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Haleh, Googoosh, and Postpolitical Politics

If you look at the mission statement for Namak Magazine–basically the Iranian-American print equivalent of Jewcy–you'll find this: Namak is a non-political, non-religious publication. We stand against any ideology or social structure that splinters the Iranian community internally or separates … Read More

By / June 27, 2007

If you look at the mission statement for Namak Magazine–basically the Iranian-American print equivalent of Jewcy–you'll find this:

Namak is a non-political, non-religious publication. We stand against any ideology or social structure that splinters the Iranian community internally or separates us from other groups.

This seems to be a common feature of modern, post-revolutionary Iranian attitudes toward the political, both in Iran and abroad. It's easy to sympathize–looking at modern politics through an Iranian lens, one encounters an extremely robust, not to mention recent, history of ideological zeal and subsequent failure. Monarchy, consitutionalism, colonialism, nationalism, modernism, traditionalism, totalitarianism, theocracy, secularism, Marxism, Islamism, revolution, reformism–all in less than a century. Now, chalk it up to poor publicity on the organizers' part, but I was still sad that there wasn't a larger turnout of Iranians at today's vigil for Haleh Esfandiari at the U.N.

It is hard to remain unmoved by the scope of the massive demonstrations of 1979. Last night, I watched the documentary, Googoosh: Iran's Daughter, an audiovisual chronicle of the magnificent Persian pop star's life. In addition to the footage of Googoosh's life and career as an entertainer, there were some gripping images–seas upon seas of people of all ages standing up to the Shah's army. I've often recently wondered whether what I perceive to be a developing Iranian polity could be an antidote to the problem of 20th century ideological zeal. I haven't given up hope, but the problem seems to become one of mobilization.

Googoosh's songwriting partners note that they never knew what she thought about politics–people in Iran just didn't say, 'So, what do you think about X, Y, or Z?' In her songs, which were never intended to have political meaning, she often sang in a forlorn, longing tone of better days. Sometimes she sang about flirtation and the nomadic nature of the human heart. It's not impossible to say that while Khomeini was one voice and face of the revolution, she was its feminine visage and its songstress–the side, in other words, that had to be veiled from sight in order to create and maintain the illusion that it was a univocal Islamic Revolution. According to Islamic jurists under Khomeini, listening to the female voice is something akin to seeing an uncovered woman. It is dangerous in its ability to arouse desire. Music of this sort–the kind that encourages sensuality, flight, fancy, and escape from the slings of existence–is 'strictly forbidden by Islam.'

But this lack of politicization and mobilization is not only a problem for Iranians. I would like to have seen more faces there today in general. It goes without saying that any turnout is better than no turnout at all, but the freedom of these men and women matters to the emancipatory project of all humanity. Nobody anywhere can afford to be apolitical or postpolitical about this.

Googoosh was silenced for 20 years before moving to America during the somewhat liberal reforms of Kahatami. She's singing again (there's a concert July 7th in Toronto). While it's not enough to simply say 'let the music be the guide,' it also isn't naive to say that if the faces and voices of ideology have blunted too many hearts to action, then perhaps the spirit of the songstress so feared by the blackfrocks might give us some idea of what a call back into the streets might sound like.

The feminist critique says that it's wrong essentialize sexual or erotic desire in the feminine. Fine, fair enough. I'm not saying the sensuality of this music springs essentially from Googoosh's femininity; but you can hardly deny its presence or its power. Desire isn't inherently feminine–that's the misogynist stereotype that the mullahs insist upon. But it's always satisfying to see chains of bondage turned into instruments of freedom. Call it political aikido if you like.

I'd be lying if I said that seeing the Googoosh of Iran past–the Bowie-esque fashion chameleon, the chanteuse, the dancer, the acrobat, the actress–didn't have something to do with moving me to show solidarity with the victims of the regime that seeks to erase such vibrance and virtuosity. The silencing of her voice and Haleh's have much in common. Googoosh's songwriters spent time in Evin prison where Mrs. Esfandiari resides today. The goal–freedom to sing and speak–is reason enough to unite in favor of Haleh's release. But if reason isn't persuasive, listen to the music:

 

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