This is not the photo I originally intended to use here. I’ll get into that more later.
This is a photo of some of the Iranian contingent participating in the theatre festival where we were a few weeks ago – this is a couple of them in their portion of the final performance of the festival. They’re an incredible group of artists, profoundly honest and brave, willing to perform, share, create, tackle the work whether or not the translation has come through or is fully understood.
The entire group is remarkable – both the men and the women. For the purposes of this blog entry, I’m focusing on the remarkable women. You know, because “girl stuff.”
The photo I originally intended to have at the top of this post was a photo of three women clustered together in a friendly embrace, smiling for the camera. It was taken after a two-and-a-half day intensive workshop with Eugenio Barba, one of the giants of the physical theatre world in the 20th century. He’s exacting, particular, unsentimental, and was the absolute high man on the totem pole for the time he was at the festival.
One of the women created a short performance for the workshop, about the silencing of women in her country. She performed being slapped, punched, having tape wrapped around her head, thrown to the ground. Through it, her eyes were wide and frightened, and she sang a quiet song of liberation. When it was Barba’s time to work with her, he told her of an acquaintance he’d known who lived through the second world war and survived being tortured by the Nazis. Barba told us how instead of showing fear or stoicism, his friend smiled at the torturer. “Perform it again, but smiling,” he told her.
She has a beautiful smile, a sweet smile, a laughing smile. You could hear a pin drop in the room, save for her singing. “Louder, louder,” he urged her, and louder she sang, smiling as the invisible punches came and as she fell to the ground. She wore her smile like armor. She wielded her smile like a sword.
Barba – strict, unsentimental Barba – put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. “It is a bad, bad world,” he said to her quietly, “where women cannot sing.”
Here’s the point I keep getting hung up on.
These are normal 21st century 20-somethings – they take selfies and post on Instagram and have their phones in hands for photos a lot. But if there’s an “official photo,” they briefly freeze and then abruptly move to find something to cover their heads, because of course, their heads must be covered.
So after the two days of workshop, most of the women all rushed upstairs to change for a photo with the maestro – partially to put on something pretty, after being in black movement clothes all morning, but partially because they needed scarves for their heads and didn’t have anything handy. They ran upstairs as exuberant theatrical pioneers, and they came back downstairs as decorous and proper young ladies. Colors, patterns, and personalities blossomed in their scarves.
Another day, we were finishing work with an incredible woman named Keiin, a master of Japanese dance, one who had painstakingly costumed us in traditional dress and then for an hour afterwards, painstakingly folded every kimono and obi with exacting precision. The girls wanted a picture with her; their rooms were too far away. All that was available to cover their heads were the delicate costumes, the holiest of holies. Was this permitted? It took a few tries to explain. “Okay,” Keiin said finally, capitulating with a patient smile.
A day or two before our final performance, one of the girls was sitting in one of the public areas and crying, unable to hide it. She said she missed her family terribly, but she didn’t miss Iran. She said she was homesick, but not so much as she knew she would be once she was back home and away from all of us. People were different there, she said. There was nothing to be done but cry.
At the cast party, following the final performance, one of my fellow Americans was taking phone pictures of the celebration. One Iranian woman grinned and gestured to herself – head uncovered, a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other – “No, no, don’t. They would kill me.” And then she laughed to show that she meant it as a joke, and of course it wasn’t a joke, and in the midst of the revelry and celebration of artistic camaraderie and newfound friendships, it was a chilling thought to remember what the group might be going home to in another day or two.
These are beautiful, brave artists. And they’re not allowed to be.
I’m sitting here in my nice bed in my nice house, halfway around the world from them, and I’m afraid to even post their pictures because what if.
The photo I was going to include at the beginning of this post shows them smiling, loving, independent, fierce, exultant at having just worked on meaningful art, and even though their heads are covered, I’m too anxious to include their faces next to my words about what incredibly brave, badass artists these ladies are.
And in some ways, the civilized response to this is “Yes, of course this is terrible. Obviously.” Obviously. But in other ways, this is the worst response we can give. Because as long as women are silenced like this – and forbidden from showing themselves, and from being themselves, and from sharing their voices – as long as there is a system in place which supports this, there is someone in the world for whom this is not obvious. And when we say “Obviously” and turn our heads away to talk about something less obvious and more comfortable, we betray them. We cannot stop talking about this, no matter how “Obviously” obvious the horror is, and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
These are real women, whose stories I’m afraid to talk about even in this brief detail, whose names I’m not even mentioning here – and god, part of me really wants to mention them by name (like, there’s a second-to-last-draft of this where I mention one of their names but then changed my mind at the last second), because I feel like all their names are superpowered magic words but ones that I shouldn’t use too much – for fear that somehow, someone in a position of power would read this stupid little blog entry and put two and two together and know who I was describing and punish them for daring to speak and be seen showing independent thought.
And I don’t know what to do except write this down, in my purely-anecdotal, no-real-research-or-educated-thoughts-on-this-issue kind of way, and try to help keep this story going, because it needs to be heard. I know it’s not enough, and I think there must be something more that I can do, but this is all I know how to do right now.
One of the Iranians gave me a quick goodbye present, almost seconds before we departed for the airport – a colorful little pin that I’ve been wearing on my purse since. I promise myself that I’ll keep it nearby and remember to keep them in my thoughts. If I were the praying type, I’d be keeping them in my prayers. I think about them a lot. I worry that in time, they’ll fade from my attention. I hope they don’t. I hope they stay safe. I hope we meet again.