Categories: Rebecca Romani, THE BUZZ

THE BUZZ: On Telling A Refugee Story: Mahshid’s Memoir Takes The Stage

By Rebecca Romani

November 23, 2020

When she was a ten-year-old refugee trying to get over the border between Iran and Turkey, young Mahshid could have never imagined what would come of her story.

But now, more than 30 years later, Mahshid Fashandi Hager’s at times harrowing, at times endearing tale of leaving her native Iran is front and center on stage as “No Way Back” at The Roustabouts Theatre. It’s a transition that leaves her older self, now a successful trauma therapist, wife and mother; amazed by the path her memories have taken.

“The best short way I can describe this,” Fashandi Hager says, “is that this story used to own me and now I own it. I had tried to write the story down many times in the past, but I couldn’t. I would be flooded by emotion, or memory would fail me, language would fail me, or I would just not have the confidence that I would get all the way through it so why even bother. But I think it is because of my trauma work (as a trauma therapist) that I have been able to put words to paper.”

Author / Playwright, Fashandi Hager
Photo credit: Kamelia Photography

Fashandi Hager was 10 when her immediate family secretly left Iran during the Iran/Iraq war and tried to cross the border into Turkey with the help of a smuggler. They were robbed in the process and then, once in Ankara, had to get a visa for Germany where they had family. Fashandi Hager’s parents left behind a house, extended family, jobs, and their country.

Although the family intended to go to the US, the process of getting a visa was close to impossible. “In Germany we found a landing ground there,” says Fashandi Hager. “We had family there, we found a system in place …and we stayed. But I grew up always thinking that the US was an option.”

For Fashandi Hager, who eventually came to San Diego for college, the experience of writing a memoir and then turning it into a play was surprisingly cathartic.

“I am a big advocate of therapy, obviously. I am certified in somatic experiencing which is a very body-based form of trauma work. And it (was) going through this training that was the very first time that I had processed something that was traumatic to me. My family hit the ground running (when they got to Germany), we were in survival mode- and we still are in some ways. We didn’t talk about this, there was no time for processing what happened. And I grew up not talking about it much or thinking about it much. And it wasn’t until my experience training that I was, I was like oh, I was thinking that this might still live in my body and this is why I can’t write about it.”

Fashandi Hager first wrote about her experiences as part of a memoir class through San Diego Writers, Ink.  According to Fashandi Hager, she “wrote it and sat on it for eight months, I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Someone introduced her to Marni Freedman, an award-winning playwright and instructor with Writers, Ink, who encouraged her to submit it to the center’s Memoir showcase where Fashandi Hager’s work was performed by Hannah Logan, a local playwright, actor, and voiceover artist, and directed by Phil Johnson. Johnson, one of the founders of The Roustabouts Theatre, encouraged Fashandi Hager to turn it into a solo show which eventually won first prize in a contest The Roustabouts was running. Johnson then approached Fashandi Hager to expand the piece so that it could be staged.

For Fashandi Hager the process of creating the play version was both a challenge and cathartic. “I had to go teach myself how to do some play writing,” says Fashandi Hager, who was coached by Freedman and Logan.

She says she needed to do more trauma work “to be able to put the words on paper on stage. And to be in a theatre and have somebody else tell my story to me, in the brilliant way that Jessica (John) does, was very moving to me, I think I cried through every rehearsal.”

Fashandi Hager praises, John, who plays the young Mahshid, for her hard work and willingness to learn Farsi and work on the costuming. In addition, Fashandi Hager is thrilled to be working with director Fran Gercke. “It never felt like I was handing (the play) off to someone and losing control over it,” she says. “And because it is also a historical piece, it was really important that it be portrayed the way it happened”

Fashandi Hager sees the play, which she intends to turn into a book later, as a sort of bridge. “I am hoping to reach more people, at a time like this when stories like this really matter. It seemed more and more important to me that people understand what refugees leave behind and why they leave them behind” says Fashandi Hager, who believes in the power of story to heal and to elicit empathy and compassion.

For Iranian Americans, she says, she hopes that seeing the play will help them discuss their family’s experiences of living through the Iranian Revolution and, in some cases, the Iran/Iraq war.

“I can tell you that since beginning to speak about this story, (I’m) hearing a lot of more of these stories from Iranians. It’s kind of like, oh, we didn’t know we were allowed to talk about this. It’s kind of interesting.  It’s almost like ooh, you just broke a wall. We thought it was pretty solid.”

Even her own mother after watching the play said that she realized she had probably never grieved it as she was supposed to, or ever said good-byes the way she was supposed to, “says Fashandi Hager. “We just never talked about it.”

As for American audiences, Fashandi Hager hopes they will take away a new understanding of pre-revolutionary Iran and what a refugee is.” They don’t know Iran was a Westernized country. (They think) it’s always been what it is today.”

Fashandi Hager adds, “the refugees we see at our borders have a whole life, education, careers, money, and wealth, and homes and vacation homes. Life has gotten so bad they have had to walk away from those things. People don’t leave their homes for greener grass, you know?”

“No Way Home” continues through December 13 via the Roustabouts Theatre website. Fashandi Hager will be part of the talkbacks scheduled over the course of the run.

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