(Originally written in 2007)
WHO are you?
WHERE have you come from?
WHERE is your home?
ARE you going back?
A grey mother tent, on the bare Ranga Shankara stage at Bangalore, gives birth to six others, amidst swirling questions about individual identity.Each tent with a view pulses to life. They spin, twirl, collide, crawl, to choreograph our worst fears about our globalized world. About dislocation. About territorial strife. About nationhood, exile, longing and belonging. In an hour, each of us are in the thick of an identity crisis, provoked by ‘Return to Sender — Letters from Tentland,’ a dance theatre production by brilliant German director-choreographer Helena Waldmann, staged on September 7, 2007.
Six young Berlin-based actresses of Iranian origin are the cloaked faces of this extraordinary journey between continents and cultures. The tent as a metaphor for our times provokes images from our collective memory. Of itinerant labourers in Bangalore. Of Palestine. Of strife-torn Aghanistan. Or even Sri Lanka. And we acknowledge that this production, under auspices of the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, redefines political, avant-garde theatre as a revitalizing force, as it is staged en route from Kabul and New Delhi to Colombo.
Theatrically, the narrative takes precedence over experimentation, however unfashionable within the contemporary artistic context. Postcards from nowhere yoke Berlin with Teheran, then pit skyscrapers against interior landscapes, the exiled against imaginary homelands, governments against the individual. Projections on a foregrounded screen send affirmative correspondence to six Iranian actresses in Teheran, from Waldmann and her cast, signed off with “love from H.”
Who are these shadowy women, whose absence permeates the performance? They are the lifeblood of this show’s precursor, titled “Letters from Tentland,” a poignant commentary about womanhood in Iran, the offspring of a 2004 Waldmann workshop with Iranian actresses/ dancers in Teheran. The tensile creation premiered at Teheran’s International Fadjr Theatre Festival, touring 17 countries over 16 months, before Iran banned it in 2005. The show exploited loopholes to edge past the censors, for a solo woman could sing for a mere 20 seconds, and even a phantom was forbidden to dance. But monologues, slides, and projected letters proved perfect ploys.
Interviewed in Bangalore on September 6, Waldmann recalls her inspiring encounters with the feisty Iranian actresses, who couched their angst about their lives, both personal and political, as letters to her. For instance, ‘Director, what are you doing to us? You change the rules every other day!’
She backtracks to their first workshop: “I asked them to look out of a window, then write a letter to Teheran. One wrote: ‘Please God, come back from holiday.’ They are totally lost. No one cares about their plight. They need help.”
The 2005 ban upset Waldmann. She stresses, “As an artist, I felt that I couldn’t just do another piece as if nothing happened. I asked the actresses from Berlin to watch ‘Letters from Tentland’ and somehow overwrite it.” The title of the original, slashed in the poster of the Bangalore show, traces that parallel trajectory.
The Berlin actresses drew on their own experiences, their dual identities, their constant search for a home. Within light tents once used by their Teheran predecessors, their metaphorical mobility suggests both home and the world. Their fears, their dreams, their plea for tolerance, imbue the moving tents, in wordless communication as in passionate encounters. Each layered resonance instigates another heart-rending quest, as their missives to Teheran bounce back, marked ‘Return to Sender.’
Waldmann’s sharing is profoundly moving: “In Palestine and Afghanistan, they saw ‘Return to Sender’ not as art, but as part of their lives. They wonder: how can a country like Germany create a piece that seems to be a warfield? The tents tell them it’s not about rich people or the lucky ones. In Kabul or Ramallah, it was important for them to see that others also have a hard life, even in Germany. You cannot imagine what it means to have men sitting in the audience, crying.”
How do the participants, equally fluent in Farsi and German, feel about the transformative experience, which has already toured 10 countries, including Kenya and Serbia-Montenegro? “We are Iranian in our language, food, music and customs. But German is our mother tongue, Berlin our home city,” responds Sanam Afrashteh, cosy on a sofa at their Bangalore hotel. “Where do I locate myself? Does this have to be geographically defined?”
Niloufar Shahisavandi adds, “I pick up what I like from both cultures, to create my own somehow. That’s the only way I can handle this situation.”
Signalling the lack of a red carpet for refugees in the first world, a tearful Javeh Asefdjah sighs, “For me, Berlin is nice. It wasn’t so for my parents. My mother now lives in Teheran. It was tough for her to be in a new country with no language, no job, no friends. Yet people ask me: ‘How can she live with the hijab? Doesn’t she want to be free?’ Each of us have stories like this.”
How tough is it to identify an identity? Pujeh Taghdisi, who came to Germany at eight, revisited Teheran, only to discover, “I went back to the streets of my childhood, to a bakery to buy bread. The man there asked, ‘You’re a foreigner, aren’t you?’ It’s hard to accept. But yes, I am.”
How relative is freedom? How real is fear? Beyond news bulletins, they investigate blood, sweat and real courage. Pujeh says, “In Kabul, during the post-show interaction, when we invite either the men or the women backstage, we were all crying. We met strong, fiery girls of 15 or 16, who had set up their own theatre groups, fighting for open spaces for the next generation. One girl had come to Kabul from Herat. She knew that, when she returned, her family wouldn’t accept her any more. But she took the risk.”
Salome Dastmalchi, the only trouper unafraid of the Kabul visit, took courage from a 1995 family holiday in strife-torn Israel. She recalls, “In Afghanistan, the women hug you, give you so much love. You learn how to care about people.”
“We’re also discovering that if you have a place inside you that you call home, then you don’t need to have a country that you belong to, or a nationality that binds you. You can be strong and say: wherever I am, is home,” concludes Sanam, whose father returned to Iran for two weeks to stay on for 16 years. Perhaps that is the vital clue to global citizenry or, in the words of an onstage monologue, to these ‘passport photographs from nowhere.’
(The Week, 2007)