Iran native eyes Schenectady café as venue for conversation

Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, stands in front of 703 Union Street in Schenectady Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Gazette PhotographerDr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, stands in front of 703 Union Street in Schenectady Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer
Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, stands in front of 703 Union Street in Schenectady Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, stands in front of 703 Union Street in Schenectady Wednesday, November 5, 2014. Photo by Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

By BETHANY BUMP
Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Fifteen years ago, Iranian officials raided Mahmood Karimi-Hakak’s sold-out production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and shut it down.

The Islamic regime in power at the time had been sending censors to observe Karimi-Hakak’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and they objected to a scene in which an actor made a pushing gesture toward an actress from 10 inches away. Men and women were forbidden from touching on stage, and from a certain angle an audience member might think the actors had touched, the officials told him. Karimi-Hakak increased the distance.

But on the fifth night of sold-out performances, officials raided the show, shouting violent threats and calling the women on stage whores. With hundreds of people in the audience, Karimi-Hakak urged the raiders to sit down with him on stage and discuss their concerns with the audience. If the audience believed them valid, he would happily shut down, he said.

“I said, ‘Look, theater is an art based on dialogue; therefore, stage is the most appropriate place for opposing forces to sit down and have a conversation,’ ” the Niskayuna resident and Siena College professor recalled 15 years later. “Of course, they did not do it, because they knew if there was a dialogue, they’d have no legs to stand on.”

Now, Karimi-Hakak has a new plan to foster dialogue, right here in Schenectady. He’s asking the city for approval to open a café at 703 Union St., a two-story building across from Union College, to host film screenings, poetry readings, arts and crafts exhibits and plain old conversation.

Café International would offer coffee, pastries, Persian teas and sweets. With some minimal renovations and city Planning Commission approval later this month, it could open by March, right in time for the Persian New Year.

“I want to gather people under the same roof for tea and conversation,” Karimi-Hakak said. “All kinds of people: academics, artists, students, people from all walks of life. As a theater artist, I sincerely believe that the only way to survival as human beings is to have conversations with one another to understand that we can live in this world together and we don’t have to think the same way to do it.”

Back in Iran, he was accused of “raping the public’s innocence.” He received anonymous death threats. He didn’t take them seriously until one day he came home and hit “play” on his answering machine.

“We’ll give you two weeks to leave the country,” a voice on the machine said. “If you do not, we’ll run over your twin daughters’ stroller with a patrol.”

A month later, Karimi-Hakak, his wife, Leila, and his 2-year-old daughters, Baran and Shaparak, arrived in New York. Three years later, Siena College offered him a job as a creative arts professor and the family bought a home in Niskayuna, where they’ve lived ever since.

Karimi-Hakak is a professor, poet, filmmaker, Fulbright scholar and man of theater, but above all, he considers himself a man of dialogue. One of the courses he teaches at Siena College is Peacebuilding Through the Arts, an ironic title for a man who was threatened with violence for his art.

“They did not want someone like me, who was able to gather a group of 90 to 100 youths together for six months on that play, a group that was there to learn and communicate and talk and converse; they did not want someone like this to succeed,” he said.

Dialogue was much easier in the United States. In 2011, he created and launched the Festival Cinema Invisible at Proctors in Schenectady. The annual weekend festival presents dozens of Middle Eastern films, as well as panel discussions, photo exhibits and performances by Iranian musicians.

He even had his own television show for a while. “Talking to Mahmood” aired on Open Stage Media at Proctors, Schenectady’s only public access network, and featured Karimi-Hakak interviewing politicians, intellectuals and creative types from around the world. He took a short break in September to work on an original play about a female Liberian child soldier’s life in the U.S. The play will open at Siena’s Beaudoin Theater later this month.

Although Café International will be less about food and more about conversation, there will be no shortage of food for those who decide to stop in. His brother-in-law is willing to cater events with food from his new Persian restaurant, Persian Bite, which opened several months ago across from City Hall on Jay Street.

The cafe will be the second eatery planned for the 700 block of Union Street in the past year. A Schenectady couple is planning to open a French restaurant called Chez Nous just two doors down, at 707 Union St. The new spots will extend the popular row of restaurants and bars along lower Union Street another block.

There are many things Karimi-Hakak relishes about his new home in the Capital Region, including the artistic freedom, the community of intellectuals and the top-notch school district his daughters, now 16, attend. But it doesn’t stop him from missing his home in Iran — the friends, the culture, even the stink of standing water in the back alleys of Tehran, he says with a laugh. If he were to return, though, it would mean a one-way cab ride from the airport to prison.

“Some of my friends tell me that this is not the place for a café about dialogue,” Karimi-Hakak said. “They say Schenectady does not have this kind of people. But interestingly enough, in my 14 years of living in Schenectady County, I have met so many interesting, articulate, academic people that I am surprised we all call this place Smalbany. I think even in Smalbany, we have enough people willing to talk about art and literature and peace.”

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.