A Dutchman Making His Persian Debut at Israeli Storytelling Festival

As an Iranian artist in exile, performing in Israel holds special meaning for Sahand Sahebdivani

Iranian-born Sahand Sahebdivani has been working as a professional storyteller for 10 years in the Netherlands, where he performs in both Dutch and English, but up until now, never in his native Persian.

Which might explain why he’s a bit stressed about holding his Persian language debut act next week – and of all places, in Israel.

“It’s a bit tricky,” confides Sahebdivani, a non-practicing Muslim, in an interview with Haaretz, “even though this is still the language with which I speak with my parents.”

Sahebdivani, 33, is among a handful of foreign performers, among hundreds of Israeli actors, storytellers, authors and media personalities, scheduled to participate in the 20th annual International Storytelling Festival in Givatayim, held every year during the holiday of Sukkot. The festival organizers, as he explains it, made his invitation conditional on his agreement to hold at least one performance in Persian for the benefit of the local Iranian community.

In addition, Sahebdivani will be holding another two solo performances in English (a second was added at the last minute after the first was sold out) and make a guest appearance in another Israeli act devoted to the Jews of Iran. His stories, he says, are “all over the place,” combining the personal with myth and fable. “I let them run into each other, so that it’s not clear where the personal ends and the myths begin.”

In 2012 and 2013, Sahebdivani, who runs a popular storytelling center in Amsterdam, was nominated national storyteller of the year by the Dutch Storytelling Society. In the past year, he has begun taking his act on the road, performing in Britain and Germany.

Unlike many Iranians of his generation, Sahebdivani says he had the unusual good fortune of being born into family that supported his artistic pursuits and didn’t mind him dropping out of university after two years of studying biology to become a full-time storyteller. “All Iranian parents have this idea that their children, especially if they have the brains to study, are off to become engineers, doctors, or lawyers,” he notes. “The reason my parents supported me is that my mother herself has an amazing singing voice – I often invite her to perform with me on stage – but her parents were so religious and intolerant that they forbade her from becoming a singer. They told her you will go and study, and she went and studied something she didn’t want to study. So when her son, that’s me, decided to become an artist and drop out of university, she was absolutely supportive.”

It was from his father, though, says Sahebdivani, that he inherited his storytelling talents and developed his passion for the art. “My father allowed me to travel back to Iran, even though I haven’t been there since I was three, just by telling me the old mythical tales and the family stories.”

At age 14, he had his first chance to perform on his own, when he was invited to participate in a show in which refugee children in the Netherlands were asked to share their personal stories of exile. “That was the first time I saw that you can actually take this on stage,” he recalls. “I had no idea until then that this was an art you could do professionally.”

After dropping out of university, Sahebdivani got his professional start working as a storyteller in an anthropology museum in Amsterdam and today earns his living combining storytelling gigs with musical performances. His instrument of choice is the traditional Iranian tar (similar to a lute), but he can play quite a few others. “Whenever there’s another instrument that needs to be played, I grab it,” he says.

Even before he began taking his storytelling act on the road, Sahebdivani was traveling around Europe performing with a Balkan-Klezmer band that specialized in mixing the sounds of Southern and Eastern Europe with those of the Orient. “We did shows in Hungary and in the former Yugoslavia, but we were mainly popular in the underground scene in Netherlands.”

Sahebdivani was three years old when his family fled the Iranian ayatollah regime in 1983 and settled in Amsterdam. He has one vivid memory from that period crossing the border into Turkey.

“I remember getting on horseback with my mom and sitting behind the Kurdish smuggler who was taking us out,” he recalls. “I remember the physical danger. We were going through mountain passes and there were these very deep valleys next to us, and I remember thinking that if the horse would trip we would fall and that would be the end.”

He still has family in Iran, whom he maintains frequent contact with. But he gets an even better sense of the situation in his homeland through his recent work with a media organization based in the Netherlands that tries to get uncensored news into Iran. “I’m constantly meeting people who lived there until a few months ago, so I have a good idea of what’s going on.”

Both as an Iranian artist in exile and as a Dutch citizen, he says, having the opportunity to perform in Israel holds special meaning for him. “Many of the musicians I listened to as a kid who were such an important part of the Iranian cultural scene were Jewish and don’t live in Iran anymore – they either moved to the U.S. or to Israel,” he notes. “When you grow up in a place like the Netherlands, you also can’t help but notice that it’s a place very much influenced by Yiddish culture but that the people who influenced it aren’t there anymore. So for me to come to Israel is in a way a dream. It’s a country I’ve wanted to visit for many years so that I could reconnect with my own identity both as an Iranian and a Dutchman.”

Omid Pourhashemi
Behnam Bornak
Mathieu van Ek