Transcendent Human / Ordinary Human

Golrokh Nafisi

Artwork: Aline Deschamps, "A party at Ramlet El Baida" extract of the series "I am not your animal", Photograph. 2021

Early in the morning, the last day before I left Beirut, the dollar was still at 1500LL. I walked toward the Corniche in the dark before dawn, waiting to take a taxi (service) to the airport. In Farsi, we call the sky before sunrise “Wolf and Sheep” (گرگ و میش). The term was probably coined by shepherds when it was difficult for them to distinguish wolves from herds at dusk. With the same inability to distinguish things in my mind, I walked down the quiet streets towards the sea.

Saying farewell to Beirut has always been a romantic affair, and Beirut generously allowed me to exaggerate those farewells. To say goodbye to Beirut, I felt I must think about its streets and neighborhoods one by one, and conjure the memories of their density. The density of houses and the width of streets, the density of tangled electric wires, cars, and balconies, the density of bodies on the Corniche. I thought of Hamra, where I had walked the most in Beirut, as a combination of the city’s many densities; its utter oblivion of a more recent history and yet its preservation of a distant past that had been completely erased elsewhere in the city.

But on my way to the Corniche that morning, the liveliest density that I carried with me was from the night before. A long row of Dabke dancers under the red flares of Riyadh el-Solh. The revolutionaries were moving slowly back and forth, like the waves of the sea, in line with Sheikh Imam’s songs. I was with them, I danced with them.

The sea was slowly appearing between the buildings at the foot of the street. The morning of the tenth day of the Lebanese revolution, daylight seemed to rise from the bottom of the sea.How do revolutionaries start the tenth day of a revolution? Who were the revolutionaries in Beirut that morning? In that unknown mass that had magnetically absorbed the whole city, what kind of humans were being formed?

Illustrations from Mansuri’s book “Anatomy of the human body” (Tashrih-i Badan-i Insan), Mansur ibn Ilyas, 1709. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine.

During the first months of the pandemic, amidst the endless confusions of trying to understand the relationship between the individual and the collective, together with all the paradoxical scientific statements appearing in the news, I returned to a series of images from the dissection book of Mansouri. The book was written and illustrated almost seven hundred years ago in a bid to describe the human body. In Mansouri’s illustrations, the human body had particular proportions; open eyes; short arms and legs bent on both sides, spread out like a map to show us a secret hidden within the human body. The dimensional drawings depicted miniature veins, nerves, and bones, alongside a special style of writing in annotation. Looking through these images, it felt as if this was the first time a human being had sought to enter into its own body, as if exploring the secrets of an inner cave.

During the period of Mansuri’s illustrations, the tradition of writing about the wonders of creation (عجائب المخلوقات) flourished. In this tradition, images operate precisely as the outer boundary of humankind, and any boundary between man and animal disappears. These texts are full of imagining creatures that never existed, attributed to unknown geographies. In their depiction of these wondrous animals, traces of being human can still be found: the eyes of animals are drawn as if belonging to a human face, and intermediate beings are formed—half-human, half-animal. 

The virus, we were told, had come from the Wuhan Livestock Market. It was as if we had returned to the blurred frontiers of Mansouri’s images, and animals and other creatures were no longer in the background, insignificant to the events of human life. Suddenly, they had become the main actors in this story. At the same time, there was a heated debate about how the virus could be transmitted from person to person. Humans had become dangerous to other humans. A strange feeling was telling me that we were being torn to pieces while the borders were closing one by one. The same virus penetrated all existing inequality gaps, amplifying them to new levels of injustice. We had to rethink the basics—to return to equality. To the most vulnerable people. How? With what horizons? With which comrades? Far from any collectivity, reduced to fear and isolation, I wondered what human was left in the wake of this pandemic.

“The City We Imagine” performance, Giulia Crispiani and Golrokh Nafisi, Live Works Summit, Centrale Fies – Italy, 2021. Photo credit: Roberta Segata.


In 2019, as I bid farewell to Beirut in the midst of an ongoing uprising some named a “revolution”, I thought back to 1979. For us, children of Iran’s 1979 Revolution who were born immediately after victory was claimed, the figure of the Human (انسان) was at the center of our revolutionary upbringing. In both official education and my family education (which was often opposed to the curriculum imposed by the state), Insan (انسان) was supposed to save us. The Revolutionary Man, Elevated Man, Eminent Man, Committed Man, Exalted Man.The path to an equal monotheistic society, a free society, a society independent of colonialism and imperialism, all were supposed to be embodied by this Insan.

The Exalted Man came in two forms: either the spiritual and transcendent man, who must prove his humanity in self-sacrifice for revolution and religion, or the secular and committed man, who must persevere under duress and keep alive the revolutionary ideals. But across all its ideological manifestations, the figure of this Exalted Human (انسان والا / تعالى الإنسان) remained at the center; He who could advance to the position of the leader of the revolution, a man who resists and sacrifices his life for the cause.

In the first decade after the revolution, the collective praise of the Exalted Man, the leader who never breaks, gradually became a tool of repression. In order to establish a new order, this man had to be broken by the new state, by torture, confession, execution, and fear. At the same time, the numbers of young people who were dying in the Iran-Iraq War inflated the word Martyr throughout the city. Spilling blood became both an honor and a tool for human possession. The Elevated Man, the guardian of the most beautiful ideals of humanity, was now defined only by the things for which he could die. The concept of the Transcendent Human that had been at the center of the 1979 Revolution became too heavy to bear.


Growing up in Tehran in the decades after 1979, it was as if The Transcendent Human gradually decided to prove his individuality. An individuality independent of the mass; indifferent, one-sided, and sometimes even opposed to unity. This attempt to break away from the mass became the main focus of a new kind of community: groups of young people who emphasized their individual identities. It was as if a form of a collective will was being formed to recognize the person who had been separated from the mass. Meanwhile, the experience of the broken revolutionary human had prompted us to make an unwritten agreement amongst ourselves that there should be nothing to break. Simply put: we no longer needed a leader. In the years leading up to 2009, there was an unspoken law in every political gathering, regardless of the ideas that were propagated, that we must recognize individuality. A will to be recognized as a human being who was not going to die for his/her idea, but who wanted to live for it.

But in June 2009, we found ourselves again in one big body after all. A formidable and all-encompassing greatness that, in a march from Revolution Square to Freedom Square on the afternoon of June 15, 2009, redefined our relationship with the collective, with ordinary people and with ourselves. A relationship with an infinite beauty that one could undoubtedly die for.

In the years that followed, and in the painful experience of internal splits and state suppression that once again reduced us to an isolated group of people, the classic post-uprising question came to our generation too: How is it possible to be loyal to the great body that we had seen? Where was the border between the individuality that we wanted to build, and the opportunistic culture of profit and loss that now swallowed our cities? Semi-individuals, rejecting leaders, threatened by the police, committed to that great body that was torn to pieces in front of our eyes—what kind of human could we become? And what vision of humanity was left for our poetry, our faith?

For me, the pure and unrepeatable experience of equality that I witnessed inside of the 2009 movement was the only answer that remained. Was it not on this horizon that stretched from the home to the street that our fear dissipated? The temporary equality of ordinary people in the squares, with their thousands of creative techniques of resistance in daily life, remained in my body’s memory like an ever-desirable impossible. My search for the texture of that density in the Arab squares over the last ten years was a continuation of this desire and its memory.


By the time I reached the Corniche, the sky was almost bright. I felt I had to say goodbye to the sea. I had to confess to it that Beirut, with all its wonders and anxieties over the past two years, had saved me from many dilemmas. She even made life in Tehran bearable. I shared my fears with Beirut, and she understood me. A small town that behaved like the big cities. She rejected things about the past but also clung to the past with a strange obsession. From where I was standing, only a few distasteful towers, blinding the city to the sea, accompanied me in staring at the sea with their dark, empty windows.

The sea that day was really ordinary. A few steps away from the balustrade on which I was leaning, a fisherman in a plastic chair leaned toward the sea. The chair was clearly small for his body. The fisherman was lying on his side, and small cracks in the back of the chair which were sewn together with wires testified to the sudden breaking of the chair in the near future. But It seemed that even if the chair disappeared, that same body with the same curvature to the right, and the eyes staring to the end of the sea, would still be there. The weight of that stable body made me pause. While I had been thinking of the movement between transcendent and ordinary humans as the subject of history/revolution, the fisherman sat down casually, somehow managing to keep his body stable amidst a fragile situation.

It crossed my mind: in all these revolutions, there were sensitive techniques, creative tactics and intelligent maneuvers based on daily life that kept us going. The fisherman, like an eternal presence on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, had blurred all these impossible boundaries into one side of a weak plastic chair. In that eternal lull, I imagined all the same human bodies on the seashore as far as Haifa, Sour, Gaza, Trablos, and how their gaze connected the distant horizons of the Mediterranean cities above its bloody borders. The sun of the tenth morning of the revolution was slowly shining on the steady hands of the fisherman. By now, the early rising revolutionaries must have been on their way to the bridge where they had set up a roadblock over the last ten days.

When I got into the taxi, I looked back to make sure that the fisherman was still there, at the corner of the Corniche. His place by the sea had a heavy, concentrated intensity, one that showed me how to keep sitting on a broken chair. To restore my broken faith, I memorized this image, and with it, the belief that it was still possible to belong to a large group of ordinary people who have built thousands of creative ways to survive; that it was still possible to stay, to resist, to fall in love in the middle of the square, to write a love letter from prison, and to transcend every interrogation. That no matter how many times we are broken, we can still believe in a transcendent human who cries in her solitary confinement at nights, and in an ordinary human whose gaze out onto the sea pushes past all its borders. In order to bid farewell to our beloved cities, it is this Human we must remember.

Golrokh Nafisi

Oh, wandering heart,
Do not forget that we
— you and I

We have observed the rules of love,

Do not forget
that we
— you and I —

We have observed the rules of Insan

Regardless of whether 
[he is] God’s masterpiece,
or not

Ahmad Shamlou
(From Three Hymns for the Sun, 1966)
Translated by  Golrokh Nafisi, with help from Kamran Rastegar and Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi