Rock music and women cyclists: resistance in the holiest city in Iran

For Iranian rock musician Pooyan Ghandi, the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the live show are things he can only dream of.

The 34-year-old lives in the religious city of Mashhad where concerts have been banned for more than a decade after hardliners in the theocratic state claimed they were against Islamic teachings.

While such restrictions are rare elsewhere in Iran and Tehran it is possible to watch live music, Ghandi and musicians like him in Iran’s holiest city spend their days composing music they are unlikely to ever play at. a crowd.

“There are many like me in Mashhad who are sitting in their room and working with a computer, uploading their music and posting it on audio streaming platforms,” Ghandi said from his studio in his home. of family.

“Music in Mashhad has become [a symbol of] muscle flexing “between reformers and hardliners, he added.” It’s not rooted in religious beliefs because the call to prayer is music. Reciting the Qur’an is music. “

With centrist President Hassan Rouhani resigning after two terms, tough figures are hoping to secure the presidency in a June 18 election. Three of the seven candidates, including first leader Ebrahim Raisi, have their roots in Mashhad, seat of the largest shrine in Iran where the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims, Reza, is buried, and a stronghold for the hard.

If the Mashhad experience is anything to go by, Raisi’s victory could signal greater social and cultural repression. Raisi’s father-in-law, a leading figure in Mashhad, is one of the most controversial clerics in the country. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, 76, banned concerts in Mashhad and said women should not be allowed to cycle in the city. The ayatollah has already expressed concern that some Iranian women would be more likely to model on Sophia Loren than Fatemeh, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad.

Rock musician Pooyan Ghandi lives in the city, where concerts have been banned for more than a decade © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

When Raisi ran for president four years ago, it was jokingly said that he would build paved walls to separate men and women. “Raisi will manage the cultural sector based on Islamic values,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a tough politician in Mashhad, expressing his opposition to concerts that promote Western values ​​and empower men and women. to dance together. This month her daughter said on state television that her father had created a section dedicated to women only in the Mashhad shrine. She said, she said, to make “bridges” for men and women not dead.

But even if Raisi tries to replicate his father-in-law’s plan, analysts say Mashhad’s experience reveals the difficulty of ensuring compliance even in this more conservative city.

Despite the religious prohibition, women can still be seen riding bicycles. There are open cafes that play Western music recordings. Young women are dressed fashionably and obligatory head scarves are sometimes worn over the shoulders. Private parties are common. The main difference with other big cities, analysts say, is that if you’re arrested for having alcohol, you’ll almost certainly be sentenced to whipping.

“Hardliners, if elected, could try to impose more restrictions on the cultural sector but it is very difficult to put Iranians back into the pre-internet, pre-Instagram era,” said Majid Fouladiyan, professor of cultural sociology at the University. Ferdowsi of Mashhad.

The toughest restrictions in Mashhad have if anything sustains an identity of resistance in the city, he said, a view represented by others. Mashhad now has the most private music studios in the country, said Ali Alavi, the editor of the Khorasan newspaper, a conservative outlet in Mashhad. He added: “More than 40 years of governance have shown us that the announced policies cannot be achieved [necessarily] implemented with force. ”

For most ordinary Iranians, the biggest concern is not moral or social issues but the economy. “We have in Mashhad one of the largest economic cartels in the world [affiliated to the shrine] but there are people who eat bread with tomato paste in this city, ”said one analyst.

With sanctions hitting the economy hard and disillusionment abound, the poor could also become the biggest threat to the Islamic republic, “perhaps even an existential threat,” the analyst said. The first riots against economic hardship took place in 2017 and started in Mashhad, which has a population of 3m, and “we can see signs of revolt of hungry and barefoot people here that a third of the population of Mashhad live in poor periphery, ”he said.

the eighth Imam of Shiite Muslims, Reza, is buried
Shrine of the eighth imam of Shiite Muslims, Reza, who is buried in the city © Najmeh Bozorgmehr / FT

For many in Mashhad, this disillusionment has fueled a reluctance to vote. “I will never vote again.” I haven’t been able to save any money in the last four years, “said Reza, a 37-year-old shopkeeper.” Leaders are either weak and powerful or strong and powerless. Why should I be stupid? ”

Even other voters question the hard focus on regional policies. For Cyrus Milani, a singer and musician in Mashhad who likes Ghandi to work even from home, it is difficult to rationalize Iranian support for Syria and Palestine “where they have live concerts” and even concerts are banned at home. “I’m very unhappy and I have little income but I can’t do anything but make my music,” he said. “This is the first year that I don’t know who is running for president and they haven’t thought about voting.”

Other values ​​also count, say people in Mashhad, even less probability in public affairs and equity. Not far from where Ghandi lives, a 33-storey residential block is under construction by a politically connected man in his thirties, site workers said. English-language billboards suggest the building will have billiard and banquet rooms as well as a spa.

For Ghandi, lack of income and restrictions on benefits have influenced his creativity.

“We could go beyond our dreams.” We could have helped to promote people’s musical taste, the performance and the quality of the music, ”he adds.“ We’ve now seen what happens to music, which also happens to bread and butter. When a tree [Iran] it is not cured well, before the leaves [music] fall and then get closer to the roots. ”

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