Two Iranian-American scientists came to the 2017 Academy Awards in the place of nominee Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of The Salesman. They might have seemed out of place — a pair of accomplished professionals in hard sciences sitting not so far from little statues of gold nude men who were meant to denote artistic excellence.
Asghar’s film won Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday; prior to that, on Jan. 29, he’d announced he was boycotting the ceremony in light of President Donald Trump’s travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. The director did not even personally know his representatives at the awards: Anousheh Ansari, an engineer and astronaut, and Firouz Naderi, the former director of solar system exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
When Asghar’s film won, Ansari read a statement from the director: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear — a deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others, an empathy which we need today more than ever.”
The day after the Oscars, Naderi told BuzzFeed News he could at least conjure a guess as to why Asghar, whom he’d never met, asked them to take his place.
“This being cinema, he could have chosen Iranian-American actresses and actors to represent him. … As I said last night, once you go away from the Earth and look back at the Earth, you see no borders, no lines separating countries. It is one, whole, beautiful unit,” Naderi explained on the phone. “I think given that he wanted to be talking about the global nature of our world today, and argue against a travel ban, he selected two people who are not in arts, but who work in space.”
(Asghar did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.)
Naderi himself is an immigrant — he came to the US initially on a student visa in 1964, and he came back to the US for good after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. “I thought I would have come back anyway, because I already had my green card, and my intent was to make America my home, it just rushed it,” he said with a chuckle. “When the revolution came to Iran, they were anti-intellectual — I’m sorry to say that I’m seeing bit of that now in the US.”
Naderi also spoke against Trump’s executive order, saying that he was most troubled by how it negatively affected students. “This travel ban would not withstand even a modest logical scrutiny,” said the esteemed scientist. “Banning students to come here and go to universities, or a grandmother to come and visit the family? How does that change the equation in the Middle East? And how does it enhance the security of the US? … To alienate those people because you disagree with their government — the very government that oppresses them — how does that make sense?”