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Transcript: Pearls of wisdom with Mahdi Mohammadi

Up Next: Ep 2 - Mahdi Mohammadi

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House honours our First Nations by fostering a shared sense of belonging for all Australians, and we acknowledge the Gadigal, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Take care of your artists. They are the one who showed you that. What is your truly feeling? They are the one who show you the way. They are the ones that show you and remind you that. What is life about?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this is Up Next, your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage as we chat to a spectacular lineup of artists who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. Together we’ll uncover who’s up next, and how this moment in time is transforming the next 50 years of arts and culture.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Our pronouns in Persian language doesn't have any gender differences. So your lover could be a he, or she, or whatever form of gorgeousness you desire. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love, has been a hit ever since its first show at Sydney’s PYT Fairfield. Inspired by the tradition of private recitals and ‘curtain shows’ performed all through the Persian-speaking world, Dorr-e Dari combines thousand-year traditions, with personal story, singing, joyous dancing and sumptuous video imagery, where guests appear on video calls from Afghanistan, Iran and Canada. 

I had a chat with Mahdi Mohammadi, cinema and theatre director, co-diviser and performer in Dorr-e Dari ahead of the show's season at the Sydney Opera House. We spoke about his journey into the world of the arts from Afghanistan to Australia, his award-winning Papyrus theatre group back in Afghanistan, and the biggest lie he ever told his dad.  

Thank you for being here today. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Thank you for having me.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What was it about theatre and performing that made you think I want to do that?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, when I was a child in Afghanistan, I used to watch a lot of movies. And I was a big fan of, you know, being an actor. While growing up in Afghanistan, I saw and I noticed a lot of problems with women in Afghanistan, and especially my mother. I saw how she was treated in our family and all other women in Afghanistan, especially the violence against women in Afghanistan was really a big issue and I always wanted to do something for them. So before going to university, I was thinking that which subject is the best for me to study, to reach my goal and help the women of Afghanistan. And I did a lot of research and I found out that people of Afghanistan, they really love arts and especially acting, movies, theatre. You know, that's when I exactly decided to be an artist and to, you know, this is going to be my life passion and I'm just going to be an artist and actor and I will do anything I can to help the women of my country.

Courtney Ammenhauser: You mentioned that it was a problem for your family. What did they have, other plans or hopes or things that you would follow?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Of course, like like all other families, like my father. My father was really a religious person. And he always wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer or, you know, something, as he says, always something better. That I had to lie to my father. When you go to university. So before university they take exam from you and you have ten choices. For me, art was my second choice and the first one was to be a doctor. And I knew definitely that I'm not going to get that. I told my father that art was my 10th choice, my last choice. So, and I got it then. This is the only subject that I can study so now there is no other way. And my father was like, I don't like art, and I said, you know, look father, I can't just waste one another one year to wait to become a doctor or something, just let me do it and let's see what will happen. And my father said, okay. And that was the, I think the biggest lie that told my father.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Revealing all on this podcast today. So you went on to study theatre in Afghanistan, and you're part of this amazing award winning theatre group there. Yeah, it was called Papyrus Theatre. Can you tell me about how it came to life, how it began? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I was in the second year of university. Then I met this amazing woman. She was an actress too Tahya Hashimi and her two sisters, Burhan Hashimi and Nadia Hashimi. And we had a lot of chats. And we then we found out that we all think in the same way. And like helping women in Afghanistan. And we decided to publish this theatre group, Papyrus Theatre Group in the Cement National Festival of Theatre in Afghanistan. We performed a performance which the name was The Wall, and it was about all the problem for Afghan women. And we won the first prize for that performance. After that, we decided to ask for some funding and work with the NGO's Western people. And we tried to show the women of Afghanistan their rights. And even then I've got to say this - because I was the only man in our group, all other was just women. Sometimes I had to go to the family and say, like, hi i'm from this NGO and we would love to take your wife or your daughter for a picnic and we've got to pay and we're gonna pay you as well. And because they don't have any problem with going for a picnic and, you know, especially when you're paying as well. And then after that, we take the women to the theatre salon and show them the performance and talk about their rights. And which, a lot of problem came after the show.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What kind of problems came?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, the, you know, the men of the family would come to us like, did you really take my wife to a picnic? Because since they're back from that day, they're talking about their rights, they're talking about all other stuff, which is weird. And I, I'm not sure if you really took them to for a picnic in the park, like, yeah, we did that. I don't know, maybe she saw in the TV or some other things and that was good. At least we made them to stand for their rights.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, absolutely. And so how do you think that being in Papyrus Theatre and making those shows about women's rights in Afghanistan helped to prepare you for the future work that you were going to make? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I had no idea that one day I'll be here in Australia. I was really happy with the work that I was doing in Afghanistan. But, you know, fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan is a, is a really big deal, especially, you know, Taliban around this, all other Islamic groups around. And they always threatened you and like, got a lot of warning blackmails about stop doing this job. But I was happy. And because I found out they wouldn't blackmail me if I wouldn't do anything, you know, big. So it means I'm doing my job, right? And I loved it. But, you know, coming here wasn't my choice. It was my family's choice. Like, they forced me because they cared about me not being in Afghanistan and they just asked me for family's sake, for all other friends that care about you, you got to go out of Afghanistan. And I had no idea that I would come here. Then I decided if I go to any other country, I would love to continue my theatre and arts. I did a lot of research and I had some friends here and I thought, well, Australia would be the best to go and just continue my art. But now I'm so happy to be here. I'm so happy that I have a lot of stories to share with Australian people. [00:07:47][68.0]

Courtney Ammenhauser: You mentioned before that you had to lie to your dad about your university applications. You've had quite a lot of success now. Does your dad know that you lied?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Uh, I've got to say, unfortunately, I lost my dad two years ago.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Okay.

Mahdi Mohammadi: While I was in Australia, but the most happiest thing I remember from my dad the last time I spoke with him on the phone, he told me, my son, I'm proud of you and I'm proud of what you're doing and the life that I had here. And he told me that I never known. I always thought that art is about being, you know, it's a shameful thing. And the way that they lived, they haven't studied too much. He always told me that I thought art is about dancing or this all that stuff but the thing that you did and I saw I'd done, my mom and my sisters, brothers used to show to him the things that you're doing in Australia, you know, being on the stage, all of this stuff. I'm so proud of you and I'm so happy that my dad was happy about me and being proud and I could definitely change his idea about art and yeah, and I think he's proud of me and I'm proud of my dad.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And you said you had some friends who were already here and you did a bunch of research and when you came and arrived in Australia, what was it like to sort of get your foot into the industry and continue your creative practice in a new country?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, it was a really hard thing. First of all, I did ask my friends, but I didn't ask like about how arts is going in Australia. I just asked them how is this country so, so like this is a country full of opportunities if you just come here and take it. But when I arrived there for the first time there, there was an Australian person and I met old lady, very nice lady, and she asked me that, what did you used to do in Afghanistan? And I said I was a director of cinema and theatre. And then she asked me, what is theatre? And I was shocked. I was like. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What do you mean?

Mahdi Mohammadi: What do you mean though about the, I was so scared like, I hope not all Australian people think like that. It was just that time I was really scared. But when I just walked into the society and it was really hard for me because I wasn't allowed to do anything like study or just work or go around. So I always wanted to make art. It was really hard for me and it's a really long story, but I was getting depressed. But to be honest, I had to see some psychologist and I told her about everything. I was telling her about my job in Afghanistan. I would just wanna make art. She knew someone in PYT Fairfield. Karen Therese was the artistic director of PYT Fairfield, and she introduced me to Karen. After that, yeah, I got involved with the ensemble, which is a group of young people just gathering together every week and thinking about their arts, what they want to make. It was really fantastic for me. That's the only reason that I, it like helped me to go through this depression. And finally I made it and I got introduced to PYT Fairfield and it a kind, it was a kind of survival for me. [00:10:54][68.3]

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it's a it's a big journey that you've been on. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: It is a big journey. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: What has theatre in Australia taught you about this country? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Theatre taught me art is not that important here, to be honest. You know, we're living in Afghanistan. It's a poor country, but the way they respect arts, the way they respect artists is just totally different and artists walk proudly. Now I'm in Australia, I'm an artist and I see all other artists. It's a really hard job. It's not well, well paid. You've got to work hard. Being an artist deserve more to be respected. Take care of your artists. They're the one who showed you that. What is you're truly feeling? They are the one who show you the way. They are the ones that show you and remind you that what is life about? All other this, you know, beauty in life. Because being an artist is a talent and not everyone has this talent. But you don't make art for yourself. You make art for people. That's what I really want to see in the future in Australia. And that's what I saw the difference between Australia and Afghanistan, that artists deserve more and they need to be respected more.

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Tribunal was your first major experience in theatre in Australia. What do you think was the biggest learning from that production?

Mahdi Mohammadi: The biggest learning was that when I came here I suffered a lot as a refugee, being a refugee in Australia and because that is story was the relationship between refugees and Aboriginal people. So I learnt a lot about Aboriginal people, and Auntie Rhonda, which I'll call her my grandmother. She's my Aboriginal grandmother and she told a lot of her stories. And one of the other biggest reason that I survive in this situation, living in limbo was when I was thinking about what happened to them, like through their history and how they have been living. It just make me think that, wow, what is happening to me is just a small thing. It's nothing and I can handle it so easy compared to what happened to them. Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I learnt from that show was, that's not fair what's happening and it shouldn't happen. But well, we can do anything. We can just say that to them and hopefully people bring some change. And I love Auntie Rhonda because every time that she sees me and she always say me, you're welcome here. She always told me so nicely to me. It just makes me feel like I'm in my home.

Courtney Ammenhauser: So your next show, Dorr-e Dari, you're acting in it as well as you are a co-divisor. Can you tell us about the show and what it's all about?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Dorr-e Dari, which the 'dorr' means the pearl. So it's the Pearl of Dari. And Dari is our language that Afghan people and it's a part of, it's a branch of Persian language which just Afghan people speaks in Afghanistan. This show is it's about our culture and how this culture is like a pearl and very precious for us, how this culture has survived through all this. Now, it's almost 50 years of wars in Afghanistan. The only thing that we have is that culture. That's the only thing survive because that's the only thing that we, we carried by our hearts. Poetry is, I can say is one of the most important thing in Afghanistan. It's a part of everyday life in Afghanistan. It's like, you know, you can't live without eating. So it's, in Afghanistan you can't live without poetry. Think if you walk around Afghanistan and you just stop a kid and ask him or ask her if you know any poetry, they will definitely know something. So this show, we try to talk about our culture and how poetry is important in our life. We brought some personal stories from our teenage and how it goes in Afghanistan to be in love, like Afghan Romeo and Juliet and how we love to sing, we love to dance. It's all about good things, about Afghanistan for the first time that Afghanistan is not all about war, drugs, or all other things. That's what we try to do in this show. And I think we were successful, especially when audience, even Afghan people or Persian speaking people see this show, they just cry and they sob out the tears, if just because of their happiness. They always come to us and thank us because we remind them of their culture and we show them that this culture will be always alive.

Courtney Ammenhauser: What do you think are the things that Australians know about Afghanistan? You're talking about all the wonderful things you want to show in the play. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, the most things that, of course, they know is, is just what's going on in Afghanistan war. It's all other things, Taliban and, you know, killing and all other stuff. But this poetry was when we did this show and they were just shocked. They were thought because as I know, I believe that in Australia poetry is for educated people. In Afghanistan, poetry is for everyone. So you don't need to be educated to know poetry. Used to be 90, but I don't know right now, 90% of people of Afghanistan were uneducated, but hundred percent of them like all of them, knew poetry, you know. So that's the problem here in Australia is just I think they show the kids that you need to educate to know some poetry. I think that is the, one of the biggest difference here. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, it almost sounds like the way music is here, like everyone experiences different kinds of music, but

Mahdi Mohammadi: Yes. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: It's pretty much in most people's lives. What is it about poetry as a form that you're, that you find so special?

Mahdi Mohammadi: Let me ask. Well, let me explain with the question. Have you ever been in a situation that you you can explain something to someone? 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: So that's when you use poetry because poetry is the easiest way in Afghanistan to explain your feeling, to express when you have problem with the explanation. Because in English, it's really hard to just, you know, explain what you what you're feeling, but in Persian poetry. Just it's just explaining it straight away perfectly the way that you want to explain it. Especially the love poetry there. I've never seen people in there like, you know, love couples that they talk like. So like, you know, I love it is this they always talk to their poetry, they send to each other the poetry express their feelings, which is amazing because. Yeah, that's, that's the only special thing. Poetry helps you when you want to explain a feeling that you cannot do it in the normal way or with your just, you know, language.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, that's so beautiful. And for people who aren't from a theatre background you mentioned before that Dorr-e Dari is a co-devised piece, so it's made in the rehearsal room on the floor rather than coming in with the play that's already been written. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Oh, definitely, like we have been gathering together for one year, every week, one night, and we had this amazing meals like Aussie meals, Afghanistan, Persian. We used to just cook and talk, talk about everything. Yeah, like all this stuff that's happening in Afghanistan, our teenage stories about everything. And at the end of a year, we had this like all lots of, you know, material. It could go for ten, 15 hours. And then we just sat down and we just, we chosen which one is better to go to the show, you know? And then, yeah, it came up like that because at first it was just a five minute show and now it's an 80 minute show.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah, yeah. Wow. The show, it has a Sydney Opera House season. What did you know about the Opera House before you came to Australia? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: For me, the Opera House was the symbol of Australia, I had no idea about anything else, like kangaroos or other stuff and nothing. Just as soon as Opera House, Australia. That's what I see. First time I came here and I think the second day I just came to, I went to Opera House to just look it closely and see like, you know, how it looks. And it was amazing. I have got another story about being an Opera House. When I was- 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Please. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: When I was studying in Kabul University. So my teacher showed us this big song in theatre and all over the world. And then Opera House came and, and he just told us, like, you will never get to perform there. But I'm just showing you, you know, that this is a really nice place. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Well, well, well, yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, this is a wrong thing as well, because the teacher in Afghanistan, they don't encourage you like you can do it, you know? But it's my second time performing in the Opera House. But the first time when I went to Opera House, I did text my teacher.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Good on you.

Mahdi Mohammadi: Do you remember that one day when you were teaching, as you just said that, and now my show is going to Opera House and I'm performing there. He didn't answer me and he blocked me. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Really? Yes. Oh, my gosh. Well, that person just is. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well I so happy, I sent my picture.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I was gonna say, hopefully you sent a selfie with the sails. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I did send! I did send. I did send and I did send to all over my classmate to everyone. I'm like, look, you can do whatever you want to do. You just need to keep pushing and do hard work and just think big. That and I always tell to Afghan people like, I'm so proud to go there as I have came first and perform there. And they can believe it too, because it's really big deal. Opera House, you know?

Courtney Ammenhauser: Oh, yeah. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Sydney, yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Absolutely. Now that you've had this dream come true to perform at the Opera House, what's next in store for you and what are your other dreams? 

Mahdi Mohammadi: Well, one of my other dreams is to always, as I wanted to make a theatre company, as I made in Afghanistan. Because I would love to work with the younger people and talk about acting. And still that problem that we had in Afghanistan, we have here, like, can you believe how hard it was for us to look for an Afghan actress here in Australia? I thought we were living in Australia. It's just, you know, democracy, everything. But it's still most of the Afghan families have the, they think art is something shameful. It's not a good deal for and for us as Afghan people, we really struggled a lot to find an Afghan actress. And finally, we, I knew Bibi Goul Mossavi, the first actress who was involved in Dorr-e Dari and yeah. So I would love to work on that and make a theatre company and work with Afghan women and trying to encourage them and make them understand that this is not wrong. Art is not what you think and what your family thinks. It's just something different. And if you really want to be an artist, you've got to do it.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I'd be keen to know what else you'd like to see on the stages of, you know, Australian theatre stages in the future. 

Mahdi Mohammadi: I would love to see a lot more performers from, I'm not going to say Afghanistan, but Middle East because they haven't been given the opportunity to be in such a big stage and there is a lot of amazing performers. They just need this chance to be on the stage of Opera House.

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And what about the people that you'd like to see?

Mahdi Mohammadi: There is a lot of people that I would love to see on this stage of Opera House. One of them, Hasiba Ebrahimi, this amazing actress who is working with us in Dorr-e Dari. She lived a tough life and she made it all the way here to Australia. And she, she's a fighter. She fought for herself in Afghanistan for her rights. And it's really hard. You can imagine it's really hard to be an actress in Afghanistan and be that famous. And she made it here and she did this. One of the shows that I went to see in Opera House, one of this is the show that Hasiba Ebrahimi did in Kabul. And that time I was here, I'm really upset that I missed it and I would love to see that show here. And it was called Intelligent Tara. And then the English, I think means till freedom. It's this beautiful, unbelievable story about love between Taliban and one Afghan girl. It's just such a beautiful, amazing story. I would love to see Hasiba on the stage because she deserves it. And I would love to see another one. Munira Hashimi, the sisters of my co-worker in Afghanistan, she did a show called They Stars. Now she's living in Sweden. And this show is about four of the most famous Afghan women, which I saw this show in Blacktown. She came all the way from Sweden and did this show in Blacktown. It was just another fantastic story from Afghan women, it was really amazing and powerful story. I would love to see that show on the stage. I would love to see my housemate, Jawad Yaqoubi, is another performer in Dorr-e Dari. This guy, when I met this guy, he's uneducated. He didn't studied at all, but he, the passion that he had. I met him in Indonesia. We became friends and he always wanted to be an artist and he made it all the way to Australia. And now he's, I can honestly say he's better than me. He's just unbelievable. He learnt so fast he, and his dream is all the same. I want to do my own show in Opera House. I would love to see him on this stage. That would be the biggest dream. And for my Australian friends, Karen Therese, Kaz, the ex-Artistic Director of PYT Fairfield. I just recently saw her show in Carriageworks, Sleeplessness. Such an amazing story. It's just.

Courtney Ammenhauser: It looks incredible, yeah.

Mahdi Mohammadi: It was, it was just I think it's connected to everyone's life. It's just beautiful. It's just beautiful. How the story of her life is. I think she deserves to be on the stage of Opera House, and I would love to see our director, Paul Dwyer, on the stage. I saw his theatre from long, long time ago. I mean, and he was working, performing with us in Tribunal as well. He's such an amazing actor and director. I'm learning a lot from him. I'm learning a lot because when I came here and I found out that I know nothing. I studied for years, but I still I know nothing. I'm learning every day. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was Mahdi Mohmmadi, cinema and theatre director, and co-diviser and performer in Dorr-e Dari. In the next episode we’ll be hearing from writer, teacher and community arts worker Michael Mohammed Ahmad…

Michael Mohammed Ahmad: How do you make a work that addresses all these issues on your own, you can’t because I don’t inhabit all of those different identities so you can only collaboratively and you can only make it with the communities themselves. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I’m Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. From Audiocraft, the show is produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn, mixed by Glen Morrow and executive producer is Selena Shannon. From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan, and Digital Programming Coordinator is Christie Yip. The Up Next theme music is by Milan Ring. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.