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When Atissa Azar began studying Persian dance in college in the mid-80s, she hoped to connect in some way with the culture she had grown up in and then been forced to flee.

“I was extremely homesick,” she says. “I missed my mom and my dad and my little brother and my friends who were in prison.”

Born in Tehran and raised in a middle-class family in Sari, five hours north, Azar lived a fairly uneventful life until she was 13. That year the shah fell from power and Khomeini and his fellow fundamentalist Muslims took over.

Overnight her life changed. Suddenly what young women could wear and where they could go were strictly regulated. “You had to be fully covered. You only show the circle of your face, no hair. You aren’t supposed to wear makeup.”

She got in trouble one day in school for singing too loudly. Her voice carried out of the window of her all-girls high school and elicited some whistles from boys on the street. “The principal really screamed at me for that,” she says. “I never sang again.”

But these experiences didn’t dampen her adolescent rebelliousness. She joined a group that put out an underground magazine for teenagers, Payam Javanan, that openly espoused the Baha’i faith.

The Baha’is have had a hard time of it ever since their founder, an Iranian Shi’ite named Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri, split from Islam in the mid-19th century and called for “the unity of all religions.” But their persecution became more intense under the new fundamentalist Muslim regime. It was only a matter of time before the Iranian Revolutionary Guard raided one of Payam Javanan’s editorial meetings. Everyone there was thrown into prison. Most of them ended up serving from five to seven years for engaging in counterrevolutionary activity.

By chance, Azar had not been able to make the meeting that evening. When she learned what had happened to her friends, the 16-year-old fled the country with her grandmother, staying first with an aunt in Finland, then moving to stay with other relatives in Seattle. She finished high school and went on to Western Washington University, in Bellingham. It was there that she began studying classical Persian dance. She found she loved performing.

“Persian dance has elements of both belly dancing and classical Indian dance,” says Azar. “But the movements are more delicate. Not as concentrated on the hips as belly dancing. More fluid than either belly or Indian. It’s like the wind, is how I can describe it.”

To raise a little spare cash, she began to offer classes. They proved so popular that she opened her own academy and began teaching full-time. When Azar moved to Chicago in 1994 after her husband got into medical school here, she decided she preferred dancing to teaching. Since then she has performed at cultural events and academic conferences across the country.

She’ll be performing Sunday as part of the second annual Genesis Project, an apolitical, nonsectarian event featuring poetry, music, and dance from all over the Middle East. The event runs from noon to 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; Azar and a group of dancers that includes her husband, Daria Mazjoubi, will go on at 12:45. Individual, group, and family tickets range from $10-$150. Call 773-929-0224 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.