Cultural politics and theatre: Language on stage

The most interesting questions concerning theatre in Tabriz are related to language. The large majority of the urban population of Tabriz were native speakers of Azeri Turkish and appreciated plays in their mother tongue. The same is true for the Armenian community who - as we have seen - was at the forefront of introducing western-style theatre in the town. On the other hand, the language of modernist intellectuals was Persian and the Pahlavi state did everything in its power to strengthen the role of Persian as the national language of Iran. This discrepancy and the authoritarian approach towards language politics created a number of problems for the actual practice on stage. If we want to define cultural politics with regard to theatre and drama in Tabriz, it is not censorship, but the language question, that is of utmost importance.

Language and nationalism, both Persian and Turkish, have been intertwined to such a degree that it is almost impossible to find a neutral position. A source that we can assume not to have been overtly biased in favour of Persian nationalism at that time was the staff of the Turkish military. In a secret report from 1927 we read: “The Turks of Azerbaijan do not see a need to read or study their language. Among the people of Azerbaijan, learning the Persian language instead of Turkish is quite common. The intellectuals of Azerbaijan, who have learnt Persian, regard Turkish as the language of the villages and do consider it insufficient to answer to academic or literary demands.”89

Indeed, the theatre announcements and posters for the Red Lion and Sun are - apart from the titles of some plays - exclusively in Persian, with the exception of early plays for the Armenian community and the period of the independent government of Azerbaijan in 1945-46, when Azeri-Turkish announcements in Cyrillic script became the norm. But this is not the whole truth. Despite Persian announcements, we can well assume that a majority of the actual dramas and operettas were not performed in Persian, but in Azeri Turkish. Even more, there were few actors who were able to perform in Persian on stage - and audiences were not necessarily able to follow a play given entirely in Persian. Mutual understanding was thus a problem that is at least partly comparable to the situation in the Arab world where the diglossia between written standard Arabic (fusha) and spoken dialects (‘ammiya) was a major impediment for the implementation of western theatre.90 This complex situation also necessitated even more translations, in different directions, between the languages in use in Azerbaijan: Turkish, Armenian and Persian.

An early critique of language policies and the quality of translations comes from an unexpected side. The first secretary of the embassy of the (then) Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan wrote a letter to the Ministry of Culture that was published in December 1920 in the newspaper Rahnama. He states that while he appreciates the popularity of the famous plays by “our” Caucasian compatriot Hajibeyov, such as O olmasun, bu olsun, Mal Alan and Asli-o Keram, originally written in Turkish and by now translated into many foreign languages, he has to complain heavily about the poor quality of the Persian translations of these plays as they were shown in Tehran. Even an illiterate audience, he declares, would be able to discern the lack of grammar and the deficiencies of the translations. He also criticizes the theatre announcements, which contrary to regulations almost never carry the name of a play’s author, although the vast majority of performances in Tehran featured plays by Hajibeyov. His criticism becomes more transparent once we realize that in spring 1920 the Bolsheviks had taken over (Russian) Azerbaijan and that the new leader of the new Socialist Republic was none other than Nariman Narimanov, not only an ardent Bolshevik and a clear Azerbaijani nationalist, but a highly successful playwright, whose plays were played regularly in Iranian theatres, most notably adaptations of his play on Nader Shah Afshar.91

The choice of Persian, whether in Tehran or in Tabriz, and the concomitant lenience towards mediocre translations was not an entirely free choice. Pahlavi authorities made every attempt to ban performances in languages other than Persian and regularly refused to grant the necessary permits. This caused a lot of pain, disappointment and economic hardship to the performing actors. The language problem could indeed create existential problems. In a petition from 1932 three Armenian actors ask the Ministry of Culture directly for help. Since the staging of plays in the Armenian language in Tabriz has been officially banned (qadaghan) they are forced to look for other places to exercise their profession. However, they all have family in Tabriz and can not afford to move. So they request permission to stage at least five plays in the Armenian language, so that they can make at least enough money to move their families and households.92

In a quite sensational petition, dated 18 Khordad 1308 (8 June 1929) the troupe Jam‘iyat-e A’ineh-ye ‘Ebrat states their case directly to Reza Shah. Setting out with excessive praise of the Pahlavi monarch, who “with his splendid rule leads Iran’s way through material and spiritual reforms”, they explain that lately the Director of Culture of Azerbaijan (ra’is-e ma‘aref) has denied the troupe - composed of young and eager youths from Tabriz - any permission to perform on stage, quoting the order that all plays would have to be in Persian, despite the fact that this troupe has for some time now brought literary, moral and historical plays to the stage in order to strengthen culture and public morale, and they have even founded an adult evening school to teach Persian. Now the situation has become extremely difficult, the troupe maintains, because despite their eager intentions of playing in Persian, the majority of the population has not yet even an elementary education and is illiterate in Persian. So nobody shows up for their performances. But the absence of plays has a bad effect on the public spirit and the decision of the Director of Culture of Azerbaijan to cancel all plays is disastrous for the general situation of the theatre in Tabriz. The Jam‘iyat-e A’ineh-ye ‘Ebrat therefore petitions the Shah to ask the Director of Culture to allow them at least to play in Persian again with the hope that people can thus be trained to learn Persian gradually or at least that Persian can slowly be spread amongst the populace.93

The actors were right in their appeal that theatre was supposed to be an integral part of the program of national language education in Persian. The millennium of Ferdowsi is a prominent example.94 The state-sponsored series of Hazareh-events was organized throughout the year 1934. It featured the large international Ferdowsi conference of that year, as well as the inauguration of the Ferdowsi Memorial in Tus, the publication of new Shah-nameh editions and the famous movie released by ‘Abd al-Hoseyn Sepanta with Imperial Film.95 In Tabriz, a great performance was announced for the Friday night of 19 Mehr 1313 in the Red Lion and Sun, commemorating the “Thousand Year Anniversary of Ferdowsi”, great poet and reviver of the national language under the banner of “Zaban-e melli - Parsi”. The proceeds of this gala event were donated to flood victims and people who had lost their homes, thus adding a charitable dimension to the nationalist propaganda efforts. All together three plays were staged, one piece on the life of Ferdowsi in four acts, and another drama in three acts on the fights between Rostam, Sohrab and Esfandiyar, written by a certain J. Akhgari. To ease the educational burden, an additional one-act comedy was scheduled for the end, performed by the troupe Aryan and directed by Buyuk Khan Nakhjavani. The prospective audience was admonished not to abstain from buying tickets, since this magnificent event and celebration was an honour for all Iranians, had been staged already in all other civilized domains, i.e. other provinces (implying it would be a shame if it would turn out to be a failure in Tabriz), supported the victims of the flood and provided the pleasure of seeing a historical play of literary value. The order of priorities is obvious.96

Another dimension in the active and enforced Persianization of Azerbaijan was reached with the establishment of the Organization for Public Enlightenment in 1939. Too late in Reza Shah’s reign to achieve any significant impact it nevertheless shows what might have been on the agenda - and it was also a blueprint for the language politics pursued later by the Ferqeh-ye Demokrat 1945-46. In a letter to the prime minister from February 1941 the provincial government of Azerbaijan (Ostandari no. 3) has presented a report on the public lectures sponsored and initiated by the Sazman-e Parvaresh-e Afkar in Tabriz. The scheduled weekly lecture meetings had taken place once, and in order to attract the populace, pieces of music and shows (namayesh) had been included in the program. However, since the population of the Ostans 3 and 4, except for a very limited number of people, do not actually know any Persian, these lectures, whose primary aim was to raise national awareness (i.e. par- varesh-e afkar), did not produce any tangible results. It is strongly recommended to introduce further evening classes in Persian for adults and to establish full-time kindergarten places (shabanehruzi) taught by Persian speakers. All education and schooling should be exclusively in Persian, and the speaking of Turkish should be absolutely forbidden in schools.97

The language problem had its ups and downs but remained a difficult issue even after the abdication of Reza Shah. In 1944, in a letter to the director of the Shir-o Khorshid the Actors Association states that the municipality of Tabriz has not given permission to perform a play in Turkish, but that it was impossible to find Persian-speaking actresses and actors on such short notice. Since a group of musicians from the Soviet Union was on tour during this period, the stage should rather be given to them.98 Only shortly after, during the brief rule of the Ferqeh-ye Demokrat in Azerbaijan in 1945-46, all Persian-language plays were forbidden.

In the case of Azerbaijan, language issues and multilingualism were not seen as a potential chance for positive development by the Pahlavi regime and were definitely not opened up to entrepreneurial decisions. Even moderate liberties and limited support through a more open-minded cultural politics’ approach might have produced different results - an interesting point of comparison is the situation in India where Parsi theatre troupes were useful in configurating linguistic identities.99

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