Blushing pilgrims

Drama - Scott Peterson witnesses Iran's cultural renaissance

The way Shakespeare wrote it, the star-struck lovers Romeo and Juliet seal their amorous intentions with a kiss. But when that magic moment comes in Iran's sophisticated new production, no one expects such close adherence to the script. The Islamic republic, after all, forbids any public physical contact between men and women.

The miracle for many is that Romeo and Juliet's famous love story is playing in Iran at all. The Islamic revolution of 1979 restricted all types of cultural expression and isolated Iran. But from stage to film to high art, the Bard's carefully choreographed love tragedy - drawing capacity crowds in Tehran's Vahdat opera house - reflects how political change in Iran is driving a full-blown cultural renaissance.

"Did they touch?" asks an Iranian theatregoer, after watching Romeo and Juliet pirouette together, face to face. Later, the audience titters approvingly when Juliet leans very close over the dead Romeo and speaks of her love - then brushes his cheek gently with the back of her fingers.

"I don't think we could have gone further," explains Ali Rafii, one of Iran's best-known, and once banned, directors, still holding the armful of flowers given him during a standing ovation. Even the applause is a sign of the times: clapping was once forbidden.

"The former officials did not believe in plays," Rafii says. "But officials now believe that plays and culture are a necessity. It is a renaissance."

Culture has, in fact, become an instrument of politics in Iran, where popular reformists have battled hardline conservative clerics for control since the reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami, came to power in a 1997 landslide victory at the polls. Confirming the trend, Khatami's supporters swept into parliament in elections last February. In politics, hardliners are proving resilient, and they have all but stopped parliament's reform momentum. A crackdown has left most reform journalists in prison and their newspapers shut down.

But in the trenches of the "culture wars" - where right-wing vigilantes once attacked theatres that put on "liberal" shows, ripping up their chairs and intimidating theatregoers - the political sea change has brought rebirth. Iranian films are increasingly winning plaudits and awards at international film festivals for their fresh treatment of humanist issues. In May, Samira Makhmalbaf's film Le Tableau Noir (Blackboards) won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. For painters, actors and authors, it is all evidence that, instead of withering from two decades of isolation, Iranian culture has nurtured itself, as if in an incubator. Now it is surging.

"After Khatami came to power, everything changed," says Manijeh Mir-Emadi, a painter and editorial director of a glossy new quarterly review of Iranian art, called Tavoos (meaning "Peacock"). "It is the beginning of the big happening." For years, exhibitions were rare. But 2,500 years of history and art will not be denied. Today, there are 100 galleries and cultural centres in Tehran alone, and about 70 museums. Newspapers carry a full page of cultural events on a daily basis. "We have a lot to talk about and work on, after 20 years of revolution and eight years of [the Iran-Iraq] war," Mir-Emadi says. "Everybody has a dark picture of Iran from the media, so [Tavoos] was a surprise for them, that this came from a country that had a so-called 'dark vision'," she says. "They can't believe we have all this happening in Iran."

Some argue that the blossoming of Iranian culture was inevitable after so many years under wraps. "Perhaps you should not give all the credit to Khatami and his coming to power - all the world is undergoing globalisation," says Mohammad Soltanifar, the managing director of the English-language newspaper Iran News in Tehran. "We have been so removed from the outside world that Khatami just helped accelerate it with his openness," he says. "Compare it to the Gorbachev era [of the Soviet Union]. The change would have happened even if he were not in power."

Still, Iranian artists are breaking new ground almost daily. Hardliners still control primary levers of power. But the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance - which issues approval for all books, films, plays, galleries and newspapers - is firmly in the hands of Khatami's allies. Years of backlogged films that were too "sensitive" to be released officially in Iran - but often circulated widely on illegal videotapes - have been approved.

Compromises are still made, but there are also ingenious ways of getting across one's message. Juliet's hair in Shakespeare's love drama, for example, is tightly covered with a dark brown headscarf - as required by Iran's Islamic rules. However, the scarf exactly matches the actress's real hair colour, and a waist-length braid of dark hair (is it a wig?) comes from beneath it.

One morning scene shows Romeo quickly dressing at Juliet's house - implying that he spent the night with his lover. "Even if I had permission to show more, I would not change anything," says Rafii, who was educated at the Sorbonne, and was banned from working for years by the Islamic regime. "In our poetry, all is metaphor and symbolism, and there are plenty of love scenes. Our scenes have more attraction and are more authentic. I believe in this society. I know the standards."

The messages are clear, too, with film subjects that may appear plain - Taste of Cherry, about a man contemplating suicide, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997 - but they almost always strike a political chord about freedom and religious rule in Iran.

The latest film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the father of Samira and one of Iran's top three directors, is called Test of Democracy. At once striking and hilarious, it is about imposing one's will on another person. One scene shows the film crew trying to convince someone to carry a door across a desert; another records the complaints of a man who is asked to sell the bench on which he is sitting.

The broader point is about political and religious elitism, and the voice of the common man. Addressing a gathering of birds on a beach with a microphone and speaker, Makhmalbaf makes his most important point with the rhythm of Persian poetry. "I don't want to scare you from your beautiful seat," he tells the long-legged pink birds as they nose through the shoreline mud. "But let me tell you the truth: you only fly as high as a chicken flies.

"I'm not honest if I don't tell you. Don't be offended," Makhmalbaf says, as the birds hop about in the windswept background. "Try to fly higher . . . We're testing the feeling of freedom at this time."

Scott Peterson writes for the Christian Science Monitor from Moscow