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Moses and the Wandering Dervish

by Milla Cozart Riggio
Professor
Trinity College

"A Play of Life and Death, promised in a moment of mortal threat..."

This could be a description of Ta'ziyeh Khani, the Iranian epic drama that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad, together with his companions and sons on the plain of Karbala (just outside modern Baghdad) in the 61st year of the Muslin era (680 C.E.). Killed by the Ummayads (later to become the Sunnis), the death of Hussein is the signal event separating Shi'ism as a branch of Islam. The Ta'ziyeh Khani are, indeed, plays of "life and death," born "in a moment of mortal threat." By allowing us to experience this dramatic tradition as it continues to be performed in modern Iran, the Lincoln Center Festival has accomplished a remarkable feat against many odds. At a time when the idea of "martyrdom" is for too many Americans associated primarily with terrorist suicide bombings, Lincoln Center has provided an opportunity for each of us to see a central historic moment of martyrdom dramatized within the context of a community bonded by religious, linguistic, and ethnic ties and grounded in a sense of place at once historical and local, traditional and contemporary. Most of all, this theatrical tradition - on the surface so different from any with which we are familiar - may, in the words of Director Mohammad Ghaffari, serve as a "vehicle of communication" that can help to bridge the gulf between "us" and "them."

This feat may be accomplished not only by helping us to understand how others are different from us but, perhaps more surprising, to find what Ghaffari has called "our own stories through the story that has been told," to see similarities among the differences. The reference to "a play of Life and Death" above, for instance, is Otto Huber's introduction to the Passion Play celebrating the martyrdom not of Husayn, but of Christ. First performed as a response to the widespread carnage of the plague in early Europe, this Passion Play has been performed at ten year intervals since 1634 in Oberammergau, Germany. In its 40th decade of production in 2000, the Oberammergau Passion Play, with a cast of more than 1,800 performers, drew vast audiences from around the world to share not only the grief and the joy of the play but also the unifying experience of a theatrical form that makes its audience one with the drama - a tradition in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Ta'ziyeh Khani. If British director Peter Brook had stumbled into Oberammergau or perhaps into Chester, England, four or five hundred years ago, he might have encountered a ritualized scene much like that he witnessed "in a remote Iranian village" in the late 1960s: "hundreds of people passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing - although they knew perfectly well the end of the story." The Ta'ziyeh Khani represented in the Lincoln Center Festival are in essence three episodes from the series of passion plays Peter Brook shared in that remote Iranian village -- performed one a day for the first ten days of the Muslim month of Muharram, not unlike the Catholic Corpus Christ mystery cycles of the European middle ages..

Ta'ziyeh plays share with their Christian counterparts similar symbolic forms, social arrangements, and ritual, processional, and dramatic structures: both are funereal cycles of plays that originated in religious processions, using collective grief as an annual occasion to celebrate local place (boosting the economy through the sale of food and drink) as well as community. Both find a cause for triumph born of the sorrow of martyred death. Both presume on the part of their informed audiences a common set of beliefs, a shared language, an implicitly understood system of ethics -- and common enemies. In this sense, both Christian mystery and Shi'ite ta'ziyeh plays manifest the best and the worst aspects of shared community (or tribal solidarity): the ties that bind and support "us" and the danger of rejecting without question those assumed to be our enemies.

Because Ta'ziyeh Khani presume an initiated audience of believers, it is a difficult tradition to transplant to a new place. Fourteen years ago, when at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct., under the guidance of Peter Chelkowski, Mohammed Ghaffari and I presented the first ta'ziyeh play to be performed outside of Iran, we took a safer route than the bold path chosen by Lincoln Center this summer. We staged Moses and the Wandering Dervish, a Sufi play, rather than one of the plays focusing directly on the martyrdom of Hussein, his sons, and followers. In its original Persian text, translated into English by Peter Cheklowski, Moses and the Wandering Dervish uses the martyrdom of Hussein to justify the existence of hell: As Moses explains to the dervish through a dramatic device known as a guriz, hell exists and is justified as a place of punishment for people like those who killed Hussein and his followers. In the process of breathing life into Moses for a new, uninitiated audience, Ghaffari - who had not had the opportunity to direct a play during his decade in the United States - took what amounted to a Revenge drama, a play that explained and confirmed the need for a hell as a place of vengeful punishment, and transformed it into a celebration of art. Infusing the story of Moses with his own narrative of alienation and exile, he transformed a traditional play designed for interactive performance in a naturally lighted takiyeh (or theater) before a participating audience, eating, drinking, and communing with each other (crying and breathing their breasts on cue), into a modern drama celebrating the power of art and the role of the artist in a world characterized not by community but by the alienated isolation of exile: the world, in short, that as an Iranian in New York Mohammed lived out every day.

This paper will conclude by showing and glossing excerpts from this hour long production that combined Indian flute music with American gospel song to pit the over-ratonal Moses against the sympathetic, artistic, whirling dervish - portrayed by a powerful Korean baritone, an exile "without body or soul" in a country that was not and could not be his own. By combining an international cast and using musical traditions as instruments both of conflict and resolution, Ghaffari - who had worked under Peter Brook -- turned a culturally specific Shi'i drama into what Brook has called (in terms that resonate in post 911 New York "the reality of zero, the moment when any group anywhere in the world comes together….A[n] absolute and pregnant moment, where geography and history cease to exist." It is our hope that seeing and understanding the powerful transformation and adaptation of the ta'ziyeh tradition will enrich our encounter with the even more powerful enactment of the Muharram rites, directed by Mohammed and performed by the Iranian actors that Lincoln Center has fought so hard, against the odds of the US Immigration service to bring to New York for this unprecedented occasion.