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Culture

From Tehran to Paris: A study of a modern identity crisis

© Tarmac

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2014-03-22

Born in Iran, raised in France and Canada, Mani Soleymanlou is currently exploring his identity on a Paris stage in an autobiographical play called “Un” (“One”). The question at the centre of his show is whether he can still call himself “Iranian”.

Mani Soleymanlou hates labels, and he’s not afraid to make it known.

“I don’t like the word ‘immigrant’,” he says in his autobiographical play, “Un” (“One”), currently at the Théâtre du Tarmac in Paris until March 28. “I never wanted to move anywhere. I did it in spite of myself.”

Born in Tehran, then taken by his parents to Paris and Canada, the 33-year-old actor says his identity changed with each new plane ticket.

“Iran was taken away from me. After that, in France, I was Iranian. In Toronto, I was French-Iranian before becoming Canadian,” he explains in the show, which consists of a long monologue performed by Soleymanlou. “In Ottawa, I was a Torontan-French-Iranian. In Montreal, I’m a Torontan-Arab-Iranian who lived in France and Ottawa. And today, people tell me I’m a Quebecer. I don’t even know anymore.”

For the past four years, Soleymanlou has gone from stage to stage telling the irony-laced story of his identity crisis.

The story has now been translated into English, and the show will move on from Paris to Yukon in northern Canada and England in a couple of months.

For years before he wrote his play, though, he never really thought about where he was from and which country he felt most attached to. During his childhood, moving from Europe to North America, neither his father, a businessman, nor his mother, a painter, spoke to him about his roots.

“Our parents didn’t explain anything to us,” he told FRANCE 24. “I left Iran at around 2 or 3 years old, but I visited the country two times a year. We immigrated in style; we didn’t flee in wagons pulled by camels. Much later, they explained to me that we left because of the revolution, and then the war [against Iraq between 1980 and 1988], but they never went into detail.”

‘Am I Iranian?’

It was only in 2004, upon his arrival in Montreal to attend the National Theatre School of Canada, that the Franco-Iranian-Canadian found himself confronted with questions about his origins.

“Before I moved to Quebec, almost everyone around me was an immigrant. Eighty percent of my friends were Iranian, Afghan, Moroccan or Ukrainian, and no one asked me where I was from,” he recounted. “Anglophone Canada has this multiculturalism which sees everyone as Canadian, unlike Quebec, where they have their own identity issues. Going from an entourage of immigrants to a bunch of native-born Quebecers was a huge culture clash.”

In 2009, Soleymanlou was invited to speak about his birth country at an event taking place in a Montreal theatre. Though he accepted without hesitation, the actor quickly realised he had nothing to say about Iran. Bothered by that realization, he decided at that moment to write about his experience of being uprooted and forced to juggle multiple identities.

That same year, mass demonstrations swept Iran in protest of the contested re-election of former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Images of clashes in the streets of Tehran, as well as footage of the brutal death of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian student who came to be seen as a martyr of the movement, deeply affected Soleymanlou.

“It made me understand that 70 percent of the Iranian population was the same age as me. Technically, I should have been there as well. But would I have marched in the street?” Soleymanlou wondered. “I went to a protest in Montreal and after a half an hour, I didn’t feel comfortable. People were singing Iranian songs that I didn’t know. I thought, ‘Oh my God, even here, among the Iranians of Canada, I don’t fit in’.”

After four years of performing the play, Soleymanlou still hasn’t found all the answers to his questions. “It doesn’t matter,” he told FRANCE 24. “I think the journey is more important than the destination.”

But he is at peace with the idea of not being Iranian, choosing rather to see himself as the sum of several cultures. “Above all, I need to know who I am before someone else tells me or grants me permission,” he reflected. “It’s a lot more complex than knowing what country you come from. Your identity is formed in 1,000 ways. You need to discover it on your own.”

Date created : 2014-03-22

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