Shabahang Cultural Society concert, Philadelphia. July 2013.

As a Pakistani immigrant, I often feel alienated by American pop culture. Even though I identify with a lot of it,  I also find it foreign, and occasionally, have to check out in order to recharge. This was especially the case two weeks ago, when I took a train into Manhattan in order to see a classical Persian music concert at Café Nadry.

In  keeping with my sense of dislocation, I of course got lost walking to the Greenwich Village restaurant from Penn Station. As though to make the city feel even more impentrable, it had started raining. I was miserable. Eventually, I found my way there. Entering Café Nadry was as much a study in cultural contrasts as it was an escape from the bad weather.

Everyone, it seemed, was speaking Farsi. Although my South Asian roots were markedly different from those who were in the café  that evening, it gave me pause to be around people who were conversing as though they were still in Iran. I was relieved to have a break from the worries of my English-speaking life, even if it was for a moment.

Immigrant restaurants are not just businesses that serve their owners’ native cuisine in a foreign location. They are also spaces where minorities, who are uncertain about their place in their adopted states, can find community. In Western Europe, and increasingly, the United States, Middle Eastern restaurants are oftentimes safe spaces, where populations can escape the stigmatization they are often subject to.

After about twenty minutes, the music began. While the audience was initially quiet, diners gradually began to resume their conversations. Suddenly, I felt as though an artistic hybrid was being created, wherein the audience’s chatter, the Persian food being served, and the music, were simultaneously forging something new, unbeknownst to each other.

For that short time, we were all all in the same band. The kamanceh player later told me, “music and other traditional arts are like a common language between the people of a culture.” Certainly, based on the environment being generated in Nadry, by the combination of culturally-specific activities taking place, it’d be hard to disagree. This was less about playing music than playing culture. Persian culture, to be precise.

Musicians with café patrons. Cafe Nadri, July 2013.

Musicians with café patrons. Cafe Nadri, July 2013.

The tar player was clear that this was not a political exercise, projecting a specific idea of Iran – one that highlighted the warmer aspects of the Islamic Republic for an American audience. “Just the fact that the establishment has an affiliation to Iran does not necessarily mean there is a homogeneous vibe and atmosphere. There are still very diverse people [who will react] very differently.”

During the intermission, I asked for an interview with the kamanceh musician, Kaveh Haghtalab. He excitedly said “yes.” Soon, the conversation drew in the other two players, tar musician Amin Torabkhani, and drumset musician Yahya Alkhansa.

I was surprised to learn that they are a diverse group, with Amin being an experienced musician from a family of music fans who plays with the Galata Ensemble. Kaveh and Yahya, on the other hand, are much younger, studied unrelated disciplines in university, and learned their instruments mostly informally from a young age. However, all three men care deeply about their Iranian heritage. I sought to understand how music factors into this, and whether it impacts their views on mass politics.

Kaveh began by explaining that music occupies a deeply meditative place in Iranian culture. “Music in Iran is strongly intertwined with spirituality,” as Kaveh told me. “In Iran, [the] musician is more like [a] seeker (student of mysticism) who carries the spiritual burden.”

This mysticism is one of historical memory, as for Kaveh, traditional music has the experience of anchoring its players and audience to a collective past. “Traditional Iranian music is connected with [the Iranian] peoples’ heart,” he said thoughtfully about the genre. He sent a link to a song by his teacher Majid Kiani and began describing his reaction to it in a dreamlike manner. “To me, this is desert. This is lots of sunny days. This is farmers working under the sun shining with lots of chins on their face and crystal clean hearts inside. This is Iran.”

Of course, these memories have obvious limits. Percussionist Yahya briefly reminded me of them. “I’ve felt that, so far, interacting with Iranian cultural activities such as Café Nadry, Padris School, etc. is more related to nostalgic point of view,” he said bluntly, “rather than a new forward-moving culture.” He is certainly right that the Iranian Diaspora can be too obsessed with the ancient, which risks stifling positive innovation. Loving the past is a problem when it means avoiding the development of something new, which occurs musically just as much as it does politically in a country as socially tumultuous as Iran.

And as with politics, there is an uneasy discourse regarding the defense of something new, and respect for the preservation of something old. Amin illuminated when he discussed how audiences with Iranian backgrounds sometimes have different expectations of classical music. “Some just don’t really like the traditional music because it is a bit sad and slow,” he responded. “Some only like certain kinds of it, like many tasnifs and rhythmic melodies, and some like the improvisation and free form of playing.”

It’s not an unfamiliar scenario. Think Western classical music fans, who also like rock and hip-hop. Their appreciation of older, more traditional genres is conditioned by the new. It’s analogous to those who tried to make sense of Arab Spring, based on their appreciation of Middle Eastern history. It’s hard to understand it for what it is, because of the prejudices we hold about what Arab culture once was, and this makes it difficult to envision possible futures. As far as political possibilities, though, the three musicians were quite hopeful.

“I believe that any citizen should be aware of society around [them],” Kaveh told me. “I have to mention that creativity becomes stronger in the hardship of (an) oppressive regime. Musicians are continuing their work regardless of the situation and hardships on the way. We, as a generation who grew up after the revolution, learned how to see the light between dark clouds.”

Amin was similarly hopeful, describing Iranian politics as “an enlightening trend” and a “series of successes and failures which everyone in Iran has been learning from”. Certainly, the 2009 election demonstrations and the landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani support his theory. Yahya was briefer, saying that he supports “any non-violent, non-revolutionary reform movement,” and that “the way forward is in strengthening the obedience of law and making it a culture.” On these points, and perhaps because of our constant digestion of the past through cultural expression, we all agreed.

Photographs courtesy of the author