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Lyrical voices hail Iranians from overseas

Watching the election protests in their homeland, an Iran-born mother and daughter -- a poet and a singer -- are part of a growing expatriate artistic movement.

July 01, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Sepanlou, 36, garnered local celebrity as a singer with Southern California's first all-female Persian pop group, Silhouette, formed in 1994. A solo artist since 2000, Sepanlou has released two albums that feature a mix of Mideast instruments and Western pop rhythms, and recently finished a third with songs in English, Farsi and French.

She is known for favoring music with a message. In a re-recorded 1979 song, for instance, she sings in metaphors of ancient trees and young branches, representing those who died pursuing freedom for their homeland.

"I just wish there were a day when these songs don't apply anymore," Sepanlou says. "It's a never-ending nightmare."

Her Facebook page contains video clips of an Iranian Basiji paramilitary officer hitting a child, a grief-stricken man sobbing over a dead friend's pool of blood, a BBC news clip about a threatened government crackdown, an international petition to investigate Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and her own televised interview with Voice of America.

Last month, she was especially shaken by the street shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who has become the face of Iran's public protests. When Sepanlou first saw the gruesome video of Agha-Soltan's death, she says, she was overcome with nausea and tears. She has posted that video on her page, along with a tribute.

"You close your eyes and see these images of blood on the streets," Sepanlou says. "It's very traumatic."

Sepanlou has posted some of her music and video clips on her website, A fan, meanwhile, recently put together a video for YouTube featuring her song "Azadi," or "freedom," with clips of the Iranian demonstrations.

She says she has received hundreds of messages from people inside Iran, thanking her for sharing information and for letting them know they are not forgotten. Angry messages have accused her of fomenting the unrest.

For both mother and daughter, the unrest has stirred a sense of deja vu. Nooriala, whose father was an Army general and mother a teacher, supported the 1979 revolution over their objections. Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and his father, they told her, had modernized the country from a backwater of dirt roads, polluted water and repressive religious traditions.

But there was also repression by the Pahlavi regime and its notorious secret police, SAVAK. Many of Nooriala's writings were banned -- including one poem about red wheat that the government interpreted as support of communism. Nooriala's then-husband, also a poet, was jailed for a time.

As resistance to the monarchy grew, Nooriala's young family joined in the massive street demonstrations. They defied 9 p.m. curfews and clambered atop rooftops, chanting "Allahu akbar." A grainy photo of Sepanlou portrays a grinning 6-year-old flashing a victory sign in one hand and holding a tambourine in the other.

"We were not for a fundamentalist regime," Sepanlou says. "We were for people to be free." Within 18 months of the Islamic revolution, Nooriala says she realized it had all been a terrible mistake.

Sepanlou noticed the change too. Schools were suddenly segregated. She had to cover herself from head to toe -- even when swimming. A photo of her at the Caspian Sea shows her dripping wet while fully veiled and clothed, "a terrible feeling," she recalls.

"I have a vision of a colorful Tehran up to 1979," Sepanlou says. "After the revolution, everything became black and white."

In 1986, the family immigrated to the United States. To make ends meet, Nooriala obtained a data processing certificate and went to work for the county court as a deputy jury commissioner.

Sepanlou graduated from UCLA in sociology, married an Iranian American radiologist and had two daughters, now ages 4 and 10 months. Beyond her blogging and singing, she helps her husband, Amir Fassihi, promote nonviolence in Iran; he has recently completed a book on the topic. On a recent Sunday, the couple gathered about 50 Iranian Americans in their home to discuss ways to get the message of nonviolence to protesters in Iran.

Over the weekend, Nooriala read two poems at a candlelight vigil at UCLA for the Iranian protesters. She views her 1981 poem "Lady Liberty II" as her most prescient.

In it, Nooriala laments the loss of freedom under the Islamic regime. But she ends with a vow that the people of Iran will someday rise again to reclaim it.

Until they do, the women say, they will continue to offer them their poems and songs of support.

And in tomorrow's ruins

A phrase will be written

Which today

Is being repeated

In the depth of our memory

Over and over and over again


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