Dreams and artwork are two things that seem to provide an invitation for interpretation, and cultural perspective is almost always going to influence that interpretation. At first blush, this statement may seem to fly in the face of Jungian interpretation, since the collective unconscious and the enduring interpretation of symbols might suggest that symbols would not vary across cultures. However, such an interpretation ignores the fact that Jung acknowledges the impact that individual culture has on the interpreter. While symbols may retain a broader overall meaning across cultures, the details of those symbols are certainly influenced by the surrounding culture. Moreover, some symbols may be culturally specific. In fact, this paper will discuss the veil and its relation to Islam, and how the surrounding culture can color interpretations of the veil in art and in dreams.
Because the symbols in dreams and artwork are influenced by culture, it is important to understand the cultural background of the person dreaming and creating the artwork. Western art underwent a dramatic change in the Renaissance. "The world of religious feeling, of the irrational, and of mysticism, which had played so great a part in medieval times, was more and more submerged by the triumphs of logical thought" (Jaffe, p.243). However, Islamic art did not undergo the same transformation at the same time. Muslim nations experienced a scientific and cultural renaissance before Europe, and Muslim art had a different approach than European art. Muslim art, being strongly religious, always retained an element of the mystical. This is reinforced in the idea that dreams, which, like artwork, have a subconscious element, are considered to be mystical by many Muslims.
While both dreams and art can have universal meaning, understanding the cultural context can be critical to understanding the more specific intended. In this paper, the author's dreams and artwork will be critically examined. Therefore, it is important to understand my cultural background. I reside in the United States, but come from Iran. As an Iranian woman, I would be expected to be veiled while in Iran, and, that expectation would not be a matter of choice, but a matter of coercion. This is a significant cultural detail, which varies among cultures; in non-Muslim countries most women are not veiled, and women are certainly not pressured to be veiled. Therefore, even if veils might have a greater over-arching symbolic meaning across cultures, it is important to recognize that veils may have specific meanings for Iranian women. One of these meanings may be a feeling of enforced silence or gender-based oppression. However, an equally valid meaning may be as a form of intentional religious expression. It is important to keep in mind that this cultural-specific symbolism may enhance or compete with traditional ideas of what the veil may symbolize.
It is also critical to recognize that in Iranian culture, dreams and dream interpretation are an important part of daily life. Dream interpretation is not something left to discussions with psychologists or other professionals, but something that is part of daily life. In fact, this is something that permeates much of the Muslim world. There is an inconsistency in much of the Muslim world, where there are conflicts between Imperialist influences and traditional culture. Moreover, these conflicts require resolution. As people, "strive to resolve the conflicts generated by such inconsistencies, they employ those strategies which are culturally available to them. Dreams are one such strategy" (Ewing, p.59). Understanding dream messages is important for Iranians because of a cultural belief that dreams are a signal of the future. This is a significant contrast to the Western view of dreams, which can be very dismissive. Westerners tend to ignore dreams, and label them as merely dreams. The idea that dreams can be prescient provides a critical underpinning to the cultural differences between Iranian culture and the prevailing western attitudes. Moreover, Muslim culture gives women a certain authority in dream-life, which they lack in daily life in much of the Muslim world. "At the level of public or mass consciousness, Johansen and Gilsenan indicate another theme of Muslim dreaming, both traditional and contemporary, that of the empowerment of women as dreamers. The modern example is the cult of the saints in Egypt. While women's dreams of saints commanding them to attend shrines are disparaged by scripturalist male religious authorities, such dreams allow women to penetrate more public social spaces" (Hermansen, p.84).
Of course, the Iranian perspective on dream interpretation, while it may differ from the Western view of dream interpretation, is not isolated. Dream interpretation can form an important part of a culture. In fact, "By studying dream sharing and the transmission of dream theories in their full social contexts, anthropologists have realized that both the researcher and the subject of research create a social reality that links them in important ways" (Tedlock, p.260). It is not only dream researchers who form these links with their subjects, but any person interacting with another person about dream interpretation. Therefore, while I will interpret one of my dreams for this paper, it is important to realize that I am doing so with the knowledge that I am writing for a Western audience with Western attitudes and beliefs. While Iranian cultural beliefs about dreams are not quite as extreme as the Asabano, who view dreams as real experiences and "valued sources of information," they are not nearly as dismissive as Western views of dream life (Lohman, p.112).
Cultural relevancy is important, not only in understanding the role that dreams play in Iranian culture, but also in understanding the symbolism in the dreams and artwork that are interpreted in this paper. The dreams, artwork, and poetry investigated in this paper all feature symbols of veils. One of the important things to understand about veils in Iranian culture is that they are commonplace. One sees women in veils as a part of daily life. Therefore, for veiled women to appear in dreams or in works of art is nothing unusual. In fact, while the veil may have great symbolic significance in Iranian art, it can also simply be a piece of clothing. However, the reality is that while a veil may be somewhat commonplace in dreams, when they appear in art, they are almost certainly symbolic of something. However, what they symbolize may be different for the artist and for the person viewing the artwork, because veils can be symbolic of everything from joy to grief.
Estelle Lovatt addresses the use of veils in art. She begins with the idea that "the veil has come to be observed as a declaration of religious and cultural differences, affiliated with foreign political assumptions of the East, and developing a symbol of cultural oppression" (Lovatt). However, the reality is that the veil is not an Islamic innovation. On the contrary, the veil has been used as an item of clothing, and in art, since Biblical times. The veil has been used to symbolize everything from bridal virginity to a widow's grief (Lovatt). However, Lovatt also acknowledges that "post 9/11 the veil has been relied on as a potent abbreviation that takes on dress codes as symbolic of oppression" (Lovatt). Of course, that is a Western perspective of the veil. As an Iranian woman, dreaming of a veiled person does not necessarily symbolize oppression, though it certainly can. However, the Western view of Islam also certainly colors the perception of veils in Islamic art by the Western observer.
I recall a dream in which veils played a significant role. I stood in the yard of a mosque, without a veil, the wind blowing through her hair. Two or three other women were sitting near a small mosque pool. Suddenly, a hundred women with black veils begin passing me. In the dream, I felt a feeling of fear, because of being unveiled in the mosque. The veils passed through my face, and I began walking way. I captured this dream with a line in a poem, "So that a hundred women with black veils can pass me in my dream and Leave me with fear of my city."
After leaving the mosque, I found myself in front of the ruins of a building with Islamic architecture. Frequently, these ruined buildings are seen in photographs with veiled women passing by them. However, in the dream, I was standing in front of the ruin, unveiled, and not passing the building.
My interpretation of the dream draws upon my Iranian heritage. First, the dream shows a significant difference between me and the other women in the mosque. Though all of the women in my dream ostensibly believe in God, because of their presence in the mosque, we show their religion in different ways. Something about the dream suggests that, even though all of the women in the dream believe in God, we do not belong in the same time and place. I felt ostracized by the veiled woman in the dream, and the burden of the notion that failing to…