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IRAN: Music Finds a Voice in Tehran

Leonidas Ntilsizian

TEHRAN, Aug 29 2011 (IPS) - The waiter at the coffee shop moves rapidly to the entrance for a quick glance outside. Within, a young Iranian musician has started to play the saxophone. He has five minutes to perform, he cannot risk a raid on the “guerrilla” location for a little music.

The wall in the Music Room at the historical Palace of Ali Qapu. Credit: Leonidas Ntilsizian/IPS.

The wall in the Music Room at the historical Palace of Ali Qapu. Credit: Leonidas Ntilsizian/IPS.

As he begins, fresh orange juice is served, in beer bottles. There is music, and alcohol, around in Tehran. “You have to know that in the Islamic Republic of Iran everything is possible,” says Ali (not his real name), correspondent for an English language Iranian newspaper.

Music is not new to Iran, as the Music Room on the sixth floor at the palace of Ali Qapu in Esfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran, reminds visitors. The shapes of musical instruments are carved into the walls since it was built by Shah Abbas in the early 17th century.

Silence in the land of music, orange juice from a bottle of beer – all signs of a complex society loaded with opposites. “Analysts and media refer to Iran as if they know everything about us, but they often miss the core of the matter,” says an old man behind a bench in the bazaar sipping a cup of tea.

The strict Islamists want to ban music. But it is everywhere. Traditional Iranian music plays in the taxi of Ahmad, 23, as he speeds through mountains and deserts. His car is two decades old. The music is much older.

As with silence and music, so with night and day. Tehran seems unrecognisable at night. Late night parties take on a western character, with abundant alcohol, and music of the dancing kind. There are many women around, hardly in the Islamic hijab.

But there is danger overhead. “Last night many people were arrested at a private party in a house nearby,” says Hanna, 30. Nevertheless, the music, and the dancing, go on.

Amir, 25, the DJ for a party, is at more risk than most. He wants to leave Iran as soon as he can. He has been arrested before, for playing music. And, some revellers are at grater risk; the police pick on some known people at such events. The regime arrests “certain protesters”, says Hannah, as she offers “a drink or something.”

She points to yet another contradiction – on the bottle of a Pepsi she offers. The expiration date is ‘87/11/10’, referring to the year 1387 in the Persian calendar. The drink from a company that is a popular symbol of the U.S. that the Islamist government so strongly opposes, is bottled “in the second most holy city of Iran,” Hannah says.

In Pepsi people see another contradiction. The U.S. embassy has remained closed since 1979. Communications are conducted through the Swiss embassy in Tehran. “It is a game played by the U.S. and Iran behind the scenes,” says Hannah.

Farsad, 24, surfaces at the Quran Gate, the gigantic vaulted gate in Shiraz city about 50 miles north of Tehran. He is gay, and plays the guitar. “We don’t have any gays in Iran,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently.

Farsad knows better. He simply wants to know what life is like for homosexuals in Europe. Homosexuality is of course more dangerous for Farsad than music. Homosexuality, murder and fornication are harshly punished in Iran.

The police often claim to find drugs around all such activities. The majority of executions are reportedly carried out in relation to drug offences, but there are also cases in which political activists have been executed.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said earlier this year that “instead of heeding our calls, the Iranian authorities appear to have stepped up the use of the death penalty.”

Travellers pass underneath the Quran Gate unmindful of Farsad’s music and his homosexuality. It is believed that they receive the blessing of the Holy Book as they begin their journey from Shiraz.

In Shiraz lies also the tomb dedicated to Hafez, the master of Persian lyrical poetry, where elderly women predict young people’s fate. But 32 years after the Islamic Revolution, no safe prediction can be made about Iran.

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