It was going to be another chance for fans to see the legendary Iranian singer named Googoosh, but the U.S.-led war on terrorism has had unintended consequences on Tehran's most popular artists, who are finding it almost impossible to practice their craft in the United States. Googoosh was scheduled to perform Saturday at the Arena in Oakland, CA, at a concert expected to draw a capacity crowd of thousands. Instead, she sits at home still waiting for her visa request to be approved by the U.S. State Department. The concert has been canceled.
A visa process that once took a few weeks now takes months, denying artists like Googoosh and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami a chance to appear for scheduled visits at major events. Kiarostami, one of Iran's greatest filmmakers, whose works like "Taste of Cherry" have won international prizes at Cannes and other film festivals, was denied a visa to attend this month's New York Film Festival.
The United States has long designated Iran as a state sponsor of international terrorism, and President Bush has called the country (along with Iraq and North Korea) part of a worldwide "axis of evil." The increased scrutiny of visa requests from Iranian nationals is a necessary facet of the war on terrorism, says Stuart Patt, spokesman for the consular affairs bureau of the State Department.
"People are going to be inconvenienced at the cost of national security," Patt says. "Unfortunately, there have been some instances where concert dates have been missed."
Googoosh says she is disappointed and troubled by the visa problems that forced Saturday's cancellation. Others say that the U.S. government's new policies are suffocating any chance of understanding between Americans and Iranian artists. New York Film Festival director Richard Pena has called the new policies "very shortsighted and counterproductive -- especially at a time when we need more contact with the Muslim world, particularly their finest artists and thinkers."
Googoosh is Iran's most popular female singer -- and somone who (like Kiarostami) is known around the world. As a singer and actress in the '60s and '70s, she dominated Iranian pop culture. Farsi-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan embraced her with fervor, and at least one of Googoosh's songs in English rose through the European charts in the '70s.
Unlike Kiarostami, however, Googoosh left the public eye. After the Iranian revolution, in fact, she was a virtual hostage in her own country for 21 years,
silenced by mullahs who rejected her popular, nonreligious music. From 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, until two years ago, when she was finally allowed to leave Tehran, she did not perform publicly. Her appeal, though, only seemed to deepen during her decades away from the stage. Among the Iranian expatriate community in Los Angeles and elsewhere, including the Bay Area, she is an iconic figure.
"She is an absolutely stunning phenomenon," says Hamid Debashi, chairman of the Middle Eastern languages and culture department at Columbia University and an expert on Iran. "It's important to remember that the younger generation also identifies with her, which is a peculiar case. They want to connect to their parents' (prerevolutionary) culture. When Googoosh emerged, her audiences were the Baby Boomers of my generation. They are now in middle age and (attending her concerts) was a way to reconnect with their youth back in Iran."
Googosh embarked on a worldwide comeback tour that stretched from 2000 to 2001 and never returned to Iran. She now lives in Toronto, where she waits anxiously to be reunited with her husband, filmmaker Massoud Kimiai, whose life has also been interrupted by visa problems. Iranian authorities refused to let Kimiai leave the country after he returned there six months ago -- apparently in retaliation for Googoosh's comeback tour. Googoosh believes Tehran's fundamentalist clerics are still upset that she sang in makeup and evening gowns to hundreds of thousands of fans, many of them men. In Iran, female singers can't perform publicly in front of men. Googoosh fears she might be arrested if she returns to Iran.
"I miss my country -- I would love to go back," she says.
Though Googoosh's fans won't be able to see her in Oakland (ticket-holders for Saturday's canceled concert can get refunds at the point of purchase), they have outlets on the Internet, where they can visit scores of Web sites devoted to her music. Googoosh, 52, is working to start her own site (www.googoosh.com) in the next 4-6 weeks. For two years, Googoosh's fans have also been able to see her story on film, in the documentary "Googoosh: Iran's Daughter," which was made by Farhad Zamani, an Iranian American filmmaker.
Googoosh, whose real name is Faegheh Atashin, sings mainly in Farsi but also occasionally in English, Spanish, Armenian and other languages. Her songs are a mix of ballads, Persian poetry and orchestral pieces that borrow from flamenco and other musical styles. Western observers have compared her to a variety of artists, including Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf and Madonna, but Googoosh's voice may be most akin to that of Piaf's: passionate and rich with feeling and emotion, but not overwhelming.
At the height of Googoosh's popularity in the '70s, her fans would mimic anything she did. If she cut her hair a certain way, legions of women would cut theirs the same way. Many Iranian mothers named their children Googoosh. She is trying to live a normal life in Toronto, where she has family and a growing number of fans who stop her on the street for autographs.
"In the area where I live there is an Iranian community all around," Googoosh says. "They are very polite and very reasonable. I'm trying to feel more comfortable here."