Pop Diva's return strikes a popular chord in Iran
By Tom Hundley
July 7, 2000
TEHRAN -- In Iran, she is a star of Elvis magnitude. What's more, she
is very much alive and apparently coming out of retirement.
Googoosh, a 50-year-old Iranian pop diva who has not sung in more than
20 years, will break her silence with a series of performances later this
summer in Canada and possibly the United States. Her fans, from Azerbaijan
to Anaheim, are ecstatic.
But the return of Googoosh is more than just a pop milestone. It is
a cultural marker, a measure of the way change occurs in a society that
for more than two decades has tried to resist the tide of globalization
by living in self-imposed isolation.
Googoosh, whose name is Faegheh Atashin, was at the height of her popularity
in the late 1970s. Her records and cassettes were huge sellers in Iran,
Turkey and parts of the former Soviet Union. Her songs and style were widely
imitated. Some credit her with popularizing the miniskirt in Iran.
That all came to an abrupt halt with the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
But unlike most of Iran's pop music industry, which fled to California,
Googoosh stayed. She stopped singing and wore the black chador.
Under Islamic rule, the laws dealing with music are challenging. The
two basic premises are that the female voice should never be heard by men
and that Western music, particularly rock 'n' roll, is decadent.
That means a female singer can give a concert, but only women may attend.
It means that music stores can display CDs and cassettes only of male artists
performing Iranian music.
Lately, with the loosening of social restraints generally, music stores
in Tehran are offering recordings of Western rock music performed by Iranian
musicians--but without lyrics, which are still considered offensive.
If you really have to have the latest Madonna or Shania Twain, though,
just ask. Most stores in Tehran have bootleg copies under the counter.
Despite the competition, and the fact that she has not made a new recording
in more than two decades, Googoosh's CDs and tapes are still the biggest
sellers, according to interviews with half a dozen music store owners in
"No one is bigger, and after these concerts, she will be even more
popular," said Sepideh Azhir, a 23-year-old music store clerk in an
upmarket north Tehran shopping mall.
She reached under the counter and pulled out a bag filled with a dozen
CD versions of Googoosh's old records. These are produced in Tarzana, Calif.,
the capital of the Iranian pop industry, and smuggled into Iran.
"We sell these faster than anything else in the shop. They will
be gone in a week," she said.
Googoosh's popularity cuts across the generations. For fans now in their
50s, her songs recall a happier, more carefree time in Iran. For new fans
in their teens, her music is a link with social freedoms they have never
Seventeen-year-old Yousef Karami's prize possession is a black T-shirt
emblazoned with a picture of Googoosh. He wears it to weddings, family
parties or when he goes out with friends on special occasions.
Because Googoosh's face is unveiled in the portrait on Karami's shirt,
he is taking a risk.
"I could be whipped for this, but so far nobody has objected,"
he said. "Older people, when they see it, they stop in their tracks
and stare. Lots of young people have offered to buy it," he said.
Karami, who works in a TV and radio repair shop, owns every recording
ever made by Googoosh. He also has most of her films and videos.
"She sings about the things we are deprived of. Her songs are about
love and happiness. Some nights I listen to my tapes and I can't stop crying,"
Graphic designer Esmail Asgari, 24, admits he has stored more than 100
photos of Googoosh in his computer.
"I love her lips and eyebrows," explained Asgari. "The
girls I pick for girlfriends must have beautiful lips and eyebrows like
Over the years, rumors of Googoosh comebacks have become as common as
Elvis sightings. Her silence has only enhanced her mystique.
Recently, when a minor Iranian film actor died, thousands turned out
for the funeral because he was known to have been a friend of Googoosh,
and fans were hoping for a glimpse of the reclusive superstar.
This time, the comeback rumors are true. The first concert is scheduled
for July 29 at the Air Canada Center in Toronto.
It will apparently occur with the tacit blessing with of the Iranian
government. Googoosh recently met with Ataollah Mohajerani, the reform-minded
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who raised no objections to performances
Such is the way change is now occurring in Iran: slowly, cautiously
and through some indirection. Three years ago, it would have been unthinkable
for the government to approve a Googoosh concert. But reformists like Mohajerani
and President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in a landslide victory
three years ago, are easing social restrictions at home while opening doors
to the outside world.
Religious conservatives have been resisting every step of the way, but
in the age of satellite dishes and the Internet, they appear to be fighting
a losing battle.
As pressure for liberalization builds, especially after reformists swept
last February's parliamentary elections, the Googoosh concerts serve as
a kind of safety valve, but there is always a danger that they could provoke
State-run television will not broadcast the concerts, but it is likely
that they will be beamed back to Iran via satellite by one of several offshore
Persian-language television stations that have sprung up in recent years.
If not, it is certain that under-the-counter videos will be on sale in
Tehran almost immediately.