I should put the word concert in quotation marks, because such cultural affairs were parodies of the real thing, performed in private homes or, more recently, at a cultural center built by the municipality in the south of Tehran. They were the focus of considerable controversy, because despite the many limitations set upon them, many in government considered them disreputable. The performances were closely monitored and mostly featured amateur players like the ones we went to see that night. But the house was always packed, the tickets were always sold out and the programs always started a little late….
When we finally entered the auditorium, we found people stuffed into the concert hall, sitting in the aisles, on the floor and standing clustered against the wall…. We were greeted by a gentleman who insulted the audience for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, telling us that the management did not wish to entertain audiences of “rich imperialists” contaminated by decadent Western culture. This brought smiles to many of those who had come that evening to hear the music of the Gipsy Kings. The gentleman also admonished that if anyone acted in an un-Islamic manner, he or she would be kicked out. He went on to instruct women to observe the proper rules and regulations regarding the use of the veil.
It is hard to conjure an accurate image of what went on that night. The group consisted of four young Iranian men, all amateurs, who entertained us with their rendition of the Gipsy Kings. Only they weren’t allowed to sing; they could only play their instruments. Nor could they demonstrate any enthusiasm for what they were doing: to show emotion would be un-Islamic. As I sat there in that packed house, I decided that the only way the night could possibly be turned into an entertainment was if I pretended to be an outside observer who had come not to have fun but to report on a night out in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Yet despite these restrictions and the quality of the performance, our young musicians could not have found anywhere in the world an audience so receptive, so forgiving of their flaws, so grateful to hear their music. Every time the audience, mostly young and not necessarily rich, started to move or clap, two men in suits appeared from either side of the stage and gesticulated for them to stop clapping or humming or moving to the music. Even when we tried to listen, to forget these acrobats, they managed to impose themselves on our field of vision, always present, always ready to jump out and intervene. Always, we were guilty.
The players were solemn. Since it was almost impossible to play with no expression at all, their expressions had become morose. The lead guitarist seemed to be angry with the audience; he frowned, trying to prevent his body from moving—a difficult task, since he was playing the Gipsy Kings.