By Shima Shahrabi
February 25, 2020
On the night of Friday, February 21, a group of fans stood outside the hospital for so long that a doctor was forced to come out and speak for a few minutes about the health of Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the country’s most popular singer of Iranian traditional music. Earlier that night, the news of his death had circulated on social media, but the rumors were denied after a few minutes.
The singer’s son Homayoon Shajarian, a renowned singer in his own right, also emerged from the hospital for a few minutes and told his father’s fans that his condition had improved and that they must pay no attention to the rumors. He added that they could get news about his father from his official Instagram page. Homayoon wrote on the page that his father has been under special care in the hospital for the last two weeks because of a pulmonary problem due to a previous illness but his condition had begun to improve a day earlier. He also posted a picture of a display of his father’s vital signs. “In the last few years my father has avoided meeting people because of his poor health,” he wrote. “So, to give you more information about his condition, it is enough for me to post this picture of [his] vital signs monitor.”
Mohammad Reza Shajarian was born in 1940 so is now over 79 years old. Three years ago, after he canceled his Iranian new year’s concert in Armenia, he explained in a video that for 15 years he had been fighting a disease — “an uninvited guest” as he called it. In the video he looked different and had short hair and explained that his doctor had asked him to cancel his trip because of what he had observed in his MRI and said he must remain under observation.
After that, Shajarian was never seen on camera and every once in a while news emerged about his illness and times in the hospital. On Saturday, as news about his critical condition spread, many of his fans went on to Instagram, referring to him as the “Master” and the “Majestic Voice” and posting photographs of him, prayers for his recovery and poems and lyrics that he sang, all tributes to the memories he has given them.
But Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s popularity is not merely due to Iranians’ collective memory of his splendid voice and his mastery of traditional Iranian music. He has stood by the people time and again — and has paid the price. It has been exactly 10 years since the name, the face and the voice of this most popular singer of traditional Iranian music was banned from Iranian TV and been denied a permit to hold concerts in Iran. In the disputed 2009 presidential election, he stood by the people and was rewarded with the ban and by censorship. He recorded a song called “Tongue of Fire” in support of protesters and released it online. He also went further: in a letter to Ezzatolah Zarghami, head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), he asked the network to stop broadcasting his work on TV.
In the letter, he wrote that his patriotic songs, especially “Iran, The Home of Hope,” belonged to the year 1979 and had nothing to do with the current situation. At the time of the 1979 revolution, Shajarian and a group of prominent traditional Iranian musicians released a collection of songs, moved by the revolutionary atmosphere in the country at the the time.
The Proud Voice of “Dust and Trash”
At the threshold of the 2009 election and in its aftermath, Iranian state TV made extensive use of the works of Shajarian, especially “Iran, The Home of Hope” and his other songs with a patriotic theme. But Shajarian was unhappy about this move. When President Ahmadinejad called the protesters “dust and trash” after he was declared the winner of the presidential election, Shajarian told BBC in a telephone interview: “My voice is the voice of dust and trash and will always be the voice of dust of trash.” It was at that time that he asked IRIB to stop broadcasting his works. He also said that whenever he heard his voice on Iranian state TV and radio he trembled from head to toe.
It was from that time that the works of Shajarian began disappearing from state TV. He used to record a special prayer for the holy month of Ramadan and this recording had been broadcast every year, but from 2009 on IRIB stopped airing it. People protested, without results, and IRIB banned him from the airwaves completely.
In 2013, Hassan Rouhani used Shajarian’s name and works in his presidential campaign and played one of his songs on a campaign video that was broadcast by IRIB, but afterwards Iranian TV again banned Shajarian from the airwaves. IRIB officials have repeatedly asked him to apologize for what he has said but Shajarian has refused to answer them.
After 2009 Shajarian did not even succeed in getting a permit to release an album until 2017 when, after returning from a visit to the United States for medical treatment, his album The Way of Love came out. The album was a collection of songs that Shajarian had performed in Europe in 1988 with the Aref Ensemble under the direction of Parviz Meshkatian.
However, Shajarian was unable to participate in the ceremony to celebrate the album’s unveiling and it fell to his son Homayoon to sing in the ceremony instead of his father. “Unfortunately he cannot leave home because of his physical condition,” his son told the audience. The same year his name was put on the honors list of Fajr Festival, which is held every year on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, but Mohammad Reza Shajarian refused to accept this honor. People, however, have continued to honor him, from campaigns on social media to celebrate his birthdays to gathering outside the hospital to express their worries about his health.