Marzieh, Legendary Diva of Persian Traditional Music

Ashraf os-Sadat Marzieh (March 22, 1924 – October 13, 2010), known professionally as Marzieh, was a Tehran-born singer of Persian traditional music. Known as the great diva of Persian traditional song, her voice represented the 60-year sufferings of a nation and the strength of Iranian women against stoning and misogyny of the mullahs’ ruling Iran.

Her parents were fond of arts and her relatives included a number of sculptors, painters, miniaturists, and musicians. Her mother encouraged her to sing and supported her artistic activities throughout her life.

Marzieh said, “At a time when Iranian families rarely let their daughters study, my father albeit a clergy encouraged me to go to school and learn the sciences of the time. When I started singing, it was not normal for a woman to become a singer. In the meantime, it was not enough to have a good voice. A singer had to go to school and learn the classical theory of music. A large number of masters of music had to endorse her. One had to be knowledgeable about the theory of music. I spent long years studying the art under the supervision of the greatest masters of Persian music before I started singing.”

Marzieh began her career in the early 1940s and was for decades a ubiquitous presence on radio and in concert. Over the years she performed for many world leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II, Charles de Gaulle, and Richard Nixon.

Marzieh was famed for her vast repertory, said to span a thousand songs. She worked with some of the greatest 20th-century Persian songwriters and composers like Ali Tajvidi, Parviz Yahaghi, Homayoun Khorram, Rahim Moeini Kermanshahi, and Bijan Taraghi. Marzieh also sang with the Farabi Orchestra, conducted by Morteza Hannaneh, a pioneer of Persian polyphonic music during the 1960s and 1970s.

Her first major public performance was in 1942 when she played the principal role of Shirin at the Jame’e Barbud opera house in the Persian operetta Shirin and Farhad.

In 1979, after the Shah was overthrown, Iran became a theocracy led by Khomeini. The fundamentalist clerics who ran the country deemed the arts, including music, inimical to the new order. As an artist who was also a woman, Marzieh, doubly marginalized, was barred from performing. She retreated to her farm in the countryside and did not sing in public for a decade and a half.

During this period, Marzieh was told that she could appear before audiences of women only. She considered this stricture unacceptable and continued her silence, practicing in private where no one could hear her. “I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees, and the flowers,” she told The Washington Times in 1995, “but not the mullahs.”

She told the Daily Telegraph that in order to continue her vocal practice she used to walk by night from her home in the historic north-Tehran Niavaran foothills to her cabin in the mountains, where she would sing next to a roaring waterfall: “Nobody could hear me. I sang to the stars and the rocks.”

In 1994, while visiting Paris, Marzieh defected. She met Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

She was particularly impressed with the prominent role women played in the main NCRI organization member, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Seeing the MEK’s dedication to democracy and women rights encouraged her in the late 1990s to visit Iraq to meet thousands of MEK members — including 1000 women — living in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. There, she sang atop a tank, dressed in military garb, for thousands of freedom fighters of the National Liberation Army of Iran. She returned to France just before the war broke out in 2003.

Marzieh, who was 70 when she defected, also resumed performing in public in support of the Iranian Resistance, starting with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1995. She later sang in Los Angeles and in several European cities. She gave her last major performance in Paris in 2006, at 82.

For years and until her passing, she was an art adviser to NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.

Interviewers often asked Marzieh, who had been largely apolitical as a young woman, what had moved her to join the resistance. Speaking to the newspaper The Scotsman in 1999, she replied by quoting Rumi, the revered 13th-century Persian poet: I am looking for that which cannot be found, for I am fed up with beasts and ogres, and I yearn for a human being.

France 3, a regional TV news and entertainment channel, has compared Marzieh’s rich, throaty mezzo-soprano to those of legendary songstresses Édith Piaf and Maria Callas. On the other hand, the European press has also compared her to Vanessa Redgrave and Melina Mercouri for her willingness to put political and human-rights beliefs ahead of her career, even her own safety. The New York Times described her “the great diva of Persian traditional song,” and the “voice of dissent.”

Marzieh was not only a pioneering and legendary singer but an enlightened woman who broke cultural barriers and defied fundamentalist stereotypes to rise to prominence in the 1940s. Later in life, she fought for greater rights for Iranian women when she joined the Iranian Resistance.

Her works have for decades resonated with all Iranians, particularly women. Marzieh was the first woman singer to take part in Tehran’s most celebrated radio program of the time, The Colorful Flowers, and was regularly asked to perform with some of the masters of Persian music.

Yet she was not obsessed with personal fame or with accolades and honors, instead used her platform to inspire and promote values and traditions consistent with the indelible rights of all humanity.

Indeed, her reverence for Islam and disdain for religious bigots ruling Iran is best symbolized in a masterful recording of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer featuring her voice. She is the only Iranian woman known to have successfully done so.

Marzieh died of cancer on October 13, 2010, in Paris but she will forever remain in the hearts and minds of the Iranian nation as an inspirational idol.