Iran artists in tug of war with government

BEIRUT – Iran's greatest master of traditional music, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, always avoided open clashes with his country's ruling hard-line clerics.

So it was a bombshell when Shajarian — so revered that his audiences pelt him with roses — demanded state radio and TV stop broadcasting his music as a protest against the government. The state broadcaster complied.

What pushed Shajarian into action was the government's brutal crackdown on protests over the June 12 election that Shajarian and millions of other Iranians believe fraudulently gave a second term to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"After what happened, I said 'no way' and threatened to file a complaint against them if they continued to use my music," Shajarian told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Iran's political turmoil has raised a culture clash as hundreds of musicians, actors, filmmakers, poets and writers have spoken out against the government for its suppression of dissent and arrest of thousands. In a particular embarrassment to the government, the filmmaker daughter of Ahmadinejad's own culture adviser sought asylum in Germany in October, citing the crackdown at home.

The government has responded by accusing artists of falling prey to foreign "enemies" and by stepping up pressure for their work to toe its ideological line. More than 100 artists have had their works banned or have been prevented from traveling abroad. Others have been detained.

Ahmadinejad's art adviser, Javad Shamaqdari, last summer threatened to ban artists from film festivals. "The enemy, which has been thwarted in its plans for a velvet coup, is trying to keep up the fever of their subversive activities at foreign art and cinematic events," he said in Tehran.

One TV producer says that since the election, authorities have unofficially barred actors who are considered unacceptable from appearing on shows.

"They tell us 'give us a list of artists you want to use.' When we give them the list, they say 'this and this person are not suitable,'" said the producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

State TV chiefs even seek to prevent anyone in a program from wearing green — the color of the opposition movement — and they've gone so far as to cut scenes of actors wearing green clothes in films made before the election, the producer said.

In Iran, dissent by artists is more than just a matter of celebrities mouthing off about politics: It has a powerful resonance among the public. Arts and culture hold a special place for Iranians. At family parties they read poetry aloud or bring out a santour, a dulcimer-like instrument, and sing songs of their favorite composers.

The shrines of poets Hafez and Saadi in the central city of Shiraz are among the most frequented sites in the country. When faced with a tough decision, Iranians will sometimes pick a verse of Hafez' poetry at random and try to divine their fate from it.

Since its creation in 1979, the Islamic Republic has always kept a tight grip on artists' work, but artists say the suppression in the post-election period has been among the toughest.

"It's much greater now because of the stand most of the artists have taken against them," said Shajarian. "For now, they're moving very calmly. But in the future, I know there will be a confrontation between the artists and this government."

Since the election, Shajarian and others have been making pointed messages with their art. In September, Shajarian sang "Zaban e Atash o Ahan" The language of Fire and Iron, based on a well-known poem in which he pleads: "Lay down your gun. Come, sit down, talk, hear. Perhaps the light of humanity will get through to your heart too."

During his last tour of Europe in September, he sang "Brotherhood in Arms," calling on Iranians to unite.

"It's a message that I always had for the Iranian people: how to love each other, how to be good and kind to each other, to be united," Shajarian said. "But now it's taken on a more important meaning."

Narges Kalhor said her estranged father's accusations were laughable. "For 25 years, I've been wondering who these enemies are," she said.