International Theater in Tehran Nervous Censors and Staged Rebellions

Every year, Iran invites drama troupes from all over the world to its International Theater Festival in Tehran. The mullahs' censors keep busy, but they can't catch every offense to Islamic decency. The hard part is knowing what's taboo.

By Ralf Hoppe

Members of a German theater company performed "Danton's Death" at the Tehran Theater Festival last month.

Members of a German theater company performed "Danton's Death" at the Tehran Theater Festival last month.

A group of young men and a few women stand on the steps of the City Theater, a giant, circular structure on the corner of Chiabane Wali-je Asr, one of Tehran's main arteries. The air tastes of soot and car exhaust. The women wear their headscarves pulled down to cover much of their faces. The men, sporting the look of Iran's upper middle class, wear Western name-brand parkas by Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland and Hugo Boss, rapper-style knit caps and stylish goatees.

A cardboard sign tacked to the box office window announces that the show is sold out. But the young men and women wait nonetheless. After all, this is Tehran, where there is always a way to get around the rules, and where even smuggled vodka, prostitutes and scalped theater tickets can be had by those who wait patiently enough.

Someone passes around a pack of cigarettes, but only the men help themselves. Five years ago, when Mohammad Khatami was still president, bending the rules was easier. Even then women were required to wear the chador or at least a headscarf when they ventured outside, but at least those headscarves were brightly colored. Nowadays headscarves in Tehran come in brown, blue or black.

The young people stamp their feet to stay warm. "There is snow on the ground in northern Tehran," says one man. They have already been waiting two or three hours in front of the theater. But these young people have plenty of time on their hands. When asked why they are so interested in the theater and what they expect to see, they hesitate before responding.

Finally one of the men says that they are here to experience something new and to see the performances by visiting theater groups from the West. They are curious, another man adds. The Polish production -- or was it the French one? -- promises to be especially exciting. The actresses wear ankle-length robes, as required under Islamic law, but in the last act the actors apparently pour water over each other and the women's robes suddenly become skin-tight -- revealing the contours of their breasts, legs, stomachs and behinds. You can see everything, the young men say. On an open stage.

"Don't turn us in!"

Ajjab -- unbelievable -- one of the men mumbles. The censors are clueless about what's going on here, says one man. It's part of the allure. A woman chimes in. She doesn't like the way the conversation is going. She is tall, has pretty eyes and pale skin, and pulls nervously at her headscarf.

"You can read our most secret thoughts," says one of the men, calling the woman by her first name -- "but I beg you, don't turn us in!" His words are meant to sound funny, flirtatious and ironic, but the tone of his voice betrays a hint of fear and apprehension.

Tehran's Fajr International Theater Festival offers a brief interlude in which the strict rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran are relaxed for a short while.

Of course, bending those rules is done carefully and in tiny increments. But even these minor transgressions are a sensitive issue for the regime, with foreign groups suddenly arriving in their city, groups comprised of women and men, disrespectful people without style or morals, at least as far as the country's religious censors are concerned. Suddenly these people are standing on a stage and if you lose sight of them for an instant they could very well be doing something inappropriate. And there might be music. In fact, some pieces even feature movement that some might consider dance.

It's unpleasant for some in Iran -- and dangerous for others. On the other hand, it's important to maintain ties with other countries. And the Iranians love the theater. It becomes a balancing act for the government, which has made a fine art of giving the people freedoms while keeping them on a short leash.

Nothing is unambiguous in Iran

The festival of illusions becomes an illusion in itself. Despite the temporary relaxation of restrictions, one senses a constant undercurrent of fear, a feeling of edginess and oppression. Nevertheless -- and because nothing is unambiguous in Iran -- Tehran's theatergoers could also find themselves inadvertently sitting in the audience and watching a play that dispenses with all fear with a single metaphor or gesture, if only for a moment.

The festival -- which ran into the beginning of February -- features about 17 performances a day, along with panel discussions that continue well into the night. The government spies and minders planted in the audiences are forced to work overtime. Productions are staged on the street, in dank, dungeon-like basements and on opulent stages, such as that of the national opera building constructed under the Shah. For Iranian authors, directors and actors, the festival is the year's only opportunity to mount their own, serious shows -- productions that are a far cry from the usual crowd pleasers or religious morality plays.

The Dramatic Arts Center, a committee of theater veterans and party officials, organizes the event and they manage to produce the entire festival on a meager budget of €6 million. But it's not the lack of funding which makes them nervous. The consequences of a single slip of the tongue, a scandal no matter how minor, or only one transgression beyond the boundaries of already loosened restrictions could be unpleasant -- extremely unpleasant.

To play it safe, the Dramatic Arts Center presents each play and each production to the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture for approval. It is said that nothing goes on stage without the ministry's "artistic stamp of approval," but even the censors seem unhappy. The job they are being asked to perform here isn't exactly easy. In fact, one could almost commiserate with them.

Everyone hopes to avoid a scandal, and that no one will be stupid enough to provoke the censors or venture into risky territory. After all, no one wants to go to prison, risk a few strokes with the lash or ruin his career. No one would be that foolish. Or would they?

"I was lucky"

On that same morning, while a the group of young people wait patiently in the hope of scoring a few black market tickets, a man wearing a full beard drives his dark Citroën into a parking space owned by a company of which he is part owner, figurehead and star all in one. The man's name is Hossein Pakdel, and his reserved parking space is on a manicured side street in one of Tehran's better neighborhoods, a place where one can hear nightingales singing at night. Pakdel doesn't live far from here.

He locks the steering wheel, snaps on an additional lock for good measure, grabs his overstuffed briefcase and rushes up the three flights of stairs to the offices of the Tamasha Cultural Institute, one of the largest production companies in Iran's propaganda-driven filmmaking industry. Tomorrow is Friday, the Islamic day of prayer. Everything will be closed, and Pakdel and his partners have a lot to accomplish before then.

Pakdel and his two partners sit at a polished mahogany table in a bright conference room. Every few minutes the office assistant tiptoes into the room, clears away a few tiny tea glasses and replaces them with freshly filled glasses, or brings in Turkish coffee, crystal bowls filled with fruit or trays of syrupy sweets. The men deliberate over cast lists, stage sets, costumes, cost estimates and scripts. Pakdel smokes Kent Lights, using a black cigarette holder. Tamasha is in the process of shooting a documentary mini-series about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, based on a script written by Pakdel.

He is in his mid-forties, of average height and with broad shoulders, vain but friendly. He has written four plays, but he has made his fortune writing a dozen or so harmless television soap operas. He also hosts talk shows, produces campaign commercials and was an advisor to former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Pakdel is happily married, has three grown children and owns a house -- not bad for someone from an extremely modest background. "I was lucky," he says.


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