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Rock music and women cyclists: resistance in Iran’s holiest city

For Iranian rock musician Pooyan Ghandi, the roar of the crowd and the thrill of the live performance are things he can only dream of.

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

While such restrictions are rare elsewhere in Iran and Tehran, it is possible to see live music, Ghandi and musicians like him in Iran’s holiest city spend their days composing music that they will probably never perform in front of a crowd.

“There are many like me in Mashhad who sit in their rooms and work with a computer, download their music and publish it to audio streaming platforms,” Gandhi said from his studio in his family home.

“Music in Mashhad has become [a symbol of] muscle flexion ”between reformists and hardliners, he added. “It is not rooted in religious beliefs because the call to prayer is music. Reciting the Quran is music.

With centrist President Hassan Rouhani due to step down after two terms, hardliners are hoping to win the presidency in a June 18 ballot. Three of the seven candidates, including favorite Ebrahim Raisi, have their roots in Mashhad, home to Iran’s largest shrine where Shia Muslims’ eighth imam, Reza, is buried, and a stronghold for extremists.

Based on Mashhad’s experience, Raisi’s victory could signal greater social and cultural repression. Raisi’s stepfather, a leading figure in Mashhad, is one of the most controversial clerics in the country. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, 76, has banned concerts in Mashhad and said women are not allowed to cycle in the city. The Ayatollah had previously expressed concern that some Iranian women were more likely to draw inspiration from Sophia Loren than from Fatemeh, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad.

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

When Raisi last ran for president four years ago, it was rumored, jokingly, that he would build walls on sidewalks to separate men and women. “Raisi will run the cultural sector on the basis of Islamic values,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hard-line politician in Mashhad, expressing his opposition to concerts that promote Western values ​​and allow men and women to dance together. This month, her daughter said on public television that her father had created a section for women only at Mashhad Shrine. He would make, she said, “bridges” for men and women, not walls.

But even as Raisi tries to replicate his stepfather’s plan, analysts say Mashhad’s experience clearly shows the difficulty of ensuring compliance even in this most conservative city.

Despite the religious ban, women can still be seen riding bicycles. Cafes with Western music recordings have opened. Young women are dressed in fashion, and the obligatory scarves are sometimes worn over their shoulders. Private parties are common. The main difference with other big cities, analysts say, is that if you are arrested for drinking alcohol, you will almost certainly be doomed to be flogged.

“Hard-line supporters, if elected, may try to impose more restrictions in the cultural sector, but it is very difficult to bring Iranians back to the pre-Internet, pre-Instagram age,” Majid Fouladiyan, professor of cultural sociology at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad. .

Rather, the stricter restrictions in Mashhad fostered an identity of resistance in the city, he said, a view echoed by others. Mashhad now owns the most private music studios in the country, said Ali Alavi, editor of the daily Khorasan, a conservative media outlet in Mashhad. He added: “More than 40 years of government shows us that the announced policies cannot be [necessarily] implemented with force.

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

With sanctions hitting the economy hard and disillusionment, the poor could yet become the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic, “perhaps even an existential threat,” the analyst said. The first riots over economic hardship took place in 2017 and started in Mashhad, which has a population of 3 million, and “we can see signs of the uprising of starving and barefoot people here, as a third of the population of Mashhad lives in poor suburbs. “, he said.

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

For many in Mashhad, this disillusionment was fueled by a reluctance to vote. “I will never vote again. I haven’t been able to save a dime in the past four years, ”said Reza, a 37-year-old shopkeeper at a grocery store. “Managers are either weak and powerful, or strong and powerless. Why should I make a fool of myself?

Still other voters question the emphasis on regional policies. For Cyrus Milani, singer and musician from Mashhad who, like Ghandi, also works from home, it is difficult to rationalize Iranian support for Syria and Palestine “where they have live concerts” and yet concerts are prohibited at home. . “I’m very upset and have little income but I can’t do anything other than make my music,” he said. “This is the first year that I don’t know who is running for President and that I have no plans to vote.”

Other values ​​matter too, say the people of Mashhad, including probity in public affairs and fairness. Not far from where Ghandi lives, a 33-story residential building is being built by a politically connected man in his thirties, workers at the site said. Notice boards in English suggest the building will have billiards and banquet rooms as well as a spa.

For Ghandi, lack of income and performance restrictions affected his creativity.

“We could have achieved beyond our dreams. We could have helped promote people’s musical tastes, performance and the quality of music, ”he added. “Now we see what happened to music, what also happens to bread and butter. When a tree [Iran] is not well maintained, first the leaves [music] falls and then it gets closer to the roots.

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