The Great Escape
Iranian rapper Bahram Nouraei’s rhymes made him loyal fans and powerful enemies in Tehran. Having faced persecution and prison, he’s on the verge of a new life
By Julie Ashcraft
Bahram Nouraei’s earliest memory is of ghame-wielding taxi drivers fighting each other on the street in his East Tehran neighborhood. Twenty-three-year-old Bahram (formerly known as Bahram Divar) used to love a scrap himself, but these days he uses words as his weapons.
Inspired by Western rap and Persian poetry (he’s a fan of both Tupac and Hafiz), Bahram began writing his own material over 10 years ago. Rapping, he says, makes him feel calm. The reaction to his work is anything but.
Bahram has become a star among Iran’s youth for his poignant critique of the country, “Inja Iran” (Here Is Iran), which compounded the scathing indictment he addressed to President Ahmadinejad in “Namei Be Rais Jomhoor” (Letter to the President), which included the lines “I swear that the holy Quran on your niche of your room must be dust/You just say mottos and do nothing.”
Bahram’s determination to speak his mind is consistent with his aboriginal Lors ancestry. Lors have a reputation in Iran for being forthright no matter how dire the consequences. And the regime’s reaction to Bahram’s popularity, predictably, has been harsh.
I first tried to meet bahram in Tehran’s beautiful Laleh Park in the days leading up to Iran’s 2009 presidential election. The previous year, Tehran-based underground label Divar Records had released Bahram’s sixth album, 24 Sa’at (24 Hours), which highlighted his stunningly precise Persian flow, and I had become a fan. But Ettela’at (Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security – a long-winded way of saying secret police) was monitoring him so closely that being seen with me – a foreign woman – could have endangered us both.
Within weeks, Iran’s jails were filled with thousands of post-election protesters. And still the regime persisted in threatening Bahram and his former producer, Atour, founder of Divar Records, with years in prison for their allegedly criminal hip-hop work – a threat Bahram had also addressed in “Namei Be Rais Jomhoor.” “You must know that even if I am turned into an animal in prison,” he rapped. “My pen will still be dancing on my leaf strongly – even in jail.”
By the time of the election, Bahram had already been imprisoned for his art. Ettela’at had begun gathering “evidence” against Bahram and Atour as early as 2006, when the independent Amsterdam-based Persian-language station Radio Zamaneh broadcast an interview with the rapper, recorded without regime permission in Tehran as part of the Radio Divar show organized by Divar Records. The police eventually came for Bahram in the front yard of his home as he was leaving for university classes on the morning of March 9th, 2009. Atour was simultaneously arrested at Divar Studio. Recognizing the pair’s influence over Iranian youth, the regime tried to silence their potent free speech by seizing their papers, computers and recording equipment. Ettela’at also put a “polomp” (sealed) wire on the door of Divar Studio, threatening anyone who entered with arrest.
Bahram and Atour were taken to Intelligence Ministry Ward 209 in Evin Prison – famous for its political prisoners, and infamous for torture – where they were each placed in solitary confinement. In his tiny green-walled cell, Bahram says, the overhead light was on 24 hours a day. The room contained a Quran, a copy of a religious book Mafatih al-Jinan (Keys to Heavens) and a threadbare carpet. There was no bed, no pillow, and no sheets. “I heard too many horrible sounds: the sound of crying and hard wails,” says Bahram of his time in solitary. “It was so far away, but clear. And the prisoner in the cell next to mine was crying a lot. In addition, there was the sound of an old ventilator turning on and off every few hours, and the sound of a big metal wheel rotating on the ground. I don’t remember sleeping at all while I was in solitary.” Still, the situation would become worse. “After three days, I was put into a one-by-two meter single cell with two additional prisoners,” Bahram recalls. “The only way we could lie down was on our sides, squashed together to fit between the walls. The place was too small for three people – a single cell, but three people.”
Bahram faced accusations of “Action against national security; Publishing lies; Deviating the people’s minds; Illegal cultural activities; Using swearwords in lyrics; Contribution with foreigners against Islamic Revolution; and Advertisements for anti-Islamic Revolution’s groups.” Essentially though, it’s worth reiterating, he was arrested and imprisoned for writing poems, recording songs and giving an interview. It’s also worth mentioning that his work is recognized for its philosophical portrayals of society and economics – not for any calls to arms.
To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East, available at over 200 outlets in the UAE and GCC.
Source: Rolling stone Middle East