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Source: Financial Times

Jul 7, 2023

Nationalism takes centre stage as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards make theatrical debut

Elite force finances lavish production of Iranian classic as Islamic republic looks to arts to achieve political goals

BY Najmeh Bozorgmehr

One recent summer evening, Tehran witnessed a rare sight: a crowd of conservative chador-clad women and bearded men joined the more usual avant-garde audience to enjoy a show at the city’s foremost arts venue.

The attraction was the first theatre production financed by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards — a lavish performance of The Seven Quests of Esfandiyar, in which the eponymous hero is presented as a role model for modern Iranians: a patriot who struggles with and triumphs over an evil enemy.

The force, which was established after Iran’s 1979 revolution to protect the Islamic republic from domestic and foreign threats, has long pushed to influence minds through the arts as well as the gun. Its cultural arm, Owj Arts and Media Organization, has pumped out thousands of documentaries, movies, television shows and songs promoting Islamic ideology.

But this show had a different focus — nationalism, as well as religion. Some in the audience at Tehran’s Vahdat Hall got the message. “It was a magnificent show to remind us that brave men such as General [Qassem] Soleimani have protected this country,” said 17-year-old Fatemeh, referring to the Guards commander who was killed by the US in Iraq in 2020.

“This war by the enemy against Iran continues.” Since the 120,000-strong Revolutionary Guards were created, the organisation has become one of the strongest military forces in the Middle East and acquired vast political and economic influence. It is Iran’s most powerful institution and is widely feared for its brutal suppression of dissent at home and abroad. 

The US has designated it a terrorist organisation, accusing it of stoking tensions across the region, where it arms and supports Islamist militant groups. Its cultural activities are seen as an extension of its bid to control Iran’s political discourse. “The Guards, as the most powerful institution and the most loyal to the supreme leader, will play the biggest role in Iran’s future and the process of choosing the next leader,” a Tehran-based analyst said.

“They’re preparing, and keeping all fields under control.” Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president, said the Guards “wanted to use art to achieve their goals”.

The Seven Quests of Esfandiyar is an adaptation of a classic story in Shahnameh, or Epic of Kings, a masterpiece by 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi. Esfandiyar is a prince who is blessed by Iranian prophet Zoroaster and made virtually invincible.

After his sisters are taken hostage, he has to tackle seven challenges — including slaying ferocious beasts, killing an enchantress and surviving a storm — to save them.

‘The Seven Quests of Esfandiyar’ reflects a push by the Revolutionary Guards to promote nationalism alongside religion © Hossein Hajibabaei

Mehrdad Moazzemi, the Owj’s head of media and international affairs, said the choice of story did not indicate a change in the Guards’ focus on Islam. “Our view has not shifted from [Islamic] ideology to nationalism, because Iran was also our priority,” he said.

“But we realised there was a gap in our work, with a need to strengthen our focus on nationalism alongside ideology.” The Seven Quests of Esfandiyar was “a powerful start”, he added. Moazzemi said the Owj was looking to add more Esfandiyar performances and aimed to adapt further stories from Shahnameh and other texts. Some observers welcome the Guards’ newfound interest in Iranian masterpieces such as Shahnameh, which depict thousands of years of rule by kings, something the Islamic republic has therefore traditionally frowned on.

Mohammad Ghochani, a reformist journalist, told local media recently that Owj was moving from “Islamic Hollywood” to “Iranian Hollywood”. Welcoming the shift, he said: “There’s no trace of Islamic ideology in this show. Rather it is purely nationalistic, which is why it’s valuable.”

The play was set to begin its 60-night run last year but was rescheduled after mass protests against the Islamic establishment that followed the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She had been arrested for failing to properly observe Iran’s hijab law, which obliges women to cover their hair and body in public.

The unrest “made us take nationalism even more seriously”, said Moazzemi. “We’re more determined now, as we think Iran, its flag, Iranian identity and family are the [enemy’s] main targets.”

Hossein Parsaei, Esfandiyar’s director, said the story highlighted “the conflict between good and evil and right and wrong, which are compatible with today’s Iran”.

The show “tries to make the audience . . . see themselves as an Esfandiyar who has to go through hardship, pain, fear, hope, tears, smiles and storms”.

Since last year’s mass protests that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, Tehran has unofficially compromised over the hijab law, although the authorities still conduct random crackdowns on women they accuse of breaching the rules.

Most jailed protesters have been released but prominent figures, including journalists and activists, remain behind bars. But there is little sign that hardliners, who control all arms of the state, are willing to loosen their grip and allow opponents a meaningful role in politics.

Back at the Vahdat Hall, not everyone in the audience was impressed by a production that reinforced the regime’s values. Rosha, 23, who watched without wearing the hijab, said the show did not reflect modern Iran.

“It was flashy, glamorous and entertaining, but weak in its message,” she said. “Women have no strong role in this story. Instead, it’s promoting the patriarchy.”

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