When I started this blog, just over a year ago, it was in anticipation of a visit to Tehran for the International Fadjr Theatre Festival.
The Fadjr International Theatre Festival
It’s the largest theatre festival in the region and Visiting Arts has sponsored groups of UK theatre professionals to attend over the last seven years. That particular visit was cancelled at the last minute, but fortunately the invitation came around again this year. I always intended to write about the experience and this is my journal from the trip:
Saturday January 24th, 2009
Perhaps to make up for the seasonal reversal of the normally unbearable Iranian summer, the cabin on the British Midland flight into a wintry Tehran from Heathrow is stupefyingly hot. An elderly lady behind me is suffering breathlessness and it is suggested she goes to the back to lie down where it is cooler. Dressed traditionally in a hejab and clutching her shopping bag tightly, she does not want to move. She squeezes her bag tighter and becomes fainter. Poised between fear and uncertainty, she is unable to move. An eternity passes. Farsi is translated into English and English back into Farsi. The air hostess is gentle and encouraging. The tension breaks and the woman moves. Thankfully, she feels better by the end of the flight.
As we arrive at Imam Khameni International Airport, all the women arraign themselves in the hejab as it is compulsory to wear it in Iran and as the sign warns us upon entry it is a local custom that “respected ladies” are requested to observe. The airport is very modern and all baggage is screened on the way into the country, presumably for different kinds of contraband, such as alcohol.
Imam Khomeini International Airport
At 2.40 am local time (bizarrely, three and a half hours after GMT) we are met by a delegate from the Dramatic Arts Centre (DAC) in Tehran and, after some customary and pointless faffing, we board our bus. The Producers Group (of which I am a part) consists of Ruth (DCMS), Leyla (Northern Stage), Vicky (Dance Base) and Peter (Spilt Moon) and the party is completed by Nelson Fernandez, formerly Director of Cultural Operations at Visiting Arts, and Yvette Vaughan-Jones, the current Executive Director.
Reported to be the old city gate to Tehran
The ride into Tehran is along a bleak motorway with little sign of life until the end, but the entrance to the capital is enlivened by red and green lighting showcasing the motorway underpasses and some vibrant flashing palm trees in orange and white. The city itself seems a little desolate and predictably deserted, apart from the incongruously named Top Burger near the British Embassy.
Eventually, we are taken to the Hotel Marmar, which is a shame, as the comparatively sumptuous Ferdossi where we were supposed to be staying is “full.” We are promised that it is only temporary and that we will change later.
Stepping out of the bus on arrival, the pollution immediately catches in the throat and I am reminded of the recent article in The Guardian, which reported on the almost complete disappearance of birdlife in Tehran as a consequence of this car-choked city of 12 million.
The Marmar is a bit shabby looking and a disappointment compared to the five restaurant, swimming pool and wi-fi access that the Ferdossi promised. Nelson is visibly crestfallen. Having visited seven or eight times, he knows what he is missing. All the same, we are lucky to have this opportunity and the accommodation is more than adequate.
There is a notional idea of getting up at 10am, but I fail that test and sleep through my alarm until midday. My first fatal mistake is to not realise that I have brought the wrong solution for my contact lenses and that I have soaked them in the punishing hydrogen peroxide cleaner, which scalds my right eye when I pop it in and leaves me looking like a bloodshot pirate. The briefing schedule we receive from Sholeh (Visiting Arts part-Iranian Farsi-speaking project manager and all round fixer) goes by unheard as the tears stream down my face.
Regardless of my agony, we decide to have lunch in the hotel – meat kebabs, rice, delicious salads and a stew featuring the Iranian speciality of dried limes. Suitably replenished, but sorely lacking a decent coffee, we set off to see our first performance of the day at the seven auditorium DAC venue in central Tehran.
Arriving at The City Theatre, there is a crowd gathered around a street performance. The drabness of Tehran and the blacks and greys of the clothing in the crowd is set against the colourful red and white of the all-male street troupe performing some kind of traditional folkloric play to music. All of the performers wear very tall red hats and white tunics while yellow banners unfurl in four directions from one man, who does not seem to be having a very good time, but seems like he is a kind of Zoroastrian sun or fire god.
Off to one side, we are led down a concrete circular staircase, which someone finds worse than a visit to Derby Playhouse, into an open area with a coffee bar and a crush of people queuing for “Quartet Titanic.” As VIP guests of the DAC (which is a bit of an uncomfortable privilege) we are ushered into our seats at the head of the queue. While that would occasion a chip on my shoulder the size of Atlas’s globe back home, it seems it is acceptable at this festival and the mainly young audience are unfazed.
In the semi-darkness, we negotiate steps and corridors and banked seating before finding a seat in a studio similar to many in the UK. Nelson invokes health and safety, as I observe the lack of any fire doors and exit signs. “This is nothing,” he warns me, as the rest of the audience are allowed in to take up the remaining seats, the gangways and all available space across the front of the stage. There is an immediate irony in this tightly controlled society having the sort of lassez faire attitude to safety that would bring out Theatre Managers across the UK in a simultaneous combination of sweat, hives and heart palpitations.
On first impression, “Quartet Titanic” is about as unfortunate a first experience in our trip as if an iceberg had been incidentally involved and the band went down playing out of tune. The idea is that a group of homeless people live in an underground subway, surviving off the waste that gathers there and unable to stop the trains that rush through each day. At a certain point, a magician appears and, after a convoluted series of appearances and disappearances, each denizen of the underground is offered a way out of their predicament through a magic box, if only they can summon sufficient belief and faith. One by one, they escape, leaving the last to a lonely fate and cursed by his inability to believe.
Admittedly, as this play was entirely in Farsi, it was a bit of a struggle to follow and defeated both Nelson and Ruth, who took it as an opportunity to catch up on their sleep. Additionally, the acting style was very naïve and unsophisticated – like really bad children’s theatre with a zealous pursuit of a commedia-like quality that defied any richness and nuance. It seemed to be aiming for a low-fi absurdism that must feel very true to Iranian life and undoubtedly had a coded resonance, but felt very grating and hard-going. Apparently, Iranian audiences are quick to give standing ovations, but this response was noticeably muted.
Unfortunately, it was hard to balance my feeling about the piece against the incredible struggle theatre-makers in this country have in expressing themselves. In this theocratic dictatorship, each piece of work must be submitted in script form for approval to the state and watched at the final stage by the censor who can demand changes to any physical, verbal or interpretative element they see fit. As the state appointed arbiters of theatre in Iran, that power is vested in and executed by the members of the DAC in Tehran – technically, the people who are our hosts.
Indeed, the doorstep brochure for the 27th Fadjr International Festival features some perplexing statements from leading Iranian figures as well as invocations “in the name of God” from the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Messages such as this from President Ahmadinejad:
“The Art of Theatre must interpret (the) human in his (sic) utter excellence (and) integrity with the most elegant definition and eulogy.”
Even the deceased Imam Khomeini has a few thoughts to share:
“Art in the Islamic Mysticism delineates justice, honour, and relinguisment (sic), and figures the embitterment of hungers, (as well as) disgrace by wealth and power.”
There was a short interval before the second performance where there was the opportunity to mingle with the other practitioners supported by Visiting Arts out here – those working with Iranian artists as they attempt to develop their own capacity and find new ways of supporting their work in an unimaginably bleak environment.
A much more exciting piece of theatre followed. Entitled “Metabolic,” it was directed by Atila Pesyani, who is also well-known in Iran as an actor. A piece of incredibly accomplished performance, the work was an abstract meditation in twenty one tableaux on memory and suffering, which was at its best when creating a feeling of deep unease which did not become explicit. Occasionally images of torture and madness lost their power to shock by becoming too banal or obvious, but, in the main, it was as surprising an event as it could get.
Metabolic directed by Atila Pesayani
Performed by an ensemble in hooded gowns, each tableau featured a central character whose inner voices, memories and fears were accessed through the multi-media incorporation of projection, video and sound. The electronic score by Ankido Darsh was the equal of anything I have heard by Western artists and skilfully weaved ambient street sounds, ritualistic singing as well as rhythmic and discordant beats like an Iranian 310 or Murcof. But the images – occasionally overlaid with an elegant and poetic text – seared in the memory.
That evening a large group of us went to an apartment in North Tehran in a rich, liberal and modernist area. The contradiction and true nature of Iranian society soon began to be brought home to me. In the taxi, we receive a call from our DAC minder, who is permanently on duty at the hotel. Demanding to know where we were going, he emphasized that we were not allowed to go anywhere without telling him exactly the details of our trip, the address and the names of the people we were visiting. Though technically responsible for us as hosts while we are in Iran, any compliance on our parts would bring suspicion on the people who we were visiting, especially that drinking alcohol was involved.
Thinking this was not remotely likely in an alcohol-free Iran, we came into a beautiful apartment covered in some gorgeous contemporary art work and greeted by our welcoming hosts with vodka, red wine and a smiling, fashionably dressed woman in a relatively revealing bodice and without her hejab.
Much of the build up to this trip has been preoccupied with pouring over the long list of do’s and don’t’s provided by the Foreign Office, including the advice that even men are advised to dress conservatively and in dark colours at all times as it is a season of mourning for a revered Imam. I have been surprised at how little this is observed by the local population of Tehran, but the wearing of the hejab in public is an absolute rule that nobody defies.
When all the remaining women immediately remove their headscarves, it is quite a surreal sight as most of them I have only ever seen wearing a hejab and it is as if I have to learn what they look like all over again. Even more surprisingly, our guests turn out not to be a couple. The woman is simply a friend of the man and the party is attended by several of his male friends.
Officially, homosexuality does not exist in Iran. My guide book says it is quite common to see men holding hands and being physically close, but gay men are heavily persecuted and in many cases brutally executed by the government. The prohibition on soft drugs is also equally extreme. We have been told that Iran is contradictory and surprising, but I did not imagine I would be experiencing quite how much on my first full night in the country.
Sunday January 25th
Heeding Ruth’s advice about following the advised itinerary for at least the first two days, Yvette, Ruth, Peter, Leyla, Vicky and I attend a seminar hosted by the Iranian International Theatre Institute and with the world President of the UNESCU-sponsored ITI, Ramendu Majumdar from Bangladesh, in attendance. Unsurprisingly, the meeting is a series of banal homilies on the ability of theatre to achieve greater understanding across cultures and some opaque discussion of how ITI functions in different countries. In passing, ITI in the UK is described as “a one man centre” with politely coded derision of Nevile Shulman – its President.
However, the real story of what was going on was harder to read. Chairing the discussion was Dr. Farindot Zahedi from Tehran University, whose eyes flicked left and right throughout the seminar in a riot of discomfort and whose anxiety was palpable. Billed as a meeting with Iranian artists and for them to get to know more about ITI, there were only one or two artists present, who were deeply confused about what was going on, highly sceptical about what was being discussed and treated dismissively by DAC. However, there was a vast turn-out from the Iranian media, who were treated to the explanation that the thin attendance was because the artists were too busy with the festival, the marketing for the event had been poor and most Iranian drama students were on vacation at this time of year…
It got particularly interesting when the ITI President mentioned Israel, which caused a huge stir in the room as the journalists were then instructed by the DAC not to use the term. When asking quite reasonably what should be used instead, DAC had to ring the Ministry of Culture to receive guidance. In Iran, the land covered by Israel is known as the Palestinian Occupied Territories, or sometimes “the country we cannot name,” as Iran does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. It transpired that the translator was also instructed not to translate the discussion for us.
Eventually, it became clear that the real problem was that the DAC is also the ITI in Iran by default and that the artists had boycotted the seminar in protest at its illegitimacy. The meeting would not have taken place at all if we had not turned up, as it would have left the audience consisting of the two non-Tehran-based artists and scores of the media. Unfortunately, we had dragged ourselves from our beds in order to save the government from a minor humiliation in full view of the media.
At The House of Arts we met up with the UK team involved in the capacity-building workshops and afterwards had the chance to introduce ourselves to a group of Iranian artists – many of whom manage their own work as well as create it. The session was quite brief, which was quite frustrating. Having exchanged cards, however, it will be interesting to see who gets in touch and how the new Producers Forum in the UK can take relationships with Iranian artists further.
On the one hand, I am nervous that the relationship implies the UK catering to a supposed inadequacy, when the reality on the ground is far more complex than we could imagine or understand. For example, the Finnish President of ITI had spoken in the morning of memberships organising themselves to overturn rules that they were unhappy about. Presumably, she was forgetting that she was speaking to a people living under dictatorship. On the other hand, there is a strong feeling among Iranian artists that they need training and that the West holds all the answers, when it is more likely that their isolation leaves them feeling unconfident and that they possess the solution to their problems themselves.
The "Happiness" or "Magic" Bus
As we left the workshop, we were told to look out for the “Magic Bus” – an arts project for young children, particularly street kids, supported by the Mayor of Tehran. The brightly multi-coloured bus duly arrived, blaring music and with excited peels of laughter emanating from the children within in their traditional Iranian dress. A member of the workshop – the project organiser, Forough Qajabeigi – was immediately engulfed in hugs from the children, before being led on a joyous dance around the concourse, by two red suited and black-faced performers talking and singing in a nonsense language. Apparently, Forough is also working with children in prisons, as children are not treated any differently from adults in the Iranian penal system. There are also many, many children who beg on the streets of Tehran.
Magic Bus performers
Bringing happiness to street kids in Tehran
Over at Molavi Hall, there was the usual busy throng waiting to get in to see “Sky of The Snowy Days,” which was billed as “Bonnie and Clyde meet each other in a restaurant… They start with some pilferage all of a sudden in one of them.” Presented out of competition because of difficulties with the censors, it was a more than usually hot ticket, as evidenced by the people literally banging on the doors to be let in after the performance had started. Performed in traverse and with English surtitles, it was a beautifully written text with an outstanding performance by the actress Negar Abedi. For me, the piece was extraordinary in many ways. This was at once, Bonnie and Clyde and yet not Bonnie and Clyde. It bore little relation to the film of the same name and ended with Clyde shooting himself to death in a hotel shower.
Clearly rooted in a contemporary Iran with an observation of certain compulsory social mores – the hejab, the lack of physical intimacy – it was also an Iran that has never existed. In effect, it was a virtual Tehran of the imagination – one that impossibly contained the urban poetry of swearing, booze, violence and eroticism. Almost fatalistically, the play showed Bonnie drawn to a man that sickened her as if fascinated by and then addicted to the nihilistic existentialism he espoused. The electric danger of the piece was palpable as it was about the rebel outlaw in a land which fundamentally defines itself by the law – law derived from the word of God.
The production had limited rehearsal and was a bit rough around the edges, but it featured extensive video excerpts on a flat screen television (seemingly ubiquitous in Iran) as a background to the main action. Bonnie was played – a little too self-regardingly for my taste – by Hassan Majooni, a cult Tehranian actor, who made a touching speech of thanks after the performance.
The evening began with a party at the British Embassy, hosted by the current Ambassador Geoffrey Adams and his wife Mary Emma. Beyond the chaos of Tehran and some highly secure defences, the Embassy built in 1876 is a breathtaking building which hosted the 1943 Tehran Conference – the first meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin during World War II.
Mr Adams was a very friendly and convivial host, but, seeing his three young children, I was reminded how difficult and vulnerable his position is. On December 31st, 300 Iranian radicals stormed the Embassy’s other compound in the north of the capital at Gulhak, firebombing the consulate and driving the official, his wife and their one and a half year old baby out of their residence. Across the road from the Embassy, I took photographs of a post box daubed with a slogan saying “Down with England.”
Opposite British Embassy
Yet nothing could have seemed further from the Ambassador’s mind, as he described to us his pleasure in restoring an enormous painting of a Persian King that was over 400 years old and towered over the dining room where the Allied leaders had once sat together.
Driving by taxi around Tehran is one of the most risky adventures I have ever encountered and yet it is our regular form of transport. Less than one per cent of the cars would pass an MOT in the UK and the appalling pollution is just one of the unfortunate outcomes. Guide books warn of the very high rate of deaths and accident on the road in Iran and it is easy to see why. Pedestrians take their life in their hands as they try to cross even the narrowest streets, although the roads are mostly clogged with vehicles that can barely move. When they do, cars move at the fastest possible speed and without observing any perceptible rules. If there is an available gap in the traffic, the driver heads for it and, what my driving instructor used to refer to as “lane discipline,” is non-existent. Approaching junctions, red lights and traffic coming from all sides are more or less ignored as drivers negotiate their way. After a while, one starts to relax and admire the almost intuitive way drivers make minute, but crucial adjustments of a matter of inches at speed in order to avoid a disaster. On our way to dinner, our taxi driver narrowly averted a car edging out into the traffic. When the offending driver was given a stern look by our man, there was retaliation as the car was driven into the side of our vehicle. As it was only a little nudge, we carried on to our destination – clearly this is nothing to worry about here.
Food was plentiful in the shops and takeaways abounded, but decent restaurants seemed hard to find in Tehran. One exceptional place was the Khayem restaurant opposite the beautiful Seyed Nasr-edin Mosque.
Seyed Nasr-edin Mosque on Khayem Avenue
In light of the previous paragraph, it should come as no surprise that the restaurant was originally a part of the mosque until a road was built through the middle of it. Iranian food is incredibly fragrant and delicious, mainly featuring kebabs, rice, flatbread and salads. The Khayem allowed us to do this sat cross-legged in authentic style and to pass the hookah pipe around afterwards.