By Parvaneh Masoumi
December 17, 2021
Ghazal and Maral Abbaspour are twin sisters. Since childhood, they have expressed their love for life through music and Iranian dance. Both teach their art to others too. Theirs has been a life of adventure: from life on the road in a van, to crossing the red lines the Islamic Republic sets for women. The pair recently emigrated to Turkey and told IranWire about their journey so far.
Ghazal was too shy a child to dance, even at family gatherings. Like many Iranian women and girls, she was not comfortable with attention being paid to her body. Things changed, over time, after she reached adolescence. “I never danced when I was a child because I wasn’t comfortable with my body,” she says. “Society had taught us that a woman’s body was somehow forbidden; it’s not easy to forget such ‘lessons’. When I was a teenager I would dance to music in solitude, with my headscarf in my hand. It was a kind of dance I’d invented myself. Years later, after I’d started to dance professionally, I would film myself. As I got better and watched the videos, I got comfortable with my body. One of my issues with girls who want to become artists is the same problem as I had: they are not comfortable with their own bodies. They always squeeze their shoulders together. I tell them, relax your shoulders, and be comfortable with your body.”
Since dancing is forbidden in the Islamic Republic, Ghazal couldn’t study it in college. She opted to continue with music instead, but “little by little, I found out it wasn’t enough of an outlet for the energy inside me. My character was such that I couldn’t find pleasure in sitting in a corner and playing an instrument. My mind was still preoccupied by the difference between what I liked and what I was studying at university when I first met my dancing teacher, Ms. Helia Bandeh. She lived abroad but had come to Iran to hold a dance workshop.
“I enthusiastically took part. Traditional Iranian dance appealed to me because it was accompanied by the classical music. As well as dance practice I also did pilates to enhance my body’s flexibility. After years of practice, I was ready to dance professionally. But of course, I couldn’t, because teaching and learning how to dance is illegal in Iran. So I taught music to children instead. Of course, I never abandoned dancing.”
Dancing the Sufi Way
Ghazal is also good at sama, the Sufi practice of listening to music, chanting poetry and whirling around to achieve a mystical, trance-like state. Her interest in sama was sparked by her deep love of poetry, and she learned it by watching video tutorials on YouTube. At first it made her dizzy and nauseous but gradually, sama became part of her life. “I am infatuated with poetry, an infatuation that my father helped to grow in me,” she says. “We were at the second grade when my father gave us the Shahnameh [The Book of Kings, the Persian national epic, by the 10th-century poet and man of letters Abolghasem Ferdowsi], and told us to read it and separate out the names of the men and women. We were children and had no idea what this was about; we saw it as a game, and read Ferdowsi’s poetry enthusiastically to find the names. Little by little, poetry became a part of our lives. I always take refuge in the poetry of Molana [Jalal al-Din Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet] when I’m in pain. The bond between sama and Molana is unbreakable. You must stay connected and not be afraid, because you can never engage in sama if you are afraid of falling down. I always remind my students that you must have faith in yourself to do sama. The first time I did sama was with a piece of Azeri music I liked. That music brought me into a rapture, and I was unafraid. Sama has also influenced other aspects of my life; I’m not as scared to face problems as I was in the past.”
As a dancer and a woman, Ghazal faced untold difficulties in Iran. She ended up emigrating to Turkey in order to teach dance and give live performances. “In Iran there is no specific space for teaching dance. Gyms are for sports, and the people who go there have different goals, so I found they couldn’t serve my purpose. What was more, I couldn’t publicly advertise for students. My parents and my friends always cautioned me about posting videos online. On top of that, I wasn’t allowed to perform in public; that’s where most of the enjoyment of dancing comes from. So I decided to move to Turkey. I wanted to be free to dance in the street, to any kind of music. Here I do sama in the street. It fills me with joy that I can twirl freely.”
A Promise, and Reunion in Gilan
Ghazal’s twin sister Maral was born five minutes before her. His father, a lover of poetry, and their mother, skilled in music, sent them to music classes when they were seven years old. While Ghazal went into dancing, Maral continued with music and in 2014 she came first in the annual National Festival of Youth Music.
“There was no music school in our province,” she says, “so we went to Tehran and I was accepted by Tehran Music School. We even rented a place there, but because of some family problems we then had to return to our city.
“I registered to study applied sciences at high school. When it was time for the university entrance exam I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I wanted to take it for the arts. We both had high grade point averages and there was a lot of pressure on us to go for applied sciences. I was studying for the exams when my music teacher suggested that I participate in the National Festival of Youth Music; I came first in the city of Gorgan and got to the contest at provincial level. After I won there, I had to go to Neishabur for the national competition. Before it started I promised myself that if I won, I’d take the university entrance exam for the arts.
“For the first time I was separated from Ghazal, and went to Neishabur. I played Autumn [video] by Master Parviz Meshkatian, which I find very nostalgic. I came first at the national level as well and, as I’d promised myself, I took the entrance exam for the arts. I scored high and was accepted into Gilan University. A year later, Ghazal also enrolled in Lahijan Azad University’s school of music, and so she came to Gilan as well.”
Forbidden “Propaganda” for Music
Even though Maral was studying music, she couldn’t enter the university grounds through the main gate with her instrument. Music students were not even allowed to carry instruments in the cafeteria. “If I wanted to go to another faculty to meet my friends,” Maral recalls, “the security staff would stop me as though I were carrying a gun. They’d say in a very ugly tone, ‘Go and stash your instrument somewhere, then come back.’ We were not even allowed to enter our own college through the front door with our instruments. There was a tiny door at the back, half a meter above the ground, that wasn’t easy to use but we had to enter through there. If we used the main door it was considered a kind of ‘propaganda for music’.
“We were not considered ‘normal’ students. Once, a video of us was posted online that showed male and female students playing together. The security department confronted us and after that, female students were no longer allowed to perform in front of others. Also, officially, men weren’t allowed to teach [female students] anything related to singing. When we chose our modules, a woman was listed as the course tutor when in reality male professors were doing the teaching. The music faculty managed to bypass some of the restrictions. The government does not want the field of music to flourish, so it puts many obstacles in the way.”
Never Too Late
Maral believes women in Iran have less self-confidence when it comes to playing music because of having been brought up in a patriarchal society. “Female students play in a style different to that of the men,” she says. “Once I was playing in a classroom. A classmate of mine opened the door. She was surprised to see me and said ‘I thought a boy was playing’ – because I played with confidence and vigor. I always tell female students to strum the plectrum firmly.”
Maral plays the santur (a hammered dulcimer), harp and kalimba to a professional level and has been teaching music to others since she was 18. “I enjoy it a lot when the student sees she can play a song that she likes with practice. Once, this mother, who loved the santur, had bought one for her child – but the child had no interest in music. When she saw the santur was sitting idle, she began to learn it herself. She’s very talented and persevering, and has now become a professional musician. The first step she took was for her child but in the end, she fulfilled her own long-held wish.
“I have many such memories. There are housewives who underestimate themselves and believe it’s too late for them to learn, but on taking the course, their self-esteem, even their manner of speech changes.”
Life on the Road
After graduating from college, Ghazal and Maral decided to try an itinerant life for a while. They bought a van, fitted it out and embarked on a six-month tour of cities along the coast of the Caspian Sea, covering their living expenses by selling handicrafts. “Living in a van in Iran is very difficult because you have to wear hijab all the time,” says Ghazal. “Sometimes police would come to inspect the van. We lied and said we sold falafel.”
Maral has also driven a motorbike on Iran. Women are officially not allowed to ride motorcycles and so she concealed her identity by dressing as a boy. “When I went to a gas station and took off my helmet, everybody looked at me in shock; some people filmed me. The traffic police in Rasht were very nice, and if they found out that I was a girl they’d either wave at me or tell me not to worry and to continue on my way. I couldn’t park it in the alleyway [by our home] because if it was stolen I wouldn’t be able to go to the police, so I had to leave it in the hallway.”
After the outbreak of coronavirus, the Abbaspour sisters put their music and dance classes on hold. Unaccustomed to online teaching, they decided to do something different, setting up a small ceramics workshop to make ends meet. “Making ceramics takes a lot of physical power,” Maral says. “We had to lift molds that weighed 20kg by themselves. We sat next to the oven for more than 12 hours at a time to make sure it wouldn’t go out and destroy the pottery. Sometimes we thought the pandemic would never end, that we’d never leave the village. But after many moths, the borders reopened. We’d already decided to emigrate to Turkey to experience a life of freedom, and so we departed.”
Maral believes everyone should be given the chance to learn music, because of the influence it has on all other aspects of life. She is teaching again now, while Ghazal is travelling, bringing the traditional Iranian dances she learned to others around the world.