TWO SPIRITS director, Lydia Nibley was honored to be featured in the University of Southern California’s Visions and Voices initiative at a day-long event featuring films and a discussion to examine the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
JUMPING ON THE FIRE
My friend and dance teacher Rouhi invited me to join her community for Norouz, the Persian New Year celebration that has been observed for over 3,000 years. “We jump on the fire!” she explained.
“Don’t you mean over?” I asked hopefully.
“That’s what we do!” She replied with a beautiful smile and a toss of her mane of black hair.
Sometimes the idioms confuse me. “I kill you” in English is an awkward translation of a charming Farsi phrase that means something like, I love you so much I could eat you up. Jigar is said with a deep-throated rrr that is almost a growl, and is a term of endearment that means liver, as in, I think of you like my liver, which is pretty darned important to me.
In her dance classes we joke that Rouhi is the Queen of Iran as she watches us with eyes in the back of her head. She wants each dancer to find her own way of interpreting the steps, so that our differences are honored. She pushes us to move beyond being unsure and uncoordinated, to dancing like water, snakes, the wind, and the essential and eternal feminine. She demands our best and makes us work hard, but we slack off when she disappears to have a cigarette. (She smokes for heaven’s sake. What kind of example is that?!)
When my mind wanders she shoots me a sharp look. “Lydia, Jigar, concentrate or I kill you.” I’m pretty sure she means it in that good way. The night before the Persian New Year the hills of Los Angeles are blooming and the moon is bright. Throughout the city and on the beaches, fires are burning for this ancient Zoroastrian celebration of “new light” and “new day.” Parents take the hands of their children and leap over the fires together. The eyes of the little ones are full of amazement.
The forbidden fire that must not be touched or played with, is now inexplicably turned into a friend on this wonderful night. Teenage boys and girls tease each other and try to flirt and look bored at the same time—as if nothing matters, when it is clear that everything matters as much as it ever will in these precious moments in the firelight. A toddler practices her dance moves with the intensity of a diva. An old man with a walker seems content to watch from his fixed placed. A dapper Iranian man asks me to dance and says I look very happy. None of us are purists about the Persian aspects of the celebration. Santiago shows me a complicated salsa move. Michael holds me close through the tango. The DJ adds hip hop to the cultural remix. Rouhi is someone who welcomes all and celebrates all. She decorates the studio to honor all of the holidays observed by this dancing community of Muslins, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Bahá’í, and Buddhists. If people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” invented a holiday—she would decorate for that too.
We run and jump over the Norouz fires again and again, while the joyful noise of the music blares and the celebratory mood lifts our laughter to the sky with the rising smoke. I’m told that as we leap over the fire we are releasing the yellow energy of the fear and pain we have held within us, and inviting the red energy of courage and vitality embodied by the fire. We are One in this celebration and in our shared desire that this year be better than the last.
The great Persian poet Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God that I can no longer call myself a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, A Buddhist, a Jew. The Truth has shared so much of Itself with me that I can no longer call myself a man, a woman, an angel, or even pure Soul. Love has befriended Hafiz so completely it has turned to ash and freed me of every concept and image my mind has ever known.”
At our next dance class Rouhi is beaming, “Wasn’t that fun!” Oh, yes, Jigar.
I met singer-songwriter Lee Harris at the British Film Institute screening of TWO SPIRITS at the arts complex on the banks of the Thames in London. After the film we walked over the bridge in the rain to a little Indian restaurant. Our conversation was not that of new friends getting acquainted, but of old friends newly reunited with a lifetime of catching up to do. We shared our histories and our dreams. We talked about the projects we were each making and what might happen next.
Lee saved the day shortly thereafter when I returned to post-production in the U.S. to revise the film for PBS and needed to quickly replace a piece of music. It’s in a key sequence where Fred describes who he is to his family and asks for their support. It was just the right place for the instrumental version of Lee’s piece Hollow. Here is Lee claiming Wicked Game in a powerful one-take performance that provides a larger sense of his musical work.
A radio piece by Lydia Nibley broadcast internationally by the BBC
The story begins in front of Picasso’s great painting Guernica on September 11, 2001, and continues on a journey to the town of Gernika in Basque country in northern Spain, a town destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by a new kind of warfare, a strike from the sky against a symbolic target, with many innocent people dead as a means of terrorizing the civilian population.
When I asked the young Basque woman acting as my interpreter about current ETA terrorism, she offered comments sympathetic to their cause, repeating the phrase, “It’s complicated,” as if to assure me that if I understood more, I would see their violent acts as entirely justified. Masses for the dead in the U.S. were being said throughout Europe in the days after September 11th, and the piece uses ambient sound collected in public places and in churches to approach the subject of how complicated these events are both in the moment and historically.
Picasso said, “War’s end. Hostilities go on forever.” But in this story we find there is also an equal and enduring kinship shared by those who have suffered the violence that comes to the innocent. The ideologies and politics that perpetrate violence are sometimes forgotten and forgiven, and a deep connection links those who have survived terror—and their compassion for each other is enduring.