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Iranians Mourn Fallen Pop Star With Puzzling Public Outpouring

Mourners pay their respects to Morteza Pashaei outside the Tehran hospital where he died on November 14. The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Widespread public grieving in Iran over the death of a popular pop star has puzzled many inside and outside the country.

Morteza Pashaei, a 30-year-old singer who released his first album only a few years ago, died of stomach cancer on November 14 at a hospital in Tehran.

Since then, thousands of Iranians across the country have taken to the streets to mourn his passing with candle vigils and renditions of his hit songs.

The crowd that gathered in the Iranian capital for Pashaei’s funeral on November 16 was so large that his burial at the Behesht Zahra cemetery was delayed by several hours, news agencies reported.

Images and videos of the funeral show men and women crying while holding his portraits.

Morteza Pashayi
Morteza Pashayi

The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election that led to the rise of the opposition Green Movement.

Iranian media have debated what exactly is driving this outpouring, which is now being called “the phenomenon of Morteza Pashaei.”

Love, Romance, And Social Media

Pashaei touched many hearts with his melancholy voice and his battle with cancer at a young age. The singer gave concerts in more than 20 small and large cities across Iran after he was diagnosed with the disease.

While many of his songs had been banned on Iran’s government-controlled television, some of his hits were broadcast on state media, reaching millions of Iranians.

“Pashei was popular, his songs are romantic, and people here are into love and romance. [Many] have memories with Pashaei’s [songs],” a Tehran-based journalist told RFE/RL, adding that social media played a role as well.

A Pashaei fan, also in Tehran, said the news of his death “exploded” on social media.

“People would post his pictures, his songs, and write sad status updates and send group messages on Viber,” the fan said, referring to a mobile app popular among Iranians. “The sadness that we felt over his death was doubled, tripled.”

She said that while many had taken to the streets to publicly display their sadness, others had joined the vigils out of curiosity.

“Many also came to the streets because, sadly, that’s the only entertainment they have and they felt maybe this is one of those occasions where the police would not take action,” one Pashaei fan told RFE/RL.

WATCH: A YouTube clip of Morteza Pashaei in concert:

Well-known sociologist Morteza Eghlima told the Aftabnews website that social restrictions were behind the public displays of grief.

“Holding such gatherings is not merely because of the death of a singer but rather because of the need to fill in leisure time and people’s need for togetherness,” he said.

Iranians don’t have any public venues to vent the negative energy that accumulates due to the lack of jobs, economic security, and peace of mind, Eghlima said.

News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.
News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.

An analyst in Tehran who did not want to be named said Iranians use every possible opportunity to reject the state-imposed ideology and culture.

“When was the last time people took to the streets for a state event without being bussed in and offered free [treats]?” the analyst said.

Power Of Popular Music

Sociologist Azar Tashakor told the “Shargh” daily that many, including herself, were startled by the reaction to Pashaei’s death.

Both government officials and intellectuals in Iran who pay little attention to popular art and music were unaware of how deeply such works resonate with broad swathes of society, Tashakor said, adding that she believes Pashaei’s cancer evoked grassroots sympathy for the singer.

“Many people or their relatives are suffering from this disease,” she said.

Afshin Davarpanah, an anthropologist, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Pashaei is seen as a symbol of Iran’s youth, which is mourning for itself in the face of many difficult problems and challenges.

“[It is] an excuse to cry for a generation whose future is the constant worry of families,” he said.

Public expressions of grief over Pashaei’s passing will soon subside, but the “secret mourning” of Iranian society will remain, Davarpahan added.

Several Iranian officials offered condolences following Pashaei’s death, as did the U.S. State Department’s Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.