On a Sunday in mid-November, just days after the election of Donald Trump, David Roy and Forouzan Safari drove from L.A. to the desert outside Victorville for an amateur rocket launch.
Alongside fellow hobbyists with the Rocketry Organization of California, a group Roy has been affiliated with since he was a teenager, they prepared their own missile for takeoff — but with an added element to make a social statement. Using a paintbrush and both white and black paint, Safari, who emigrated from Iran in 2013, carefully emblazoned the body and nose of the rocket with a poem written in Farsi. Then, as Roy handled the technical aspects of the launch, Safari put on her "Iranian clothes," a black hijab and khaki trench coat. This caught the attention of the predominantly white launch attendees.
"Right after I put on my hijab, I noticed that people were staring at me," Safari recalls via email. "Little children came around us to see what I was doing, and they looked scared. I tried to be normal but I could feel the eyes on me because of my hijab. It wasn’t a normal scene for them. Some of them came to us and start talking to David. They avoided eye contact with me and they asked questions from David and my other Iranian friend who did not have hijab. They wanted to know what I wrote on the rocket and what I was doing there with this outfit."
What she'd written on the rocket was a poem by Rumi. It goes: "Abandon your deceit, O lover, become mad,/And from the heart of the flame, come out, become a moth."
After explaining their project to the group of rocket hobbyists — "After they understood our idea, they were really supportive and said that they appreciated our art," Safari says — Roy and Safari proceeded to post pictures to social media of Safari posed alongside the rocket. Then, for context, Safari posted an image to Instagram of rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard posed alongside one of his rockets in a very similar manner. She included the caption: “You can change the meaning of a photo by wearing hijab because your media has already changed the meaning of the Middle East for you.”
"Why," Roy wonders, "is this historic photo interpreted so differently from ours? What has informed [people's] ideas of Muslims and the Middle East?"
According to Roy, a native Angeleno who grew up in Jefferson Park, the project was a "spontaneous" response to the election of Donald Trump and the spate of hate crimes, particularly against Muslims, in its wake.
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Public feedback was overwhelmingly positive, although people at the launch and on social media expressed concern over the artists' safety. But if their safety is truly a concern, then that makes it precisely the time to create art like this. Roy says, "If you feel inspired to make political work, do it with courage and do not censor yourself. This kind of work is more important now than it has been in generations. I think that artists will play a vital role in leading the resistance against the fear and hated that has surfaced with the election of Donald Trump."
And Safari approached the project from a place of experience: "I had the same experience during the Green Revolution, the political movement that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which protesters demanded the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office. In that time there was a huge separation between people in Iran. They hated each other because they couldn't accept other opinions, and the government used that separation to kill people who were against Ahmadinejad. Violence and divisions also made so many people leave the country that they loved in a large diaspora. Our country lost so many educated people because they felt Iran is not a country that they can work or live in anymore, and that there's no one who would appreciate their opinions or ideas. We had a huge immigration issue for young people that all wanted to have a better education out of the country. It made my country broken and that should not happen again here. Artists should be united for bringing the people of the U.S. back together. My advice to artists is to make art about these issues and educate people with what they think is right."
She concludes, "They shouldn't leave the country or stop making art because right now is a really good opportunity for speaking out."
A short film Roy and Safari made about the project is screening at the Echo Park Film Center (1200 N. Alvarado St., Echo Park) on Wed., Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. echoparkfilmcenter.org.