TEHRAN | AN OCEAN OF DREAMS - Mehdi the Boxer & Brecht at the Slau
Project info

A day in Tehran

About two weeks after the revolution in Egypt started I came to Iran to attend an International Theatre Festival. Embedded within a group, being part of an international event and looked after by our Iranian friends and partners I told myself that there was little risk involved. From an outside perspective, Iran is a rigid and complicated place. No Facebook. No YouTube. No women`s singing. No Hip-Hop. No fun. Repression, censorship and a rough segregation of gender. Homosexuality is punishable by death, nevertheless sex-change operations are paid by the state. And its no secret that Islamic authorities are pervasive in public places to guard against violations of clothing and interrelations of gender. On my first visit, a couple of month before, I already had experienced the big difference between state laws and the official face and the life beyond the public veil.

From an inside perspective, it turns out to be much more diverse and even more complicated. Women are supposed to cover their hair, although the younger women wear their headscarves so far back they are always about to fall off, while their eyes and lips are expressively marked with make-up. The effect of permanently adjusting the scarves is visually alluring, like western girls effectively playing their hair out of their faces. Like so many things in Tehran, there is an official rule and the every day counterpart the Iranians make out of it. Of course there is Facebook and so, it`s just a question of filters and creativity. And there is an incredibly vivid cultural scene, theatre in car parks, underground galleries as well as rock music and the younger people do pretty much the same European youngsters do, watching South Park, gathering for private parties or bungee jumping. AND there are even girls rapping, as I found out later on.

After a week of theatre rehearsals and more or less creative meetings I decided to explore Tehran beyond the festival and the official guidelines to do a photo essay on the city and it`s younger generation. On my first day “outside” I saw quiet a lot from the city centre and some Bazars without truly getting into photography. I pictured some of the political graffiti and wall paintings on the run, not more. Too much reservation inside my head and far too much police on the streets. Again there had been protests and spontaneous demonstrations throughout the recent days and the rumour of a young student being shot close to one of the festivals places was persistently spreading in the city without being proved or denied. Due to my rising disappointment my friend and translator decided to start the other way around by meeting people at fixed locations. So the next day I was supposed to meet Mehdi the Boxer inside his club where he was training to become a member of the Olympic team.

When I got up that day and took a look outside my window an incredible beautiful morning spread over the city with a bright sun, few creamy clouds and a rarely seen blue sky. I could overview this ocean of buildings flowing against the impressive background of the snowy mountains. Beside its crowdedness and pollution Tehran is an amazingly beautiful place. After my Iranian companion arrived we spent most of the morning with talks and a few glasses of chai while waiting for the others to come. The others basically was a young girl, a painter we met on my first trip on famous Friday`s Bazar. Every Friday in a car park downtown young artists sell paintings, self-made jewellery and other handicrafts among traders from the countryside, Afghanistan or Turkmenistan offering carpets and ethnical art. Although my companion had his own car, our painter friend insisted to take us around that day and told us she would come around midday with two more friends. They arrived about three hours late. There was the painter girl, her boyfriend and another friend who was against all odds not hiding his homosexuality as one could easily see from his gestures and his fairly painted eyes. As they showed up all three of them were heavily drunk.

When we finally hit the road I already had a feeling that this trip might have a deeper impact on me. Entering the everyday madness of Tehran`s traffic there was little chance we would get to our appointment on time. How can one describe this traffic in an appropriate way? Crowded as a swarm of insects? Unpredictable like the moving of a shoal of small silver fish? As if the city`s centre was an enormous swirl soaking up rivers of vehicles from every direction. Compassion to all these numerous traffic police guys, who get severely smoked up while being nothing more but unseen conductors of the chaos. I already got used to it in the previous week, because driving to our theatre in a neighbouring district stole like four hours a day from us. I laid back aspiring the atmosphere and the views of the city meanwhile the rage inside my mate was rising with any further minute of delay. By now we were almost four hours late and Mehdi the Boxer had finished his training and was about to leave the club when finally we got completely stuck in a road north of the centre. Immediately my companion jumps out of the car indicating at me to leave the others behind to try our luck by foot. It turned out to be the best decision to be made in that situation as things became more and more risky and trouble was in the air.

Walking up the street we pass some kind of supermarket on the right hand. From the corner of my eyes I notice weird dark shapes among families carrying bags and goods. I turn away just to look back immediately, realizing those black shapes being police getting into riot gear. Such a surreal scenery, as an old couple, unspoilt from what is happening around, blazes its trail through joking and laughing cops preparing for the forthcoming battle.

As I walk on everything turns into some kind of cinematic slow motion: My Iranian companion beside me suddenly picks up his mobile starting an exaggerated loud conversation with a fictive respondent. My view covertly wanders across the scenery while my friend whispers to me that what ever is going to happen: “Just don`t speak a single word in English”. Right now I feel the heavy load of my backpack with my professional camera stuff inside. Almost at the crossing I discover a crowd of people in a short distance down the road on the left. A moment before I could recognize what`s happening there an empty bus is moved crossways in order to block the entire road. Glad that our way is the opposite direction we turn right. Instantly we raise our heads to face a wall of clone like figures, armed with guns and sticks. Ranked in several lines black helmets with mirrored visors gaze at us. Absurdly enough, like in a perfectly arranged setting, within these rows of black heads a face appears, slightly displaced to the right of this scenery. And suddenly two sights glance one another. - I condemn myself for not photographing the randomly perfect arrangement, although knowing how lucky I am not to do so - One of the guards has still not put on his helmet and we look each other right into the eyes. One could know that this is not the right situation for even just bare visual confrontation. By now I would blame a lightly naïve self-confidence which made me look back. His view is straight and firm, rather cool than obviously dangerous, but his eyes answer me directly, speaking to me subconsciously one single but clear phrase: “I could easily kill you”.

Meanwhile the car we jumped off a couple of minutes ago was checked by armed guards, their fingers right on the trigger of their guns they forced everyone to get out and checked all their belongings. Don`t need to mention what had happened if a foreigner with camera equipment together with these apparently dissenting, alternative young and drunk guys was caught up there…

Finally we make our way through the guards without any incidence and enter an almost empty street. We are far too late now. And so… I never met Mehdi The Boxer.

Later on we get back into the car, the two boys leave and we hit the roads again all the way downhill to the south to attend an underground theatre show somewhere in the heart of working-class Tehran. Police helicopters thunder overhead as the setting sun brakes through the yellow-brown veil of pollution glamourizing the city with golden light.

It`s almost dark when we arrive at a compound, a community centre with several buildings, one of them like a hall at the opposite end. The show is supposed to take place in this hall, which in fact is a former slaughterhouse. The artists themselves renovated the place to build a ground for gathering, rehearsals and performances.

The moment we enter the ancient slaughterhouse we get caught by the impressing atmosphere spread by more than eighty young people preparing themselves for the performance with an incredible and catching passion. There are flows of suspense and exaltation in the air compelling everyone inside the place. I`m briefly introduced to the director and he welcomes me with true warmth, telling me to feel absolutely free to take pictures from ´inside` the show. Before everything starts we are kindly asked to leave the hall to enter again with the rest of the audience.

As the show begins we are admitted into the now darkened space. Through the half-light black cladded figures appear, hardly visible, roaming around with scary savage expressions in their white masks. The entire space quakes from the throbbing beats of drums and feet stamps as the habitants chant and moan in rhythm. The audience is slightly moved into a circle while the spark leaps over from this tribal-like ritual. The catching performance together with the surrounding darkness and my experiences from earlier this day sharpen my senses in all ways, I feel a molecular awareness, a promising expectation gets hold of me while I`m shivering from the unexpected. The scene finally peaks in the heart of the circle where a female shape appears from huge cloth giving birth to a child. Brecht`s Caucasian Chalk Circle is on its way throughout the slaughterhouse. The audience is guided onto two sets of bleachers. The entire performance is a movement. Without any kind of fixed stage, the performance moves through the whole space taking the spectators along on their two mobile ranks. The emotional involvement reaches the next high when the two audiences are confronted mirror like while some actors are performing among them and all others surround.

Like told before I can move and photograph without any limitation, I´m not on the spectators side, I`m with the actors, I`m truly inside the show. From time to time some hands tenderly move me aside, whenever I face one of the performers they respond with heart-breaking smiles and without knowing me, they´ve started to integrate me.

The show moves on and due to its lively performance, its great but true emotions and its story telling through masks, chants and songs I get deeply absorbed, even though I hardly understand a word. Later on two songs, exclusively made for this performance, highlight the play anew. The first song is ruled by a driving rhythm and group`s recitative singing, second is a rap song performed by a boy and a girl. Being almost used to shape like women on the streets of Teheran, the girls are the most impressive with an enormous presence and an impassioned performance. Seems to be the only place where they could feel free…

And so it became that specific night I fell in love with Iran, with this deep and pulsing city of Tehran and with at least eighty young boys and girls.

The following days and nights I returned to their place and experienced the group`s deeper intension beyond theatre: performance as a way of living. Almost one hundred young people have been working for months with visionary theatre maker Hamid Pourazari to establish this unique adaption of Brecht. During the process of developing a performance everyone is involved in almost every part and it seems that there is no precise distinction between jobs and roles, nor between boys and girls. Hamid Pourazari explains the social impact of the group and his special way of creating the performance as following:

"In a long preparation process of display, we devoted minimum possible time to text, because we believed, if we constitute a team, and understand each other well, we can shake the world.” Then he continues “Our practice lasts one year... last month, it was continued from morning to night, in fact, members of group were living together."

He sees theatre as an “instrumentality to guide the energy and motivation of young people“ and above all “to grab and keep some of their juvenile pureness“. A pureness already seriously touched by social disparities, governmental violence or the destiny of being a refugee.

Like one twenty-year-old Afghani girl, student, actress and social photographer, still carrying the memories of escaping over icy mountains at the age of five, because her father was a teacher and haunted by Taliban. Later on being caged with many others in a small truck, heading down dark roads at night, with all its breathless heat, its tangible darkness and the fear of the unexpected and unknown. Or a twenty-four-year-old girl, student and actress, surprising me by speaking fluently German, arrested several times for social and political activities. Imprisoned twice, facing solitary confinement for more than twenty days. With his way of theatre making Hamid gives a lot to his performers, especially self-confidence. And while developing the performance from inside the group they get the possibility to adopt the play to their own daily reality and perform in a unique way filled with a striking actuality.

Although I never met Mehdi the Boxer, that specific day changed almost everything. It alternated my view on Tehran and its people and their daily struggle to arrange with unbearable situations, their enormous will to head for all these complicated ways to gain some personal, social and cultural freedom and individual fulfilment. I found Brecht in a slaughterhouse and I really got involved. But above all I found true stories and true friends. Both of them influenced my further life and work in a remarkable way.

Text: Dominic Jan Geis