could or should ever be understood in/by the other.

At the time, I reflected on the way that English felt like a language of description and exactitude, whilst Farsi felt like a language of in-between. The trouble with translating is that to convey a sense of ambivalence in an English translation could be misread, or confuse; might bring into question the translation, rather than to indicate the vastness of variables in the original. I might also have added that English is also a language of colonial impositions, of oppression (that exactitude too can be a ploy). In the case of Iran, this violence has been meted out through the polite and carefully worded methodologies of interference and structures of ‘diplomacy’ for over a century, translated today into the ongoing reality of harsh economic sanctions (amongst other things), which have harmed ordinary Iranian people and their ability to live simply – wherever they are in the world – for decades.

It is uneasy to realise that however we translate, and whatever we write, we write into this context and reality — into dominant narratives and ways of understanding the world. Whilst introducing us to the code of the ‘handbag technique’, Tafakory's text also underlines the ways in which it has become more than a signifier, inviting us to ponder everything we (over)load it with, as she slowly unpeels the onion of what she actually means to say.

the prohibition imposed on touching


is less concerned with avoiding touch


than learning to touch without touching

It is no exaggeration to say that censorship is an obsession in the understanding and interpretation of Iran and of post-revolution Iranian cinema — to the point that has become its own encroaching, oppressive and overbearing frame. Its omnipresence perpetrates an erasure of its own — in focusing on what was or wasn't permitted, what has been cut, what is forbidden, what may be cut or curtailed, the codes to enable certain things to be said that may otherwise have been cut... The result is that the space to talk about what is actually there is consistently made redundant; nuance – such as humour – is often missed. There are many ways to interpret Nazarbazi's gothic shimmer: desire (amorous, worldly or divine) is surely one, but to me it also speaks to the bloodlust to interpret Iran within a narrow frame, an unwitting mirror of what censorship is and enables.

Yet the tools of conquest, of all that is imposed, measured, ordered and divided, can also be used to meld and to join. In Nazarbazi, the act of viewing and reviewing, of playing with memory and repetition, with expectation and assumption, carries this meaning too. Tafakory draws from the words of Persian poets Forugh Farrokhzad (1934-67) and Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000), Syrian poet Adonis (1930–) as well as French essayist Roland Barthes (1915-80), mingling them with her own. Translations therefore are required in many directions; the words will feel familiar or new to different audiences. One seamlessly answers the other, reaching out across time and space.

In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986), Ursula K Le Guin celebrates containers: "I now propose the bottle as hero (...) bottle in its older sense of container in general, a thing that holds something else," opposing the notion that the hero story can only be one of conflict, of violence. Articulating her characteristically wise and wonderful proposition, she underlines why to write, to make, to stitch, weave and meld: "the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."

What is it to have transposed the personal act of contemplation, the need for familiarity in a moment of deep solitude to a public, shared space? In Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), Robin Wall Kimmerer equates the act of making to ceremony — attention focused so that it becomes intention [8]. Similarly, Tafakory tells me that "rather than just lending my eyes to enjoy the films and cry to my screen, paying my homage in a more filmic form seemed better appropriate. It's always difficult to touch material that you love too much — to touch poets whose words have been inseparable from my life since an early age.”

White noise crackles through much of Nazarbazi, we see and hear chords strummed as if to announce something. A single line is spoken (in sync) —Hanieh Tavassoli’s voice, hushed from the vulnerability of having just wiped away a tear [9].

read me a poem?

Poetry too is the space of stitching and in between. What isn't visible is not necessarily absent — it is to be gleaned. Rendered visible in Nazarbazi's interweaving is a redefining of erasure, an homage and a love of storytelling itself. It is the words Forugh didn't write on to the night's taut skin with her outstretched fingers — hands that were longing for connection [10].


[1] One of the bitter pills of the pandemic really is that the word itself has become distanced from its meaning, absorbing so many concurrent and conflicting experiences so that it somehow has no meaning at all...

[2] From Tigh-e Aftab (Sunbeam) by Majid Javanmard (1990)

[3] from Shabha-ye Roshan (White Nights) by Farzad Motamen (2003)

[4] From Kaghaz-e Bikhat (Unruled Paper) by Nāser Taghvā'i (2002)

[5] I am reminded of Robin Wall Kimmerer's reflection on the grounding circularity of weaving in Braiding Sweetgrass (2013): "The marvel of a basket is in its transformation, its journey from wholeness as a living plant to fragmented strands and back to wholeness again as a basket. A basket knows the dual powers of destruction and creation that shape the world. Strands once separated are rewoven into a new whole. The journey of a basket is also the journey of a people."

[6] Isn't this also the dynamic of so many classics of recent Iranian cinema? Asghar Farhadi, in particular, delights in the narrative device of delivering the active verb last as he slowly unpeels layers of a story onion to dramatic effect.

[7] Equally, you wouldn't translate line by line, as you'll just have to re-do the whole thing when you get to the end of the line.

[8] "For me, writing is an act of reciprocity with the world; it is what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me. And now there's another layer of responsibility, writing on a thin sheet of tree and hoping the words are worth it. Such a thought could make a person set down her pen." in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

[9] from Shabha-ye Roshan (White Nights) by Farzad Motamen (2003)

[10] Reference to Forugh Farrokhzad's poem The Sparrow is Dying (my translation); in Iran, many poets are referred to by their first names -– a reverent mark of familiarity and love.


Elhum Shakerifar is a BAFTA-nominated producer, curator and writer. Elhum set up Hakawati (meaning 'storyteller' in Arabic) in 2017; the company's core tenet is that a good story is in the telling, working to the ethos that we are the stories we tell. www.hakawati.co.uk

words sketched onto the night's taut skin by Elhum Shakerifar is commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella as part of the release of Nazarbazi by Maryam Tafakory. 

Nazarbazi (2021) by Maryam Tafakory, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella as part of BEYOND.

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