Arshia, a 23-year-old Tehran music- store salesman, hesitates before playing a banned download of Israel-based Rita’s Persian-language album.
Arshia is afraid and asks that his full name not be used. He turns down the shop’s sound system to avoid alerting passers- by in the surrounding mall. He whispers that the CD is increasingly popular despite the odds stacked against it.
Rita’s music is forbidden in her birthplace Iran. Tensions are running high after Tel Aviv-based Haaretz newspaper said on Aug. 10 that Israel’s leadership is considering bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities before the Nov. 6 U.S. elections. Iran says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity, while the West sees it as a push to develop atomic weapons.
“People asked me, ’Are you really going to do an album in the language of Ahmadinejad?’” says 50-year-old Rita in an interview “’Who will listen?’ they asked. And I said, ‘I have to do it. It’s burning inside me.’”
Rita has a North American tour planned for November to promote the record, titled “My Joys.”
In Iran, any music or dance whose singing, performance or distribution is not approved by the authorities is deemed illegal. That includes music from before the 1978 revolution, Western music and anything by performers from outside the Islamic republic.
There’s added sensitivity because Rita is now an Israeli. Her supporters know the law is hard to enforce, because people are downloading her music or listening to it regardless.
Maliheh, a 65-year-old housewife -- who also doesn’t want her full name to be given -- was transfixed when she saw Rita singing on a satellite TV channel.
“‘Gol Sangam’ is about a flower that blossoms on stones,” she says at a party at her home. “It means that one can overcome any difficulties and grow from them.”
Rita Jahan-Foruz moved to Israel from Iran when she was eight years old. She has had about 40 hit singles and was named Israel’s top female singer during the 60th anniversary of the country’s creation. Her planned tour includes Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Mexico City, Miami, Toronto, New York and Bethesda.
“My mother, my sister and I miss Iran so much. We would love to visit,” says Rita, who is fluent in Persian. “In Tehran, I remember eating the local ice cream, and chelo-kabab” (a popular kebab dish).
Her love of Persian music traces back to her family home at the foot of a mountain in Tehran. Her mother ran a beauty salon, sang and played the tonbak, an Iranian drum. Rita has now taken traditional melodies and added gypsy and rhythmic elements.
“Everything on this album is a memory for me,” she says.
Iranians share pride in the achievements of their countrymen, says Reza Aslan, an Iranian-U.S. writer whose book “No God But God” has been translated into Hebrew.
Many fans have added comments to Rita’s Facebook page.
“Miss Rita, you’re a source of great pride for us,” writes a fan identified as Ali F. “The beautiful and emotional songs you sing in this time of war, this crazy time of Islamic control, give an overwhelming feeling of closeness.”
Rita’s music is spreading at a time when the regime is “increasingly unpopular” and people are curious about Israel, says Meir Javendanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.
More than 20,000 copies of “My Joys” were sold in its first three weeks of release, Rita’s manager Roni Arditi says.
Rita was also motivated to make the record because of the actions of Iran’s rulers.
“I see this huge wall that the government put up between the people,” she says. “I don’t think the people want that. I’m starting to believe that we the people can scratch at that wall, or maybe make a little hole.”
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food and James Russell on architecture.
To contact the writer on the story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.