Vahid, a filmmaker and theatre director from Iran, is waiting for me frozen in front of a downtown Copenhagen café in early May. It is always too cold here, he says, it is impossible for him to get used to the weather conditions – though he has been living in Denmark for fourteen years now. We sit in the café for more than an hour before we walk out. Outside, Vahid shows me the windows of his so-called “Headquarter” up on of the nicely refurbished buildings.
Danes might have some feeling of “-ness” (Danishness) as any other nation in the world, says Vahid, but he has not encountered hostile reactions in the streets. Danger mostly resides in political and media manifestations against “Arabs” and “Muslims” in the mass media. Also, legislation in Denmark makes striking regulations in certain areas, such as making 24 the legal age for a Danish citizen to marry a foreigner.
Something from his homeland and something from his new home – this is what I regularly ask from interviewees. Vahid, relentless traveller, considers himself as the “object” that represents his recent home. Without knowing that a former interviewee brought her apartment keys of her new home from her new homeland, Vahid also brings a key ring with a bunch of keys. But there is a striking difference between the two sets of keys. These ones here on the table of the Copenhagen downtown café do not function anymore: keys to Iranian apartments that no longer exist. As the key ring is put onto the table, Vahid starts to tell me his story:
It was in my pocket when I left Iran. This is to my library, these two of my flats in Tehran, and this is to my parents’ house – and none of them exist anymore. These buildings were demolished and rebuilt along the years.
Did you take these keys deliberately or it all happened only by chance?
The key holder was with me, I just took it into my pocket when I left, and you know, I put it into my drawer and did not pay too much attention to it until you asked me to bring an object that reminds me of my former home country, Iran.
How did you leave your apartments? Did you sell them?
No, I just left all my stuff there, so after a while I had my belongings moved and some sent to me. I did not know anything about my future – so I left everything just the way it was.
Did you leave suddenly?
Yes, in a way. It did not happen overnight, but it was sudden nonetheless. I just left, so we can say that I had no chance to arrange things I left behind.
Do you know your reasons why you wanted to leave?
Mainly it was because I felt that it had become impossible for me to continue working there. I mean, filmmaking has never been a big problem, as I basically function as a sort of “technician”: I make a film when it is commissioned, so I produce what other people want. What is usually more problematic is my work in performing arts that is rather provocative and in several respects it is very hard to keep on working: way too expensive, with a long rehearsing period – as I try to invent a sort of parallel of life. This is not a question of style at all; it is more the way it connects to society. From Stanislavski onwards theatre has been used as tool for social transformation, as learning process: and this is what intrigued me. For me, theatre means that as you watch it you become somehow part of the performance, and as you leave the setting you walk away as if you were three centimetres taller. You feel the energy flow in your body, your mind; you acquire a sort of sensibility. This has always been the way of theatre that was important for me.
Were you considered dangerous back home because of your artistic conception?
An annoyance maybe that I would call the way it was regarded. This way of perceiving theatre and society was not feasible with the cultural landscape. So I had to make a decision if I wanted to continue like this; to invent a place where I could practice something else through imagination. So theatre has become the only place for me: it is a real place from which you can partly dissociate from towards the realm of imaginary.
What would be annoying about this conception of the theatre?
What matters here is how historical and biographical background of an artist is transformed into artistic meanings. And this is what I learned from Augusto Boal – I did not know too much about him until I attended one of his workshops. I read his work Theatre of the Oppressed, and I became very involved because I come from a very politically charged environment. The ethical roots of the theatre in Boal’s work is very important: the socio-political context has become a new treasure that I found in the toolbox of Boal. And it seemed to me that most of the theatre artists, my forerunners, have gone through this experience of being misplaced: a feeling that you were born in another time or place, being in a wrong position seen from the society you were born into. So than you have two options when being in that position: either you blame the whole universe for you being marginalized or you can try to move from the margin to the centre and become like them. There is also a third possibility is to stay where you are and try to do things with vigour and stubbornness and with the energy that turns the margin itself into centre. So you become an annoyance to the mainstream, to the establishment that you challenge with your manifestation.
Have you ever gone back to the apartments that once existed and these keys belonged to?
No, I have never gone back throughout these fourteen years. And the strange thing is that the people I knew very closely are scattered around the world now – I am in contact with them to certain degrees. And I have never had homesickness as I do not consider that I have a home as such.
How about your parents? You do not miss them?
There is this general perception among Iranians that it is great not to be in Iran. So, ironically enough they think that I should be happy that I am away. I talk to my parents on the phone from time to time, but we have never met since I left. They are just happy for me living here, I think.
It is painful to think of your own homeland as a living hell.
One of the strangest things I have experienced since I was living in Europe was that I had been brainwashed: I had this immense hostility towards the place I came from, towards Iran, and I thought that Europe was a great place. And then when you move you discover a different reality including the fact that whatever you despise about the place that you come from has something to do with this other thing that you are supposed admire. I mean here that this “great prosperity” of Europe has been created and built on the expense of blood sweat and tears of the rest of the population of the earth. This is not a question of identity but of more of choosing the sides: it is like changing one sort of blindness for another sort of blindness. For a person from the third world with the knowledge of the history it is very easy to begin to hate Europe – but actually that would become a second trap. When you are considered to come from a marginal position like I do it is almost impossible to escape the gaze which defines you, and also there is nothing to go back to. And if you think back to the notions and delimitations that placed you to one certain part of the world, that defined borders and nationalities, whatever you consider your former identity is nothing but projection.