Listen to: My courage to imagine your courage, poem by Sara Zaltash (text below)
Alessandra Cianetti: Sara, from 21st March 2017 you will be embarking on Ah-Be (in the direction of a rose) – Blue (dar maseereh yek goleh roz): a 573-day walking journey starting from the source of the River Thames along the waterways of Europe and the Caucasus to Tehran, planning to arrive to your destination on 15th October 2018. Water, sources, the colour blue, a rose, true love are the symbols of your performance. Please, tell us a bit more about how the idea of this piece was born and how you envision for it to work. How do you think Ah-Be fits within your practice as a live artist?
Sara Zaltash: Ah-Be has several beginnings, which are disputed even in my mind – like any river, its sources are multiple, and each one is true. I’ll tell you the story I tell most people, which begins in October 2014, a drama that unfolded when I was visiting my maternal grandmother in Tehran. She was gently giving me a hard time for still being single. I’m the second eldest of her twelve grandchildren, after my sister who is the eldest. Me, my sister and my younger brother grew up in England, the Western world. We have much wilder expectations than my grandmother about our love lives, who married my grandfather when she was fourteen years old and had almost all of her six children by the time she was my age. (Though, isn’t that pretty wild in comparison to my university romances and online dating disasters? Different jungle, I guess.) My grandmother was saying that I was close to “souring”, the Farsi equivalent of being “left on the shelf”. My sister, six years my elder, was already way passed her sell by date, and my Nanna wanted a wedding before she got too old to enjoy it. So I promised her that the next time I saw her I would bring “that special someone” to meet her.
When I was small, my Nanna taught me the Farsi word for “promise” – ghol. It sounds a bit like “ball” in English. Playing along, she taught me by rolling an imaginary ball across the rug while we promised silly things to each other – I promising to eat a hundred cream cakes, she promising to cook my favourite shami kebabs. So, maybe twenty-two years later, when I effectively promised to bring her my future husband (never mind that I’m bi, already divorced, have a waning belief in the institution of marriage, and have for several years been more interested in long-term polyamory than a lifetime of monogamy [even if that interest has been more academic that pragmatic]) she looked at me with her chin slightly raised, an expression which utterly characterises her soul in its expectation of defiance, and asked me, “Really? You promise?” To which I immediately replied, “Yes, of course, I mean it, I promise.” I may have even put my hand on my heart. The cab I had been waiting for buzzed her third-floor apartment, cutting into our moment like a spinning saw through steel rope. Afterwards, oozing around Tehran’s ill-judged internal autobahn network in the early afternoon heat, I realised what I had done. I had promised my Nanna, my only remaining grandparent, that the next time I saw her I would defy the conventional romantic mundanities of Western millennial cosmopolitanism and definitely, absolutely, soul-bindingly turn up with a husband. Oh dear.
Later that afternoon, my two aunts of my father’s side where giving me a hard time for working while I was in Tehran. My father and I were staying with them uptown, in a new suburb at the foothills of the Darband peak of the Alborz mountain range, where they each had matching apartments next door to each other. My presence in Iran had been gifted to me by my father, who had invited me on one of his short trips to see family. With a characteristic workaholism that buttresses my passion for lived experience, I was using the opportunity to undertake self-directed field research about contemporary Iranian female tapestry weavers relating to my annual durational performance trilogy, Tuul. While my also-workaholic father didn’t mind so much that I was using studio visits and interviews and photography sessions to escape from oppressive family engagements, his sisters absolutely did. One of my aunts was baffled by my commitment to my work, that I didn’t recognise how meaningless it would become once I inevitably married and had a brood of human children to feed and groom, and how I should honour my dad’s funding of the holiday by hanging out with the grown-ups while they smoked cigarettes and talked about the good old days before the Islamic Revolution. Intersectional oppression analysts, eat your heart out! Under the pressure of that moment, and in a snap of defiance – I am my Nanna’s grandchild, after all – I announced resolutely that, “the next time I come to Iran, I am coming here on my own gig! I don’t care if I have to walk every step of the way.”
So, a story began. In one day, I made two promises to my ancestors. One to deliver the future, and another to release myself from the past. I would walk to Iran, and bring my one true love to my grandmother. Another part of the story began in October 2015 when I met a hydraulics expert, a fellow Fellow of the Schumacher Institute, who was doing some consultancy on a UN project in Iran called Hydrocity, which is addressing the water crisis in the region by reopening a series of ancient underground aqueducts called qanaats. I got his attention by inventing the broadcast element of the performance-to-be on the spot during a coffee break at a Fellows meeting. Another part of the story begins at around 3am on 7th September 2013, the last day of my 100-day performance Sink or Sing, two days after I had swam to Bestival while singing. My dear friend Ellie Stamp and I had returned to my grubby tent, starving after hours of dancing, hunting for sundries in my mess of tech and costumery. She asked me what I was going to do next now that the swim was done, and I, drunkenly, through a mouthful of baked beans that I was spooning straight from the can into my mouth, apparently said was going to walk to Iran, singing the whole way. I say “apparently”, because I had no memory of this declaration. Ellie reminded me of it when I excitedly told her earlier this year about the plans for “my new walking project”. She looked at me in her quizzical, generous, loving way and said, “Yes, I know about that, you told me ages ago.” It seems I had told her before I’d even told myself, or my grandmother, or my aunts, or you.
More of these true story sources spring up every day that I live through the preparations for the walk. Ah-Be, as with all my work as a live artist, is my life unfolding, a life lived in service, a story being told using strategies I have gathered from experiences in theatre, performance, music, philosophy, politics, law, literature, poetry, the Internet, the land and spiritual practice. In service of what? The answer to that question expands and contracts around an idea I call the Oneness – an idea of love, truth, community, belonging, revelation, creation. I envisage that Ah-Be will tell stories of the Oneness, via the medium of live art, through the channel of my life, for the goodness of you all.
AC: With Ah-Be you are going to cross several national borders in an attempt to go back to Iran, in a journey that you define as a ‘hopeful alternative narrative to the stereotypical portrayal of the migrant’s tale’ and today we could add also to the stereotypical portrayal of the so called ‘refugees crisis’. How do you think your message of ‘true love’ that you are bringing back to your grand-mother and also inviting people to join your journey, can revert that narrative?
SZ: Your question guides me implicitly to answer thus: we see the flight from the East to West as a flight of fear, of escape from bad to good; therefore the return from West to the East can only be a return of love, with love, for love. An invitation to participate in the love that flows against the fire of fear is powerful because it offers to soothe those burning pains; even animals heartless enough to lack sympathy for refugees feel the burning pain of fear, so the journey’s enactment and attendant invitation to participate soothes all. However, your question also implies, “what else but love would propel the agency of one fortunate enough to live in the West to will a return to that darkening Eastern horizon?” I asked myself that question as well. By positioning love – and one true love, at that! – as the hook for every other sociopolitical context, by placing my romantic life at the centre of my practice as if it were a sculptural object to be moulded, I’m making overt a consistent, though often hidden, theme in my artworks and harnessing the power of a tale as old as time. Girls seeks boy for eternal devotion, please apply within. But there is something about that implication – not yours specifically, but the one that I infer from the wider discursive context – which grates on me. The implied heroism of my journey reinforces the supremacy of the West over the East, a cultivated supremacy which was unleashed by European colonial impulses, and which arguably got us all into this mess.
Walking of my own free will, as a women, West to East, privileged with multiple citizenship, alone except for the companions that choose to join me, fearless, bearing only love and the hope of love, and placing my actions on a universally accessible stage for all to witness, I manifestly oppose the motifs of the refugee crisis, of the masses of men and families walking with fear through the shadowy valleys of crisis. In every migrant’s heart is a question of when they can return home. In spirit, I am their daughter, their granddaughter, answering that question. I relieve them of the indignity caused by the oppressor who insists on supremacy over them; yes, fathers, yes mothers, I am going home, fuck all these supremacists, I am going back to our own land.
Though, of course, it’s infinitely more complicated than that. See the Oneness for details.
AC: The performance will be broadcasted through a 24/7 audio signal that will follow what you defined as your ‘pilgrimage’. Words and music play a big part in your practice, how are you thinking of using them in the project? How will you negotiate between your intimacy as a walking traveller and the continuous public exposure of the soundscape of your performance?
SZ: Sound, song, music and musicality are the invisible infrastructure of my life, and therefore my work, always evolving and growing, cradling me, transposing my affections and curtailments onto my voice and rhythm, signposting, commemorating and monumentalising, sometimes creating communities around me, sometimes crowds before me, sometimes my only friend. Except for when I am writing, I rarely pass a waking hour without music, I hear sound in my dreams. If you squint with your third eye, you can feel that everything is a song being sung. There are a thousand ways that the project will sing, through Spotify playlists, through the choir that will sing at the opening ceremony on the first dawn of the walk, through my own practice of singing the Islamic call-to-prayer every day, through the anthem that I will write while walking, through the performances I give along the way, through the people that join me and teach me their songs, through the sounds of the rivers, the birds, the trees, the humans, all singing their own lives away.
Intimacy and exposure are facets of privacy and publicity that feel emotionally relevant to me as an individual at the beginning of the 21st century, though only because of the stories about private and public life that we’ve been told. These stories are told across the battle for the collapsing frontier of privacy in digital space. They are told by the prejudice meted out to those whose lives manifest the changing norms of human sexual practices. They are told by the shame used to disempower agency of all magnitudes. They are told by the exploitation of living beings that is fuelled by the entrenched Enlightenment scientistic fiction of the unitary human consciousness that lives inside the biological human brain. Being only human, we internalise these stories so that we can live our lives. Perhaps because I have lived between stories – between England, Iran, Catholicism, Islam, Europe, America – I’ve noticed that these stories were once told with different characters and plot lines. For example, just a few years ago, I might have taken it for granted that an omniscient divine presence witnessed all my deeds, that I shared my consciousness with every rank of being from star to starfish, that my flowing sexual energy would flourish shamelessly through communal ritual, that alter fires must burn to mark the passage of each bloody sacrifice. All sorts of stories.
As an author of my story of pilgrimage, I have the opportunity to reposition intimacy and exposure, and their counterparts, shame and celebration, to promote a simple parable about love and trust: if I can trust that I will be loved whatever I do, then all my life can be shared, and I need hide nothing. If I can trust that I will be loved whatever I do, then the boundary between private and public life can begin to shimmer with an effervescent fluidity, providing intimacy, providing celebration, resisting shame, resisting exposure. During over thirteen thousand hours of sound, I plan to negotiate my territory by positioning my audience as divine witness, connected umbilically to and by my most intimate invisible infrastructure. Walking in service of the Oneness, I have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to expose. So what if they hear me pooing? So what if they hear me falling in love? So what if they hear me sleeping, crying, talking? Does the Oneness not already hold me to account? The listener then has a moral choice to make about whether they feel shame at our intimacy, or celebrate it, whether they love me and honour the trust I place in them, or do something else, which dishonours us both, and thereby dishonours the Oneness of which they are inherently a part.
It’s a rather manipulative performer-audience contract. See the Oneness for details.
AC: Ah-Be (in the direction of a rose) – Blue (dar maseereh yek goleh roz) is an ambitious and intriguing project whose realisation seems to have been involving many people among team and supporters. Would you mind telling us a bit more about them and their role in the creation of the piece?
SZ: Oh, there are so many people helping! An ever-growing list of humans, agencies, organisations, institutions – of course there are. I am dedicating a significant chunk of my life to crossing a continent and a half on foot while doing a live broadcast that has no technological precedent. How could it be any other way? Perhaps, if it were a solo pilgrimage in an old spiritual paradigm without the audio aspect, if I were a sadhu or a wandering druid, then maybe I could be working alone, although even then I’d be collaborating with the divine Presence, Awen, the Oneness or whoever you want to credit for everything that moves beyond my will. The project actually began forming when the first funding support was offered by someone who is heavily invested in the story of the Iran, so it’s never really been just me. The project team has several producers, specialists, support organisations, patrons, sponsors and mentors. At the moment, I am Executive Producer and Lead Artist, so I hold the reigns and make all the big decisions. I’m looking forward to handing the Exec Producer reigns over to a bigger organisation soon, so that I can focus on harnessing my soul for the fun stuff, though at this stage there is no distinction between producing the project and creating the artwork, each decision is a creative decision. Over a decade of working in creative teams – first in theatre, then in the music industry, then in a band, then as an emerging performance artist in collectives, and now as a somewhat emerged and working full-time solo artist – I’ve learned that the best way to make good decisions is to listen to the people who know what they are doing, and that eventually someone has to have the final say. That’s my method, it works for me. All my freelancers get a huge amount of creative scope, I work with them because I like their style, ideas and attitude rather than because they can do my bidding. Managing a team is one of my favourite parts of any project. My father’s family were all military and my mother’s family are enormous; somewhere between those heritages, I feel very comfortable marshalling a familial battalion of creative warriors, occasionally summoning in elders when I don’t know what I’m doing, or need a resource injection. After the walk, I’d like to have a standing team around my practice that has a more radical approach to hierarchy and workflow. Sara Zaltash Cooperative Productions – now that’s ambitious.
AC: In the programme ‘Walking Women’, a series of UK-based events that places women at the centre of discussions and debates about walking and art, the promotional material started with the following quote: ‘The invisibility of women in what appears as a canon of walking is conspicuous; where they are included, it is often as an ‘exception’ to an unstated norm, represented by a single chapter in a book or even a footnote’.  What led you to choose waking as a medium? I wonder also whether you have any source of inspiration among other performers, I’m here thinking for example at ‘Brides on Tour’ by Italian artist Pippa Bacca we briefly discussed when we met.
SZ: This is the moment that I admit: I know very little about the canon of walking art. One of the project’s producers has lent me a book about Hamish Fulton; I recently participated in a workshop at the University of Sussex led by Karen Christopher, Augusto Corrieri and Sara Jane Bailes about performance composition in relation to landscape; I have joined the Walking Artists Network. I have lived on permaculture projects and with radical land activists, and presently reside in rural Gloucestershire. I tend to cycle to get around the place, although I do go for more walks these days. That’s about it. Initially, I was keen to preserve my naivety around walking art, and give my audience the experience of witnessing my growth through the discipline. By analogy, I have never trained as a dancer, and yet when I dance with those who have trained, they envy me for my freedom of movement. Same with music – I have hardly any formal music training, so I can hear things intuitively that technique blocks out. Having preserved that naivety while Ah-Be was beginning, I can now hold space for the ideas that will serve the project. As my genesis story proffers, I didn’t even really choose walking as my medium, I’m just following a turn of phrase through to practical manifestation in in service of an idea. Apart from my ontological and epistemological allegiance to Performance in general, I am opposed to being medium specific.
We talked about Pippa Bacca because her brutal death at the hands of bad men kept being thrown at me as a reason why my walk was too dangerous to enact. I was noting to you that women I was consulting with were eager to help in whatever way they could, while men felt that they needed to give me permission, or to protect me. The male response – and this is from even the most enlightened males – was often “You can’t do that, it’s not safe, who’s coming with you?”, whereas women would say, “that’s impressive, how can I help? what do you need?” Men know men, I guess, and patriarchy runs deep. Pippa’s story inspired me to embed security into the creative strategies of the walk, to trust in the reality of the world, rather than my ideals for it. Instead of leaning on patriarchy and capitalism by hiring an ex-SAS man and loading my gear onto a support vehicle, I’ve begun calling out to organisations along the route that support people who a vulnerable to dangerous prejudice – artists, women, men, trans, queer, all the colours, all the abilities, all the creatures – to join me walking through dangerous zones, so that our collectivity keeps us safe. There is also the universal call-out for people to join me walking, so even if you feel invulnerable in the face of prejudice, and just fancy walking with me, you can, and you’ll be helping me be safe. Unless you’re a bad man, or a bad woman, or a bad creature. In which case, stay away. Or tune in via the live stream!
My only notable walking inspiration comes from a pilgrim depicted in Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time (2003), a documentary about the Kalachakra initiations of 2002. This pilgrim, a monk, performs full body prostrations over three thousand miles for more than three and a half years in order to reach the Bodhi Tree of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Bones on his hands have grown nodes, he has a scar on his forehead from touching the ground a couple of million times. He says that he knows how big the earth is, because he has measured the distance with his entire body, from head to toe. I watched that film in early 2015, prep for some R&D work with a director in Birmingham, thinking about the distance between my life as a performance artist in the UK and the lives of my ancestors in Iran. About the distance between my cultural reality and that of the lovers I had known. And I thought, walking to Iran will be an excellent way for us learn that distance together, my one true love and I, whoever they might be or become.
AC: In our conversation you mentioned that all this year has been completely dedicated to building Ah-Be (in the direction of a rose) – Blue (dar maseereh yek goleh roz) and you have already organised a launch party, workshops and events in Bristol in July. What was the response of your audience and what are your plans for the rest of 2016?
SZ: The audience response to the project is almost universal wonder, support and encouragement. It blows people’s minds in a way that I have never encountered before, showing me that I am doing something exceptionally good, which after years of art practice is a cherished relief. If I let myself become audience to the idea, rather than steward, it starts to blow my mind too, becomes overwhelming, so for the most part I sit next to the idea and let it show me the way. That way seems to invite encounter, conversation, to share the Oneness, to be bold and pure and honest and principled. It’s hard, though when I see that even the idea of the project – a woman walking to Iran to deliver her one true love to her grandmother and broadcasting the sound of the journey – can change peoples’ perception of human capability, or love and courage and hope, I remember what I am doing all of this for. And discipline, after all, is remembering what you want.
In between planning the project, I will spend as much time loving my friends and family as possible. I have already seen some of them for the last time before the walk begins, it’s heartbreaking, I love my kin, and things will never be the same after the walk. As for those project plans, I am about to go on a research trip to Tehran, Tbilisi and Budapest to lay tracks and make friends in advance of the arriving their on foot, there are more public exhibitions in Bristol and London, a website that needs to be launched, a crowdfunder to be rolled out, sponsorship to firm up, tech to procure, a practice walk or two, press stuff. Plans for the launch ceremony at dawn on 21st March 2017 at the source of the River Thames in Kemble include busloads of friends from Bristol and London, gorse wreaths, a choir, someone shaving my head, blessings from notable spiritual leaders, the works. Everyone must come.
 Heddon and Turner (2012) ‘Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility’ Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 22(2), 2012, p. 225. More info on Walking Women at http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/whats-on/walking-women/
My courage to imagine your courage
I’m in danger,
So I asked my courage to imagine his courage.
His courage is imperfect,
His courage gets it wrong,
His courage knows that time,
It’s late, it’s early, it’s now, it’s never, it’s always.
My patience waits,
His courage listens.
His courage comes back.
His courage does not always know his way.
His courage knows to detour.
His courage knows never to quit.
His courage is grateful.
Be so brave.
And conquer, my love.
The radio will forgive
My love for making time
To imagine his courage.
Even though light burned his pride and stung your feet
I laughed with courage,
With your shadows dancing.
So be brave.
Yes. Glory, hallelujah.
I had to ask
My courage to imagine your courage.
And in time
His courage looks like he knows what is his, where it came from, where he left it and that I refuse to make it mine.
His courage looks like he is choosing you.
His courage says, “In my courage, I choose to dance my fears until they love you.”
Greet his courage over your highest whelm.
Hold us there.
His courage feels like freedom evolving.
His courage feels visionary.
His courage includes you.
His courage includes me.
When his courage holds me, you can be as bold as a bell.
We’ll ring out in honour of his courage:
Of his own free will
His courage sits beside you, so stop smoking by the fire.
His courage comes back in the morning after a stupid fight.
How his courage tumbled from your balcony to your bed.
You are children.
His courage found his condemned soul in the gallows, held it’s face, whispered forgiveness, released his love from death;
His courage reached for your hand under the table.
His courage reaches,
Places your hand at the centre of his chest, over his heart, where it belongs.
His courage knows where you belong.
His courage knows where I belong.
Your courage knows where he belongs.
So be brave, my love.
And conquer pain.
Sara Zaltash is a British-Iranian live performance artist enacting her evolving engagement with political, philosophical and spiritual realities through boldly populist shows, projects and acts. Time, scale, song, poetics and the divine preoccupy her as she draws on her experiences in contemporary performance, theatre and dance, singing and music, spiritual practice, legal, philosophical and academic enquiry, and Persian literature and culture to craft disarming encounters for stages, sites, moments and legends. Sara has performed extensively in the UK and Europe. “Zaltash is electrifying… See her if you can.” – Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 2015. sarazaltash.com
Featured image credits: Hana Wolf Photography – performance of the Islamic call-to-prayer