Jailed for making music, one Iranian composer's quest for peace
'No artist should go to prison for their art.' — Mehdi Rajabian
In early 2007, composer and musician Mehdi Rajabian was just 17 years old, an activist and an artist with a vision. He was already an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, trained in the classical Persian setar and piano, but he wanted to do more.
Rajabian founded Barg Music that year, working specifically with underground and restricted artists in Iran, and particularly with women vocalists. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iranian women have been legally forbidden from performing solo, except when performing for female audiences.
"Their voice is prohibited in music and we could really feel that void," Rajabian tells CBC Music via email. "Just think that for many years, a respected lady musician practises hard for her music, but there are restrictions, she cannot produce any music. I felt like I could found a base in order to support them [and help] their voice reach their audience."
Barg Music was popular and thriving, and Rajabian was at work on an album called History of Iran Narrated by Setar, about Iran's history of wars with other countries, but it all came to a halt on Oct. 5, 2013, when Revolutionary Guards seized Rajabian's office, his recordings, all the files, and shut down the company's website. The company was accused of the online distribution of "underground music, including many whose lyrics and messages were deemed offensive to the Iranian authorities or the country's religion."
The only hope a prisoner has is not to be forgotten while being inside.— Mehdi Rajabian
Now, six years after his first arrest, Rajabian is just 29 years old. His music is banned in Iran, and he's suffered through two jail terms, solitary confinement and a hunger strike. But through it all, he managed to write and produce Middle Eastern, a record with multiple artists from the Middle East, many of whom have never met before, but all of whom share Rajabian's belief in the power and possibility of peace and freedom in music, something he has carried with him since childhood.
"The most notable memory of music from my childhood is that I could see music, rather than hearing it solely," Rajabian says. "I would always imagine music as a mixture of colour, pictures and narrations. This visual image was an excuse for me to look upon music for the sake of the message it carries. I think music gets real to the musician and listener when it is injected with a message which will use music as a vessel to echo, to start a conversation in listeners' minds and shed light upon imaginations."
That seed is what bloomed into Barg Music, and supporting restricted artists. "It's truly hard for me to see an artist in restrictions, not being able to create his or her art," Rajabian says. "I still do whatever I can for them."
After he was arrested in 2013, Rajabian says he spent 90 days in solitary confinement. He says he was blindfolded and didn't even know where he was being held. He was released on bail, but in 2015, after a three-minute trial, Rajabian, along with his filmmaker brother, Hossein Rajabian, and their friend Yousef Emadi, were found guilty of "'insulting Islamic sanctities', 'spreading propaganda against the system' and 'illegal audio-visual activities' for the distribution of music unlicensed by the cultural ministry."
They were sentenced to six years each, but those sentences were subsequently commuted to three years of jail and three years suspended sentence, and Rajabian says his music is banned forever. He was released in 2017 after two years in prison, and immediately hospitalized, in part due to illnesses for which Rajabian says he was refused treatment while in prison, and in part because of health issues resulting from a brutal and lengthy hunger strike he undertook to highlight his unjust conviction and his prison conditions.
"I went on a hunger strike because they neglected to treat my illness," Rajabian says. "I got horribly ill while in prison, and as a torture they wouldn't treat me. Then I decided to go on a hunger strike, for this and for the unjustified sentence. I'm still under treatment for this, because unfortunately I took heavy damage as I was on it for around 40 days and I lost 15 kilograms. The hunger strike caused me sight problems. Those were such hard days. Hunger strike is the last strike for a prisoner, meaning one ignores their own life."
Rajabian's plight attracted attention from human rights activists and organizations around the world, including support from high-profile artists like Ai Weiwei and Peter Gabriel. "The only hope a prisoner has is not to be forgotten while being inside," Rajabian says.
Upon his release, Rajabian quickly realized that he didn't have "any citizen rights, such as going to college or getting out of Iran." He's banned from flying, and he's restricted from making music in his own country — not that it has stopped him.
"Still with all this I managed to create an album along with 12 other countries of the Middle East," Rajabian says.
He conceived Middle Eastern in prison, and it was released through Sony on March 15, 2019. It's an impossibly ambitious project uniting multiple musicians from 12 countries, but none of them sharing the same space at any time. It's a deeply hopeful, healing and resilient project, too, as Rajabian told the Independent: "The only point here is peace, comfort for the Middle East." But recording and releasing Middle Eastern is also dangerous considering the restrictive conditions to which Rajabian is subject following his release.
"Even native publishers are afraid to cooperate with me," Rajabian explains. "Musicians are afraid to play music for my projects. Iranian authorities isolate people like me. So we can only stay at home and do nothing. For the pressures from the regime, people are afraid to talk to me so, for this, one gets automatically banned from everywhere and everything."
The restrictions are inconvenient, but they're not a deterrent. "I feel like as a musician, I have to carry this call along with all the countries of this land, through music. Because music is a common language, and is a good excuse to unite our nations to carry a message of peace together."
Syrian musician and composer Mohamad Fityan collaborated with Turkish musician Arslan Hazreti for their Middle Eastern track, "Turkey & Syria." The tune is achingly beautiful but also abrasive, invoking a tense kind of longing that's rooted in both sorrow and hope. Fityan believes in the message behind the album, and was eager to represent Syria in a multicultural peace project. He says that for years he's seen firsthand what war in Syria has wrought, and this collaboration with Hazreti is influenced by his experience, but inspired by his own quest for peace.
"I hope this album will reach all the people in the world," Fityan says. "Especially those who could also be affected, and try to bring this world together and make it better."
Palestinian musician Wassim Qassis echoes Fityan's motivations for joining Rajabian's Middle Eastern. Qassis and Iraqi musician Basem Hawwar's contribution to the album, "Iraq & Palestine," is urgent and frenzied and then slows down just a fraction to become mesmerizing and seductive. Bringing together multiple artists from all over the Middle East, Qassis says, "is like a shout for stopping the war against us."
Qassis dreams of a day when his life is not directly or indirectly ruled by conflict, when he's free to venture into different thematic territory.
"With no doubts, censorship, conflict and war affect the musician's life or professional life by limiting his creativity and his freedom of expression, his artwork and production," Qassis says. "For example, if we didn't live in war, maybe we gather together and do a different album which can speak about love, or about human beings in general, but you cannot go out sometimes from the dominant situations you live in."
"World peace is the great dream," Egyptian musician Mohamed Saed sums it up simply. "People deserve to live in safety and stability without fear."
Saed's Middle Eastern contribution, "Egypt," is almost cinematic in its scope, lush and grand but also a little playful, making it a notable standout among the 11 tracks. Saed credits music with helping him make sense of what's going on inside himself since childhood, and he's poured his perpetual dream of world peace into this song. Music has been a space of healing for Saed, and he hopes "Egypt" and its message will find a home in the hearts of people all over the world.
Qassis shares Saed's hopes, and he has an equally ambitious goal of his own.
"My dream is to meet altogether the artists who participated in this project on one stage and play our pieces in a live concert," Qassis says. "I want listeners to get our message from Middle East, encourage them to come visit the Middle East, and know more about Middle East as we know about other regions and countries too."
Rajabian also hopes the record can offer more insights into the Middle East, making space for the different realities of the artists and contributors, and how most people have the same desires as everybody else: safety, shelter, food, community.
"One of our musicians produced his song while being under bombardments, hearing the bombs being exploded," Rajabian says. "One of them created his melody in the middle of the sea, while on a boat, escaping his country. Our musician from Yemen created his art while being under poverty. This album is filled with agonies the Middle East is suffering from. Even from this terrible situation we're in, we tried to transfer a message of peace and friendship to the world, and we hope we could achieve our goal via music. And of course this album for me is a way I can fight censorship and restrictions…. In the eye of Iran's regime, it's a felony for me to talk to you.... We're fighting and creating music in such situations."
Feminist artist and journalist Zehra Doğan has also been inspired to participate in Middle Eastern. In 2017, she was sentenced to almost three years in prison in Turkey for "terrorist propaganda" because of her news coverage, and for sharing a painting she'd made on social media. The painting depicted the destruction of Nusaybin, a town in Turkey, following the conflicts between Kurdish insurgents and state security forces. Doğan's imprisonment sparked international criticism and her plight became the focus of a Banksy street mural in New York City. She was released from prison this past February, and has now committed to create 11 paintings, one for each song on the Middle Eastern album.
Rajabian is grateful for the trust of the musicians who participated in Middle Eastern, as well as Doğan's support now that the project is publicly available, all of which possibly make Rajabian and his collaborators bigger targets.
"If I get arrested again for this album, I'll work on my next project in prison," Rajabian says. "I fight through creating music, and music can never be stopped…. I hope for a day when we don't need to create music for our simplest needs and human rights. I truly ask every person, activists and human rights organizations to work for music freedom and support independent artists. No artist should go to prison for their art, and none of them should lose their life or go on a hunger strike."
Rajabian is free for now, but he says he doesn't know what will happen next. Any day someone could come and drag him back to jail.
"Uncertainty is a kind of torture, and nothing is clear," Rajabian says. "But my lawyer is working on my case." He's lost years of his life and his good health to prison, but even now that's not what bothers Rajabian the most.
"The biggest pain for me is that I can't publish my works in my own country, so my people can hear it. This makes me really sad."
Click here to order Middle Eastern.
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