Under the Covers: Bunanameh more than ‘meh’

January 24, 2013

Buna Alkhas experienced 25 years of estrangement from his motherland, Iran, and from his father, the renowned Iranian-Assyrian artist, poet, and translator Hannibal Alkhas. This exile transformed Alkhas while he made his way around the world, while back home Iran was pulled through a totally polarizing metamorphosis.

Bunanameh, the travel diary of his reunion with both father and homeland, is just as intense as one would imagine. But Alkhas isn’t one for overt dramatics; his reunion story includes humorous anecdotes, poetry, and drawings stitched together with handwritten colorful prose. It is a visually arresting chronicle bursting with life even in the stifling atmosphere of despotically policed Iran.

Buna Alkhas’s Iran is depicted as an oppressively bureaucratic nation scrambling to control a suffering, discontented people. The “Moral Fashion Police” stalk the streets to punish women who dress “inappropriately” in public, so they do not “lead men astray.” Simultaneously, 24-hour marriages legitimize and forgive what would otherwise be prostitution. Regulations on moral code abound, but drugs run unchecked: “Cocaine, crack, crystal meth, pills, pills, pills, everything. Syringes and pill packets litter the sidewalks. I heard a young girl brag in a corner store, ‘My baba doesn’t need to take sleeping pills to sleep.’” Caught up in their power plays, the government, the Ayatollah, and the Imams are unconcerned with the problems Iranians face in daily life.

With these daily travails, it is no wonder that post-revolutionary Iranian society suffers from collective schizophrenia: “A taxi driver asked me what differences I saw in Iran after being away for 25 years. I said, ‘I’m really sorry to say so, but it seems to me that everyone is a little bit crazy.’ To which he replied, ‘Only a little bit! How kind of you!’”

Alkhas manifests his eccentricity through obscene humor almost offensive to encounter. He drops it deftly into beautifully worded pages, even those deriding the flaws of the new Iran. On one page, Alkhas cites Hafez and praises the Iranian people for their beauty and intellect, but on the next, he embarrasses partygoers with sexual innuendos drenched in alcohol.

This raunchiness just may be Alkhas’s reaction to the daily absurdities of Iran. He is desperate—desperate to make people laugh, to get a reaction, to feel happy. This need sometimes presents itself as immature humor, and is made only more intense by the everyday horrors faced by Iranians.

Buna Alkhas himself is salvaged by the vibrancy of poetry and art. Fortunately, his book is too. It is really no wonder that people go crazy under the stifling blanket of Tehran’s toxic smog and nonsensical rules, but Alkhas’s memoir shows that the beauty and vibrancy of poetry, storytelling, food, dance, and other Iranian arts guarantee the survival of an incredible people.

These “ropes of passion” pull Iranians out of the “sewer of daily existence,” but Alkhas carefully points out that art is crucial not only in a society as oppressed as Iran. “I spent January 1st until May 1st of 2003 in SW Poland and never saw the sun, the wind would howl from the south and the crows would have their weddings and caw doom into your veins, and this happens regardless of what type of government exists. Any kind of art would let you see the beauty in the gray.”

Alkhas, soon after the revolution, was told by a family friend to “open Hafez’s collection of sonnets and choose a poem at random [This is quite a common ritual, especially with Hafez. People ask questions or just seek direction. My Baba wasn’t superstitious at all, yet he was amazed at how Hafez knew the answers.]”

This is what Hafez had to tell me about Bunanameh:

“Wheresoever beauty flies / Follow her on eager wings / Beauteous wild imaginings.”

“Wheresoever she may tread / Lovely vivid flowers arise / Springing swift as thoughts unsaid.”

Even amid the ugliness of Iranian politics and daily hardships, Alkhas takes this philosophy to heart, finding beauty and laughter in the most unexpected places.


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buna alkhas

wow, emilia brahm, i feel like your ‘review’ of bunanameh was my reward for hard work well done. i have been back to live in iran now for 18 months, focusing on translating poetry from farsi to english. choosing 200 poems from the almost 700 i have translated since arriving and putting them together left farsi/right english, matching up fonts and style and learning word office, well i just attached what i hope to be my next book and sent it off to my publisher in milwaulkee (my sister anita :) no sooner than i pressed send than i recd an email with your review!! karma? i’d like to think so, well, no, i am sure!
thanks emilia, for seeing what was there.
buna alkhas