In Dubai their current burst of productivity doesn’t leave much time or energy for goofing around. At night they go back to their apartment in one of the city’s countless generic high-rises—an haute-kitsch loft they’ve tricked out with an Astroturf floor, zebraskin-patterned walls, and Iranian and European contemporary art. The two spend most evenings at home watching Fassbinder or Pasolini films. Sometimes a few friends will join them, though both men remain steadfastly single. “There are already so many people around making children,” jokes Rokni.
People who meet the artists after seeing their inflammatory work are often struck by their gentle and easygoing natures, which offset any whiff of self-righteousness. While I’m with them in Dubai, they propose a spontaneous day trip to Abu Dhabi, so we hop in their silver SUV and take the 12-lane highway out of town. Our first stop is the colossal new Sheikh Zayed Mosque, a glossy marble complex boasting 57 domes, the world’s largest carpet, and what has to be the most colorful 49-foot-tall chandelier anywhere. “Very Jeff Koons!” Ramin declares. Later we go to an art exhibition that features a few extraordinary Cy Twombly paintings; the brothers are in awe as they stare at the works, speechless.
“I think the main problem of humanity is religion,” Rokni said earlier. “The kind of mentality that wants to define everything as good or bad, angel or devil.” Also critical of Tehran’s cliques of self-satisfied intellectuals, he believes Iran’s much hyped Green Movement was a bust, and is distressed to see his countrymen accept their fate with a kind of torpid passivity, often accompanied by excessive nostalgia or bitterness or both. Asked for specifics, he offers an example from his family. “My mom went to boarding school in England, and grew up traveling around Europe.” Now, he says, she’s a housewife who dutifully puts on her head scarf when she leaves the house, and if she ever dares criticize the people in power, she does it meekly, in case someone is watching.
It seems as though someone is always watching in this part of the world—even in the United Arab Emirates, said to be the most permissive country in the region. Last year, just a week after Ramin and Rokni arrived in Dubai, a man who worked for the storage company of their longtime local art dealer, Isabelle van den Eynde, found the images she’d printed for the catalog for Ramin’s “Men of Allah.” Horrified by lipsticked men touching one another, the worker called the police. Ramin was threatened with arrest and deportation, and the dealer was summoned before a cultural standards panel. The case was ultimately dismissed after van den Eynde appealed to a high-ranking minister and promised to destroy the offending images. Undoubtedly she was well aware that there are plenty more where those came from.