Music and Iran are not words that harmonize well in today’s Islamic Republic. And you can imagine my surprise when official transcripts for a degree in Music from the Islamic Azad University (est. 1988), the bastion of the Republic’s Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution and the Islamic Consultative Assembly, landed on my desk. There, nestled between the mandatory Islamic religious subjects were courses that moved across the page like notes on sheet music: Piano, Harmony, Counter Point, Ensemble, Theory, History of Classical Persian Music, History of World Classical Music, Music in Film, Study of Musical Instruments, Rhythm, Study of Acoustic Music, Human Nature and Music, and a course on the Analysis of Current Iranian Music. The latter course is even more confusing since in today’s Iran, music is a taboo subject. Music—rock, pop, punk, alternative, world—can only be enjoyed in secret, where bands perform in underground venues, and women are prohibited from performing in public.
In an August 2, 2010 post on the UK-based Guardian newspaper’s website, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who is said to “hate” music and prefers only revolutionary and religious anthems) was quoted to have said that music is “not compatible with the values of the Islamic republic, and should not be practiced or
taught in the country.” If this is the case, then Islamic Azad University is treading on unholy turf.
Iran’s official stance against music, yet the offering of a bachelor’s degree in music at the Islamic Azad University is an example of the mixed messages the regime routinely transmits to its domestic and global audience. Iran, a nation with music so steeped into its culture, where musicians in ancient Persian even held socially respectable positions, continues to grapple with finding ways to justify its stand on the subject.
Waves of artists, musicians and performers have either left the country, served prison sentences or worse. A recent independent film from Iran “No One Knows about Persian Cats,” focuses on the lives of a number of young musicians who struggle to create and play music in cellars, attics, and even a malodorous dairy farm, always glancing over the shoulders in fear of a police raid and arrest.
The same article by the Guardian reports on a 21-year-old follower who asks Khamenei if he should consider a career in teaching music and is advised that “its better for our dear youth to spend their valuable time in learning science and essential and useful skills and fill their time with sport and health recreations instead of music.” If this is the case, then it is interesting indeed to see the Islamic Azad University–the private religious non-profit tuition driven institution and brainchild of the former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini–offering the very subject so deplored by Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader.
Maybe change is on its way; one note at a time.
by Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert
an LA-based writer, working on her memoire “Cinema Iran,” and
a novel “The Nobleman’s Son: A Persian Tale”
she is also President & CEO – ACEI, Inc., an international education evaluation company serving students from around the world