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Interview with Assurbanipal Babilla.

I’m having trouble finding a date for this phone interview, but it must have been done in 1998. Babilla won a Hellman-Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch in 2005; according to Zinda magazine,  “Babilla is a painter and playwright, was one of three resident directors with the Drama Workshop of Tehran from 1973 to 1978. He fled to the United States in 1979 after the Iranian revolution because as a member of the Assyrian minority group he felt vulnerable. Both his plays and his paintings dealt with controversial material. This put him doubly at risk from the new conservative Islamic government.”

mufson You recall seeing Reza Abdoh in the 1979-1980 school year?

babilla Yes.

mufson He took a class from you?

babilla No he didn’t. He was a student of cinematography. I don’t think he was in the drama department.

mufson So how did you know him?

babilla Well, I didn’t know him. I was sitting on a bench on campus. I was trying to avoid Iranians like the plague; it was right after the—or during­—the hostage crisis. They were beating Iranians and doing all sorts of things like that. Then this young man, very very slim, came and sat on the bench and he suddenly spoke in Persian, and he said, “Are you Assurbanipal Babilla?” I said, “Yes, who are you?” [laughs.] So that’s how our relationship and friendship started. He told me he had seen my work in Iran, he had heard about me, this and that. And he inquired after some of our mutual friends, so I gave him a little report. He came and saw the plays that I did at USC. And then when I moved to New York, our relationship kind of was severed, because I didn’t hear anything about him.

mufson I thought you had performed in Father Was a Peculiar Man?

babilla I did, but then his cousin, who used to live in Paris, moved to New York, so through his cousin I got to hear what Reza was doing, that he was doing plays, things like that. And several times I flew to L.A. to see his plays. That’s how the relationship got restarted. And eventually I was cast as Demetri in Father Was a Peculiar Man. And so we became very close, then. I saw him every day. […he questions me about the anthology…]

mufson You saw many of Abdoh’s pieces?

babilla I saw Minamata and Hip-Hop. I was in Father Was a Peculiar Man. What else did I see?

mufson Did you see any of the other New York works? Tight Right White?

babilla No, I didn’t.

mufson Quotations?

babilla No, nor the other one, Law of Remains. I was very busy myself with my own work.

mufson Some people have commented and at least one Western critic has written a bit about the Persian influences on Reza’s work, which I have a little bit of trouble seeing, and I actually mentioned this to Salar, Reza’s brother—

babilla He’s in town?

mufson —yes, he’s in town. And Salar agreed with me and thought that there wasn’t that much Persian influence. I was wondering what your view of it was. When you would come out from any of those plays, would you think that this is clearly something that someone who was born in Iran made?

babilla Yes, I see a great deal of Persian influence. I wonder why Salar… how much does Salar know about Persian culture?

mufson Well, that was Salar’s question about Reza.

babilla Well, you know Reza, I suppose he spent most of his life abroad. But  you know these influences—with my work also, people ask me this—I mean they don’t look Persian or Iranian, he was not involved in some kind of an ethnic thing, a folkloric thing, his work was more universal.

mufson He seemed to be interested in international folklore.

babilla Yeah, or very much interested in the American popular culture. Those things turned him on a great deal. But these influences come through without your consciously even trying, because it’s your past. Somehow it will show itself.

mufson What do you perceive as those influences?

babilla I perceive one as the fragmentation in his work, which is very very Persian. Very much like in Persian miniatures, where it’s not the whole composition that is supposed to make sense but the details, the little thing that’s happening in this corner, the little thing that’s happening in that corner. You know what I mean? Have you seen any good Persian miniatures?

mufson I’ve seen Persian miniatures.

babilla Yes, they have lots of activity on many levels, sometimes related, sometimes unrelated. You may have in the foreground two little birds at a stream, and then in the background you have a mountain, and behind the mountain are peeking two men who are fighting. You know what I mean? This kind of narrative, sometimes disjointed, is, I would say, very Persian, because the Persian Islamic culture shied away from realism. And I think Reza’s horror of realism—and I knew that he was against realism, like myself, we were kindred souls in that sense—comes from that kind of background.

mufson And what else?

babilla I would say his being a Moslem from a Shi’ite background: Death, blood, massacre, torture, breast-beating…

mufson Although he seemed more interested in Sufic Islam, the Sufi tradition.

babilla He had a deep belief in God. I don’t know if you know this. Since I was a theology student for many years, we would talk about God a great deal, and whenever I saw a play of his, I interpreted it through a theological lens, and he was overjoyed. He would say, “I’m glad somebody sees it that way.” Sufi, I don’t know, but mostly the way the Shi’ite religion, in its total fascination with death and blood and dying, and you know at the core of the religion is the martyrdom of Imam Hussayn. Are you acquainted with the Shi’ite tradition?

mufson Well, I know there was a dispute over the successorship. They were upset that Ali did not become a Caliph.

babilla: Osman, Abu Bakr, Omaj… these are the three names that Shi’ites are deadly against, and they were Caliphs before Ali became a Caliph.

mufson: Mu’awiya was the fellow in Syria, and Ali decided he would negotiate with Mu’awiya and surrender his claim to the Caliph position, and, I thought, the Kharijates—k-h-a-r-i-ja-t-e—it’s difficult, because I’ve only read about this, I haven’t talked about it with anyone, so I have no idea how to pronounce those words.

babilla Well, it would be something like /hay-JOTT/, but I’ve never heard this word.

mufson I thought that was the word for the pious warriors of Ali, and the word actually means “the Seceders,” and they seceded from his ranks when he decided submit his dispute to arbitration, and then it was they who actually killed him in the mosque when he was praying at Kufa. That was my understanding of it.

babilla: But you know history… a great deal of this is of course is mythology. It is Shi’ite mythology, with which the Sunnites would not agree at all. And Shi’is have invented all sorts of stories which have no basis in history whatsoever.

mufson The Shi’ites have.

babilla Yeah. But you know all this has nothing to do with the works of Abdoh, because I think what was seeping into his work was this utter… almost death-worship that exists in Shi’ism. You know, they hardly have any joyful day like Christmas or Easter or things like that. It’s mostly mourning. And so this mourning and their love for blood and torture and murder, I think this was a very Shi’ite thing in his work, almost medieval.

mufson But Reza was reacting against that, because he would depict it, but it seemed he was intensely critical of it.

babilla Well, I don’t know about that. He was indeed reacting against certain things, and because he was gay, everyone in the family blamed him for the death of his father. I don’t know if you know this part of the story.

mufson I thought he died shortly the Iranian assets were frozen.

babilla Yeah, but the family blamed Reza for the death of his father because he told his father was gay, and his father, like three days later, dropped dead. And they severed their relationships with Reza. Reza for a very long while was completely an outlaw in his family. So he had to put up with a great deal of hatred coming from his family. Also, one thing that was distasteful in his work was his political pretensions and social this-and-that, which I didn’t like myself. He had these very naive views of history, I think, but anyway he was very very young. And also, the things that he depicted, I couldn’t tell if he was for them or against them.

mufson Such as?

babilla This whole sado-masochistic trend in his work. Or being a homosexual. He treated homosexuality in the ugliest way possible. In fact I had a little argument with him about this. I told him he was making homosexuality in to something very ugly and frightening.

mufson What was his response?

babilla Of course he didn’t agree.

mufson But what was his justification? Do you recall?

babilla No, I don’t. In fact, each time we argued about something, some point, he kind of quickly gave in. He didn’t want to argue very much. He wasn’t an intellectual kind of thing. But I was telling him, homosexuality has this ugly side, but it is not all of it ugly. There are also tender moments. I think it was very much of an Iranian [influence], but not consciously and not trying to bring in any Iranian imagery. In Father Was a Peculiar Man, you know, in Iranian mythology, unlike some other mythologies where the son kills the father, in especially Father Was a Peculiar Man, Father was the destructive force. In Iranian mythology, the father is the one who kills the son. But these are influences that just come out of us without our wanting it, you know?

mufson So it was more the vague sense of what his sensibility was that was for you Iranian and more specifically Shi’ite?

babilla Yes. I see that very much in his work. But maybe because I myself am Iranian, so I see maybe what I want to see. However, I think in the final analysis he was a very complicated person. He was full of contradictions and that made his work interesting. So I don’t think Reza could be reduced to just one thing.

mufson Well, I think when people stumble on an artist who has another ethnic identity, they become very eager to define that person by ethnic identity.

babilla Definitely his Iranian past had something to do with his work.

mufson Are there particular Iranian artists who you think influenced him?

babilla You know, I had a feeling—but this may be absolutely my own ego talking—I had a feeling he was to some extent influenced by my work. But again, this may be my ego, so I’m not going to make an issue out of this.

mufson Where are you doing your work these days? Do you have anything coming up?

babilla I did a one-man show recently for three months, and then for six days, in the Fringe Festival. You heard about it?

mufson Yeah, unfortunately, I missed it.

babilla And somebody is now wanting to produce it. God willing, in January and February [1999], we have four weeks of performances at the Red Room.

mufson Any other influences, literary or theatrical, that you saw?

babilla Literary, I don’t know. He would just sit and like a stream of consciousness pour words out. I don’t think he was terribly literary-minded. I knew he was reading some books, but he was not very much into that. If I think of something, I’ll call you. And who are the critics who have been talking about his work and that you will publish in your anthology?

mufson Well, John Bell, at NYU.

babilla I know him very well. He wrote many reviews of my plays.

mufson He wrote a very long article in TDR—

babilla —Oh, yeah, I saw that—

mufson —which I’m reprinting in excerpted form, and he talked about different Iranian influences, such as Ta’ziyeh.

babilla Ta’ziyeh, definitely—this Shi’ite mourning period, very much Taziyeh is in the background of his work.

mufson He also mentioned Hafiz and Rumi.

babilla In fact, you know, I didn’t see his last play, Quotations from a Ruined City, which, apparently, was about Bosnia. But the words “Ruined City” come almost straight out of Hafez.

mufson Where?

babilla You know the word /char-ah-BAHT/ in Persian? Which means a ruined place, or ruins, it’s a word in plural, this is a very mystical and Sufi category, and it also refers to where you go to get ruined, meaning a tavern, where you drink.

mufson And the words for ruins and tavern are etymologically related?

babilla In the mystical literature of Iran, yes. Not in other traditions. This word appears over and over again. I was almost certain that Quotations from a Ruined City had something to do with Hafez or the idea of taverns or where you go to remove yourself from yourself, where you make room for God. But then I heard it was about Bosnia, but the “Ruined City,” for me, in my head, with my background, conjured up the word /char-ah-BAHT/. These influences just appear. When I look at my works after I’ve done something, and I look back, I see a great deal of Iranian influence. And I’m an Assyrian, myself, so I also see a great deal of Assyrian influence. Whatever we are somehow seeps into the work. And it was interesting, this tension between the Iranian past and the American pop art.

mufson You didn’t see any of his student plays?

babilla No. Did he do any student plays?

mufson Well, that’s one of the things I’m trying to find out.

babilla I remember his cousin telling me that for instance he did King Lear, and I don’t know if he was a student then. I knew he was working as a waiter somewhere in L.A. and also doing plays on the side, but to my knowledge he was a student of cinematography, not theater. But also he was in England I think, studying something, before he came to America. Am I right?

mufson Well, that’s also unclear to me at this point. […] I tried contacting, for example, Mira-Lani Oglesby, one of his earlier collaborators¾

babilla But she hated him!

mufson Yes, well, she hasn’t returned my calls, so she must still¾

babilla Because she was one of the writers of Father Was a Peculiar Man, and he had fucked up her script. [Laughs] Poor Mira-Lani! She would sit there and be absolutely frightened by what she saw. She was in love with her writing, and he did whatever he liked with it. He interjected his own writings and that kind of thing.

mufson Well, she seems to be still upset about the whole thing. Or at least not interested in talking about it.

babilla Somebody at the Memorial Service at the Public, this guy who was the head of the LATC, Bill Bushnell, he said that Reza invented certain things about his past, like his age, for instance, he always made himself look or sound older than what he really was. He was very much immersed in his own work and a shrewd politician at the same time. It was a great pity that he died. When I was doing Father Was a Peculiar Man, I had no idea that he was HIV positive. Later, I heard about this. But I feel that much of his work was informed by that fact. His approaching death. As if for the rest of us death is not approaching! [Laughs.]

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