Monday, July 1, 2013

Tehran Tea and the Slow-Blooming Rose

Shoreh Aghdashloo, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines

Shoreh Aghdashloo became a celebrity at the unlikely age of fifty-one, when her supporting role in House of Sand and Fog netted her an Independent Spirit award and an Oscar nomination. But while English-speaking audiences found her an enlightening surprise, she’d spent years cultivating her reputation among Iranian exiles in theatre, film, and world affairs. Her global prominence represented a breakthrough for Middle Easterners everywhere.

Born in the Shah’s Iran, young Shoreh Vaziri inherited a strange hybrid world. Though widely secular and westernized (Aghdashloo reminisces about watching American movies in elaborate cinemas), Tehran remained a markedly Islamic city. Her name came from the poet Hafez, but she spent her evenings in crowded nightclubs, dancing to top European and American hits. This split identity helped forge a young woman’s modern, innovative ambitions.

But her conservative parents wanted a prestigious button-down life for her. They considered no job short of a doctor worthy of their eldest child and only daughter, and would brook no headstrong artistic goofs. When Gone With the Wind made Shoreh dream of acting, they drew a firm line. Sure, they permitted her teenage flirtation with runway modelling, considering it harmless recreation, but they demanded she plan her adult career.

When she was only nineteen, an ambitious young painter with government connections won Shoreh’s heart. But more than that, Aydin Aghdashloo offered her the freedom to choose her own path. So not long after they wed, she auditioned for an avant-garde theatre company, and rose to overnight stardom. Shoreh quickly became the toast of Tehran’s high culture circuit, and it wasn’t long before Iran’s burgeoning cinema industry came knocking.

Sometimes, what Aghdashloo doesn’t say about Iran reveals as much as what she says. She briefly calls the Shah “fascist,” and recalls horror stories of his repressive secret police, the SAVAK, but later calls herself a monarchist and recounts standing for the Shah against the Islamists. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Likewise, she mentions that most Shah-era middle class Iranians could afford live-in servants, eliding what that says about urban poverty or stark class divides.

The Ayatollahs behind Iran’s 1979 revolution openly distrusted actors; many actors were broken by harsh interrogations without justification. But Aydin felt he could do more good for his people remaining in Iran. So despite her professed continuing love, Shoreh left him, her family, everything she owned, and everything she loved, pursuing the safety of life outside Iran. She says she’ll never return until her people are free.

British refugee life brought new problems. Aghdashloo had no English, few prospects, and Thatcher’s Britain was a constant minefield. She sold her smuggled heirlooms to earn a political science degree, but made a remarkable discovery: many Farsi-speaking exiles worldwide remembered her abridged movie career. Iranians flocked to see her in a successful string of politically engaged plays that let her tour major cities worldwide.

Expat theatre kept Aghdashloo’s name vibrant, and her Farsi-speaking fans proved remarkably loyal, but theatrical success didn’t translate into financial stability. She subsidized her career with several jobs, including a flower shop that bled money, waiting for fame to pay for itself. That happened around when she met her second husband, Iranian-born playwright Houshang Touzie. She quickly became an actress, TV and radio commentator, and theatre troup co-owner. After years in Farsi arts, English speakers began to notice her.

Aghdashloo’s prose, inflected with occasional Britishisms and academic silver-dollar words, reflects the famous accent she brings to her English language roles. At once politely formal and surprisingly intimate, reading her story resembles hearing personal anecdotes from some hero you’ve long admired, but only just met. It’s easy to imagine her reading this book in her distinctively deep purr, perhaps over Persian tea.

Despite her fame in the last decade, Aghdashloo spends little time on her highly public English-speaking career. Perhaps she assumes these years, appearing in such diverse titles as 24 and The Lake House, and winning an Emmy for HBO’s House of Saddam, have been sufficiently documented in the popular press. She’d rather focus on the decades of personal and political struggle that made her late-blooming success possible.

Aghdashloo tells a remarkable story, not just for what she says, but what she leaves implicit. Her book rewards reading between the lines. While some might chide Aghdashloo for what she omits, she invites smart readers to unpack her story in both directions. She’s spent years defining herself as a multidimensional woman of world affairs. Now she shares the long, slow road to her supposed overnight success.

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