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The missing
Tooba, the tree of life, must be controlled, kept in fear, scrutinized

By Torange Yeghiazarian
December 8, 2003
The Iranian

Response to Shirin Neshat's "Tooba" currently being screened at Asia Center, New York City, through February 15, 2004.

I sit there watching the two screens facing each other. On the left, there is a blue sky with scattered clouds. A misleadingly promissing weather forcast. On the right screen, I see a woman's face, her closed eyelids move revealing an active dream. I stare at the woman's face, she is stuck in a tree, or is the tree protecting her? Or are they one in the same?

Then they come. On the left screen, men and women wearing black, running up the hill and down the meadow towards the walled courtyard where that glorious single tree stands hosting the woman within it. They come running. As if they have heard her silence within the tree and feel compelled to - what? Silence her even more? Or is it her peace that is unbearable to them?

The woman's silence awakens something in me. Her firm stance within the tree. There is strength yet, she seems extremely vulnerable. The crowd keeps running. There is a circle of men chanting. Their voices underscore the crowd's emergence. I recall a distant memory, a man's body too close behind me, breathing hard. I was frozen.

Tears flow down my face. What do they want from her? The crowd gathers outside the walls of the courtyard. What are they going to do to her? I'm weeping uncontrolably, silently and I don't know why. The tree is majestically standing in the center. I remember being followed in the street. The steps behind me growing faster as I pick up speed hoping to lose the guy, or to arrive at my destination before he- he what? He does something, what ever, does it matter?

Does it matter if he just touches my ass as he walks by or actually feels my breast, or simply makes a rude comment? Does it make any difference? They are all acts that violate me as a free individual. I am surprised to find, thirty years later, that it still makes me angry. I am surprised to find myself crying in a dark screening room because a seemingly uncontrolable mob is approching a woman standing peacefully in a tree. On two screens facing each other across the room.

On the left screen, I can see the rythmic motion of breasts moving up and down as the crowd breathes together, voraciously, unified as one hungry animal. Hungry for what? What do they want from her? My body is filled with fear. I feel the weight of their gaze, those strangers in the streets of Tehran that wouldn't stop staring. There was no tree, no walls, and I remained silent. What else was there to do? Being followed in the streets, being felt in the hallway, being harrased with lude offers... these were facts of life for women when I was growing up. And our response? Silence.

They are not all men. Don't even think about reducing this to man-bashing. There are women in the crowd. They all look scary. I remember being spat on by an old woman in Qazvin. She just plain spat on me as we crossed one another on the sidewalk. I was barely a teen. She mumbled something under her breath, an unflattering comment I was happy not to have fully heard.

Why is there such rage in our society? Why are we so angry with each other?

The mob begins to climb up the walls. On the right screen I see the woman has disappeared. She is no longer visible in the tree. The mob gets closer and closer to the tree and then steps back, maintaining a circle, enclosing the tree but not attacking it. What is not done is as important. What is not said reveals more than what is. That which has disappeared is more present than ever.

"Tooba" seems such a perfect representation of the paradoxes of our society. Our preoccupation with romanticism on the one hand, and on the other, our inability to actually practice love. Tooba, the tree of life - it is explained in the lobby display - she must be controlled, kept in fear, scrutinized. It takes courage to let the life force roam free, within our selves and within our society. And maybe that's just what we're missing. And maybe, just maybe that's why we are all so pissed.


Torange Yeghiazarian is founder and artistic director of Godlen Thread theater production company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes, directs and performs.

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