Migration play Amid The Clouds still relevant 10 years after it was first written

Amid The Clouds, a play by Iranian playwright Amir Reza Koohestani and Mehr Theatre Group. -- PHOTO: ABAS KOSARI
Amid The Clouds, a play by Iranian playwright Amir Reza Koohestani and Mehr Theatre Group. -- PHOTO: ABAS KOSARI
Playwright Amir Reza Koohestani (above) says his play Amid The Clouds explores migration and displacement. -- PHOTO: ISABELLE MEISTER
Playwright Amir Reza Koohestani (above) says his play Amid The Clouds explores migration and displacement. -- PHOTO: ISABELLE MEISTER

A decade ago, emerging Iranian playwright Amir Reza Koohestani wrote Amid The Clouds, which traces the perilous journey of two asylum seekers as they travel across the Balkans to England.

Today, the 36-year-old laments that his exploration of displacement and migration is still relevant. "It's a pity that the play still works and still makes sense despite the fact that it was written 10 years ago," he tells Life! over the telephone from Iran.

"The situation in Iran is still the same, people are still seeking opportunities to travel, to leave the country."

Amid The Clouds will open at the School of the Arts studio theatre next week as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will be presented by the Mehr Theatre Group, of which Koohestani is artistic director.

He created the work during a playwriting residency at London's famed Royal Court Theatre in 2004, by drawing on the experience of a friend who illegally immigrated to England, but was caught and repatriated to Iran.

Koohestani says: "Over a six- or seven hour- long conversation, he explained to me how he went through all these countries, how he climbed mountains to cross borders and how he reached England by hiding in a train."

His friend's tale inspired him to take a closer look at why people undertake such radical journeys, despite the hardship and potential dangers.

"Too many people emigrate from Iran because of politics, to seek a better life or opportunities for work. I wanted to get deeper into the story and find the roots of their move from point to point," he adds.

Koohestani also learnt about his friend's co-travellers, such as a man from a nomadic tribe in Iran "similar to the gypsy people of the West". Just like his ancestors, his family travelled to warmer climates in the winter and cooler areas in the summer.

"Now he's a post-modern nomad. Instead of moving from a cold place to a warm place, he is moving from Iran to Europe," says Koohestani.

That nomad's story formed the basis of one of the two characters in Amid The Clouds, a young man named Imour. The other traveller is Zina, a pregnant young woman who seeks to claim residency for her and her unborn child in England. Together, the two travellers struggle to reach faraway shores.

After writing the play and speaking with other migrants, Koohestani says he still does not know exactly why people move. He adds: "I only know that immigration is a desperate journey, where the only thing that you know is that you cannot stay but you don't have any clear image about where to go."

Reception to the play, which premiered in London in 2005, has been mixed. Reviewers praised its poetic style but were less impressed by its long, static monologues and minimal dramatic action.

The Guardian's Michael Billington wrote that though the play is "puzzlingly structured", it "turns asylum seekers from cold statistics into human beings".

The play will be performed here in Farsi with English surtitles.

Koohestani says that far from the text being lost in translation, the audience will enjoy the flow and rhythm of the Persian language. "The Persian language is a language of poems and it's very melodic," he says. "So I think the audience has the advantage of enjoying the melody of the language, which an Iranian audience does not."

He himself has had a personal brush with migration, even though his experience was short-lived. He stayed in Manchester, England, for two years from 2007, where he completed a masters in theatre studies and began a doctorate degree. However, he terminated his schooling and returned to Iran in July 2009.

Aside from the fact that academia was not his cup of tea, he returned because "I felt that I was missing some of the historic events in Iran".

He says: "There was a presidential election crisis in Iran at that time and several of my friends whom I follow on Facebook posted photos of themselves in the streets, fighting for a better life. And I thought, 'I'm in Manchester. What am I doing here?'"

He says that he is now happy to be back in his homeland despite the "hassle and difficulties" that he faces in Iran as a theatre practitioner and director.

"It's not easy to survive in theatre. One of my plays was stopped by a censorship committee," he adds. "But still, I feel that when censorship stops my play, it means that it has the ability to change something and that makes me happy."

For complete coverage of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014 by Life!’s arts writers, including interviews, reviews, videos and more, go to www.straitstimes.com/sifa2014