Marzieh, 86

Persian songstress a voice of Iranian political dissent

Marzieh in the 1970s, during the reign of the last Shah of Iran.
Marzieh in the 1970s, during the reign of the last Shah of Iran.
By Adam Bernstein
Friday, October 15, 2010

Marzieh, a celebrated interpreter of traditional Persian music whose career in her native Iran was silenced by the clerical dictatorship and who in exile became a sharp voice of political dissent, died of cancer Oct. 13 at a hospital in Paris. She was 86.

The daughter of a moderate Muslim cleric, Marzieh became widely known through concerts, radio work and records from the 1940s onward.

She remained a captivating entertainer through recent years, with a mesmerizing voice that for her most devoted fans reinvigorated a sense of nostalgia for the monarchist era. She boasted a repertoire of 1,000 songs.

Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Persian Studies, said Marzieh cultivated a lyrical style with "really sinuous, winding tones, notes and melodies."

She was especially noted for songs that came to be known as Tableaux Musicale, which presented metaphoric vignettes of love and helped popularize classical Persian lyrical poetry in an accessible way.

Marzieh, who was born Ashraf os-Sadat Morteza'i in Tehran, performed before the Iranian royal family, including a piece to commemorate the shah's marriage in 1959 to Farah Diba.

Other highlights of her career included a performance in Iran for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and in Washington for then-President Richard M. Nixon.

Her career was effectively scotched after the shah was overthrown in 1979 and mullahs established a hardline government. Solo female voices were prohibited from the radio.

She spent 15 years living in a village near Tehran, keeping her voice trained but never performing in public. She described herself as devastated emotionally.

In 1994, on a visit to Paris, she defected. Her subsequent concert dates - at such prestigious venues as London's Royal Albert Hall, the Olympia in Paris and the Pantages Theater in Hollywood - became a blend of entertainment and political messages.

"I sing mostly love songs," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. "Love is incarcerated and killed in Iran."

She had never been politically outspoken for much of her career and shocked many Iranians for aligning herself with the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an opposition coalition affiliated with the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, or MEK.

The State Department considers MEK - a radical leftist group that has violently opposed the American-backed shah and the mullahs - a foreign terrorist organization. In addition, the MEK had thrown its support to Iraq during the long Iran-Iraq war, and Marzieh spent part of the 1990s living in Baghdad.

Marzieh said she was drawn to the National Council of Resistance for Iran because of a fondness for the organization's leader Maryam Rajavi, who reportedly named the singer a cultural adviser.

The singer said the National Council of Resistance of Iran allowed her to recapture a sense of dignity that had been denied her for 15 years.

"I used to go to the countryside and sing to the mountains, the birds, for the water, for the hills, just to avoid my voice reaching one mullah," she told an interviewer in 1999.

"They said music was only for the wicked. I was becoming a pale autumn leaf. If I had not come to Paris and met them, what would have happened to me? What would a nightingale do if you put her in a cage? She would die in 24 hours."

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