The NI Interview
issue 319 - December 1999
Christine Aziz finds one of Iran’s most famous
artists in her surprising exile in downtown Baghdad.
Marzieh is Iran’s singing legend. For over 50 years she has sung to the world’s kings, queens and presidents, not to mention a Shah or two. To a foreigner her fame in her own country cannot be imagined. Perhaps Frank Sinatra’s renown in America comes closest. (She once had dinner with Frank, by the way.)
Yet here she is, the great Marzieh, now aged 74, sitting us down to a sumptuous Iranian meal, cooked by herself in her huge flat in the middle of Baghdad. The apartment is part of a large complex of buildings in the centre of Baghdad which also includes the administrative headquarters of the National Council of Resistance for Iran (NCRI), successor to the leftist People’s Mujahedin which helped overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi in l979. The NCRI now forms a government in exile, opposed to the Shah’s successors, and has offices around the world.
In l994 Marzieh flew to Paris, where she has a residence, to begin a series of recordings on her life put together by the BBC World Service and while there met with members of the Mujahedin. Greatly impressed by the organization’s President, Maryam Rajavi, she defected from Iran and declared her support for the Mujahedin. Two years later she had moved to Baghdad, which is also home to the NCRI’s military wing The National Liberation Army of Iran. The move was a propaganda coup for the Mujahedin and a homecoming for Marzieh.
‘When the NCRI first asked me to join them, and leave Iran, I said “no” and walked away. I had my daughter in Iran and I love my country deeply. I stayed at my house in Paris before returning to Iran and I was just moving around my flower pots and I thought, “I am going to join (the NCRI).” I returned to Iran to sort out my affairs and then came back to devote my life to the movement.’
Immediately after she left Iran, her daughter Hengameh Amini, an architect, was arrested and jailed. Following appeals from international human-rights organizations she gained her freedom, but remains under house arrest. ‘I have not seen my daughter for five years and they have plundered my property. It is very difficult for me.’
Despite missing her daughter and country, Marzieh feels her singing now has a purpose that it did not have before. She waves a cassette in the air in perfectly varnished fingers. Later, she plays it in her purpose-built studio and it shocks. It is Marzieh’s recording of Islam’s call to prayers which is heard throughout the day in Muslim countries. It is a profoundly moving version and is the first ever such recording by a woman. It is transmitted everyday across Iran via Mujahedin transmitters based in Iraq. ‘It makes the mullahs mad,’ she says gleefully. ‘But there is nothing they can do about it. There is nothing in the Koran which says the call to prayers cannot be sung by a woman.’
Marzieh is a tiny woman, operating on high octane energy and vibrant in shocking pink. She accompanies each word with a gesture. Her flat is just as surprising as she is. Resistance members are known for their fastidious simplicity; the women all wear headscarfs and shun make-up and their living quarters are spartan. Marzieh refuses to hide her long grey hair. And then there are the chandeliers, the wall-to-wall red carpeting and the elegant modern furniture scattered throughout her ten-room flat. Every morning she goes jogging through Baghdad’s streets and also plays tennis at a nearby hotel.
Marzieh was born in 1926 into a distinguished family – her father was a Muslim cleric, her mother from an artistic family. She was educated at a time when families did not send their daughters to school and she was always encouraged to sing. She spent many years training under the masters of Persian music before she formally began to sing. ‘When I was four years old I knew I had a beautiful voice. But when I began to sing it was extremely difficult to become a singer, especially for a woman. Several masters of music had to certify the voice as well as the artist’s grasp of their theory of music.’
Marzieh was at the height of her fame in 1979 when the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini ended his exile in Paris, flew into Tehran and introduced velayat-e-faqih – the absolute supremacy of Islamic clergy – the mullahs. The new Islamic Republic promptly banned ‘improper’ music and female singers were banned from solo public performances. ‘It destroyed me mentally and emotionally,’ she says, eyes flashing. Despite the ban Marzieh continued to live in Iran with occasional visits to Europe. ‘It was difficult, the idea of leaving,’ she said. ‘But if I couldn’t sing for the people, why should I sing at all? So for l5 years I did not sing for anyone but worked secretly with a group of musicians. I used to go to the countryside and sing to the mountains, the birds, for the water, for the hills, just to avoid my voice reaching one mullah. They said music was only for the wicked. I was becoming a pale autumn leaf. If I had not come to Paris and met them what would have happened to me? What would a nightingale do if you put her in a cage? She would die in 24 hours.’
When Marzieh announced her defection, the current President Mohammed Khatami is reported to have said: ‘We let the canary out of the cage.’
With a repertoire of over a thousand songs, many of them verse set to music, Marzieh’s conversation is peppered with quotes from Persian poetry. When asked why she joined the Mujahedin, she quotes the thirteenth-century Persian poet, Rumi. ‘I am looking for that which cannot be found/ For I am fed up with beasts and ogres/ And I yearn for a human being.’
Christine Aziz is a UK-based freelance writer and contributor to several publications including The Guardian, The Scotsman and Marie Claire.