Rock music and cyclists: Resistance in the holiest city of Iran


For Iranian rock musician Pooyan Gandhi, the din of the crowd and the thrill of performing live are things he can only dream of.

The 34-year-old lives in the religious city of Mashhad, where concerts have been banned for more than a decade after hardliners in the theocratic state argued that they were against Islamic teachings.

While such restrictions are rare elsewhere in Iran and live music can be seen in Tehran, in Iran’s holiest city, Gandhi and musicians like him spend their days composing music they will likely never play in front of an audience.

“There are many like me in Mashhad who sit in their room and work with a computer, upload their music and post it on audio streaming platforms,” ​​said Ghandi from his home studio.

“Music in Mashhad has become too [a symbol of] Muscle play ”between reformists and hardliners, he added. “It is not rooted in religious beliefs because the call to prayer is music. Reciting the Koran is music. “

With centrist President Hassan Rouhani to step down after two terms, hardliners are hoping to secure the presidency in a June 18 poll. Three of the seven candidates, including front runner Ebrahim Raisi, have their roots in Mashhad, home of the largest shrine in Iran, where the eighth Imam of Shiite Muslims, Reza, is buried and a stronghold for hardliners.

With Mashhad’s experience as a guide, Raisi’s victory could signal greater social and cultural repression. Raisi’s father-in-law, a leading figure in Mashhad, is one of the most controversial clergy in the country. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, 76, has banned concerts in Mashhad and declared that women have no right to ride bicycles in the city. The Ayatollah has previously raised concerns that some Iranian women are more modeled after Sophia Loren than Fatemeh, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad.

Rock musician Pooyan Gandhi lives in the city where concerts have been banned for more than a decade © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

When Raisi last ran for president four years ago, it was jokingly rumored that he would build walls in sidewalks to separate men and women. “Raisi will manage the cultural sector on the basis of Islamic values,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hard-line politician in Mashhad, speaking out against concerts that promote Western values ​​and enable men and women to dance together. This month his daughter said on state television that her father had set up a women-only section in the Mashhad Shrine. He would, she said, build “bridges” for men and women, not walls.

But even as Raisi tries to replicate his father-in-law’s plan, analysts from Mashhad’s experience make it clear how difficult it is to ensure compliance even in this most conservative city.

Despite the religious ban, women can still be seen cycling. Cafes playing recordings of Western music have opened. Young women are fashionably dressed and sometimes the obligatory headscarves are worn over the shoulders. Private parties are common. The main difference from other major cities, according to analysts, is that if you are arrested for drinking, you will almost certainly be sentenced to lashes.

“Hardliners, if elected, could try to impose further restrictions on the cultural sector, but it is very difficult to bring Iranians back to pre-Internet and pre-Instagram days,” said Majid Fouladiyan, professor of cultural sociology at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad .

The stricter restrictions in Mashhad have more likely promoted an identity of resistance in the city, he said, a view shared by others. Mashhad now has the largest number of private music studios in the country, said Ali Alavi, the editor of the daily Khorasan, a conservative newspaper in Mashhad. He added: “More than 40 years of government show us that the announced policy cannot be” [necessarily] energetically implemented. ”

For most ordinary Iranians, their main concern is not moral or social issues, but the economy. “We have in Mashhad. one of the largest business cartels in the world [affiliated to the shrine] but there are people in this city who eat bread with tomato paste, ”said one analyst.

With the sanctions hitting the economy hard and disillusionment widespread, the poor could become the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic, “perhaps even an existential threat,” said the analyst. The first riots against economic hardship were in 2017 and started in Mashhad, which has a population of 3 million, “he said.

the eighth Imam of the Shiite Muslims, Reza, is buried
Shrine of the eighth Imam of the Shiite Muslims, Reza, who is buried in the city © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

For many in Mashhad, this disillusionment has led to reluctance to choose. “I will never vote again. I haven’t saved a penny in the past four years, ”said Reza, a 37-year-old grocery store owner. “Managers are either weak and powerful, or strong and powerless. Why should I make a fool of myself? ”

Still other voters question the hardliner’s focus on regional policy. For Cyrus Milani, a singer and musician in Mashhad who, like Gandhi, also works from home, it is difficult to rationalize Iranian support for Syria and Palestine “where they have live concerts” and yet concerts are at home forbidden. “I’m very upset and have little income, but all I can do is make my music,” he said. “This is the first year I have no idea who is running for president and who is not going to vote.”

Other values ​​are also important, say the people of Mashhad, not the least of which is honesty in public affairs and justice. Not far from Gandhi’s place of residence, a 33-story block of flats is being built by a politically connected man in his thirties, local workers said. The English-language billboards suggest the building will have pool and banquet halls, as well as a spa.

For Gandhi, lack of income and performance restrictions have hampered his creativity.

“We could have exceeded our dreams. We could have helped promote people’s taste, performance and quality of music, ”he added. “We can now see what happened to the music, including bread and butter. If a tree [Iran] is not well cared for, leaves first [music] fall and then it approaches the roots. “

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