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Iran: Singer Googoosh Ends 20 Years Of Silence

By Azam Gorgin

Popular Iranian singer Googoosh reappeared on stage in Canada this past weekend after being forbidden to sing in public for the last two decades. RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin reports on Googoosh's emotional return:

Prague, 1 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Legendary Iranian pop singer Googoosh was once one of the most widely heard performers in Iran.

But that was before she was silenced by the Islamic Revolution's ban on women singing to an audience of anyone beyond their immediate family. And so, for the past 21 years, Googoosh disappeared from sight for her millions of fans in Iran and Central Asia. She existed only on aging recordings of songs like "Ayriliq" (Separation), one of her most popular.

Now, in a surprising chain of events, Googoosh, age 50, has come back to the stage. In mid-June, she suddenly left Iran and came to Canada. And last weekend, she gave her first concert in two decades, appearing before a highly enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 at a stadium in Toronto.

The concert was an emotional reunion for the singer and her fans, many of whom remembered her well from their past lives in pre-revolutionary Iran. For 10 minutes as she first appeared on the stage, the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

When she began to sing, she showed she has lost none of her ability to cast a spell over her listeners. For an hour and-a-half, she revived many of her favorite hits. And she unveiled five new songs from a just recorded new album titled "Zoroaster," named after the originator of Iran's pre-Islamic religion of Zoroastrianism.

In several of her new songs, the artist made thinly-veiled criticisms of the long ban on performances she suffered over the past two decades.

In one song named after her new album's title, she asked how singing can be banned in Iran, a country where since the time of Zoroaster -- almost time immemorial -- the arts have been cultivated and revered.

Some of the words of Googoosh's new song, Zoroaster, go as follows: "I don't know what judgement is. If I sing, is it a crime? I don't sing because it's a crime."

Such lyrics hint at a new interest in social and political issues for the singer, who in the past has emphasized themes of love and beauty. But in press conferences since leaving Iran, she has stopped short of directly criticizing the Islamic Republic and said she plans to return there after completing tours and other projects abroad. She has given no precise date for her return.

Speaking at a press conference in Toronto, Googoosh said she left Iran legally and with no conditions attached by the government. She also said that she never left Iran previously, despite the ban on her singing, because she did not want to flee and be unable to return later.

"No, there was no condition (attached to my leaving Iran). Any revolution takes its toll and needs time to improve and progress. My share of this revolution was 20 years of silence and not being able to leave on the condition that I could return. I did not want to sneak out. So, I waited until I could come out legally. The situation became easier after the May 1997 election [of moderate President Mohammad Khatami]."

She told reporters that she had been out of the country at the time of the Islamic Revolution but decided to return to Iran, in spite of not knowing whether she would be killed if she came back:

"There was a curfew, things were at standstill, so I decided to come out to see my son in Europe. I was invited to attend a club's opening in the U.S., so I went to the U.S. One week lasted six months because the airports were shut down and there was a rumor I had cooperated with SAVAK and would be executed upon my return to Iran."

Later, after returning to Iran, she was imprisoned by Islamic Republic authorities. But she said the prison was not long compared to what others had suffered.

She also denied rumors that President Mohammad Khatami or other reformists helped her leave the country this year:

"Neither Mr. Khatami nor the Islamic republic has had any interference or awareness of my leaving the country. My husband and I decided to leave. Maybe we can possibly say that the issuance of my passport has something to do with reform in our country."

Googoosh now plans to perform at a series of concerts in North America, Europe, and possibly in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Tunisia. Her next concert will be in Vancouver on August 5, followed by a major concert in Los Angeles on August 9. The Los Angeles concert already is sold-out for an audience of 25,000. She has said she will use some of the money from her touring to help poverty stricken children in Iran.

The singer's surprising return to the stage abroad -- while she remains unable to perform in Iran -- is the latest chapter in a life which has always been characterized by dramatic ups and downs.

Her career began was she was very young. Her father was in show business and she accompanied him on the road. At the tender age of three she began impersonating famous singers and soon she became the sole breadwinner of the family.

But Googoosh's younger years soon took a turn for the worse. Her father married a second time and her step-mother began to abuse her. Googoosh thought marriage was her only escape and chose a cabaret owner for a husband. Instead, he only used her and took her money.

Googoosh eventually divorced and suffered two more unsuccessful marriages, one with a famous film star and the other with a wealthy businessman.

Still, her career as a singer and a film star progressed despite her personal difficulties. In 1971, at Italy's prestigious San Remo Festival, Googoosh was awarded a prize as best singer -- sealing her fame as an international singing star.

(Bruce Pannier and Charles Recknagel contributed to this report)