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Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Silenced Nightingales: Women, Culture and Music in Modern Iran - Page 5

Written by Ai Watanabe
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I walked into a dark, cramped musical instrument shop beneath a shopping mall and was greeted by a slight, skinny man with braces on his teeth. After exchanging cordial greetings and making small talk, he offered me a seat on the drum beside him. Then, wordlessly, he reached for his satar, a four-stringed lute, which he started playing very gently.

Though the hall was all female, only a few dared to remove their headscarves – shyness, habit, or bad hair days, I didn’t know. After three or four songs of classical and pop music there was a five-minute intermission during which we were served apple juice and cookies (true to impeccable Iranian hospitality and love of sweets). Then like clockwork, the group returned to perform their final set. The group finished to a standing ovation, after which they were immediately hurried off the stage. We, the audience, were duly herded out of the hall and on our way. Absolutely no lingering or loitering was permitted. Surprisingly, while most schedules or timetables were worth little in Iran, events for public gathering were punctiliously maintained in their timing and duration.

The entire event was cloaked with a sense of restriction and control, even in the flavor of the music. Both the music’s intensity and the listener response was inhibited and almost strangled. Music has the potential to stir up emotions and express sentiments that are unvoiceable in explicit terms, but this quality seemed lost in this context. The power of music as a form of expression is perhaps attested to by the very governmental need to control it. Why be concerned to strictly regulate an art, if not for fear of its power and influence?

Gone, But Not Forgotten – Memories of a Great Female Vocalist

Cordoned by high stone walls in Tehran is a small, picturesque cemetery. Draping branches with shiny almond-shaped leaves shade the oblong memorial stones, each inscribed with names, dates and images. The cemetery is reserved for artists, musicians and poets, for the influential and noteworthy. The most adored and respected figures of the Persian artistic world are laid to rest here, and an eternal place in this memorial is a testament to lifetime achievement.

When I visited the cemetery, the sky was grey and heavy. The trees glistened with moisture and tiny drops cooled our skin. Despite the weather, a number of visitors wandered along the pathways, reading the headstones and the poetry inscribed on them, chatting, joking, remembering.

In one corner, a small group of women and men were standing in the rain. A couple held umbrellas, and the others stood, transfixed, not heeding the rain that began to soak them. They were gathered around the headstone of Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri, the famous female singer who was the first to perform unveiled in public in the 1920s; a voice of classical and popular music of her day and into the present.

Before Qamar’s tomb a middle-aged woman, head uncovered, sang a song of Qamar’s, her unwavering voice echoing off the marble and stonewalls. It occurred to me how surprising and how powerful this song feels, and with which intensity it cuts the silence. Then I remembered that I hadn’t heard a woman sing outdoors in many months, because, of course, a woman’s voice alone in public is dangerous, tempting, and illegal. As she concluded her song, I couldn’t tell if the water on her listener’s faces was raindrops or tears.



© Ai Watanabe

(Page 5 of 5)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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