Sussan Deyhim was sitting at home in Los Angeles early one morning when she noticed an unexpected piece of correspondence in her electronic mailbox. It was the summer of 2009, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had just been re-elected president of Iran, sparking waves of unrest and a million-person protest march through the streets of the country’s capital. Ms. Deyhim – an Iranian artist, vocalist, composer, and poet – found herself being contacted by the management of the Irish mega band U2: They wanted to pay homage to Iran’s Green protest movement by opening their biggest-ever world tour with an excerpt from one of her songs.
And so it was that when U2 embarked on their “360 Degrees” world tour, an extract from Ms. Deyhim’s song “Beshno Az Ney” (“Windfall”) rang out in concert stadiums all over the world. Ms. Deyhim’s voice was played and replayed between the summer of 2009 and the summer of 2011, symbolizing Iran’s Green movement but also the Arab uprising that followed.
Ms. Deyhim is one of Iran’s most internationally renowned living artists, famous for inventing a genre all her own: a blend of classical Persian poetry, music, and dance, and Western performance and visual art. She has lived in the United States for 33 years, 25 of which were spent in New York City. In the course of her career, she has worked with the jazz giant Ornette Coleman and the rock star Peter Gabriel, and is part of Bobby McFerrin’s ongoing vocal ensemble “Voicestra.” She has also worked on the soundtrack for the movies “The Kite Runner” (2007) and “Argo” (2012).
We meet at the elegant London home of the Iranian curator and writer Vali Mahlouji. Looking slender in a long black dress and lamè blouse, Ms. Deyhim settles onto the sofa for a filmed discussion about her present pursuits and her formative years.
Her latest project is about Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), the bold Iranian poet and author who was long considered taboo in Iranian circles because of her work’s sometimes erotic content. Farrokhzad is making a comeback in Iran today, says Ms. Deyhim, who is dedicating a multidisciplinary work to the memory of a woman she very much considers a kindred spirit. The work has its first touring date at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Oct. 28 (see link and trailer below.)
“Forough was a very progressive artist who was in cultural exile in Iran. She was very misunderstood in her own time,” explains Ms. Deyhim. “My work has also been very progressive. I’m not a commercial artist, and I’m not supported by the Persian community.”
Ms. Deyhim fell into the artistic profession at a very young age. As a teenage girl, she was determined to pursue a scientific career, because her father – who worked for the finance ministry, and who she was close to – was scientifically oriented. By chance, she noticed a ballet class being taught at her high school. It looked “ridiculous” at first, and she and her friends had a good laugh about it. Then one day, young Sussan decided to put on a leotard and try the class out. Soon, she was “totally hooked. It became one of the most important things that I was doing in my youth. It really helped me center myself.”
Dance changed her life in more ways than one. Ms. Deyhim joined the Pars National Ballet, which had links to Iranian national television and to the avant-garde Shiraz Arts Festival, in which she later participated. There, she came across the Belgian choreographer Maurice Béjart, one of the headline artists, who opened the doors of the West to her. By 1976, Ms. Deyhim was leaving Iran for Belgium to study for three years at Béjart’s multidisciplinary school.
Three years later, the Iran that she knew and loved was being transformed beyond recognition, revolution replacing the monarchy with an Islamic Republic. Ms. Deyhim suddenly found herself cut off from her country, her family, her people, her culture and her language.
Does she consider herself lucky to have been outside Iran when it all happened? “I can’t use that word: it would be completely against my relationship with Iran,” she replies. “I was out, but I could also have been in and involved in much that matters. I could have maybe done something important for Iran, for Iranians, for myself. I can’t say that I’m proud I wasn’t there.”
As a female artist, dancer and singer, she was advised not to go back to post-revolutionary Iran. So she moved to New York in the early 1980s, a time when the city was at its most experimental and open to other cultures. She has been living in the United States ever since.
The “Argo” collaboration happened when her friend, the award winning film composer Alexandre Desplat, invited her to work with him on the soundtrack. She asked to see the script, was intrigued by the plot, and soon found herself at Capitol Studios in L.A. with Messrs. Desplat and Affleck. Occasionally, producer George Clooney would also make an appearance.
Every other day, Mr. Affleck would ask her, “Do you think Iranians would like this film?” She would reassure him that Iranians were “gracious” and “probably would appreciate seeing something done about Iran.” In the end, Iranians were divided on “Argo,” but as Ms. Deyhim explains, “that’s the nature of the beast.”
Despite her illustrious career and her regular collaborations with celebrities, Ms. Deyhim has not found life in exile to be easy. “Who’s luckier?” she asks. “A person who has a country, a language, family around them, or people like us who left and, every time, had to learn a new language, a new culture?”
Though she has lived and worked in the West for more than three decades, she remains Iranian to the core, and true to her cultural roots. She regrets that Iranian artists today sometimes become “a caricature” in their effort to conform to fashions and trends. She says she and her fellow Iranian artists face a permanent expectation to produce “calligraphies and dripping blood from our white costumes,” launch into Sufi chants, and recite ancient poetry.
Today, her greatest hope is that “I will be back in Iran and that I will spend some of my old days in the country that I really love.” In the meantime, she has no regrets about her trajectory.
“I’ve had an interesting life, and I’ve always worked very hard to produce the art form that I do, and it’s always been a challenge,” she concludes. “There have always been much easier ways of living life than being an artist – a female Iranian intellectual progressive artist. That scenario has been nothing but trouble. But this is who I am, so the hell with it!”
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