Monday, April 29, 2013

Un, Mani Soleymanlou au Théâtre du Chaillot

Un de Mani Soleymanlou
Because I book so far in advance, as I take my seat at the theater, the first thing I usually do is try to remember what prompted me to buy tickets for the performance I am about to see. But my motivation for seeing last night’s performance, Un, by Mani Soleymanlou was clear from the minute the lights went up on this one man show. Soleymanlou is an Iranian living in Montreal, a city he arrived at via Paris, Toronto, Ottawa. And his one man show is all about him: who is he? what is his identity? is it given by his passport? The traditions of the world he was born into? The one that educated him? The one he lives in? Growing up surrounded by my father’s collection of fine and not so fine Persian carpets, I have always been fascinated by Iran. And having been in motion all of my adult life, questions of home, exile, and whether the two have anything to do with the peripatetic motion of being a wanderer, are lifelong preoccupations. I knew why I had bought the ticket to Un.

In presentation, Soleymanlou’s performance reminded me of Spalding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia — the images of which I still carry in my mind even though I saw it 30 years ago in an Adelaide Festival of Arts. Soleymanlou plays every part in his play, his story, of the young boy who left Téhéran, moved via France to Canada in exile from Iran of the Ayatollah to join the Iranian diaspora, and over the course of the one hour performance, the adult who goes back with his mother to “the homeland”. The story itself is somewhat standard: the exile searching for an identity, torn between lands, cultures, traditions, cuisines and of course, languages. Soleymanlou takes solace in other exiles, always yearning for a home he did not know, or one he has not yet found. Even though we have seen and read this story over and over again, the reality of his individual synthesis of the familiar questions, and his narration in different languages to create vivid images in the mind of the spectator, was convincing.

For Soleymanlou, the vast cultural richness, the dense political histories, the ancient traditions, the language, the cuisine, the beliefs of Iran, all of them have been caught in the crossfire, as he puts it, of the battle for oil. His picture of Iran is fascinating because it is taken from both inside and outside, neither here nor there, just like his expressions of what it means to be in the diasporic community in Canada. And perhaps the most impressive element of the show is Soleymanlou’s movement around the languages – English, French, Farsi, Arabic – between countries, between characters. As he shifts in and out of identities, the expectation is that an identity will reveal itself somewhere in the breaths that he nevertheless doesn’t allow himself to take.
Un de Mani Soleymanlou
People often tell me I am a nomad, and I once thought of myself as an exile: brought up in a culture in which there was no place for me. Over the years I have come to understand why I am neither. I am no exile because I chose to leave Australia, and to call myself nomadic would be to ignore my deep sense of attachment to home, and to the place from which I leave and to which I return at the end of my travels. The world has changed since I left Australia for a job on a cargo liner in 1986. If for no other reason than we live in a world where “international” is a valid response to what, for many of us, is that very complicated question: “where are you from?” After all these years, I still carry an Australian passport, I live in Paris, I work and pay taxes in the United Kingdom, and my intellectual work usually focuses on things German. So, like Soleymanlou, I live between languages, cultures, across geographical borders.

As I watched and listened to Soleymanlou, I saw and understood from a different perspective how different that sense of displacement is for each of us, depending not on where, but on how and why we left. Soleymanlou describes an emptiness, a sense of something missing, a solitude that must be filled, an emptiness given him by the country from which he was forced to leave. His emptiness and solitude are reflected in the fact that he sits on a stage surrounded by empty seats. He is both the actor and the spectator in his own life, a life in which there is ultimately, no filling in of the gaps. I don’t have that emptiness. I have a plenitude that is characterized by the richness of the world that I have chosen to inhabit, a world that gives me what Australia never could. And at the same time, I take Australia, it’s landscape, the sun, wherever I go. At least, that’s the lifelong search: to complement the international world I live in, I am always looking for places that rhyme with the memory of the world from which I began, but to which I no longer belong. I long to have that memory resound as it is mimicked by a somewhere else, in a different octave, on a different horizon. And that's the difference: for an exile like Soleymanlou, there is no image, no memory, no sound, because there is no land beneath his feet, from which to begin the search for an echo.

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