Googoosh, an exiled Iranian superstar

The singer was banned from performing 30 years ago, but that doesn't stop her from drawing a crowd in Ottawa

Iranian pop diva Googoosh during a concert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on July 29, 2000. (Kevin Frayer/CP)

I had never heard of the Iranian singing and acting diva Googoosh before I went to Iran in 2004, and then all at once she was everywhere. Not on television, in theatres, or on billboards — the woman also known as Faegheh Atashin was banned from performing with the advent of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, at the height of her career, and disappeared from Iranian pubic life. But even while silenced, her fame didn’t diminish in Iran or among Iranians in the diaspora.

I spent a couple of days in Esfahan with a 40-year-old man and his elderly father. When I met them they seemed eager to flout as many Islamic conventions as they could in one evening: flipping through the channels of their satellite television until it showed pornography, and pouring many glasses of smuggled Kurdish moonshine mixed with Mecca-Cola. The younger man later introduced me to Googoosh with a bootlegged video of one of her pre-Revolution concerts in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Walking back to my guesthouse, we passed a group of scruffy-looking men under the beautifully arched Khaju Bridge. In another country I might have assumed they were drunks. But they had gathered there for the acoustics and were singing songs by Googoosh.

Googoosh left Iran in 2000 and launched a comeback tour that filled stadiums around the world. She has been performing off and on ever since, though never in Iran. The closest she has come in Dubai and the Kurdish region or Iraq, attracting thousands of Iranians who left their country to see her.

Last weekend she sang at the National Art Centre in Ottawa, where I finally got a chance to find out what all the fuss is about.

The place felt like a Persian wedding. The lobby was full of women in tight sequined dresses and carefully styled hair. There were a few women wearing hijabs as well, and quite a lot of children. Whole families came together. Everyone seemed thrilled to be there, and many posed for photographs to prove it.

“Look at all the women here,” said one woman, gesturing at the glamour around her. “This is what it was like before the Revolution.”

“Why don’t you ask me about my dream?” said Arpi Shahbazian, an Armenian-Iranian from Tehran. “It is just to talk to her for two seconds. She was the best. She’s like Madonna, like Celine Dion. Even my granddaughter who is ten years old likes her.”

Trying to explain how Googoosh remained popular during the two decades she didn’t sing, one Iranian woman described her as “our flesh and blood.” Her fans played her old cassettes privately at parties, she said, and remembered. “They just kept her alive in their hearts.”

Googoosh’s songs are not political, though one man said her appeal can partly be explained by the nostalgia she evokes for an Iran that no longer exits.

Yet her music also resonates with people from throughout Central Asia. I ran into two Afghan families — one large and multi-generational, the other Hakim and Nahid Azizi, a husband and wife who had driven from New York. Hakim grew up listening to Googoosh in his boyhood home of Herat.

As for the concert itself, it would have been difficult not to enjoy myself given how much fun everyone around me was visibly having.

Googoosh took to the stage in a long and glittery black skirt and white blouse, her blonde hair tied loosely behind her. Occasionally she would be moved to dance, rolling her shoulders and rotating her wrists in a Persian style that drew enormous cheers from the audience. She fronted a large, tight, multi-ethnic band. The man playing various wind instruments was from Venezuela and did things with a flute that I doubt Jimmy Hendrix would have attempted on guitar.

I don’t understand Farsi, so no doubt missed an element in her music. But her voice is expressive, soaring and powerful. Her stage presence is melodramatic in the best sense of the word: everything about her is big and emotive, without unraveling into overwrought kitsch. Before the concert, I thought I might slip out during the intermission. Once it began this seemed a ridiculous idea.

Googoosh finished in a crescendo and left the stage, audience members calling after her. A woman in the row of seats in front of me turned around. “Now do you understand?” she asked. I think so.

Here’s a recent Googosh music video, from her 2012 album Ejaz.

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