Ta’zieh play pokes at regime

By the time it was banned, a week before the Aug. 6 swearing in of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran, a bold Ta’zieh (traditional tragedy theatre) on the 1997 serial assassinations of several leading dissident intellectuals, had already had a month-long run.

That month was wide enough a window in Iran’s restricted intellectual world to bestir the country’s young and thinking middle-class to flock to the capital’s main theatre and see for themselves the latest creation of Bahram Baizaee, 67, one of the great Ta’zieh playwrights of this generation.

Baizaee has no qualms in admitting that what he wanted to do was refresh public memory of six of his close friends, brutally stabbed, lynched, shot or strangulated by unknown assailants. The then ruling establishment laid the blame for the vigilante killings on “rogue elements in the intelligence ministry” and in late 1997 the perpetrators were brought to justice behind closed doors — to deny dissidents any satisfaction.

Yet, Naser Zarafshan, a lawyer for the families of the victims, was sentenced to five years in jail for an interview he gave to the Voice of America’s Farsi service on the assassinations. The charges included disloyalty, sedition and disclosing classified information.

For Baizaee, the memories have lingered, and there was no better way to pay homage to his unfortunate friends than through stagecraft he knows best which is curiously apposite being quintessential Shiite-Persian theatre that parallels Greek tragedy for its profound pathos.

The word ta’ziyeh literally means mourning and consolation but among Indian Shiites it means a wooden box, being metaphorical for a coffin. The play itself has a quaint, prolonged title, which translates as “Psycho — drama recalling the passion of Navid Makan and his spouse, the Architect Roukhshid Farzin”.

Intellectual circles and critics have criticised the dramatisation for the “explicitness” against the perpetrators and the powers that gave the ‘thumbs-down’ sign, but most sympathised with both the playwright and his characters who are still revered by educated Iranians.

Many in the audience believed that the political message of the play was so self -evident that what was truly surprising was that the performances were allowed to be staged at all. Critics in newspapers predicted that the play would be banned before Ahmadinejad, a known hardliner, took over as President and that is precisely what happened in the end.

Baizaee says his primary inspiration is the Ta’ziyeh tradition, which, like its Greek counterpart, dates back to pre-historic rituals. It was reinvented as mourning rites during the Safavid, Shiite dynasty, in the 15th century. Ta’ziyeh continues to be performed wherever large Shiite populations exist, in Iraq, southern Lebanon, Bahrain and Jamaica, although full dramatic performances exist only in Iran.

And that may have been one reason why Baizaee’s play, bitingly critical as it was of the political establishment, had such an unexpectedly long run. Veneration of martyrs has always been a part of Persian culture while the idea of redemption pre-dates Islam while scholars have drawn parallels between Ta’zieh and medieval Christian theatre, including ‘Stations of the Cross’. — IPS