THE 12TH FESTIVAL
The 12th Festival of Arts was scheduled to open on September 3, 1978 at the end of Ramadan. By then the country, suffering from a severe economic malaise that was induced and increasingly fueled by the politics of oil was in the grip of a popular uprising that was to culminate in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the summer of 1978 people were on the streets, tensions were high, government workers were on strike, massive demonstrations were organized by a coalition of activists from the left, right and center marching under the banner of religion, which engineered and unified the otherwise pluralistic and initially secular movement by billing itself as a democratic liberating force. On August 19, religious zealots set Cinema Rex in the southern city of Abadan on fire burning more than four-hundred innocent moviegoers to death. The momentum was unstoppable. Given the turbulent and threating conditions, the festival organizers decided to cancel the 12th festival.
The performing arts were not new to Iran and had been cultivated, practiced and promoted by public and private institutions in the country for more than a century. Native and foreign forms of music, theatre, dance, and film were part and parcel of public life in Iran and were tolerated even by religious doctrinaires that considered most artistic activity sacrilegious profanity, especially where women were involved. The difference was that local conditions notwithstanding, ten out of 356 days a year the Shiraz Festival of Arts distilled and unleashed the full power of creativity not from a third world perspective but as an equal partner with the rest of humanity in the 20th century. As such, it stood out, eliciting admiration and accolades, but also a level of criticism and hostility beyond the standard share accorded all groundbreaking, high visibility cultural events around the world.
Interrupting the flow of the festival was like tearing a page out of an unread book to borrow a phrase used by a philosopher in reference to the destruction of species. But memories linger, experiences are handed down, and historic paradigms are recalled and applied. The knowledge that it is possible to build and exercise a free, tolerant, and diverse society in Iran, which is what the festival was all about, and the footprint of the cultural awakening that it induced cannot be erased. The last chapter of Jashn-e Honar is yet to be written.
Mahasti Afshar, October 2013