Lifting the Veil
To Iranians, she’s simply Googoosh, a Marilyn Monroe beauty with a Barbra Streisand voice, a timeless icon whose timeworn ballads still inspire generations.
So it’s no less than a miracle to millions of adoring fans worldwide that this legendary diva, silenced by the veil cast upon her and other women in her Islamic homeland more than two decades ago, has finally resurfaced to launch an international tour.
Googoosh’s self-imposed seclusion since women in Iran were ordered to cover their hair, limbs and figure has only increased her mystique, say fans and critics alike. She’s been out of sight but rarely out of mind.
Her emergence also has fueled anger among some expatriates who feel she’s betrayed her people by what they view as tacit endorsement of the current Iranian regime.
Tonight, Googoosh takes the stage at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, her third concert of an international tour that began in Toronto on July 29 after Iranian authorities granted her a passport.
She is promoting her first album in 22 years, “Zartosht,” the vocals for which were recorded in Canada.
The Forum show--her first in the United States--sold out in 48 hours, promoters say, and she is scheduled to return to Los Angeles for a Sept. 24 concert at a site to be determined. Before that she’ll travel across the country, performing in New York, Washington, Atlanta and Las Vegas, among other cities.
On EBay, the Internet’s popular auction site, a handful of Forum tickets up for grabs were going for as much as $400 apiece late last week, a testament to her enduring popularity.
“Even as a child I could tell she was beautiful,” said Shahrzad Sepanlou, a local singer who snagged three tickets to tonight’s show. “Sometimes they still show her old videos. . . . I’m intrigued by how much she was ahead of her time.”
Googoosh’s influence on the burgeoning Persian pop movement in Los Angeles is undeniable, despite her decades-long absence from the music scene.
Like her, singers here combine love poetry rich in imagery with Iranian melodies laced with Western beats, be they pop, jazz, blues or, more recently, rap. Iranian female vocalists sway sensuously as they sing, another trend launched by Googoosh.
“Without question, she’s regarded as one of the most important stars in Iran,” said John Paley, general manager of Persian-language radio station KIRN-AM (670), which plays her songs.
Even in her country, where she and other female soloists have been banned since 1979 after Muslim clerics decreed them decadent, bootlegged recordings of her songs still blare from car stereos.
But Googoosh’s arrival is sparking more than frenzied enthusiasm. In Southern California, home to the largest Iranian expatriate population in the world (official U.S. government estimates start at 106,000, while other estimates say it could be five times that), some who oppose the nation’s Islamic rule accuse her of putting a soft face on a government that imprisons, tortures and executes citizens harboring unauthorized political and religious beliefs.
At least two local Persian-language daily newspapers and one radio station have carried scathing items about her. One announcer on a locally produced TV variety show, “Jaam-e-Jam,” read a satirical remake of a famous poem, which in its new form poked fun at Googoosh and current Iranian laws that permit brief “marriages” with girls 9 years and older.
“They brought her here to tell lies,” Syrus Sharafshahi, editor and publisher of Sob-e-Iran, based in Reseda, said, speaking in Persian. “This is a person who is an advocate for the regime, not a performer.”
Recently, she crushed the egos of many local Iranian musicians when she reportedly dismissed their post-revolution work as worthless.
“We are all suffering because they [the clerics] threw us out,” lyricist Homayoun Houshiarnejad, who is editor and publisher of the Encino-based daily Asre Emrooz, said in Persian. “We’re not going to let someone come and set up a concert on that pain.”
Googoosh could not be reached for comment. Her promoters repeatedly said they would arrange interviews for The Times and other media, only to back out at the last minute.
The diva doesn’t want to talk to the press until after her concert, her assistant said, adding that Googoosh does not like political questions.
“Her message is peace and love, nothing but that,” said one promoter, Alireza Amirghassemi, a partner in Caspian Entertainment. “She’s never been political. She’s singing the old songs to bring the memories back.”
At the Toronto concert last month, Googoosh reiterated that message in the soulful lyrics that are her trademark, bringing thousands of tearful fans to their feet in wild applause.
“I came for my people. I’ve been waiting for my people,” Googoosh said in Persian as she appeared on stage. “I have millions of sisters, windows that let in the sunshine. I have millions of brothers, green and red, pure and made of love.”
The colors are among those in the Iranian flag that have stayed the same even after the revolution.
“I have imprisonment, which was cold; I have love, which is warm,” she added. “With you I am always young. I’ll always be in love with you.”
Born Faegheh Atashnin in the Iranian province of Azarbaijan, Googoosh became a popular child star who sang and acted under the watchful eye of her father, a comedian and entertainer.
“I first saw her when I was 6 or 7,” recalled Homayoun Mobasseri, of Costa Mesa. “I would go to the cinema Friday mornings, and I would see her [perform] there with her father.”
By the late ‘60s, Googoosh was working with modern Iranian composers and lyricists, creating a unique blend of Persian poetry and arrangements laced with Western beats. She also experimented with video and choreography, and became a trendsetter with clothing she acquired on her frequent jaunts to Europe.
Like Princess Diana, her latest hairstyle would send women rushing to beauty salons for a make-over. A short, sassy cut the star sported came to be known as “Googooshy.”
But Western influence soon became Western decadence, as Muslim clerics took over the country. Many entertainers fled, some across mountains and deserts. Googoosh and her husband, acclaimed film director Massoud Kimiai, chose to stay, and she obeyed the Islamic restrictions placed on her and other Iranian women.
Nonetheless, Googoosh, 49, had refused to leave her country unless she could do so legally, her promoters say. When Iranian officials recently gave her a passport, she agreed to go on tour.
The engagements will earn her close to $3 million, Amirghassemi said. He insisted there were no conditions attached to her departure, and she is expected to return to Iran after the tour.
But there is already speculation that Googoosh won’t go back.
One reason is that she may fear being punished for violating Islamic modesty laws on stage with her body movements and style of dress. Another is that her husband, who is traveling with her, has been summoned by an Iranian court in connection with his recently screened film about student protesters in Iran.
It is unknown whether President Mohammad Khatami played a behind-the-scenes role in granting her permission to tour. The president’s reformist policies have led to gently loosened restrictions, socially and culturally. For example, authorities now allow possession of pop music CDs and tapes, although sales are still forbidden.
Most Iranian Americans interviewed said they don’t subscribe to the image of Googoosh as a Khatami promoter.
“Sometimes people boggle me,” Mobasseri, who leads a local Iranian human rights group, said of the singer’s critics. “They have no idea how it is to live under those circumstances.” It’s be quiet or be killed, he added.
“It’s not fair. She was never a political figure,” Sepanlou agreed. “She probably suffered a lot when she was in Iran for the last 20 years. Now she’s decided to come out of her shell.”
* Googoosh plays tonight at the Great Western Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, 8:30 p.m. Sold out. (310) 419-3100.
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