Tehran is an enormous city. And we’ve only been here for a short week. So I’m not sure what I can say already. But as a prequel to the orientation trip next week, it might be interesting to share my first experiences, which are still quite personal and undoubtedly biased by my Dutch perspective.
Eelco van der Lingen, director at Nest in The Hague (NL), and I were invited to lead a workshop at the Tehran Art Management Program organized by ‘dars platform’, an initiative that aims to stimulate the local art world. We discussed the topics with the organizers of the program, and together with them we decided to dedicate our workshop to the topic of Self Development. It was the last day before their final presentations and it would be nice to go back to the origins of our motivation to work as art professionals, and thus inspire and refresh the participants with the question: why are we working in the arts?
Personal backgrounds were the starting point. For example, I talked about my family of dancers, singers and musicians and my childhood fascinations for female historical leaders, European political revolutions, sci-fi tv series and American pop culture (which all somehow comes back now I’m a director at a 19th century fortress / art space). I also talked about my friends in Amsterdam, a colourful crew openly living their non-conformist lives: street life entrepeneurs, diy cinematographers, experimental musicians and extravagant stage performers. I talked about my love for exploring cities and networks on my own, and for dancing as much as I can, how the passions of ex-boyfriends influenced me too, and I praised my dear friends actively taking part in LGBTQ communities (which I couldn’t show on pictures because of Google censorship).
I realized that my life in Amsterdam is free and rich, in many senses. The day before my flight, I decided to go to the opening night of Amsterdam Dance Event. One of the venues was the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, where I bumped into a couple of friends. We danced and laughed and drank beers, we ran into a guy I dated some time ago and we had nightly fries at the snackbar. There my friend Sofie talked about her time in Iran, where she studied for a while, and casually started to check my coat. ‘What’s wrong with my coat?’ ‘It’s not long enough.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You have to cover yourself until your knees. Just bring a long coat and don’t take it off inside. And do you have a headscarf?’ ‘Yeah I have a pretty scarf that an artist designed for me awhile ago.’ ‘So that’s silk I guess. Won’t work, you need cotton so that it won’t come off easily.’ Slightly confused I went to the last show at alternative music space OT 301, alone. But left earlier to reconsider my luggage. At home it turned out I didn’t have coats or tunics that cover my knees, nor long scarfs made of cotton, and the following day I went to Schiphol with a weird and nervous feeling.
Now I’m here, I’m wearing this cotton scarf, have to cover my arms, legs and bottom, not supposed to look men into the eyes, no dance, not so much music. The first days, it struck me how consumed I was by all this. It was a distraction from my work schedule and at the same I was ashamed that I seemed to make a fuzz out of it. In the mornings Eelco was ready way before I was. I realized that Amsterdam is so unrestricted that I didn’t have any standard to relate to and I honestly couldn’t calculate what is possible here and what isn’t. You don’t want to be ignorant or offensive and Tehran’s society is vibrant as well: everyone knows that parties indoors involve fashionable dress and haircuts, alcohol and dancing too, and in the streets, men and women seem to operate more or less equally. At a certain point I got it and chose my own way to dress: loose scarfs, I bought some nice vests, and pushed the edges somewhat with wearing a short parka and cap. But what was left is discomfort: the scarf is bothering my sight, my dinner, my outfit, my hairdo, my temperature, my head– it is as if something is literally holding me down, all the time.
Most of all, I can’t get used to the fact that men are allowed to wear whatever they want, except for short pants. Sexual attraction goes both ways but that’s rarely acknowledged. Here I find myself sitting in a subway train full of men, listening to hiphop music while hiding the album covers popping up on my phone’s screen, constantly correcting myself when I start to move to the rhytm of the music, or when I feel the urge to look back when a handsome guy is staring at me, or when I feel my scarf sliding from my hair. The first days I got nervous of the idea of not being able to dance and experience local parties for one month, and anxiously started to think about how to meet people who could introduce me to underground places. Most of all I feel the oblivious Western tourist, which is rather new for me because I’m quite used to feeling an outsider, not looking originally Dutch myself.
The young women in the workshop were so fascinated by my life. Afterwards they enthusiastically told me how they listened to the same music and watched the same movies, had boyfriends and liked parties too, but always in secret. At home they were told to never talk about their indoor lives with anyone unfamiliar, until they knew for certain if they could trust someone. ‘Our identities are hidden. We all live two-sided lives.’ The girls experienced many troubles in developing themselves, especially during adolescense, with so much restrictions. And as grown up single women it is difficult to make your own money, live unmarried on your own, find a partner after divorce. At the same time, they are proud of their culture, and don’t want me to feel sorry for them or think about Tehran’s society as conservative; which is evident because it isn’t – the city has a warm, open-minded atmosphere with people visibly enjoying life and friendships.
But there’s an uncanny tension between what’s happening in the public and what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s full of paradoxes that I’ll probably never really get, and it makes me wonder what it does to the development of your own identity and your personal relations to pursue a double life.
Conversely, I started to reflect on what it means to be able to do and be whatever you want to be, to pursue your individual, pragmatic goals in secular society, to consume whatever – and perhaps even whomever – you want, and to make your choices in a capitalist context ruled by images and media. Because what is freedom, anyway? I often think about the fact that Iran is literally surrounded by regions in war and that my peers experience a constant gap between the pre-revolution generation of their parents and their own: it’s all quite overwhelming and hard to grasp.
Artists are able to push boundaries, shed their refreshing light on current situations, crictically observe or reflect on society. That’s why I feel priviliged to work with art, always and everywhere. But thinking out-of-the-box becomes even more a challenge when that box is forced upon you. I feel it is a valuable experience for us, visitors from Western Europe, to get in touch with other realities and be confronted with other possibilities and limitations, other systems of society, other frames of reference. When this relates to your physical appearance and gender identity, it becomes even more interesting – albeit annoying sometimes. But really, who am I to complain. Being here makes me modest and I truly admire the people working in the arts and in other ways pushing boundaries, women and others not being the norm, especially. All together I am very thankful for the confidence and generosity of the people here inviting me to their professional and private lives. And I am much looking forward to the upcoming weeks.