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These Iranian Troubadours Show How Music Can Corrupt the Soul

Posted on Dec 6, 2009
AP / Joerg Sarbach

By Robert Fisk

This article was originally published in the Independent.

I heard them in a narrow street in north Tehran, not one of the rich villa-lined avenues we associate with the Iranian middle classes but a tired thoroughfare of overheated plane trees and shabby, two-storey offices in grey concrete.

The sound was of a scratched record, a 78-rpm rather than a 33-and-a-third – iPod addicts, please consult your elders – and when I turned to my driver, he assured me there must be some morning party up the road with an old gramophone. But I used to play the violin, and I didn’t believe him. And sure enough, down the street came the troubadours.

Yes, real live troubadours in the real live Islamic Republic, two of them, hacking at a violin and beating on a "zarb" drum, the work of the classical Persian musicians, a combination – for a westerner – of gypsy and nursery melodies, a sudden revelation of 14th- and 15th-century music in a regime which aspires to the purity of the 8th. Habibullah Zendegani introduced himself very quietly – it felt that way after the rasping violin pulsating through the Italian loudspeaker on his back (hence the illusion of recorded music) – and said he was only 26 but had been playing for 15 years, inspired by that master of the Iranian violin, Bijan Mortazavi. Beside him, Ramezan Souratipour banged away happily on the drum under his arm, one of a thousand little drummers in Iran – he is 32, but a diminutive figure – whose fingers dab three to a second to Zandegani’s violin.

But I am old enough to remember Ruhollah Khomeini banning Mozart and Haydn. So how do the Revolutionary Guards, praetorians of the Ayatollah’s spirituality in President Ahmedinejad’s oh-so-chaste republic, react to these ghosts of culture past? "I play music to earn money," Zandegani replies, a little shiftily I think. "We earn maybe $40 or $50 a day." In theory, all music must pass Iran’s censorship authorities; a female singer, for example, is not allowed to sing solo lest her lone voice be too arousing for male listeners.

But music and Islam have a dodgy relationship. In Saudi Universities – and here I thank Jonas Otterbeck, Independent reader extraordinaire of Malmo University in Sweden – the most sanctimonious of students have assaulted music enthusiasts; when a professor at King Saud University, Hamzah Muzeini, condemned this brutality in the daily Al-Watan newspaper, he was convicted by a Sharia court – a ruling later overturned by King Abdullah. Yet according to journalist Rabah al-Quwai’i, some sheikhs encourage youths to burn instruments and books in public. In Saudi, I should add, Christmas carols – like all Christian religious services – are banned, except for the all-purpose "Jingle Bells". Father Christmas, I suppose, wasn’t really a Christian.

It’s not difficult to understand the objections to modern music and pop. Hamdi Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Assembly for the Muslim Brotherhood, complained about Ruby’s first video and "the gyration of other pop stars". Incredibly, of all issues raised by the Brotherhood in the Assembly between 2000 and 2005, 80 per cent involved cultural and media issues – so much for the injustices of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan! In my own country of choice, Lebanon, the Ministry of Defence monitors music, according to musician Mohamed Hamza. In November, 1999, Marcel Khalife was charged with blasphemy before the Beirut courts, an outrageous infringement of cultural liberty supported by the Sunni Grand Mufti, Mohamed Kabbani. Khalife had set a verse by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to music in his album Arabic Coffeepot, but Darwish’s poem contained lines from the Koran (part of verse four of Sura 12, for the uninitiated) and protesters argued that Khalife had defiled the Koran by singing it as part of a commercial song. Shiite clerics – to their great credit – defended the song-writer. He was acquitted, the Beirut judge adding that Khalife had "chanted the poem in gravity and composure that reveal a deep perception of the humanism expressed in the poem ornamented with the holy phrase." Phew.

But when Amar Hassan wanted to sing about love as well as politics in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in 2005, he was threatened before a Nablus court and his concert broken up by gunfire and the explosion of stun guns. The conflict, as Otterbeck realised in his thesis, has deep roots: between secular nationalistic music and Islamist music. In Algeria, the Islamic Armed Group made their point in lethal fashion, assassinating Berber singer Matoub Lounès.

On Al-Jazeera television, Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi claims there’s nothing forbidden about music unless it is slanderous, sexually exciting or – and here’s the rub – if it’s listened to with over-enthusiasm (Islam supposedly being against all things in excess). Sufis have suggested that uneducated listeners may be stirred to sexual desire while experienced practitioners are moved by music to do God’s will. The old, I suppose, know how to control themselves when they hear Mozart’s "Jupiter" symphony. In Iraq, the musical scene has been bleak indeed. Shia Islamists attacked music-playing male and female students in a Basra park in 2005, killing two and wounding five others. Between 2003 and 2006, the UN found that as many as 75 Iraqi singers had been murdered; 80 per cent of the country’s professional singers had left the country by the end of 2006.

I guess it’s really all to do with that most jealously guarded commodity, the human soul, over which music exerts such passion. While the passion of humans should be directed towards God, music, it seems, is a diversion, even worse a perversion, the path to alcohol, adultery, murder. An Islamist internet site quotes the classical scholar Abu Hanifa who insisted that "musical instruments are the wine of the soul, and what it does to the soul is worse than what intoxicating drinks do."

Poor old Habibullah Zendegani and Ramezan Souratipour. I gave the Iranian troubadours a few Iranian rhials for their music and asked the violinist once more if he ever found himself in trouble with the Guardians of the Human Soul. "I have been playing the violin all my life," he said with a huge smile. Then, just as the couple were leaving, he turned to me with a solemn face. "Sometimes they stop us in the street," he said. "And sometimes they break our instruments."


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By Jim Foley, December 25, 2009 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ever since the second grade at OLPH, Sister Mary Grace told me I had a soul.  So don’t you tell me I don’t have one!

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By Shenonymous, December 10, 2009 at 7:32 am Link to this comment

If there is such a thing as a soul, and if anything can be corruptible, then it is only
logical a soul could be corruptible.  Since there is no such thing as a soul, then
this piece which is not biased, war-mongering journalism in any case does not
corrupt a soul, and especially not “the” soul.  This I believe. 

Is one person’s belief worth more than any other’s?  Perhaps we could be
democratic about it and take a vote?

Seems like Habibullah Zendegani, the Irani violin player, gives a poignant
testimonial that has some meaning concerning oppression and irrational beliefs. 
“Sometimes they stop us in the street,” he said. “And sometimes they break our

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Virginia777's avatar

By Virginia777, December 9, 2009 at 9:03 pm Link to this comment

I’ll tell you what can “corrupt the soul”

biased, war-mongering journalism, like this piece

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, December 9, 2009 at 7:50 am Link to this comment

Hate may be less complex for the ignorant may be directed much more easly, if Fisk is planting seeds of hate, maybe one can explain some of the alleged facts in his article?

My questions would be if his article is all bunk, then why is it perceived by me that most Muslims as a relgion detest Sufism, are the differences within any different than differences without?

Questions of what is fact and propaganda need be sifted though before making any decision, and as far as I am concerned decisions may not be final, until the fat lady sings!

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By liecatcher, December 9, 2009 at 12:23 am Link to this comment

For me dance music goes directly to my soul & gets my
body moving. Countless exercise videos use music to
motivate & set the pace.
After reading these blogs, I wonder if anyone out there
has read author John Coleman’s comments about the
Beatles & their music being used to destroy American
youth & promote drug usage. His book is:“Conspirator’s
Hierarchy:The Committee of 300”.
That gal with the wild hair & heavy drug usage seems to
validate his point of view.

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DieDaily's avatar

By DieDaily, December 8, 2009 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment

Every night in Iran there are hundred of raves, you can buy rock music anywhere you like, and this article is a total joke. Fisk always does this. He puts forward a seemingly sensible or valid text so that he can stick you with his nasty little MI6 subtexts. This is not an article of praise for music it is just another classic Fisk misdirection. You read and think you are thinking that music is wonderful while the subtext tries to implant the seed of hatred into you. I know of a great remedy for fisk and that is to listen to a beautiful concerto and let the music carry you away, wash away all that Fiskian dissonance and dis-ease. Ahhhh, that is so much nicer than being a denizen of the lower hells of the mind of Robert Fisk and his handlers.

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, December 8, 2009 at 8:38 pm Link to this comment

If one has the belief they are being duped because an article is not what they want to hear or read about, seems most strange, for I would not read an article if I felt this way?  One could ask Fisk why he is not telling me, who let the dogs out or the latest on Tiger Woods newest mistress or any other story for that mater? Priorities of interest may be personal, why would one just not read the article from the title?

My sister is one to not want to hear about things, which may devalue her focus on what she deems important at that very second in time!  Though I would not expect her to even read any article on TD, never the less this article by Fisk. 

Sorry Virginia777, my conclusion is Fisk wrote this article with concern for the destruction of music in Iran and I agree with the premise of this article. 

My love for the arts may influences my prejudicial feelings regrading this article, never the less killing people for playing music in public places seems a grave cause for concern. It is my opinion, living without the freedom of [removed]of the arts)in this case music, is not really living at all, sadly this may continue to be a major concern for me!

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By Shenonymous, December 8, 2009 at 8:10 pm Link to this comment

It is somewhat pathetic that there are such cynics so devoid of all cultural spirit
that they cannot find even a speck of compassion for these courageous people
who have music in their bones, in the sinews of their bodies and have the spirit
to brave the oppression of a mind set that would do them physical harm and
destroy the very vital principle that elevates humanity from the depths of
misery.  What it is like to be so utterly destitute of pity is not even imaginable
to my intelligence.  To only find ominous ulterior motives in the telling of this
a story is too too bad.  The question that strikes me is what deficiency of
thought forces such coldness of heart that some other wretched story has to be
proposed to trump the dismal reality that is told in this journalist’s report.  I
found it uplifting to see the power of music drive itself through the
dreadfulness of a despotic society.

Does it really matter that the Church of Christ bans music from their religious
houses?  Since music soothes the savage beast makes me wonder if only
beasts rummage around in their pews.  Perhaps someone ought to hypothesize
about the emptiness of those nearly religious souls?

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By liecatcher, December 8, 2009 at 5:59 pm Link to this comment

To Leefeller, December 8 at 9:37 pm

Hey Leefeller:

Thanks for asking.

Nothing sinister or hidden in what I said.

I like to see honesty and balance in articles.

I just should have said Church of Christ instead of

the word sect which has a negative connotation.

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Virginia777's avatar

By Virginia777, December 8, 2009 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment

Leefeller, how about an article on the lives of kids in the projects? how come we never get to hear their stories? (and repressions)

I could care about what’s happening in Iran, and I certainly worry that stuff like this is merely fodder for the military propaganda machine,

and I don’t like to be duped.

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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, December 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

Liecatcher, are you making a point are was that attempted sarcasim, I cannot tell from the tone of your post?

Hopefully your friends do not go around searching for and killing people playing music? The point being people not allowing others to play or listen to music, unless you read something different than I in the article?

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By WriterOnTheStorm, December 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment


They seem to have missed an even larger point:

In the West, individuals can listen to any music they like,
including music from the Middle East.

One should try to avoid cultural centrism, but sometimes one
must admit when another culture is onto something - like
freedom of choice.

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By liecatcher, December 8, 2009 at 5:19 pm Link to this comment

These Iranian Troubadours Show How Music Can Corrupt
the Soul Posted on Dec 6, 2009 By Robert Fisk

Hey Robert Fisk:
It would have been nice to mention at least one major

Protestant sect in the U.S. that doesn’t allow music

church. Some of my best friends attend & have good


Report this

By JNord, December 8, 2009 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

I think some of you have missed the point of this article.  Robert Fisk would not be for subjegating the Iranians or any other people into living a life or culture that we, The U.S., only approve of.  The article is merely a window into a culture that most “Western” peoples would cringe at having to live. If anything I would say this article suggests the near impossibility of changing a culture or nation through most means especially militarily like is trying to be done in Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly we can influence through cultural exchanges and dialogue but it can only be changed from within.

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By Leefeller, December 8, 2009 at 9:05 am Link to this comment


Being aware of abuses, even cherry picked abuse as this article seems to be doing, brings focus and awareness of what may be wrong in the world. 

Sure other problems seem tenfold, but every tidbit of awareness provides a view not seen before can be used as a learning experience.

Iran has a rich beautiful history, it would be useful to teach it in our schools with a much expanded comprehensive world history. I did not have the opportunity of this and wish I had!

This article provided for me something about the ignorance of religion which I never knew before.  The stoning to death of a girl or the killing of a Troubadour are both heinous in my book as is blowing up a wedding party!  Supposedly one should not express this for their are other more important fish to fry or problems in the world and at home?

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By Arm, December 8, 2009 at 8:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shenonymous!  Yes, I did mean the U.S..  Where else are you free to say anything and not be punished for it.  We have our flaws, but the benefits of being a U.S. citizen is worth it.  Even, during the Sha’s reign, the minorities were not allowed to vote.  I have voted here in the U.S. as soon as I became a citizen. 
I pity the women of muslim countries.  They have no rights and are slaves of their husbands and society.

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By Virginia777, December 8, 2009 at 8:37 am Link to this comment

so what is Robert Fisk really doing here people? why waste time bashing Iran, when we have so many huge problems at home?

I’ll tell you why, because articles like these fit nicely into our Military establishment’s future hope to invade Iran - lets just help demonize them a little bit more, Mr. Fisk…

(thanks a whole lot, what a waste of time this article is)

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By Sri, December 8, 2009 at 6:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I absolutely agree with Nap. Wat on earth is the point of this article beyond reinforcing stereotypes about Islam and benevolent, “liberal” west. SHAME SHAME!

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By Shenonymous, December 7, 2009 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment

Hello Arm, I hope you meant the US.  If you did, I am glad you live here too.  This
country needs more people like you who accepts its flaws and all (we can at least
take danger-free steps to change it).  But if not, I’m still glad you live where you
are allowed to be happy.

Seems like Nap is a kind of sour person.  I’m sorry for that as the world doesn’t
always have to be a piss pot.

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By Nap, December 7, 2009 at 2:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fisk starts in Iran Listening to street music and has no chance but to get lost in Saudi Arabia and Egypt is his quest to discover what connects the fart to the forehead and the lemmings with little history and no culture to speak of are out in force feeling superior and civilized, even obligated to bomb the great unwashed in to the 21 Century.

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By Arm, December 7, 2009 at 8:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was born in Iran and educated in England.  Lived there from 1958 to 1962.  During the Shah women were not oppressed and were allowed the same freedoms as those of their Western counterparts.  They even wore mini skirts!! 
How sick is it not to let a woman sing solo, lest it arouse the males?  I am glad I am not in Iran and live in the best country in the world, flaws and all.

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By Shenonymous, December 7, 2009 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

If you replace the word soul with the word mind it becomes clear what is
happening.  The Islamic world would lose the absolute fisted control they have
were its population to become enlightened through the arts, literary,
performing and visual which is the purpose of the arts.  It is akin to the
banishment from Eden of the supposed first man/woman because they ate of
the tree of knowledge.  To know is to be free and to be free is to not be a slave.

While the mind is as much as a chimera as what is called the soul, we seem to
be much surer there is a mind than the even less graspable fanciful fabrication
called the soul.  We often talk about states of mind, but rarely about states of
soul.  It is not too far a stretch to think of a mind that is aware of its
experiencing a world, is perceptually aware of that world, becomes emotional
about experiences of that world, including the affections caused by music,
poetry, and all the other arts that are intended to produce emotion and
intellectual response, but unlike the mind, it is a strain to say anything that the
soul does.  It is more than occasionally said that the soul feels things or there
is a feeling in the soul.  But when trying to understand what exactly is
happening, there is no handles to grab on.  Not that a soul has to have
handles, but it should have some character that allows for some
understanding, if only to be able to say what it does.

The suppression of freely experiencing the beauty and intelligence found in
music, or any other art form for that matter and which are also suppressed to
the point of dangerous physical oppression in the Middle Eastern Islamic
countries, is a grotesque assault on humanity and is a symptom of primitive
savagery and ignorance.

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By Howie Bledsoe, December 7, 2009 at 7:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

All I gotta say is this…..

Turn on mainstream western radio, and what do you get?
You get soul-less, mindless drivel that is sung by plastic titted bleach blondes in skin tight mini skirts, or well connected handsome guys supporting their coke habits. OR, ahem, bands backed by the Christian church who sing about Jaysus.  Real musicians are barely able to feed themselves, and their music is all but inaccesible to a popular audience. Although they are not banned, they are forced into a life of hardship, and left on the fringes.

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By ChaoticGood, December 6, 2009 at 11:54 pm Link to this comment

It is a sign of a sick society when you see women being mistreated.  Many cultures use religion as a smokescreen for this behavior.  This behavior really just masks infantile male behavior. 

Men who are not sure of their own masculinity need to subjugate women to make themselves feel “manly”.  You can find these “wimps” all over the world, but they seem to congregate in socially conservative religious communities.

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By Leefeller, December 6, 2009 at 9:35 pm Link to this comment

Killing people for anything; except telling bad jokes is not acceptable! 

It seems killing for taking something from others has been histories story; Oil, land, water, access to ports, etc, though not acceptable by me, has been. 

Somehow when one kills another for having skill and love of something, it seems much different, a kind of mind control in this case, selective religious interpretation. Tolerance is not part of the agenda! I suppose this is a more Orthodox part of the Muslim religion.

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By joell, December 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment

@Leefeller “Killing people for playing music?”

what about killing people for oil?

@omygodnotagain   “...uncivilized, oppressive and regressive Middle East.”

i suspect if you were on the recieving end of those bombs we’re dropping in iraq & afghanistan, you might have a different view of the civilized west.

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By Leefeller, December 6, 2009 at 8:12 pm Link to this comment

The repression of women is despicable enough by itself, but the banning of music insults objectivity beyond any sane degree, no longer will I feel sorry for these oppressive and ignorant hypocrites, ridiculous countries.

Seems the religion should be burned instead of the instruments.

Killing people for playing music? Life without music is not life!

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By omygodnotagain, December 6, 2009 at 6:37 pm Link to this comment

Thank God I grew up in the West… and not in the uncivilized, oppressive and regressive Middle East.

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