I apologize in advance if you find descriptions that display ignorance or arrogance on my part toward the enormous Iranian audience I encountered this week. I apologize in advance for my surprise at finding happy Iranians, thirsty for culture and without veils or turbans, welcoming an Israeli who infiltrated the center of culture and glory that for one night belonged only to them. There’s no doubt that at the performance of the famous Iranian singer Moein at the giant Warner Theatre in Washington, DC, I had an experience that was both eye-opening and sobering.
Until this week I didn’t know who Moein was, and I didn’t realize he had so many fans all over the globe, who fill huge halls to hear his songs. I also discovered that Moein also has many fans in Israel, especially among Iranian Jews.
I attended his show out of curiosity to meet an Iranian audience, and stood at the balcony overlooking the entrance lobby to the large performance hall. A young woman in a tight-fitting evening gown also leaned on the railing and started speaking to me in Persian.
“I don’t speak Persian,” I answered in English, and she was surprised.
“And you came to hear Moein? Why?” she asked.
“I’m an Israeli who came to see a concert of an Iranian singer and to meet an Iranian audience out of interest and curiosity,” I answered, and she smiled.
“Welcome. That’s very moving. Look at all these people — see how much they long for Iran that once was, that was a wonderful place and is no longer.”
And this is what Nasrollah Moein Najafabadi, or Moein for short, reminds everyone. He was born in Esfahan, became a star in his country before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and when he was forbidden to sing or perform so that he wouldn’t “corrupt” the younger generation, according to the revolutionaries, he fled to the United States and settled there. The love songs he sang in Iran have become songs of longing for the homeland, which has changed entirely, and Moein has become a popular star among Persian speakers who long for their country just like he does.
For almost three hours, thousands of exiled Iranians living in the United States traveled back in time with Moein to Esfahan and Tehran. Every time the notes of the oud and the bass guitar filled the hall, tears were shed by men and women, young and old, those who experienced the revolution and those born after it. Everyone knows every word of his songs and wipes their eyes every so often.
Moein, wearing a dark suit and dark glasses, thanked them in Persian every time he felt the emotions reaching a crescendo. His trembling voice disclosed his emotion, and when he was choked by tears they cheered, perhaps as comfort, showing that they felt the same.
“You know,” my hosts at the hall told me, “He can’t return to the city of his birth, Esfahan, because of the powerful criticism he expresses in his songs against the current regime in Iran.”
In one of the songs, which begins as a quiet prayer and becomes a great, earth-shaking cry, Moein weeps — really weeps — over an Iran that has plenty of oil and natural resources, but whose people don’t get to enjoy any of it. Many of them are wretchedly poor. Most of these resources were swallowed by the regime for its own needs, to power the revolution and to feed its supporters.
The young woman on the balcony told me that this feeling is shared by her family, which has lived in the United States for about two decades. Iran was a center of culture, learning, literature, music and progress, and all this was wiped away in one day. Despite integration and the comfortable life America can offer its immigrants, one cannot replace a home that’s no longer there. Every musical tone is a memory; every embellishment Moein trills is the sound of longing — een for those who were born in America.
The stories, voices and even smells of Iran featured prominently in Moein’s performance. He tells in his songs of experiences and flavors that don’t exist in America, despite the great abundance it has to offer.
Travel the world and nowhere will you feel like home, he sang, and when the notes grew louder and his clear voice trilled, the young woman from the balcony joined the many women who danced in the aisles and between the rows. For a moment it was possible to imagine how Iran would have looked today if not for the religious revolution that washed over its streets and choked off all that Moein’s fans tried to revive in one night at a concert in America — precisely in America, whose culture and influence the Islamic revolutionaries strove to erase.
On the way out after the show, my hosts asked, eyes red from crying, what I thought. I knew what they meant, but I didn’t want to get into politics. I did not want to talk about the nuclear program and the bomb, nor about the distorted image I had of Iranians and not about the jeans that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iranian youth could wear if they were like any other nation.
That night, it was enough to say that I enjoyed it. Not just the music, I enjoyed the whole encounter. I enjoyed it very much.
Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.
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