Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
If you think making it big here is hard, try being a rock band in Iran—where rock music is officially considered a decadent vice of Western imperialists.
Alcohol is banned and music venues are nonexistent in Iran, so the rock band Hypernova spent seven years in Tehran’s underground scene, playing basement shows and birthday parties. There aren’t any legal recording studios, so they recorded their 2006 EP, Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?, in their friend’s crappy home studio. They’ve been doing much better since their move to the United States in 2007—they’re living in Brooklyn and touring nationally—but they still hide their real identities to protect their families back home.
“The problem with the underground is there’s only so much you can do there,” says Raam, the band’s 29-yearold lead singer and guitarist, in a recent phone interview. “You’re either going to end up in prison or you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to be able to pursue that other career unless you’re rich enough to just play in your own basement for the rest of your life.”
They don’t have any plans to return home any time soon—in part because it’s a foregone conclusion that they’d be thrown in jail for a song like “Viva la Resistance,” the second track on their debut full-length, Through the Chaos. Over a muted guitar and a bouncy bass line reminiscent of The Strokes, Raam sings, “Your theocratic, neo-fascist ideology / is only getting in the way of my biology.”
In a way, Raam says, they’re better off outside Iran.
“The more success we see over here,” he says, “the more hope it gives to all the kids back home.”
Iranians have always been keen on Western music (on YouTube, there’s an amazing video from 1991 of some Persian dudes break-dancing at a party in Tehran), but Iranian music has gained wider popularity in the year since the birth of the Green Movement, a grassroots civil-rights campaign kick-started by the controversial reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats shed light on Tehran’s underground music scene and an adorable indie-pop duo called Take it Easy Hospital. Shahin Najafi, a Persian rapper based in Germany, has become famous for cutting rhymes that attack Iran’s oppressive theological strictures.
But as the Iranian government does all it can to crush the Green Movement, they’ve raised the stakes for artists looking to speak out.
When Raam, who describes himself as “non-religious,” first started playing with Hypernova drummer Kami in 2000, the country was undergoing liberal reforms under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami. “Holding a girl’s hand in public was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Raam says. “But during Khatami, small things like that became more culturally acceptable.”
But today, the government is reportedly cracking down harder than ever before. Peaceful demonstrators have been attacked by paramilitary youths wielding batons. Bloggers and filmmakers have been arrested and kept in solitary confinement. In December, Iranian authorities detained and intimidated Shahram Nazeri, a respected vocalist who recorded a protest song; he’s been silent ever since.
And don’t even think about holding a girl’s hand.
Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance went so far as to impose guidelines on men’s hairstyles.
“It’s going to take time, but I really do think that struggle is going to prevail,” Raam says. “I think one of the greatest points about the Green Movement, and just the movement of the people, is that they’re demanding that all fundamental basic rights be respected. Everyone should have the freedom to be and follow what they want—but, more importantly, everyone should also be represented equally.”
To its detriment, Hypernova isn’t all that different from countless other bands. Straight-ahead rock songs like “Universal” and “Fairy Tales” may be incredibly catchy, but they’re not groundbreaking or unique. But maybe Raam’s being too harsh when he freely says that Hypernova’s music is “far from good.” To be sure, they’re making headway by introducing synths and live sequencing, dispensing with the tired Strokes formula that defines most of Through the Chaos.
Still, it’s unclear whether they’ll ever reach their ultimate ambition: global recognition.
“For us, the goal is to become so famous and so big one day that when we go back home, we’ll be untouchable,” Raam says. “Like, you know, ‘Do your worst.
Throw me into jail.’ “But, hopefully, it won’t come to that,” he adds. “I don’t want to go to Iranian jail.”
Hypernova plays with The Black Diamond Riders at Bar Pink on Sunday, July 18. hypernova.com
This article ran in last week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.
From this feature in last week’s issue of SD CityBeat:
Book: The Room and the Chair
Lorraine Adams, a former staff writer for The Washington Post who guzzles Red Bull and travels to Pakistan in her off time, brings an intimate knowledge of secret government operations and newsroom dynamics to her second novel. Ostensibly about a female fighter jet pilot who becomes the unwitting guinea pig in a secret government program, The Room and the Chair delves into the kaleidoscopic relationship between a high-level spook and the reporters and editors of a major daily—where getting the scoop takes priority over figuring out what the hell’s actually going on. Both a penetrating analysis and a tender character study, this captivating spy thriller makes for an unsettling assessment of the War on Terror.
I just got back from (Le) Poisson Rouge, where I witnessed a breathtaking performance of Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Double Sextet” by the hip contemporary classical group Signal. Mesmerizing percussive instruments and herky-jerky piano merged with the dissonant, razor sharp phrasing of violins and woodwinds. The ensemble (heads bobbing and bodies moving, the falcon-like conductor Brad Lubman swishing and cutting with his arms) was propulsive yet subdued, piercing but sublime.
After the show, Reich himself appeared in his trademark baseball cap, making his way through the applauding crowd and going on stage to give hugs and kisses. Considering the mood of the scene, I couldn’t help but feel a little regretful that I didn’t pull out my phone to snap a picture, even though it would have turned out hopelessly blurry and underexposed. Oh, to simply have the Capped One in a frame!
Now, I’m thinking of this haunting indelible image: life streaming from the eyes of the young Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan. Whether or not all of the facts have been independently confirmed, the candid video of Neda’s death is fast becoming the definitive emblem of Iranians’ call for democratic change. As I follow the hopeful protests and tragic violence taking place in Iran, the image has begun to serve as something of a personal spirit: a reminder that pops up up in unexpected places of the incomprehensibly ugly forces that seek to destroy beautiful common struggles.
Exiled scholars and political activists from Iraq, Iran and Ethiopia spoke at a panel discussion in Tishman Auditorium last Thursday, part of a lecture series that commemorates the 75th Anniversary of the New School’s University in Exile.
The University in Exile was founded as the graduate division of the New School for Social Research in 1933 by Alvin Johnson, the New School’s first president, to provide a safe haven for European scholars like Hannnah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Erich Fromm, whose PhDs were revoked by the Nazi party.
NSSR Dean Michael Schober announced at the beginning of the talk that Henry H. Arnhold, a member of the university’s board of trustees, recently offered a donation that will fund a three-year Scholar in Residence Program, in partnership with the Scholar Rescue Fund, to hire scholars who have been persecuted by their native countries.
Schober declined to give the sum of Arnhold’s grant after the presentation, but added that it was not “in the millions.”
The speakers recounted doing work in the trying, often terrifying, atmosphere of their homelands.
The first was Mehrangiz Kar, a woman who worked as a lawyer for 21 years in Iranian courtrooms governed by Islamic religious laws, known as Sharia. She is the author of several books, including her memoir, Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran, and has worked as a journalist for reformist publications.
“By [Iran's] Constitution,” she said, “every door to reform is closed.”
In 2000, after she returned from a conference in Berlin, the Iranian government threw her in solitary confinement for two months, charging her with “acting against national security,” “insulting Islamic values,” and violating the “Islamic dress code.” Two months after they released her, the police imprisoned her husband, the journalist Siamak Pourzand, for several months and tortured him.
After his release, he stayed in Iran to get medical help, while Kar received treatment for breast cancer in the United States. She has lived here since 2002.
Donny George Youkhanna, the third speaker, served as the Director of the National Museum in Baghdad until the summer of 2006. At the National Museum, he worked with the U.S. military and a short-lived 1,400-man Special Antiquities Task Force to help retrieve 15,000 ancient artifacts that were stolen from the museum and from Iraq’s 12,500 archeological sites during the rampant looting after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The stolen items included statues, vases, cuneiform tablets, and antiquities that date back 6,000 years. According to the F.B.I., between 7 and 10 thousand items are still missing.
Youkhanna had high hopes for the American overthrow of Iraq’s former President, Saddam Hussein. “I started thinking that, ‘Yes, we will be more free,’” he said.
But as an English-speaking Christian, his family became a target of sectarian antagonism.
In 2006, his fifteen-year-old son received a death threat in the mail, accusing him of insulting Islam and making inappropriate comments to Muslim girls, and his father of working with the United States. After Youkhanna whisked his family off to Syria for their safety, he returned to continue his work. But the Minister of the State Board of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage revoked all of Youkhanna’s executive authority, who at the time held the deputy ministerial position. “I could not spend one dinar,” he said.
He soon retired, took a job offer from the University of Stony Brook and moved his family to New York.
Asked during the Q&A session about what should be done to preserve Iraq’s antiquities and cultural heritage, he said that this effort would be very challenging. He noted that Iraq’s national symphony orchestra, the first of its kind in the Middle East, has lately performed only at secret locations.
The final speaker was Berhanu Nega, a NSSR alumnus and the International Scholar in Residence in Economics at Bucknell University. Nega is a prominent member of Ethiopia’s pro-democracy movement and the mayor-elect of Ethiopia’s capitol, Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, derailed the democratic elections of May 2005. Nega never assumed his mayoral post because the government arrested him and threw him in jail and charged him with treason, he said, along with between 30,000 and 50,000 other activists, politicians and journalists.
A prolonged trial sentenced Nega and 37 other opposition leaders to life in prison, but the Ethiopian government suddenly released them in July. Nega has been in the United States since September.
Ethiopia is a key partner in the War on Terror and, according to USA Today, has received nearly $20 million in American military aid since 2002. Nega is a fervent critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Asked about the Presidential elections during the reception after the event, Nega put his right hand up, crossed his fingers, and said that he is rooting for Barack Obama.
This article appears in next Tuesday’s issue of the New School Free Press.
Rolling home on the subway, I read the New York Times’ take on the suicide attack Monday on a banquet encouraging reconciliation in Iraq. I am astounded that both papers have managed to write essentially the same article–describing the scene of the bomber blowing himself up amidst the banquet, killing 16, including Diyala Province’s governor, the region’s police chief and a military commander; then reporting that Iran closed its border on Kurdistan because the military arrested an alleged Iranian diplomat.
The Washington Post depended on “news agencies” and four Iraqi reporters, one who goes unnamed. The Times used three Iraqi reporters, on call from Baghdad, and the perfunctory “Iraqi employees of The New York Times” team at Baquba and Sulaimaniya. Oh yeah…the Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan and the Times’ Andrew E. Kramer also both did some work too, wrote it up, then won the by-lines.
I am miffed. I don’t keep track of the Washington Post’s Iraq coverage so much as the The New York Times, so mainly I’m aiming my ire at the Times. They have depended on “Iraqi employees of The New York Times” for years. I understand that naming them puts their lives at risk. And reporters like Damien Cave, Alissa J. Rubin and Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns have always done a bang-up job. But handing out a by-line to one individual for “all hands on deck” assignments looks totally fraudulent. If you’ve checked out the Times’ Iraq page recently, especially that interactive graphic of Baghdad, you can tell these Iraqi reporters have been working their asses off.
So our paper of record should give credit where credit is due. Get rid of that single by-line trend, or somehow be specific about who did what.
Today the Washington Post touches on an alarming trend of the U.S. military in Iraq: arresting Iranian diplomats.
President Jalal Talabani has been negotiating openly with Iran for quite some time, so it boggles the mind that we would violate Iran’s diplomatic immunity. Sure, we may fear letting Iranian spies operate in Iraq. And allegations are rife that Iran is funnelling concave copper discs into the country, which are used in roadside bombs and destroy Humvees. But arresting diplomats definitely makes us look bad in the international public eye. And arresting the diplomats of our nemesis inches us closer to a potential armed conflict.
On a side note, even if these Iranian diplomats are spies, it’s not like America hasn’t done the same exact thing. In the 1990s, according to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, C.I.A. agents posed as diplomats in Sudan to pursue terrorists like Osama bin Laden–which led to heated sabotage attempts and a crazy car chase.
Maybe we should tone down the diplomat arrests–which get plenty of publicity–and investigate politicians like Bayan Jabr, Iraq’s Minister of Finance, who headed the Ministry of the Interior and oversaw the Iraqi police when they set up slaughterhouses to torture Sunnis in 2005 and 2006.
Jabr joined the Shia opposition movement in the 1980s and was allegedly a member of the Badr Organization–known back in the day as the Badr Brigade–which was based in Iran during the Saddam years and fought alongside Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Now, this is a wild guess, a shot in the dark, but maybe Jabr still has some connections with Iran and a vested interest in a military partnership with the Revolutionary Guards.
Just a thought.
UPDATE: I wrote this one kinda fast, so I overlooked the most important reason why arresting the “diplomat” is bad in this situation: Iran has an excuse to close its borders with Kurdistan, thus starving its economy and people.