“When you’re moving with the people, your position is clear,” he said. “The people know what they want.”
That he so often drew from the mystical tradition of Persian poetry for his lyrics was not an accident; it allowed him to offer subversive political commentary while maintaining an air of deniability. The poetry of the likes of Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez is so nearly universally revered that even arch-conseratives can’t fault it. And in an Islamic Republic where political subversion can land artists and writers in jail, Mr. Shajarian’s unparalleled virtuosity as a vocalist and his virtuousness of character long made him untouchable.
For more than 40 years, Mr. Shajarian channeled the hopes and frustrations of Iranians and became the “people’s voice.” He delved into the country’s rich poetic heritage and sang verses that directly addressed people’s political and social problems. This turned his concerts into one of the few public places where crowds of strangers could get together and openly express their discontent through music.
For all his coyness, Mr. Shajarian understood this well and enjoyed nothing more than singing to his own people in his own land. He once told me, “In Iran, it’s like you’re reminiscing and sharing secrets with people you’ve suffered with.” Iranians, he said, “know what the words mean. Everything you say carries so much weight.”
But even Mr. Shajarian couldn’t stay untouchable forever. In 2009, when opposition demonstrators flooded the streets after Iran’s disputed presidential election, Mr. Shajarian spoke out against state violence on protesters and sang “Put Your Gun Down,” with lyrics drawn from a poem: “Come, sit, talk, listen/ Maybe the light of humanity will open a path in your heart.”
As a punishment, he was forbidden from ever performing in Iran again and his work — including his iftar prayer, “Rabbana,” which people had listened to on radio and television as they broke their fast on Ramadan nights for 30 years — was banned on national media. People resorted to streaming it from their phones.
“They think they are doing me harm, but they’re only harming themselves,” he said, referring to the government officials who instituted the ban. “They don’t even have enough social awareness to understand that you can’t take away from people something that they have connected with spiritually.”