Iranian Theater

Johann, the Vegetarian Suicide Bomber

The most recent play to be produced by the Iranian director Koohestani is a black comedy that tells the story of a mother who is trying to bury her two sons, the younger of whom was a vegetarian suicide bomber who blew himself and a fast-food restaurant into kingdom come. Fahimeh Farsaie reports

The most recent play to be produced by the Iranian director Koohestani is a black comedy that tells the story of a mother who is trying to bury her two sons, the younger of whom was a vegetarian suicide bomber who blew himself and a fast-food restaurant into kingdom come. By Fahimeh Farsaie

Scene from <i>Einzelzimmer</i> (photo: Schauspielhaus Köln)
Scene from <i>Einzelzimmer</i>, staged at the Municipal Theater Cologne, Germany

​​A fast food restaurant, a grave, a tub, and a bed. These four things serve as the backdrop for the most recent play by 28-year-old Iranian author and director Amir Reza Koohestani.

The title of the play, Einzelzimmer ("Single Room"), reflects the impressive set. A fast food restaurant is blown up by suicide bomber Johann, a militant vegetarian and the favourite son of the successful owner of the restaurant. The explosion not only kills Johann, but six others too, including his twin brother, David, and a restaurant employee.

In his grave, David, the manager of the restaurant, talks to an army of ants and the restaurant employee he sexually abused. His mother washes the corpse of her beloved disinterred son, Johann, in the tub and carefully places the body on ice in her bed. Lying beside him, she speaks of her sexual needs and fantasises about sleeping with him.

As she decides to dig up the hastily buried body of her favourite albeit delinquent son, she relates the fact that the identical twins were the result of an unwanted sexual encounter.

No rebuke for the crime

What is surprising is that she doesn't spare a single word for her other son, the "decent, good man" David, who lost his life as a result of the attack. Nor does she shed a single tear for either of her sons. She doesn't even rebuke Johann for the crime that he committed.

She deals with her mourning in a carefully thought-out, apathetic way, namely by initially adopting the ideals of her neglected son and implementing his animal-friendly and environmentally friendly wishes. She stops using poisonous substances to deal with cockroaches and insects and adds a few vegetarian dishes to the menu in the restaurant.

"Stop killing the sheep"

She follows in Johann's footsteps, not out of any firm conviction, but as an expression of her belated feelings of regret and guilt. The reason being – as Koohestani vividly shows – that Johann became a loner and a suicide bomber because no-one paid any attention to him. He blew up himself and others because he felt that he was being "ignored" by everyone around him.

"Maybe I wouldn't have ignited the bomb if you had turned to me when I called your name," he says to his twin brother. Prior to this outburst, the militant vegetarian complained about his mother's overbearing ignorance. He then reads the letter he wrote her warning her to "stop killing the sheep".

The fact that the third play by this young director and shooting star from Teheran, who went to the theatre for the first time as late as at the age of 18, addresses the issue of "political conflicts" was part of the remit handed over to him at the Teheran Theatre Festival by German director Marc Günther earlier this year.

But the remit did not end there: he was also asked to put this political theme in a "family context." Einzelzimmer is indeed the story of a modern, western matriarchal family that yearns for peace, harmony, and unity.

People's souls to freezing over

In the very first scene of the play, the author hints that this desire will remain unfulfilled by having a gallery owner lay down the rules of a world order dominated by globalization. This world order automatically leads to self-isolation, rigorous rationalism, and a lack of passion that allows people's souls to freeze over. The mother, for example, dies because the ice beneath Johann's corpse "crushed her bones."

Nevertheless, Koohestani fulfils the mother's wish by bringing all the members of the family together at the same table in the afterlife. This has nothing to do with the fact that the author is determined to hold on to nostalgic, pre-modern ideas. His method of work is unorthodox; he changes the text in almost every scene and only writes the last scene once rehearsals are underway.

What is more important here is the link between the subtle context of the play and death, rather than life. In the realm of death, nothing is governed by terrestrial, mortal order. "Maybe dreams and whatever happens after death are one and the same thing," says Koohestani.

In order to put this into words, he had to listen carefully to and be guided by the melody of the German language (which he cannot speak) during the rehearsals in Germany, when the play was staged at the Cologne Municipal Theatre. On the other hand, none of the actors could speak Farsi. For this reason, everyone communicated in English. With a hefty dose of self-irony, Koohestani sums up the result as follows: "It's like spaghetti with Iranian sauce: it tastes absolutely delicious!"

Fahimeh Farsaie

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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