Marzieh, Iranian Singer, Dead at 86

Margalit Fox

All exceptionally talented artists belong to the world and Marzieh is one of them…

Marzieh, the great diva of Persian traditional song, who was silenced after 1979 but who re-emerged years later outside Iran as a singer, died on Wednesday in Paris. She was 86 and had defected to France in 1994. Survivors include a son and a grandchild.

A household name in prerevolutionary Iran, Marzieh was as closely identified with her country’s music as the great Egyptian chanteuse Umm Kulthum was with hers. Marzieh began her career in the early 1940′s and was for decades a ubiquitous presence on radio and in concert. Over the years she preformed for many world leaders, including the shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth II, de Gaulle and Nixon.

Marzieh, whose rich, throaty mezzo-soprano was often likened to Edith Piaf’s was famed for her vast repertory, said to span a thousand songs. She was known in particular for her expressive interpretations of songs of love- ill-fated love, unrequited love, everlasting love- many of which were settings of the work of the renowned Persian lyric poets of the Middle Ages and afterward.

Marzieh was born Ashraf Sadet Mortezai in Tehran in 1924. Her father, a moderate Muslim cleric, and her mother, who was descended from a family of artists and musicians, encouraged her to pursue a life of music. She studied for years with some of the greatest masters of Persian song before beginning her career in 1942 under the stage name Marzieh, a popular Iranian name meaning laudable or agreeable.

In 1979, 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, the restrictions on female singers were relaxed to a degree, and Marzieh was told that she could appear before audiences of women only. She considered this stricture unacceptable, she later said, 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 …”.

In 1994, while visiting Paris, Marzieh defected. Marzieh, who was 70 when she defected, also resumed performing in public, 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.

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 quoted 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.

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