In the small set of San Francisco’s Tick House, four theatre artists sit around a table and talk. What is different about this theatrical discussion is who these people are and what has brought them together. Who could imagine that the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, the Iranian director Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, the American dramaturge Roberta Levitow and Golden Thread Theatre Company‘s Iranian-Armenian artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian would get together to make a play — Benedisctus — about the relationship between Iran, US and Israel? The story happens only 72 hours before a scheduled US attack on Iran. Two estranged childhood friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, born in the same town in Iran, agree to a secret meeting in a Benedictine monastery in Rome to negotiate a price for safety and freedom. I got together with the creators a few days before the opening on September 29 (ends october 21). They talked about their desires, hopes, and fears. And how they started such a provocative and ambitious project together. [photos]
Also, Radio Zamaneh
First of all, thanks for doing this project because it is something that has to be done and nobody is doing it. So, please tell me how did you start the play, whose idea was that, and how did you begin to collaborate?
Roberta: This long journey started when Torange and I met at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in September 2003. I was a festival honoree and Torange was there as the Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions here in San Francisco. Our mutual colleague Erik Ehn was writing an article about the festival for AMERICAN THEATRE Magazine and he has worked a lot in San Francisco at Theatre Nyugen. So we knew each other and we talked about why there were only five Americans at the festival. And it wasn’t because we were not welcome.
Torange: There was actually no American work.
Roberta: Because no American work was submitted. And I think that was largely because Americans weren’t making enough of an effort to be present. So the five of us met and we talked and hung out
Torgane: And went to Naguib Mahfouz café.
Roberta: By the end of two weeks Torange and I were getting to be good friends and she was gracious enough to ask if there was something we could collaborate on. But, I thought: I am an American living in California, I know nothing about the Middle East, my family heritage is from Russia and Poland, and I don’t know what I have to offer really. Then I thought, but, I am Jewish-American and I certainly have feelings and opinions about the Middle East! So, Torange suggested I contact Motti Lerner, a playwright from Israel she had worked with. I contacted Motti then and went to visit him in Washington DC where he was working on a production of one of his plays at Theatre J, a very successful theatre company there focusing on Jewish theatre. Motti and I talked about a couple of potential topics. Would it be the American Jewish and Israeli Jewish relationship, which is very provocative? Motti wasn’t very interested. Then I said I had been to East Africa and mentioned maybe we can do a little piece on the Ugandan Jewish community but he said he was not interested. I said “Ok! What are you interested in?” and he said “I want to do a piece about Iran.” I said “I don’t know any Iranian theatre artists. I was just in Cairo and I met wonderful Egyptian theatre artists, we met Lebanese theatre artists… but, he cut me off: “This is the relationship [I want to work on]. It is really important.” I said “ok if that’s what you really want to work on, maybe I can find more colleagues”. And I am a member of a professional organization in NY and they have many international affiliates and one of the international affiliates was Farah Yeganeh Tabrizi, who at the time was running the International Theatre Institute (ITI) office in Iran. I contacted her and asked if she knew any theatre artists who would be interested to do this collaboration with us. She very graciously said give me a little bit of time and that she would be in touch by email. She wrote back a couple of weeks later and said “this is not really an appropriate time to cooperate on such a project, but thank you for asking and good luck.” I have now learned that it was a very complicated question that I had asked her. It occurred to me that maybe our best option was to work with people from Iran who now live in the US and could participate with us. And it occurred to me that Torange in fact was the pest person to work with from Iran and the three of us started to work on an idea. What could we come up with about the relationship of these three countries? At that time one of my colleagues suggested that I read an article in The Drama Review, a very reputable theatre magazine in the US, by Mahmood Karimi Hakak, about the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he had done in Iran. I read the article and was very intrigued by the person and his work and thought maybe I could reach out and see if Mahmood is interested in participating with us. Through some professional and academic connections I was able to find him where he is now a professor at Siena College in Albany, New York. I met with Mahmood and he hospitably invited me to his home for dinner and it was a spectacular meal and we put the idea on the table and he was so warm and welcoming and that began our project.
Motti, what was so important and intriguing about Iran that you, so badly wanted to do a project on it?
Motti: Iran has been a mystery for me. I couldn’t understand the revolution; I couldn’t understand the consequences of the revolution in Iran. I mostly couldn’t understand its political consequences in terms of the Middle East. Why there has been such an animosity between Iran and Israel? Why are there these slogans of “death to Israel” in rallies in Iran, where this hatred is coming from? I was very threatened by this hatred I was very scared by it. The nuclear issue was another threat. I wanted to explore the reasons for this fear; I wanted to explore this threat from the Iranian side. I wanted to understand the Iranian side which I didn’t understand at all before starting the project. This triangle is a very solid triangle, it is not just Israel and Iran, it is also the involvement of the US which is very meaningful in this relationship because as it is said in many occasions in Iran, America is the devil and Israel is the tail that moves the devil. So even in Iran they connect Israel and the US in a very strong way from which perspective Israel and the US are the same enemy.
For me, a subject for play has to come from a threat, has to come from a fear, from something that is a great danger and if we don’t do anything to lower the flames then we are irresponsible writers. Being a responsible writer mean that we deal with the most crucial issues on the table and Iran, Israel and US relationship is the most crucial issue on the table that you can work on.
And Mahmoud, what intrigued you personally as an Iranian/American artist that drove you to do this?
Mahmood: Two thing: One, as Motti mentioned the possibility of working with the “enemy.” I, too, couldn’t understand the Iranian Revolution. I couldn’t understand why such a popular revolution took such an unpopular shift. I couldn’t understand the shift in the society -which I loved so much- to an immensely narrow political and social viewpoint; A viewpoint that considered others as “the enemy.” So “the enemy” became the person that I wanted to know and understand. Whether it was “the enemy” inside my country and among my friends and whether it was “the enemy” outside. Just as living and working in Iran created the opportunity to get to know, and hopefully understand, “the enemy” inside, working with an Israeli playwright was an exciting opportunity and challenge to get to know “the enemy” outside. The second thing was that I, too, believe that there never is going to be peace in the Middle East unless the relationship between Israel and Iran is improved. Unless we have a true understanding of each other’s ancient societies and ancient cultures that have lived next to one another for centuries, as well as present realities. So as an artist to be able to contribute to this understanding, and try to move one step toward the possibility of this dialogue was intriguing. I thought, well Theatre is a place for dialogue, so why not bring in the people who need to talk? Roberta was not that much of a threat to me. She was gentle, and when we sat at the dinner table, and it was at my place where I felt very secure, I felt comfortable. When I met Motti on the other hand, he seemed to be a strong man with very strong opinions about Iran. I, myself had just returned from an extremely bitter sweet experience in Iran. In one hand I loved the people, I loved the country, I loved the energy and dedication I faced in Iranian youth, and, on the other hand, I was prosecuted for doing what I do. I was not allowed to practice my art in my own country. I was kicked out of my home, where I had all the rights to live. So to meet someone who was attacking my people and what they do, and using my own experiences to justify his attack, was both threatening and misleading. I felt I must set the records straight. I must make him differentiate between those who submit to and even promote such actions, and those who feel otherwise, those who are subject to such actions. Luckily we were able to communicate, and thus I felt I could alter his understanding of Iran and Iranians. So after the first few hours we hugged and kissed and figured there were a lot more of commonalty between the two of us and that has what brought us together. From then on it has been still challenging, but also a very exciting collaboration.
Torange you have had this Middle Eastern theatre company for 10 years now. What was your motivation to get involved in this project?
Torange: It was the personalities who were involved and I also liked the idea of exploring the triangle relationship between Iran, Israel and the US. As far as the company is concerned it happened at a time that we were getting more and more into developing original work. I thought that it was important to help create work that is different from what is being done in the US. There is such an absence of dealing with these issues in American theatre that I thought if I can help move that or make that happen, I would want to do that.
The interesting thing about this play is that it finally creates a dialogue between US, Iran and Israel in it in an artistic level. Something that has not been possible in a diplomatic level. So I would like each one of you to talk about your own perspective of this dialogue and how did you find it and what were the challenges?
Roeberta: There have been many challenges. Having done a couple of inter-cultural projects before, I didn’t know what to expect but I knew that the range of possibilities could include failure – where we simply would not begin and would not do a project together. It could include that we couldn’t create one cohesive piece together, that we would be doing a three act play, one from the Iranian perspective, one from the Israeli perspective and one from the American perspective. So I was really quite moved to realize that we did share something very deeply in common. I understand now, in retrospect, that that we share a collective desire for dialogue and not for violent solutions to the conflict. Conflict is natural in human nature, it is natural between humans and governments (and it is essential to drama!) but I think all of us as a group do not favor violent resolution to conflict; we favor communication and dialogue and necessary negotiation and compromises so that people can coexist and live together. Not necessarily to agree but to live side by side and with common respect. And I was very moved to see that our group evolved in that direction. In our political conversations, our personal conversations we are often expressing ourselves to one another and not necessarily saying “oh I see that exactly the same way” but “Oh, I see thank you for telling me. I understand something now more about you and about how you see the world than I did before.” So it’s been very successful in that we have learned so much about each other. I feel very nurtured and welcomed in a familial way. We have gained a level of trust and intimacy which is very rewarding. Now the challenge is to see if we can share our belief that this dialogue is possible and violent resolution is not necessary. Can we ignite conversations about this topic as our way of serving as artists in the political dimension?
Motti: When we started working we realized very quickly that we had different narratives of the history of the Middle East and how the conflict started in the last century. Mahmood and Torange had strong ideas about the development of Zionism and the development of the state of Israel into what it is today and also about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, I had very strong ideas about the Iranian revolution and what happened in Iran after the revolution and the changes in the Iranian population after revolution. So that was the starting point with huge differences in narratives. The first thing was recognizing the other’s narrative. I must admit that I was shocked to learn so much about Iran, so much about the procedure that took place in Iran, things that I didn’t imagine. For example I had a very strong impression of women’s right in Iran and the way it was portrayed in media in the West. But I didn’t know about the academic career of women in Iran, I didn’t know about the participation of women in Iran in management. I didn’t know many Iranian women have medical professions. I thought women had to obey certain strict rules of tradition, they had to cover themselves, and they would be stoned to death for doing certain things and not be able to celebrate their feminine values. I saw it from a very narrow perspective and after talking to Mahmood and Torange I learned that there is something genuine to Iranian culture and there are many benefits that I was not aware of. There are many advantages for women in Iran which I didn’t understand. That doesn’t mean that I agree for example with the rules of clothing and so on but it is an Iranian method. I think we can not judge Iran based on how women dress and cover themselves. On the other hand, I felt that Mahmood and Torange were more open to understand the Zionism and to survival issues of state of Israel. So, the difference between narratives became smaller although we did not agree on things. So, it is something that we respect that they have their own narrative and I have my own narrative. So we don’t have to accept each other’s narratives but we can respect each other’s narrative.
Last thing that is very important and I haven’t talked about it anywhere yet, is that today we are in a situation that there no political dialogue between Iran and Israel and Iran and the US. And yes, as Roberta said the artist do what politicians can’t do but it is not the role of the artist. The role of the artist is not to think about political solutions. It’s not my role to write a draft of agreement between Iran, Israel and the US. Our role is to present the Iranian narrative to American audience and Israeli audience and vice versa. Once we are able to do it, we can create the cultural infrastructure that one day will welcome the political change, and that is a really critical issue.
Mahmood: Question of dialogue is a very important one, because it is only through dialogue that we, the world, can begin to learn about and understand each other. It is also an interesting one because that is why I became interested in theatre to begin with. And now, here in this project, we want to create a dialogue using an art that itself is based on dialogue. In some thirty years of working in theatre I have always felt that such dialogue needs to expand beyond the stage and spill over to the audience, and hopefully beyond. I sincerely believe that theatre is what happens in the minds of the audience as they leave the performance. When I was in Iran, one of the things that I always did, and was often appreciated, was to facilitate a dialogue between the youth with differing points of view. In my house there gathered, often, youth from various sides of the political, social and artistic spectrum of Iranian belief. We were able to have a dialogue. We were allowed to listen to each other, understand each other, and many times agree to disagree. It’s a sound of respect to listen to one another and disagree. One of my sentence that was often quoted in Iranian newspapers was “tamayoz-ha ra pazira bashim.” (Accept the differences between ourselves.)
When was it?
Mahmood: I lived in Iran from 1993 to1999. It was in 1999 and during Khatami’s presidency that I was allowed to stage my first theatre production (after my numerous requests for permission was rejected) only to have it closed down on its fourth public performance. This was of course ironic, since we associate Khatami’s presidency with an opener environment. When I return to the US, I felt I am hearing many voices in my head. The voices of those I have met and worked with, all from one country, all from one culture, but in with many narratives and in many tongues. I wanted to give life to these narratives, wanted to make sense of it all. So, since my work is in theatre, I created Rumi’s Mathnavi, in which the lines were spoken in seven languages in NYC. Not being able to find enough Iranians to collaborate with, I decided to work with an international cast and crew. In doing Benedictus, as well, working with individuals who are so far away from my culture, tradition and religion, with contrasting and often opposing narratives intrigued me. I felt if we could create a dialogue between ourselves, if the five of us could sit around the same table and talk and at the end of the night feel good about our narratives and respect each other’s narratives, maybe we can extend our dialogue to the audience. Maybe we can extend it even further. And thus the dialogue has continued. Having seen the first stage of this dialogue at Siena’s production, and working on it here in San Francisco, I think that our dialogue has already extended beyond the stage, beyond us, and hopefully it will go beyond this city. And hopefully what the politicians couldn’t do the artists can. I don’t want the Israelis to accept my narratives. I don’t believe that Iranians should accept Israelis narratives. But we should understand and agree that each people have their own narratives and we can live with each other and can respect one another.
Torange: We talk about dialogue as if we agree on what it means. I’m not sure that we do. For example Iran and the US may have a conversation. But it is another thing to develop an understanding; it is another thing to develop trust. These are other stages of relationships. Maybe it’s the natural outcome of our coming together that has resulted in a piece that deals with trust Because I think we worked together the stages that we went through, first it was meeting with each other then it was listening to each other but at one point I think we developed trust as individuals. So it was the biggest achievement for me to believe that for example when Motti says “I don’t want this” to believe that he doesn’t want this. And to trust that there are people who don’t want a horrible world yet we live in a horrible world. And so that raises a different question that why is there so many of us that don’t want a horrible world yet we live in it. So that changes the question on a way of how you make a political change.
Every body agreed that this dialogue provided the chance to learn about the other one’s narratives. I wonder if this dialogue made any change in anyone’s beliefs and point of view on a human level and personal level.
Motti: After this collaboration I was totally convinced that there is a possibility for dialogue with Iranians even inside Iran. Something I didn’t believe could happen before. Today I believe that once the political climate slightly changes, we will face and we will realize a huge change in the dialogue between the cultures. I believe that it’s only the regimes on both sides, the government of Israel and the government of Iran that can’t find a way to create a dialogue, but these civilizations can have dialogue. Although it hasn’t happened yet, I believe that once I meet with Iranians who live in Iran, under this current regime we’ll be able to talk to one another. We need a very small door to open in order for the dialogue to begin and soon afterwards many more doors will be open. Finding this optimism is the major change I went through in this collaboration.
Roberta: I started this project optimistically; it is my nature. I don’t necessarily believe that all people are naturally good, but I do believe that there are good people everywhere. The purpose of this action is to bring the good people together. As an American I believe there are good people here, but the “good” people are not as powerful as they need to be. We have a potential global movement if the good people can join hands.
There have been challenges though! I remember two moments, one with Torange and one with Motti. Torange and I were at her aunt’s house. We had many conversations like sisters, giggling and laughing about things. So we got to know each other in a very familiar way and I think that relationship has continued. But often times, we would be debriefing the day and issues would come out that are politically divisive or she would ask me provocative questions about why did the Americans do this? Why did the Israelis do this? And as a Jewish-American person sometimes I felt I was defending my team and I was always wearing my team colors. And I remember we were standing on her aunt’s deck in Connecticut and were talking about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. It got very tense, and afterwards we were able to talk about it and we talked about what we were arguing about. We were arguing about political situations and choices? Or there was something really deep and related to identity? And I remember I was saying that I didn’t agree with her even though in many ways I did agree with her. I felt that if I did agree with her, inside I was betraying somebody some people in my past, my life, my identity. And that was very interesting to me because our topic was why people find it so hard to agree on ideas — maybe, because deep down ultimately there is something else emotional at stake. It doesn’t only matter if you agree or disagree on the idea. And the lesson from Motti comes from his joking with me about whether I believe Israel should exist. As an American Jew I do have a deeply complicated emotional relationship with Israel. Sorry, Motti, but I do. It comes from a lack of knowledge and also my own personal experiences and ideas and I have really had to come up against it. I am proud to be Jewish; I have my own level of personal practice. I’ve learned that I have to work on my understanding of how Israelis understand the situation. Motti has been great and he has allowed all of us to wrestle with our understanding of Israel and he has given all of us enough space to think and feel about that. I think I am learning a lot about my own blinders.
Mahmood: I think the process of this project has really created a few changes in me. One of the most important ones is to go deeper than what I would normally go in understanding a culture other than my own. It always has been very important for me to understand my culture, my tradition and where I come from, at such a level that at times I might have had blinders on my eyes about other cultures. During this collaboration, while resisting my colleagues, I also tried to listen to them. I tried to have a dialogue with them, and I tried to understand them. As a result what I learned is that what I have thought all these years may not hold true. Normally we enter a dialogue to confirm what we already know. We hope to confirm to ourselves that what we are already thinking is right. When this process started, at the beginning, I sat there to resist other’s narratives, even though I was not sure what it would be. I wanted to resist it, challenge it, fight with it, but as I learned and understood more about another beliefs and cultures, in this case Jewish from Roberta and Motti, I looked deeper into the commonalities. During the first week as we talked about Abraham and his two sons, I learned how one of them is respected in the Muslim tradition and the other one in Jewish faith. And how centuries later these two, in spite of their origins, have caused parting of ways?
Even the stories are similar. What happens to Ishmael in Muslim faith happens to Isaac in Jewish faith.
Mahmood: Yes. I wanted to go deep into these cultural relationships. And, in a more personal level, I began realizing that the more I age the less I know.
Torange: I would like to respond to that question artistically. Once you start a company, as an artistic director it becomes very difficult to learn. You are putting yourself in a position where every body looks to you to have an answer, so the opportunities to make mistake become fewer and the opportunities to learn become fewer and fewer. One function of this project has been to surround myself with people who challenge me artistically because that opportunity is so rare in the professional field. But personally I think one of the “aha” moments was last year when Israel attacked Lebanon, and I had friends who were visiting Beirut. I was actually supposed to be in Beirut but I had cancelled my reservation and I had friends who were there that were being flown out and a particular friend of mine whose family lived in southern Beirut his house was being bombed and they were sending images. And as I was seeing those images I also wondered about Motti and his family and where his son was. And I remember at that moment I felt I had families on both sides and it made it even more excruciating to deal with what was going on. In a way that change has happened and I think that it is something that theatre does. It helps us to connect with each other as human beings. I don’t think that the division is really between Iran and Israel or US and Iran. It is really about the people who want change in the world and people who want to keep things and hold on to power for their own benefit in every country in every where. I think it is a global club of people who want the world in a very specific way and the people who want to change that. And it is important for the people who want change in every country to be able to connect with each other and I think that is the gift of this project.
I grew up in Iran after the revolution and although much was said about Israel in media, we didn’t really know much about Israel. Here there is news and we sort of get an idea about what’s happening there, but still there is no first-hand observation. So, Motti, you are an artist and (I assume) an open-minded person who lives in Israel. What would you like an ordinary Iranian know about your country?
Motti: There are a lot of things but the most important thing that the Muslim world not only Iran but also the Arab countries have wrong about Israel is a misunderstanding about the establishment of the state. The establishment of the state resulted from a genuine need of a group of people to define themselves politically and create their own political identity. This has nothing to do with British or American imperialism or any other imperialism. Another thing is the fact that Israel has been under threat politically and militarily in the Middle East ever since it started. It created fear and even paradox in Israel about survival. And Israelis are very sensitive about the question to their survival and they are very sensitive to a threat about their survival. I think most Israelis are aware of the fact that the conflict with the Palestinian has to be resolved. There has to be a solution which is a two-state solution to recognize the borders and to create a good neighborhood with Palestinians and having a collaborative relationship with them. Which means basically according to the Clinton proposal of 2001, Israel will withdraw to the borders of 1967, most of the settlement will be evacuated, all the settlers will return to 1967 borders. Jerusalem will be divided. Wherever there is Arab majority would be Palestinian and wherever there is a Jewish majority will be Israeli. Even there is an agreement that the holly mosques will be Muslim. Both sides, Israeli and Palestinian have to go through a change in order to accept these parameters. What I like Iranians to know is that I would want them to play a positive part in this process. I would want Iranians to be part of a peace creating process, to know that there are people in Israel that would be more than happy to open this dialogue. I would want Iranians to know that most Israeli people (perhaps not the Israeli government) are eager to begin dialogue with Iran and to corporate Iran in the peace making in the Middle East.
So, Roberta you mentioned that Iranians had a proposal to have an agreement with the US, but the US refused to talk to them and it has happened a few times after the revolution. Many Iranians think it is the arrogance from the American side to behave like that and refuse to talk. I wonder what is you interpretation and do you think it would be possible for Americans to start talking with Iranians over the issues they have?
Roberta: Well I have a general thought about your question and you are also asking something very specific. My general thought is that many of us from our perspective look at the other side assuming they have bad intention towards us. We presume that the primary mechanism that motivates this other country is their bad intentions towards us. So, presuming that Iran has a negative intention towards the US, presuming that the US has a negative intention towards Iran, we assume that you want to hurt us and we are threatened by you. But what I have learned in this project is that although of course people protect their own best interests in any case — we do it as individuals and we would do as people or families and nations — it is worth asking oneself what is the positive intention of this overture. You can look at the 2003 memo from Iran and you can look at it as either a manipulation towards the US or you can see it as a genuine offer to initiate dialogue. And I think this present administration, because it was the Bush administration that refused to consider the 2003 memo, presumed bad intentions. But if one looked at exact same memo and presumed positive intentions? For example, listening to Motti if Iranian people could understand that Israel’s intention is a good intention but naturally self-protective, understanding that the Iranian intention is a good intention but naturally self-protective, then there is the potential for a successful dialogue. But, you have to trust that the other party is not trying to sabotage you with their overture! This present administration can not see that from Iran. Whatever they saw, they only saw that there was a potential manipulation in that memo that had to be rejected out of hand. Even though there were so many items of common concern in the memo. Specifically, it is my hope that we will elect a different administration in the US very shortly and that administration will presume good intentions, while recognizing that the other nation naturally is looking into their inevitable best interests for themselves — just as we are doing. So, when people of Iran think that the US is arrogant they are presuming that we have bad intentions towards the Iranians. So it is distrust as Torange mentioned. If you can’t believe that the other party has any good intention towards you then you can’t enter in dialogue.
Motti how did you create the character of Ali Kermani which is an Iranian clergyman?
Motti: It was very difficult for me to create a character like Ali Kermani to begin with because I was not familiar and didn’t have knowledge about his background. So the first thing for me was to learn more about the clergies, about who they are, how they came to power, what did they do? For example, what was his education, where did he study where did he go to university, etc? So it was the external portrayal of the character. But it is not the important thing. The important thing is his inner life and I think I was able to connect and understand Kermani’s inner life once I decided that he is really a person who seeks peace. He seeks peace and reconciliation with the US and with Israel. And as Roberta said he is trying to protect Iran’s interest. And there is still possibility to maintain a good relationship with Israel and the US and maintain Iranian interest. So, I think the level that I was connected to was the peace seeker more than the Ayatollah. Ayatollah is only his external figure. What he wears and his turban is irrelevant. The relevant thing is that inside him he is a realistic, pragmatic, peace-seeking human being.
Did you have President Khatami in mind when you were creating this character?
Motti: I read about Khatami and actually looked at his biography and made notes about him and I did the same thing about Rafsanjani. But at the end I realized that my character Ali Kermani is the one that I am able to connect to and I have to make him more progressive than what they were able Å| at least officially- to be. Maybe unofficially Khatami is as progressive as Ali Kermani but he is openly more progressive than they allow themselves to my best knowledge.
Do you think there are people like Ali Kermani in Iran?
Motti: Yes, I am sure they have people like Ali Kermani. This play for me is a plead for people like Ali Kermani to show up, start dialogue formally, informally, openly, secretly, in any way they can with Israeli and Americans and that’s the only way to change.