Hundreds of Persian Puppets Were Stolen. A Bystander Helped Track Them Down. - The World News

Hundreds of Persian Puppets Were Stolen. A Bystander Helped Track Them Down.

Inside the U-Haul were nearly 500 handmade shadow puppets and dozens of masks, costumes and backdrops — the culmination of three years of painstaking labor, which, on Sunday evening, came to life in a balletic performance before a crowd of hundreds at a theater in San Francisco.

On Monday morning, the puppeteers awoke to find the truck gone.

At first, they hoped the truck, parked at a Comfort Inn in the city’s northeast, had been mistakenly towed, said Hamid Rahmanian, 55, an Iranian American artist and the creator of the show “Song of the North,” an adaptation of the Persian poet Ferdowsi’s 10th-century epic “Shahnameh” that combines shadow puppetry, animation and music.

But when hotel employees reviewed the security camera footage, it quickly became clear that the truck had been stolen. “My face dropped — my hands became cold,” Rahmanian said. Then, more than 48 hours later, on Wednesday morning, he received a call: A resident had spotted the truck in the city’s west, and notified the police. Rahmanian rushed to the scene to find years of careful work strewn about the truck in a “shamble.”

The thieves appeared to have rifled through the boxes inside the truck, throwing some things away, and destroying others, he said, noting that while the full extent of the damage was unclear, at least 200 puppets were missing.

But, he added, “There is hope.” The next stop on the show’s global tour was Seattle, where a performance was scheduled for Friday.

The San Francisco Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, but earlier said that the vehicle and the items inside of it had been reported stolen just before 10:20 a.m. Monday. The department did not offer more information about the contents of the security camera footage or the identities of the thieves.

Rahmanian, who moved from Iran to New York three decades ago to pursue a career in graphic design, said he had created “Song of the North” over several years in an endeavor to adapt the “Shahnameh,” or “Book of Kings,” for a Western audience. “There is a misrepresentation of Iranian culture, and everything is very much politicized,” he said. “Iran is like a symphony. But we only hear one note.”

His work has garnered glowing reviews and audiences in places including China, Poland and Iowa. The puppet performances can take years to lay out in storyboards and to design and choreograph, Rahmanian said, noting that “Song of the North” involves 352 frames and an ensemble of nine people whose actions must be precise to the inch. For the 83-minute duration of the show, he added, “they work like a Swiss watch.”

The laborious, costly work has not been very lucrative, he said, noting that he preferred to keep ticket prices affordable so that families could attend the shows. “There is no sane person” who would do this kind of work, he said. “The math doesn’t work.” In part, that is why he and his team decided to rent their own U-Haul instead of hiring outside contractors, he added, saying, “We thought we’re going to save a little bit of money.”

Just after 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, he and his team loaded their wares into the truck, which was parked near the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, where Sunday’s show was held. They drove it less than a mile to the Comfort Inn, where they arrived at 9:13 p.m., Rahmanian said, noting he had felt anxious, given San Francisco’s reputation for crime, but told himself it was going to be fine in a parking lot.

The next morning, the truck had disappeared.

U-Haul did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday evening, but Rahmanian said that after the truck was stolen, the company had told him that it was not fitted with a GPS device and that it could not be located. Choice Hotels, which manages the Comfort Inn, also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Abbas Milani, a professor of Iranian studies at Stanford University, said in an email that Rahmanian’s work offered an “antidote to the dangerous delusions of stereotypes” through an empathetic portrayal of Iranian culture. Rahmanian’s adaptations of the Shanameh, he added, “offered a rich tapestry of the joyous, even epicurean culture of Iran.”

Rahmanian said he was particularly buoyed on Sunday evening, as the audience lingered in the lobby to discuss the show — which begins with a warrior imploring two armies to stop fighting. Two of the enemies then fall in love, he said, noting that “Song of the North” was ultimately a tale of forgiveness.

It felt “cosmic,” he added, to wake up the next morning to find that even art didn’t appear to be safe from the ugliness of the world. “It doesn’t have any value for these thieves,” he said through tears on Tuesday evening, before the truck was located. “They’re going to open it up and realize, oh my god, it’s just puppets.”

On Tuesday, Rahmanian said he would not press charges against those who stole the truck. He added, “I forgive you.”

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