Monday, March 16, 2015

Rocking the casbah: the gig of a lifetime that put Iranian women back on stage

Since the 1979 revolution, women in Iran have been banned from singing solo. So what happened when this woman decided to stage an all-female concert? As No Land’s Songs, a film about the thrilling gig, shows in Britain, Sara Najafi tells Alexis Petridis how she outwitted scholars, officials and militia

Three years ago, the Iranian singer and composer Sara Najafi came up with the idea of hosting a concert in Tehran, her hometown. It was a plan so audacious, it seemed slightly nuts. The concert would be “a festival of the female voice” featuring solo singers – not just Iranians, but artists from France and Tunisia, too. Nothing like it had been attempted in Iran for 35 years: after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women were banned from singing solo in public.
What’s more, Sara was inspired by the Green Movement, which grew out of the mass protests at Iran’s 2009 presidential election result. “It brought me to a new idea of music,” she says. “Basically, I wanted to make music for that movement.” Some choices of performer seem to have been designed to provoke the authorities, not least Emel Mathlouthi, the Tunisian singer whose song Kelmti Horra became a protest anthem during the Arab Spring.
Sara’s brother, the film-maker Ayat Najafi, offered to help organise the show and make a documentary about it, but his presence proved a mixed blessing. Based in Germany, he says he “wasn’t that welcome” in Iran, as a result of his 2008 documentary Football Under Cover, about an attempt to stage the first female soccer match in Iranian history. He was forced to shoot covertly, using a small camera. During Sara’s many visits to the Iranian Ministry of Culture, he couldn’t shoot at all – instead, while pleading her case, his sister wore a wire to record conversations. “That’s a good thing about a hijab,” he says. “You can hide a microphone in it. For the first time, we could use the headscarf in a positive way.”
What happened over the ensuing months is captured in No Land’s Song, a film that weaves a history of female singers in pre-revolutionary Iran (including the exceptionally ballsy Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri, who in 1924 became the first woman in Iran to perform without a hijab in front of men) around Sara’s struggle to get her gig off the ground.
The film is often drily funny: Sara’s mordant expression as she listens to an Islamic scholar explain why a group of women singing together can’t inflame men’s desires, but a solo female singer can, via an extended metaphor involving cheese; the exasperation of the Iranian musicians when their French counterparts appear to be scared off from coming to Tehran by the worsening situation in Syria (“Let’s scare them more when they arrive. Turn up late to the rehearsals, shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and let off an explosion”).
Occasionally, it’s hugely depressing. It depicts a society not just fearful of the authorities (a street-seller repeatedly insists he has no CDs by the Iranian singer Googoosh until he’s certain Sara isn’t in the secret police), but also struggling against Kafka-esque bureacracy. “Does anything have a clear answer in this country?” demands a government official during one of Sara’s meetings at the ministry. “A lot of things have no reason.”
Still, Sara keeps at it, navigating her way through endless pettifogging about how many women can sing on stage, at what volume, and whether they can move their bodies while singing. When the government refuses to issue the foreign musicians with work permits, they contemplate arriving as tourists and playing anyway – before the 2013 election ushers in the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president and the visas are suddenly issued. For all her tenacity, Sara says there were times when she thought the plan was doomed. “After every meeting at the ministry, I said, ‘OK, it won’t happen.’ But then she’d have a meeting with her Iranian singers – some old enough to have performed before the revolution, others too young to remember a time when women were allowed to sing at all – and decide to fight on... read more: