Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Evolving Forms of Poetic Protest by Nahid Siamdoust

Poetry has long played an important role in the Persian language for expressing critique and discontent of a social or political nature. However, until the modern period, this kind of poetry was mostly confined to the unofficial or more informal spheres. The classical poet Omar Khayyam openly criticized the hypocrisy of the clerics and preachers a millennium ago, as did Hafez three hundred years later, but the recorded history of Persian poetry suggests that there was little by way of critical poetry between the giants of almost a thousand years ago and the “awakened” poets of the early twentieth century.

A revealing and much repeated anecdote says that the nineteenth- century Qajar chief minister Amir Kabir – often referred to as ‘Iran’s first reformer’- severely admonished the court’s poet laureate, Habib Allah Qa’ani, after the poet recited a panegyric qasida in the minister’s honor. Recent authors speculate that Amir Kabir  grew angry because he could not tolerate the hypocrisy of the court poet, who had previously written  a dozen qasidas  disparaging the Minister as cruel and unjust. This incident is taken  as heralding an early turning point in ‘the long and eventful project of poetic modernity in Iranian culture’ but it would be several more decades before the first generation of socially aware or politically critical and freedom-seeking poetry appeared in the works of writers like Ali Akbar Sheyda, Malek –Sho’ara Bahar, and Abollqasem  Aref Qazvin, some of the most enduring Iranian songs of all time were written by these poets or originated in their works.

We do have other, older anecdotes about socially or politically conscious or critical rhyme in informal communications, Edward Scott Wearing’s 1807 A Tour to Sheeraz recounts some ‘popular ‘ poems. Later in that century, in his Year Among the Persians, the famous orientalist E.G. Browne also remarks on the currency of ‘popular’ lyrics that Iranians recite or sing during their leisure and work, which reflect on their current social and political conditions, but states that “their authors are not known and prefer to remain anonymous.”* Abdollah Mostofi, a prominent man of politics whose memoirs are considered an indispensable guide to the social history of the end of the Qajar period and the first three decades of the Pahlavi era, records several such lyrics, among them a song of protest over Naser al-Din Shah’s pilgrimage to Karbala in Iran’s years of famine.

Still, these “popular/folk” (mardomi) lyrics were never recorded as part of Iran’s cultural heritage or body of literature, as happened with folk culture in much of the rest of the world, in part because they were usually short and short-lived, their authors unknown, and print and recording technology were either non-existent or much more limited than they are today. And more generally, historically, traditional popular music –mardomi, ruhowzi, or motrebi music – was disparaged and excoriated because of the perceived low class of its performers and its content, context, and consumers.

During the years of  Iran’ Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the number of these spontaneous mardomi rhymes incorporating social and political critique multiplied. The Mashruteh, as the Constitutional Revolution is called in Persian, was the culmination of  the people’s movement to put an end to the Qajar dynasty’s tyrannical rule and reckless mismanagement of the country, as well as foreign  domination. Following widespread protests, the king was forced to sign Iran’s first constitution- and indeed, the first constitution in the Middle East – in 1906. In the absence of mass or broadcast media, which today facilitate the existence of a public sphere, these mardoni songs were used to relay news about events as well as people’s sentiments about those events.

Around this time, works of formal poetry also turned political. As calls for a constitution gained momentum, several prominent and often politically active poets lent their voices to this nascent movement. Their poetry is full of talk of freedom. In fact, that is when the enunciation of the word freedom (azadi) in a way synonymous with notions of Western democracy emerged for the first time. Also around the time –spurred on by several nineteenth-century intellectuals  ( e.g. the anti-imperialist  Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī), the modern notion of a nation-state was cultivated in the Islamic context.

At the turn of the twentieth century poetic protest  in Iran took on a musical form and became more widespread, thanks to the forums of salons, concerts and, later, gramophone technology. The poet and singer Aref Qazvini is often recognized as the one who lent form to the short, rhythmic tasnif:   turning ‘effective words combined with expert rhythms’ into  a publishing  and advertising medium for revolutionary beliefs and liberal opinions.

It was also during these years that the public concert, in the form in which we know it today, emerged [there is archeological evidence of concerts in Iran going back @5,000 years]. At first, concerts were held in private homes and gardens, but over the course of the nineteen twenties, musicians began performing in hotels and other halls open to the public via ticket sales. The public performance of music transformed it into a socially and politically significant medium through which people shared Ideas and showed political allegiance to certain attitudes. This was unprecedented, as Aref himself relates in his memoir: “at the time when I started composing tasnifs and made national a patriotic songs, people thought songs were meant to be made for the courtesans or “Babri Khan,’ (the cat of the long-reigning Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah).

It was not until several years after the 1921 coup d’etat against the last Qajar government by Reza Khan that relative stability allowed for trade and technology to begin flourishing again and the gramophone became more affordable and widespread, around 1925.  Indeed, the scarcities of 1906-1915 and the absence of any recording technology  or mass communications infrastructure seems to have contributed even further to the importance and popularity of concerts. Relative stability also allowed for the establishment of cultural institutions and schools and so the early nineteen twenties were a sort of golden era of the concert, with frequent performances in the salons of Tehran’s Grand Hotel and other newly established venues. In his memoirs, the music historian Khaleqi describes the impact of a concert:

It was enough for Aref to perform a song about social conditions of the time in one or two places, and it would travel from mouth to mouth and reach everyone, it would even travel from town to town.

Inspired by the example of Turkey, the new ruler initially planned to establish a Republic. Aref, the era’s most political musician, was elated over Reza Khan’s plans but as early as 1923, when an adolescent Khaleqi attended an Aref concert, the new ruler had already started to curtail free political talk, and Khaleqi’s father told him, “Don’t forget Aref’s tasnifs, you may never hear their like again… his tongue may be tied.”

Khaleqi later wrote about his concert experience:

At that time I still didn’t fully grasp the real reasons behind the power of the song-maker. But I understood this much: that the majority of audience had a hidden secret in their hearts, and without revealing it, when the would see others of the same mind, with one look alone, would share that secret. That same secret that wasn’t expressed in front of strangers, but in burning hearts lit a luminous fire.
As the political page turned, Aref chose silence; he spent the rest of his life in the Moradbek Valley of Hamedan in solitude and misery.

Following Reza Shah’s take-ober in 1925, the new modernizing state devised policies base on a utilitarian attitude towards music. The political  tasnif receded into the background as the state promoted the patriotic sorud – a combination of march, hymn, and anthem that was often taught in schools and expressed pride in one’s country, history and flag.. The state regarded Iran’s traditional music as backward and neglected it in its official institutions. Instead, it promoted the Western musical canon and provided means for teaching Western music and musical instruments in schools. When Iran launched radio in April  1940 the first programs offered a preponderance of European music, in combination with news , talk and Iranian music The folksier, popular motrebi and kichen-bazari music was still offered by bands that performed at weddings and other private occasions and later in cafes, restaurants, and eventually cabarets. But immense repression- especial y in the nineteen- thirties –suppressed all open and even lightly disguised social or political critique in songs.

After the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 more attention was given to Iranian music by the Music Bureau and the Higher Academy of Music and on the radio. During the 40s a kind of performance art called pish-pardeh-khani (‘before-scene performance, short political pieces) became significant for airing critique. This genre consisted of skits between acts, and combined song and play to express social and political criticism- mostly directed at the misdoings of Allied occupying forces and the negative impact of foreign influence. Musically, these sentiments culminated in the era’s most lasting patriotic song Ey Iran, which to this day remains Iran’s de facto national anthem, though never the official one. It was inspired by its author’s witness of the maltreatment of Iranian civilians by English soldiers on the streets in 1944. In a country where history has long been told through a prism that pits people and the state against one another, this song is able to override this binary and express a patriotic love for the land independent of domestic politics.

IN the early 1950s foreign interventions and Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq’s attempted to nationalize Iranian oil created a highly politicized atmosphere; a period that continues to have a significant impact on Iranian’s understanding of their own history and current political predicament  and foreign relations. Surprisingly, the only widely popular song from this period is a heartfelt, passionate ballad titled Mara bebus (Kiss Me), which hardly sounds political at all though those who were privy to the political environment of that era could instantly de-code its meaning.

Although the new Shah’s government made effortys to re-introduce Persian poetry and music to a wider public, little of it was allowed to express political opposition. In the 1960s and 70s radio a television played a growing role in bringing Western cultural productions into Iranian homes. Then, as (ironically) now, an economic and cultural obsession with all things farangi ( foreign, Euro-American) had a tendency to place Western goods, customs, and values above Iranian ones, a trend that fueled growing discontent with the Shah’s regime. As Shajarian- Iran’s foremost traditional singer during the period- remarked: “ Radio and television cared more about taraneh (light rhythmic sons) and the cabaret-type singers, who would last just a couple of years and sing hit songs that were sometimes broadcast seven to eight times in one day! Radio was no longer a place for our music.” None-the-less, by the early 1970s the first ‘mainstream’  political songs expressing themes of grief, poverty and misery began to reappear, couched in metaphors to work around  state censorship. By the mid-seventies there was such a prevalence of sadness in the themes and melodies of popular songs that the Shah complained to his minister of culture and asked for countermeasures to be taken.

Although the soundscape of the time was filling up with songs of a political or oppositional bent, classical Persian music had yet to partake of the spirit. It was criticized for its conservative nature and condemned as being removed from contemporary circumstances, a state of affairs that critics blamed on its practitioners strict adherence to traditional forms. The performances of Ramin Sadighi, Sohrab Mahjdavi and Sharjarian at the 1977 Shiraz Arts Festival transformed the genre, bringing to the fore once again the potential of Persian classical music to express politically and socially critical messages- signaling a return to the spirit of the constitutional era. The resurgence of Persian classical music at that time, as well as its continued popularity to this day, is an expression of the nativism that was part and parcel of the dominant ideals of the revolution of 1979.

. . . . . . . . . . . . 

Guided by their  benevolent leader, Iranians were promised a truly Islamic society that would be the exact opposite of the corrupt, Western Pahlavi puppet regime. This new Iran “would be free of want, hunger, unemployment, slums, inequality, illiteracy, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, nepotism, exploitation, foreign domination, and yes, even bureaucratic red tape. It would be a society based on equality, fraternity, and social justice.” The discrepancy between these lofty promises and the inevitable unfolding of reality has not ceased top offer substance for critique in cultural productions.

In July 1979, the all-powerful new leader Ayatollah Khomeini shared his views on music in a speech to state radio employees:

One of the things that intoxicate the brains of our youth is music. Music causes the human brain, after one listens to it for some time, top become inactive and superficial and one looses seriousness . . . Of course music is a matter that everyone naturally likes, but it takes the human being out of the realm of seriousness and draws him towards uselessness and futility . . . A youth that spends most of his time on music becomes negligent of life issues and serious matters, and becomes addicted –just like someone who becomes addicted to drugs, and a drug addict can no longer be a serious human being who can think about political issues .  .  . Now you must take these issues seriously, and turn away from jokes and light matters .  . . There is no difference between music and opium. Opium brings a sort of apathy and numbness and so does music. If you want your country to be independent, from now on you must transform radio and television into educational instruments – eliminate music.

In the new Islamic Republic, then, music was to be neglected, if not eliminated altogether. Most kinds of music were soon prohibited on radio and television, music schools shut down, and musicians, especially female singers, were badly treated. Soon the new state prohibited the importing of foreign cassette and video tapes and recorders. The state regularly deployed its forces, at the time known as the komiteh or just basij (‘committee’ or ‘volunteers’), to confiscate such equipment from cars and homes, punishing the owners with lashes or fines. In  the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when thousands of young people were falling in the Iran-Iraq war, the only tunes broadcast on state television were marches, patriotic hymns and songs, and religious lamentations (noheh-khani).

But, the permissibility of music in Islam has always been a matter of interpretation, and views have ranged from a total ban to permission for all music and instruments, including dance. Since the ultimate authority inn Islam, the Qur’an, does not mention music explicitly, and the Sunnah – traditions of the practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad as recorded through hadiths – offer little clarity on the subject, Muslim  scholars and authorities  have interpreted various verses in the Qur’an according to their own points of view. Most of the Islamic discussion has revolved around three verses where abstention from idle talk is advised, which conservative clerics have interpreted to mean music, espousing the view that music is ‘futile folly’.
However, some of the most important and influential Islamic theoreticians on  music, including Al-Ghazali, Al Frarabi, and Avicenna – all of whom happen to be of Persian origin – viewed music favorably. A major point in Ghazali’s argumentation, which has since been replicated by some authorities in the Islamic Republic, is that the impression that music leaves on the heart “follows the rule of what is in the heart,” meaning in effect that it is the intention of the listener that determines his or her reception of a piece of music.

Despite Khomeini’s harsh pronouncement at the beginning of his reign, his views on music actually turned out to be close to those expressed in Ghazali’s writings.  He followed the line of his close ally Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, as given in a Hamburg mosque almost a decade before the revolution:

“Not all singing is haram, not all instrument-playing is haram; those kinds of singing and instrumental music are haram which draw listeners or the audience in a gathering towards sin .  .  . That is considered law (idle entertainment/play), which makes the human being heedless of God’s remembrance.”

But how is it decided what type of effect a kind of music has? Khomeini’s position manifested itself best shortly after the end of the war when the conservative Ayattollah Mohammad Hassan Qadiri criticized a television series called Dawn’s Autumn for showcasing a female actress whose neck was exposed, and also took exception to the music used in the series. Khomeini responded that if someone feels excited by watching a certain image, he should prevent himself from watching that image , and that the same applied to music. Furthermore, in response to numerous estefta (religious questions) on music, most clerics – including  the current Supreme leader Ali Khamenei- have responded in line with Ghazali and Beheshti. Often clergy have further explained that it is orf – meaning custom or convention- that determines which music distances one from God and which does not.**

It is not practical, however, in an authoritarian political system, to act based on on statements that music’s effects can be judged by the listeners themselves, on the basis of custom or convention, id we are to take the term orf at face value. The state official controls music and does not leave judgment of that music up to the listener. Nor, in the absence of a free public sphere and solely democratically elected bodies, can truly popular customs, conventions, or laws be debated and established. For that matter, nor have the highest of clergy ever unanimously agreed on one custom or convention to apply to all. That is not the job of the ulama, who study a life long in order to lend their own interpretations to the original texts. As for the state and governmental bodies that regulate the production and distribution of music, they too have to make do with these ambiguous edicts, and so the field of music regulation remains a Kafkaesque labyrinth that cause a great deal of frustration and consternation for most artists. This interpretational ambivalence, as well as lack of resolve or action on the part of the country’s highest leaders, has created an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding music in post-revolutionary Iran. Not surprisingly, the most repeated plaintive expression in conversations about music is taklif-e musiqi roshan nist (music is in limbo).

*  Bibliography:

A Literary History of Persia
The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909

** I won’t go into the theological/sociological question as to how Muslims could have come to the notion that they are anything but greatly distant from God in the first place, since “God the Father” as Christians and Jews might perceive it was NOT part of the original ‘Islamic hypothesis’.

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