Iran’s Streetwise Storytellers

by Staff, Utne Reader
January-February 2010
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image by Roya Zamiri Akhlaghi

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In today’s fast-paced world, the stories we tell are usually short, ephemeral, and digitally transmitted. But in Iran, long-form oral storytelling by real people is alive and well. Niloufar Talebi writes in World Literature Today (July-Aug. 2009) about three types of storytelling performers who still can be found in Iran.

Naghāls are coffeehouse storytellers who tell epic tales in episodes of an hour and a half to two hours a day, for as many as 40 days. Regulars will show up every day, like soap-opera addicts, to hear the story unfold. The source material is usually the Iranian national legend from the 10th century, the Shāhnāmeh, or the Book of Kings, a tome of 50,000 couplets chronicling the history and myths of the Persian people.

Naghāls, who are paid by the coffee-houses, improvise upon, embellish, and adapt the narrative “to fit the mood, occasion, and psychological state of the audience,” Talebi writes. “An audience does not want to hear a totally unfamiliar story, nor does it want to hear exactly the same story over and over. So a Naghāl must ‘translate’ the material for the audience in the moment and . . . interpret the material, teaching the audience the morals that it might need on that particular day.”

Pardeh-dārs are itinerant storytellers who travel with a painted screen or canvas and draw crowds with their dramatizations of mostly religious stories. At the end of their performance, they collect donations from their audience.

A more theatrical storytelling form is the Ta’zieh, which is comparable to the Western Passion Play. Held in a theater-in-the-round, the Ta’zieh dramatizes the martyrdom of a key Islamic figure. “Though the story is perfectly known to the spectators,” Talebi writes, “as active participants in the mourning, they go from roars of laughter to sobbing as the drama progresses.”

All three forms of storytelling have influenced the Iranian diaspora. The 2002 Lincoln Center Festival in New York presented a trilogy of Ta’zieh plays, a 2008 Toronto concert featured a Naghāl in a multi-media presentation, and Talebi, a theater artist herself, has created multimedia poetry projects that are inspired in part by traditional Iranian storytelling—even as she concedes that they might be closer to hip-hop theater.

Just another twist in the story.

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