dutch

Omid Aghondi – Interview شبیه ساز پرواز - Flight Simulator

Some time ago, Lysette van Geel, author and former presenter of the Jeugdjournaal, wrote down the story of Omid Aghondi. Since then, ‘Omid’s Flight’ has become widely read and is frequently read at primary schools. Omid’s story also lends itself perfectly to a theatre production.

Omid strongly prefers that his book is read out loud in the classroom. If children read the book themselves, the experience can prove too far-reaching and frightening. The book is meant as a positive source of inspiration on how to deal with newcomers and evokes a sense of curiosity about the stories behind it. It also offers young readers a piece of reflection on their own lives.

A plan was made to adapt Omid’s story for the stage. This plan was submitted to the organisation of Noorderzon Festival. Unfortunately, Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works. But after a life full of turbulence, this is only a minor setback.
The History
Omid grows up in Iran (formerly Persia) as part of a very close-knit family, made up of himself, his mother, his father, and his two older sisters. His father has a well-paying job in the military. Ayatollah Khomeini is in power. The Sjah, his wife Farah Diba, and their family were expelled and have lived in exile in Egypt since 1979. The country is strictly religious under the Ayatollah's rule.

Omid Aghondi
Pictures of Omid's family.
Omid and one of his sisters have a hereditary liver disease. The medical costs have become extortionate (health and disability insurances are only available for the elite five percent). They will eventually die. Fleeing the country is the only viable option. The Netherlands will become their destination.

The family, except for the father, begin their journey. Omid is ten years old. To learn more about the route, the adventures, and the hardships, I refer you to the book. The flight to Moscow feels akin to a holiday, but afterwards there are hundreds of kilometres in crammed freight trains and trucks. Omid feels like cattle. Sees and hears soldiers in foreign languages, barking dogs. But also sees people with blond hair for the first time. And bare ankles! And when he arrives in the Netherlands, he only feels one sensation: Freedom!
Flight Simulator
Their adventures and their navigating of Dutch society will lead to a theatre production. Its title is decided on: Flight Simulator. It is to be a container show. Omid wants his audience to experience a feeling of imprisonment. And after twenty minutes, when the doors open wide, they experience the relief of freedom in the fresh air that meets them. It is important that the container is filled with Persian culture. Persian culture encapsulated by images, music and smells. The smell of saffron!

His target group is mainly parents with children. Children are still able to change their opinions very quickly. Two Omids may enter the stage: Omid as an adult, performed by himself, and little Omid, performed by his ten-year-old nephew. Omid doesn’t want to impose anything on anyone, nor does he want to arouse pity. He does want to build bridges, simply by sharing his story with the world.

Is he also going to be performing? He would love to. He has no stage experience, but has been told by others that he tells fascinating stories and that he wears his emotions on his sleeve. A few minutes into our conversation, I wholeheartedly confirm this.

Omid wants to use images to introduce his audience to the beautiful country of Iran. Film is important in this country anyway. A thriving branch of culture. Many actors, most of them women, made it in Cannes and broke through in Hollywood. These films are, unsurprisingly, heavily cleaned and censored. There is no physical contact at all. Not when actors meet and greet each other, not when they confront each other, or get into a fight, and certainly not in anything that could be regarded as even slightly romantic.
Turkish Delight
The first Dutch film Omid secretly watched in his room at the age of twelve was Turkish Delight (NL: Turks fruit). When he heard his mother approach, he would quickly flick between different channels. Incredibly exciting, of course, but he recognised the rawness from Iranian films.
Brave Parents
Another aspect Omid would like to emphasise in the play is the enormous bravery of his parents. They gave up a perfectly loving relationship to save their children from a terrible death and to give them a better future. His father could not join them in their flight to the West (‘Daddy will come later’). He would be seen as a deserter and would never be able to travel to Iran again without risking death. During his childhood years, Omid saw many public hangings. His father would surely be considered as a spy in the West.

At the age of twenty, Omid visited his father several times in Iran. That was strange. His father still treated him the same as when he left Iran as a ten-year-old. Woke him up at the break of dawn with the clatter of pan lids like cymbals. And if that didn’t work, he didn’t shun a bucket of icy cold water either. ‘We have so much to do, so much to catch up on.’ His father had been desperate for a son after two daughters, and when there was a third pregnancy, he wrote the name of his future son (Omid means ‘Hope’ in Parsi) behind a patch of wallpaper. A family member showed Omid the piece of writing on a later visit.
Relief
How does Omid want for his audience to feel when they leave the show? Relieved. To once again realise how beautiful the Netherlands is. That’s why he’s surprised that the Dutch complain about minor inconveniences. Compared to Iran, their problems are negligible.

However, he is convinced that the Iranian people will never join together in protest. Tightknit family bonds and friendships are sacred to them. It is unthinkable that these will be torn apart as has happened in Syria, for example. Yes, the Netherlands is plagued by racism. Or, at the very least, discrimination. Omid has never been called Black Pete, but he feels like he always needs to try a little bit harder. Whatever he does. He currently holds a managerial position in retail and helps young newcomers to integrate, to get a job, a steady income and, essentially, a future.

And he has great plans for the future. A travel agency. He would like to introduce the Dutch and other Europeans to Iran. The only country in the world with four continuous seasons. It’s always winter somewhere in Iran, with its ski resorts. And it’s always summer somewhere, with sun-drenched beaches full of waving palms. It’s always spring somewhere, with greenery and flowers as far as the eye can see, and autumn, with its exotic scents of ripened fruits and herbs.
Plans After ‘Flight Simulator’

Unfortunately, a container show at Noorderzon is off the table for this year. Omid is thinking about changing his production into a walking route show, located in a large open space like the Suikerfabriek. He is also thinking about how to restart production.

Omid feels at home in Groningen. He has found himself an Iraqi girlfriend. What are their plans for the future? Moving into a larger house? Having children? I ask him if he has written their names behind a patch of wallpaper yet.


Translation: Renée Langenhuijsen
Photography: René de Boer