The real reason why Persian Jews became musicians

Why did the father of Danielle and Galeet Dardashti leave Iran? The mystery is unravelled in their six-episode JTA podcast, The Nightingale of Iran . The podcast tells the story of Iranian Jews through the experience of the Jewish Dardashti family, originally from the ghetto or mahaleh of Isfahan. They now live in the USA.

The grandfather of the Dardashti girls, Younes, was a former hazan or cantor who became a national celebrity thanks to his extraordinary voice.  Muslims in Iran went wild for the ‘Nightingale of Iran.’ He had his own weekly primetime spot on national radio, he sang at the Shah’s palace and at prestigious concert halls throughout Iran.

Jews, however, were less enthusiastic.  Even Jewish musicians would not let their children learn music. Some did not even want instruments in the house.

Younes’s son Farid, also demonstrated a publically-recognised musical talent as a teenage radio and TV star, but had ambitions to study architecture in the US rather than make a career of singing.

In Episode 3, Danielle and Galeet uncover the real reason why Iranian Jews did not want their children to go into show business.

To be a motreb (entertainer) was viewed as a demeaning profession, akin to pimping or prostitution. It recalls the traditional western view that acting was not a respectable profession.

The stigma against Muslims playing anything other than  liturgical music arose during Iran’s Safavid dynasty, when Shi’a Islam became the state religion.  Shi’ism outlawed music for entertainment as haram. Thus the Iranian musical tradition became a non-Muslim preserve, practised by Jews and Armenians. (This was also the case in Shi’a Iraq, where Jews dominated music into the 20th century).

Jews were viewed by Shi’a Islam as najas or unclean. A Jew could not go out in the rain lest water splashed on from him to a passing Muslim. Jews could not handle vegetables in the market lest they contaminate the produce.

Because of the stigma against Jewish musicians, Younes never accepted payment for his singing, although it was his main activity. Cheques were paid to him as an employee of Iranian National Railways, where he had started his career.

When his son, Farid, born in 1942,  became a celebrity in his own right, he too refused payment. Instead he was ‘paid’ in gifts, suits and furniture.

In the mid-20th century, Iran liberalised under the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and emancipated Jews could move out of their ghettoes, pursue education and enjoy more career opportunities. The Jewish stigma against music remained.

Was antisemitism a factor in Farid’s departure for the US? Farid could hardly recall a single instance while he lived in Iran. The exception was an argument he had as a child when a Muslim boy slapped him across the face. Could Farid’s naturally sunny and positive nature have made him deny antisemitism ?   But Farid’s brother Yadid tells his nieces that antisemitism was all around: it was more prevalent in smaller towns. At school he recalled fights between Jewish and Muslim boys.

The suppression of unpleasant memories is a recognised phenomenon among Jews who want to protect themselves and their children from the negative when they recall their lives in Arab and Muslim countries. This has served to downplay the antisemitism they experienced and distort the historical record. The Dardashti sisters deserve credit for their determination to dig beneath the surface – and discover the uncomfortable truth.


About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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