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The Persian Rite of Spring: The Voice of Niloufar Talebi


11 Mar 2011 15:14Comments

[ spotlight ] This March 20, the first day of spring, families across the United States will celebrate a special type of New Year. They will be joined by people from the Middle East to Asia to the Caucuses to the Balkans in this 3,000-year-old tradition.

This holiday, which marks the spring equinox, is called Nowruz, literally "new day." It is on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This celebration of light over dark, which first began with the Zoroastrian religion in Iran, is celebrated today by various ethnicities and faiths across the world.

The rich cultural history of Nowruz has been explained by writer and performer Niloufar Talebi in the multilingual multimedia work The Persian Rite of Spring. The show, on which Talebi collaborated with composer and video artist Bobak Salehi, has been described by Dr. Touraj Daryaee, professor of Iranian history at the University of California, Irvine, as "a mesmerizing performance...expertly researched, written." Talebi, he writes, "bring[s] our ancient heritage to life with a 21st-century point of view."

In an email interview, Talebi described what has inspired and informed her work, including both The Persian Rite of Spring (which is now available on DVD) and Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels), her latest piece, which will premiere at New York City's Carnegie Hall on March 29.

* * *
What made you interested in Iran culturally? Was it gradual or did you have a moment you can recall that you wanted to immerse yourself in this?

Well, I've always been engaged culturally, since I come from a family that provided me with a well-rounded cultural upbringing, which laid the foundation for my work. My areas of interest far surpass things Iranian, but regarding drawing inspiration from Iranian culture in my recent projects despite having formally studied Western literature, art history, and performance, there was an aha moment when I discovered the platform my unique access to both cultures furnishes. First, I could learn about Iranian culture, then respond to it creatively and shepherd the material in the service of art. Many of my projects are somehow about fusing and reimagining the things I learn in my inquiries into Iranian culture.

I embarked on my anthology BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World because I wanted to learn about modern and contemporary Iranian poetry. I created The Persian Rite of Spring, and Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) because I wanted to learn about Iranian mythology, the Shahnameh [The Book of Kings, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around the year 1000], and Zoroastrianism. So I research concepts and topics of interest, and respond creatively, and that's how my Iran-related projects are hatched.

"The Persian Rite of Spring" seems very well researched. You methodically start from Shab-e Yalda [literally, "night of birth" -- the celebration of the winter solstice] and work your way through 13 Bedar [literally, "discarding the 13th" -- the traditional holiday spent outdoors on the 13th day of the first month of the Persian calendar], giving their histories and modern practices. What went into the research? What books and literature were used? Was it written solely by you?

2009 was a wonderful year for me: I was researching and writing The Persian Rite of Spring and Ātash Sorushān at the same time. In all my inquiries, I have the compulsion to find roots and context. This is a neverending inquiry of course, and goes all the way back to the Big Bang! I was devouring anything I could get my hands on that gave me a bigger picture of Iranian mythology, ancient culture, its use in classical poetry, Zoroastrian practices, etc.

I did not set out to start from Yalda, but at some point in the research, when the story was forming, I realized that it is all about LIGHT, the yearning for light, and the celebration of its birth. I then realized why Yalda/winter solstice is so important; it's really rejoicing in the fact that darkness will give way to light. So I decided to frame the story in the mythology, poetry, and practices around that yearning. I've collected about 400 pages of research, and so I could easily expand on the current Persian Rite of Spring if I wanted to.

I thought you did a great job of incorporating Persian, English, and Avestan. What were the considerations of when and how to incorporate the various languages? Did you have familiarity with Avestan before this show?

Thank you. I wanted The Persian Rite of Spring to be a storytelling project in English, and including some Persian poetry in the original. I wanted to write a story about Nowruz that I'd want to learn from and be transported by. That meant incorporating context, background, as well as drama. I really just wanted to learn about how things connected, the mythology, the poetry, the history. I also wanted to infuse the prose story with poetry, as is the tradition with Shahnameh naghali [traditional Persian performative storytelling].

Because so many Nowruz traditions have roots in Zoroastrian practices, it went without saying that I wanted the audience to hear some prayers in Avestan.

I had no prior familiarity with Avestan. So I scoured the Internet and libraries for Zoroastrian texts in Avestan and Pahlavi, and in Persian and English translations. There are numerous Zoroastrian texts and making sense to what fit in where was (and still is) an intricate process. When I had narrowed down the texts I wanted to consider for The Persian Rite of Spring, and wanted to hear the language spoken live, I made calls to Zoroastrian temples, practitioners, and to scholars. The best help I got was from a wonderful and generous man whose home number was listed on a temple website, and who spent two hours letting a stranger record his voice going through pages of text. I received similar help for the Shahnameh text and other poems included in the show from two wonderful scholars and poetry lovers.

Would you consider what you do a modern-day naghali?

Oddly, nothing is more limiting than categorizing and defining.

If one generally defines naghali as storytelling, then, yes, my work in ICARUS/RISE (which consists only of dramatic and bilingual recitations of poems with video, music, and dance) and in The Persian Rite of Spring (which is a prose telling of a story that incorporates poetry in three languages, with video and music) is partially "modern-day naghali."

If one defines naghali as the specific forms of stylized and usually solo performances of certain texts (such as, but not limited to, the Shahnameh) in Persian, done by naghals in Iran, whose art form has been passed down from a mentor, then, no.

Perhaps a more accurate question would be whether, loosely inspired by naghali, my work creates a new, hybrid, multidisciplinary genre, bringing together literary texts with video, dance, lighting design, music, narration, performance, translation, etc. Or perhaps whether the projects harks back to a tradition of public performance of poetry in Iran. If/when I incorporate German poetry in my work, would there still be a point in asking whether I consider my work modern-day naghali? I prefer not to adopt rules to be confined by, and though I know for communication and promotional purposes the work needs to be defined, I am totally uncomfortable doing it.

All immigrants, particularly in America, have the challenge of assimilation. Collectively, consciously or subconsciously, Iranian Americans will decide what we retain as we move forward here in America and what aspects of our culture we shed or simply forget. Would you agree with this paradigm?

In a way, there are already subcultures functioning within the Iranian American community, which is itself a component of this culturally pluralistic society. So I'm not sure that deciding which aspects of Iranian culture are retained or shed could be (cohesively) agreed upon and carried through. These subcultures may not be visible to the mainstream mass media, since Iranian Americans are still a relatively new group in the U.S., with an overall identity that is still forming.

What gets passed on, highlighted, and retained is both an individual choice, in terms of what each family decides to pass on, as well as in the hands of cultural stewards and their patrons. Iranian Americans are learning to support their own, and what they chose to support will determine their legacy and identity. Any community holds the power to define itself.

For example, if Iranian Americans don't like the film 300, there could instead exist an outstanding Iranian American-funded film to recast that story. Similarly, most countries cosponsor some sort of institute (Goethe Institute, Alliance Française) to represent their culture abroad; to fund translations of their literature into other languages; to send artists on residencies; to fund the publishing of their works, etc. That cosponsorship is not coming from the country of Iran at the moment, but it could easily come from Iranian Americans. This in itself could catapult the state of Iranian literature on the world stage to a different level. A more in-depth explanation of this appears in this Tehran Bureau article.

There are many talented Iranian American artists making work, and there are more and more Iranian Americans engaging in philanthropy, so the momentum has powerful potential.

You wrote the libretto for a new piece commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, "Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels)," that will premiere at Carnegie Hall and later for its West Coast premiere at Cal Performances. Can you discuss what this show will be about?

Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) is co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and Meet the Composer. It is a story of two larger-than-life beings, Mana and Ahsha, who dwell in separate realms, each convinced of their supreme power. In an all-out collision, as their mighty outward facades crumble, they realize that in moments of vulnerability that we are all one. The piece inquires into how a devastating event between two dominant forces could become a Ground Zero for love. How human beings could better understand each other. How we could see past superficial differences (religion, race, nationality...) to discover our sameness. It's also about total accountability, no entity being completely right or wrong, but fallible and complex. Mark Grey (the composer) and Jessica Rivera (the soprano) and I had months of conversations about it, while I was making the imaginative leaps that lead to creating Mana and Ahsha, the characters of Ātash Sorushān.

In the early stages of my research into Iranian philosophy, I came across the concept of Mana, which is the Persian (and Oceanic) term for the divine life force that embodies everything in the universe, and then Ahsha, which is an Avestan term for truth/existence in Zoroastrian theology, whose realm is fire. While Mana and Ahsha are not personified in their traditions, I reimagined them as characters by marrying their philosophical concepts with human characteristics.

The last thing to be created was the title of the piece, something that could tie everything together. "Atash" is the Persian word for fire, essential in the destruction and renewal of Mana, Ahsha, and all they represent. "Sorushan" is the plural form of "Sorush" (in the singular, the proper name of a messenger angel, like Gabriel, who presides over the beginning and end of the world and who fights the daemons threatening to extinguish the world's fire/passion/truth).

Ātash Sorushān (Fire Angels) refers to the role both Mana and Ahsha played out, angels with a message of purification and peace, ending a world and beginning a new one. Mana and Ahsha begin under the assumption of difference, and through the power of transformation, end by realizing their sameness. The song cycle is in four movements, and I've quoted a few lines of Persian poetry (Sohrab Sepehri) and Avestan scripture in there.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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