The notion of artistic translation was one that I have been trying to address in hurr and it is something that I will be looking at in my next show as well. Inspired by Torquato Neto’s Tropicalismo I have been thinking about, taking from Peter Lamborn Wilson, a notion of Orientalismo a reclaiming and detourne-ing of Orientalism. One key to this is looking at the relationship between work and how it is made across different cultures.
I have been doing everyone heads in recently, because I have just started singing the song “She Was Poor, But She was Honest”, an old music hall number which features the line “Its the same, the ‘ole world ovar, its the pour wot gets da blame/ its da rich wots gets da plezhur aint it all a bleedin’ shame”, at least it does in my camped up mockney sing along version. I’m in Iran at the moment and have been playing the guitar at family get togethers and so on, after doing two or three or four Iranian songs, when you are asked to do the odd English (or Ingeleesi) song, people want Adele, Hotel California or a bit of something funky, but I’m bringing music hall to the middle east.
Ironically perhaps, given that I’ve just finished working on Hurr I’ve seen a middle eastern play live, as it were, for the first time Mind you, I’m aware of the fairly broad way that sentence is constructed, and so I should probably tell you exactly what that means. I have come to Iran on a bit of a family emergency/trip/do/etc and I have had a couple of days in Tehran, so I went to see a play Taraneha ye Mahali, at the Te’a’tre i Shahr.
Te’atre i Shahr is roughly (I say, building from a complete ignorance of how theatre is made in Iran the kind of post colonial metaphor which should probably mean I have to give up my Edward Said stamped official post colonial critic card) equivalent to the national theatre, even the name translates as “City Theatre”, so a Parisian translation might be more appropriate, but I know probably less about how French theatre is made than I do about Iranian, and I am trying to set up a metaphor, so please be kind enough to go with it.
Its like the National, and I suppose the Royal Exchange and a couple of other theatres, in so far as the main house shows have actors and directors drawn from successful Iranian films and TV series. By which I mean, its obviously, in a very specific sense of the word a prestigious venue.
Tehran is one of the most crazy garish intense insane places I’ve ever been, and I’ve been up Leeds Road in Bradford at half two on Saturday morning. As I was walking to the theatre, there was a break in one of the streets and a traditional Persian garden set back from the baking filth of the main road. There was a Craft festival, with some quite interesting exhibits, at the House of Arts and Crafts. In particular, there were a series of western style mugs that were clearly in conversation with old Iranian “Jaam” style wine glasses.
All my plays and poems tend to have quite a strong sense of place. I have written more poems than I probably should have about Sheffield (I have written one), and some about Bradford etc, and my plays seem to be about different ways of seeing England, in a way. I felt that the artist who made these mugs was probably looking at place and space and history, in a loosely similar way. Something about this way of thinking about place and time rubbed me the wrong way though, as I found it jarringly celebratory, at best a relic of a Clinton and Khatami world of “dialogue between civilizations” and the general thawing of international relations and the introduction of basic personal freedoms to Iran. Now, some of this thaw, and some of the basic personal freedoms have survived. Nevertheless, I struggled to get on board with what I perceived to be a celebratory piece of work that seemed to be speak to a moment that passed twenty years ago. I have problems with the static and reified notion of culture that a “dialogue of civilizations” implies anyway, still more when Imperialist sanctions have thrown large sections of the Iranian population into ever more desperate poverty, and even killed people.
The problem with this reification is that renders invisible the inconsistency in each “civilization” itself, the myriad of struggles and conflicts that make up every day life whether gender, race and ethnicity or class. I caught myself thinking, if you really want to make something about how these two worlds interact, look for the thing that divides them both, think about how class intersects across both cultures. But then thats maybe me, I flatter myself that I’ll do you a good line in brooding leftism wherever I am.
Later when I went to see the play Taraneha ye Mahali (Local Songs), I was thinking about the play. The story followed an Iranian musicologist who lived in America on his journey back to Iran to collect various folk songs. To be honest, the play wasn’t great (the one I saw the next day was brilliant- so this is very much not some high handed, under reaserched comment on “the state of Iranian theatre” . As the protagonist went from town to town, he met characters from legendary Iranian new wave films (Bashu the Little Stranger, The Runner etc). Obviously these films are famous for (amongst other things) featuring incredibly strong casts of non actors from far flung parts of Iran. The play was some sort of poorly directed, unflinchingly episodic middle class guilt/redemption fest in which our hero went from place to place feeling bad about how the people of the area were misused and abused by film makers. There were moments where I felt that something genuinely interesting was being said, but throughout the film the “local characters” confronted the protagonist a la Spike Lee’s definition of the “magical Negro”, characters with no teleology of their own who seem to exist only to teach the protagonist about themselves.
There were some moments when I felt like the working class and peasant characters were able to speak back to the protagonist character, but there was never a moment were you felt like they ever learned anything about themselves, or had a way of as it were, leaving the story.
Comapre this to the golden age of Iranian cinema. Not that actual golden age that Tom Paulin et al have written so much about, but the Tehrani noir films of the sixties and early seventies. In general these films had a lot to say about the failure of cultures to talk to each other. One thinks of the famous scene in Gheysar, where the Shah’s censors have no explicit grounds to arrest anyone, but an Uncle’s plea to his nephew not to murder his sister’s killers, revolves around a discussion of the Book of Kings, creating a metaphor for the urban poor and their relationship to the so-called “modernizations” of the Pahlavi regime.
Basically, what I am saying is, Tehran, Yorkshire or America the issues the same, only one class of people are given a voice. Which means that they sometimes exploit, sometimes soothe, sometimes feel guilty about other social classes. But they are never challenged, still less silenced by them.