26 Jun Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 1
Sex, Rugs and Rock n’ Roll
Iran – 2011
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
We sit at a small glass topped coffee table. There is something a little manic and unstable about my new friends which I have so far been unable to fully comprehend, but in the interest of maintaining an open mind, I attempt to remain separated from judgement during this social honeymoon period. I have been introduced to our host rather modestly with a wink and a wry smile as “The Doctor”, a nickname that belies his pharmaceutical career, but is metaphorically justified regarding his subtle role in this group of young, free thinking Iranians. The Doctor’s bare chubby arm glides out in front of me, over a gold Beretta 9mm pistol at the centre of the low table, to a pestle and mortar. My acquaintances watch his every move with nervous excitement.
Dust has accumulated in corners and across the faux marble veneer that adorns many of the surfaces in this modern, new build semi in a wealthy district of the Holy city of Mashhad, eastern Iran. The kitchen is bare and we sit round together on a mixture of scrabbled together plastic and leather chairs typical of a bachelor’s existence. The Doctor’s almost constant half smile and cool demeanour suggest his contentment with his anti-establishment, polyamorous lifestyle. My suspicions seem vindicated as he produces, injects and begins to grind 6 or 7 tabs of prescription Ritalin into the mortar with his captive audience looking on, each member a decade his junior, transformed from aching lethargy to relieved excitement, awaiting their impending fix. Turkish death metal screams loudly in the background as my friends systematically inhale their share of crystalline stimulant, revealing The Doctor’s quizzical relationship with this younger, dependent group. The music is a present, bought a few days earlier in Turkey my new host-brother, whilst in Istanbul for a Judas Priest gig.
My host explains to me in exuberant, broken English that “The Doctor” has been a long time sponsor of his “Metal” rock group, a role integral to fringe music here due to it being principally unacceptable in the eyes of the government. He goes on to describe how a friend of his was arrested and jailed for dubiously enforced trafficking offences after returning from a rock concert in Istanbul with a small amount of band merchandise, much in the same way that a small-scale drug dealer might be made an example of within a European judicial system. When I first met my unshaven, alternative friend somewhere on the Kavir desert road I had wondered why he obscured his long, matted ponytail, hailing from the golden era of rock and roll, down the back of his faded, denim shirt, but slowly I was beginning to become perceptive to the intricacies of living within youth sub-culture in a country where democratic theocracy is guided by strict Islamic ideology. “They think we are devil worshippers” I am assured rather dramatically. “We all have to be very careful”.
I enquire about the almost hourly use of Ritalin as the drug of choice by my companions and receive an interesting and rather logical answer. The availability of stimulants such as cocaine in Iran is almost non-existent compared to the flood of opiates that wash across the border with Afghanistan, which naturally drives the price of such stimulants through the stratosphere. Ritalin provides a similar, if watered down effect to cocaine at a fraction of the price, provided you know someone with a supply of prescriptions. I receive a knowing wink from “The Doctor” at this point as he reaches down, picks up the Beretta pistol and offers me a cigarette. As I decline, he cocks the golden semi-automatic towards me. Uncertainty grips my expression as our eyes lock together for a split second, but I’m allowed no time to react before he pulls the trigger… A lick of flame erupts from the mussel. A smile creases his face. Any Bond villain worth his salt would have taken that opportunity to say “good, because smoking will kill you”. These finer points of Iranian youth drug use are being explained to me through dark spell binding eyes and a smile that melts any suspicion of narcotics I am clinging to. “We don’t take opiates, they depress your soul” she elucidates artistically. I can’t help but sympathize.
Sometime later I find myself sitting in a dark sound-proofed basement at the other end of town. A row of beautiful guitars hangs on the wall to my right below monochrome portraits of Jimi Hendrix and The Beetles. I tune the acoustic guitar on my lap nervously and attempt an explanatory monologue into a professional performance microphone floating below my nose, interspersed for comic effect with what little Farsi I have gleaned during my month in Iran. Thirty or so pairs of eyes accept me warmly as my host brother and my friends heckle in broken English from the back of the room. The impromptu gig I am playing is part of an underground performance by a Persian Indy/Folk band with whom I have become friendly through late night moonshine fueled jam sessions during my brief stay in Mashhad.
I play my western folk covers badly, but to rapturous applause from grateful music lovers. My talented friends then take to their instruments once more for a beautiful, soaring encore, during which a smart, woven trilby hat is passed silently through the intimate crowd, part subtle ticketing method, part ode to the honesty and humanity of the busk. I know the outcome of my attempt to donate before I have even thrust my monetary appreciation towards the straw bonnet. The insistent and unending generosity of my musical hosts once again humbles me as my considerable offer of notes is quickly deflected by a simple gesture soaked in altruistic pride. The band had explained to me that despite their very much Persian styled indy-rock, previous attempts to perform live had been shut down without warning by mysterious, suited government officials, seemingly unsympathetic towards events deemed “un-Islamic”, forcing them, their art and their profession underground.
Eventually my time in Mashhad, amongst a musical sub-sect of modern Iranian society comes to an end and I move on, once again pondering what I have seen, heard and had the privilege to experience. I suppose I cannot help but interpret parallels between musical movements in British society and those I witnessed in this vibrant holy city. Iranian youth culture itself differs very little from British, both drink, take drugs, party, experiment and indulge in expression, yet the physical attributes of the societies themselves differ dramatically.
I imagine what young British musicians; open to an unlimited, online musical education would do if the government imposed strict regulation to keep their art repressed, limiting its powerful influence. It is difficult to imagine such a scenario in the UK, short of a rewinding hundreds of years towards a seemingly archaic Cromwellian protectorate or progressing hundreds of years into a futuristic Orwellian big brother state, but in Iran this system is imposed, active and more tragically, accepted.
Yet artistic expression lives in Iran like a coal seam, combusting silently beneath the Earth’s surface, or a great forest fungus, interconnected and extensive, yet virtually out of sight. The intricacy with which sub-cultures in Iran dodge and weave between the choking rules enforced by a theocratic government is inspirational and speaks volumes of the human need for expression and the deep rooted power of art and music.
If anything, the oppression of “un-Islamic” music in Iran creates the foundations for the purest form of musical generation, removing all but the most dedicated, talented musicians from the system and allowing spectacular, beautiful art to blossom. The sweet irony of this situation quickly turns bitter in the mouth as I remember how the wonderful musicians I met here struggle with the viability of producing their music professionally within their motherland, but as civilisations, religions and political ideologies have come and gone, our human need for artistic expression has held true as a perpetual flame. While there are people willing to listen, music will be produced and quiet, artistic revolutions will slowly and peacefully evolve. For my friends in the East, I hope sooner rather than later.