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The Iranian Madonna breaks her silence

By Robin Denselow
The Guardian (London)
January 8, 2001

Now here's a plot for an unlikely movie. Religious fundamentalists take over the US, and pop music is banned. Madonna retreats to her apartment in New York and stops singing, but right across the country her devotees defy the authorities by secretly playing bootleg tapes of Like a Virgin and American Pie. Two decades later, she is finally allowed out of the country to perform abroad, and is treated like a returned goddess by tens of thousands of exiles.

Shift the start of that tale back to Iran in the 1970s and the ending to Wembley Arena at the weekend, and that's the story of Faegheh Atashin, better known as Googoosh, the pop icon of the pre-Ayatollah Khomeini era and still Iran's best-selling artist, although she wasn't allowed to perform or record for 21 years.

She's not just Madonna for us,' explained a teenager in the wildly emotional Wembley crowd. She's Michael Jackson and George Michael, too. I hadn't been born when she was forced to stop singing, but you can't live in an Iranian family without hearing her all the time.'

On stage, in a blitz of flashing lights, came a lady of 50 with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a glittery gold blouse and gold skirt. She stared out into the audience and looked as if she was about to burst into tears, then held out her hands to show they were shaking, before falling to her knees. Many in the crowd, who had paid up to pounds 250 a ticket, simply wept back.

Every Iranian in town seemed to be here, from the elderly to young children, businessmen in suits, and women wrapped in expensive fur coats, more suited to a Tehran party back in the Shah's era than to Wembley in 2001. These wildly emotional scenes continued for five minutes before Googoosh managed to say a word.

There followed a marathon re-run of her hits from the 1970s, the era before the mullahs banned the western-influenced pop culture of discos and mini-skirts. She started with an upbeat, declamatory song dealing with love and exile, then moved on to a slow, equally emotional ballad, then a burst of Iranian 1970s hand-clapping disco.

For a woman banned from singing for two decades, then allowed to give shows in North America last year, she was in remarkably good voice, and showed even more remarkable stamina. Much of her material was straightforward 1970s pop, given an eastern-tinged Iranian edge, but the jollity was mixed with ballads that edged towards chanson and even Piaf territory.

She veered between the brash, the vulnerable and the sensitive, and she was little helped by the garish setting and the insensitive band bashing away on synthesisers and percussion. Googoosh has had a tough life. In the Shah's era, there were stories of attempted manipulation and harassment from those in power. Since the revolution, she has been forced to choose between exile and keeping quiet, abandoning her career.

For me, as an outsider, the best sections were those when she sang only with piano, or when she announced a new setting for an old favourite', and showed the delicacy in her voice when backed only by a flamenco-influenced acoustic guitar. But the Iranians around me, cheering her on as fireworks exploded onstage, would doubtless disagree.


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