THE GHOSTS OF PERSIAN DIVAS FROM BYGONE DAYS
Sachli Gholamalizad in conversation with Maryam K. Hedayat
Theatre maker Sachli Gholamalizad and visual artist Maryam K. Hedayat met ten years ago in the cultural field in Antwerp and now call themselves friends, colleagues and sisters in arms. KVS brought the two together for a conversation about Sachli’s upcoming performance Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, premiering in May 2019. A fascinating conversation about Persian divas, creative processes and authorship, and mostly: being a woman in today’s world.
You have previously said that you want to get out of your comfort zone for each creative process. How did you do that for Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season
I try to use a different method of creation for each performance. Not because I necessarily want to, but because the way I tell the story has to be right for both me and the narrative. I’m not a filmmaker, for example, but I do want to use that medium.
My first theatre play A Reason to Talk was a very personal account of my relationship with my mother. That was challenging to visualise. I forced myself to have a camera pointed at my face the whole time, to make every emotion visible. That’s what getting out of your comfort zone means to me.
In my upcoming show, singing will be the big challenge. I can feel that it will enable me to personify different stories. I’m leaning in to the challenge. I’ve lived my whole life between worlds – and that’s a scary but exciting place to be. The feeling of living between worlds, languages and borders is something I continue to seek out in my life and my work.
“I don’t want to be labelled in any way, as a women nor as a creator.”
Is that also related to your desire not to be pigeonholed?
Yes, exactly. I don’t want to be labelled in any way, as a women nor as a creator. Nothing is one-sided, life is not black and white. Hence my desire to break through that frame of mind and discover what lives beyond the black and white. I want to seek out that grey zone to prove time and again, to myself and others, how nuanced and layered a story can be.
Sometimes society wants to choose the easy road: ordering the world, forcing it into boxes in order to live in neat structures. But I’ve never found comfort or order in such a neat division of the world. I’ve always felt like insecurity is what shaped my personality. That feeling of not belonging has helped me move forward in life, which is why I continue to seek it out.
In (Not) My Paradise you want to show pain, and share it on stage. What sort of pain do you have in mind?
Pain is synonymous to the many kinds of dissatisfaction within me. I am fascinated by what society expects of women. The question is: how can I, as a woman, an artist, a woman in a relationship, with or without a child, function in society? I haven’t found the answers yet. I want to draw inspiration from history and look for women who have struggled with these questions and have formulated an answer in their own way. That’s a kind of pain that I try to investigate and draw answers from.
To me it’s also about learning to open up to people who are different from who we think we are. The universality of pain can offer recognition and connection. My audience might recognise themselves in what I am saying, and be able to open up more easily to a form of pain that is not theirs. I believe empathy is the answer to all the misery in this world. Empathy means opening up to others and understanding who they are, regardless of their context.
“Secretly I want to be just as much of a diva as my mother”
In your upcoming play Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season you set out in search of the ghosts of Persian divas from bygone days. I was reminded of an anecdote you told me about your mother, about how she dressed as a diva throughout your childhood and how embarrassed you were…
She still does! (laughs) Whenever I invite my mother for a dinner or a night at the theatre, I always tell her what the dress code is so that she doesn’t show up ridiculously overdressed. But at the same time I love her for that flamboyant streak. My mother has never allowed anyone to classify her in any expectation of what a women should be or do. I’m proud of that, because of course she shaped me through her own radical decisions to be herself. She has never been ashamed of talking with a foreign accent, or of the clothes she wears. I, on the other hand, own the craziest shoes and clothes, but am often afraid to wear them because I don’t want to stand out or seem flamboyant, because of the connotations that invites. But secretly I want to be just as much of a diva as my mother.
In my new show I set out in search for answers to questions like: who do I want to be deep inside, free of categorization? Who do I allow myself to be? That’s why I juxtapose the Iranian icons Googoosh and Farrokhzad. Googoosh was a flamboyant diva who flaunted her sexuality, while Farrokhzad was very modest. I used to think that you had to choose between one of those approaches to womanhood, but now I understand that we always float between the two.
It’s interesting how you extend the traditional Christian dichotomy “whore versus Madonna” to Googoosh and Farrokhzad.
That dichotomy fits into my questioning of what femininity and sexuality mean, and how they interact. The physical really fascinates me. Showing your naked body, does that mean freedom? In which framework, the Western or the Eastern? I want to ask these questions in my exploration and find out how women relate to nudity. My mother used to say: “We were free to wear short skirts and be women”, but to me a veiled woman doesn’t equal an oppressed woman. Her veil doesn’t preclude her freedom or womanhood. Showing or not showing your body doesn’t say anything about your sexuality.
Does showing your body to the world symbolise freedom or feminism? I question that notion. If I show my body, is that because I think that embodies freedom, or because I want to fulfil a western ideal of freedom? I want to disconnect freedom from reigning expectations and understand what my body longs for, outside of duties and rules and frameworks.
“Struggle is a universal concept. My performances go far beyond my own culture.”
What does womanhood mean to you?
The definitions of womanhood that served until now are no longer adequate in our society. The sort of feminism I am interested in is much more inclusive. I grew up here and was taught that feminism is a Western concept, whereas I was raised in a different framework and with a different conception of feminism – one that is just as valid.
People often think that women’s rights are respected here because we live in the enlightened West, but in practice it’s not that simple. The irony of how some women in the East are framed as oppressed because they wear a headscarf is really problematic. You can’t just look at the world from your own perspective: that’s exactly what I want to counter and question.
I feel that it’s difficult for some to see me as an author of universal stories. Universality is still largely ascribed to male creators. For female creators, especially those with an immigrant background, it’s harder to claim authorship.
Exactly. Your background is always taken into account when people read your work, but I am more than my background. I want to share the story of my background, but I have stories in me that reach much further and address all the layers of our universal human emotions. Someone recently asked: “Are you always going to tell migrants’ stories?” It struck me that we don’t complain when authors keep writing about love over and over. The theme of migration is sadly being reduced to something much less multidimensional than love.
I also felt that during (Not) my paradise. It’s a pity that some framed that performance as a way to process my past and get to know my family history – when in reality it was about how people can fight over a piece of land, over borders, over a shared history. Those are universally human concepts, not exclusively Iranian. Struggle is a universal concept. My performances go far beyond my own culture.
Sachli Gholamalizad (Iran, °1982) works in the fields of film, television, and theatre. She studied Dramatic Arts at RITCS in Brussels and took acting courses with Jack Waltzer in Paris.
In 2013, she created her first show, A reason to talk, the first part of a trilogy. The production received multiple awards (Fringe First 2015, Circuit X, Roel Verniers, Shortlist Amnesty International, ...), toured widely and was received with much enthusiasm. In 2016, her second show, (Not) My Paradise, was born.
She is one of the faces of KVS in Brussels and is one of the artists in resident of Vooruit in Ghent for the coming five years. In 2019 she will be presenting her next solo show with KVS.
The past year, besides filming with Brian DePalma for his new movie Domino (2018), and Mijke De Jong's Layla M (2016), she also guest starred in (inter)national series such as Stockholm Requiem (2019), Bullets (2018), De Twaalf, Loslopend Wild (2012-2018), and plays one of the main leads in De Bunker (2015).
She continues to tour with theatre plays, act in numerous international and national series and features and has a column for Mo* Magazine.