Why I’m Proud to Take Part in the Proms

This past summer, I was asked to write a few words for the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) on the broadcast of several Proms to the Persian-speaking world (including my homeland, Iran). Here’s what I had to say:

This summer, BBC Persian‘s television service is broadcasting eight of the Proms concerts from London to the Persian-speaking world. Some 100m potential viewers in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and elsewhere will have the opportunity to hear music by Elgar, Turnage, Boulez, Beethoven, Tower, Villa-Lobos and Tchaikovsky among others, performed by the likes of Martyn Brabbins, Sarah Connolly, the BBC Philharmonic, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, Nelson Freire, and Vladimir Jurowski.

Nothing so remarkable about that you might think. Except that in Iran – the country of my birth – western classical music is technically not permitted to be performed live, while current rules mean that television broadcasts of any music may not show close-ups of any instruments. In fact BBC Persian itself is not officially permitted to broadcast in the country, but, well, somehow people seem to find ways of accessing it. Millions of them.

Young people in Iran are hungry for music of all kinds, but for western classical music particularly in my experience. Ask an Iranian who a great writer is and they’ll say Tolstoy, ask them to name a great composer and they’ll say Beethoven. The west-eastern cultural divide and indeed the western perception of classical music as difficult or inaccessible doesn’t exist there.

Perhaps to the chagrin of those who prefer non-westerners to embrace the ethnically predictable, I am a harpsichordist who loves the music of Bach and I am an Iranian. I don’t see these traits as mutually exclusive, and I think many Iranians would agree with me. The few musicians who visit Iran to perform report of packed halls of enthusiastic young listeners. Every day I get messages on Facebook (also officially banned in Iran, but, again, it seems people find ways round this) from Iranians in their teens and 20s who tell me they’re interested in the music of Telemann, Bach, Beethoven, Bartók, and Ligeti. One of Iran’s leading young athletes writes to me about how he “lives for Bach” and occasionally sends me poems penned in his free time. Someone from the island of Kish wrote to ask me about technical exercises for the piano. Two brothers from Tabriz, devout Muslims and Early Music lovers, waxed lyrical on their Facebook pages about the loss earlier this year of the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt.

For more than a century, western musical culture has permeated Iranian society, much to the chagrin of a dour Shia clerical establishment. The secular regime of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) centralised the Iranian nation-state with the philosophy that modernisation entailed total westernisation. At the height of the Pahlavi dynasty’s power in the 1960s and 70s, the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of the Arts and various chamber and symphony orchestras were established and inspired a generation of Iranians to pursue studies at foreign conservatoires. Such European-trained figures as conductors Alexander (Ali) Rahbari and Heshmat Sanjari, pianists Ariana and Pari Barkeshli, composers Loris Tjeknavorian and Hormoz Farhat, and violinist Cyrus Forough returned to Iran to teach and perform. But this was all cut short in 1979 by the profoundly anti-musical Ayatollah Khomeini, whose regime banned music of any kind for several years after the revolution.

A thaw in the Islamic Republic’s stance on such matters during the 1990s meant that the Tehran Symphony Orchestra was able to re-group, though the infrequency of its activities today paints a sombre picture. Due to the recent swing of Iranian politics to the right, while western classical music is technically permitted to be performed these days, women are not allowed to sing any solo music and, as stated above, broadcasted music may not show close-ups of any instruments. (Why? They’re considered liable to inspire sexual thoughts.)

Meanwhile in neighbouring Afghanistan, products of western culture can become matters of life and death. When the Taliban took control in 1996, they banned all musical instruments, which along with audio and video cassettes of musical performances, were publicly destroyed. Dancing and the singing of any music – apart from a limited amount of devotional poetry – were also forbidden by the regime, which enforced its regulations in severe ways. One documented case, describes how wedding musicians were beaten with their own instruments and subsequently imprisoned. Even today, in spite of the change of central government in Kabul, musicians still face strong disapproval and even harassment from a profoundly religious society that views music as inimical to Islamic devotion.

However, there is one bright spot here at least: the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, a conservatoire founded in 2010 by the western-trained musicologist and educator Dr Ahmad Naser Sarmast, hopes to rebuild the musical life of the country through training in both Afghan and western classical music. A significant portion of the student body is made up of orphans, or children from poor families (who are paid US$30 as compensation for the loss of the child’s labour toward their income). One of the aims of Dr Sarmast is to work for what he terms the ”musical rights” of Afghan children – a poignant consideration indeed.

I’d like to encourage this year’s Prommers to spare a thought for those Afghans who risked their lives to save a few musical instruments and for those Iranian teenagers who write to me asking how to find scores of Dowland and Cabezon. I myself shall spare a solemn thought for the two harpsichords belonging to the Iranian National Radio which I am told were smashed by Revolutionary Guards in 1979. If Britain is said to inspire the world by the power of its example, then I can see no better achievement of British culture to transmit to the world than the Proms, a festival that in its variety and spirit of communal love for music never ceases to exhilarate. As an Iranian, a musician, and a guest in this country, I am proud to take part in it.

• Mahan Esfahani play-directs the Academy of Ancient Music in his own arrangement of JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue on 21 July at 3pm, Cadogan Hall in the opening BBC Proms Saturday Matinee.