On Friday May 2, 2014, Mohammad-Reza Lotfi, one of Iran’s most renowned Persian classical musicians died in a Tehran hospital after a long battle with cancer. Lotfi’s mastery of the tar and setar connected both old and new generations of Persian classical music fans.
Two days after his passing, on Sunday May 4th, a public funeral was held at Vahdat Hall in Tehran in remembrance of the great musician. In the Islamic Republic, funeral ceremonies for prominent cultural and political figures have a history of bringing an interesting mixture of public personas together, Lotfi’s funeral was no different as prominent artists as well as government officials were on hand to pay their respects, and say a few words.
Most of Iran’s state and semi-official news agencies were also present to photograph the event, including the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Mehr News Agency, Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA), as well as Tasnim News Agency. But Fars News Agency single handily shot the photograph of the day. Fars photographer Majid Asgaripour snapped a very symbolic and unique photo of three powerful men sitting next to one another.
The man on the left is Mahmoud Dolatabadi. While Mohammed-Reza Lotfi was a preeminent tar and setar player, Dolatabai is his literary equivalent. The outspoken writer has never been shy with words (nor criticism), and as a result, his books have been censored by the Ministry of Culture in the past. In the photo, Dolatabadi is casually smoking a cigarette (his smoking habit is widely accepted as part of his motif) and is also wearing a neck tie, which can be considered a form of protest or non-compliance with “Islamic Republic fashion norms;” this cultural and social icon has worn neckties at public events in the past.
The man in the middle is Iran’s Minister of Culture Ali Jannati. As the head of the culture ministry, Jannati is literally the man who has the power to censor authors, newspapers, and literary publishers. Interestingly, ever since being selected by President Hassan Rouhani to oversee the country’s cultural affairs, Jannati has consistently and publicly called for greater press, artistic, and social freedoms. Jannati’s calls to “unblock Facebook,” and allow a “more open atmosphere for artists” have been the source of much ire from Iran’s hardline clerics and government officials, who have publicly pushed back against such actions. Jannati’s father is hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of Iran’s powerful Guardian Council.
The man to the right of Jannati is Hussein Fereydoon, President Rouhani’s younger brother. Fereydoon, who has an advisory role in his brother’s administration, is also Rouhani’s representative for Iranian artists and musicians.
When taken as a whole, the Fars photo depicts a censored author sitting next to the man in charge of censorship–who is sitting next to the president’s brother, who happens to be the administration’s “artistic representative.”
Adding to the photo’s backdrop, the 27th annual Tehran International Book Fair is underway in the capital. The ten day event draws in 500,000 people daily. President Rouhani inaugurated this year’s fair by addressing literary censorship during the opening ceremony. “A book, its publisher and the reader are respected as much as wisdom itself…If we want books to obtain their rightful place, we should provide security and freedom for their writers and publishers,” said Rouhani.
While the Fars photo should not be interpreted as a harbinger of things to come, it also should not be discounted as random coincidence that these three men happened to be sitting next to one another at Lotfi’s funeral. For a split second, as Dolatabai took a drag of his cigarette, a telling moment was captured, reflecting the Iranian government’s long running battle with censorship, in its many forms.