Here in Norwich, we’ve been given the freedom to explore and learn and plan, attending fortnightly meetings and day schools, all leading up to our one-day literature festival, which will be on the 11th May, a part of the Norfolk and Norwich festival.
Thursday 26th October was a half-term session for this project, split into two parts - the first is where we were introduced to Nazli, a writer staying in residence for a week at Dragon Hall. Nazli was born in Iran, later moving to Edinburgh, Scotland. She works predominantly with theatre, exploring themes of the Middle East and the life of women, and after years working as the director of a theatre company, she has returned to education, studying for a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow.
I don’t know what I was expecting. But whatever it was, Nazli’s workshop wasn’t that; I could describe it as one of the most surreal and insightful two hours of my year. We began the session talking about Iran - what were our preconceived ideas? What did we know about the country? What were our thoughts? Because of the way it’s portrayed in the media, little was overwhelmingly positive. But, Nazli informed us, 70-75% of the Iranian population are under 30, with 60% of that being women educated to at least degree level. Those are promising (and perhaps surprising) statistics. In this youthful, well-educated population, we can see potential for drive and for change.
The workshop was spent cycling through a range of activities, designed to make us think about ourselves and our connections to others. Designed to stretch us that little bit beyond our comfort zone. Designed to help us discover. My personal favourite was walking in a circle around the room, stopping to firmly shake the hand of whichever person we found ourselves opposite, looking them directly in the eye while affirming that they were, indeed, the “most beautiful person in the world”. The response to this? A confident agreement: “Thank you; I know, I know”.
Through this, I realised that although I absolutely ADORE giving compliments and telling people exactly what I love about them, I feel awkward receiving positive words. And it turned out that many others felt the same way. I had never really thought about how complicated other people’s responses to positive words could be.
Nazli is currently working with a play called ‘Medea’, an extract of which we used as a stimulus. We moved off together. We stopped together. We spoke together. We became good at sensing the feeling in the room. Our bond strengthened. Our understanding deepened.
Then we created art. We each wrote down what we believed to be an impossible problem. We swapped. Then we came up with a physical action to convey how we believed the problem could be solved. Then we were brought together into groups, taught each other the signs and choreographed a piece that united them. Then we performed, using our voice to narrate what our hands and our bodies were doing. While each group presented their piece, the others interpreted the meaning. And something so abstract allowed each person to find a completely different and personal meaning. And that was beautiful. I think everyone came away from the workshop having learned something deeper about themselves.
The next day, Friday, Maud Webster (also part of YNAF and Engage!), Megan Thrift (one of the coordinators for YNAF) and I took Nazli for tea and conversation in the KindaKafe, a beautifully vibrant little place on Castle Meadow, the perfect backdrop for a discussion about the arts and its place in Nazli’s life and work.
Nazil: "There’s always been a consistent other aesthetic to my work that wasn’t always conscious. There’s always some kind of organic form in my work. There’s always been a need for music that’s just that bit more atmospheric or instrumented".
T.: What do you like most about Iran and Iranian culture?
N.: "The gardens. The joy in hospitality and sharing. As a culture that’s thousands of years old, I think of it like a grumpy old lady who has a lot of wisdom, but she’s a little bit tired of repeating herself. But catch her on a good day? She can be really generous and tell you things about yourself. The one thing I truly love most is the love of storytelling - ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is almost the backbone of the country".
T.: How important is storytelling in art?
N.: "I am a seeker of non-narrative and of the abstract and I’m interested in how we hand over the dramaturgy to the audience and allow them to understand for themselves what they’re experiencing. But I think telling stories is essential: it’s part of our humanity, how we live in that space between law and religion. It’s the space where we are figuring things out, without feeling like we have to be aligned
When storytelling, we need to ask, “Who’s not at the table?” Sometimes we need to take the table to them. Other times, the table’s just getting in the way, so we need to get rid of it. It’s about acknowledging barriers and finding ways to overcome them".
T.: Why do you think the arts are important?
N.: "It’s how we genuinely connect. It’s about that connection to emotion. It’s one of the few things that allow us to reflect on the truthfulness of what’s happening in a way that invites debate. It allows us to push boundaries."
T.: Why did you come to stay at the National Centre for Writing?
N.: "I wanted to spend a bit of time reconnecting with my identity. I also needed to wrestle out with the Medea I’m making; who are the children in the play - who are they really? I don’t want another Medea who kills her children. I want her children to have a voice in her play. And that’s something I’ve been working on while I’ve been here. I’ve also been reclaiming my writing; I had a writer in my theatre company, and haven’t really written in ten years. I wanted a vibrant place that loved writers, that cared for thinkers".
T.: What was your week in Norwich like?
N.: "It’s been restorative, revelatory. But it’s also been challenging; a facing of self, a genuine facing of self. A definite highlight was the workshop - as an artist, being able to really collaborate with other artists and thinkers was really incredible. I found real joy in our session, going, 'This is art happening, right now'. I loved spending time with the people at the National Centre for Writing, understanding why they love what they’re doing and why they really believe in writers".
I left this conversation filled with awe and respect and love. Inspired.
There’s something truly special about Nazli; a gentleness, a wisdom, a genuine care and concern for others. When you talk to her, you can tell that she cares about what you’re saying. When she talks to you, you feel compelled to listen and to understand. There’s a mutual desire to convey and further ideas. I admire her approach to her art, her open-mindedness and desire to fully comprehend the views that don’t necessarily align with her own. And I am so excited to follow what’s coming next.