Wednesday, 18 March 2015

'The glances they withstand': inside the lives of Iranian women

On a small stage in Tehran, three nameless women tell tales of love, loss and solitude
Hamhavaie is a play written by Mahin Sadri and directed by Afsaneh Mahiyan Photograph: Azadeh Moshashaie. Courtesy The Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

Darkness overtakes the room, as the air fills with the sounds of bubbles popping or small objects smashing. Something has fallen, but the echo does not stop. A tragedy is about to unfold, yet as the lights come on and actress Elham Korda is revealed gathering walnuts from the floor, we have no clue as to its depths.

Three women, each with her own story. None has a name, but their identities emerge from the tales they tell. Each narrates a monologue, never acknowledging the others. But they have common memories - of childhood, of war - and when their stories cross, one stops and another picks up the thread. They cook as they speak, each in her own kitchen corner, chopping, cutting, mixing, and sometimes pausing to reflect. The small Shams theatre allows intimacy between viewer and actor.

This is Hamhavaie (acclimatising), one of the most celebrated dramas on the Tehran stage in recent years and which is now being prepared for Europe and possibly the United States. Written by Mahin Sadri and directed by Afsaneh Mahiyan, Hamhavaie had two consecutive sell-out runs to rave reviews, and in February won Elham Korda and Setareh Eskandari the best actress prize at the annual Fajr theatre festival. “So pure and so perfect was this play that I had to take pen to paper and let the world know,” wrote actress Pantea Bahram in Shargh newspaper.

On the programme were written three lines: “We looked at the people of this play, those present and not. We are not to judge, to give out convictions, or take sides. We mean neither to glorify nor belittle them. We wanted only to peek at their lives.”

Hamhavaie adopts a vivid, almost documentary approach to these women, the love that failed them, the pain they endured. It takes the audience to every corner of their solitude. Hamhavaie is a story of three women, but also the story of the society in which they live, the neglect they face, the glances they withstand. It is bold, daring and deeply tangible to audiences across age and gender.

Though the identity of the women is never mentioned throughout the play, they emerge as familiar individuals. Elham Korda plays Mahnaz Daliri Fard, wife of Iran-Iraq war pilot Abbas Dowran. In July 1981, when his F-4E Phantom jet was hit on a mission to attack a refinery in Baghdad, Dowran flew the plane into the city’s Al-Rashid Hotel, where Saddam Hussein was due to host a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement. We have heard this story many times before, but now we glimpse its meaning for his spouse: “After 20 years I received a leg bone,” says Mahnaz Daliri Fard. “For 20 years, I had cried over an empty grave.”

The second women is Shahla Jahed, mistress of ex-football player Nasser Mohammadkhani. Setareh Eskandari appears in this role. Charged with the murder of Mohammadkhani’s wife, Jahed was held in the limbo of courtrooms for eight years before writing in 2010 to the head of the judiciary asking for her trial to come to a close. She was convicted and hanged a short time after. Nasser Mohammadkhani watched her die without intervening on her behalf.

Baran Kowsari takes the role of Leyla Esfandiari, the acclaimed Iranian mountain climber who died in 2011 on the way down Gasherbrum II, on the China-Pakistan border and the world’s 13th highest mountain. She had expressed to friends her wish to remain on the mountain if she were to die there, so her body was never recovered. After starting a career as a microbiologist in a hospital, Esfandiari had quit her job in order to climb mountains, funding most of her expeditions personally, even selling her home.

Hamhavaie (acclimatising) is the process by which a species adjusts to change in environment. In climbing, it refers to the body adapting to less oxygen. The play makes the viewer sync with the breath and pulse of these women’s stories, as slowly and delicately it forces the audience to grapple with the trajectory of their lives, without laying blame or pointing fingers.

“We were married on 8 November 1979, I had never seen a war,” says Mahnaz Daliri Fard.

“Was loving you a crime?” asks Shahla Jahed. “Was greeting you at the door with fresh juice a crime?”

Often, truth seems absurd. In a style that reminds one of Beckett’s Endgame, the women one by one portray the vicious circles in which they are caught. Does one climb to be free or to flee? Where does love go, forever waiting? What happens to everything two people have shared when one watches the other sink?

“I am drawn to stories that are not bound to a time or place, that tell a common story, that show our efforts to make meaning out of lost identities,” Afsaneh Mahiyan, the 41-year-old director of Hamhavaie, tells me in an interview. A graduate of Azad University’s school of art and architecture, Mahiyan was a student of the late celebrated theatre director and teacher, Hamid Samandarian. Beginning as an actress, she has established herself as a theatre director with nearly a dozen plays.

With Hamhavaie, the stage reminds us of a cooking segment. The women individually cook throughout the story as they speak: cake, kabob. And halva - a confection made of flour, sugar, rose water and saffron served at funerals. But in the final scenes, the cooked food which they have spent the entire time preparing is thrown into the rubbish bin. All except Elham Korda’s halva – which is set out on what seems a grave.

“We took cooking, and the kitchen, as the symbol of life and womanhood,” says Mahiyan, moving long delicate fingers in rhythm with her words, her black hair and red highlights flowing loosely from beneath her grey-green shawl.When you love someone, you want to share a meal with them, you think about what to prepare. But their meals are thrown away, their love reaches no conclusion.”

Hamhavaie is not just well told, it is clever. Where censorship is rampant and taboos plenty, it says everything it needs to say. “When you place your finger on the weaknesses of any society, it will have its difficulty,” says Mahiyan. “I too was worried about the obstacles we might face, but we were very careful about how we said things and, surprisingly, we faced almost no obstacles of that sort.”

The excitement of the pre-show crowd, as the audience huddles together on a cold night in the lobby of Shams Theatre, recalls the exuberant air of theatre in the 1990s. “We had a golden age of theatre and cinema, in the 1990s,” Mahiyan recalls, “because people in administrative positions did not give themselves the right to inject their personal opinions into artists’ work. Ever since, it’s been a roller coaster, going up and down.”

Hamhavaie speaks of war and women’s experience of war outside the cliches prevalent in public space. War is neither glorified, justified nor condemned: it is “peeked at”, as the programme suggests. “To speak of a martyr’s wife was of course a sensitive issue,” says Mahiyan. “But I believe that to be a family of a martyr is an absolute truth in this country, one that needs to be told from the inside.”

Families of martyrs have seen the play, she continues, and told her that it was beautiful if painful to watch. Mahnaz Daliri Fard was interviewed for the writing of her own segment and saw the performance. “She enjoyed it immensely,” says Mahiyan.

Mahnaz Daliri Fard is the only one of the three women still living. The extensive research of writer Mahin Sadri included film archives, and interviews with Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, lawyer of Shahla Jahed, and with the coach, climbing team and peers of Leyla Esfandiari.

Perhaps, in the end, what makes Hamhavaie so powerful is the collision of fiction and reality in its exploration of these lives and lost loves. In the final scene, we hear jets flying above and see Elham Korda lying in darkness on her husband’s grave. Her life and love are encapsulated in a plate of halva. No matter how much we prepare for a meal, we can never know for certain if it will be shared.

Via The Guardian

No comments:

Post a Comment