Iranian in England, English in Iran: Interview with Javaad Alipoor

I grew up in Bradford, Yorkshire, on a council estate. We were one of only two mixed ethnicity families.

My father is from Iran. He came this to this country because he was fleeing the Shah regime. Many of the radicals from his generation were either murdered or tortured or forced to flee. My father fled and then he met my mother in a Leeds disco.

On my mum’s side, we’re very much a white, English but Catholic family of a working or lower-middle class. My mother converted to Islam when she met my father. She jokes that she went from being a lapsed Catholic to being a lapsed Muslim.

If I feel English, then I feel tied to this post-industrial northern city, which is quite cosmopolitan and has always been open to migrants. After the Brexit vote, we set up an organization called, Bradford says everyone stays.

On a rainy Tuesday night, after Bradford had voted to exit, about four-hundred people turned up, everyone saying Bradford says everyone stays under these big banners. You could feel a shift in the city.

I speak Persian as well as I can. I’m not religious in any practical way, but I do participate in the Shia processions we have in Bradford. I joke that in England I feel really Iranian, and in Iran I feel really English.

The other day, I went to my wife’s grandfather’s funeral; a white protestant funeral. And I just had this really strong feeling, the way English people do funerals, this just doesn’t speak to me.

Shia Muslims, if we do one thing right, it’s grief. I went to one of my great-auntie’s funeral in Iran. We walk into the graveyard and everyone is fighting to get a hand on the casket to get a little bit of the blessing for having helped with the burial. Women are wailing, weeping, beating their heads; people are rubbing dust on their face.

Then you go to the house after the main funeral. The curtains are drawn. Everything is black; everyone is wearing black; men sit on one side; women sit on the other side. A professional mourner sings old songs about the transience of life, how everything passes and how we will all meet one day, God willing.

In the West, everything is done to make sure people don’t get too upset. Let’s do this, let’s do that, let’s walk in line behind the casket; let’s make sandwiches; let’s keep busy. In Iran, you just let go for a bit. I feel it is quite healthy.

I felt really privileged growing up. There was some racism, some of it was quite horrible, but it wasn’t the defining thing about my childhood. Post-colonial thinking, which became really important to me as a theatre maker, was in the air but it wasn’t the predominant thing.

The way of looking at the world through a white lens persists. In theatre, for example, Peter Brook is a great experimental artist with a way of directing that just cracked things open and got the essence out of them. When he’s making European work he gets his hands on it, he rips it apart and it’s genius.

For example, Midsummer night’s dream, in which he invented this way of showing characters spying on each other where the character playing the wall just opens the space between his fingers. It’s now iconic. No one would do it any other way.

But the things he made in India and Iran, he treats these traditions, these texts, these practices like they belong in a glass box at the British Museum. He’s looking at the part of the world that’s not Europe and he cherry picks. With the Western canon, he perceives it as complicated and dirty and he gets his hands on it. But he sees the East and the South as this other thing.

In the arts, everyone always says how they want more diversity. But you scratch the surface of that and you get some very old school shit coming up. I get work because I’m edgy and this and that and whatever. But how long do we have to wait for the person who runs the National Theatre to be black? How long for the person who runs the Royal Opera House to be Chinese? Or for the person who runs the Royal Shakespeare Company to be Pakistani?

There is that mentality that these are the cultural jewels in the crown of the British Empire. To protect them, it’s a job for a white person who’s gone to this or that school. At these big organizations, 1% of their staff are multi-ethnic in a country were 15% of the population are multi-ethnic. I mean, come on.

We live in a period where there is a great richness of narrative art. You have YouTube, podcasts, box sets. What makes theatre different and specific is that we sit in a space together to make a point. For me, the end game is how do I make the audience feel implicated in something they didn’t feel implicated in when they arrived; how do I make it feel like it’s here, between us.

I resist the phrase political theatre because a lot of what’s done under that umbrella doesn’t have any politics in it and is just shit theatre. I see all bunch of work that’s about issues like Syria or Palestine and I go, huh?

I’ve been involved with politics all my life, but when I see this middle class, white theatre makers telling me about these things, I just say, who do you think you are? You’re no expert on this. You’re not participating in this. Why should anyone listen to you on this.

My audiences are often people who, by the nature of their lives, spend all their time talking about politics. I bring people to the theatre even if they’d never been to the theatre before. But it’s not for me to say, come, sit down, listen, I’m cleverer than you, I will explain something to you. It’s they who teach me about stories.

I feel a responsibility toward that community; it’s kind of my community; it’s where I come from. I feel more responsibility toward these communities than I do toward mainstream audiences.

I’m aware that there is a section of the audience who come to the show and say, well, here is some kind of a Muslim guy from Bradford, he’s going to give me that raw shit I don’t usually get. I’m trying to cut against this.

I hope people leave with a feeling that the things they thought were simple are in fact more complex. I hope they feel enmeshed and implicated in something that beforehand they just engaged with intellectually. I make fiction; I do things that aren’t actually true. But they have to have some truth. When it works for the people it’s meant for, it keeps me honest.

Javaad Alipoor

Javaad Alipoor is a political activist, director and writer; his most recent work is the multi-award winning Believers Are But Brothers. He is an associate director of Sheffield Theatre, and Artistic Director of Northern Lines. He writes regularly on politics and culture for a range of publications, incl. The Independent and The Stage. His writing on politics and social theory has been published in collections including by Contiuum and Unkant. He was a founder of Bradford Says Everyone Stays, a pro migration organisation and an activist with human rights solidarity organisations. He is on twitter @javaadalipoor and blogs occasionally at attheinlandsea.wordpress.com.