Shahin Najafi: A man and his music

Iranian artist Shahin Najafi’s music may have cost him his country but has helped him find his voice

Shahin Najafi is commonly referred to as the ‘angry bard’, but those who’ve spoken to the artist know that he is anything but furious. On the contrary, the Iranian musician is soft-spoken with a raspy quality to his voice, assuring one that perhaps no other career choice would have been more suitable for him. While promoting his book When God is sleeping — a selection of his noteworthy song lyrics and poems along with autobiographical texts about his life — at the Berlin Literature Festival, he appears to have an almost resigned attitude to life, taking everything as it comes.

Najafi fled his homeland in 2005 after Iranian authorities found some of his lyrics questionable and sentenced him to three years in prison and 100 lashes. He has been living in Cologne, Germany, ever since. But it wasn’t until 2012 that Najafi generated a severe uproar once again after the release of his song ‘Naghi’, which allegedly disrespected Shia sentiments. Several Shia clerics issued fatwas against him and more than one online campaign openly advocated his assassination. Despite the death threats and heavy police protection, Najafi remains undeterred, treating his fans to concerts at whim. In the nine years since his emigration, he has made Germany his home, even though he is often on the road, performing and promoting his work.

Iranian musician Shahin Najafi who has been living in exile in Germany for the past nine years. PHOTO COURTESY: BERLIN LITERATURE FESTIVAL

In order to appreciate Najafi, one has to either accept the singer for who he is or try to understand where he is coming from. In a preface to When God is sleeping, German-Iranian politician Omid Nouripour openly writes about how he was never an immediate fan of Najafi, but gradually grew to like the musician and his music after learning about his life. Speaking about the way people perceive him and on whether the Iranian authorities might change their opinion of him, Najafi laughs heartily and shakes his head. “No. Never. I don’t think so,” he says. “I don’t like ‘hope’. I hate this word. I’m a realist and hope is not a realistic notion… If you’re hopeful, then you’re not truthful. That’s why I don’t believe in it.”

While Najafi speaks in impeccable German, he often takes long to answer. He seems to think quicker than he speaks; forming sentences long before delivering them to make sure that there are no mistakes. As the majority of Najafi’s texts are poems, this process of thinking and speaking in a non-native language also has a poetic quality. But in response to a passage from his book — about certain graves being bulldozed by the Iranian government, where even in death the dead don’t find their peace — he doesn’t pause to offer any poetic reply. He just sighs and nods.

Iranian musician Shahin Najafi who has been living in exile in Germany for the past nine years. PHOTO COURTESY: BERLIN LITERATURE FESTIVAL

These bitter experiences have left their scars, but according to Najafi, life has to go on. During his spare time, he says, “I do read books, but not as much as I watch movies. In a week, I’ll watch about three to four movies and then I’ll also read a book eventually.” He prefers recent releases as opposed to old films and doesn’t particularly like to watch Iranian films. “Iranian films are terrible. The restrictions imposed by the authorities are quite evident when you watch an Iranian film,” he says. Despite some of the industry’s resounding successes — such as director Jafar Panahi’s The Circle and filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s award-winning Manuscripts Don’t Burn — Najafi remains bluntly hostile, especially towards Panahi, despite their similar circumstances. “I don’t like Jafar Panahi. I don’t like his films. The only true filmmaker Iran has right now is Asghar Farhadi.”

But as Najafi’s event at the festival draws nearer, he loses his feisty demeanour and becomes a bit fidgety. Upon meeting his moderator, noted German journalist Knut Elstermann, and learning that Elstermann is a film critic — one of the most trusted in Berlin — he retires into a shell for good measure. He becomes noticeably monosyllabic and refuses to read from Naghi. “I hate the situation surrounding Naghi. I’m tired of talking about it,” he snaps. To be fair, talking about something over and over again can be taxing, but Naghi is what made ordinary Germans take notice of Najafi in the first place. And the attending audience would have surely expected him to recite the words that made him infamous. But Najafi does not relent, disclosing a hidden headstrong quality. Although he agrees to eventually read, it includes other passages from the book and a heartbreaking eulogy to his late mother.

What was meant to be an hour-long session ends within 40 minutes. Many are curious to know whether Najafi is always this nervous. Quite the contrary, he reveals that he is full of energy during concerts since being on stage makes him feel powerful and in control. “I’m usually this jumpy, that’s just how I am as a person.” Although, this may be hard to believe, it perhaps has something to do with him talking about books instead of music. For a man who coaxes others to leave their comfort zones, Najafi strangely does not fare too well outside his own.

Musicians in Exile

German singer-songwriter Karl Wolf Biermann was exiled from East Germany in 1976 for being a member of the Communist resistance and took refuge in West Berlin. His songs continued to influence many in East Germany and played an important role in bringing down the wall in 1989.

Kemal Kahraman was exiled from Turkey due to his association with a leftist political party. He returned to his country after 22 years in August 2014 to perform at a concert in his hometown in Dersim.

Syrian singer and song writer Asala Nasri lives in exile in Cairo for writing songs against the Syrian President Basharal Assad. She holds concerts across the globe and continues to support the uprisings against the regime through her songs.

Burmese singer Ngwe Toe fled his country after the military authorities banned traditional protest songs in favour of democracy in 1988. He sought refuge in Delhi, India, and in 2010 released a new protest album against the regime.

Schayan Riaz is a Germany-based writer. He tweets @schayanriaz 

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 12th, 2014.


najafilover | 9 years ago | Reply

Shahin is man who wants freedoms for peoples right in iran so we love him

Mokh Less | 9 years ago | Reply A man who's never been afraid of the wolves
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