Analysis of international affairs and current crises
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Singing Amy Winehouse in Tehran
The New Yorker May 25, 2014
For decades, both before and after his 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini railed against “Westoxication”—the poisoning of Iran’s Islamic society by Western culture. The new theocracy banned everything from music and dancing to modern art. Tehran’s National Museum of Contemporary Art crated away Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Mirós worth billions. Even chess, a game with local roots, was banned. In the early nineteen-eighties, I watched a customs official tear up an entire deck of playing cards, one at a time.
The Islamic Republic has been consumed ever since with its own clash of cultures. Themes of religion and revolution in art, theatre, cinema, and literature have increasingly struggled to retain an audience in a society that has grown demographically younger and more integrated into a globalizing world. The government has been forced, erratically, into easing restrictions. After Khomeini died, in 1989, Tehran hosted concerts again. In the late nineties, shortly after a Farsi translation of “Les Misérables” finished a six-month run, I saw a Molière farce.
Movies and plays still require government approval of their scripts to gain access to performance halls or equipment. Male and female film actors must never touch on screen. The culture clash was evident at the Cannes Film Festival this month. Leila Hatami, the star of “A Separation,” which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, was invited to be a juror. Iran’s deputy culture minister publicly rebuked her for un-Islamic behavior there, apparently because of her dress (a frumpy gray number that showed a bit of ankle) and what Variety called “a simple peck on the cheek” of Gilles Jacob, the retiring Cannes president. Also this month, six young Iranians were detained after they posted to YouTube a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” They were released after apologizing on state television. The video’s director was reportedly imprisoned, and the six may still face formal charges—despite a tweet from President Hassan Rouhani’s quasi-official Twitter account vowing, “#Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy.” (The President does not control Iran’s judiciary.)
Female singers have faced the toughest taboos. “Women’s voices should not be heard by men other than members of their own families,” Khomeini decreed. But when I was in Tehran this spring to work on a Profile of the nuclear negotiator Javad Zarif for The New Yorker, a woman finally sang in Iran—and Western pop songs, no less. To cheers and whistles in Tehran’s elegant opera house, Ghazal Shakeri belted out “Back to Black,” a provocative Amy Winehouse song. The lyrics had to be modified, but only a bit. Instead of “kept his dick with,” Shakeri sang “kept his lips with.”
The performance was one of a dozen Western numbers incorporated into “The Last Days of Esfand,” an Iranian musical about a female psychiatrist treating a troubled young criminal. The two leads, Shakeri and a man named Ashkan Khatibi, sang several duets, including Abba’s rousing “The Winner Takes It All,” a poignant version of “Autumn Leaves,” and a spirited “Those Were the Days, My Friend,” which includes lines about raising “a glass or two” and singing and dancing forever. They were accompanied by three female backup singers.
The staging, in Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, was as striking as the songs. During musical numbers, a rear screen displayed video montages. As the male lead crooned “Dance with Me,” the screen flashed images of the Beatles, Elvis (thin Elvis), Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, the Bee Gees, and Neil Diamond. The spoken banter included references to “Hotel California” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The ringtone on the psychiatrist’s prop phone was the first few notes of “Smile.”
Shakeri is a former child star who abandoned acting for interior design. (Artistic fame can be a burden in Iran.) In 2011, she returned to film, in the movie “Facing Mirrors,” in which she played a traditional wife forced to drive a cab to help pay off the embezzling debts that sent her husband to prison. The plot centered on her helping a passenger, a pre-op female-to-male transsexual fleeing an arranged marriage. In 2012, the film won awards from the Paris Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the San Francisco L.G.B.T. Film Festival, and the Seattle Transgender Film Festival, among others. Homosexuality is a crime in Iran, but the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance approved the “Facing Mirrors” script, Shakeri told me, because an Iranian had once appealed to Ayatollah Khomeini for permission to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. “The man said his body was male, but his soul was female,” Shakeri recalled. “Khomeini ruled that his soul was more important than his body.” The decision, in which Khomeini granted approval, is well known across the country.
For Shakeri, singing in public, especially Western pop, was riskier than starring in a film with transgender themes. “A year ago, you couldn’t do this show,” she told me backstage. “I couldn’t sing.”
Khatibi, the male lead, said it took eighteen months to get script clearance—and he didn’t submit the songs. That night, he wore tight jeans and a long ponytail, but Shakeri was dressed in the required modest Islamic costume, including a dark-red scarf and an oversized coat that bulked up her small frame. Officials who attended one performance instructed her not to sing quite so loud in the next one, she told me. Nevertheless, the show played a three-week run to packed audiences.
The arts are no longer mere propaganda; culture is less toxic. In cinema, satirists are even taking digs at religious tradition. During my last trip to Iran, in March, a comedy called “The Sensitive Layer” was in theatres. It plays off gender segregation and the local practice of burying people on top of one another, with a thick layer of earth in between. A husband becomes obsessed with the possible relationship in heaven between his deceased wife and the man buried above her. Reza Saeedipour, the managing director of the opera house, urged me to see it. “I like to go see it and laugh,” he said. “I like to laugh a lot.”
Iran’s art world has opened up, too. Some of the Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Mirós—including pieces acquired by Iran’s last Empress, during the oil boom of the nineteen-seventies—have gone back on display. I visited an exhibit, arranged along the circular floors of the Museum of Contemporary Art, of the most noted Iranian artists from the Shah’s era. The government seems less ashamed—or less fearful—of the country’s dynastic past.
The biggest change, however, is in Tehran’s street art. For decades, buildings and billboards were plastered with anti-American graffiti and giant portraits of martyrs from the bloody war with Iraq in the nineteen-eighties, usually adorned with a tulip, the symbol of martyrdom. Today, the city is being transformed by whimsical murals in bold colors, painted on the sides of otherwise dreary high-rises. More than a hundred are the work of Mehdi Ghadyanloo and his team of young painters in the Blue Sky Painters Company. The murals have surreal themes: a flying human with giant butterfly wings, a line of people walking upside down across a ceiling, cars driving in the air above futuristic buildings, an apartment block that seems to fold like an accordion, a nature-trail illusion through the middle of a high-rise, and a train chugging through the sky. One apartment building was painted to resemble a six-story aquarium with giant fish.
Like scripts, Ghadyanloo’s urbanscapes require government approval. More than a hundred of his designs have been rejected. “They believe some of my murals make the city more visually polluted,” he said. “Some of my work is very crowded, with a lot of people.” Tehran teems with some eight million inhabitants, but the approved works are often striking for their visual loneliness—a single child holding balloons as he drifts in the sky, or a lone young man cycling down the side of building. A new work, “Silence,” seems like an aerial view of a small amphitheatre; a man sits alone on the top row, a second man walks away.
Ghadyanloo’s father was a farmer and his mother was a carpet weaver. He grew up in a world of colors, and describes himself as an aspiring Banksy. “I see surreal visions when I sleep,” he told me. “I translate my dreams onto walls.”
Could Iran finally be awakening from its revolutionary reverie?