By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
February 20, 2020
Last week, Brussels’ Théâtre National staged My Father Held a Gun, a production written and performed by two actors, Iranian Sahand Sahebdivani and Israeli Raphael Rodan. In their roles, Sahebdivani and Rodan cast a critical eye on the policies of their respective countries. So what journeys did Sahebdivani and Rodan make and what experiences shaped their collaboration?
If you were to ask an Iranian or Israeli child which city around the world they wish to visit most, how likely is their answer to be Jerusalem or Tehran? This, essentially, is the poignant question that actors Sahand Sahebdivani and Raphael Rodan ask the audience to contemplate in their play My Father Held a Gun, which was staged at Brussels’ Théâtre National from February 4 to 15.
Sahebdivani and Rodan kick-started their collaboration seven years ago through the exploration of the contradictory ideas of peace and the enduring animosity between their two countries. In some scenes of the play they spontaneously draw close together, while in others they suddenly pull apart and fight each other somewhere between light and dark. Their ultimate message, however, is peace.
“When Raphael and I are arguing,” Sahebdivani told IranWire, “it seems that we have many common roots, but because of the hostility between our fathers who never laid down their weapons we cannot imagine that these two civilizations will ever be able to reconcile with each other.
“When the play reaches its finale, we ask ourselves why we are at war with each other. Why don’t we dare to visit each other’s soil? In My Father Held a Gun, we want you to seriously consider this question: how fundamental and real is the discord between these two countries?”
In an interview with Euro News, Rodan said of the two countries, “They have so much in common that in a way this separation is artificial. Beneath, there is a field of connection [between the two countries] which is very, very rich.”
“We dreamed of the day that we can also perform in Iran,” Sahebdivani told Euro News. “On the other hand, I think if we ever reach a situation where we can perform in Iran it means that there is peace and then no one will come to see our plays anymore.
“It would be a disaster for us to perform the play in Tehran or Tel Aviv when there is peace,” added Raphael Rodan, laughing.
But why do ordinary Israeli and Iranian people not dare to engage in the narrative of the things they share and those that divide them? Perhaps politics is to blame for the deep division between the two nations.
Change One Soul, Change the Entire World
“In Hebrew, there is a beautiful maxim: if you change one soul you have changed the entire world,” said Rodan. “Whenever I walk onto the stage I always think about this kind of change. I am not saying that I want to change the world, but the question is whether I can reach you [the audience].”
My Father Held a Gun is the second collaboration between Sahebdivani and Rodan. They first worked together on a production about the agony of citizens who have been affected by the hostilities between the governments of Iran and Israel. The performance of the first play was halted due to a terrorist attack in Brussels, precipitating the duo’s inspiration for My Father Held a Gun.
The pair share something unique about their past: their mothers were both born in Iran. “Raphael and I are the same age,” Sahebdivani said. “Raphael’s mother was an Isfahani Jew and my mother lived in Tehran. We have often said to each other that they could have been really good friends. They both left Iran for similar reasons.”
Sahebdivani’s mother was born into a traditional Iranian family. She loved to sing but was never given the opportunity to do so. Rodan’s mother grew up in a very religious Jewish family and both left Iran in the hope of living a less restricted life.
“My mother fell in love with a leftist political activist and left Iran for political reasons,” Sahebdivani continued. “She was not allowed to sing. Her mother said that singing was religiously forbidden. Raphael told me that when he was five or six he accompanied his mother to the greengrocery market in Isfahan and saw that everybody was picking up fruit and choosing the ones that they wanted but his mother just pointed at what she wanted and the vendor put them in a bag for her. Raphael asked his mother why they were not allowed to touch the fruit like everybody else. “Because we are Jews,” his mother replied.
The two dramatists first met at a theater festival in the Netherlands after a show. As their respective productions had similar themes, the festival’s director suggested they work together. At first, this concept seemed an impossibility. “At that moment I could not figure out how this idea could work,” Sahebdivani remembered, “but I soon discovered that Raphael, too, is of Iranian descent and had lived in Iran as a child.”
And when Rodan told Sahebdivani about his mother’s memories of Iran, they found many more things in common. “The stamp of being Jewish was painful,” Sahebdivani said. “Where is our home and why is discrimination woven into the fabric of this home? Little by little the text emerged from the bits and pieces of our mothers’ memories. We talked about why my mother emigrated and why Raphael’s mother went to Israel. We talked about their suffering. We started talking and sometimes we quarreled.
For instance, I would ask Raphael why the Jews created a country that inflicts injustice onto others when they have suffered so deeply from injustices in the past? Our criticism had no boundaries. We wanted to remove red lines and consider it our right to criticize each other candidly.”
Asking Forbidden Questions
And they continue to criticize each other. In their play, Sahebdivani criticizes the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians, and Rodan retorts by saying, “Why does your government inflict so much suffering upon its people? Why do you continue to endure your suffering and not yield to the revolution?”
Sahebdivani acknowledges the controversial nature of what they are doing. “We ask the forbidden questions and tie them both to the myths and our personal stories and then we arrive at this question: Will there ever be a day when the problems of the world can be solved through peace?”
Among his anecdotes about their play’s performances he remembered a group of Syrian refugees in Brussels who had come to watch the play, as well as passers-by in a London street who shouted at Rodan [when they were performing], telling him that Israel had committed so much injustice that it had no right to talk about peace. According to Sahebdivani, following these angry comments they were prevented from continuing their performance.
Sahebdivani has traveled to Israel several times and met Iranians there who have remained faithful to the Iranian culture. “I met the most Iranian Iranians in Jerusalem,” he said. “When I entered their homes my childhood came back to me. Israel is full of Iranian Jews and Jews of Iranian descent who are denied the chance to visit their ancestral home. Meeting them had a great impact on the development of my social outlook.”
In Jerusalem, Sahebdivani once went to a party at the home of an Iranian woman named Iraneh. He recalled the decor of Iraneh’s home and how similar it was to a traditional home in the heart of old neighborhoods in Tehran. The aroma of Iranian dishes filled the air and many of Iraneh’s words had some connection with Iran. “In those moments,” Sahebdivani said, “I think about how painful it must be for those who have never been involved in politics and how they will never be able to visit the country in which they were born.”