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Iran’s quiet, calm rebel of music

The jail cell where they held composer Farshid Samandari smelled like urine and vomit. But he lay on the carpet and invited his cellmates to use him as a pillow to sleep, he said.
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Iranian composer Farshid Samandari, who now lives in Vancouver, has mostly remained silent about his experience in Iran, but is opening up now because he believes suppression in his home country is worse than ever. He spoke of his experience at the University of Victoria.
The jail cell where they held composer Farshid Samandari smelled like urine and vomit. But he lay on the carpet and invited his cellmates to use him as a pillow to sleep, he said. He was their leader, after all, and almost a decade older than most, at 28.

Telling his story last week to a University of Victoria class more than a decade later, Samandari seems calm, gentle and the last person you’d expect to have spent time in jail. But this was the Islamic Republic of Iran and his jailed group was Bahá’í — a religious minority regularly denied education, travel and other liberties, he said. They were also at a party with both men and women, which was prohibited. And they were members of an underground choir, directed by Samandari, at a time when music was banned.

“I guess, like anything else, when you are deprived of something, you like it more,” he said after class, when asked why they would take the risk of singing together weekly.

“Part of it was just to say that ‘I am.’ I think, so I am. I can sing, so I am.”

Samandari, who now lives in Vancouver, was in Victoria to share his story with students in a class dedicated to suppressed music. While professor Suzanne Snizek’s course material largely centres on Second World War suppressions, she invited Samandari to share his experience as a contemporary example.

“I wanted them to emotionally connect to the subject matter and also to consider how important it is, in my view, to remain vigilant about the suppression of minorities and intolerance,” she said. “As young people, they might not even have considered that, because we’re so fortunate here.”

Music has been the subject of fierce political and religious debate in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, according to the Foundation of Iranian Studies, a U.S.-based non-profit educational institute. All concerts, radio and television broadcasts of music were banned, following the 1978 revolution. And while music’s legal status has fluctuated since then, only specific versions of Iran’s traditional and regional music are officially sanctioned today.

Even still, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2010 that music is “not compatible” with the values of the Islamic Republic.

Cultural control has been used as a political tool around the world, according to Snizek. It’s happening now in Afghanistan under the Taliban. And many Jewish musicians had their music silenced during the Second World War, like Hans Gál, a leading 1920s composer forced to leave Germany.

“You lose all your connections, your work is disrupted,” Snizek said. “It’s a huge psychological blow.”

In Samandari’s case, music was a struggle from the beginning. He depended on private lessons for his musical education, held in secret, he said.

“Any time that you’re taking a lesson, they might barge in and you’re arrested for doing something illegal.”

His first arrest came at 14, when authorities found a broken violin and a broken accordion in his attic.

“They thought they were instruments of crime,” he said.

It only strengthened his resolve to create music.

But obstacles came in forms beyond arrests, too, and most often because of his Bahá’í faith, he believes.

In the late 1990s, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to write a piece. It would be unpaid, but they wanted to build repertoire. After he finished the piece and rehearsals had begun, the conductor called him.

“The only thing he dared to say was that, ‘You’re too good to be performed,’ ” he said. “And I knew that was a code, basically. He was scared for his own position.”

Around the same time, a contract with a major classical music producer ended in a similar way.

“Everything was set, we had all the permissions. And then when we started, they called the producer and threatened him, ‘You better not work with these Bahá’ís,’ basically,” he said.

Samandari moved to Canada in 2001 and he settled in Vancouver, where his works have been performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, UBC String Orchestra, Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra and more.

While he has remained largely silent about his experience in Iran, he said he is speaking up now because he believes the regime has become more restrictive in recent years. His students in Iran have recently been imprisoned just for recording a song, he said. And others — mothers and fathers — are imprisoned with their infants.

He doesn’t think he’ll return to his home country any time soon.

“I wanted to go back, five or six years ago. I was told it’s better not to,” he said.

Instead, his experience continues to inspire his music. Toward the end of the lecture, Samandari played a piece for Snizek’s UVic students, which he wrote about six years ago.

Called Memoirs Untold, it’s a cello suite in three movements. Each movement represents one of three responses by those who witness persecution: being passive, reactive and proactive.

“It’s basically about all the things I said, and all the things I didn’t say.”

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