Sara Najafi (centre-right) organises a controversial concert in Iran.
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When singing is a revolutionary act: the women challenging Iran's fear of female creativity

No Land's Song, a new documentary by Ayat Najafi, follows her sister Sara's fight to put on a revolutionary concert. 

“How can we sing without the colour of the female voice?” This is the question at the heart of No Land’s Song, a new documentary by the Iranian director Ayat Najafi.

The film follows the director’s sister, Sara Najafi, a singer and composer who is attempting to host a concert of female singers in Tehran. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, solo performances by women have been banned. Women can appear as backing singers but never on their own. In the hope of changing the law, Sara gathers a group of musicians from Paris and Tehran, only to be drawn into negotiations with Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

The sanctions on female creativity are so harsh that it is a wonder that Sara, a woman born after 1979, became a musician at all.

“Limitations can, in a way, be a source of creativity,” she says.  One is reminded of a shot in which Sara stuffs a Dictaphone into her hijab so that she can tape her conversation at the ministry. And yet, there is a long-standing culture of resistance in Iran. We see Sara singing and talking about music with friends, one of whom, Sayeh Sodeyfi, laughs at the absurdity of her position as a music teacher who must pretend that she teaches theoretically – without ever singing in front of pupils at her school. “If your uvula shakes like this, you’re singing correctly,” she jokes.

An older singer, Parvin Namazi, remembers when, as a child, she sang on Iranian television. The conversation returns again and again to the female singers who flourished in Iran before the revolution and one in particular, Qamar ol-Molouk Vaziri.

“Qamar was the person who first brought the female voice into the public arena,” Ayat explains.

When Sara and Parvin visit the site of Vaziri’s first public performance, which took place at the Tehran Grand Hotel in 1924, they are visibly moved by the experience.

Opposition to the ban isn’t exclusive to frustrated female singers in Iran. “My family always motivated and encouraged me,” Sara tells me.

At which point, her brother, Ayat, says, “There is something important that we need to address and that is that the majority of people in Iran do listen to the female voice. They don’t really care what the system says. They buy cassettes and albums on the black market, or watch [music videos] online or go to private concerts.” The film carefully unpicks the contradictions inherent in a society forced to denounce publicly the female creativity it privately consumes. Even the men interviewed in cafés and music shops in the film refer to “their system” – not “ours” – when speaking about the ban.

“Nothing changes when you host a private concert,” Ayat continues. “We wanted to use this to challenge that.”

An excerpt from the documentary, courtesy of the Gijon film festival.

When Sara meets Abdolnabi Jafarian, a religious scholar who attempts to offer her a theological explanation for the prohibition, she is told: “If you eat a simple cheese, that’s fine. But if you add more and more ingredients, the joy begins to harm you.”

“How is that connected to singing?” Sara replies.

“How can putting [the concert] on be considered a revolutionary act if you need to get permission from the government?” Sara is asked by Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer who agrees to take part. “When you get the government to agree with you [rather than staging it in secret], you are making a political statement: the regime has been publicly challenged,” Sara tells me.

As Sara makes her case at the ministry of culture, Ayat’s film shows nothing but a black screen. She comes close to failure, deciding to cancel the performance rather than proceed with the limitations imposed on it by the state. But the fear of criticism from abroad, amplified by the presence of French guests, forces the ministry’s hand and it ultimately gives her full control of the project.

When the long-awaited concert finally takes place, it is at once triumphant and a little sad. Earlier, Sodeyfi had complimented Sara’s music for its tonal depth, the qualities of “spring” and “winter” it contains: “Spring revives many things but it cannot make you forget everything.”

The performers in Tehran revel in the opportunity to sing but have been marked by the long silence. Asked if, after the concert, she is hopeful for the future of creative women in Iran, Sara replies: “No, not at all. There has been no positive change. In fact, things are getting worse.”

“What you need is hope,” says Ayat. “Unfortunately, there is little hope. With this movie, what I wanted to show was just, let’s say, the dream
of hope. The power of music is stronger than the power of their stupid systems.”

“No Land’s Song” screens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, 20-22 March

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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