News about Iran in ‘western’ media are often about repression and censorship. Ironically, it was precisely this kind of a story that made me research on who Afshin Ghaffarian is and which are the real facts behind the ‘young desert dancer who was arrested by the Iranian authorities just for dancing’ story. A story on which a movie, The Desert Dancer, was based and released recently.
In his early twenties, while studying Theatre, he formed an underground dance company with four other performers. They danced to music, and even appeared on stage partially undressed. After a year of clandestine rehearsals the company risked a public performance. They chose 15 spectators, who included professors from his university, and drove them in a bus to the desert 50km out of Tehran. A dangerous and unhospitable stage, but for Afshin it was the stage he now had to express himself artistically. The company broke up in 2008 since the rest of the performers were afraid to continue. When protests against the intolerance of the Islamic Republic took place he decided to join in. He filmed the demonstrations and published the videos on the internet. It was for that activity that he was arrested by the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia founded by the order of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and thrown into a van with 30 others. He spent 10 hours in the vehicle, where he was beaten and told he was a dead man.
He was then taken to a military camp, beaten again, and finally driven out of the capital and released. He was then invited by a German theatre director to an Iranian cultural festival in Mulheim an der Ruhr, in western Germany, later in the year, and from there he ended up living and founding his own company, Reformances, in France.
A lot has changed since then, including some of his views. But something remained unreformed: his passion about dancing and art, convinced, and rightly so, that they can reform us and our societies.
Being in exile reformed his own mind, introducing him to a new context of thinking, one that every one of us has when away from our homeland, the one that puts us into an orbit of observing what we have left behind through a different lens.
Where there is a stage, there is a homeland. Or better yet: where there is dancing there is salvation. For… what is dancing if not the best form of meditation and, consequently, freedom?
Howard P. Lovecraft, the American author, once said: 'Almost nobody dances sober. Unless they happen to be insane.' How does this idea resonate with you and your story, Mr. Ghaffarian?
Well, as Rumi said: ‘Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you're perfectly free.’ And when it comes to soberness he says ‘I am a drunkard from another kind of tavern. I dance to a silent tune. I am the symphony of stars.’ This is how I see it, we have to be mad enough in order to dance. I think this kind of madness is necessary to defy all sort of constraints in our lives.
Where were you born and raised and in which ways has your social environment affected your hero’s journey so far?
There’s no hero’s journey in my life. It’s all about experiences which somehow seem to be unusual by others.
I was born in Iran, in the city of Mashhad, within an Iranian-Islamic culture which colours my life and enriches my art so deeply. But, as in every society, there are also some difficulties, some erroneous habits and assumptions, which we have to defy every day. In my case, it is about dance. Dance is not banned in Iran--in the sense that there is no precise law that forbids citizens to dance. For a series of historical, cultural and religious reasons, dance has been side-lined and ignored in the official environments. This does not mean that dance doesn't exist in Iran, or that all forms of dance are illegal. In fact, dance exists everywhere in Iran, and it has a very rich vocabulary. I have come to realize that we dance more often in Iran than we do in France, where I now live. In Iran, people dance a lot at private gatherings—at weddings, parties, family gatherings… In France, often, dance seems limited to the nightclubs, maybe a limited time during celebrations, etc. At the same time, a lot of Iranians maintain an ambiguous relationship to dance, a combination of love and reluctance. They love dancing in private gatherings, but when dance is in the public space, with people they don’t know, they become reluctant to dance or to recognize dance as an art form.
Anthony Shay studied this ambiguous relation among the Iranian community in California in his book Choreophobia, which is a term that he uses to characterize the widespread ambiguous and negative reactions to solo improvised dance—the most popular dance form in the Iranian world. He shows us how an Iranian modulates his solo improvised dance based, on the social context in which he or she executes the dance. An Iranian can dance differently among family than among friends. We can see that the problem is not only rooted in the political sphere, but also within the Iranian socio-cultural construction.
So where do we find the core of the problem?
In my opinion, the problem is not really about dance itself, but, rather, about the bad connotations which weigh down the word ‘dance’. In Iran, dance exists even in the official and public environments. It’s just not called ‘dance’-- it is part of ‘theatre’, or ‘rhythmic gymnastics’, or ‘aerobic sports’ when it comes to dance forms such as hip hop the like. Unfortunately, the word ‘dance’ is linked with vulgarity, prostitution, exhibitionism and nudity. And these do not comply with the values of the Iranian society writ large. For instance, in Los Angeles dances like C-Walk or Crip Walking are banned in most high schools because of their gang connotations. Similarly, in Iran, some forms of dance are treated in the same way, but at a larger scale, motivated by a similar fear, but obviously within a very different cultural context.
Can you describe the ‘aha!’ moment when you realised that dancing was your preferred way of expression? Or did it happen gradually?
In fact, there were no “Aha” moments in my artistic experience. My career as a performer began back in 1999, as a short film actor. I then went to university to study theatre and performed in several productions in Tehran. At the age of 20, I translated a book about Grotowski into Farsi. In France, I studied contemporary dance at the National Center of Dance and founded Reformances in 2010. Now I’m a student of political science at the Sorbonne. Frankly, I don’t really have a preferred way of expression. I am a doer, a ‘reformancer’. I am not that interested in categories; instead, what’s important to me is to do art, to perform, and to have a real challenge when I’m on stage.
What do you usually try to express with your dance performances, what kind of stories, feelings and messages do you convey?
I just try to express my life via my dance-theatre performances. The stories are just a pretext to talk about life. Every life experience we have is both individual and collective at the same time. That’s why I don’t try to convey a specific message through my performances. I let the audiences make their own stories and take their own messages through the experience we share together in the theatre.
Which are the thoughts that usually prevail in your mind while you are on stage?
I feel my presence in my life, therefore I feel free. That is probably the reason why I choose to be an artiste and create what I create--I believe that in order to exist, we must resist-- and to resist, we must create. That’s the only way to be in the world. It should be a permanent struggle for all of us if we are to create a better world together.
Where are you, at this point of your life?
My situation has changed dramatically, similarly the situation in Iran has changed since 2009. I’m no longer a political refugee in Europe, but an artiste who works in France. Instead of cursing the darkness, I try to light a candle now. I have continued my studies while in exile. I have read a lot, and been exposed to many more viewpoints than those I had before leaving Iran. This has transformed my views about the world. I renounced my status as a political refugee in France and recently went back to my country, after five years of exile, for a visit. I returned to my country the same way that I left my country five years ago. It was a personal decision which I dared to accomplish. Once again I dared to realize my dream by myself.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
Too Loud a Solitude is my latest piece, adapted from a Czech novel with the same name by Bohumil Hrabal. I first read a translation of this novel in Farsi in Iran. In this work, we question the relationship between modern humans and machines. It’s a duet between a human and a popcorn machine! I will not expand on this for the moment, because I prefer my audience to meet me and experience the piece in the theatre.
Desert Dancer, a movie based on your life, was released recently. What kind of feedback regarding its impact around the world have you received so far?
This is a film inspired by my life, but it is not a documentary film. I cannot reduce the whole of my experiences to a film, but this film can positively draw our attention on to the dynamics of the artistic life in Iran. It reminds us that art can break down barriers and pass through any border; that we can expand freedom of expression only by expanding the horizon of possibilities before us, and by the act of expression in the face of obstacles. It is a reminder to never surrender to any form of power that threatens our artistic existence--no matter where we are in this world.
As artists, we all (Iranian or not) have to work hard to create greater mutual understanding amongst peoples and cultures. For me, this means taking great care to explain myself and my life story accurately. The opportunity to answer your questions and expand on my views and trajectory-- in relation to a film inspired by my life--is one way to do that, but I also take caution against those who would use this film to push a political agenda cloaked as ‘advocacy’.
So the movie does not present the real status quo in Iran as regards to artists’, and especially dancers’, freedoms.
This is not a documentary film so, just like other films, there is fiction in it, in order to create a drama. The artistic realities as well as political realities in Iran are not so dramatic as we see in the films and in some media. The reality of Iran like other countries in the world is much more complex than what we think about it.
How do you envision your homeland, Iran, and the Iranian society a few decades from now? What is the change you want to see?
In 2009 I didn’t vote, I didn’t put my vote in the ballot box. Back then, I was influenced by the narratives propagated by certain media that portrayed the Iranian government as the singular cause of every problem in Iran, the region, and even partly in the world. Today, I regret how I wasted so much time listening to these groundless arguments. Sadly, this narrative is still being purported about Iran. Certainly the Iranian political system is by no means flawless. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic is the legitimate political entity of Iran, and I am a citizen of this country. In 2013, when I was in exile, I decided for the first time in my life to participate in the democratic process of my country by voting for President Rohani. In 2009 I didn’t vote, so I cannot really ask about my vote. But today I have voted, and I defend my vote.
As an Iranian artist and a student of political science, I can’t accept the oversimplified narrative that portrays Iran as a form of dictatorship and a part of the so-called ‘axis of evil’. Iran is one of the few countries in its region with robust democratic institutions (even if it’s hard for some people to hear it, and I used to be one of those people). Of course, this is a different form of politics than the Western models of democracy. But we have to remember that it is still a very young system and, of course, it has to grow and develop further. But it is unfair and incorrect to confuse the Iranian political system with its authoritarian neighbours.
I hope to contribute to a new understanding of modern dance-theatre as an art form in Iran. I believe that it is possible to define this art form within the current political order, by pushing for a more precise legal interpretation that respects the values of Iranian society. This is necessary so that the young generation can begin to develop and ultimately transcend this art form within their own cultural heritage. I also hope to share my experiences with others in Iran, and to once again work with my colleagues, whom I left on stage in a not-so-responsible manner five years ago in Germany.
If you were to put one single message in a bottle for humanity, what would you write?
Freedom is not a product. Once acquired is not forever. Rather, freedom is a daily practice and a constant struggle for everyone, no matter where we live.
*You can follow Afshin's projects and rerformances at www.reformances.com .