The young Iranians at my concerts want a moderate, normal country, and Trump left them in despair

05.31.18
Kayhan Kalhor
The Dallas Morning News

Opinion piece by Kayhan Kalhor

Editor's note: Kayhan Kalhor is a Grammy-winning Iranian musician who plays a classical Persian instrument called the kamancheh. He performs with cellist Yo-Yo Ma as part of an international collective called the Silk Road Ensemble, which was featured in a 2016 documentary. We invited Kalhor to write a column for The Dallas Morning News with the expectation that, with his experience bridging cultural divides via music, he could offer insight on the political confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.


I spent the summer of 2017 in a strange hiatus from the ordinary reality: I performed 70 ecstatic concerts in less than three months in Iran. The performances would sell out in minutes. The events abounded with the enthusiasm of mostly young people for classical Persian music.

The political climate had drastically changed since my last visit in 2009. At that time the firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in his bid for a second term in office. This triggered a massive uprising against the perceived irregularities of that election. Then came the heavy-handed clampdown by the police and government paramilitary forces. Things looked grim for the subsequent four years. The cultural scene was deserted, and the young generation was in retreat.

But in 2013 Iranians returned to the polls to elect a smiling, moderate cleric named Hassan Rouhani to the office of presidency. Rouhani's main campaign promise was fostering economic prosperity, political moderation and international normalcy. His crowning achievement was the conclusion of his 2015 historic deal generally known as the "Iran nuclear deal" (formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with the permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations plus Germany (P5+1.)

For the first time in 40 years the Iranian state appeared to have acted with sober maturity and moderation in negotiation with its long-reviled bete noir, the United States. Images of a smiling foreign minister of Iran strolling in the streets of Geneva with his American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, were stunning as they appeared in Tehran's dailies. The logjam of distrust seemed to have finally broken. Not even the election of Donald Trump had dampened the good mood when I was in Iran last summer. The suspension of sanctions appeared to be holding, and the optimism of the people was buoying the market.

One night, after one of my concerts in the city of Shiraz, I was taking the usual selfies with my fans backstage, and I noticed a young woman with locks of raven hair and large black eyes. She was in a corner silently waiting her turn. Our eyes met, and she seemed to pluck the courage to talk, but her approach was hesitant.

Finally, she came closer and whispered in my ear: "I have to speak to you. I only ask for half a minute of your time." There was an undertone of urgency in her voice.

"Sure," I said, broadly smiling. "You can even have a whole minute, if you want," trying to put her at ease.

She whispered again: "You saved my life!"

"But — how?" I asked.

She was still whispering: "Five years ago, I decided to kill myself. I had written my goodbye letters and researched the proper way to cut my wrists. I had even chosen the music to die to, and it was your improvisation in Rast-panjgah. I had listened to the piece many times in the past, but as I turned it on, I had the feeling that I was hearing it for the first time. The music was washing over me, carrying away my despair. It was connecting me back to life. Why should I die, I ask myself, when there is so much beauty in life?"

That night I walked back to my hotel exhilarated, exhausted and more than ever persuaded of the transcendent power of art.

Roughly 65 percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The collective desires and aspirations of this 30-something generational bulge is in line with what you might find in Europe or the United States. Unlike most of its neighbors, there is no grass-roots fundamentalism among Iran's young generation. I am not sure of the reason for this immunity, but I guess it has something to do with building up resistance to a virus that has once afflicted a body. The future of Iran is not determined by the gerontocracy that is ruling it. It is this young majority, with its firm interest in prosperity, arts and a return to moderation and normalcy that will determine the future of Iran.

I was back in Iran on May 8 when President Trump made his critical speech to withdraw from the nuclear pact with Iran. The Iranian currency sank 40 percent against the dollar. Markets balked, and there were rumors of the return of the notorious black market in vital drugs, such as chemotherapy medicines, on the back alleys of the Nasser-Khosrow Street of Tehran.

The abrogation of the nuclear deal with Iran is sad news for the vibrant segment of the Iranian civil society that I encountered in my concerts, and here is why. For once their usually mulish government seemed to have done the right thing, jumped through all the right hoops and concluded an international agreement consecrated by the entire U.N. Security Council. The International Agency of Atomic Energy, charged with monitoring Iranian activities, had confirmed the strict compliance of Iran with its obligations under the agreement. Above all, the Iranian ruling elite had muzzled its right-wing opposition, poured concrete in the pit of its nuclear research facilities, decimated its enrichment centrifuges and drastically reduced the country's supply of low-enriched uranium.

And yet on May 8, Trump called this agreement "nuclear blackmail" and ordered the U.S. government to reinstate "the highest level of economic sanction" on Iran. This time, returning Iran to a pariah state in the international community could not be blamed on the irresponsibility of Iranian statesmen.

I, like hundreds of thousands of Iranians living in America, with deep roots and enduring love for our dual homelands, feel disappointed by this development. It has emboldened the Iranian right wing with their howls of "we told you so." It has fostered despair among a generation for whom the revolution is the exact meaning of the term history. They had hoped that the days of isolationism, extremism and revolutionary kabuki were over. But they are not so sure anymore.

I arrived back in the U.S. in time to perform for a concert in New York City and then drive on to Boston for another concert. Maybe it was jet lag or the desolation of hopelessness, but that wasn't a pleasant drive. Art can open one's heart and one's mind, but looking forward I see we have a long road ahead.