The one-time underground pop singer smiled shyly as the high-pitched screams of his teenage fans drifted into his dressing room, just before his show in Tehran last week. This superstar thing, he seemed to be saying, takes some getting used to.
“Xaniar! Xaniar! Xaniar!” the crowds roared from the auditorium in North Tehran.
In 15 minutes, Xaniar Khosravi, 29, an Iranian-Kurdish performer whose upbeat music was long deemed by Iran’s powerful Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture as illegal for being too Western, would step onto a stage before thousands of fans for his second official concert ever (the first was the night before).
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Khosravi was more accustomed to hearing his songs, distributed on the Internet, blasting from cars on Tehran’s crowded streets. His voice was famous, but only a few knew his face.
“I was like a football player without a pitch to play on,” Khosravi said of his days as an illegal singer. “I had no album, just a collection of songs and no concerts. It was as if I had no identity.”
That had all changed with a ministry official’s stroke of a pen, the singer’s assistants explained while nipping from strawberry mocktails in the VIP room next to the auditorium where Khosravi’s entourage had set up shop.
Nobody really wanted to say it, as politics is a subject to avoid for the few who are allowed to stand in the limelight in Iran, but Khosravi’s presence on the stage was the direct result of the election of Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate, as president in June. During his campaign, Rouhani repeatedly called for more artistic freedoms.
“Let’s just say that before no official would even meet with me,” Khosravi said. “But now I am allowed to have four concerts.”
Despite Khosravi’s new concert career, Rouhani supporters have been disappointed at the slow pace of change, with few other signs of cultural relaxation in Iran’s capital. A woman singer was allowed to sing a song by herself in a musical, In the Last Days of Esfand, a first in the Islamic republic’s 35-year history. Several reformist newspapers were closed by the conservative judiciary and remain shuttered, and social media and millions of websites are still blocked.
Khosravi’s concert, therefore, was mostly a chance to do something different in this city of 12 million, an opportunity quickly seized by Iran’s entertainment-starved young people.
Hundreds of boys wearing baseball caps and girls covered with brightly coloured headscarves waited excitedly in front of the hall, having been dropped off by parents who in all likelihood also shelled out the $20 cost of a ticket.
Chewing gum and texting on their smartphones, few of them could recall the days when hard-line vigilantes raided pop concerts, calling the events “harbingers of a Western cultural invasion” and at times attacking the audience members.
The fact that Khosravi was allowed to perform was widely perceived as a miracle.
“We never expected him to be able to give a concert,” said Yasaman Tehrani, 21, an engineering student. “He changed some lyrics for his songs to be more acceptable. I don’t care as long as we can enjoy ourselves.”
When the gates opened, they all rushed in, but only after having passed a gate where a policeman checked all the headscarves to make sure they did not reveal too much hair.
Kimia Faroghi, a 17-year-old high school student, said that she hoped that someday her favourite American singers, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, would give a concert in Tehran.
Khosravi kicked off the evening with one of his hits, Genuine Idea. Dancing, or “harmonious movements” to the ruling Shiite Muslim clerics, is forbidden in Iran, so everybody rocked in their seats, waving their arms during the more rhythmic songs.
“It’s just you in my thoughts, I’m looking for a genuine idea, I want to be in your heart forever,” sang Khosravi, who is married.
“We love you Xaniar!” the girls screamed.