TEHRAN, Iran -- He has been performing professionally for little more than a year, but when singer Khashayar Etemadi showed up for a three-day gig in an unheated gymnasium in Kerman, a city far from this capital, crowds of 1,000 or more showed up each night.
The standing-room only crowds were understandable, though. These were the 28-year-old Etemadi's first concerts this year, and he showed up with a 22-piece orchestra and a trio of chador-cloaked female backup singers behind him. In blue blazer and trousers, he crooned ballads of love and country, while his audience swayed and chanted, "We love you."
"You're great!" one fan shouted to the pop star.
"No, you're great," Etemadi responded.
The brief but intense love affair that has developed between such fans and the puckish, bearded Etemadi has made him Iran's No. 1 pop singer, a significant distinction given the Islamic republic's history of restricting musical expression.
But Etemadi would be considered an overnight sensation in almost any culture. In little more than a year, the husky-voiced singer-songwriter has sold 350,000 cassettes -- while recording perhaps 10 songs at most. Not Lauryn Hill numbers perhaps, but in Iran's emerging music scene, it has made him a star.
It didn't take long for Iran's ruling conservative clerics to recognize his appeal to Iranian youth, a driving force behind the country's reformist movement and the 1997 presidential election of moderate Mohammad Khatami.
Last month, Etemadi was invited to perform at Iran's Ten Day Dawn Festival, an event of symbolic significance. During a heady 10 days in 1979, the secular, pro-Western regime of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fell, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, and a theocracy reigned.
The invitation to Etemadi "shows that pop music has been sanctioned by the government," says Saeed Amir Aslani, the music critic for the reformist daily newspaper Khordad. "I see this as ... the extension of our political situation here in Iran, an extension of our cultural and political development."
No one danced in the aisles or rushed the stage, but Etemadi's performance at the festival was a cultural milestone.
This is a country that strictly controls the public's access to music. The sale of music by most contemporary Western groups is banned. Mozart, American movie themes and instrumentalists like Yanni can be found in music shops here. But tapes and compact discs of performers like the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls and other rock musicians can be bought only on the black market.
Solo female singers haven't performed in public to a mixed audience since 1979, when the late revolutionary leader Khomeini banned music from radio and television, citing its opium-like effect in "stupefying" the mind. Then, "fun imports" like cars, cosmetics and chandeliers also were prohibited.
Khomeini's decree led to an exodus of singers and musicians from Iran, whose rich musical heritage draws on classical Persian poetry and dates to the first century.
Eight years later, however, Khomeini relaxed his order and permitted the sale of classical musical instruments. Pop music, widely played during the shah's regime, was still considered decadent. But male singers of traditional Iranian music began performing again. "It was like a renaissance for our musicians," says music critic Aslani.
About this time, Khashayar Etemadi was a 17-year-old with a dream. Playing piano since the age of 6, Etemadi wanted to sing and perform. But considering the cultural climate in Iran, he gave in to his parents' wishes and enrolled in a Tehran college to study business management.
At graduation, Etemadi's father, a factory owner, presented him with an "ocean blue" Honda, which Etemadi promptly sold to finance his musical career.
"For two years, I took taxis," Etemadi says in an interview at his North Tehran office. "I enjoyed the difficulties I went through to reach my love -- singing. By God's will, I could draw people's attention to my work and therefore I succeeded."
By all appearances, the young singer is still surprised by his sudden fame, and hasn't given in to it.
A bachelor, he lives at home with his parents and two sisters. He drives his own car. He reads his fan mail. His telephone number is in the Tehran phone book. He lingers after a show to sign autographs or talk with fans. After one of the concerts earlier this year, he walked into the audience and presented carnations to a war veteran in a wheelchair.
Ironically, television, one of the media previously banned from playing music, helped launch Etemadi's career.
In Iran, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve the publication of books, songs or films. Etemadi says when he first brought a tape to the ministry, he was told there wasn't a place yet for his music.