The reclusive queen of Persian Pop returns to stage

Googoosh will perform - for the first time in 20 years - in Toronto on July 29.

She has not performed or recorded a song since 1979. Yet Googoosh remains the unrivaled queen of Persian pop, the Elvis of the East, who brought Western-style glamour to prerevolutionary Iran.

Now to the delight of her fans from Tehran to Toronto, Googoosh is making a historic comeback. The Iranian government has decided to return her passport, and she has left the country for a series of concerts in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

"Googoosh is back. No need to rub your eyes. It's not a dream," trumpeted an ecstatic Washington-based Iranian newsletter.

Googoosh, who shot to fame as a child star, was in her late 20s when the pro-Western Shah was ousted in 1979. The Islamic ayatollahs declared female voices corrupted men, and Googoosh's dazzling career on stage, television, and film was abruptly truncated. She swapped her mini-skirt, which some credit her with popularizing in Iran, for a chador and lived the quiet life of a traditional housewife, married to a well-known film director. Her reclusive lifestyle - with proclaimed sitings la Elvis - only enhanced her mystique.

"It's the first time that a pre-revolutionary pop star is leaving the country to give a concert," says a Tehran University professor. "That it's a woman makes it more remarkable, and that it's Googoosh even more so."

Her return underscores the loosening of restrictions, led by moderate President Mohammed Khatami, that stifled artistic expression in the Islamic republic. Since he came to power three years ago, classical female singers have been allowed to sing outside the country. Recordings of Western rock music by Iranian artists, but without the lyrics, can now be bought over the counter. And last year, for the first time, male pop groups were allowed to stage a series of concerts in Tehran to mark the 20th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

"For almost 22 years I stayed in my apartment, sitting on a couch. I didn't go out or meet anyone as such. Sometimes I went out to buy fruit or shop at a supermarket," Googoosh, who was born Faegheh Atashin, told a news conference in Toronto. It was her first public appearance since 1979 and, with her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses and her hands trembling, she confessed to being as nervous as she was excited.

Thanking her fans for keeping her memory alive, she vowed to reciprocate their "beautiful waves of love."

Tickets are being snapped up for Googoosh's July 29 return concert at a huge sports stadium in Toronto. It is likely to be the largest-ever gathering of Iranians abroad. At home it is being hailed as a major milestone along the road of cultural glasnost promoted by Mr. Khatami.

"You were the only messenger of love to our generation," enthuses an admirer on a web site brimming with fan mail beseeching Googoosh to break her silence. "You still give me goosebumps," says another.

"She was our role model and we loved her," recalls Somaya Rezai, a housewife. "When she cut her hair short, we all did."

It was decided under Iran's Islamic laws that female voices should never be heard by men, and Western music was considered decadent. The traditional clergy wanted a total ban on music, but the late Ayatollah Khomeini overruled that. He decreed that as long as music was not "intoxicating" it was legitimate.

Still, mournful war hymns, traditional songs, and bland instrumentals became the only "legal" music in Iran. Female singers could perform, but only in front of women.

Most Iranian pop stars fled to the West, settling mainly in Los Angeles, nicknamed "Irangeles" because of its sizable Iranian population. Googoosh went in the opposite direction, spurning the chance to earn millions. She had been in Los Angeles during the turbulent months surrounding the 1979 revolution and was suspected of being an agent in Savak, the Shah's dreaded secret service and faced execution if she returned. Three months after the pro-Western Shah was ousted, a homesick Googoosh flew home.

"I was dying a slow death [in L.A.], so I thought I might as well get done with it," she said. But on her return, a Revolutionary Guard at Tehran's Mehrabad airport merely advised her to cover her hair and shooed her into a taxi. Her house, which had been confiscated and turned into a student hostel, was handed back.

Later, she was jailed for a month, but cannot remember precisely why. "My imprisonment was so brief that I am ashamed to talk about it, compared to all those people who have gone to jail in the country," she says. "It was a land where so many have been to prison. I wasn't tortured, I was not in any discomfort."

Despite the ban, Googoosh still tops the charts, with her old tapes and CDs doing a roaring trade on the booming bootleg market. Her voice can be heard in every taxi and at every wedding and private party. Her repertoire of songs in several languages earned her devoted followers in Turkey, parts of the former Soviet Union, and some Arab countries.

For young Iranians she is a cult figure, her music evocative of social freedoms they have never enjoyed. For migrs, she is an emotional umbilical cord to the homeland.

Meanwhile, a new wave of homegrown, officially approved pop is flourishing. It has been boosted by the waning popularity of the Irangeles variety, which is increasingly out of touch with contemporary Iranian society. Sometimes called "revolutionary" pop, the theme is slow and offbeat, while the lyrics focus on divine and platonic love, mysticism, and the joys of nature.

The puritanical old guard, which still thunders against "Westoxication," remains suspicious. But it has yet to say what it thinks of Googoosh being allowed to break her silence, albeit half a world away. Nor is it clear whether she will be able to perform when she returns to Iran. "I don't know what will happen," she says. "But I am hopeful because our revolution is at a stage where democracy is being rehearsed and built. I am very optimistic."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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