All the catastrophic consequences of the coronavirus lockdown aside, it has led to some amusing moments. Millions of people having to avoid hair salons for months resulted in our timelines being filled up with signature quarantine beards or amateur spouse-inflicted haircuts. With the gradual easing of restrictions, barbershops were Destination No 1 for many.
Iranian singer Ebrahim Hamedi, usually known as Ebi, was also unhappy with his quarantine beard. He has been known to several generations of Iranians by his bushy beard, but the untrimmed lockdown version was starting to make him look more like a Taliban minister than a pop star.
The virus led him to do something he hadn’t done for 50 years. He said he’d shave off the entirety of his facial hair if people contributed at least US$10,000 to a UNICEF campaign supported by Ebi’s own children-focused charity, the With You Foundation.
The response was immediate and rapid. Donations poured in and after about two days, Ebi had to cave. He posted videos of himself shorn of his beard for the first time since 1971. Major Persian-language media outlets headlined the news.
Such celebrity campaigns and responses are common around the world. But what makes this case unique is the fact that Ebi, along with much of Iran’s artistic community, has been barred from his homeland for more than four decades.
Not only Ebi’s music is illegal in Iran, but even his name or likeness cannot appear anywhere in Iranian domestic media. When an iconic TV presenter of the state broadcaster, Mohammadreza Hayati, recently mentioned his love for Ebi’s music, he was asked to stop coming to work. Hayati, a household name for most Iranians, saw his 39-year-old career come to an end just because he had expressed an opinion shared by millions in Iran.
Such is the degree of prohibition faced by Ebi’s fans. And yet, he remains a legend for Iranians, many of whom, including the present writer, were born long after the Islamic Revolution and came to know Ebi through illegal bootlegged tapes.
Ebi’s beard-losing story is testament to the fact that Iranians, young and old, continue to tune in to the Persian singers of the 1970s: all of whose careers were put to an immediate end after the 1979 Revolution. The founding leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, was open about his hatred for music and if it hadn’t been for intense lobbying by some of his more cultured acolytes, he would have banned any and all music in the country outright. In an interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in October 1979, Khomeini complained: “Music dulls the mind, because [it] involves pleasure and ecstasy, similar to drugs.” When asked about Bach, Beethoven and Verdi, he said he didn’t know those names but only “marches and hymns” were to be allowed in the new Islamic Republic.
Khomeini might not have known Bach or Beethoven but he had surely heard of Ebi, who was already a big name by the time the Ayatollah founded his ostensibly music-hating theocracy. Born in 1949, the young crooner had grown up in a household too poor to own a radio. Ebrahim’s first experience of singing was in recitals of the Koran in primary school. He later made his name by starring in Youth Palaces, community cultural centers built and promoted by the Shah’s regime, and in Tehran’s legendary Cafe Cuchini, a cabaret established by Vida Ghahremani, an Iranian actress known for her 1954 performing of the first-over on-screen kiss in Iranian cinema.
In the Iran of the late 1960s and 1970s, men and women like Ebi and Vida became stars of a rising pop culture that defied the taboos of traditional society and was championed and followed by millions of fans. This was a story, shared across the region, in the days before Islamist fundamentalism became a major force: a story ably told by the Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas’s recent bestselling book Black Wave.
One of Ebi’s first major hits was his performance at an international festival in Istanbul in 1974. In 1978, Turkish diva Adja Pekkan brought her French-language hit A Mes Amours to Tehran. She had been preceded by many Israeli singers such as Tova Porat, and Mike Brant, who played at a Tehran festival in 1969, as detailed by Lior Sternfeld in his "Between Iran and Zion".
Unlike what many baseless accounts have later claimed, this new pop culture was by no means the sole preserve of the rich and elites. Young working-class Iranians from all backgrounds flocked to concerts and performances by the likes of Ebi. They saw him on the rapidly-growing medium of television, they watched his films on cinema screens and they sported haircuts to mimic him and the other great stars of the time. Chief among these were Ebi and two fellow singers: Dariush, known as ultimate Persian sad boy singer, and Gogoosh, the electric singer and actress, every detail of whose art and life was obsessively followed by millions.
Nor is it true that these arts belonged to a conservative pro-Shah crowd. Many, like Daruish, were leftists who occasionally bore the brunt of repression. Most of these artists were progressives of one sort or the other, hobnobbing with intellectuals who, in tune with the spirit of the times and the global Sixties, frequently opposed the Shah’s dictatorship.
But the 1979 Revolution shut down all of their careers. To this day, the portrayal of any musical instrument remains prohibited on Iranian TV. Ebi happened to be touring in the US when the Islamic Republic came into existence. He simply never came back, and joined thousands of Iranian artists who built their often difficult exilic lives in Los Angeles, California. Gogoosh, for her part, stayed put for decades before finally leaving Iran in 2000 with a comeback tour that filled concert halls in North America and Europe, starting from Toronto’s Air Canada Center, which had the honor of hosting her first post-Revolution show.
In the decades since 1979, much has happened in the Iranian music scene. Innovative singers inside the country have found ways to get around the censors and launch successful careers. But few can claim the type of celebrity and fandom that the old man of Iranian pop enjoys, even as he remains banned in his homeland and spends much of his time in his vacation home in southern Spain’s Costa del Sol.
In March, Ebi and a number of other Iranian stars like the Iranian-Armenian Hollywood Walk of Fame member Andy Madadian performed at a winter festival in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. This first-ever performance of Iranian artists in Saudi Arabia, whose restrictions on music were even worse than those of Iran until just a few years ago, irked the regime but was seen and followed by many Iranians. Whatever their opinion of the Saudis, Iranian fans of Ebi sighed at the bizarre fact that their beloved singer could now even sing in Saudi Arabia but not his country of birth.
The Islamic Republic has been able to drive Ebi and his contemporaries out of their homeland. it has failed to erase them from Iranians’ hearts and minds.