Zohreh & Manouchehr, the poem

Zohreh & Manouchehr is a 23-page long poem written by the early 20th century Iranian poet and satirist Iraj Mirza, who in turn based it on William Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis”. And this story has ties to the ancient Greek mythology.

It is the story of Zohreh (Venus, the goddess of love and beauty) who one day comes to earth in the form of a beautiful woman for a short rest, and by accident runs into the young and handsome prince, Manouchehr, next to a stream and at once desires him. So she sets out to pursue and seduce him. Manouchehr who is out with his army for hunting, becomes the target of Zohreh’s “love hunt”.

However, the 16 year old highly disciplined prince who’s quite green in the matters of heart and has not yet tasted the bitter sweetness of love, proves to be a rather difficult target even for the perfect beauty. But our seductive goddess who teaches love to human beings as a profession, is quite persistent and is about to teach a valuable life lesson to our innocent hero. By the time Zohreh is done with Manouchehr, he has gone through a transformation and has emerged more humane with a yearning for more love.

Zohreh & Manouchehr, the play

Shahrokh Moshkin-Ghalam, the Paris-based, famed and charismatic Iranian actor, dancer and choreographer, took on the daring project to write and direct a comedy musical based on this poem by the same name, Zohreh & Manouchehr. He has given life to this humorous, sensual, sexual and coming of age story of desire and seduction. Shahrokh himself graces the stage as Zohreh and during the play he recites most of the 23-page long poem by heart. No one else could have made a better Zohreh than himself!

The play was on stage in LA July 15-17, 2011 and was quite well received. It also made it to Santa Clara for one night on July 31, 2011, though it was disappointing that it didn’t sell out. The Santa Clara performance that I saw starred Hamidreza Javdan as Iraj Mirza, Sadreddin Zahed as Manouchehr, and again Shahrokh himself as Zohreh. Both Javdan and Zahed are skilled and established names in the Iranian theater from pre-revolution era. The fact that Shahrokh chooses a male to portray Zohreh and a man in his 50s to portray the 16 year old Manouchehr, is interesting. His artistic vision and humanistic ideas transcend gender and age. You can see several of the play photos from the Santa Clara performance below.

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Having seen Shahrokh’s unique dance works and interacted with him in person a number of times, knowing his mastery of the dance form, fluency in Persian, deep knowledge of Persian literature and especially his love for Persian poetry, expressive power, and his attention to details, I was certain that this production would be impeccable. And it sure was — I immensely enjoyed the show. It was a true delight to watch. But I was also curious to see his acting as I had only seen him dance. When asked about the differences between theater and dance, Shahrokh considers them fundamentally the same. “One has spoken words while the other doesn’t”, he says.

Moshkin-Ghalam, CA, Aug. 2011

Shahrokh has been a member of France’s prestigious La Comedie Francaise state theater for a number of years from a young age, which is no easy feat and speaks to his acting skills, his fluency of French language and his knowledge of French literature. He is also the founder of Nakissa Dance Company, which has brought on stage a number of phenomenal dance performances in Europe,North America and Asia over the past six years.

Shahrokh’s dancing style with surgically precise moves is quite unique. It blends elements from many dance types — various Persian dances, sufi swirling (sama), Indian kathak, flamenco and more. But at the same time it refuses to fit in any one category. He objects to comments or questions that try to categorize his dance or claim it as a form of Iranian dance. For him, his dance as a form of art, transcends the national boundaries, though they are often set to Persian music.

As a good sample of his unique dance choreography and performance which has certain resemblance to marshal art forms, you may want to view this well-known piece called “Shir Ali Mardan“. He has designed the costume that he is wearing.

Iraj Mirza

Iraj Mirza was a brilliant poet and calligrapher, a liberal and a social critique of the Iranian culture and Islam, who expressed his ideas in the form of colloquial poetry in the context of stories, at times quite graphic, sexual, and profane. However, he also has poems (e.g. in praise of motherhood) that appeared in the primary school curriculum in the pre-revolution Iran. Though he’s from early 20th century, his poetry is rhythmic and similar in style and structure to the classical Persian poetry of the ancient literary greats such as Hafez, Sa’di and Rumi.

I discovered Iraj Mirza’s poetry when I was in high school and liked it enough to memorize his poems and recite them on and off. To this day I still know some by heart. His poetry has never been as well-known and studied as the classics; nor is it as popular as the modern poetry (شعر نو) of the late 20th century Persian literary greats such as Ahmad Shamloo, Sohrab Sepehri, Forough Farrokhzad and Fereydoon Moshiri. I often thought that it deserved more attention.

Iraj Mirza also held a number of governmental posts in several provinces and ministries. He was well-versed in several languages including French, Arabic and Turkish. Unfortunately, as often is the case with great minds, he had more than his share of tragedies in life including death of his wife and father when he was only 19, the suicide of one of his sons, and his own untimely death at the age of 52. As one would expect, Mirza’s book of poetry (divan) is among the banned books in Iran. He was an intellectual well ahead of his time, and alas ahead of the current times in Iran.