By Diana Nollen, The Gazette
Singer Azam Ali said she is “as American as you can be,” yet recently had racial insults hurled at her while shopping at a popular global foods store in Los Angeles.
Born in Iran and raised in India from ages 4 to 14, she and her family came to the United States 1985. She became a citizen in 1990, while still a teenager.
“I’ve been American longer than I’ve been any other identity,” she said.
Likewise, her husband, instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian, was born in Iran, but came with his family to the United States in 1979 when he was 15. He became a naturalized citizen in 1981.
While he experienced some racial tensions in high school, that settled down until 9/11, when everything changed.
“Most Iranian migration really happened during 1979,” Torkian said, which was the year a revolution toppled the Shah of Iran’s regime.
“Most Iranians that you meet here have either been here at least 30 or 40 years, or were born here,” he noted.
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“We’ve been here forever — they just started noticing us after Sept. 11,” Ali added. “And nobody gave us any credit. ... Iranians, are for the most part, such productive members of society. They contribute so much to this country, but unfortunately, if you look at people who are not very much educated about the geography of our region of the world, we are still considered lowest on the (hierarchy), just because of what the media is pushing always.”
The couple, world-class musicians and composers who met and married in Los Angeles in 2005, have a 9-year-old son who doesn’t understand the racism he’s witnessed in the country where he was born, Ali said. He doesn’t understand why people hate the country where his parents were born.
“It’s hard for any child to comprehend,” she said. “Children don’t see differences in skin color. You learn those things. They’re taught.”
And yet, the family has to be cautious in public. They stick together and only speak English, not Farsi, because hearing a foreign language has “become a trigger point for a lot of people,” Ali said. “It’s really sad, but it’s just the climate we’re living in, in America right now.”
“Every time you have that discussion (with children), every time you bring this up, there is that little bit of their innocence that you’re chipping away,” Torkian said. “ ... It is a personal price that these children pay. Now suddenly, you’re coloring their perception and you’re taking away just that much of their innocence and universality that inherently we are all born with, that we’ve taken away from ourselves.”
The couple seek to foster cross-cultural knowledge and acceptance through their musical ensemble, Niyaz, which means “yearning” in several Middle Eastern languages. As composers and performers, they blend Sufi poetry with folk music from Iran and the surrounding region, woven with modern technology to create what’s described as a contemporary electroacoustic trance soundscape. It reflects the couple’s journey of “living with one foot in our ancient culture and one foot in the modern world,” Ali said.
That will be displayed when their ensemble performs “The Fourth Light Project” on Saturday night at Hancher Auditorium. They will spend the week in Iowa City, in a residency that offers a series of public brown-bag discussions and school workshops as part of Hancher’s two-year Embracing Complexity initiative.
It’s part of a national initiative designed to build understanding of contemporary Islamic cultures and Muslim identity, and is funded by a $204,000 grant from the Association of Performing Arts Professionals for the Building Bridges: Arts, Culture, and Identity program.
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“It’s meant to help dispel stereotypes and issues around Muslim cultures,” said Micah Ariel James, Hancher’s education manager. “We’re presenting artists from all sorts of backgrounds, who are able to address some of the issues Muslims face, and share their cultures with everyone.”
The grant process was “very competitive,” James said, and Hancher received one of seven awards for the second round of grants. Sending artists into the community, University of Iowa classrooms and K-12 schools will help build those bridges between cultures, she said.
Those steps are crucial to promoting understanding, Ali said.
“A lot of people ask us, ‘Why do you go and do these residencies in Montana and places where there are almost no Iranian artists or any foreign artists?’ That’s exactly why go there,” she said. “You have to engage — you cannot just sit back and say, ‘Oh well, it’s too bad it’s like this.’ For us, we’re also trying to raise our son to engage with society, and if there’s something you don’t like about the world or you see an injustice, you need to stand up and do your small part to make a difference.
“(Music) is the gift that we have. If we can use it to inspire people to bring about a certain positive change, even if it’s in the smallest way, for us, we have achieved a major goal as human beings.”
‘THE FOURTH LIGHT’
To that end, Niyaz will explore a wide range of topics during its brown-bag discussions, from brief histories of Islam, Sufism and Iranians in America to feminism in the East and using technology to enhance the arts.
Melding electronic and ancient sounds is “a constant process of discovery for us,” Ali said. “We created a true hybrid. We’re always careful not to make the music too electronic and not make it too acoustic, because for us, it’s creating a hybrid, just like we are hybrids. We’re borrowing from so many ancient elements.”
Inspired by the life and work of Rabia al-Basri, an eighth-century Muslim saint and the first female Sufi mystic, “The Fourth Light Project” is a multimedia experience that began as an album released in 2015, then became a stage show that combines live music, projection techniques and sacred dance by a whirling dervish.
The title reflects al-Basri’s birth, given name and rise from darkness to the light through her journey of mystic self-discovery.
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“Rabia was born into a very poor family,” Ali said. “She was the fourth daughter, and was born in the middle of the night, when it was very dark. They did not even have money to buy oil for lamps, so they could not even see the child that was born — the child that eventually would grow up to become such a significant person in the history of that region of the world. And so because she was the fourth daughter and her name actually means ‘light,’ we called it ‘The Fourth Light.’”
The project doesn’t promote religion, but was born from religious traditions.
“Neither of us are Muslim, but we do come from the culture,” Ali said, with Muslim ties through their maternal lineage. “I grew up with my mother who was not a religious woman, and quite progressive in many ways. But our culture, our poetry, our art, our architecture, our music — everything is so influenced by Islam that it’s almost inseparable, as it is in the case of many, many cultures.”
And Sufism is the mystical aspect of Islam, she said.
Torkian explained that a mystic “is a person that is trying to find a series of revelations that are beyond the physical form as we know it. It’s a perception, as well as a way that our beliefs afford a perspective on life. It influences the way we perceive information and process them.”
They were drawn to al-Basri by her feminine aspect, as well, Ali said.
“She was really a mystic and poet, and unfortunately, she was left out of many of our history books because she was a woman,” Ali said. “We wanted to bring her story and her legacy back to life with this project, with the album, and celebrate the contribution she had made to a very important mystical aspect of our culture. The fact that she is a women is central to that. The album really celebrates feminism.”
By taking the music on the road, mixing in a bit of music from past and new projects, Ali and Torkian are not only preserving their own histories, but also connecting ancient traditions with modern audiences.
“More than anything, our hope is that when people are with us for that hour and a half that they’re able to not think about our differences,” Ali said, “and that we’re able to take them on a journey that transcends all the barriers that seem to exist more and more today. Really create a bridge — a bridge of understanding and connection....
“Through the arts, we are able to connect with one another on such a profound and deep level. More than anything, that’s our main goal,” she said.
“Secondly, it’s a little bit more pragmatic. In this climate today, where there is so much phobia about immigrants and people who are from the Middle East, we really hope that during that time that we are there, we are able to shine a positive light on those of us who are immigrants and have been here for decades and decades. For us, this is also our home.”
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Torkian added: “I really hope that during that time we inspire the audience, and through that inspiration, there comes a certain level of openness and intrigue that hopefully will stay and resonate with our audience. Through that will come understanding and curiosity.”
“Instead of fearing the unknown, you become curious about the unknown,” Ali concluded.
l Coments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com
IF YOU GO
l What: Niyaz: “The Fourth Light Project”
l Where: Hancher, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
l When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (9/30)
l Tickets: $10 to $35, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18
l Hancher Presents: “The Fourth Light Project,” noon to 1 p.m. Monday (9/25), Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City; bring sack lunch. Musicians Azam Ali and Loga Ramin Torkian will discuss their latest work, “The Fourth Light Project.” The conversation will be recorded for distribution on the podcast, “Hancher Presents.”
l Lunch with Niyaz: Islam and Sufism, A Brief History, noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday (9/26), Iowa Memorial Union, Indiana Room 346, 125 N. Madison St., Iowa City; bring sack lunch. Band members will discuss Rabia al-Basri, the eighth-century Muslim saint who served as the inspiration for their latest work. The first female Sufi mystic, she set forth the doctrine of Divine Love and nonduality, which today lies at the heart of Sufi mysticism. Azam Ali and Loga Ramin Torkian will discuss the shared, but eventually diverging, histories of Islam and Sufism to explore the similarities and differences between the two.
l Lunch with Niyaz: Iranian American History, noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday (9/27), Iowa Memorial Union, Indiana Room 346; bring sack lunch. The artists will talk about the roots of their work and engage in a larger exploration of the history of Iranian American immigration.
l Lunch with Niyaz: Feminism in the East, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Thursday (9/28), Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A; bring sack lunch. Inspired by Ali Shariati’s perspective on feminism, Azam Ali and Loga Ramin Torkian will explore women’s rights and gender identity in the Global South. They also will discuss the subject of their latest work, Rabia al-Basri, and the importance of sharing al-Basri’s story in a modern world that continues to adhere to patriarchal societies and laws.
l Lunch with Niyaz: Using Technology to Enhance the Arts, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Friday (9/29), Iowa Memorial Union, Indiana Room 346; bring sack lunch. Musicians Azam Ali and Loga Ramin Torkian and their collaborators, including visual artist Jerome Delapierre, will speak about how technology informs and enhances their artistic practice.
l WorldCanvass: Embracing Complexity, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday (9/29), MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City; reception at 5 p.m. WorldCanvass host Joan Kjaer will speak with members of Niyaz, Hancher staff and community members about Embracing Complexity and “The Fourth Light Project.” WorldCanvass is a live, global issues discussion project from the University of Iowa’s International Programs, recorded as an audio podcast.
l Details: Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/Niyaz