Interview By Lauren O’Hara

Lost spirits in a new world
The life of two political refugees is hard going until they are legally allowed to work in the country

Why would two middle class Iranians want to leave their friends and family and seek political asylum in Cyprus? Freedom, or so they say. Freedom to express their artistic vision, freedom to live free from fear, freedom to dream their dream.

The Lost Spirit Company was the brainchild of Hooman Shabahang, who set up the theatre group in 1998 in Tehran to nurture new talent and create a new mode of exploring stories through visual techniques, light and sound; a world without words that can cross boundaries and tell stories. He has developed a technique of using parts of the body as the puppet. One of his shows, Tunnel, tells the unfortunate story of a man who, through no fault of his own, ends up in prison and attempts to break free. It won first prize at the Lorrach International Festival in Germany.

The increasing censorship was making it both difficult and dangerous for them to work. In 2004, after three months rehearsing a new opera with 70 actors and artists, the Iranian government insisted they close the show after only one performance. To defy the authorities would result in arrest. Hooman’s partner, both in work and love, is Nardes Abdi. She explained that in a society where it is forbidden for woman to show parts of her body it was impossible to perform. Secret police would infiltrate their rehearsals; many friends were being arrested. They were beginning to be internationally recognised and asked to perform at festivals throughout the world but it was impossible to get exit permits.

Nardes’ father had already gained political asylum in Cyprus for his criticism of the Iranian regime and his links to the Communist movement and, after much soul searching, at the beginning of 2006 the two decided to leave Iran and join her parents here in Cyprus.

It was not an easy decision. They were to leave behind not only most of the members of their theatre company and the main writer, Mashhoud Mohsenian, but also Hooman’s twin brother and parents. If Hooman returns to Iran he will face imprisonment. He has to face the reality that he will possibly never see his family again. But he says the decision was made with the full support of his parents. “My promise to my family is to become one of the world’s most famous directors”.

Six months into their new life, things are not as easy as they might have hoped. They receive around £400 a month from the government to cover their living costs, but are still not legally able to work until they get their “pink slip”. They are working hard to rebuild their group, recruiting new Cypriot members. “This is the reality, no-one knows what we were before – we have to start all over again”. They have had invitations to perform abroad, but travelling on Iranian passports makes it difficult to have freedom of movement. Until they can apply for Cypriot citizenship, maybe, five years down the line, they say they are in a “no-man’s” land, belonging to nowhere.

Days now are spent rehearsing and revising their work, developing new pieces and building contacts. They are in rehearsal to take their show to Armenia in October. The competitive arts scene of Europe it is not easy to break into without contacts and connections.

Have they been made welcome? “If people see you are willing to work and have a purpose they will be positive towards you,” answers Hooman. Their problem now is to find an audience, for without that they cannot tell their tales of hope and discovery. The name of the company is based on “the lost innocence of humanity through money, power and politics”. Non-smokers, non-drinkers they spend their energy beating a path to any door that will open. They want to perform.

Are they idealists? Yes. “When you have a vision you have to be optimistic,” says Hooman. They know they were lucky to be given this chance. Like many young performers all over Europe they will have to make their way the best they can, it’s a learning curve to be back at the bottom of a new society. Most theatre groups have to fight to make ends meet and turn their hand to any job they can to raise finance for their art. Learning to live off £200 a month each and retain their ambition is, perhaps, the hardest lesson these two have to face. Once they can work legally they say they are willing to do anything to help support their dream. Until then they are stuck in a Catch 22 situation, reliant on state aid, but desperate to be independent.

Cyprus has a history of people arriving with only a suitcase. So it was for Hooman and Nardes, suitcases and a musical instruments in hand, but not homeward bound. They are still looking for that.