MEDEA: SUN GODDESS RISING, I am so very excited about it; and the residency at the National Centre for Writing that Visiting Arts produced – deepened the emotionally explosive and tender themes of female sexuality, male desertion, human renewal, wild optimism and organised religion: all set against shifting borders of seas and skies.”
As part of Visiting Arts’ programme promoting contemporary Iranian literature and culture in the UK, writer and performer Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh spent October half term 2018 with the National Centre for Writing, Norwich during a week of activities supporting and celebrating young people (Engage! & Great Yarmouth’s first youth arts festival, Young@Arts) with reading and workshop events with the local communities and literary network, alongside time to develop her practice. It would not have been possible without Arts Council England’s support to help us deliver these activities encouraging community engagement through storytelling and exchange, seeding more UK-Iran collaboration, creating greater understanding and mutual respect, inspiring and bringing together diverse groups including young people, those from socially deprived backgrounds, migrants and the local Iranian diaspora.
Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambahksh is an award winning independent theatre maker born in Iran and now based in Scotland. Over Nazli’s career in venues and touring she has developed a strong leadership role in producing diverse theatre in the UK in particular looking at themes of the Middle East and the lives of women. She also led on Creative Case NORTH, which is a re-imagining of Arts Council England’s approach to diversity and equality. She is an International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA) Fellow. She is currently writing a new version of the ancient Greek tragedy Medea. Find her on Twitter @Nazli_Tabatabai.
The residency planning was initiated with regular online discussions to shape the schedule, and share and exchange on the intersectional themes outlined, creative and critical thinking on UK identities and the potential impact of intercultural creative practices. Sessions were joined by project partners where relevant to inform expectations and explore deepening of partnerships. Nazli was also introduced to the collection of short stories soon to form The Book of Tehran to inform the themes of the residency activities and act as literary research for her writing.
In August 2018, Nazli participated as an Ambassador at Visiting Arts International Producers’ Breakfast during Edinburgh International Festivals where she met with Peggy Hughes, Programme Director at National Centre for Writing and discussed the residency with potential follow on partnerships for development/touring/collaboration.
On a Sunny Sunday in October Nazli arrived in Norwich and met up with Victoria Maitland, Programme Assistant at National Centre for Writing for an explorative discussion on the themes of the residency relating to the engagement of children and young people in Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
The following morning she was given a tour and introduction to the National Centre for Writing’s team, the heritage of Dragon Hall and a visit to St Julian’s Church. Meeting with Sam Ruddock, Director of Story Machine Productions they have exploratory discussions on Nazli’s MEDEA, internationalism and the UK, communities and autism, creation of civic spaces and approaches to interdisciplinary collaboration in making new work. Taking some quiet time for creative writing, Nazli works on a series of short stories – adaptions of MEDEA in an ancient and contemporary setting inspired by the church of St Julian. In the evening, there is a climate change debate at Dragon Hall titled “Should we let nature take it’s course?” with Happisburgh coastal campaigner Malcolm Kerby, Patrick Barkham, author of Coastlines: The Story of our Shore, and Hannah Garrard, Programme Manager at National Centre for Writing. Nazli found an unexpected connection to her writing and themes of migration.
With sea levels on the rise and tidal erosion escalating, the fragility of being an island nation has never been more apparent, particularly to Norfolk’s vulnerable coasts and the people who call them home.”
Tuesday began with a peer-to-peer mentoring session with Young Poet Laureate Ciera Drury where she and Nazli explored themes of identities, technology, political and social expression and talked about their current professional development, anxieties, experience and opportunities. Nazli also met with winner of the NCW Escalator Talent Development Scheme 2017-18, Ellie McKinlay-Khojinian, to explore writing about Iran, Iranian characters, thinking on censorship (who has the authority to write about who?), and to discuss the Iranian Diaspora. Ellie is writing a novel set in present-day Iran that centres around a group of elderly Iranian men who come together during a family crisis. It is about love, loss, friendship and growing older. Ellie met her Iranian husband in 2004 and an extended trip to Iran ten years later inspired the characters in this novel. She wants her characters to do justice to the Iran and Iranian people that she has come to know and to love. She writes in stolen quiet moments between working in education and raising a young family. Ellie is also an adult learning Education Coordinator and works with the refugee and migrant community in the area.
Following a series of meetings with our Great Yarmouth partners originalprojects; and GYROS Women’s Empowerment group during the Summer we had identified a shared theme around food and cooking between the local migrant community activities, the Iranian short stories we were translating, Nazli’s MEDEA, and Ellie’s novel. Food also acted as an important and accessible social tool to bring the various communities together through and offered a route to explore different cultures. The hashtag #feastofstories was created and the public was invited to share about “How did you come across your favourite dish? What do you remember about the first time you ate it? Family/ local traditions? Special ingredients? What food reminds you of home and what does home mean to you? What might Norfolk have in common with Iran? ”
Formed in 1998, GYROS supports newcomers and migrant communities across Norfolk and Suffolk, helping them settle and integrate into the local community. The Women’s Empowerment group meet regularly at Great Yarmouth Library. They have bonded through activities such as gardening, arts and crafts, and enterprise skills development. One thing they all share is a love of cooking and they found that they all had fond memories of food, and stories to tell about their lives and the places in the world that they have come from. To share these memories we exhibited their food stories alongside a story extract from The Book of Tehran at Great Yarmouth Library during the Autumn Half-Term week. The collection of stories displayed also contributes to a project in collaboration with Urbagri4Women – an initiative promoting social inclusion and female empowerment through the reclamation of unused space in urban areas and practical workshops that aim to foster intercultural dialogue and more sustainable communities. The women were very proud to see their stories on display and their confidence and sense of value in the community was elevated.
My name is Natália and I am from Guinea-Bissau. I also lived for several years in Senegal, a neighbour country of Guinea-Bissau. I have many memories around food and the women of my family. There is one I remember and it is related to visiting my auntie in Guinea-Bissau. I remember that at that time, things were really hard in Guinea- Bissau. There was famine and food was not available for everyone. It was the year of 1979 and Guinea-Bissau has just gained its Independence. I recall very clearly going to my auntie’s house and eating this dish there. As they lived close by the sea and local rivers, the only sustenance that they had access to was the fish they could catch and whatever they could grow from the land. This dish was cooked to fill up our bellies and my auntie called it “Poportada” – rice on top of rice – and we loved it. Simple ingredients, but the taste was amazing. We ground rice in our big pestles and would make do with whatever we had or could find at the time. This was a treat that we had in those difficult times and nowadays, as the times have improved the dish has become richer and improved in flavour with additional ingredients.”
Side notes to the included Iranian short story provided some insights into Persian cuisine, language, culture and traditions: Tahdig is the crispy pan-fried layer at the bottom of the rice pot and literally translates as “the bottom of the pot” in Persian. Torshi (pickle) is a very common side dish in Persian cuisine served alongside khoresh, kebabs and other traditional dishes; Liteh is a pickle made with eggplants and herbs (parsley, coriander, mint, tarragon and basil). Pilaf or pilau is a dish, originating from the Indian subcontinent, in which rice is cooked in a seasoned broth. Verjuice, called ab-ghooreh in Persian, is used extensively in Persian cuisine, such as in Shirazi salad. Iranians have one of the highest per capita rates of tea consumption in the world. Teahouses called châikhânes are important social gathering places where traditionally the strongly brewed tea is sipped from a saucer so that the warm liquid flows over a lump of sugar already in the mouth or held between the teeth.
On the 24th October 2018 to coincide with Great Yarmouth’s first Young@Arts Festival initiated by MAP, we held a storytelling workshop and public reading event at Great Yarmouth Library. Over 120 young people took part in the free, one-day, creative arts festival, organised by and for young people. Young@Arts featured live music, performances, exhibitions and a series of visual and performing arts workshops including street photography, graphic illustration, contemporary dance and rap lyric writing.
Twenty people came to hear stories from Nazli, Ellie and the GYROS Women’s Empowerment group and shared their thoughts. Many had no knowledge of Iran and they were surprised to learn the similarities such as the strong tea drinking culture, family life, seasonal traditions. They enjoyed hearing the stories and the women felt a connection to the Medea character from the new writing that Nazli had started earlier in the week. One of the teenagers had been learning about Medea at school so it also presented a new perspective on the story for her.
There was a haft-sin table arrangement – traditionally displayed at Nowruz, the Iranian New Year’s day. The GYROS community also made traditional pastries from their birth countries and Portuguese rice pudding.
Nazli also had the opportunity to introduce herself and the project to the Mayor of Great Yarmouth, who was encouraging of the community engagement and the much needed arts activity for the area. We met with local youth workers and councillors to learn about their work and exchange about workshop models. See more about the day here.
MEDEA and the SEA
inspired by Euripides
written by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh
I got the golden fleece. I sailed the ship from Iran. I got Jason. I am a fixer. I was a fixer. I was a sailor. I am a mother. I have twenty two pounds in my purse. This is not my house. There is a bowl of oranges. A bag of rice. Some chicken. Saffron. Olive oil. The candles have matches beside them.
It’s been warmer these past days. Warmer for October. In this country, this England. Not in the country I was born. Not in Iran. Here where Jason brought me. This civilized place where I am a foreign wife. I have been betrayed.
There are group of women that I met. I see them now. They are incredible. The work the ships.
I dreamt last night that I pulled the energy out from the crashing waves and I grew to be a great god of water full of fury and swirl. I had sweated through the sheets. Woke with a dry mouth. No glass of water by the side of the bed. That was your task not mine.
Last night I overheard a man say that they take sand from Cambodia to use as a barrier to the sea in China. Cambodia to China. Grains of sand. What do the Cambodian’s do to stop the sea with their sand taken in exchange for money?
What is the human equivalent for the shoreline? Is it our skin or is our hearts? The final border to the force of resistance of storms, of waves of rainfall? What is the sand the sediment of our emotions? What is drawn away, what builds, what can we no longer bear as a barrier, sediment advancing, seeping – what comes in when we let go?
The tragedy is I don’t even know who Jason is, I don’t even think that he knows who he is. He wears a mask even for himself.
Did I tell you he’s planning to marry a princess. Yep as in royal. He’s left me with twenty two pound in my purse.
New Horizons: The Arts and Children in Challenging Circumstances Conference too place at the Garage Theatre. A series of discussions, case studies, and roundtables with arts organisations and young people from around the East of England highlighted a need to provide more accessible platforms for young peoples voices and also offered advice for how young people can thrive in leadership roles. This was also a welcoming networking opportunity with potential stakeholders and project partners.
In the afternoon Nazli was invited to lead a two hour workshop session with the Young Arts Professionals involved in Engage! – a collaborative project between four UNESCO cities of literature around Europe – Barcelona (Spain), Krakow (Poland), Växjö (Sweden) and Norwich (UK). Each city is running its own project focussed on cultural activism and literature. Norwich’s project is called Young Arts Professionals. The Young Arts Professionals have been given the reins to design and deliver a Festival in a Day, as part of the 2019 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Their festival will explore freedom of speech in the global and digital world – with a focus on cultural activism in the arts.
Through a series of theatre and performance practices based: provocations, tasks, games and gifts Nazli co-created an exploration into assembly, freedom of expression and borders with the sixteen 14-17 year olds participating in the Engage! group. The aim was to instil an understanding around leadership, collaboration, and navigating creative decision making as a group, and to share creative and artistic practice that leads to further collaboration. The exercises provided practical skills that can be translated for the group’s festival planning. By engaging with the objectives, participants explored the role of chorus as a performative form through the themes of freedom of expression, protest and peace. Equally, the session aimed to foster a better understanding of Iranian culture and literature. The group were surprised to learn that Iran has a very young population who are very engaged with social media and the workshop led them to consider diversity, accessibility, and embracing different perspectives.
I’m always interested in bringing together other art forms to make theatre and I also have an interest in talent development and leadership development. I’m interested in how artists can take the lead and be a maker of performance but also a festival performer – that portfolio and career and way of being is quite exciting for me, I find that really interesting. Also there’s different points where I want to be directing my work or writing or performing, and to do all those things I spend time in other countries or experimenting, sharing, exchanging ways of working. In this country I also spend time working in festivals or with different communities. I guess a constant has been freedom of expression and the artists’ role within that and how you create a space or a freedom of expression to happen. Another reason that a choose to live on this island is that we still continue to uphold freedom of expression. I enjoy collaborating, spending time with different artforms – whether that’s teaching or learning from them or spending time sketching. Residencies are also important too, because it gives me time to come out of perhaps something else I’m working on more intensively and come into contact with other thinkers and artists and humans that are on a journey themselves.’ – Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh
Nazli asked the group to write down their answers to a series of questions:
Things that stood out for you about our session, the time that we’ve shared together?
– The sense of connection within the group contrasting against my personal sense of freedom.
– I was intrigued by the ability to form a personal interpretation from the abstract and the inconceivable. It was enlightening to form a gesture from an inconceivable task. The adjoining of the three impossible tasks into a coherent piece allowed us to consider the intricacies of our tasks.
– The method of distilling movements, words and connections from an idea or starting point.
– You can find inspiration within almost anything if you work hard enough.
– It’s possible to create so much out of so little. True art can have many meanings: interpretation is key to getting people involved with stories and emotions. When creating something, it is important for the “creator” to sit back and allow it to become someone else’s.
– The activities forced me to take on different roles e.g. leader/ follower/ teacher.
– Being placed as a part of a crowd and working within that vs. being able to find myself and my own directions and rhythms within the crowd.
– I especially noted the feeling of awkwardness when receiving the words “you are the most beautiful person in the world.”, when everyone is beautiful – it felt incorrect. Another was the observation of how our actions can come across very differently than how we intend. For example, caressing an object and stamping on it was seen as stomping on a dog, when it was meant to show ending human and animal suffering. The confidence of many performers made it easier to note things down.
– Ideas can change constantly and can result in completely different outcomes.
– The activities really helped to show me what feelings of isolation, belonging, and alienation feel like and gave me a wider view of creativity/ art.
– Warming how collaboration changes and alters the collaboration and the artists and the view of the actions in the first place.
– It’s difficult to break away from the comfort of being in a group with others and I need to have more confidence working on my own.
What is the change you need to adapt to?
– That literature is changing and our festival needs to reflect that change.
– Ensuring to represent a diverse range of artists as opposed to monoculturalism.
– If we want to be open and accessible we need to adapt to people who don’t share our views.
– A change I needed to adapt to is being confident when performing and sharing ideas. The pace at planning is going to become faster.
– Time constraints and making decisions.
– We need to adapt to the growing ideas and evolving ideologies of Norwich and the UK.
What is the conversation we’re still not having about the festival and who do we need to talk to?
– We need to have a discussion about how to make the festival more inclusive. We should talk to new staff who pride themselves on being inclusive and members of the community.
– What happens after the festival? Where do we go from here? What do we want to have happened?
– How are we going to ensure that there is diversity and safety at the same time?
Write down one word describing our time together?
– Thought provoking. Serendipity – at the start I didn’t think it would have such a resonating effect but it really did after you’d completed the activities.
– Waves. Ourselves and each other.
– Provoking/ provocative. It made me think about different ideas and the exploration of the arts.
– Buttery. It was quite smooth and flowy. It felt like we were getting moulded around a bit into different things – we’d do an exercise and think “what was that about” and then ka-pow “it’s about this and this” and you get it.
– Mind-opening. Because I haven’t done anything like that before so it forced me to think in a different way. I think normally I’d have a tendency not to take it seriously but I tried to take it seriously and it worked.
In the evening Nazli attended a second talk event at Dragon Hall as part of Black History Month and connected with attending writers from the local community in the audience who attended the University of East Anglia.
Friday allowed more time for writing. Nazli met with Chris Gribble, Director at the National Centre for Writing and shared the impact of the environment of Norwich on her writing. She exchanged with Meg Rumbelow Hemsley Development Manager at National Centre for Writing on the inspired impact of working with Engage!.
Nazli also did an interview with the Young Norfolk Arts Trust communications team and the Young Arts Leaders involved with producing a local arts festival as part of the Engage! programme – topics included leadership, feminism, political theatre, identities, social engagement, meaning of place, collaborative practices and freedom of speech and expression. Read the interview blog here.
On the final day Nazli visited Norwich Puppet Theatre to see ‘Stories on a String’ presented by Dotted Line Theatre and Polyglot Arts. The production was about a social media driven teenage girl’s world is turned upside down when her Grandma sends her on a quest to seek out her family roots in the Amazon Jungle where the mysterious creatures living there reveal to her a new path. Then on to Norwich Cathedral, which brought up ideas about civic spaces, performance spaces that are site specific/site framed/site responsive. At Norwich’s Oriental Rug Store she learnt more about the import of Persian Rugs and the trade of Persian Rugs in the UK.
We look forward to continuing the conversations developed during this residency. Nazli is developing the MEDEA: SUN GODDESS RISING production and we look forward to re-connecting with her at the Edinburgh Iranian Festival in March 2019. Ellie McKinlay-Khojinian is working on her novel and is inspired to develop workshop and performative ideas with the local refugee community. Engage! are preparing for their festival in Summer 2019.
Get involved in the exchange and share your story on Instagram with the hashtag #feastofstories.