Humour of resistance
M.L. Raina

Othello in Wonderland and
Mirror-Polishing Storytellers: Two Plays
By Gholamhoseyn Sa’edi
Translated from the Persian by Michael Philips Mazda Publishers, California. Xiii + 144 pages. $ 18. (Paperback)

Censorship is a double-edged sword. It suppresses free expression, but also generates irony and, occasionally, black humour. We may recall the Hindi play Bakri that became the rage during the Emergency and similar works that use innuendo and suggestion to outwit the thought police.

In closed societies such as today’s Iran, resistance to censorship takes different forms. Sa’edi’s plays are a good example of how artists circumvent the Ministry of Moral Guidance to hold up the system to ridicule. That he frames his satire within a Shakespearean text shows his skill at manipulating classics for his immediate purpose of indicting his own society’s moral custodians, the Revolutionary Guards and the Clerics. The other play is an open condemnation of the war-mongering fervour of the Islamic Republic that sent thousands to death during the Iran-Iraq war.

A prolific writer who died at 50 in exile in Paris, Sa’edi’s plays display a bold disregard for censorship. In this play Othello, Iago and other characters from Shakespeare are rehearsing the play after obtaining official permission to produce it in Iran under the direct supervision of the state’s political and religious agencies. So the Minister for Guidance, along with Professors Khorush and Makhmalchi (clearly modelled on the noted filmmaker Makhmalbaf) and a Revolutionary Guard are on the stage to argue, warn and explain — all in the service of the Islamic Republic’s zeal to spread the revolutionary message and safeguard its pristine character.

In the process Shakespeare is edited, mangled and rewritten in keeping with the imperatives of the Islamic creed. This is where the play’s grim humour subverts the purpose of the censors. The guardians of the state object to Desdemona walking bareheaded or Bianca (called benikah by the Cleric) being Cassio’s mistress.

As a Moor, Othello can readily acquire an Islamic identity — he becomes Ogtulu in the Iranian context. Yet he is not allowed to address his wife as "my love" but must call her "my woman, my spouse" instead. The gap between the fictional character and reality is totally obscured by the bizarre Islamic aesthetic propounded by pedantic professors Khorush and Makhmalchi. As an ultimate absurdity, Shakespeare himself becomes acceptable as Shiekh Zobeyer .

Similarly, the three unities of the dramatic plot become the "three legs" of faith, martyrdom and character, a total reversal of the accepted canon of drama. And the mention of wine calls forth a breathalyzer test of the characters on the stage. All this is hilarious but grim — a sharp reminder that in the land of the Ayatollahs everything must pass through the state’s moral meat-grinder.

In Mirror-Shaping Storytellers, Sa’edi invokes the Persian folk form of naqqal to narrate the events of the Iraq-Iran war. In the most chilling last scene, the ordinary Iranians whose sons have been sacrificed haggle over the body parts that are brought home in a state of religious frenzy. The upshot of the horror is the cry of a street vendor selling them "heels, knees, teeth, ribs, I’ve got everything. Anybody who’s come up short, step right up and buy what is missing". This matches in savagery the virulent propaganda exhorting Iranian youth to "embrace martyrdom". At this stage art becomes a helpless onlooker.

Sa’edi’s plays are weapons with which he fights the tyranny of the clergy in his hapless country. They mock the arrogance of the call to arms made by the jihadis: ‘peace brings naught but calamity/eradicate peace and save humanity’. They show up their utter obscenity.