Spaces of Mourning

The Cemetery of the Unquiet graves and the Memory of Terror in Post-Revolutionary Iran

By Elham Rahmati

My uncle was a member of People’s Mujahedin of Iran, he was arrested in 1982 and after spending three years in prison was consequently executed and buried in an abandoned graveyard in Behesht-e Zahra, this section which is completely dried up belongs to people who were killed in state-sponsored executions of political prisoners across Iran during 80s.The majority of those killed were supporters of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, although supporters of other leftist factions, including the Fedaian and the Tudeh Party of Iran (Communist Party), were executed as well, at some cases the tombstones did not dare bear the name of the person lying under them.

The graveyard is surrounded by other graveyards, all covered with plants, trees and flowers. We would visit the cemetery and as a child I always wondered how this small piece of land where my uncle is buried is so different with other parts of the cemetery. There were broken tombstones lying around with only a name or date of birth/death, there were holes in the ground next to the graves where you could find papers or other objects with spells written on them which someone buried there with the hopes of having their wish granted by the dead or other beings I suppose. My uncle’s tombstone along with others was broken at times, we would immediately replace it with a new one but it was only a matter of time for the cycle to be repeated. To us it was obvious who was to blame, the same people we blamed for his death, those who resented the departed and what he stood for so much that they couldn’t even leave his grave alone after all these years, it became clear to me later that it wasn’t about him anymore and that through this act they were trying to send a message, establishing themselves as agents of a state that will haunt you down even after it ends our life for not playing by their rules. Just like that the tombstones became vital objects, battlegrounds that from where we were standing had the potentiality to act as inanimate agents of resistance.

It is possible to rethink our perceptions of ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ and what they mean and the functions that gets assigned to each one, objects aren’t necessarily passive; they’re materialisations of processes that are constantly undergoing transformation and being redefined. So all matter is alive and in process: a complex, interwoven web of materials, all affecting each other, competing, forming alliances, initiating new processes and dissipating others. Humans are unavoidably trapped in these webs.

Jane Bennett argues in her book “Vibrant Matter” that things aren’t solely alive in a mechanistic way (i.e. composed of electrons and atoms in motion), or imbued with a non-material or transcendent spirit: they are alive in their complex interrelationships, entanglements, and propensities for open-ended change. Most of the time, we think of objects as passive and stable things, and we humans are the only active subjects in the world. Bennett wants to dissolve this binary between subject and object, showing how these matters can all be ‘actants:’ they have the capacity to “animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle”(1). So What changes, then, when objects themselves emerge as actors with agency? There have been many discussions around how things constitute their own power of agency in many different contexts, making it appear as if the objects could act of their own accord, rising up to cut away at the sovereign power of different narratives. By studying the relationship between humans and things, Bruno Latour came to the conclusion that people are not the sole constituents of a society and therefore the only narrators of history, according to him things have a life of their own and their own historical narratives. For him things create difference, affects and effects that give them the capacity to push forward developments, challenge narratives and disrupt actions (2).

Going back to the forsaken graveyard, I’ve always found this act of replacing broken gravestones coming from our side quite problematic, by doing that we are constantly erasing the traces of the history of pain, trauma and oppression. This graveyard for me has a particular archival significance, this of course doesn’t mean that we should leave it as it is, untouched and broken in pieces for the others to see, there is a certain potentiality to this space that allows us to practice our agency in different ways. These gravestones are grounds representing decades of conflict between the state and its oppositions, a conflict that is never going to reach a point of consensus and therefore is never going to end.

Here we are being conditioned to think of the broken thing as being invalid or obsolete, but how to leave the breakage intact and yet at the same time transform it into something that not only doesn’t erase its past but resurfaces it – without hiding the damage?

Being in a turbulent country, you cannot act as though nothing is happening, that’s why art has to somehow create a balance. It is a space, one that has to stand in the midst of all this brutal loss and it is at this point that you can create some meaning and that meaning might help us ask difficult questions and maybe try to find answers to those questions.

1 Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
2 Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, 2006.