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Last week I was lucky enough to watch the storytelling show Kingdom of Fire & Clay – Iran VS Israel at St Ethelburga’s Centre on Bishopsgate. The show is narrated by two different storytellers: Raphael Rodan and Sahand Sahebdivani. Raphael is from Israel and Sahand was born in Iran and grew up in Amsterdam. Two great musicians accompany the show Anastasis Sarakatsanos and Bas Kisjes. Although the title of the show says ‘Iran VS Israel’ after watching you actually realize how similar the two cultures are. From personal stories to deadlock political situations in Middle East the show blends in everything: humour, anger, envy, love, childhood memories, war, homeland, family and friendship. I had the chance to interview Sahand and Rafael so it’s better to find out more about the show from them I guess.

E: Different cultures from often share lots of similarities and perhaps it’s the small details that differentiate them from each other. Did you realize any of the similarities between your cultures or was there
anything you thought it was the same but turned out to be completely different?

Sahand: Well, one thing that I realized generally working with Israelis, but specifically after my collaboration started is that how direct Israelis are. I thought we would be much more similar in this regard, but

Rafael: The first theme that comes to my mind is friendship. The process emphasised the different qualities Sahand and I are bring to our friendship. (and yes I consider Sahand my good friend now!). The tension between directness and a subtler approach towards the other perhaps.

E: How would you describe the show shortly? Why should people come and see it?

S: An intense mix of personal stories of an Israeli and an Iranian. A show that puts that turns traditional storytelling on its head and isn’t afraid  to ask some painful questions.

R: An exploration of the tension between friendship and Animosity, our individual vs our national identity all done through exploring our personal stories and Stories form our culture.

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E: Music is very much involved throughout the show and it helps a lot to give the emotion of the stories to those who have no or a little idea about your cultural backgrounds. Is it often to see this in storytelling or is it something rare? How much do you think it affect the flow of the show?

S: Though it’s not rare to have music in a storytelling show, I think in our show we really integrated it much more than most other shows do. This comes from the fact that both Raffa and I have always used music in our work and started this collaboration with musicians in mind. We didn’t write the show and think, ok, how can we add music. I consider our musicians Anastasis and Bas as co-creators of the show.

R: I would say that music is used a lot in storytelling but in a very different way. Until now all the productions i saw where music was used it was done next to the stories but not in a way that created a solid one piece. In the way Bas and Anastasis created it, you cannot separate the music and the stories they melt into each other and together create the spirit of the performance.

E: After sharing your personal stories you get into political discussions/stories. Were you ever afraid of the reaction of the audience as what it seems from the show that you have different ideas on certain
issues?

E: Well, if the audience would always agree with us what’s the use of making such a show? But so far responses have been very good. Sadly one friend has accused me of being a propaganda maker for the zionists. Well, that’s to be expected when you deal with a sensitive subject. Luckily she’s a very small minority.

R: To be honest yes. It has crossed my mind a few times. In the show I take a point of view which for some people might seem radical. But in order to create the narrative and the dramatic tension between Sahand and I it had to be made that way. There are a few places in the show where I say things I wouldn’t normally say in life in a conversation about that topic. But I believe it to be a necessary part of the process to sacrifice your own comfort zone towards what you want to convey in the show

E: You both play a lot with the stereotypes throughout the show. How much were you aware of these stereotypes before the show as it might not be an easy thing to be aware of them as what is different to someone else is actually mundane to you.

S: This is why it was so much fun to work with each other, we were absolutely not afraid to say whatever we wanted about Iranians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims. So if one wasn’t aware of a certain stereotype, the other would definitely teach a thing or two. As an example, in my culture Jews were stereotypically greedy. My Jewish friends tought me in Israel it’s the Iranian Jews that are considered greedy. How funny is that and what does that say about my culture?

R: Yes we were playing with stereotypes consciously in the show and a lot of times we tried to weave them in through humour. Another thing we tried to do is not to stay there too long and that it’s always done while sharing the most personal stories. Our truly personal stories breaks through the stereotypes because of the individual element in them.

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E: Although it is storytelling it very much involves acting and there’s a script of course. How did you decide on sharing those specific personal stories?

S: When Raffa and I met we just spent weeks telling each other stories. Then we found the script was writing itself. There were so many personal stories that were interconnected, all we had to do was weed them and cut them down.

R: Sahand and I met for a week and just talked and talked and in that week a lot of our personal material floated to the surface. Two things immediately came to mind and they were the story of our mothers and the image of the garden. That became some kind of a beating heart that grew into the body of the show.

7. Motherhood I would say constitutes a very high percentage of the stories. You both talk about your mothers’ childhood, difficulties they have faced because of their religions/views, their marriage and relationship with their own mothers. There isn’t much about the fathers. Is there a specific reason behind this?

S: There are two reasons why we focused so much on mothers. First of all after we met we realized how similar our mothers were. They could have been friends! They’re only one year apart in age and born in the same country, though in different cities. The other reason is for me specifically. I’ve very often made shows based on the stories of my father, so for this show I made a conscious decision to involve him less.

R: First of all I would say that our mothers’ story is one of the strongest links between Sahand and I. Both of them were born in Iran almost in the same year. They share a very similar cultural landscape throughout their childhoods. We realised that this might be the key to understand the starting point of the show. For me there is also a connection between “Mother” and “Mother land”, the search and yearning for a home.


E: You talk about food a lot as well yet no one mentioned humous I think! Is this is a sensitive topic as we still don’t know where it actually
originates from?

S: Haha, good questions, but while I find humous to be delicious it’s completely unknown to Iranians, so not directly related to our show.

R: Funny :-) It never came up in the rehearsals. I don’t think it exists in the Iranian Culture.

E: Lastly, are you planning on doing different shows together based on different stories?

S: Absolutely. We’re brainstorming some new ideas already. Can’t say too much but it will probably be a completely different subject than that of Kingdom of Fire and Clay. This is a winning team, so we will continue to work together.

R: Yes! No doubt about that. Both Sahand and I find this connection very rich. We learn a lot from each other as we are so different. We are looking at a few possibilities for a new theme. Something new and refreshing with a different direction.

 

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