Bahman Ghobadi's drama No One Knows About Persian Cats is set in the underground rock scene of Tehran. The underground scene in Iran is no joke, prison and the lash can be expected for your troubles. Music as a whole isn't considered very favourably within the official strictures of the Islamic Republic, western music less so, and punk is essentially an enemy of the state. "Although music is halal, promoting and teaching it is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic," said the Supreme Killjoy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in 2010. This was in response to a question about classical Persian music lessons from a devout follower, the Ayatollah's answer to those looking to express themselves through rock music is decidedly less gracious. On August 16th, police raided the concert of Iranian metal band Dawn of Rage and arrested 200 fans, stripping some to look for "satanic symbols", despite permits being sought and received through the Ministry of Culture. Many bands that make music outside of the approved system, such as The Yellow Dogs featured in the film, are forced to flee or accept the full force of the government oppression when their popularity makes continuing underground impossible. However, the sheer mass of internet savvy youth and illegal satellite dishes in Iran mean they still have an impact.
Before Khamenei, at the birth of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared music to be "a drug" and proceeded to ban all types of music, instruments and music schools. "We must completely eliminate [music]," Khomeini told the Kayhan newspaper after the revolution. Despite the Ayatollah's outrage, the Qurān does not categorically condemn music. Khomeini's position was a traditionalist, reactionary interpretation based largely on the hadith. Often the conservative rulebook would dip into the bizarre, such as the decree that made chess haram until 1988; the pollution of idols, see?
In the 1980's, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) was charged with overseeing the production of music, first producing firm guidelines and then consolidating and unifying regulation and censorship in 1987 in line with post-revolutionary values. Musical instruments were only deemed acceptable for sale in 1989, when Khomeini relented on some of his absurd decrees shortly before his death. Despite gradual loosening of the rules for Persian traditional, western classical and pop music since then, only 20 percent of the music produced in Iran today is met by approval from the MCIG. Women in particular struggle under ridiculous rules; female singers can largely only accompany a male, not be the the lead or sing solo.
This is why punk is so important in Iran, because the state doesn't want it. The bombings, political deadlock and military checkpoints in Northern Ireland produced Stiff Little Fingers in 1977, giving an angry voice to the youth who'd grown up only knowing the Troubles. Having suffered for the sins of previous generations, NI youth found power and escape in punk. In Iran, the situation is similar, but the youth is bigger (70% of Iran's population are under 30 years old) and the domination of the older generation over them is even more extreme. The central philosophy of punk is the kryptonite of totalitarianism: that anyone can play, that power is yours to take, that the establishment is, by definition, wrong, and that nothing matters more than what you have to say. As the Islamic Republic rose in the 70's, so did punk. When the plans were formulated for the Guardian Council and the MCIG to take control of music, the most DIY, anti-control music was coming into fruition. Even more troubling for the Ayatollah's cronies and their arbitrary dictats is that punk becomes more attractive when there is something sizeable to fight against. Punk isn't dead, it just went to help those that needed it more.
So, on to the offending music itself.
Cheshme3vom, meaning Third Eye, formed in 2003. Here they are tearing it up at an underground gig in Tehran:
"I just don't like the way that the religion is abused in a country like Iran to enforce or to oppress the people. It's just absolutely wrong. I remember I got beat up in school in Iran, because I brought a Walkman to school. And my teacher said that it's forbidden in Islam, or by the Quran. I'm like, 'Sir, I'm pretty sure there were no Walkmans around when this book was written.' And I got my ass beat up for making that remark."
Tell me that wouldn't destroy a club floor.