The Deep Cut

Were you thinking of leaving your head, your apartment or maybe a country perceived as a cave?
A composer and researcher, Sarvenaz Mostofey shares notes on Iranian syncretism, long-distance communication, and sounds of healing.

Sarvenaz Mostofey in conversation with Krzysztof Gutfrański — Mrz 17, 2021

The Deep Cut, page 2 of the prison notebook, photo Sarvenaz Mostofey

Krzysztof Gutfrański: This issue of Solitude Journal is about magical consciousness. You once told me about a Persian myth involving a sort of energetic vampirism. It was about rulers of the past snatching and eating brains of the young generations to remain in power. Do you think power can be perceived as a form of magic?

Sarvenaz Mostofey: The root of the word »magic« is supposed to come from magi in ancient Zoroastrianism. In the past, magi or Mogh (in Farsi) meant the »spiritual leader« or »priest,« although in the ancient Greek texts they were seen as witches and nothing more, in most cases. Different historical sources show different interpretations of what these people actually did. In some, they were considered the servants of the fire temple; in others, dream interpreters who issued prophecies on the future and through which they infiltrated the king’s decisions and manipulated them. For ancient Iranians, magic and sorcery were the religion of the devil, but it is interesting that the actions ordered to neutralize spells were also a kind of magic. Magic was also mixed with healing and power, and if you open ancient books of Avesta1 or Shahnameh,2 you can find that magic existed both for good and for evil, as Zoroastrianism is something between polytheism and monotheism.

Zoroastrian rites were the state religion of three great Iranian empires, which flourished almost continually from the sixth century BC to the seventh century CE and dominated much of the Near and Middle East. First taught among nomads on the Asian steppes, Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the three great Iranian empires and had a remarkable influence on other world faiths: to the east on northern Buddhism; and to the west on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. With the conquest of Iran by the Muslim Arabs, Zoroastrianism lost its secular power but continued to survive as a minority faith. Despite its antiquity, it remains a living religion, giving extra cues to the tradition of magic.

»For ancient Iranians, magic and sorcery were the religion of the devil, but it is interesting that the actions ordered to neutralize spells were also a kind of magic. Magic was also mixed with healing and power, and if you open ancient books of Avesta1 or Shahnameh,2 you can find that magic existed both for good and for evil, as Zoroastrianism is something between polytheism and monotheism.«

What interests me in all this is not the legacy of a long-term history or multiple dynasties, which left the population alone with post-invasion destruction, but rather the magical effect of time preserved within language, music, and poetry. Verses are present in literature from the hard science of Avicena to the historical epic poems of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. I find it quite playful. Symbolic terminology became a corresponding motif throughout the time, which is repetitively present and imprinted on Persian poetic tradition. Persian poetry is in constant dialogue with people, and present in everyday life. You can read and understand literary works from centuries ago; it’s strange but true. Many contemporary musicians are still singing the poetries of the medieval era and they are well-received. I do not think it is a form of archaism; on the contrary, it means that these poets are actually very contemporary.

So, what about the story of the brains?

Well, I can give you a beautiful take from the story of Zahhāk (another name for Ajidahak), one of my favorite parts from Shahnameh. The evil king Zahhāk was fooled by his cook, who was actually Ahriman (the evil spirit in Zoroastrianism) himself. Ahriman kissed Zahhāk’s shoulders, and snakes came out of each of the kissed places. After this incident, Ahriman orders Zahhāk to feed the brains of two young men to snakes every day so that he is not bitten by them. Each day, Zahhāk’s agents kidnap two men and kill them, so that their brains can feed Zahhāk’s snakes. Two men called Armayel and Garmayel decided to rescue the young men from the deadly snakes. They learn to cook and become Zahhāk’s royal chefs. Each day, Armayel and Garmayel saved one of the two men by sending him off to faraway mountains. Then they swapped one human brain with that of a sheep. Why didn’t they do this trickery to save both men is something I always thought about as a kid.  Eventually, the people led by Kaveh Ahangar, who was a blacksmith, revolted against Zahhāk and elected Fereydoun as a king. Fereydoun captured Zahhāk and imprisoned him in Damavand Mountain. The myth may have a natural origin, as Damavand Mountain was once an active volcano that erupted at least once – rivers of lava flowed from it like horrible fiery snakes. The story of Zahhāk being trapped in Damavand may have originated at the same time the eruption of Damavand lavas stopped. The constant fear of Zahhāk breaking his chains can be seen as concern about the volcano’s reactivation.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Deep Cut

Sultan Mohammed, The imprisonment of Zahhāk in Damavand, »Tahmasebi Shahnameh«, 1525-35, Metropolitan Museum, NYC (wikicommons).

How can you outline the dimensions of esotericism in Iran?

You can feel it in the landscape, geography, and language. For example there are multiple stories and folklore about the winds. And different meanings and multiple stories with mythological winds. One of the most renowned comes again from the Shahnameh. It covers a mythological story of Arash the Archer, who is a heroic figure of Iranian mythology. There are two brilliant contemporary adaptations, in a play by Bahram Beyzayi called Arash and an epic poem by Siavash Kasrai.

In the myth of Arash you can find a major battle in Mazandaran when Turanians surrounded the Iranian forces and the commander of Iran proposed a truce. Afrasiab, the king of Turanians, accepted, but to humiliate the opponent, he offered a game. It was a sort of archery competition. Whatever land falls within the range of an arrow shot should be returned to Manuchehr, the king, and the Iranians. Everything outside its range will go to Afrasiab. An angel (spendarmad) instructs Manouchehr to build a special arrow and bow. Standing on top of Alborz mountain range summit, Arash fires a specially-prepared arrow but also sacrifices his own life while launching it. The arrow travels very far, from dawn to sunset, before finally landing by Jay-hoon River at the border. Then you can feel more air in this story: Vayu is a god of wind in both Indian and Iranian mythology. It protected the arrow’s flight and also gave extra energy to it. It is interesting that Vayu – the symbol of neutrality in Iranian myths as he makes sacrifices for both Ahura Mazda (the highest deity of Zoroastrianism) and Ahriman (evil spirit) – decides to take sides this time and help Arash.

The fact that many Iranians name their children after someone who saved the country from humiliation and misery by throwing a life-sacrificing arrow says something about a wish that a single arrow can save everyone. It also implies something about sacrifice that I wish were different: I wish parents would give less heroic names to their children, so people can be more liberated from the weight of history.

Regarding bows and arrows, do you see the wind as a moving force of sound? How does listening to the landscape influence folk music in the region?

Sets of beliefs called Zār exist among the coastal people of southern Iran, common to coastal African countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. It is a precious ethno-musical cult intertwined with magic, performance, and nature – the sea and wind, which are also the source of supernatural phenomena in the south. The wind is the main player and like the dual character of wind in old myths, they believe that winds are also good or evil. They have different names and they are powers that rule all the unseen mystical creatures. Zār are the most dangerous, most common winds and there are more than seventy types of them, depending on where they are coming from. They believe that humans can be possessed by these winds and fall into insanity or get seriously sick. The community developed the practice of exorcising possessed bodies, which usually lasts for a couple of days. Māmā zār (female) or Bābā zār (male) lead these ceremonies. To me it is an early example of (drum) music therapy and a gesture of public care to the individuals in the community, because Ahl-e-Hava (literally: »community belonging to the winds«) are the people who were successfully exorcised and have to attend every Zār ritual. Other people from the cult, who may or may not be possessed, also participate in the ritual and can eventually go into trance to speak in tongues. In videos, you can see ghostlike trembling bodies under ceremonial veils. It is simply beautiful.

But it is very difficult for nonlocal people to access these rituals and that’s why this practice fortunately survived. These are some general things that I know from various sources. And since the language and culture of beach dwellers differ from one village to another, these rituals can be very different. The beauty of these ceremonies is the alternative way in which people in that region cope with their difficulties; the people who receive the least share of the economy in a region that provides for the whole country. The industrialization of the coastal region, with its ecological impact on the people who were living in peace with their environment and were freely trading with other coasts, had long-term consequences on their everyday lives. To take away the freedom of specific people in the name of modernization, which they could not even benefit from, could lead to all those distressed, possessed bodies. Therefore, the Zār ceremony can be interpreted as the hopeless request of the Southern human for nature to return to balance.

It seems your interest in esoterics focuses on birds connected to magic, like those of woodpeckers and crows. Here I would like to talk about your site-specific sound installation, on which we could work together during Akademie Schloss Solitude Summer Festival. Can you introduce us to the project?

I have a special relationship with birds and love them so much. In Tehran I am a member of a gang of crows and we exchange gifts on my balcony. I remember one of them once leaving a beautiful stone on my windowsill. But while in Solitude, I was fascinated by the sounds of the forest, especially woodpeckers drumming. These birds are considered patrons of magic, forestry, and rhythm. They drum not only because of juicy worms hidden under the bark, »healing« the trees at the same time (which in its own right also creates homes for other birds). They are unique because they cannot »sing« in the conventional bird sense. So they developed a long distance communication for mating and claiming territories by drumming on various surfaces. You can find stunning examples of woodpeckers drumming on non-natural objects like a NASA space shuttle or electric poles. Sometimes it is like trance music. As an American naturalist Fannie Hardy Eckstorm poetically explained, »Other birds woo their mates with songs, but the woodpecker has no voice for singing. He cannot pour out his soul in melody and tell his love his devotion in music … He is the only instrumental performer among the birds; for the ruffed grouse, though he drums, has no drum.«3

The work Neither Aleph, Nor Lam was also a dialogue with one of the old buildings of Schloss Solitude, a former barn located on the edge of the woods around the castle. The project was inspired by the surrounding forest, acoustic aspects of wood, and long-distance communication. One of my ideas was to bring the environment around this building inside and make the walls transparent, to create a space which is also connected to its surroundings; a fluid in-between zone that imitates nature and dialoguing with the forest. I installed the sound of woodpeckers drumming inside a timber-framed building made of trees growing around the castle. Hearing woodpeckers drumming from my studio was an inspiring moment. I would frequently go to the woods and field-record. The way they connected in my head – an old notebook and drumming woodpeckers – was not something so clear to me. Maybe it was the code that I imagined was existing in that notebook or maybe it was a magical organic correspondence, but the auditory experience while listening and recording woodpeckers was the closest auditory association that I experienced through language. I can just grasp it as an effect that an alien language triggers in you. So in this sense I become an outsider who does not understand a language.

Nature and subsequently its sound are considered noise in multiple urban spaces. Audio architecture and ubiquitous music are predominantly present in urban life. Even if these sounds are recorded sounds of nature and played for people to hear, they transform nature and its huge rich sounds into manipulated replayed mellow background noise. One of the sound technologies that has actually been migrated from military research are flat-panel speakers that can vibrate any surface and turn them into sound transmitters. In this piece I used panels in the form of the timber frames of the walls of the barn to vibrate the loud drumming of woodpeckers and prison tap codes.

The prison »knock code« plays an important role in your project. How does it relate to your background?

Writing and deciphering messages in secret code and other forms of secret writing have long played an important role for both long-distance communication and the occult. Today when anonymity gains different dimensions, both in problematic countries and in the global village, where most people are busy bees producing content for Big Tech, you can see the relevance of the unknown. Just imagine how we have become accustomed to communicating with others using devices such as mobile phones, computers, intercoms, and so on. Slowly forgetting that in emergency situations these things may be inoperable or unavailable, like what we actually experienced in November 2019 protests with 10 days of internet blackout in Iran. Imagine if you were trapped in a structure after an earthquake or perhaps imprisoned or taken hostage. How could you communicate if your voice could not be heard, or if you want to convey the message only to those who should hear it?

So, here I was interested in exploring sonic qualities of the so-called Polybius square. It is a device invented by the ancient Greeks and made famous by the historian and scholar Polybius. The device is used for fractionating plain-text characters so that they can be represented by a smaller set of symbols, which is useful in all types of simplified distance communication: for telegraphy, steganography, and to certain extent cryptography. The device was originally used for fire signaling and drumming, allowing for the coded transmission of any message. In modern and contemporary times this system has been widely used among the prisoners around the world and known as the knock/tap code. For example:

HELLO – 23 15 31 31 34 (tapping: .. … . ….. … . … . … ….)
THIS IS THE WAY OUT – 44 32 42 34 / 42 34 / 44 32 51 / 25 11 45 / 43 54 44
(tapping: …. …. … .. …. .. … …. / …. .. … …. / …. …. … .. ….. . / .. ….. . . …. ….. / …. … ….. …. …. …. )

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Deep Cut

The Polybius square (wikicommons). Pls, add: The vertical column goes first. There are different variants of the square exist (as for position of the letters).

One of the references in Neither Aleph, Nor Lam was your father’s diary from the time of imprisonment in the 1950s in Iran. There are references to prison codes, something the Persian poet Hafez called the rend or Aesopian language, as well as references to very contemporary notes on medical training in warfare. What was it like to sonify such a specific artifact?

Imagine being able to talk to someone who is not able to speak anymore. That puts me in a phase of creating a dialogue with the past through an object, and also digging it out from a completely different context. I was imagining that this is a notebook more than information on first aid or medical training. So that prisoners were trying to teach each other. The strength of the symptoms discussed were a way to discuss contagious topics strong enough to travel through concrete walls. To code to other inmates and also to share this knowledge when you are released from prison. I think this notebook was addressed to me as a distant but familiar tap-coded message.

And you mentioned the rend. It was a mythical construct for Hafez, devised for a person he wished to be and admired – a character created with so much deliberate ambiguity, one who is against hypocrisy and is spiritual, beyond demands of legalistic religion and false piety. An early Bohemian poet and artist? An antinomian? Maybe, but as soon it turns into a pretentious image, Hafez immediately rejects it. To define rend is very difficult, but it is more difficult to become one.


Sarvenaz Mostofey is an Iranian sound artist and composer currently based in Berlin. Her projects incorporate space as an active attribute in the process of creating art, exploring interconnections between modes of sonic attention and concepts of space. She was a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2020.

Krzysztof Gutfrański is curator, editor, and researcher. His contextual research practice pivots on issues of social engagement, alternative education, theory of value, and non-functional thinking in the era of systemic and technological transformations. Krzysztof was a fellow at the Akademie in 2020 and is co-editor-in-chief of this issue.

  1. The Avesta (/əˈvɛstə/) is the primary collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism, composed in the Avestan language.

  2. The Shahnameh (Persian: شاهنامه‎, Romanized: Šāhnāme pronounced [ʃɒːhnɒːˈme]; lit. »The Book of Kings,« is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran.

  3. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm: The Woodpeckers. New York 1901, p. 15.