Americans were introduced to Iranian foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, when fifty-two Americans were held against their wills by militant supporters of the Islamic Revolution, the movement that overthrew the American-backed Shah. The articulate, Georgetown-educated, Italian suit-clad Ghotbzadeh made an unlikely spokesman for the Islamic Republic, or at least how we have come to understand it today.
Of course, Ghotbzadeh's great-niece Sanaz Ghajarrahimi would be quick to remind you that this was a time when the revolution was still in its infancy, buoyed along by a bizarre coalition of liberals, intellectuals, and hardcore Islamists. She's the author and director of Red Wednesday, a new play about her great-uncle's legacy and how it relates to political unrest around the world today. It is receiving a workshop production as part of Ice Factory 2013 at the New Ohio Theatre.
"Once the revolution succeeded, the revolutionaries realized that while they all hated the Shah, they didn't all have similar goals for a future government," said Ghajarrahimi. This led to a struggle over the future constitution and an opportunity at seizing power for a charismatic leader like the Ayatollah Khomeini. "While people were fighting over the constitution, Khomeini was gaining more and more power," explained Ghajarrahimi, very much crediting political theater for his ascent. "As my mom said, ‘He gave really good speeches.'"
Acutely aware of her family's personal ties to this history, in Red Wednesday Ghajarrahimi goes through pains to remind people that a lot of the story has been told to her through that very subjective source. Her mother was particularly close to Ghotbzadeh, having lived with him in Paris for several years while she was attending high school and he was plotting with Khomeini to overthrow the Shah. "To her, he is this hero, a martyr," said Ghajarrahimi, trying to understand her perspective. "My mom is insistent that he always knew what he was doing...but she thought that because she was thirteen at the time."
So Ghajarrahimi's impetus to write Red Wednesday was partly a personal journey to find her own truth about her family's past and how it relates to our precarious present. She is more circumspect about her great-uncle's actions, and with good reason. In 1982, he was executed by firing squad for plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. "They [Ghotbzadeh and his liberal allies] thought they could use Khomeini to gain support and once they were in power, he would be like the Queen — there would be other people who actually ran the government," she explained. "I think they didn't realize how much real power he could actually gain." Ghotbzadeh's death was a classic case of the revolution devouring its children.
Iran still has a Supreme Leader who has control over all aspects of the government, with few checks on his power. "There was a revolution that promised democracy and it turned into a dictatorship," opined Ghajarrahimi. She sees Iran as a cautionary tale for the multitude of revolutions and protest movements that have swept the globe since the 2011 "Arab Spring." In the exuberance of toppling a dictator, revolutionaries can easily lose sight of the future, leaving room for the most ruthless and cunning among them to fill the void. A line in Red Wednesday reads, "People know what they're standing against, but not what they're fighting for. They know what they want to knock down, but not what they want to erect in its place."
She witnessed this firsthand when she traveled with her cast to Istanbul last month and found herself in the middle of the Taksim Square protests. She didn't anticipate being in the middle of anti-government protests, running from tear gas. She just wanted to take her cast to a Middle Eastern country to offer them some perspective on Red Wednesday after they finished participating in the Varna Festival in Bulgaria and the Prague Fringe. "We just wanted to go somewhere in the Middle East that wasn't Iran because I was worried about taking my blond-haired, blue-eyed American choreographer Ben Hobbs to Iran," she explained. Considering the discontent sweeping the region, however, it wasn't really a surprise with popular protests that cropped up in Turkey. "People asked if we were still going to go," Ghajarrahimi recalled when news of the protests first reached the American media, right before their scheduled trip. "Of course we were going to go! This is exactly the time to go."
When she arrived in Turkey, Ghajarrahimi found the protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan inspiring in their energy and optimism, but unfocused and dominated by educated urbanites. "It was a bunch of upper-middle-class people complaining because they could and then there were the lower-class people who vote for Ergogen, selling them gas masks," she recalled detailing what she saw in Taksim Square. "The consistent theme is that we know how to hate a leader, but we cannot define what we want instead."
Ghajarrahimi's experience in Turkey left her with a whole new set of questions to ask her mother upon returning. "What I learned on my trip makes me question my great-uncle's motives," she admitted. "How good of a strategy did he really have?" Perhaps, like many of us, he was just making it up as he went along. Theater has the power to humanize subjects that are otherwise placed on pedestals; and that has been what Red Wednesday has done for Ghajarrahimi when it comes to her perception of Sadegh Ghotbzadeh.
Ghajarrahimi hopes that, by telling her family's story, she can help educate incipient protestors on the potential pitfalls of revolution. "I do feel that as a generation, we are not as educated as we'd like to think about protest and government practices and revolutions of the past," she said. "There is something that we can learn from successful and failed revolutions that we're not integrating right now."
She clearly believes that, as George Satayana once famously wrote in The Life of Reason, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It's not all about presenting a dry history to teach her audience a lesson. Ghajarrahimi is attempting to employ design and movement to make these issues emotional and real for her audience. Her last play, Nuclear Love Affair, was a wild multimedia extravaganza with exploding cake, a boxing match, and a drag Marilyn Monroe. It ended with the cast completely drenched in their own sweat.
While that play focused its seemingly boundless energy on the already-written history of the Cold War, Red Wednesday is an even more difficult proposition for Ghajarrahimi and her team, considering her subject is still very much a moving target. "When you're talking about current events, they're always changing; so our point of view is always changing," Ghajarrahimi said. "We're doing rewrites every day."
Ultimately, Ghajarrahimi has no idea how the unrest in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Greece, Spain, and a hundred other places will pan out. No one does. "It feels like we're on the precipice of something," said Ghajarrahimi. "I don't know if it's something great or terrible, or a combination of both."
What Ghajarrahimi does have is a story and a stage on which to share it. She's hoping that, in her own small way, she can use that to help move the conversation.
Click below to see video Ghajarrahimi took of the the Istanbul protests: