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Iranian expatriate artists' projects give voice to countrymen

Singers such as Andy Madadian are singing in support of his homeland. His Farsi-English version of 'Stand by Me' has struck a chord on YouTube.

July 11, 2009|Reed Johnson

Watching the impassioned crowds surge through Tehran's tense streets, pop singer Andy Madadian wanted to take action. But how?

An Armenian native of Iran who has lived for three decades in Los Angeles, Madadian avoids direct involvement in his homeland's politics. But as Iran was plunged into crisis last month by a fiercely disputed presidential election, the man known as "the Persian Elvis" wanted to send a musical message of sympathy and support to his countrymen.

So it was that on June 24, working with A-list producer Don Was, rock singer Jon Bon Jovi and his longtime guitarist Richie Sambora, Madadian recorded a propulsive cover of "Stand by Me," the old Ben E. King classic, with lyrics in Farsi and English. Although "Stand by Me" -- or, if you prefer, "Ma Yeki Hastim," which translates as "We Are One" -- is no protest anthem, it appears to have struck a chord, judging by its combined 600,000 hits on YouTube and other sites.

"You can say that the mere fact that I'm singing is making a political statement, because my music is banned" in Iran, Madadian said -- adding, with a smile, that his work still circulates there via pirated copies.

"I think the youth in Iran, more than anything, they want to have the freedom of thought, which is Internet, which is cinema, which is music," he continued. "And we're trying to say, 'We hear you, we sympathize, we're trying to get it to you.' "

In recent days, Iranian expatriate writers, poets, artists, filmmakers and performers, a large number of whom make their homes in Southern California, have been riveted by the situation unfolding in their homeland. A few have spoken out publicly, denouncing the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Others, like Madadian, have responded to the turmoil by making work that expresses a more generalized solidarity with Iran's people, conveying messages more subliminal and elliptical than overt.

In one prominent effort, a group of expatriate actors and musicians, led by Iranian British punk-rock-hip-hop artist joined to make a song and video titled "United for Neda." The video includes graphic images of violence and injured citizens. Assembled from cellphone video footage, which gives it an urgent, verite feel, the video pays tribute to Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose shooting death, captured on video and posted on YouTube, turned her into an instant emblem of the protests. Written and produced by Taylor, the song opens with the pointed verse, "Lord, another day goes by/And I pray that they all stay strong and try to make it through the hate, all the pain and the lies."

In Iran, China and other countries where free speech is a dodgy proposition at best, semi-anonymous Twitterers and bloggers may be willing to post their opinions for all to see. But Iranian artists, whether still resident or in exile, often have taken a more circumspect approach, drawing on the richly metaphorical, centuries-old traditions of Persian poetry, music and art to express themselves, while relying on technology to broadcast their ideas to audiences beyond the reach of censors.

Embedding controversial ideas in metaphors and symbolic gestures has become an important strategy during the 30 years since a Muslim theocracy overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.

"Iran is a very metaphorical society. Its films, its arts, its poetry speaks in metaphors and symbols, especially now," said Reza Aslan, the Iranian American author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" and a radio and TV commentator.

To expatriate artists and writers, the stirrings of dissent that erupted in Iran this summer have been visible for some time. Friction over the subordinate status of women, the regime's repressiveness and the social and economic scars left by Iran's eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s are among the recurrent themes that have surfaced in contemporary Iranian film, poetry and art, both at home and abroad.

Those currents have been subtly present in Iranian contemporary art, as reflected in the show "Iran Inside Out" on view at Manhattan's Chelsea Art Museum. One section of the show dealing with gender and sexuality is revealingly titled in the exhibition catalog as "From Iran to Queeran and Everything in Between."

Signs of the variety and contradictions bubbling under the surface of Iranian society also have been manifest in contemporary cinema. The flowering of Iranian art film that began in the early 1990s, during a period of relative cultural liberty, produced landmark films by such internationally feted directors as Abbas Kiarostami ("Taste of Cherry"), Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Kandahar") and Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon"). Makhmalbaf has been serving as a spokesman of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a candidate in the presidential election, the results of which he has denounced as fraudulent.

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