By Ali Akbar Dareini
Monday, December 26, 2005
TEHRAN, Iran -- A young woman driving through the Iranian capital blared the Eagles' "Hotel California" from her car speakers -- an act that would have gotten her pulled over by police, and possibly arrested, 20 years ago during the frenzy of the Islamic Revolution.
To Pari Mahmoudi, who grew up in an era when many of the 1979 revolution's restrictions have been dropped or ignored, a new ban on Western music ordered last week by Iran's hard-line president seems too ludicrous to be real. "Don't take this man seriously," the 25-year-old scoffed Tuesday, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But some fear the ban that Ahmadinejad enacted Dec. 19 is a sign of more to come. The order affects only state-run television and radio. However, some worry it is only a first step toward the wider bans imposed after the revolution, which forbade all popular music -- including Iranian -- as "un-Islamic." That crackdown was applied to music shops, musicians and even music in people's homes and cars.
"We are concerned about the cultural policies of this government," said Hamid Vafaei, director of a music school in Tehran. "History has proved that a policy of restrictions can't work for long. One of the reasons for brain drain in our country is the restrictions imposed by the government on the nation."
Ahmadinejad was elected in June after promising a return to the values of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution. So far, his ultraconservative stances have been reflected more in foreign policy, taking a tough line in nuclear negotiations with Europe and outraging the West with a series of anti-Israeli comments.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the ban shows that Ahmadinejad "is taking Iran 180 degrees from where the rest of the world is going."
Ahmadinejad has purged government ministries, replacing pragmatists from the previous pro-reform government with former military commanders and religious hard-liners.
But so far, his administration has not attempted to roll back the freedoms Iranians grabbed during seven years of the reform government. Though the veil is mandatory and heavy makeup banned, Tehran's streets are filled with women in makeup with flimsy headscarves that barely cover their hair.
A ban on the sale of music by female singers has not been enforced in years.
Many find it inconceivable that the government could start imposing restrictions again.
"This president speaks as if he is living in the Stone Age. This man has to understand that he can't tell the people what to listen to and what not to listen to," Mohammed Reza Hosseinpour said while browsing through a Tehran music shop. Iranian guitarist Babak Riahipour said a wider ban on music could not be enforced because Iranians' access to the outside world through the Internet and satellite television is easier than it was in the 1980s.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad maybe doesn't know his society well enough . . . especially among the youth," Riahipour said. "We can still get the music we would like to listen from somewhere else. We can get it from the Internet, we can get it on Tehran's big black market, anywhere."
Western music, films and clothing are widely available in Iran. Bootleg videos and DVDs of films banned by the state can be found on the black market. Satellite dishes dot the capital's rooftops, and a ban on them is rarely enforced.
Even more popular than Western music is Iranian pop music, and many Iranians snap up music from bands and singers in Los Angeles and other centers of Iranian exiles. There are a few underground dance clubs in Tehran, and music is central to weddings and parties, where men and women often dance together.
All of that was strictly banned during the revolution's heyday, when imposing an "Islamic morality" was a key part of Khomenei's rule. Police stopped cars to search for music tapes, destroying any they found and sometimes arresting those caught listening to them. State-run television and radio, which gradually has been including some Western classical pop music into its programming, was playing only Iranian music the day after Ahmadinejad's ruling.
For some Iranians, the new rules just mean that the national broadcaster will be boring.
"The programs were beginning to improve, and now the authorities are getting cold feet," said Tehran housewife Akram Azizi. "If such a ban is in effect, state TV and radio will not have an audience anymore."