by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
[dropcap]Iranians[/dropcap] Azadeh Ahmadibaseri and her husband, Mohammad (Mo) Faraji, are both in their early 30s, and, at the time we met, were celebrating their 43rd day of living in the United States—in L.A.’s Koreatown, to be precise. In slightly accented English and in carefully, formally constructed sentences, Azadeh spoke with some enchantment about the neighborhood, a mix of Koreans and Latinos and Bengalis — a blending of cultures and faiths rarely found in her homeland.
She says she perceives a kind of wistfulness on the faces of people in Los Angeles who come from someplace else. Perhaps it’s projection. Perhaps not.
The couple is here because they won the lottery, literally, the Green Card lottery administered by the U.S. State Department. (Azadeh had applied twice.) Not that they had lived their lives cloistered in Iran. Mo—an actor and director—had worked in Poland (at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw) and subsequently, both of them traveled to Mexico, where they worked for six months at the invitation of director Raul Valles, whom Mo had met in Tehran. After Mexico, with a now burning interest in Grotowski and Polish cinema, Azadeh traveled by herself to Poland as a visitor for a month, just out of curiosity.
The couple affirms the truism that freedom of thought and of expression are profoundly curtailed in Iran by that culture’s single-minded focus on Islamic doctrine. Yet Azadeh, in particular, is quick to discern that in the Land of the Free, there are different elements that curtail freedom of thought and expression.
Some of these constrictions have to do with social media. Even with all of our online chatter, and freedom of chatter, and mind-bending encyclopedic vaults of data on topics ranging from entomology to the shape of the universe, Facebook and Twitter have harnessed our news feeds to our buying habits and documented interests. This systematically deprives us of information and perspectives that might annoy us and relegates us to media bubbles among the like-minded. This doesn’t add up to freedom of thought. Chatter among those with whom you agree isn’t thought at all. It creates encampments, armies marching in intellectual lockstep, led by mullahs, and goes a long way to explaining the erosion of civil discourse and even a wall preventing comprehension among the various cultures in our city, from such disparate places as Iran and Korea and Mexico.
Yet social media is not helping the ethnicities in, say, Koreatown, meet. Quoted in Advertising Age, Ebele Mora, a millennial, and chief Financial Officer of TUV Media, said, “Ethnic Internet users [in the United States], both younger and older, are congregating in spaces where there are people like them, or where they feel comfortable bringing people like them.”
Then again, Mo also credits the Internet for introducing him to theater practitioners who came after Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian director who seems to mark the end of the line in official Iranian theater studies. The likes of Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, and Elizabeth LeCompte—and the physical, ensemble theater of the 20th and 21st centuries that they represent—simply aren’t taught in accredited high schools and universities in Iran, where the focus, Mo explains, is restricted to naturalistic, language-based plays terminating at the end of the 19th century. He discovered the alternative worlds of physical and ensemble theater through Western websites.
Before we get too sanguine about our freedom of discourse, contrasted against the suffocating censorship of the mullahs and their theocracy from which, essentially, free-thinking artists such as Azadeh and Mohammad fled, we might want to consider that theater itself has been largely dropped from the curriculum of American public schools, and the existence of the kind of physical, ensemble theater that appeals to the Iranian couple is spottily represented in American universities and institutes. This begs the question of how curriculum relates to freedom of thought. How is the absence of an entire style or genre, or even the absence of an entire art form in a curriculum (an absence by default), so different from censorship for theological reasons in the case of Iran, or, in our case, for economic reasons?
We might also want to consider the slow and persistent erosion of our own language, and the relation of that erosion to freedom-of-thought. We might want to consider how the poetical and complex utterances found in increasingly marginal publications such as Harpers, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine have increasingly yielded to the popularity of truncated print magazine blurbs in the likes of Family Circle, Us Weekly, LA Weekly, and most newspapers; to the digital blip communiqués of Tweets, to the kind of doublespeak in our political and cultural discourse that was prophesied in George Orwell’s 1984.
Azadeh takes this line of reasoning one step further, referring to ever shorter attention spans, shorter sentences, a shorter space for words: censorship in sentence structure.
“The human race spent many, many years just trying to find language, and now we are coming back to symbols,” she reflects. “Icons, hearts, international symbols,” where we’re increasingly expressing ourselves in visual shorthand, which seems anathema to thought and its freedoms.
The issue isn’t that digital and faux-digital blurbs and bleeps are necessarily inferior to sustained erudition (which they are), but that such blurbs and bleeps and tweets more closely resemble verbal discourse among friends, and may, in fact, be replacing actual conversations among friends, with the visual cues and empathy that result when people occupy the same physical space, rather than the same digital space. There are multiple studies suggesting the attendant loneliness and isolation stemming from digital addiction. Meanwhile, printed erudition might as well be orbiting Jupiter, for all the sway it has in our popular culture.
These are among the concerns that intrigue Azadeh, since she is a poet (her poems and plays are in Persian, awaiting translation into English). She is also a screenwriter, which would explain the couple’s choice to decamp to L.A., where they’re living off some savings while Mo works in a restaurant.
Mohammad + +
Mohammed Faraji was born in Borujerd, a small town approximately 286 miles south west of Tehran. He is the youngest of seven brothers and three sisters.
“My parents were religious and traditional,” he says. “My father was a fundamentalist Muslim, radical religious,” until the last year of his life, three years ago. “Late in his life, he finally understood the [brutal] behavior of the Islamist Republic of Iran,” Mo explains, “and finally he changed, he softened.”
Still, through most of Mo’s youth, there was no music or dancing permitted in the house. The only music he recalls from that environment was the call to prayer. He would often flee to his aunt’s house because at least she had a record player, where he listened to traditional pop and classical Iranian music. He wrote down the lyrics to these songs in a notebook.
Mo’s mother died when he was 11, after which he lived with his father and step-mother. (“That was not nice.”) To escape the rigid grip of his father’s orthodoxy became a driving motive in his life.
“Imagine you have people that are able to think, and when you start to think, your first reaction to all that environment is, I want to tear it down. Because you cannot live under that political oppression. Because everything is political.”
When he was 12, Mo attended the wedding of his oldest brother, which took place “without permission of my father…. They invited a musician, and for the first time, I saw there was the possibility to play a musical instrument—a tar [a long, stringed instrument resembling a cross between a guitar and a double bass] and a tombak [a traditional Persian drum].”
Mo asked his father for money to buy a tar. Request denied. He sold some valuable books he had and bought his own instrument. “But I was not allowed to play at home. I was not allowed to take it out from the house uncovered. So I put it in a flour sack. It was my first contact with art.”
Mo studied and excelled in mathematics in high school, “but I really wanted to leave my father’s house, so I discovered in the fourth year of high school a program in art study in Tehran. I passed an exam for that school, and I got the permit to change my study from mathematics to art. I was actually doing well in mathematics, which my father wanted me to study, so I deliberately flunked the math exams, to prove to him that I wasn’t good in math. That was probably my first acting performance. You might call it the freedom to fail,” he quips.
“I left my father’s house at midnight, the first night in my life I was feeling freedom.” Mo headed to Tehran, which both he and Azadeh describe as the most democratic city in Iran, a refuge for outcasts. Mo lived with his sister there. He describes being poor and walking, lugging his huge tar, up to three hours each way to class.
Later, a cousin in Tehran recommended a private, unaccredited art institution where Mo found his mentor, Reza Ravanbakhsh, a theater instructor who took his students on a sojourn to the southeast border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“During this trip,” Mo says, “we visited national heritages of Iran that I’d only seen in photos. The trip was also fun. I just liked this theater coach guy. He was so mature in many ways. On the way back, I asked if I can attend his theater class, he said yes. And his theater class in that time, in Tehran, was totally different from any other theater classes, because he didn’t have government [accreditation], so it was like a source of freedom, no censorship. Most of our classes [with men and women training together] were taking place in nature, in the mountains. I was 18, and I just started to fall in love with everything. I didn’t have any plan to go to university. I was an anarchist, a rebel. I would learn everything, not only about theater but about life, from him. He would have parties at his house, he was inviting us, at that time he was 45 years old, and we were a bunch of teenagers. So he was kind of our friend and dad.
“All of us had a problematic family background, so he was reliable,” Mo says, “but he didn’t pretend that we could count on him because he wanted to make us independent. After one year of working with him, he [encouraged] me to study in an [accredited] university. Sooreh Art University of Tehran.”
This was in 2001, during a period of reform, when professors who had been fired from the university during an ideological crackdown, were invited back. One year later, Mo explains, the government would once more turn on the universities, as they had during the cultural revolution of 1980, when they closed the universities for a year, during which they performed background checks on students and professors, expelling and firing those they deemed too liberal.
“What are they so scared of?” I ask.
“Of thinking,” Azadeh replies. “Imagine you have people that are able to think, and when you start to think, your first reaction to all that environment is, I want to tear it down. Because you cannot live under that political oppression. Because everything is political.”
Mo started to encounter problems in the university for many reasons. He had been working in a non-accredited, uncensored institute with his mentor, Reza. The accredited university, however, was full of restrictions. At the institute, the genders mingled. At the university, men training with women was forbidden. In the institute, he had learned something about physical theater. In the university, physical theater wasn’t in the curriculum. “They didn’t talk about it at all. It was just verbal theater up to Stanislavsky.