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Agush Over Googoosh; Iranian Diva's Fans Rewarded for Long Wait

By David Segal
The Washington Post
September 18, 2000

In pop, the larger your legend, the less you're expected to move onstage. The legend of Googoosh--an Iranian diva touring for the first time in 21 years--is vast, and at MCI Center on Saturday night, she brought thousands of fans to tears and their feet with tiny, graceful gestures and an alto that proved undiminished by time.

The show, more than two hours of swirling Euro-pop backed by an 18-piece band, was a long-overdue reunion. Virtually unknown to Americans, Googoosh reigned for years as Iran's greatest film and music star, a Madonna-like style-setter of enduring popularity, whose every haircut was imitated and whose lyrics were memorized by millions. But her career came to a nearly overnight end in 1979 when clerics behind the Islamic revolution ordered a ban on public singing by women. Googoosh remained in her homeland, and for the last two decades she languished in her apartment, spending most of her time reading on a sofa.

Now, under a more liberal-leaning government, Googoosh was granted permission to travel overseas and perform. At MCI, she and thousands of Iranians, who came to the United States just as her stage exile began, seemed thrilled to lay eyes on each other again.

"As long as I have you, I am always in love," she told the crowd in Farsi, taking one of many pauses to dab tears from her eyes.

Time and distance seem only to have multiplied the mystique of Googoosh, who was born Faegheh Atashnin and is now 50 years old. For emigres who grew up watching her perform on television or in Tehran's cabarets, or recall her hit films, she has clearly never been displaced. More remarkably, a younger generation who either grew up in the United States or left Iran as children appear every bit as enamored, having met Googoosh through their parents' record collections and videotapes. There are 900 Web sites dedicated to her, and tickets for this tour have sold on eBay for $ 400 apiece.

"She's just so genuine when she sings. Her words basically go through your soul," gushed Golnal Mouafaghi, a 26-year-old dentist who flew in for the show from Boston with two friends.

Googoosh's songs are emotion-filled, with grandiose filigree provided by flute, bongos, three guitars, keyboards and a mini-orchestra of violins. There is a serpentine, Middle Eastern flavor to songs such as "Traveler" and "Broken Heart," though for all its exoticness, Googoosh's sound dips eagerly into world music and Western pop traditions, sounding at times like a cross between the Moody Blues and Yanni or Earth, Wind & Fire and the Gipsy Kings. She and her band handled flamenco and funk, offering heartachy ballads as well as dance numbers.

She sings, always in Farsi, mostly about romance, though on "Captive Land," a number from her new album, "Zoroaster," she seemed to tiptoe into politics, describing her heart as a shattered object that has fallen in pieces on a sorrow-filled landscape. The tune, according to an instant translation provided to this English-only critic by patient fans, could refer to Iran or some soul-searcher's personal struggle.

For the most part, Googoosh--a nickname since she was a baby--has scrupulously avoided politics throughout her decades-long career, which began when she was 3 years old, nudged along by her father, a comedian and entertainer.

She made her first movie, "The Fear of Hope," when she was 8, and by the 1960s was recording with Iran's best composers. A favorite of the Shah's and a conduit for the nation to European style, her every make-over soon became an event.

"She appeared on television with her hair cropped real short, which was a very unusual style in Iran at that time," said Niloofar Rasolee, a 41-year-old from Burtonsville who immigrated to the United States when she was 18. "And it was like the next day, that short haircut was all over town. We called it the Googooshee."

When Islamic fundamentalists tossed out the Shah, some clergymen wanted to ban all music outright, but the Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the regime, decided on a less drastic measure. In 1979 Western music was declared decadent and men were prohibited from hearing women sing in public. Most pop stars left the country, but Googoosh, who was in Los Angeles during the chaotic lead-up to Khomeini's coup, was too homesick to stay away from her country for long. Three months after the end of the monarchy, she returned home.

Her recent tour--reportedly approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government--is considered by some as a hopeful sign that President Mohammed Khatemi is serious about easing away from Khomeini's anti-Western stance. Some emigres, however, have accused Googoosh of giving a more humane face to an oppressive dictatorship. Aside from a tearful news conference in Toronto a few weeks ago, she has said little.

Plenty of fans are hoping she'll stay in the West. Clearly, the audience at MCI wanted her to stick around indefinitely.

"I love you," she told the audience, her only foray into English all evening.

The crowd, by U.S. pop concert standards, dressed with an almost formal elegance, with the men in dark suits and half the women in black cocktail dresses. Never has the pedestrian fare of the MCI concession stands--the $ 7.50 chicken tender basket, the $ 4 nachos--seemed more hopelessly inappropriate. The night called for canapes, offered by men in tuxedos.

For a generation now in its fifties, the return of Googoosh was something even more powerful than a nostalgia trip, though it was that as well. Like thousands of Iranian emigres, audience member Fereidoun Keshavarzi was part of the professional class before the revolution, an electrical engineer leading a comfortable middle-class life. When the mullahs swept into power, he didn't consider staying, though leaving the country with his wealth was against the law.

"You either ran for your life or you stayed and protected your property," he said. So he arrived in the United States in 1978, with two suitcases, and took whatever work he could find--laying bricks, building barges on the Chesapeake Bay. For a while, he upholstered furniture.

Now, he lives in Louisville with his wife. Googoosh reminds him how far he and thousands of other Iranian emigres have journeyed in the years since they fled Iran. But she also makes clear just how much they all left behind.

"The thing you miss when you leave your culture is your culture," he said, a little wistfully.

"You miss the poetry and the music, the rituals and the history. You can't imagine how it feels to reconnect with that."


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