Last week the Iranian pop singer Sirvan Khosravi posted a fraught note on Instagram informing his 2.3m followers that two planned concerts in Ahvaz, Khuzesan would not be going ahead. It came after tumult at the gates the previous day, where as-yet unidentified parties tried to block fans from entering the venue.
“I want you to know that we tried to stop the cancellation of the concert until the last moment,” Khosravi wrote on Thursday. The previous day, he said, 5,000 fans with tickets had stood in line in 48-degree heat and were unable to enter for an hour due to interference from “people who were not clear which organization they belonged to”.
Videos posted online on Wednesday showed individuals in plainclothes swearing at fans outside the city’s Hilal cinema, and in some cases trying to strike them. In another video posted by Khosravi himself, a Shia eulogist could be heard singing loudly into a megaphone, seemingly trying to drown out the voices of the crowds waiting at the gates.
The disruption took place while a 22-member team, from sound engineers to front-of-house staff, were preparing to let fans into a concert they had waited five years for. Still another video showed a blue van forcing its way into the middle of the crowd, surrounded by black-clad men and with the sound of Shia eulogists blaring from loudspeakers on the roof.
A fan who witnessed the disruption told IranWire the noise had been “ear-splitting”. “The men in plainclothes were accosting women and warning them about hijab. One of them was shouting: ‘Shame on you! End this circus and go away!’.
“Some were really frightened and left; others stayed and ignored it. My friends were at the end of the line and told me a physical fight had broken out when people didn’t give up, though I didn’t see that for myself.”
Eventually the event went ahead on Wednesday evening as it had a legal permit, but Khosravi was then informed by the Ministry of Culture in Khuzestan that the rest of the Ahvaz tour was off.
“How come the concerts have been cancelled without a reason being given,” he demanded to know on Instagram, “despite the fact that it had permission from the authorities and the related agencies? Are one van and a few loudspeakers more powerful than a license from the government itself?”
A Pattern of Intimidation
Though the chaos at Khosravi’s concert caught the most attention, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) also reported on July 22 that several concerts by the Iranian star Sohrab Pakzad, scheduled for July 23 to July 25 in the same city, had been cancelled as well.
Keyvan Sabet, a prominent composer, tar and setar player based in Mashhad, told IranWire he had gone through a similar experience in Khuzestan in spring 2017. “I was scheduled to hold a concert in Abadan,” he said. “I received threats from callers who didn’t even bother to conceal their phone number. There were so many that by order phone number were not even covered up. There was so much threat that, on the order of Mr. [Ali] Moradkhani, who was then deputy minister of Islamic Guidance, police cars escorted me to the concert hall.
“Earlier, in March that year, Mr. Salar Aghili [a Persian traditional singer] had been threatened in the same way. He was forced to cancel his concerts in Abadan. Around the same time, Mr. Massoud Shoari, the setar player, also went to Abadan, and something similar happened; he had to go back to Tehran.”
There has been little official effort to engage with the problem so far, and the disruptive parties have not been identified. Mojtaba Yousefi, the MP for Ahvaz, washed his hands of the latest incident, saying simply that he knew nothing about it. Affected parties, he said, should talk to the Iranian parliament’s Cultural Committee.
Reza Kolahkaj, director-general of Khuzestan’s Department of Islamic Guidance, did a least confirm that the concerts in Khuzestan had been cancelled until further notice. This, he said, had been the decision of Ahvaz County Security Council.
“The people who had gathered said that they objected to the type of outfits and hijab,” he went on, “but the problem was managed by police and other related agencies. The concert was not disrupted in any way.”
Then on July 21, the office of the governor of Ahvaz issued an unexpected statement, citing two wholly different reasons for the cancellation: “Yesterday, heavy traffic built up in front of the Helal Cinema. As a result, Ahvaz traffic police sent us a note telling us that this location was not an appropriate place for holding concerts.
“The other reason was the failure to follow health guidelines [relating to Covid-19]. The Medical Center wrote to us saying health protocols had not been observed. For the moment, concerts at this location have been cancelled, but this does not mean all concerts in Ahvaz have been stopped altogether. If the Guidance Department decides these events could be held in a more appropriate location, and if they follow health protocols and have a permit, they can go ahead.”
Musicians Left Out of Pocket
Even under normal circumstances, arranging and holding a music event in Iran is a bureaucratic nightmare. The would-be performer must submit their proposed program to one body after the next for approval, right down to the lyrics of individual songs. If this cumbersome and expensive process yields a permit, it is at least assumed the event will then be able to go ahead.
“There are a lot of expenses involved when an artist goes from town to town to perform,” Keyvan Sabet said. “Hours of practising and preparation, the huge costs incurred by travel, the transportation of instruments and equipment, lodging – all of it’s wasted by subversive action like this.”
Music concerts, Sabet believes, are all the more important to Iranians today. After two years of Covid, faced with a bleak economy, isolation and a stifling political atmosphere, they afford people an increasingly rare chance to relax and enjoy themselves. “Living in Iran is difficult. But concerts can soften the psychological tension.
“The fact that an event with a permit can be cancelled because of a commotion by some vigilante groups shows the Ministry of Culture doesn’t have a great deal of power within the government. Nobody knows who dispatches these people but they’re always there, ready to derail musical programs. We don’t know who it is that has the problem.
“The government and provincial officials must deal once and for all with vigilante groups who take action against cultural events. These groups cause carnage and stress. It’s them that are producing the disorder.”
Friday Imams Encourage the Mob
The abrupt cancellation of music events has been a regularly-reported occurrence since the beginning of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency in 2013. In 2016, Ali Jannati, Rouhani’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, resigned in protest over one such incident in the city of Mashhad, the holiest metropolis for Shias.
The following year, Ebrahim Raisi stood as a candidate in the presidential election. In a campaign video entitled “The People’s Concert”, he demanded to know: “Are concerts the people’s greatest problem?”
Raisi’s father-in-law, Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, is the Friday Imam of Mashhad and the Supreme Leader’s appointed representative for the province of Razavi Khorasan. He has long been an obstinate opponent of any and all musical performances, and has repeatedly stated that he is against concerts being held in any part of Iran.
Khuzestan’s shrinking music scene appears to have been enabled by the sentiments of those now at the top of the Islamic Republic’s executive pecking order. “For the past few years,” the eyewitness at Sirvan Khosravi’s concert told IranWire, “the Friday Imams of almost all cities here in Khuzestan have forbidden concerts be held where they are. Even in Abadan, which had the most lively events before the revolution.
“Now permits for are only issued for Ahvaz. People travel from other towns and cities to get to them. But it seems now our province, too, has in this area become a law unto itself.”