Iran vs Israel – an interview with Sahand Sahebdivani

The Iranian-Israeli relations are – and always have been – a very complex matter. Of course this is on a political level, but what about the people? To my surprise I met the Dutch-Iranian (or Iranian-Dutch) Sahand Sahebdivani about two weeks ago at a cafe in Amsterdam. He was in a meeting on a project named ‘Kingdom of Fire and Clay’ in which he and his Israeli friend Raphael Rodan will challenge each other with stories from their home country. I know Sahand as a professional storyteller, radio maker and journalist – recently he has been appointed Storyteller of the Year 2014 (Stichting Vertellen). His parents sought political asylum in the Netherlands in the 1980s. Sahand still was a toddler. Years later they had a little tea house at the Jordaan in Amsterdam, where every musician was welcome to jam (see video below). There Sahand could develop his talents as a musician.

by Charlie Crooijmans

Kingdom of Clay premiered at the International Storytelling Festival Amsterdam in November 2013. This month they will perform in Amsterdam and The Hague, followed by a longer tour in the UK in March. I sent Sahand some questions by email about the show.

How did you two come up with the idea? Did you know each other from before?

Raphael Rodan is an Israeli actor who’s done a lot of workshops and shows based on personal stories and conflict. I met him a year and a half ago when I did a huge show at the Storytelling Festival Amsterdam. I performed ancient Iranian stories, together with Ajam, the great Iranian folk fusion band from London. Raphael performed at the same festival, with his musical partner Anastasis Sarakatsanos. His mix was exactly the same as mine; that of old stories mixed with personal stories, all supported by music. The director of the festival came up with the idea to introduce us and asked us to make a show to open the next year.

It’s only after we met and decide to work together that we realized we have even more in common. We’re the same age, and our mothers are from the same country. My mother’s Islamic family originate near Shiraz, though she was born and raised in Tehran. Raffa’s mother is born and raised in Isfahan, which still has a sizable Jewish community.

Can you tell me more about the title, Kingdom of Fire and Clay?

Raffa had this idea to make a show about Israel and Germany. The title he had in mind was the Kingdom of Fire and Metal. I’m glad he never made that show, because I like the title for our show. Fire is an important element in the Zoroastrian (pre-Islamic) culture and mythology. Clay is the material of which the Golem was made, the figure that was made to save the Jews of Prague.

What’s the content?

Raffa and I tell the stories of our mothers and how they came to rebel against their families. it’s all pretty harmonious, as we realize we have so much in common. Really, the lives of a young Muslim or Jewish girl in Iran are not so different. Of course as we progress with the show we realize there’s some subjects that we can’t discuss in a harmonious way and things get a bit more tense. I can’t tell exactly in what way, as I don’t want to spoil the show for those who haven’t seen it. Mixed with the personal stories are the myths and legends of Iran and Israel.

Are you improvising?

Improvising was always a bit of an issue between me and Raffa. As a theater actor he’s more comfortable with a fixed text. I’m a storyteller through and through, so I hate fixed texts, I kind of freewheel on a theme. Working with Raffa has taught me that fixing something can help you go deeper with the text. Then again, I taught him to be more free with the material. There’s definitely still lots of improvisation though.

Does Israel have a storytelling tradition like in Iran?

Israel doesn’t really have a single tradition, as it’s made up of communities from all over the world, each with their own traditions. However, what most Jewish communities have in common, is the need to preserve the stories of the community. That’s the main difference with the Iranian tradition; we have a centuries old storytelling tradition, performing our ancient myths, legends and fables, but we’re sometimes too ashamed to tell of our own personal stories.

How does the music sound?

My proudest musical moment in this show is when we mix a Hebrew prayer with an Iranian partisan song. In rehearsals we realized that these songs, while completely different in feeling, have more or less the same rhythm and chord progression, so a new song was born. While Raffa and I play along, all music credit goes to our brilliant team of musicians Anastasis Sarakatsanos and Bas Kisjes.

How is the interaction with the music?

Anastasis professionally makes music for film, so he has a keen ear for when music should be there and when it should get out of the way. His interaction on Piano and Kanun is very subtle. The same goes for Bas, a jazz bassist who’s done a lot of storytelling shows with me. I also have a band with him, so as musicians we know each other very well. In fact, we met when we where the musicians for a show of two other actors.

He’s also the coolest guy I know, never says no to an idea. So when we ask him to open the show while singing a Leonard Cohen song he of course does it, even though he’s not a singer. At all.

Would you be able to perform in Israel or Iran?

Iran is out of the question. Sadly it’s not safe for me to go there with my political background and activism. And even if Raffa and I could go there the show would never be approved by the censors. In March we have a UK tour. We will perform in Israel, probably at the International Storytelling Festival near Tel Aviv.

Do you think that the people of Israel and Iran can identify with you?

Ooof… that’s a difficult issue all artists deal with. Of course there’s many people who come to your show, but what part of society do they represent? On the other hand, since we deal with a complex historical and political reality through very personal stories I definitely believe our work connects with a broad segment of society.

Do you think the performance can led to a better understanding?

Well, I think I understand Raffa a bit better and he understands me a bit better since we made the show. And it’s these tiny connections that together build a bridge of understanding. But seriously, I do think that both Iranian and Israeli visitors heard a bit from the other side they never knew existed. It’s a good path to be on.

Here you can find a list of events.

And this is the story of Mezrab at the Jordaan, Amsterdam. Nowadays there are Mezrab-events at the Oostelijke Handelskade. More info.

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