Iran’s Maestro of Dramatic Arts

By Mitra Hooshiar, February 23, 2014

Hakim-Rabet outside the Zirab coal mine in Mazandaran province  northern Iran. Photo courtesy Hakim-Rabet.

Hakim-Rabet outside the Zirab coal mine in Mazandaran province northern Iran. Photo courtesy Hakim-Rabet.

Illustrious Iranian writer, dramatist and teacher to generations of students at Tehran University, Khosro Hakim-Rabet has lived through turbulent times. Mitra Hooshiar uses his book of memoirs “The Seventh Day” to explore his long and eventful life.

From darkness into blackness, going from the bottom of the deep pits in Shemiranat in Tehran to the infinitely dark, fathomless Zirab mine in Manzandaran. The miraculous workings of the mind have transported me from that darkness into this blackness. It’s nearly a one-kilometre walk into the heart of the mountain and it feels like more than a quarter century has passed before my eyes. I’m down here thanks to my political beliefs, just to earn a crust, in search of a job or perhaps human virtue; even art.

On the first day, halfway down into the mine, I get my workmates to stop. I ask them to be silent and to turn off the headlamps on their helmets. Here, beneath thousands of tons of rock and blackness, I want to taste the thick darkness and the silence. They all courteously turn off their lights and remain silent. How horrifying the secret of this quietness is! What an awesome presence this blackness has! I stay still for a while, drunk to satiety. We had entered through a hole. The height of the working place – in one of the safest coal-mines in Iran (Zirab) – is just fifty centimetres. It was built following the seam of coal into the mountain.

An inner sanctum under tons and tons of soil and darkness – just fifty centimeters high, and measuring I don’t know how many square metres, propped up with low wooden scaffolding – the mountain keepers! Right after coming in, we see that a part of the roof is about to collapse, the mountain is about to come down on us. The miners immediately put prop timbers into place under the roof, which means they have to crawl into the space between the roof and the mine floor. Crawling again, we move forward on our knees and elbows.

The din of drilling is ear-splitting. Yet all over the mine the workers are talking about milk. Some are discussing milk with the mining engineer, who is a decent man. They have not had one single bowl of milk to drink, and what does the engineer have to say? What do they know – the ones on top – about the ones trapped down here?
He is embarrassed, but what can he do? The length of the working place is about one hundred and fifty metres. It takes two hours to crawl the length of these one hundred and fifty metres, but to me it feels like ten to fifteen days.

As I crawl, I think about the sky, mountain ridges, home and tranquility, safe ceilings that never fall in, and my wife and children – and about how a human being has to descend into this underground horror – just to earn a crust of bread. In my younger days, in the deep pits of Shemiranat, I was terrified. Older now, here at the depth of thousands of metres, I am horrified. There, I used to ask myself: “Will you ever see the sky again?” but here, in this horror there is no chance to ask any questions at all. I come out. What sparkling brightness! What sunshine! What trees! What birds! What weather! What a secure and trusty, safe blue sky!

I go to the showers. The workers’ showers. I wash my body out completely. We eat and talk and one of the workers takes a picture of me. Two weeks pass and I go back to Tehran. I go to a friend’s place. He looks at me, surprised. I sense he is looking at me with some kind of embarrassment and I don’t know why. He stares at me. Eye to eye – staring at the rims of my eyes – and then without malice, he explains his bewilderment: “Old man! Have you put Kohl round your eyes? At your age?”

I stay silent. I don’t know why. I don’t want him to know that the “kohl” from the mine stays in your eyes for a long time. The mine leaves its mark on everyone’s eyes. That “mine kohl”: the essence of blackness and silence. I still think about those Kohl-eyed men in that dreamlike subterranean sanctum, under all those tons of rock, waiting for a sip of pure, white milk.
“A sip of pure white milk” taken from The Seventh Day: Memories

* * * * * *

Khosro Hakim Rabet is an Iranian writer, poet and teacher. He has had a long and illustrious career as Professor of Dramatic Literature at the Universities of Tehran and years later in Tabriz and and enjoys a high reputation among fellow writers, many of whom still take their screenplays and scripts to him to hear his views and suggestions. Republished several times,his book of memoirs: “The Seventh Day – Memories”, covers his life experiences in Iran, Turkey and Russia. His poetic style of prose writing makes translation into any other language difficult, yet each “Memory” is a short story with a simple but strong ending, like flash fiction.

Born on 23 March, 1930 in Shiraz – the city of poetry and love – Hakim knew poverty and hardship from an early age following the death of his father, when he became the sole provider for his family. He got his first teaching job at the age of 20, in the far-flung Province of Fars, at the Amir Azoud Primary School in Kazerun, south western Iran.

Village school Iran 1950-60.

Village school Iran 1950-60.

Early morning. Amir Azoud elementary school. My first day of teaching. Third grade. The school bell has rung, but the children are not in class. An hour of waiting and finally they arrive. Trachoma-weepy eyes, colorless faces, clothes and shoes, their gazes bleached of expression… Then their answer to my question shocks me too.
– Why so late?
– We went to the desert, Sir.
– To the desert? What for?
– To catch grasshoppers, Sir.
– Grasshoppers? Whatever for?
– To eat, Sir.
– But … How? … Grasshoppers are poisonous, they’re a pest … How can they be eaten?
And eaten with what, for God’s sake?

Forty-four mouths opened, everyone knew the answer:
– With teeth, Sir.
“Grasshopper” taken from The Seventh Day: Memories

* * * * * *

Today, Mohammed hasn’t come to class. I like him very much, he’s the best kid in my class, but he is no good at his lessons. “Where is he?” The others answer: “Out at the lot, picking the crops.” The school bell rings.
I know the place, it is on the outskirts of town. I head out to visit Mohammed. Finally I arrive. I’ve walked all the way and it’s terribly hot.
Mohammed sees me. He runs towards me. He is saying things in his Kazeruni accent. I really can’t follow him. But I do understand that he is talking about “mother”.
I look and see: shattered crops and shrunken plants, the hot wind (I could even see the wind), and the poor, miserable harvest. A sunburned man behind a wooden plough and a broken, exhausted woman harnessed to it, in place of a cow.
“Mother” taken from The Seventh Day: Memories

* * * * * *

Kazerun. Amir Azoud School. The 1950s. It’s morning and time for the morning prayer ceremony. Last year in mid-January, the Shah was shot at Tehran University, but not killed. The “faction” responsible was banned. Since then there’d been mass arrests and locking up of members and now, every day, morning prayer has to be sung for the Shah’s well-being. Teachers on one side and students in a line on the other. A number of students have good singing voices. Every day one of them sings the morning prayer. Today is the turn of the little boy in my class. Today is a day like any other. We are expecting nothing, no special event to take place.
“Mohammad Ansari!”
“Yes, sir.”
“Come and sing!”
“We(*) won’t, sir.”
“You won’t?”
“No, sir!”
This childish “No, sir!” in this hell, in this dusty cemetery in Kazerun, is nothing less than that bullet aimed straight at the Shah. They bring out the wooden punishment mat. They lay the poor child on it. The school aid sits on his shoulders. The headmaster has a slender pomegranate branch soaked in water to beat him with. One of the teachers holds our little “sniper’s” legs. The thrashing goes on and on and I just stand there, a cold chill down my spine and hot sweat on my face – the disgrace. From the first day of class, I’ve promoted “justice”, “anti- oppression”, “dignity” and now I am just standing here humiliated . Is that all? Just ashamed? No, it goes way beyond that.
Our little sniper bears the lashing without a sound, staring at me throughout. Ostensibly I am just standing there, but inside I’m devastated. The torture ends. The students walk toward the classroom and I walk with them. The little sniper comes limping up the stairs. On the second or third step, he stares at me with his shining eyes; my head is bent. He pokes me. I have no idea what is going on deep down in his thoughts: whether he’s going to have tears or a smile on his face. He pokes me again, and when I look back at him he asks: “Was it good?”
“Was it Good?” taken from The Seventh Day: Memories

(*) In Iran, even now some students still apply the first person plural form to themselves when talking to their teacher. Grammatically speaking this is a mistake, but it is a cultural phenomenon borne out of respect or fear. Students don’t dare to say” I … I have this opinion “. It is still the rule in country villages and not uncommon in big cities either.

* * * * * *

However Hakim’s teaching career was interrupted by the Iranian coup d’etat in 1953 (see footnote) which saw the reinstatement of Shah Reza Pahlavi. His political allegiances led to him being arrested and fired from his teaching post – and he was obliged to take any job he could in order to support himself and his family.

Hakim:“During my time in the political wilderness, I lived through many things – escape, displacement and living behind a mask. The truth is that in those days we looked at the world through an ideological lens. One day I went to work in a place where I was doing the plumbing – I became a foreman plumber in about ‘63 or ’64 – and I was working for a company that had plumbing contracts with the police headquarters. This particular day, as I was working away down in the basement I suddenly asked myself “Where am I?”- “What am I doing?” I saw a staircase leading downwards and realized that I was in the same police station where I had once been held prisoner. They intended to rebuild the top floor and make more cells. Later during the Islamic Revolution the place became the Anti-Sabotage Committee Centre, and now it is a museum. It was a bitterly sad moment as I realized that I was building another prison where once I had been imprisoned.

One day on my break, as I turned the pages of a magazine, I came across a poem. Essentially it’s message was: “Life is not worth living if it is constantly full of apprehension and fears that prevent us from standing up and looking around.” I took it as a hint – and it made me put my idealogical gleasses away. At the time I had a Preparatory College Diploma and was a teacher – a displaced teacher who had been forced to leave his work”.

The gates of Tehran University.

The gates of Tehran University.

A chance sighting of an advertisement for the entrance exam for Tehran University’s Faculty of Dramatic Art changed the course of his life. During his time at the university he studied alongside future great names in Iran’s theatre and cinema, including director and playwright Rokneddin Khosravi, celebrated actor Jamshid Mashayekhi and the film director and screen writer Ali Hatami.

Hakim:“I chose Dramatic Art quite randomly, but it suited me temperamentally better than any other faculty. However here again chance was involved. I was an insubstantial tuft of grass blown about by the wind – wherever the wind took me, I went. Luckily on that occasion the wind brought me here, though if it had taken me elsewhere, I would have gone there too! But here is where I can breathe – sometimes – and I am doing what I like. I’m happy. I have no regrets about being a teacher.”

For more than 54 years Hakim-Rabet taught at various Universities in Iran including the Faculty of Dramatic Arts – Tehran University, the University of Tabriz, School of Film and Theater (Tehran), University of Arts (Tehran), College of Fine Arts (Tehran), School of Art and Architecture (Tehran), Azad University Central Tehran, Azad University of Arak and many others.

Speaking of his work, Hakim-Rabet says: “Teaching is not an art, it is artistic austerity!”The following is a brief excerpt from a lecture on scriptwriting given in 1975.

“My brother has calluses on his hands:
Worn-out clothes,
Wounded feet,
A sad song on his lips and an unknown stigma on his heart.
You portray that “callus” and that “song”
Bless your pen!
I draw that “wound” and the mythological “unknown stigma” on his heart.
You portray his “indignation” and I am the storyteller of his “silence”.
You and I are his “image” and we are both the “story” of him.”

Khosro Hakim-Rabet

Khosro Hakim-Rabet

Mitra Hooshiar is a teacher, translator and writer of fiction. She lives in Tehran.

* * * * * *

The 1953 Iranian coup d’état, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup, was the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and his cabinet on 19 August 1953, orchestrated by the United Kingdom (the so-called ‘Operation Boot’) and the United States (the TPAJAX Project). The ’53 coup was the CIA’s first successful “regime change”. It had its roots in Britain’s oil interests in Iran, which for decades had been under British domination. In 1951, Iran’s Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Mosaddeq, as prime minister. Britain responded with threats and sanctions. Mossadegh had sought to reduce the semi-absolute role of the Shah granted by the Constitution of 1906, thus making Iran a full democracy, and to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, consisting of vast oil reserves owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). Britain and the U.S. selected Fazlollah Zahedi to be the prime minister of a military government that was to replace Mosaddegh as premier.

Subsequently, a royal decree dismissing Mosaddegh and appointing Zahedi was drawn up by the coup plotters and signed by the Shah. The Central Intelligence Agency had successfully pressured the weak monarch to participate in the coup, while bribing street thugs, clergy, politicians and Iranian army officers to take part in a propaganda campaign against Mosaddegh and his government. At first, the coup appeared to be a failure when on the night of 15–16 August, a Colonel of the Imperial Guard was himself arrested while attempting to arrest Mosaddegh. The Shah fled the country the next day. On 19 August, a pro-Shah mob paid by the CIA, marched on Mosaddegh’s residence. According to the CIA’s declassified documents and records, some of the most feared mobsters in Tehran were hired by the CIA to stage pro-Shah riots on 19 August. Between 300 and 800 people were killed because of the conflict. Mosaddegh was arrested, tried and convicted of treason by the Shah’s military court. On 21 December 1953, he was sentenced to three years in jail, and then placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Other Mosaddegh supporters were imprisoned, and several received the death penalty.
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