Middle East

Queen of Persia

Rock in the lap of the gods.

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The first rock group to have its music officially authorized for sale by Iran's ruling mullahs is, of all acts, Queen. The band, popular in the 1970s and early '80s, was fronted by the late Freddie Mercury, a gay icon who died of AIDS in 1991. Mercury was of Iranian descent–his real name was Faroukh Bulsara–and was reported to be a practicing Zoroastrian.

Homosexuality is illegal under Iran's theocratic government, and unlike Christianity and Judaism, Zoroastrianism is not a "protected" religion under Koranic law. The regime has done what it can to Islamize the band's image. The official compilation of the group's hits that was made available on cassette this summer includes a leaflet explaining the supposed meaning of the lyrics. "Bohemian Rhapsody," for example, is described as the tale of a man who has accidentally committed murder and sold his soul to Satan. Before his execution, according to the leaflet, he calls to God in Arabic ("Bismillah!"), thus regaining his soul. Also on the cassette are such songs as "The Miracle" and "I Want to Break Free." No love songs were included.

Western music has long been available on Iran's black market. Persepolis, Marjane's Satrapi's 2003 comic-book memoir of growing up in Tehran, features a sequence set along the capital's Ghandi Avenue, where pop-culture vendors are offering tapes of Abba, "Estevie Vonder," "Jikael Mackson," and others, along with such products as lipstick, chocolate, and pantyhose. Though illegal, black-market cassettes are plentiful enough to have become the foundation of a lively Persian rock scene. Iranian bands (including many inside that country) can be heard playing various syncretic styles at tehranavenue.com.

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