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A Vestige of Free Speech in Iran

by CONTRIBUTOR in Tehran

03 Aug 2010 20:13Comments


In Iran, where all major opposition newspapers have been closed, where a small public gathering can lead to arrest, there remain few avenues of free speech. Of those few, one of the most accessible is the theater.

During my summer in Tehran, I was invited to see a play, Jazeereh Eshgh (Love Island), written by Hamid Reza Sa'atchi. On the basis of its title, I anticipated a cheesy romance -- even more so when the lights went down and a voice rose up, reminiscent in tone of Michael Buffer, the "Let's get ready to rumble" guy. The protagonist, played by Mahmood Reza Esmaili, loudly asked the crowd to make some noise and I watched the audience of all ages cheer and clap on command. Despite the over-the-top start, I was pleasantly surprised to watch a refreshing play filled with social and political satire of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In one scene, a man stands with arms outstretched, as if reading a newspaper. A woman walks by and asks him what he's doing.

He replies, "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm reading a newspaper."

"So why isn't there anything in your hands?"

"Well, they've all been closed, so I'm forced to read them like this!"

Another scene depicts a woman who asks the main character a question for which the answer is "Two." At first he holds out his index and middle finger, making what could be taken for a peace sign -- in Iran, however, that gesture is the V-for-victory sign, made popular last summer by the Green Movement. The man, realizing his faux pas, says, "You can't even show the number two like that any more!" He offers some comical alternatives, most memorably raising his thumbs, which in Iran means "Up yours."

The main character jokes about the "parasite" or static emitted by the Iranian government that jams popular satellite TV channels such as BBC Persian, VOA, and Farsi 1. He mocks the new hejab culture created by the ingenious way Iranian women sexily wear their head scarves -- hair poofed up at the top and tucked behind their ears -- accompanying a meticulously drawn-on face. He even cracks jokes about Ahmadinejad.

The play was reminiscent of a Shakespeare production in Elizabethan England, when women were forbidden to participate in the theater. Though women are allowed to act under the law of the Islamic Republic, they are not allowed to sing and men and women are not allowed to touch. As a result, directors and actors alike are finding new ways and rediscovering old ones of surmounting moralistic obstacles to free expression. In this case, one of the characters dresses up like a woman, and the other man falls in love with her, gropes her, and makes sex jokes as they sit in an invisible canoe. Each stroke of the paddle becomes more and more rhythmic and suggestive.

It seemed like there were a few people who worked for the government in the aisles to monitor the play and make sure the place did not become too rowdy. Though they stood cross-armed at first, I even saw a couple of them crack smiles.

Iranians have always found clever ways to maneuver around the censors and criticize government policies. Journalists now write their editorials by strategically piecing together quotes from Ahmadinejad and other government officials to demonstrate the rampant discrepancies and general absurdity of their comments. Painters embed in their art multiple meanings to appease the government monitors while also speaking to the Iranian people.

While all of these modes of expression are significant, theater remains one of the most accessible and easily understood forms of social and political commentary. It also provides a necessary release from Iran's stifling atmosphere. It's a space where the youth can meet with peace of mind, leaving worries about guardian patrols and morality code checkpoints behind. It's an arena where one can momentarily forget about Tehran's oppressive traffic and pollution. More important still, the theater provides a shared experience, an opportunity for Iranians to commiserate and laugh about their political and social restrictions.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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