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Letter From Iran

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page C01

TEHRAN –– Scraggly-haired and slightly ghoulish, the four Andy Warhol silkscreens of Mick Jagger stared at 23-year-old Fatimah Noorbasch like cave paintings from a lost world, and made about as much sense to her.

He was a British rock-and-roll singer, a fellow visitor to Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art informed her. He was associated with wild sex and drugs and all sorts of misbehavior. Many men in America would like to be him.

"I'm sorry," she responded in a polite deadpan, as she processed this new bit of information about Western culture.

"I'm really surprised such a person has been put here."

Surprises are popping up all over this city, as Iran's cultural and social environment continues its shift from the near-medieval restrictions of the Islamic revolution's first years, to what is perhaps its more natural state as a curious and intellectually engaged metropolis.

Iranians love to talk and think and read, and the same tendencies that have pushed the country's politics toward more democracy and openness in recent elections are finding expression in art museums, music halls and other venues as well.

The best-selling book here a while back was a translation into Farsi of Pink Floyd lyrics. Bootleg videos and music tapes are widespread, and what isn't hawked on the black market can be downloaded from the Internet. There are Internet links that don't censor American radio stations or other sources of cultural content whose retail import is banned.

Once-outlawed nationalist songs--songs that stirred Iranian pride long before the 1979 revolution--are sung once again, with gusto, at political rallies and other public gatherings.

And at this year's Fadjr Music Festival, one of the featured performers was Khateri Parvaneh, a 69-year-old diva who was among Iran's most popular singers before the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but has only been allowed to start singing again since the 1997 election of reformist President Mohammed Khatemi.

Rules against solo females performing in front of men still limit her performances to women, but concertgoers say they have become highly emotional affairs in which she makes evident her joy at reclaiming her voice.

"If you close the doors of the places where you drink, you will open the door to hypocrisy," she sang at one recent show, quoting the beloved Persian poet Hafez.

The Tehran Museum is a prominent institutional example of the changes underway, displaying with more rigor and profile a collection of Western art that was stowed in the basement for years because of political and religious sensitivities, out of sight of the public, and away from the hands of those who might have destroyed such artifacts of the decadent West.

It is a world-class collection, assembled by the Pahlavi dynasty in the late 1970s. The royal family went on a two-year buying binge that reflected both the extravagance that helped bring the monarchy down and the intellectual tastes that Iranians still privately acknowledge were high-caliber.

The Shah's wife handed one of her cousins, an architect, a wad of money, and he proceeded to acquire 400 works--from Picasso to the pop artists of Britain and America--that are only now being fully assessed and displayed.

A show last year included the disturbing distortions of Francis Bacon, and even a nude by Picasso--a work that museum Director Sami Azar said he felt comfortable showing because one had to look so hard to detect the anatomy.

Most remarkable, Azar said, is that the shows he is mounting, including the current works by Warhol in a pop art retrospective, have met no opposition or protest at all even in the hard-line press, but on the contrary have inspired lots of writing about the content of the paintings.

"The idea is to show leading artists of the West. No matter that they are Americans," Azar said. "We've received no objections. . . . The society has greatly changed."

The crowds are by no means large most afternoons, and on one recent day included mostly young couples who seemed to use the museum's quiet space as a venue for courting, away from prying eyes and morality cops.

Local artists, however, feel a direct impact. They say the museum's new efforts are intellectually liberating for them.

"It is a very good collection, but nobody knows," said one young painter. "Pollock. Miro. . . . I feel like I'm in Paris."

It all seems part of a society becoming comfortable with the world once again.

Noorbasch may not know Mick Jagger. But after her tour of the museum's pop art collection--the cartoonish panels of Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist's dissected head of Marilyn Monroe--she knows what she likes.

A friend "told us, 'Don't look at the picture, concentrate on the different colors,' " she said. "We asked, why?"

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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