“I’m hopeful,” Googoosh, the legendary Iranian performer, told me recently. “I have to be!”
Her optimism might be surprising, given the recent grim news from Iran. Yet she follows events in her homeland closely, she said, perusing TV, radio and social media: “Whatever brings me closer to the brave students and demonstrators standing up for their rights. I love them, and I’m praying for them.”
Several of her recent concerts, including one here in Washington in November, were broadcast live on satellite channels so that Iranians inside the country could watch and for a moment feel connected.
“We all have one language, one heart and one feeling. Whether inside or outside Iran, our hearts all beat for the same thing: Iran and life in Iran and the resources that people once had and no longer have,” Googoosh said. “Sometimes with my voice I remind them of those things and try to make them feel less alone.”
A Googoosh concert is an event that encompasses Iranians of every age and background. A mix of her classics and her newer (often more political) songs creates an atmosphere where pride, nostalgia, hope and loss intermingle for a few hours, giving concertgoers a rare public space to be themselves.
The megastar has been a fixture in the lives of Iranians since the 1960s. As Iran’s most enduring cultural icon, universally revered and admired, she plays a unique role among her compatriots.
Her life — and a career spanning more than half a century — has taken many unexpected turns. But she’s still taking an active part in the fate of her country.
Although in her view no viable candidate has emerged to lead a democratic Iran, she says the time has come for a dramatic change. “The only thing I want is for the terrorist regime of the Islamic republic to leave Iran and Iranians in peace,” she told me. “The people who really care about Iran and its future generations are the ones who value the elements of culture. Those of us who talk, think, smile, laugh, sing and dance. They [the regime] have nothing to do with us. ... They’ve taken that land and its people hostage. Forty years is 40 years too long!”
Googoosh has maintained a credibility and relevance among Iranians that is unmatched by other artists, due in large part to the personal sacrifices she has made. She is one of the very few performers who returned to Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution — when most music was outlawed and women were prohibited from singing at all in public.
“I think most Iranians were just making decisions minute by minute,” she said. “It wasn’t thought-out. Most of us had no idea what was going to happen. … I knew if I went back I wouldn’t be able to sing, and there was also the possibility that they would arrest me or even execute me. Despite all of this, I decided to return [from the United States].”
The pull of the homeland in the face of the many challenges and risks of living in post-revolutionary Iran is a feeling that many Iranians now living comfortably in the diaspora can relate to well.
After living quietly in Iran for two decades, she was permitted to leave in 2000 and suddenly returned to the stage. “I belonged to the singing scene. And Iranians outside the country were waiting for me to come back.”
The experiences of Iranians in the homeland and the diaspora are radically different yet inextricably linked. It is culture that serves as the bridge. Googoosh’s music is one of the things Iranians everywhere have in common.
“If you put an Iranian inside and an Iranian outside next to each other, they can’t comfortably communicate with each other. They may learn a few things from each other,” Googoosh said, but ultimately they live in different worlds. “My heart keeps beating for those youth inside the country who don’t have adequate resources and face a lot of deprivation. Ultimately I think music can decrease some of that pain.”
The past few months have been deeply traumatic for Iranians everywhere. Street protests in November and December were met by a merciless government crackdown resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people.
Then, last month, a U.S. drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani led to the deaths of many more innocent Iranians, first in a stampede at a funeral procession and then in the shocking shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial flight leaving Tehran.
“Our people experienced a bad revolution, which left them with no choice. It was either yes or no. Then our people experienced war. And then we were scattered. … For that reason, the spirit of young people is different. There was a phase when everything inside the country was closed. TV was closed. Radio closed. There was no music. There were no resources.”
It’s time for that deprivation to end, she says. Iranians should have the right to live open, connected and free lives.
Like all of us who watch developments in Iran from afar, Googoosh knows there are limits to her ability to affect the events playing out in her homeland. By providing Iranians a dignified and always evolving soundtrack to their experience, though, she affirms that they are heard.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.
Read more by Jason Rezaian: