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Sending a powerful message of resistance: Iranian musician leads Middle Eastern 'peace album' collaboration Open in fullscreen

Florence Dixon

Sending a powerful message of resistance: Iranian musician leads Middle Eastern 'peace album' collaboration

Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian orchestrated the album that features hundreds of artists [Wikimedia Commons]

Date of publication: 25 July, 2019

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'My one only weapon to fight for freedom is by making music': The New Arab Meets: Mehdi Rajabian who has made an album taking a stand against war and oppression.
The logistics of creating an album featuring over 100 artists in 12 different countries are, to say the least, challenging.

Add to that the fact that the collaborators are dotted around turbulent parts of the Middle East, being bombarded by airstrikes, stricken by poverty and some forced to write their songs in the middle of the ocean, having fled their country by boat. 

Orchestrating all of this, while at constant risk of another stint in jail, is 30-year old Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian.

Speaking to The New Arab from Iran, Rajabian explains he wanted to create an album that sends a powerful message of resistance to the oppression and violence that has engulfed much of the region of late.

"The Middle East is filled with wars, human rights violations and oppression," he says.

"As a musician, my one and only weapon to fight for freedom and human rights is making music."

Middle Eastern, an 11-track album featuring artists from Oman to Tajikistan, was originally thought up by Rajabian during a stint in Iran's notorious Evin prison, and completed soon after his release. 

If he breaks his delicate bail arrangement, he could be sent back at any moment. 

The Middle East is filled with wars, human rights violations and oppression... As a musician, my one and only weapon to fight for freedom and human rights is making music

Released this year by Sony, the record features original songs by artists from 12 countries including Iran, Egypt, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories. 

Living and working under extreme restrictions placed on him by the Iranian regime, Rajabian's resourcefulness is quite some feat. 

"I'm on a no-fly list, meaning I can't leave the country, so I arranged everything through the internet," he says.

A life-long fan of Middle Eastern music, Rajabian invited several musician compatriots to work with him on the project, expressing regret that not more could have been featured.

The collaborators wrote their songs under a variety of adverse conditions: during airstrikes, enduring poverty, and even one written by a refugee in the middle of the ocean, having fled their country by boat.

The wide-ranging collaboration signifies a unified protest against the seemingly never-ending adversity in parts of the region, the artists united by the shared language of music, Rajabian says.

The collaborators wrote their songs under a variety of adverse conditions: during airstrikes, enduring poverty, and even one written by a refugee in the middle of the ocean, having fled their country by boat

The record's intended audience, according to Rajabian, are those inhabiting and fleeing the Middle East at the moment. 

"Those who've been through poverty, war, oppression, human rights violations and such. Those who still believe in peace in the Middle East," he says.

It is these people that need to champion the music's message about rights, peace and freedom, and most importantly saying no to tyranny and war.

The album cover was shot by award-winning war photographer Reza Deghati who, like Rajabian, has also spent time behind bars in Iran just for making art.

The image, shot in Iraq, depicts a stream of light coming through a destroyed roof, which for Rajabian exemplifies the record's ambition to provide hope amid adversity in the region.

Rajabian emphasises that this philosophy has granted the album traction on the international stage too, adding that he hopes this depth will give it both a freshness and longevity to resonate with a wide audience.

Having fallen foul of the Iranian regime, Rajabian lives and works under extreme restrictions which makes his resourcefulness of note.

Having spent two years in prison, including over 30 days on hunger strike and three months in solitary confinement, his music is strictly banned in the Islamic republic.

"The Iranian authorities isolate individuals like me so all we can do is stay at home," he says, adding that this makes being out of prison hardly different from being inside

The regime works to intimidate others from working with or even speaking to maligned artists such as Rajabian.

"Musicians are afraid to even play an instrument for me. People are afraid of talking to me."

Even giving interviews such as this is considered a crime and risks his three-year suspended sentence being invoked, he adds.

Music-obsessed since his youth, Rajabian believes music is both an audio and visual experience. His influences come from everywhere: novels, cinema, photographs and paintings. A synesthete, he says listening to music sparks colourful imagery in his mind.

It is therefore logical that he has also collaborated with another formerly detained artist, Kurdish painter Zehra Dogan.

Dogan has visualised each track with a corresponding painting, having been recently released from Turkish prison after angering the authorities with her 2016 work depicting the Turkish military destroying the Kurdish town of Nusaybin.

Dogan embodies the message of Rajabian's project, standing strong in the face of oppression. While in prison, the artist continued making art by using coffee and turmeric instead of paints and old newspapers instead of canvas. 

She has incorporated this distinctive style into the album artworks, adding her unique story to the chorus of voices championing artistic freedom.

Despite the risks to his own safety, Rajabian also remains resolute in his goals to transform society through art and creativity.

"I chose my path years ago. The important thing for me is to create art so I can inject my thoughts into society."


Florence Dixon is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @flo_dix

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