Last Scene Underground
An Ethnographic Novel of Iran
Roxanne Varzi


A Note to the Reader

If stories have ancestors, or ghosts, then this one’s would be the legacy of the Shiraz Theater Festival in the late 1960s in the Iranian city of wine, poetry and nightingales. The festival was the brainchild of the Queen of Iran, who gave the opportunity to cutting-edge international theater directors to do anything they desired, with an endless budget. They showed naked bodies and blew up mini mountains and some were commissioned to make what became the plays of their careers, a well-known example being Peter Brook and Tom Hughes, whose experimental play Orghast became a major international success. The Queen’s tastes ran toward the modern and Western, the avant-garde, which in those days meant a theater of protest. While her husband’s regime was busy imprisoning outspoken critics, she was inadvertently supporting and training them, giving them invaluable exposure to the best possible mentors in the world of political theater: Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, August Wilson and Eugene Ionesco.

Iranian theater has other even-more-powerful homegrown ghosts haunting the villages and plains of Iran, the most important being the traditional eighth-century Shiite passion play Ta’ziyeh, an annual reenactment by locals of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the Battle of Karbala (Iraq, 680 A.D.). For centuries, Ta’ziyeh has provoked strong emotional audience response. By the time the Shiraz Theater Festival was in full swing, the religious opposition to the Shah was already using Ta’ziyeh to stir up support. The Shah responded by all but banning the Ta’ziyeh. Which is why it was both strange and useful for him to allow a contained and watered-down, apolitical version of the play at the Festival as both a consolation to the Iranian people who did not approve of all the Western theater and as a bonbon for foreigner directors who were anxious to see an example of the famous Ta’ziyeh.

The Islamic Revolution is often viewed as a backward, fundamentalist event that was a backlash to the Shah of Iran’s rapid modernization. The Revolution was a political rather than a social backlash that was born of an incredibly modern, intellectual and Western moment in Iranian history. The roots of the Revolution may go back to the desire Iranians had in the 1950s to have a democratic government when they elected a French-educated, freethinking Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who worked tirelessly to nationalize Iranian oil. He was ousted by a CIA coup d’état in 1953 that brought back the Pahlavi monarchy and the Shah of Iran.

The Shah’s reign was marked by rapid modernization in terms of infrastructure but not politics, during which he had banned all opposing political parties, censored the press and intellectuals (managing to do so with the aid of a strong secret police), allowed increased inflation to create a large gap between rich and poor and kept an especially keen eye on the clerics who opposed his economic reforms, including the radical young seminarian Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah saw to Khomeini’s worldly education by exiling him first to Iraq and then prophetically to France, where he was exposed to the perfect blend of postcolonial theory, postwar French philosophy and esoteric Islam.

The Iranian Revolution began as a people’s movement against the Shah that eventually turned into an Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini could not have pulled off the revolution without the secular liberal intellectuals who paved the ground before him. The Revolution included everyone, from American feminist Kate Millet to a radical antimonarchy movement that encompassed Communists, Islamic Marxists, Islamic guerillas and Islamic feminists. It was a backlash against informal colonialism and imperialism and what Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who was also present at the marches, megaphone in hand, believed initially to be an attempt to insert “spirit into a world without spirit.”

In 1980, shortly after the Islamic Revolution, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, which resulted in a bloody ten-year war. The Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1989) mobilized a splintered Iranian population against a common enemy, allowing for the new Islamic government to create and consolidate its state. The war became known as the Sacred Defense and the soldiers who died fighting it were elevated to the status of Islamic martyrs. From the outset of the war, a propaganda arm of the new government used Ta’ziyeh to play on the Sunni/Shiite split between Iraq and Iran and emphasize the importance of Hussein’s martyrdom in order to drum up war support and excite future martyrs. Iran became a cartography of death, mapped by the images of martyrs on the sides of apartment buildings, in highway billboards, on television, local stages and film and as statues in fountains and traffic squares. In the end, over a million people died on both sides, but no borders had shifted, nothing but human flesh was won or lost.

Meanwhile, the new Islamic government was moving full-force ahead in changing the rules for public conduct and enforcing what they believed to be more pious behavior. Women were required to cover their heads with a russari, hejab or magneh and to wear a traditional full-length chador or a rupush, a long coat akin to a raincoat. Men could not wear short sleeves, t-shirts, shorts, baseball caps (at first) or anything too “Western” looking. Cultural rules went into effect, banning activities like chess, coed socializing among unmarried youth, any kind of nontraditional music, and riding bicycles and singing for women. Vigilantes, the Basij, and the Islamic police, Komiteh, kept an eye on citizens and punished inappropriate dress and behavior.

Despite every effort on the part of youth from secular families to ignore the physical space of state propaganda, some Revolutionary ideals and rules seeped into their psyches regardless. After all, there is no better way to encourage an Islamic citizenry than by making a person physically inseparable from her Islamic city (like wearing Islamic covering). But even so, the state was not wholly effective in turning the population into perfect Islamic citizens; on the contrary, many ignored, turned away from the city and completely detached in public in order to resist the undesirable space. Some simply created alternative spaces inside their own homes and those of others who offered private painting classes, music classes, unsanctioned parties with coed gatherings and alcohol (the prohibition of which only created a strong black market). By the time the youth born at the beginning of the 1979 Revolution came of age, they were well-versed in how a proper Islamic citizen should behave, and were very good at pretending to conform—all the while becoming increasingly weary of leading a double life.

In 1995, the election of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami offered the first indication that the children of the Revolution, now old enough to vote, did not necessarily agree with the revolutionary government. Khatami relaxed the Islamic codes by permitting musical concerts, chess and non-Islamic-themed theater, providing education subsidies and allowing reformist newspapers that critiqued hardliners. He gave youth a chance to come out of hiding and exhibit their art: music, theater, painting and photography, all of which flourished under his regime. But he remained careful and prudent: the dress code, for example, became more relaxed but remained. And women still could not and cannot sing in public.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the government supported him, and by 1999 he was dealing with a strengthening opposition that clamped down on many of his reforms. When the government cut Khatami’s education subsidies and closed the reformist newspapers, students protested for the first time since the Revolution. What began as a peaceful demonstration ended in riot, with plain-clothed vigilantes storming the dormitories, kicking in walls, smashing television sets and setting fires. A number of students were killed and imprisoned. It was never clear who ordered the riot police in or why Khatami didn’t speak out against the violence. What was clear was that violence changes everything.

After the dormitory protests, Khatami again made more reforms in the press and in education, and even gestures of friendship to the outside world. Unfortunately these were coupled with a failing economy, a scarcity of jobs, disillusionment in the general public marked by a rise in drug use among wealthy teens with nothing else to do and among the poor, who gave their last coins for the sludge at the bottom of wealthy men’s opium pipes. Twelve-step recovery programs mushroomed—underground, but overlooked. There was a rise in male and female prostitution, open discussions in the press occurred about HIV and homosexuality and sex change operations were hot topics in the underground media.

In the intellectual sphere, culture was also changing. Philosophical and radical texts from abroad like Foucault’s and Heidegger’s were being translated into Persian and readily available in bookstores. New Age themes were popular, and the top-selling author of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, began making annual visits to his readers in Iran. Films from Iran acquired world acclaim and won Oscars. But theater was only just coming into its own as a radical and different art form.

Film and theater had been vital to the creation of a martyrdom culture since the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, making it important for the government to continue to support film schools and drama departments. In Tehran, The Farabi Film Center and the City Theater operated throughout the Revolution, and shortly after the end of the war various congresses on drama, from War Theater to Ta’ziyeh and children’s theater, puppet-theater and the famous Fajr Theater Festival were formed to especially highlight the works of those film and theater producers who had been active in the war and who continued to make government propaganda. Immediately after the Revolution, a number of cutting-edge playwrights and directors who had made anti-Shah theater (but were not necessarily pro-Islamic Republic) continued to work in the theater and to teach. They made use of traditional methods and narrative conventions such as pardeh khani, which involved a storyteller who in the old days rode into town on a donkey with a large sheepskin sheet embellished with the most fantastical scenes from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), which he’d prop up behind him while he recited his mythic tales about the Arab invasion of Persia. After the Revolution, the Shahnameh was considered too monarchial, too anti-Islam, until it was reinterpreted in 1989 in Hamid-Reza A’zam’s play The Last Technique, in which the storyteller read tales rewritten to replace the original characters with heroic young martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. Aside from war-themed or moral stories, through most of the nineties, public performance consisted of imported Chinese opera with only male actors invited on the stage, classical Persian music concerts with again only male musicians and religious plays like Ta’ziyeh, in which all the roles, including female roles, are played by men.

As a result of all the government support for the performance arts, there was an entire generation of filmmakers and actors coming of age by the time of Khatami’s election who had skill and talent but not the freedom to perform anything that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. With film, it was easier: producers could trick the censors by submitting a script for production, getting the money and a trusted crew and permission and then making a different film in the editing room that could be exported and featured in international film festivals.

Theater was more difficult: it was hard enough to get approval to stage a play in Iran. All plays had to be approved by the government and permission had to be granted to begin rehearsals. And then government censors often crashed the rehearsals. Once a radical performance was premiered it might get shut down immediately, meaning that all the rehearsals and work might only be for one performance. The theater’s only exportable product was live performances, but getting government permission for individuals to perform abroad was not easy. International festivals had to agree that there would be no touching and that Iranian women would veil. The Iranian government would collect the performers’ passports and government handlers accompanied the groups. Yet, some performers still defected.

In the late 1990s many youth theater companies worked intensely together “underground” as unofficial companies, only coming above ground after Khatami’s election. By 1999 they had fully emerged above ground and were for the first time creating an alternative artistic space in the public sphere. I saw this firsthand at Hamed Taheri’s production of The Blacks, which opened in Tehran in the spring of 2000. The Blacks was inspired loosely by Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, and introduced to Iranian theater some of the first serious body-movement, avant-garde use of sound and text since the Shiraz Theater Festival in the 1970s. Taheri’s company had first met nine years earlier in an underground acting and movement class. What made Taheri’s theater so pathbreaking was his incorporation of Jerzy Grotowski’s incredibly taxing movement and acting method, known as Poor Theater, described by Grotowski in his groundbreaking book Towards a Poor Theatre (1968). Taheri had painstakingly translated this thirty-year-old text twenty words a day with the help of an old dog-eared English dictionary. Taheri not only imported Grotowski’s acting exercises but also completely adhered to his radically antiestablishment ideas of a poor theater. Taheri revolutionized the way theater was being done in Tehran, including improvisational elements (risky but necessary when scripts were highly censored), choreography that allowed male and female actors to just barely touch and most important, the addition of audience participation, which got out of control during his last Blacks performances, when female audience members touched male actors and even threw off their veils.

That performance inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries—disciplinary, genre, political and personal—and could write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I spent the next decade researching and writing and rewriting this novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance, attempt to put on a play. Though this book is inspired by the plays that took place in Tehran primarily at the turn of the last century, it is not a retelling of those performances. Nor is it a political commentary about a specific movement, which is why I further fictionalized the action by placing it in 2009, when a protest similar to the dormitory protests of 1999 occurred and a political tug-of-war ensued between the people and the government, with masses of Iranians of all ages taking to the streets. Writing fiction allows me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 or 2009. But writing a fictional ethnography allows me to keep to the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

What makes this book different from a traditional novel is the inclusion of the director’s notes, which are a fictional notebook kept by a fictional character. The notes are a culmination of my research, which ranged from people I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field, but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not himself have known or read. In that sense the novel is an intense collaboration with the people I researched to the end that I remain grounded in fact—even when wanting to move fully into fiction. The book is, to the extent that any ethnography can be, based on research. It is a reflection of daily life—which in Tehran is lived creatively, whether one is an artist or not.

While this book is about collaboration—between fact and fiction, art and ethnography, science and human experience, the anthropologist and the people—it is ultimately about the freedom to create and to openly express our creations, opinions and insights. It is about leaving the dark and moving toward the light.