Catharsis Queen

Loving the cruel world with Googoosh

I was halfway through my interview with Persian pop princess Googoosh when our connection abruptly cut off. She called back about five minutes later, apologizing profusely for her mercurial cell phone. "What happened was that I was in a special place," she said and laughed. "I was in a parking garage that didn't allow any transmission."

Classifying a soulless concrete building as "special" seems strange, but the entire world is radiant with beauty at this point in Googoosh's life. The singer/actress/cultural icon is performing again after years of government-imposed retirement, and a Persian exile community that has longed for Tehran with Googoosh as a soundtrack every day since 1979 has re-embraced her with so much fervor—selling out amphitheaters, buying reissues of long-forgotten CDs and crying nonstop—that the chanteuse can only offer herself in return. "There is something special between me and my people," she acknowledges of her relationship with Persian immigrants around the world. "I don't know what it is—it's something that can't be explained."

The English-language media note but misunderstand this fanatical following, lamely categorizing Googoosh as a combination of Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley. But Elvis never lived under virtual house arrest for two decades, prohibited from even humming a tune. Babs' fans didn't flee their country and their idol for what they thought would be forever, taking with them only the memory of her angelic voice. A better comparison is Bob Marley: both the reggae master and Googoosh represented for their communities solace from an unforgiving political world. But even that comparison doesn't do justice to Googoosh's story. Marley died young and became immortal; Googoosh survived but was a living ghost, seemingly doomed to walk the earth forever without song.

Googoosh—born Faegheh Atashin—had already been Iran's most popular performer for years before the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Movies? Her romantic comedies and melodramas consistently broke box-office records. Fashion? Miniskirts became popular in Iran thanks to Googoosh's beautiful gams. Hairstyle? An entire generation of Persian women went to their stylists during the 1970s and demanded the "Googooshi" haircut of their muse—short, pixyish and assertive of femininity.

And then there was the music. Googoosh sang in Turkish, Farsi, Armenian, Azeri, even Spanish, with a comforting tone that knew its power but allowed nuance to take prominence rather than vocal-chord-stretching might. She never practiced a pure version of traditional Persian music, instead amalgamating traditional Farsi prayers with cabaret styles—Edith Piaf continental class, Gypsy King world-music flourishes, late-'60s spy-movie-style strings—as she and her nation looked toward the future. For her fans, Googoosh was the voice of adoration, of incipient modernity. And her voice remained silenced for 20 years.

"I was in the middle of a six-month United States tour when [the Islamic Revolution] occurred," she recalls, a slight quiver in her voice. "People told me I should stay in the States, that life would be difficult for a female entertainer. But my country is Iran; I love my country. And at the time of the revolution, I never had the experience to live in other countries and live with another language.

"I can now say it was foolish to return," Googoosh continues. "But at the time, no one in the Persian community thought the regime would last that long, and no one was yet as established in the United States as they are now. In that situation, you can't decide the right thing to do."

Iranian authorities immediately confiscated Googoosh's passport upon her return to Iran and didn't allow her to sing, afraid she'd provoke the passions of men. "I wasn't even allowed to practice," she says. "I began singing when I was three years old—my life was singing and acting, and suddenly they told me I couldn't live my life anymore. It was horrible."

Despite the singing ban, Googoosh's popularity persisted, even expanded. Fans in Iran circulated well-worn copies of her recordings and movies; Persians abroad wrote to Googoosh, begging her to emigrate—one website sent 15,000 letters of encouragement to coax her out of retirement. Most interesting, many Persians born after the Islamic Revolution embraced her as the symbol of prerevolutionary Iran, of freedom.

"The younger generation used to see me and say words of encouragement," she marvels. "I couldn't believe how they could see or even know of me. But then I noticed that videotapes and records of me were everywhere."

This clandestine appreciation continued until 2000, when the Iranian government grudgingly allowed Googoosh to accept a concert promoter's offer of a worldwide tour. The subsequent series wasn't a set of performances as much as a communal catharsis, with Googoosh and her compatriots letting out tears that had been bottled up for too long.

"I was in a dream," she remembers. "I can't explain the feeling I had throughout the tour. I had feelings of excitement, nervousness, and my body was shaking onstage. It was a very strange yet beautiful feeling. I couldn't stop my tears. No one could. I still can't."

Googoosh now lives in Toronto, fearful of returning to her homeland because "some people don't like me over there and I don't want to be a target of them." She's nevertheless confident that she and her fellow émigrés will someday return to an Iran liberated from the ayatollahs' totalitarian rule.

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