20 — 23.05.2010

Amir Reza Koohestani / Mehr Theatre Group Tehran

Where were you on Jan 8th?



Farsi → NL, FR | ⧖ 1h20

Work by Amir Reza Koohestani was first to be seen at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2004. Since then, he has conquered the world’s most prominent stages with his minimalist, intimate, almost undramatic theatre, a theatre which evokes Iran’s social malaise and reflects, by extension, the broader human condition. His work draws on Iranian cinema, which, to get around censorship, mixes fables and reality with allegorical accounts anchored in a realistic acting style and language. The plot of his latest creation centres around a series of telephone conversations between six young people: four drama students, the fiancé of one of them – who works for the police – and a neighbour who has come to lay tiles. Heavy snowfall forces them to spend the night in the same apartment. But in the morning, curiously, the police officer wakes up alone, and his weapon has disappeared... Who took it? And why? Where were you on Jan 8th? is a reflection on power. It is Koohestani’s artistic response to the violence which has swept Iran since the last presidential elections.

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January 8th, midnight, a suburb of Tehran, it snows. Four young women are rehearsing Jean Genet's play The Maids in a house.

Ali, Fatima's fiancé, who is doing his military service in the police, joined them. He is not supposed to be there, but Fati insisted. Defying the law that forbids a soldier to carry a weapon in a private place, he promises the Duty Officer to return to the police station before dawn. The snow stopped him. Abdi has also joined the rehearsal. They are forced to spend the night in this house.

The next day, when Ali wakes up, he is alone and his weapon has disappeared.

But the house is not the place of the plot, nor the weapon the real issue.

The play weaves a series of phone conversations after that night. Implicitly, the dialogues evoke the current situation of young people in Iran seeking ways to be heard.

Where were you on January 8th?

Last summer – after two years away from Iran and a month after the events trigged by the Iranian elections – I stopped mid-way through my doctoral thesis in drama at Manchester University and returned to Tehran with a translation of the play England, written by Tim Crouch.

I wanted to rewrite the play taking into account what was happening in Iran. It was a simple story. A homosexual man gives a Willem de Kooning painting to the family of a person suffering a fatal brain illness in order to receive the patient’s heart in a transplant. Apart from its simple story, I chose this play for my next project because of the author’s guideline that the play should be performed in a gallery that had previously been a public space.

At the London performance I had seen, the play was performed in a church that had been turned into a contemporary art gallery. When the play premiered in Edinburgh too, and as the author had originally intended it, the play was performed in a gallery that had previously been a vegetable market.

I wanted to perform it in the gallery of the “Khaneh-ye Honarmandane Iran” (Iranian arts centre) in Tehran, a building that ten or fifteen years ago had been a barracks, but had later been turned into a complex for cultural events by Tehran city council on the initiative of the writer Behrooz Gharibpour.

I thought that performing this play in a space that had previously been an arsenal or dormitory for soldiers would be an effective way of expressing my criticism of the ongoing, contagious power of Iranian society and that no further explanation would be needed. Surprisingly, though, I realised that many of my friends – different from me only in that they had not followed the events on the streets of Tehran in June 2009 on the western media or YouTube films, but rather had experienced them personally – were asking me after a reading of the play: “Why this play now?” Given that I had chosen its theme because of the particular circumstances in my country, I tried to explain my ideas about performing the play and the changes I wanted to make to convince them of the need to perform it at this precise moment in Iran’s history. But the more I talked, the less robust I felt before their wall of silence.

“You didn’t even see anything. The real events during the elections went much further than just saying Throw down your weapons[1] or turning all barracks into art galleries and thinking then that everything will be OK.”

But what was this truth they were talking about? During one of these discussions that generally went on past midnight, a friend said something apposite: “Your play has nothing to do with what we experienced. The truth is that you weren’t here during those days. Regardless of how long you listen to people who were on the streets at the time – whether before or after the elections – or how much footage you watch on the internet that people took with their mobile phones, you’ll never be able to express in the theatre or in any other medium what we experienced, for example during the silent demonstrations with millions of people. Theatre isn’t like a rolling news channel where you can show an event just using pictures. That’s why it’s better to take a theme that you have really experienced yourself.”

The truth was that life in England had influenced the way I saw those days in Iran and, like numerous westerners who based their judgement on what was being served up by rolling news channels, I saw my environment through those journalistic eyes. To make the problems generally comprehensible, I had formed a new compound for every complex event by adding a unique adjective, such as “peaceful”, “violent”, “domineering”, “deserted” etc. – imposing my judgment of every individual event on the reader/viewer/listener:

“Peaceful demonstrations”

“Violent clashes”

“The government’s domineering view”

“The deserted people”

Since I now realised that my perception has changed, before starting my new play I decided to take a closer look at people’s changed behaviour in those days. This fresh examination took place primarily because I was discovering the effects on these people of what happened during those two years: events that I had not experienced with them. I am using these notes as a pretext in order to list here briefly the results of that field research (the only small gift that I brought back to Iran after two years studying at Manchester University) so that you can perhaps recognise traces of them in the play following the performance:

1) ... and justice for all.

Before and after the elections one of the most important concepts distorted by the government and its critics alike was the concept of justice. What is justice? Is it the application of law and punishment of the guilty? What if you do not acknowledge the law? What if the application of law itself results in injustice? What if each institution that ought to uphold justice itself becomes the source of injustice? In the play Where were you on January 8th?, Shideh’s ex-boyfriend (a Doctor in the same hospital as her) has kept a private film with Shideh and does not intend to give it back. To get the film back, she cannot inform the police, as she would first have to explain why she had a sexual relationship with him. This causes Shideh to get hold of a weapon to ensure justice for herself.

2) The victim domino effect.

Traffic jams and driving in Iran are among the problems that apparently have more to their solution than punishing the guilty and confiscating cars. Regardless which driver you ask, “Why were you driving on this side?”, all give the same answer: “Everyone drives like me. If you drive according to the rules, you’ll never reach your destination.” These days this fact is reflected in other problems in society too. Whenever your right is breached, you breach someone else’s rights somewhere, like a domino effect. In Where were you on January 8th? some people take the soldier’s weapons even though they know what kind of problems he will face. But since they themselves are victims of others, they feel entitled to turn the soldier into a victim.

3) Verbal violence.

In truth, many of us are unable to use physical violence against our fellow man; regardless of how angry we are, it is hard for us to give the other person a good going over. For whatever reason, the same applies in Iran too. Unlike the usual image of Persians (particularly Persian men) in the western media, unlike the general powerlessness of the Iranian police force and judiciary against domestic violence, and unlike the economic and social pressure of the last few years as well, according to official statistics domestic violence, including murder and manslaughter, are a lot rarer than in many western countries. Nonetheless the pressures of everyday life, particularly in large cities like Tehran, emerge as verbal violence. Where were you on January 8th? depicts a new experience for me to show this verbal/vocal violence, although this is hard to understand for anyone is not familiar with Persian. Perhaps, however, this can at least be imagined by hearing it.

4) Radicalism of women.

The role of women in creating and continuing a movement over the past hundred years has never been as important as in the events following the Iranian elections. The active participation of women in the elections and subsequent demonstrations too, and the large number of women arrested is something that Persian men had never even reckoned on. The girl Sogol in Where were you on January 8th? perhaps represents that spectrum of women who would like to regain the rights that have been suppressed all these years. Sogol’s problem is possibly the most trivial of all four characters: her boyfriend has been verbally insulted by a university professor during a lecture. She does not intend to swallow this insult and wants to threaten him with a Colt: a slightly radical reaction given the incident. In truth however, this is not a reaction to one event, but a reaction to history.

5) Question and lies.

“Where is my vote?”[2] This question could have been given a simple answer, but it got no answer other than violence and lies. In Iran there are many unanswered questions which you cannot ask. The person to whom you are asking your questions is unknown since in general you receive no convincing answer from those who, in your opinion, should be responsible for answering your questions. This is why I have given the play a question as its title, a simple question that the inspector asks the suspect in many a crime film after an offence has been committed. A question to which, if you asked the people in the play Where were you on January 8th?, you would get an answer that would be as big as the history of a country.

After a few months wandering the streets of Tehran and considering all the restrictions preventing a true picture of Tehran in 2009 being depicted, I decided to perform Where were you on January 8th? simply as a piece of reportage without presenting a solution. Perhaps this is why the play comes across as a little complicated, because it is a collage of reflections on all that I had missed in those two years. Even this very effect of producing a collage may make it harder to follow the events on stage. In truth, while I have been writing this play I have not thought much about laws and rules, but much more about producing a record of an era in my country, a record of a people’s human condition during this historic era that will possibly not be found in any history book.

Shiraz, March 2010



[1] The title of a song by Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the best-known singer of traditional Persian music, in reaction to events after the Persian elections.

[2] As seen in the streets of Tehran and on Internet (YouTube, Facebook,…)

Text, scenography & direction

Amir Reza Koohestani


Saied Changizian, Fatemeh Fakhraee, Negar Javaherian, Elham Korda, Ahmad Mehranfar, Mahin Sadri

Sounds & music

Martin Shamoon Pour

Director’s assistant

Mohammad Reza Hosseinzadeh

Technical direction

Hessam Nourani

Administration & tour management

Pierre Reis

Thanks to

Mohammadreza Soltani, Pedram Harbi, Mohammad Atebbai, Jean-Claude Voisin, Vali Mahlouji, Ninon Leclère, Liliane Anjo,

La Maison des Arts de Créteil, Géraldine Chaillou, Claire Verlet, Christelle Longequeue, Jacques Dubois/Eumonia, Guisi Tinella & Shani Bermès/Onda


Kunstenfestivaldesarts, KVS


Mehr Theatre Group (Paris)

With the support of

Dramatic Arts Centre (Teheran)

website by lvh