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from the July/August 2003 issue

from The Moon and the Leopard

In The Moon and the Leopard, author Bijan Mofid developed a hint from a folk tale into a verse drama about the tragic love of the Leopard King for the Moon, first glimpsed as a reflection in a mountain spring. The Moon responds in kind, descending to earth-though she remains always just out of reach-to engage the Leopard in a poetic dialogue expressing their impossible and doomed love. By stopping in her course, the Moon stops time, leaving the world in an endless, freezing night. The creatures inhabiting the Leopard's mountain revolt against the misery imposed on them by the lovestruck pair and stone the Moon, driving her back into the sky. The Leopard follows her, leaping to his death at the play's conclusion.The play was first staged in the early seventies at the Shiraz Arts Festival in Iran. Mofid himself directed the production, set on an abstract pile of white cubes, with all characters on stage at all times, enacting the habits of their livelihood quietly in the background as the central scene unfolds. It was a directorial strategy that Mofid used often, designed to paint a picture of an entire society, but also one that honed his actors' ensemble skills.

Mofid conceived the story as an allegory for the doomed idealism of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq's democratic movement. By standing up against American and British imperial interests in Iran and demanding the nationalization of the oil industry, Mossadeq had galvanized the country's fledgling democracy and inspired a nationalism that would spur events as far ahead and unforeseen as the Islamic revolution. Mossadeq's flamboyant and eccentric style contributed in no small part to the heroic dimensions of his image in the hearts of Iranians, and to his Western opponents' frustration.

In portraying the machinations of the CIA-led coup that toppled Mossadeq, Mofid is less concerned to point the finger at foreign evil-an angle perhaps more interesting to Americans, but too patently obvious to Iranians-than to explore the fault lines of corruption and conservatism in Iranian society that were so easily exploited by the CIA. Mofid himself described the play as the tragedy of a country unready for the democratic ideals that Mossadeq represented. One character describes the resulting chaos: "People are living behind barricades, shooting across the walls at their neighbors. They've all been reduced to beasts in the pit of this darkness. We're living on a battlefield, but nobody's winning, nobody's losing."

In the original version of the play that was presented in Iran in the seventies, the heavy climate of censorship under which Mofid worked forced him to leave the social dimension of the story underdeveloped, sketched only in vague and highly allegorical outlines. Living in Los Angeles after the revolution, Mofid staged another production at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in 1983. He took this opportunity, free of the constraints of censorship, to rewrite the play substantially. He kept the parts of the Moon and Leopard intact, but fleshed out the animal inhabitants of the Leopard's mountain as familiar caricatures of Iranian society as well as historical figures in a comedic indictment that follows the money trail leading from the U.S. embassy to the fall of Mossadeq. We meet Hajji, embodiment of the corrupt clergy; the Colonel, who represents both the dictatorial authority of the government and the upper class's intoxication with all things Western; and their wives, whose stance shifts constantly for profit. Shaban Khan and his sidekick represent the paid mob, the illiterate masses who are bought by the CIA. The Teacher-sometimes called the Poet-was the character dearest to Mofid's own heart: the liberal intellectual who is the only one able to comprehend the Leopard's love for the Moon. It is his voice that delivers the poignant songs that punctuate the action, a voice finally silenced by execution at the Colonel's command.

Mofid's writing is extraordinary, and much loved by Iranians, for his ability to compress many layers of meaning into the simplest of stories. In allegorizing Mossadeq's fall as a tragedy of impossible love, Mofid was tapping into the rich tradition of classical Persian poetry where romantic love is so often a metaphor for aspiration to the divine. The theme of separation from the beloved and the anguish of longing is deeply embedded in the Iranian psyche through the great Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafez. The vision that the Leopard, Mossadeq, holds for the nation's future transcends politics: his unreachable Moon is not just democracy, but enlightenment, truth, and love. The Leopard's death-leap in pursuit of the Moon is as predictable and familiar as the fatal attraction of the moth to the candle flame, the longing for the divine that burns away all practical considerations. In mining this spiritual vein to develop his social and political themes, Mofid's genius is perfectly attuned to the character of Iranian culture.

Leopard's Dream They're getting closer--listen! Listen to that sound! It's the grinding of their stained and venomous teeth. Take him away from here! Take him! . . . Take him!

Moon Take him? Where should I take him? I myself am an exile, an unwelcome guest on the dust of your earth, and nowhere in all the void of space, in all of unpitying heaven, nowhere under this cracked, cold dome have I ever found a home, a haven, a place to rest. There's no door that opens for me-- where should I invite a guest?

Leopard I hear the voice of the mountain crying under the ice, the sound of a leaf withering, a flower falling, a tear rolling.

Leopard's Dream They're getting close! There's not much time-- Moon, don't let him stay. Don't let this beauty, this glory, become the prey of worms. Take him! Take him!

The Colonel's Wife knocks at the door of Hajji's home.

Colonel's Wife Mrs. Hajji! Mrs. Hajji!

Hajji's Wife Shouting: Hajji! I think it's the colonel's wife.

He calls back from the toilet:

Hajji Tell her I'm not home.

Colonel's Wife Mrs. Hajji!

Hajji Tell her I'm doing the ablutions.

Hajji's Wife Ablutions? At this time of night?

Hajji There's no prescribed time for ablutions.

Hajji's Wife Well, what kind of ablutions shall I say you're doing?

Hajji Tell her I'm washing the corpse.

Hajji's Wife The corpse?

Colonel's Wife Mrs. Hajji! Mrs. Hajji!

Hajji's Wife What corpse?

Hajji Any corpse!

Hajji's Wife Has somebody died?

Hajji What are you so nosy for? It's a message for the colonel. He'll know what I mean.

Hajji's Wife Oh, I see!

She opens the door.

Colonel's Wife Hello, Mrs. Hajji.

Hajji's Wife Mrs. Colonel, what a pleasure! Come in.

Colonel's Wife No, don't let me disturb you. Is Hajji in?

Hajji's Wife He is washing the corpse.

Colonel's Wife (Happy) Then the job is done!

Hajji's Wife Yes, God willing.

Colonel's Wife Thank God. Please see that Hajji himself gets this package. Alone. Tell him it's his fee for washing the corpse.

Hajji's Wife Thank you very much.

Colonel's Wife The rest will be paid after the funeral.

Hajji's Wife But wait, come in for a minute. Have a cup of tea.

Colonel's Wife No, I have to go.

Hajji's Wife You've gone to so much trouble. Thank you.

Colonel's Wife It's nothing at all. Thank you. Goodbye now.

She leaves. Hajji's Wife looks into the package.

Hajji's Wife It seems that the fee for washing a corpse is quite high these days.

Hajji Be thankful for God's gifts.

Focus on the Moon and Leopard:

Moon What can I do? Where can I take him to hide? For hundreds of thousands of years in this darkness my hand has reached for the hand of a sun. I've searched so long for one that might press my own in the dark, might hold me, might warm me, and lead me away from the frozen grasp of the night. Yes, finally, after centuries, endless, endless centuries, one night here on the mountain peak, your unfortunate moon, your star-bound bride of the sky has felt the sun's warm hand, here . . . in mine.

Pause. And my frozen body shuddered as the sudden warmth of these fingertips ran through me. And now, my own cold hands are held by the hand of the sun, held by the hand of the mountain king, and in his eyes I've found a place of shelter. I've warmed myself in the fever of these eyes. Yes, little child, this wild leopard, this fearless heart, these eyes, this body full of pain, this sea of love, this pillar of the sky, this king of the valleys and mountains and plains-- this is my sun, my light.

Leopard You made me a sun.

Moon This is my being, my joy, my hope.

Leopard The hope you gave me.

Moon The warmth of my burnt-out life.

Leopard The life you gave me.

Moon Why should I give up the light that I've held? Why should I turn my back on the sun, on the warmth of my life, on this beautiful wild leopard . . .

Leopard It was you that made me a leopard of the mountain. I was the anguish of autumn: you turned me to spring. I was an old and withered tree: you made a blossom out of me. I was dry, and you welled in the depths of my heart. I was a shriveled vine: you turned me to wine.

Moon You poured your wine for me, you made me drunk.

Leopard And you served me the same. You filled me with love, overflowing with pain.

Moon Your flowing wine, your flood of love, is sweeping me away.

Leopard You're beautiful. You're beauty.

Moon It's the beauty that your eyes have made.

Leopard You're a song of destiny.

Moon . . . the music that you've played. You are legend, you are epic; you are poetry.

Leopard Your love recited me: and with one sip of this bitter wine you filled the hollow of my heart, my empty eyes, with beauty, with drunken ecstasy.

Moon No, it was you who made me a moon, you, the leopard of the mountain, whose body is a pillar of the sky, the terrible awesome king of the valleys and caves, the king of the mountains and plains.

Leopard You made me a leopard, you made me a king.

Moon Throughout this entire land your love has made me infamous.

Hajji's Wife calls from outside the thug Shaban-khan's house, where he is sleeping. His Sidekick answers the door.

Hajji's Wife Shaban-khan!

Sidekick Wait, I'll call him.

He goes back into the house.

Shaban-khan! Shaban-khan!

Shaban-khan What's the matter, kid? Can't you see I'm sleeping?

Sidekick Sorry, boss. Hajji's wife is at the door. She wants to see you.

Shaban-khan I'm not home. Tell her I've gone on a pilgrimage.

Sidekick starts to go but turns back.

Sidekick But it's the wrong time of year.

Shaban-khan Then tell her I've gone to the club to work out.

He goes back to sleep. Sidekick goes to the door.

Hajji's Wife Did you tell him?

Sidekick He's not home.

Hajji's Wife He's not?

Sidekick He went to the club to work out. He likes his exercise.

Hajji's Wife Exercise? In this cold?

Sidekick He's used to it. He'll do a few push-ups, throw some weights around, he'll be in top form.

Hajji's Wife Good for him. I wish my Hajji could be in top form just once in while.

Sidekick What's wrong with him?

Hajji's Wife Nothing. From the crack of dawn to the wee hours of the night he sits at the opium brazier. He works himself up to make speeches on the radio, gets all wound up to perform. But always he fusses and says that he's not quite in top form yet. So then he goes down to the flower bed, spreads out his paraphernalia, drinks a glass of vodka, then another one, and still he says "I'm not in top form yet." So I'm the one who has to get up, put on my scarf and veil, run all the way downtown to buy him cucumbers, melons, and radishes, the only things he can swallow.

Sidekick And then?

Hajji's Wife Nothing. He sits down, drinks a glass of vodka, then another one, and still he says . . .

Both . . . "I'm not in top form yet."

Hajji's Wife And you haven't heard the half of it! Early in the evening he starts his fussing. Why is this here? Why is that there? Why is the light left on? Why do the neighbors make so much noise? Why is Roya burping? Then he goes back down to the flowerbed, sits there . . .

Both Drinks a glass of vodka, then another one, and still he says "I'm not in top form yet."

Hajji's Wife God only knows!

Sidekick Tell him to come to the club once in a while.

Hajji's Wife God forbid! Hajji at the club?! Whatever for?

Sidekick He'll toss some weights, do a few push-ups, I promise you he'll be in top form in no time.

Hajji's Wife You don't know him. If he needs to move his butt to get out of the house, first he has to sit down and drink a glass or two or three, and then just as soon as he gets home, he goes back down to the flowerbed . . .

Both Drinks a glass of vodka, then another one, and still he says "I'm not in top form yet."

Sidekick God grant you patience.

Hajji's Wife And especially since a certain individual has fallen in love with the moon, he's completely confused. He can't tell his ass from his elbow. The moon keeps getting brighter and warmer, and if things go on like this, he says, soon we'll be scraping bottom, because everyone's paid for the nighttime prayers and the morning just doesn't come!

Sidekick Time is a thing of the past, these days.

Hajji's Wife Nobody needs him for weddings, christenings . . .

Sidekick Let alone moral guidance. The goats are all mixed up with the sheep.

Hajji's Wife There's no sabbath left to keep.

Sidekick It's chaos, total chaos.

Hajji's Wife That's why he goes down to the flowerbed, drinks a glass of vodka, then another one, and still he says "I'm not in top form yet."

She gets up.

Well, I have to go. He's waiting for me. I wanted to deliver this package in person to Shaban-khan.

Sidekick Not out here. Come inside.

Hajji's Wife Oh, no, I couldn't. What would people say?

Sidekick Don't worry. If anyone gossips, I'll tie their intestines around their neck.

Shaban-khan himself comes out, yawning.

Shaban-khan Hello, Mrs. Hajji.

Hajji's Wife Hello. I thought you were at the club.

Shaban-khan No, I was sleeping.

Hajji's Wife But he said . . .

Shaban-khan He was wrong . . . Very, very wrong. You're sick, telling lies like that.

Sidekick But, boss . . .

Shaban-khan kicks him away.

Shaban-khan Get lost!

Sidekick Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.

He leaves.

Shaban-khan Mrs. Hajji, forgive him. He's just a kid. He doesn't understand. So, what can I do for you?

Hajji's Wife Hajji sends his regards. He asked me to come and give you this in person.

She gives him the briefcase of cash.

Shaban-khan Very kind of you.

Hajji's Wife Hajji says you'll get the rest after the holidays, assuming all goes well.

Shaban-khan Thank you very much. Hey, kid, get over here!

Sidekick returns.

Sidekick Yes, sir.

Shaban-khan To Hajji's Wife: Tell your reverend husband: the boy would be honored to lay down his life at Hajji's slightest whim. As an expression of my gratitude.

He starts counting the money.

One, two, three . . .

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