Cielaroque Dance Company
Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, L1 3BX • November 14, 2012
In 2005, images of two Iranian teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, being publicly hanged caused shock and consternation around the world. Iranian authorities claimed that the two young men had been convicted of raping a 13-year old boy, whilst gay rights campaigners maintain that they were killed either for consensual sexual acts, or merely for the fact of being lovers. Whatever the details of the case, this barbaric act by a barbaric regime was a distressing one to bear witness to; photos showed them crying on the way to their execution, apparently resigned as nooses were placed around their necks, and finally dangling lifeless from ropes as the crowd look on. This incident and those emotive photographs have so far inspired poetry, an opera, a play and a forthcoming movie.
It was a lesser-known case that inspired the Austrian dance company, Cielaroque, to create their multi-media dance piece, Habibi Problem, in 2008, and its inclusion in the Homotopia festival marks its UK premiere. Mehdi Kazemi arrived in the UK on a student visa in 2004. While studying here, his boyfriend back home in Iran was arrested, charged with sodomy and, whilst under interrogation, gave up Kazemi’s name. Kazemi applied for, but was denied, asylum in the UK and so he fled to the Netherlands. His boyfriend was subsequently hanged in 2006. Thanks to fierce campaigning from MPs, MEPs and gay rights activists, the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, promised to review his case on his return to London. In a letter to Smith, Kazemi wrote: “I wish to inform the Secretary of State that I did not come to the UK to claim asylum. I came here to study and return to my country. But in the past few months my situation back home has changed. The Iranian authorities have found out that I am a homosexual and they are looking for me.” He went on to say, “I cannot stop my attraction towards men. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life. I was born with the feeling and cannot change this fact but it is unfortunate that I cannot express my feeling in Iran. If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed like my former boyfriend.” Thankfully, in May 2008, Mehdi Kazemi was finally granted asylum in the UK.
The Arabic word ‘Habibi’ is the male form of ‘darling’ or ‘my beloved.’ Cielaroque have devised a piece that, with its use of split screen filmed animation, is able to tell two stories at once – that of the escaped man and that of his imprisoned lover. On stage, the male soloist conveys through movement and stillness the repetitive and confining nature of confinement itself, the constant fear and trepidation of being under surveillance and, at one moment, the fierce act of defiance that dancing can be. The space he’s in could be a prison, a holding centre, or a hiding place, and the point is made that there are many countries in the world where gay men are persecuted, and many countries in the world carrying out different forms of execution. Our invitation to feel outrage is not confined to the narrow interpretation of Sharia law that the Iranian government indulges in, but it remains the focus of this telling of this particular story.
I did feel that there was a longer, more substantial piece, trying to escape from Habibi Problem. A larger exploration of the human effects of tyrannical attitudes towards homosexuality was waiting to be expressed and the dance vocabulary itself, whilst fascinating, concentrated too much on the minutiae of the individual and not enough on the universality of persecution. I understand that it is to individuals that these things happen, and it’s as individuals that we experience the artistic interpretation of them, but this was a missed opportunity, I thought, the raw material being too thinly applied. The story of Mehdi Kazemi and his executed boyfriend, like that of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, needs to be more widely told and in as many forms as possible, so that people understand what’s as stake across the world as gay rights becomes the latest human rights battleground.