Iranian pop star never forgotten

Music: More than 20 years after Khomeini's rise put end to her superstar career in Iran, Googoosh is touring in U.S. and Canada.

September 16, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Most American pop fans, upon hearing that Googoosh is on tour and will be playing the MCI Center this evening, will respond with a simple and heartfelt question: Who's Googoosh?

Iranian expatriates (or, indeed, any listener well-versed in middle Eastern pop music) know the answer. In the 1970s, Googoosh wasn't just the most popular entertainer in Iran - she defined stardom there.

Her voice, powerful and expressive, could be as dramatic as Streisand or as sensual as Madonna. Her songs, wide-ranging and eclectic, touched on rock and disco as easily as it did Iranian folk and classical motives. Her image, shaped by frequent trips abroad, embodied all the promise and sophistication of the Shah's move toward Westernization. Her fame, fueled by hit singles, regular TV appearances and even a handful of films, was incalculable.

Then, in 1979, her world came crashing down. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolutionary forces that had just overthrown the Shah, outlawed popular music. He put particular emphasis on the work of women like Googoosh, branding them as temptresses and condemning their work.

Suddenly, Googoosh was an outlaw. Placed under house arrest, she sat in her Tehran apartment as Islamic guard members seized and destroyed albums, tapes and posters all across Iran. In an instant, her star had been extinguished.

Or so the clerics thought.

For years, the official government line was that Googoosh was an unperson, a relic from the decadent past who would be better left forgotten. "Most people, after the revolution, did not want to hear anything about her," an Iranian parliamentarian told The New York Times in 1993. "She was silly and tasteless."

Unofficially, it was a different story. Googoosh tapes and CDs, smuggled in from the West, remained hugely - if clandestinely - popular in Iran. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Canada, Googoosh's music attained an almost iconic status among Iranian expatriates.

Recently, things have begun to change. First, the government of moderate Iranian president Mohammed Khatami began allowing women who sang Persian classical music to give performances outside Iran. Then, earlier this year, it was announced that Googoosh would be permitted to leave the country for a concert tour. (In Iran, it is illegal for women to sing before audiences that include men.)

There was an almost palpable sense of joy in the American Iranian community. "No need to rub your eyes," cheered a Washington D.C.-based Iranian newsletter. "It's not a dream." Concerts were booked in Toronto, New York, Houston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. Her show in Los Angeles sold out within hours.

Now 50, Googoosh had not sung in public for 21 years before her July 29 concert in Toronto. Indeed, she'd barely been around people at all during that time. "For almost 22 years I stayed in my apartment, sitting on a couch," she said, during a press conference before the Toronto concert. "I didn't go out or meet anyone as such. Sometimes I went out to buy fruit or shop at a supermarket."

For someone who had performed since childhood, those decades must have been painfully humbling for Googoosh. Born Faegheh Atashnin, she started her career at age 6 on a popular children's radio show. She shot her first film, "The Fear of Hope" when she was 8, and began her recording career at 15. By age 20, she was one of the most famous people in Iran, and the ups and downs of her personal life were followed as intensely as any soap opera. When she impulsively cut her hair, women all across Iran went to their hairdressers and demanded a "Googooshy" cut. And when she dedicated a lullaby called "Lalayee" to her only child, millions took each whispered note as evidence of her motherly love.

This tour has restored some of the old glamour to Googoosh's life, as her lavish, three-hour concerts have been rapturously received by American and Canadian audiences. She just released her first new album in 22 years, "Zartosht" and has so far earned raves from both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

But even though her voice is said to have lost none of its passion or power, Googoosh herself has become more circumspect. Where once she sported miniskirts, now she scarcely bared her shoulders. Nor has she fully escaped the strictures of Iran's cultural revolution - her director husband was recently summoned by an Iranian court on charges that a film of his violates the Islamic dress code.

Googoosh, for her part, keeps quiet about politics and has done virtually no interviews. Although the official word is that she will return to Iran at the end of this tour (which is expected to net the singer some $3 million), there is much hopeful speculation among Iranian-American fans that she will remain in this country.

Either way, it's clear that Googoosh can't return to the Iranian stardom she once enjoyed. But for a few hours, her fans in this country will be comforted by the sound of what they once had.

`Googoosh'

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

Where: MCI Center, 601 F St. NW, Washington, D.C.

Tickets: $33 to $253

Call: 410-481-7328 for tickets, 202-628-3200 for information

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