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Kayhan Irani

College: CUNY Baccalaureate Degree
Awards: Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, 2012

Making Her Mark on the World's Stage

When she was in fourth grade, Kayhan Irani (CUNY BA, 2008) wrote her first full-length play.

"It was about a woman suffragette who was fighting for women's right to vote and was in an abusive relationship," she says. "A wonderful teacher let me put it on for the rest of the class." Fairness is "a very deep impulse I've always had," as is "empathy with other human beings who are suffering."

Those moral pillars pointed her toward a CUNY Baccalaureate constructed with courses in theater, political science, media studies, anthropology and urban studies at Brooklyn, City and Hunter Colleges and CUNY's School of Professional Studies.

Seeking to merge theater with "activism and social change, to activate audiences and transform society," Irani has made a career of teaching people who have experienced oppression how to transform their lives by creating theatrical works drawn from their own lives and realities. She has worked with groups from the South Bronx to UCLA, from public schools to juvenile detention facilities, from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Now, with a 2012 Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship, she will return to the Parsi community in India, into which she was born, to gather material for a play.

Perhaps her commitment to fair play and social change arose from a family story about a pomegranate orchard in their ancestral province of Yazd, Iran. They might not have been able to hold onto it if a relative had not converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam, since land ownership laws favored Muslims; out of respect, the relative delayed his conversion until his mother died.

Or perhaps it stems from the immigrant experience. Friction - most likely economic, but against a backdrop of unequal rights for religious minorities - propelled her grandparents from Yazd to the thousand-year-old Parsi community of Iranian immigrants in India. That's when the family name became Irani - someone from Iran.

When she was 3½, she and her parents left India for Rego Park, Queens, "a multicultural, working-class area where everyone was immigrant, everyone was different," she says.

A Jewish family from Uzbekistan invited her for Shabbos dinner and Passover Seder. A Chinese neighbor gave her cookies and a red envelope with a token amount of money in thanks for having included her daughter in a trip to a Chinese New Year celebration. Difference was normal.

A year after graduating from the High School of Performing Arts, Irani dropped out of college, hoping to use theater to change the world. In 2003, her one-woman show, "We've Come Undone," followed immigrant women in the wake of 9/11. Interacting with members of the audience, engaging them with her calls for political and social change, she performed the play nationally and internationally.

She became a practitioner and trainer in the Theatre of the Oppressed techniques of Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. In 2004, after the United States had invaded and occupied Iraq, she led theater workshops there that were aimed at teaching and healing children through the arts.

It was only then, at 26, that she returned to CUNY for a degree that would provide a scholarly context for her career. "The CUNY BA honored my mind as an older student," she says. "They give you so much guidance with faculty mentors, but they trust you and support you as you figure out where you want to go. Traditional theater was not where my passion lay, and the CUNY BA allowed me to create a small path in academia so I could reach my goal. CUNY is in my blood - I am CUNY."

In 2012, Irani and her family, in the United States and in India, established an annual $1,000 scholarship for the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies. The Dina Arjani Scholarship, named for Irani's grandmother, is awarded to a student planning a career as a teacher. The first recipient is Christian Waterman, who is designing his degree in "Hip Hop Studies."

After graduation, she became the director of outreach and won a screenwriting New York Emmy for an English-as-a-second-language TV show called "We Are New York." Produced by CUNY and the Mayor's Office of Adult Education, the show introduces immigrants to the little things that New Yorkers take for granted but that can mystify newcomers.

Some years ago, several Afghani men came to her theater training sessions in New York. They told their colleagues, one of whom ran Afghanistan's longest-running radio soap opera.

"They wanted to expand, to use theater to get people talking and engaged," she says. "They put out a call for trainers; I submitted a résumé and was hired."

In the past two years, Irani has made four trips to Kabul and hopes to return. The challenges were many. "One is you have a country that has had 30-plus years of war, with total devastation of infrastructure," she says. "It's very hard to get people up to speed on the skills, on social-change thinking, because some have no education at all; some had their education interrupted because they had to flee."

Using theater is a stretch in a country that has a tradition of storytelling and poetry recitals, and where folk plays are designed to deliver moral messages. Theater, in the Western sense, is unknown; even movie theaters are scarce.

Still, she has held workshops with Afghanis who "want to make theater about their real lives, the problems they see, to make their society better."

With the help of a translator, she has worked in six Afghan provinces, including some, like Kandahar, whose names are familiar from news reports.

"The actors gravitate to mirroring the real world, such as the struggle for women to get educated, or what it's like to navigate government entities or dealing with corruption," she says.

Her classes in Afghanistan tended to have mostly men, which is not surprising in a country where schools for girls are burned and women's rights often are curtailed. Women participate when they can. "It depends on the locality whether women on stage are accepted," she says.

As for the obvious issue of safety, Irani says Kabul is pretty stable, and she lives and works in an Afghan neighborhood with an Afghan organization, not near the areas with embassies, international agencies and political offices that tend to be targeted.

In an April 15 blog post, Irani wrote that she was unaware of the attacks in Kabul until long after they had occurred that day - and she expressed compassion for all involved: "Some young men, this afternoon, were trying something; filled with fear, rage and hopelessness. I thought about the poor victims, their families. And then I wondered about the lives of these fighters. How dark and confused must their way be? 6 men against national and international armies isn't a fair fight, and they know it. They know that the most they can do is to disrupt things for a day or two before dying in the fight. It saddens me that no one had a candle for them. No one could help them see a future worth living for. They had given up on life."

With her research Fulbright to India, which was selected and primarily funded by the Indian government, Irani gives a new twist to her interests. She will study Parsi embroidery for a play she is writing called "Paisley."

Irani says the play focuses on the power of individual choice, set against the socio-political ferment of contemporary Iran. Two generations of master embroiderers face off in a family conflict. How they handle paisley - an Iranian design said to symbolize life and eternity that dates back to the Sassanid Dynasty (200-650 AD) - becomes "a metaphor for the writing and rewriting of history - personal, communal and national." What happens, she asks, "When remembering the past becomes a politically subversive act?"

Embroidery, which neither Irani nor her mother create, is common to cultures worldwide. "It's also a great metaphor that we weave pieces of our lives together, one stitch at a time," she says. "And then we can look back and realize we've created something larger. We can ask: ‘What pattern am I creating in my life? How am I coloring this world when I make certain decisions?'

"People transform cultural practices to fit into the dominant narrative, but culture and cultural practices have very personal resonances. Something of the original intent always remains."