Echoes of a 19th-century fable of compassion in the stories of 21st-century women.
Arash is a Tehrani musician. He lives alone in a cold, empty three-story building in the north of the capital. Arash belongs to Iran's ancient, ruined upper-class society. Lost in the past, he spends most of his time with two angelic but terrifying Dobermans. Dogs are considered impure animals in Iran and policemen have the legal right to shoot them down in the street. But every night, Arash allows himself a walk with his dogs in the neighborhood. Policemen in the area leave them alone. I asked him once if pedestrians were not scared by the dogs, which he permits to run freely on the sidewalks. He said that, strangely, women always approach them with tender affection while men -- afraid, perhaps feeling impotent -- behave aggressively toward them.
"Let me tell you something," he said. "The future of this land belongs to women. In a certain way, women have already taken control of the country, for they have kept their humanity."
How strange to think this way, I reflected. His words actually echoed some of my own recent thoughts on Iranian women. My most recent operatic experience in Europe inspired me to write on the subject and Arash's words in Tehran seemed to confirm my inspiraition.
Berlin, Milan, Brussels, and Madrid are today the most important cities for opera goers. When I was most recently in Europe, Brussels seemed the perfect destination. Directed by the Italian enfant terrible Romeo Castellucci, the new La Monnaie/Die Munt Opera House production of Parsifal, by German composer Richard Wagner, was a highly anticipated event. Castellucci -- who was in Tehran just this week for the Fajr International Theater Festival -- is a provocative artist. One may adore or hate his work, but none in his audiences are at a safe remove from his disturbing interpretation of the world.
Parsifal debuted in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth in 1882. Inspired by the medieval legend of the Holy Grail, Wagner depicts the Christian world of a patriarchal community that resides in the sacred castle of Montsalvat. Women are barred from the kingdom, where virgin chevaliers protect the Grail. It is unveiled periodically by King Amfortans during a Mass that celebrates Christ's last supper. Seduced by the beautiful Kundry -- who is condemned to act under the power of the malefic Klingsor -- the king suffers from incurable pain caused by a wound from his own Holy Lance, which Klingsor took from him. Only a pure and innocent boy, Parsifal, once enlightened with compassion, can recover the Holy Lance and save the Kingdom of the Holy Grail.
But Parsifal is ignorant to himself: he does not know his origins and has no idea of his destiny. Only through a protracted transformation of his soul, which demands he resist Kundry's fatal attraction, can he discover compassion and feel Amfortas's pain at the core of his being. It takes him much time to accept this fate, and he returns to the sacred kingdom only after years of wandering. He delivers the recovered Holy Lance and its healing contact with Amfortas's wound saves him from the cursed pain. Kundry the seducer is freed from Klingsor's malediction. Purged of her sins, she can die in peace.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Wagner's brilliant protégé, despised the opera. He proclaimed that such a Christian vision of the world, with Holy Grail, Holy Lance, celebration of the Mass, and so forth, was literally insane. During the 1930s, by contrast, the Nazis looked on Parsifal as the hero of a new Aryan world. They proclaimed that Wagner's opera announced the birth of "Germania," a land cleansed of Jews, Gypsies, and all others they regarded as impure. Beside these considerations, Parsifal remains a fascinating text in regard to women's humanity in a man's world.
The community of the Holy Grail is condemned by its sterility to disappear. Kundry, who has the power to reincarnate herself in different times and places, is the only women with access to the kingdom. She has a double personality, both seductive and angelic. Manipulated by Klingsor, she behaves like a wild animal, eternally prowling, seducing men and provoking their fall. But she is also empathetic: she feels terrible guilt for her acts and tries to find a balm that will heal Amfortas's injury. Over the course of the opera, her generous side is revealed: rather than prompting Parsifal's downfall, the kiss she gives the young boy reveals to him the power of human compassion.
Many stage directors refuse to present Kundry as a malefic seducer and prefer to emphasize her more humane aspects. They also reject her death at the close of the opera, as Wagner wrote it, in favor of an ending in which, introduced into an exclusively male, hermetic, and misogynistic realm, she symbolizes the future of a mankind freed from patriarchy and religious isolation. Castellucci discarded all Christian elements from the staging (there was neither a Holy Grail nor a Holy Lance) and conceived Kundry as a maternal figure. In the second act, as Klingsor orders her to seduce Parsifal, she appears with a diaphanous white dress and veil, symbol of purity and innocence. Rather than expressing sexual desires with spasms and hysterical movements, her calm body language evokes tenderness and awareness. Kundry, in Castelluci's conception, is the compassionate mother who reveals Parsifal to himself.
Castellucci's Kundry made me think of the lives of women in Iran today. Recently, I interviewed three of them. Even though they come from three different generations and three different social classes, they are linked by the complexity of their souls.
Nothing is black and white in these feminine portraits. The different layers of their inner lives combine tradition and modernity, empathy and individualism, forgiveness and anger. Above everything, these women have learned how to distinguish their own faith in God from the Islamic Republic's religious doctrines. This is where women's role is crucial in Iran. For they practice tolerance and preserve their humanity despite all the restrictions imposed on them.
Soussan, 31, is a stage actress. She lives in Tehran. "I come from a very modest family in Gilan, the north of Iran. My mother is a housewife, my father is a policeman. My mother became extremely religious after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, especially when the two brothers of her step-daughters became martyrs. My father is a traditional man. He prays regularly and believes in the Islamic Revolution, but he also has convictions that might differ from the government's religious doctrine.
"I am one of nine children, each with different religion beliefs. Our home consists of two houses that face one another. We are so different from each other that, in a way, we had to divide ourselves. The tidy and pretty Roghayegh and the very religious Mina couldn't live together. When music was first allowed in our household, due to the impact of [Mohammad] Khatami's presidency, problems arose at home. The two sisters shared nothing when it came to music or television. While Roghayegh was listening to Los Angeles Persian pop music, Mina was listening to Islamic prayers. We also had two television sets because we wouldn't watch the same programs.
"When I was a child, the rules were more severe. My mother didn't let me listen to music I liked, so I used to listen to it secretly, while she was not at home. I learned songs by heart so that I could sing them in my head. Without a doubt, this helped me to become an actor. Ali Reza, the oldest, also listened to music. He would even sing at home. My mother disliked it but she never said anything to him.
"Our lives completely changed with Khatami's election [in 1997]: mullahs in our city suddenly became elegant, foreign brands appeared. My father said to all of us: 'You have to study. Forget about the wedding and the traditional life. Become someone for yourself, but do respect our culture and values.' We even bought a video player and started watching foreign films. Pop music became allowed at home.
"Despite our differences, we silently respect one another. My brothers, sisters, and my mother know that I am living in Tehran with a boyfriend. But they never judged my life nor did they ask me questions. But this silence is broken during every presidential election. I would even say that everything explodes. My mother frequently goes to rozekhoonés, places of worship in which women fervently pray. She and Mina believe that [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is a sacred figure. Without a doubt, they want him to remain the leader of the country. When I and the other children start arguing with her, my father protests. 'Respect your mother,' he orders. 'You are troubling the house. Please respect the order of our lives." But most of the time, if not all the time, our father disappears in such situations. Our mother cannot stand political debates or family conflicts and keeps quiet after a while.
"The situation was also extremely tense during the 2009 presidential elections. We couldn't agree with one another. If our parents and some of brothers and sisters were for [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, others were for [Mir Hossein] Mousavi and the Green Movement. But despite everything, despite all the bad events that happened, we always respected one another's choices. No matters what, we remain a family."
Hengameh is 61. Her father used to be a colonel in the Army. Also a doctor, he spoke perfect French and was in love with the culture. "He left Iran for France and worked there as an ophthalmologist. My mother was the daughter of a brilliant doctor and was from Mashhad. My mother's family was very religious and so was my mother. But my father was different.
"We settled down in Paris in 1960. I was eight. Six years later, the family goes back to Tehran but lets me study in Paris in a Christian pension. I left France in 1968 and went to the United States to join my brothers. I went to Harvard University to study architecture. The day I finished my graduate studies, I bought a one-way ticket for Tehran. After all these years feeling like a tourist, I wanted to get back home. I had grown up in Mashhad and I always remembered the religious background of this sacred city. I didn't have a religious education but, still, I strongly believe in God. My mother used to recite the Ziaratnameh [prayer] and I never forgot her voice.
"I work as an architect today. I believe my work is spiritual. Whenever I am inspired, I thank God for this gift full of light. I have my own enterprise and I love working with my young and creative collaborators. All of them are brilliant architects. Even though I don't like the current political situation, I am in love with the Iranian spiritual imaginary, its superstitions, its religious background. I often pray and always thank God for good things in my life. If I feel unhappy, I might offer myself a short pilgrimage to the Imam Zadeh Jaleh mosque. I used to buy some fresh wheat and give it to the pigeons living there. These birds are the symbol of innocence and purity. I also used to make some nazr, which are kinds of negotiations with God: if You give me this, I will do some good actions. But I don't do it anymore. I have fewer and fewer desires and in a way, I see God everywhere, in Buddhism, in Christianity.... What matters to me is Islam's spirituality, something pure and beautiful that we all have in our souls, like a warm light."
Samaneh, 13, is full of promise. Her mother is the workhorse of a waelthy, venerable family whose members live in north Tehran.
"I know very well my religion. I know how important the veil is and I will not remove it. I believe what the Qur'an says, which might differ from the government's words. I want to get a good job and become financially independent. To be in a mixed school does not matter to me as long as I keep my veil.
"All the women in my family wear the chador, except my mother and me. Despite this, they all voted for Mousavi and his Green Movement. The most important thing is a good living, don't you think so? How important is what people believe in as long as they have a good life and job? I don't judge women who refuse to wear it.
"I don't pray. I am too lazy for that. At school, at noontime, we are ordered to pray but all the girls run away from this obligation. And I don't feel guilty. Muslim people don't need obligation. Most people I know who pray judge others. Why? They become sinners even though they pray. Your prayers will be worth nothing if your heart is impure.
"I don't believe in our government. It should separate religion from politics. The Qur'an asked us to protect religion but the power is destroying it. The government is telling us things religion never said. Everybody is corrupted in our society. People lie and even abuse children. I hate this society.
"I don't need a boyfriend. My mother said that I will get married with the right man at the right time. With a man that will let women live in peace. Otherwise I will get away from him. But nothing should happen before the wedding. Not before I am 24 years old, not before I obtain a master's.
"The government says we shouldn't listen to music. But I love the duo Kamran and Hooman. Khamenei himself condemned them. Why? Music is full of joy. God loves music. God loves beauty as well. Why can't men have long hair like our Prophet's? Why can't we put on makeup and fingernails? Even my teacher of theology protested in class and got fired. But the new one also says that religion has nothing to do with an Islamic Republic. He asks us to remain quiet about his words. So does our math teacher: he really hates Ahmadinejad."
Iranian people have changed: old-money aristocrats, the nouveax riches or "new purses," the new middle class coming from the provinces -- all are living together. Children from these various social classes attend school together and they all debate religion and politics. And here is my point: beyond the reach of government oppression, women work to transform the many cultural contradictions of contemporary Iran into generosity and tolerance. The future of this country will have women at its heart and this is a fact.
Photo: Castellucci's "Parsifal" in Brussels, January 2011.
by Arts Correspondent in Tehran