Romeo, Juliet back in Tehran. But no kisses

The way Shakespeare wrote it, Romeo and Juliet seal their amorous intentions with a kiss.

But when that magic moment comes in Iran's latest production, no one expects such close adherence to the script. The Islamic republic, after all, forbids any public physical contact between men and women.

Instead, the miracle for many is that Romeo and Juliet is playing here at all. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 ushered in strict cultural and religious restrictions on all forms of Iranian expression. But today, as in this play, Iranian artists are pushing the limits and experiencing a full-blown cultural renaissance driven by profound political changes.

"Did they touch?" asks an Iranian theatergoer, after watching Romeo and Juliet pirouette together. Later the audience titters approvingly when Juliet leans very close over Romeo's dead body and speaks of her love - then brushes his cheek gently with the back of her fingers.

"I don't think we could have gone further," explains Ali Rafii, one of Iran's best-known directors, still holding a bouquet given him during a standing ovation at one of the first showings earlier this month. Even the applause is a sign of the times: Clapping was once forbidden.

"The former officials did not believe in plays," Mr. Rafii says. "But officials now believe that plays and culture are a necessity. It is a renaissance."

Culture has, in fact, become one of the instruments of politics in Iran, where popular reformists have battled hard-line conservative clerics for control since reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami came to power in a 1997 landslide victory. His supporters also swept into parliament in elections last February.

In the trenches of the "culture wars" in Iran - where right-wing vigilantes have attacked theaters in the past for putting on shows deemed too liberal, or that touched on once-taboo social issues that ranged from religious tyranny to prostitution - the sea change in politics is causing a rebirth of artistic expression.

Iranian films are increasingly winning accolades and awards at international film festivals for their fresh treatment of humanist issues. In May 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf's film "Le Tableau Noir" (Blackboard) won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

In that context, Iranian painters, actors, and authors agree that instead of withering from two decades of isolation, Iranian culture has nurtured itself, as if in an incubator. Now it's blossoming.

"After Khatami came to power, everything changed," says Manijeh Mir-Emadi, a painter and editor of a glossy new quarterly on Iranian art called Tavoos, or "Peacock." "It's the beginning of the big happening."

For years, art exhibitions of any kind were not tolerated. But today there are 2,000 contemporary artists, 100 galleries and culture centers in Tehran alone, and some 70 museums. Newspapers carry full pages of cultural events.

Tavoos, in both Farsi and English, aims to be a "reference work for Iranian culture, from architecture to photography.

"We are working to preserve and help Iranian art, to get critical exposure to the outside," says Mrs. Mir-Emadi. Tavoos's high quality of work has impressed critics from New York's Museum of Modern Art to China.

Second-generation Iranians living in the United States, she says, have shown particular interest in Tavoos.

"Everybody has a dark picture of Iran from the media, so [Tavoos] was a surprise for them, that this came from a country that had a so-called 'dark vision,' " Mir-Emadi says. "They can't believe we have all this happening in Iran."

Some argue that the blossoming of Iranian culture was inevitable after so many years under wraps, regardless of the political landscape.

"Perhaps you should not give all the credit to Khatami and his coming to power," says Mohammad Soltanifar, managing director of the English-language Iran News. "We have been so removed from the outside that Khatami just helped accelerate it with his openness. Compare it to the [Soviet Union's] Gorbachev era. The change would have happened even if he were not in power."

Still, Iranian artists are breaking new ground. Hard-liners still control primary levers of power. But the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance - which issues approval for books, films, galleries, and newspapers - is in the hands of Khatami allies. Years of backlogged sensitive films have been approved.

Compromises are still made, but they are ingenious ways for getting across one's message.

Juliet's hair in the love drama, for example, is tightly covered with a dark brown head scarf - as required by Iran's Islamic laws. The scarf exactly matches the actress's real hair color, however, and a waist-length braid of dark hair hangs beneath it.

"Even if I had permission [to show] more, I would not change anything," says director Rafii. "In our poetry, all is metaphor and symbolism."

In films, too, subjects may appear plain - "The Taste of Cherry," about a man contemplating suicide won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival in 1997 - but the messages almost always strike a political note about freedom and religious rule in Iran.

"Test of Democracy," the latest film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's top directors, is among the most political, and The Monitor recently saw a preview of the soon-to-be released movie.

At once striking and hilarious, it is about imposing one's will on another person. One scene shows the film crew trying to convince a man to carry a door across a desert; another records the complaints of a man asked to sell the bench on which he is sitting.

The movie, while it draws on recent elections, takes a broader view on political and religious elitism, and the vote of the common man.

Addressing a flock of birds on a beach with a microphone, Makhmalbaf makes his most important point with the rhythm of Persian poetry.

"I don't want to scare you from your beautiful seat," he tells the long-legged pink birds, as they nose through the shoreline mud. "But let me tell you the truth: You only fly as high as a chicken flies.

"I'm not honest if I don't tell you. Don't be offended - some of you are leaving this meeting," Makhmalbaf says, as the birds hop about in the background.

"Try to fly higher ... We're testing the feeling of freedom at this time."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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