Rapper Najafi on the Fatwa: 'Fundamentalists Can't Take a Joke'

Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi has been in hiding in Germany since a fatwa was pronounced against him three weeks ago. In an interview with SPIEGEL, he discusses the fear Iranian leaders have of young people and his conviction that change will come to his country sooner or later.

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So this is what exile in exile looks like. Fleeing the threats of Iranian ayatollahs, Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, 31, has taken refuge in a garden house near Cologne, surrounded by chirping birds and a fig tree. Although he's under police protection, the four fatwas that have by now been launched against him by leading religious clerics in Iran over the past few weeks seem incredibly far away. Najafi released a song in which he implored the 10th imam, Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, to return to the Earth to sort out modern-day Iran's problems. Shiites venerate al-Naqi, who died 1,143 years ago and was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The song has been downloaded over 500,000 times in Iran alone, and has received over half a million views on YouTube.

The musician appeared to be in a good spirits. The interview was conducted in German, although Najafi often switched to Persian and his manager, a German-Iranian, translated for him whenever necessary. German author Günter Wallraff, who is supporting Najafi, was also there. Children's voices could be heard in the distance.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Najafi, you've been hiding for nearly three weeks now. What's your everyday life like?

Najafi: I read, I write, I have my guitar with me. I'm trying not to think about the threat.

SPIEGEL: Does anyone visit you?

Najafi: No, nobody. Only my manager and Mr. Wallraff.

SPIEGEL: You are married here in Germany. How is your family dealing with the situation?

Najafi: It's difficult; I'd rather not say anything more about it.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with your family in Iran?

Najafi: I'm in contact with a few friends. They haven't had any problems so far. My mother knows what has happened. She's very old.

SPIEGEL: What does your father do?

Najafi: My father died when I was five years old. He worked for the police.

SPIEGEL: Where did you grow up?

Najafi: In Bandar-e Anzali, a small town in northern Iran. I had a musical instruments shop there, from 2000 to late 2004, when I had to leave the country.

SPIEGEL: How did you get into music?

Najafi: I trained to become a professional Koran singer, from the age of 14 until I was 18. This involved learning Arabic harmony, breathing techniques, all of the things that this entails. And, of course, it involved studying the Koran.

SPIEGEL: What fascinated you about it?

Najafi: I was a very devout boy and one day I heard the music of an Egyptian Koran singer in the mosque. The melancholy of this music touched me so deeply that it brought me to tears. So I asked a boy there what kind of music this was, and he told me. Funnily enough, I ran into him again not too long ago; he lives in southern Germany, plays guitar and listens to Pink Floyd. I find it very moving that one of the people who kindled my interest in Koran singing has ended up taking a path that is similar to my own.

SPIEGEL: Then you studied at university.

Najafi: Yes, sociology. But I didn't complete my course of studies -- primarily because it was Islamic sociology. I couldn't relate to the dogmas. It wasn't a science, as it is in the West. I was kicked out of the university. Then I had to join the military. That's where I lost my faith.

SPIEGEL: What happened?

Najafi: Until then, I was a young idealist. I lived in the world of poetry and ideas. I thought life was all about art and philosophy. In the military, I suddenly found out about the real world.

SPIEGEL: A reality shock?

Najafi: Absolutely. Virtually all of my fellow soldiers came from the lower classes. For the first time, I was confronted with the reality of people who have to eke out an existence, who have nothing and have to struggle from day to day to survive. The stories of these men were shocking. Some were forced to deal drugs, while others had to sell their own wives.

SPIEGEL: When was that?

Najafi: In 1999. Military service lasted 21 months. My family thought if I spent time in the military, I'd become more reasonable, a bit calmer. But I've always been extreme in what I do -- both as a believer and a nonbeliever. When I returned from the military, I had above all realized how much injustice there was in Iran -- and that freedom of speech was not the most important thing for the poor as long as there was no social justice.

SPIEGEL: Why did you have to leave Iran?

Najafi: After the military, I played in bands that did cover versions of Western pop songs. At first, we only played instrumentals because they didn't get us into trouble with the authorities. Then I was in a band that played songs by the Gypsy Kings, which weren't banned, so a Gypsy Kings cover band was allowed. But starting in 2003, I wrote and played my own songs, and quickly had the intelligence service on my back. In November 2004, I played my last concert and fled via Turkey to Germany because I had been sentenced to three years in prison and 100 lashes due to one of my songs.

SPIEGEL: Why Germany?

Najafi: I had already taken an early interest in German literature and philosophy. In other words, there was a cultural affinity for Germany. What's more, many Iranian exiles live in Germany.

SPIEGEL: It's not easy as an artist to live in exile. Your old audience is gone, and you don't know the new listeners.

Najafi: I dabbled around a lot and finally ended up with rap music. I actually don't like hip hop much; the music is too clichéd, the subculture, especially the macho strutting of gangsta rappers, isn't my thing. But, at the same time, rap is a simple, direct and strong musical language.

SPIEGEL: It actually shouldn't come as much of a surprise to you that your song "Naqi" sparked this reaction: After all, you invoke an imam who means a great deal to the Shiites, you rap about patched-up hymens, about corruption and sex. The cover shows a mosque's dome shaped like a women's breast, on top of which the rainbow flag is flying. You can't be much more provocative than that in one go.

Najafi: It was clear to me that my songs would provoke the regime. The cover is, among other things, an allusion to temporary marriages in Iran, which are concluded by the mullahs, sometimes for just a few hours, and are a source of income for them. And the flag over the mosque dome symbolizes the death penalties that are handed down to homosexuals in the name of religion. I nevertheless wouldn't have expected such an extreme reaction.

SPIEGEL: There's something satirical about the lyrics of your songs.

Najafi: Yes, I'm a satirist. The powerful don't like satirists.

SPIEGEL: Salman Rushdie could also be called a satirist.

Najafi: Fundamentalists can't take a joke. Ever. They want us to blindly obey, parrot everything they do, and believe in their dogmas.

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