Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian writes on his time in Evin Prison, and discusses music as a form of resistance in the Middle East.
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When I was in Evin Prison, I spent two years in the general ward, three months in solitary confinement, and forty days on hunger strike. I lost 15kg of my weight, my stomach bled, and I approached death. There are two things I think a human being shouldn’t have to experience: one is solitary confinement, which kills one’s soul, and the other is a hunger strike, which kills one’s body. Before I experienced either, the Iranian authorities put me in a cell with a group of Somali men accused of being pirates – something they thought would be a punishment. The group’s leader gave me a hand-written poem, which I was able to share online. After such an experience, one cannot be a regular person. One can’t ignore what happens in the world. We’ve crossed our own lives – our bodies and our souls – for the freedom of art.
I was eventually released from Evin on probation, and given a three-year suspended prison sentence – something Iran’s regime is able to enact at any time. I remain on a no-fly list, and all of my belongings remain seized. With the total restriction of my civil rights, my release just felt like a transfer to a much larger prison. To escape, I turned to the freedom of creating music.
With 100 artists from twelve countries, I produced Middle Eastern, an album that carried the messages of peace, freedom, human rights, and no war. My musicians have never met but, if you listen to the tracks, you can feel the connection. We’re all suffering from the same disease, which has spread its infection across the Middle East.
Our world is full of artistic emotion and technique. Today, only an extraordinary artwork can make an audience surprised. Because, today, we are numb to that which is happening around us. People in Iran march to see an execution happening in the street. What kind of a filmmaker or musician can simulate this scene with the same feelings and sorrows? When we hear a refugee wailing on a border, what kind of a melody should we, as musicians, use to represent the heaviness of pain?
Because to be avant-garde is to fight, always, against systems of power; is to fight, always, for awareness and enlightenment through art.
The world is full of emotion and technique, and art gets nowhere without having a message or philosophy. In Middle Eastern we tried to convey many. They boil down to two words: ‘no’ and ‘why’. Everything happening in the Middle East ends with these two words. The eleven tracks all have their own story, but they are all concerned with these two words; they share a larger story that begins with track #1 and ends with track #11. With the paintings by Zehra Doğan that accompany each song, our message and our philosophy are all the stronger.
Dictatorships are afraid of awareness and enlightenment; art and music bring about their fears. If you read biographies of avant-garde artists, you find them always under the pressure of their governments. Because to be avant-garde is to fight, always, against systems of power; is to fight, always, for awareness and enlightenment through art.
In Evin, I had a cellmate – a human rights activist – who also went on hunger strike. When that activist, my friend, died whilst on his strike, no one covered his story. Us artists owe him a duty.
We are all tormented by the same pain, and music is a common language for conveying our message and our suffering.
In this period of time and history, Middle Eastern felt like a necessary project: a project with a middle-eastern point of view, with perspectives from across its many countries; a project with a middle-eastern language, which could carry our philosophy. We are all tormented by the same pain, and music is a common language for conveying our message and our suffering.
Myself, Zehra Doğan, and Reza Deqhati – who produced the cover art for Middle Eastern – have all been imprisoned for our crafts. We all continue to create. Oppression may not stop, but nor does art, and nor can it. Artists must fight anything that violates the consciousness of humanity; must fight to bring truth to society. No word is more beautiful than the truth. Middle Eastern aims to tell it, find it, fight for it. This is our message of peace, our philosophy of peace. It starts from Turkey and goes from chest to chest and ends with a scream in Iran.
Mehdi Rajabian is from northern Iran. He started releasing his songs at 17. His art is prohibited in Iran, and between May 2015 and June 2017 he was imprisoned for his activities as a musician. Despite being subsequently banned from making music, he produced Middle Eastern, an album released in 2019 by Sony Music Entertainment that features 100 musicians from across twelve countries in the Middle East.