IRANIAN magician and illusionist, Mahdi Moudini, has made Malaysia his home for the past 20 years. In this time, he beat violinist Dennis Lau in a push up challenge, performed for local VIPS and royalty, and appeared for interviews on radio, television and print. And yes, he also made it into Datuk Kee Hua Chee’s high society lifestyle blog.

Though Mahdi’s bag of tricks has included turning a lion dance troupe into a horse, and making doves fly out of a burning book, one trick which has the audience eating out of his hand is transforming real ringgit notes into greenbacks.

“This is one trick that can make people smile. I mean really smile,” said Mahdi.

In retrospect, it may be the trick Mahdi sometimes wishes he left out from his repertoire due to the exchange rate, especially when the audience gets cheeky by asking for different denominations, like British pounds and euros.

But Mahdi comes from the school of thought that believes the customer is king. So, he usually obliges, though it means regular trips to the money changer.

Moudini and wife, Michelle Goh. — SAMUEL ONG/The Star

On whether he has ever worried about being on the losing end, Mahdi’s professional answer as a magician is to provide a polished response about “magic at work”. In reality, however, his fans are known to be sporting enough to offer as much as RM100, just so they can bask in the wonderment of the transformation itself.

“But I work best in the RM1 to US$1 category because it’s affordable enough for me to give to everybody,” he said in stitches.

As head of Mahdi Entertainment, the Iranian expat’s work visa comes under his Malaysian wife, Michelle Goh, who is also his assistant and business partner. He has two other full-time assistants, too, one of whom has been with him for 20 years, who takes charge of training the animals in his acts. The other is a Thai, specialising in illusion work, pyrotechnics and electric circuits.

“My Thai assistant is scheduled to arrive and improvise a smoke machine, which will be used in my new act. I am going to use it to make smoke clouds to take the shape of an object before it appears on stage,” said Mahdi, hinting at what’s in store for his new repertoire.

At present, Macau, China, has become the troupe’s latest stomping ground. Likening the Southern China city to Las Vegas for its casinos and luxury hotels, Mahdi is certain he could succeed at achieving professional stardom there, as well.

Mahdi’s strategy of conquering the Macau magic and illusion trade is to present a modern repertoire equivalent to what’s offered by big names from the western hemisphere, but at a more attractive price point.

“I have a detailed account of the acts done for each venue, so, the audience does not have to see the same thing. In my book, if someone sees the same routine more than three times, the element of surprise is lost,” said Mahdi.

Describing life as a travelling entertainer, Mahdi revealed that the current political climate means being subjected to triple checks at immigration points, due to the perception that those from his region have terrorist links.

However, for Mahdi, the biggest inconvenience is being barred from bringing in common but essential show items like confetti and batteries into the countries of his performance. To circumvent this niggle, he assigns his Thai assistant to hand-carry the items through checkpoints. Almost unfairly, his Thai assistant is able to breeze through customs without question or incident.

“I want to make it known that I am not into politics. My focus is only on magic,” he insisted.

Back home, Mahdi is president of the Malaysian chapter of the International Magicians Society.

It is not a registered organisation, but Mahdi said he has kept things moving for its 210 members. Lifetime membership fee is US$260 (RM1,100), with participants receiving a six volume DVD pack of magic trick tutorials.

Mahdi said the society is also where young magicians can network with experienced industry players to land gigs. One of the aid schemes offered by the society sees loans for magic props handed out to young, upcoming magicians who are not able to afford their own. The arrangement sees repayments within a two-year period for borrowers. Members also enjoy discounts of up to 30% for purchases in affiliated magic trick shops.

“One thing I have discovered is young magicians are often cheated, as in, the tricks they purchase sometimes don’t work. This can be an expensive waste because a trick pen, for example, can sometimes cost as much as US$1,000 (RM4,234). Through our society, our members are able to connect with reputable suppliers,” he said.

For personal fulfilment, Mahdi has taken to mentoring those with an interest in the art. Some of his first pupils have been from Ti-Ratana Welfare Society, as the home is just behind his former residence in Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur.

One pupil from this home, Suresh Subramaniam, now 27, who received free lessons on close up magic three times a week, two hours per session, for a month and a half from Mahdi, ended up making a name for himself as a mask changer.

For the future, Mahdi is looking for a space and sponsors to start a theatre devoted to magic arts and illusion, offering non-stop performances 365 days a year. He is looking at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for his target clientele.

“There are 20,000 landings a day in KLIA. If we can just tap 2% of this market, the theatre will be a success,” said Mahdi, who calls this his Malaysian dream.