In 1979, after a protest that saw not a single act of violence, Iran disposed of a despot shah to move into a new era of democracy and social freedom… or so it seemed. The time of the shah was a time of great inequality and the revolution was thought to bring about social changes to the effect of democracy and a liberal freedom in Iran. It soon became clear however that Iran had merely swapped one dogmatic regime for another, and through the course of ten years the entire fabric of Iranian life would change as theocratic democracy installed itself in the country. “It was big change for us,” says Mr. Amir Zamani who was just coming of age in Iran during this transformation. Mr. Zamani, an older, distinguished gentleman with thick strands of grey hair, wears a serious expression while remembering his youth in Iran, his dark forehead furrowing and extending as some old memory comes back to him from his youth.
“We thought the worse was going and the good was coming” says Mr. Zamani of life just after the revolution. Iran had gone from a monarchy to a Theocratic-republic overnight and what should have been an era of “more freedom and a democracy” turned in on itself and became an autocracy ruled by sharia law. In the two years succeeding the shah’s departure and the ayatollah’s rise to power, Iran “became very strict about everything from clothing to social behavior” as dictated by Islamic law. Restaurants closed, all alcohol was forbidden, and everybody in the entertainment industry left for places like a LA. A morality police was installed to uphold the strict religious laws imposed by the regime, which prohibited anyone from committing haram, an act or practise that defies Islamic law. “In 1979 we could go to a bar and drink a beer, but after the revolution there was no beer”, says Mr. Zamani in a simple, yet effective analogy for the extreme change in circumstances that happened almost overnight.
Immediately following the ‘79 revolution, Iran plunged into a costly battle with Iraq to expedite the ayatollah’s vision of an Islamic state across Iran’s borders and over the entire middle east. “We could have stopped the war in the first year”, says Mr. Zamani “but they (the Guardian Council) said no, because they had to go through Iraq to Palestine to Israel” for a bigger stake in the region. It would’ve been considered sacrilege to go against the state during a time of conflict, where the entire nation should be devoted to their country. “The regime used the war to enforce more of the Islamic law” on their people and with that there was “no more music or dancing”.
In 1985 Mr. Zamani remembers having to go to some unsavoury lengths to listen to western music. “Music was not allowed at all in the eight years during the war” so “people had to smuggle in music from the west, reproduce it and sell it”. Mr. Zamani and his peers would have to revert to underground channels to get cassette-reproductions of new records from the likes Dire Straits and Bob Marley. “You had to get it illegally and pay more” if you wanted the latest music from the west and listening to it was a clandestine act, severely punishable by varying and unknown degree, an uncertainty that just ads to the fear. You could get a night in prison or be strung up from a lamp pole, for any number of “lewd” acts. In the eighties Mr. Zamani’s wife was “imprisoned for two days because she wore red shoes and white pants”.
It was a frustrating time for people like Amir Zamani who had been raised on a fairly liberal, although impoverished regime, and who had received nothing but the empty promise of democracy at the end of the revolution. “We didn’t have real freedom”, says Mr. Zamani. For him and many others who refrain from taking part in any organised religion, sharia law was taking away the freedoms they’d known earlier in their lifetime and replaced it with a kind of draconian religious orthodoxy. With their backs to the wall, all that was left to do was to take to the streets and protest. Mr. Zamani is very guarded about his political activities during that time and only confirms that he was “politically active”, but to what degree he won’t quite divulge. For a country operating under sharia law during a time of war, protesting your regime was considered a great treason and you were immediately sent to jail with a much harsher punishment to follow. In 1988 over 30 000 prisoners loyal to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran opposition group and other leftist groups were executed by order of the then ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1991 Mr. Zamani, “not able to get a job” and “move freely within the city” for fear of persecution, he left the country with his wife and their one year old son, Nima as political refugees, never to return to Iran…
“Has nothing changed since (Hassan) Rouhani”, says Anoosh from the DJ/production duo Blade&Beard in the critically acclaimed documentary, Raving Iran. Hassan Rouhani is the latest in a line of Iranian presidents that seem to be very little more than a distraction to keep the masses occupied while the religious leaders enact their master plan. In this particular scene of Raving Iran, Anoosh and bandmate Arash are trying to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and are met with something I discern as disbelief by the bureaucratic official. They try to persuade her, by handing her a copy of their new album, which they call a Rock/House album, and this just perplexes her even more. Very little has changed since the Iraq war in Iran and while western audiences have enjoyed a great evolution in electronic music, in Iran they are still struggling to perform and hear electronic music in any way shape or form – even the guitar is considered prohibited. Raving Iran follows the story of Anoosh and Arash as they struggle to produce and play the music we in the west now consider pedestrian. In the documentary Anoosh is arrested at a house party; they put together a “rave” in the desert; and eventually find themselves playing a festival in Switzerland. “We don’t want you to come back” says Arash’ mother over the phone to her son in Switzerland in one of the more poignant scenes in the documentary.
Raving Iran depicts a country where youth culture and music is embraced no differently than anywhere else, but where the risk is far greater than a splitting hangover the next day. “They do everything we do, but they’ll have to do it low-key,” explains Nora Zamani, daughter to Amir Zamani, when I sit down with her and her brother Nima for a conversation a week earlier. Nora was born and raised in Norway and became a political activist in her teens when she joined the NCR-Iran, the current embodiment of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the very same leftist organisation that held protests in Iran in the eighties and are still focussed on liberating the people of Iran from the theocratic power, albeit from a safe distance in France. Nora has talked at seminars for the group and joined protests around Norway, Germany and Paris all for the sake of the affinity she feels for her homeland and its people. “I feel sorry for the youth of Iran, because they don’t have the same opportunities as we do here” explains Nora about her reasons for taking up the cause on behalf of the Iranian people.
Nora and her brother Nima have never lived in Iran, but both are very aware of the ongoing situation there through their parents’ stories and regular communication with their relatives that still reside there. Although “they don’t have clubs, they’ll throw parties in their basement” says Nora and in Raving Iran it’s exactly at such an informal gathering that Anoosh gets arrested. In the same way Mr. Zamani got his Dire Straits and Bob Marley records, the youth in Iran are getting everything from music to alcohol and even weed through back channels, much of which is smuggled over the borders at great risk by kurdish nomads. The internet provides its own services with access to sites like Beatport and Traxsource available through VPN channels, which keep DJs like Blade&Beard informed about what’s happening musically in the rest of the world.
Through apps like Whatsapp and Instagram Nora and Nima get privileged insights into daily life in Iran and although they might have access to the music and DJs and sound systems, it’s a superficial freedom. “They are living in a bubble” proffers Nima. Nima a gentle-giant of man stands about 2 feet taller than his father, but the resemblance is clear. A doorman at Jæger, it was Nima who un-surreptitiously gave us access to his family and their informed insights into their homeland.
“They’ve accepted the community they live in, and they just want to make the best of it”, elucidates Nora. Girls in the street might be able to wear their hijab towards the back of their head today thanks to large scale corruption from the police, but any sign of the morality police, and they quickly have to cover up for fear of a reprimand, which could mean anything from imprisonment to a public beating. The same reprisals extend to making and listening to music that has not been approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Nima and Nora relay a story of Iranian pop artist, Sasy Mankan who was beaten, stripped, publicly humiliated, and paraded around town on a donkey. His crime? Writing a song containing a lyric roughly translated to “I’m so drunk.”
Sasy Mankan, like so many of his contemporaries now lives in Los Angeles, USA and the closest he gets to Iran, is performing in one of the border countries. Music in Iran is still the preserve of the theocratic leadership, and amounts to little more than two annual public performances as prescribed by the regime according to Mr. Zamani. He is of the opinion however that change is in the air, and the people are “fed up” with the current regime. In 2009 about two million people came out to protest during the election and he hopes it “happens again in 2019”.
It’s hard to clarify whether the underground, cultural activities of the likes of Blade&Beard have any relationship to the possible grievances of the Iranian people today from our remote point of view, but both Mr. Zamani and his son believe it’s taken a severe toll on the people of Iran. “They think their way of life is normal”, according to Nima, but that life is lived in constant fear, where you have to conform to great degree for outward appearances, and the small freedoms you can enjoy, you enjoy illegally and at great peril. Sharia law has become so ingrained in the Iranian psyche today that even if the regime collapses today, Mr. Zamani will hesitate to go back. “Because the mentality of the people has changed” he believes. “They’ve learnt that this is culture, the Islamic culture”, and for Mr. Zamani who “thinks like a Norwegian” today, it’s a step in the wrong direction.
As a departing word, Mr. Zamani shows me a video of a father and his daughter playing a traditional persian song from the time of the shah. They play it behind closed doors in the privacy of their own home, away from the strict gaze of the morality police, and it’s hard to believe that this little innocuous tune, with it’s perfectly innocent phrasing, is illegal and that if anybody in an authoritarial position in Iran saw it, it could have dire consequences for that family.
- Blade&Beard play Jæger this Saturday as part of the Oslo World Music Festival.
- Nima Zamani can be found most nights keeping us safe at Jæger… even from ourselves.