Lily Afshar sat high above the earth in a jet airliner headed for her hometown of Tehran, Iran. Resting comfortably in her assigned seat, Afshar struck up a conversation with a professor of anthropology from the University of Tehran.
During the pleasant chat, the professor occasionally fretted over how much longer their flight would take before arriving at the Imam Khomeini International Airport.
“How many more hours?” the professor asked anxiously. “Oh, we have four more hours.”
Afshar, professor of guitar in the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis, responded with a question of her own.
“Why are you even counting the time?”
Afshar doesn’t worry with travel time anymore. This would be a quick trip for her anyway. She was traveling last December to perform at the 2007 Fajr International Music Festival.
But Afshar does know how long some journeys can take.
In 1977 she left Iran to attend college in the United States. At the Boston Conservatory, Afshar discovered a place where she could devote all of her study to her childhood love — the guitar. She returned to Iran the following summer and assumed she would come back after her sophomore year.
As she settled into her second year of college, the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 broke out, and she would not be able to return to her home country for 23 years.
Separated from her family, Afshar focused on her craft, and in 1989 she became the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate in guitar performance. She was able to phone her parents like a normal college student, but they did not have normal conversations.
“We had to speak in codes,” says Afshar. “We had certain words we used for certain things that we couldn’t talk about.”
Sometimes her father would ask, “Did you receive the books I sent you?” This translated to, “Did you get the money I sent you?”
Her father had to send money through a family friend. The family feared possible retribution if it was discovered they were financially supporting Afshar’s study of music.
Lily Afshar routinely returns to her native Iran each year to perform and offer master classes. Afshar is the only Iranian to ever obtain a doctorate in classical guitar. Top left, Afshar poses with a couple of fans after a concert in Tehran. Top right, Afshar stayed at the Ferdowsi International Hotel while playing the 2007 Fajr International Music Festival. Bottom left, Afshar signs an autograph. Bottom right, Afshar prepares moments before a performance at the Niavaran Cultural Center.
Afshar didn’t only have to worry about not being allowed to continue her studies in the U.S. if she went back to Iran - she also had issues getting back to America while at an overseas music competition.
Afshar was set to begin her doctoral work at Florida State University. She had received an assistantship and a fellowship to study guitar.
Before classes began, she entered a music competition in Italy. She was traveling with her student visa and went to have it validated in Rome before returning to the U.S.
“I showed my visa and Florida State acceptance letter to the American consular officer,” says Afshar. “He said, ‘No. You’ve been in America long enough.’ Then he stamped “Denied” on my passport.”
Afshar still had her plane ticket though and managed to board her flight to New York.
“In New York, I was interrogated for many hours at the airport,” says Afshar. “It was very unpleasant, but I went back to Boston and met with an immigration lawyer.”
She spent much of her first year at Florida State dealing with her visa issues.
“I was a student, but I was always in danger of being deported for no reason at all,” says Afshar.
Her luck changed when she won a competition sponsored by Affiliate Artists, allowing her to become an artist-in-residence. Being employed meant Afshar would be eligible for a green card.
“Affiliate Artists wrote a letter saying that they wanted me,” says Afshar. “This letter helped me get my green card, and little by little, my immigration problems went away.”
Several years later, she obtained U.S. citizenship and was sworn in at The Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
Afshar was able to return to Tehran in 2001 when she received an invitation to perform from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Now, the world-renowned classical guitarist returns to Iran at least once a year to give concerts and offer master classes to guitar students. Her performances routinely sell out and are followed by long lines of autograph-seeking fans.
On her latest trip, Afshar played at the Fajr International Music Festival for the first time in her career. In its 23rd year, the festival is considered by many to be Iran’s most prestigious music festival.
These journeys to Iran have become a normal affair for Afshar, but this wasn’t always the case. Her first trip back filled her with a gamut of emotion.
“When the wheels of the plane hit the ground, it was an incredible feeling,” says Afshar. “Even though I am home here in America, I’m home over there as well. I felt like it was something that had been taken away from me without my wanting it to, and now I had it back.”
During her time away from Iran, she kept up with news through television and phone conversations with her family, but seeing in person a country that had been through a revolution and then a war with Iraq was an eye-opening experience.
As a child, she recalled pleasant times of peace when she would spend her days painting and practicing guitar. Returning, Afshar saw slogans and signs painted on buildings and highways of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War.
“I had heard and seen some of it on the news, but up close, it was like death was surrounding me,” says Afshar. “You can’t really turn your head because it is everywhere. Death kind of consumes you while you are there.”
This was a sharp contrast from what she had become accustomed to while living in the United States for so many years.
“Here in America, you don’t think about death as much,” says Afshar. “Everything is happy and bright, but in Iran I was really conscious of how dark and gloomy everything had become.”
Afshar also had to adjust her wardrobe. She remembered wearing shorts and skirts as a child when Iran was under rule of the Shah. Under the new regime, women are required to cover their heads and wear long, loose clothing. Afshar’s first trip was in the midst of summer. In public, she wore a rusari (headscarf) and a rupush (a long-sleeved, non-form fitting tunic).
“Having to don this scarf on my head in the heat of the summer was a shock,” says Afshar. During one of her first concerts in Iran, her rusari slipped and one of her ears was exposed. “I was scared I would get in trouble. I learned later to just pin the scarf tight with many pins on either side so it would never move.”
However, these shades of death and discontent lighten with each trip home. Afshar says she doesn’t notice it that much anymore.
“It feels normal now,” says Afshar. “It feels like any other trip. Surprises are less and less every time. I know what to expect.”
And Afshar has seen the Iranian government loosen national limitations over time. At the beginning of the revolution, all forms of music were severely restricted. She said that many musical instruments were even destroyed to prevent people from playing. As time passed, the government allowed traditional Persian music back into the public square. With more time, other forms of music seeped back into Iranian ears. Iran now has conservatories scattered throughout the country.
“Iranians love music, and it is hard to take that away,” says Afshar. “There are more conservatories now than in the time of the Shah. They are segregated of course, men and women, but they teach Persian instruments.”
Restrictions do still exist. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve every album and concert in the country. Women are not allowed to sing solo in front of men.
However, music and the people of Iran are pushing forward, according to Afshar. The 2007 Fajr Music Festival not only featured traditional Persian music; the nine-day festival included Baroque, folkloric, classical, pop and traditional Turkish music, among others.
“It was very diverse,” says Afshar. “The people are so thirsty for music.”
The access to music continues to spread. After one of her performances, Afshar listened to a live radio broadcast of a concert as she rode by taxi back to her hotel.
“I forgot I was in the cab,” says Afshar. “I forgot I was in Tehran. Hearing that concert on the radio really gave me a lot of inspiration about the future of music in Iran. Being broadcast in an Islamic republic, that was pretty impressive.”
Afshar has even been featured on the cover of an Iranian magazine.
“They put me, a woman guitarist, on the cover,” says Afshar. “That says a lot. There are pictures and an entire interview. Of course if I’m on stage or in a public place, I have to really conduct myself well and do what they say. I’m a guest of the government, so I have to look right.”
A musician to the end
Even with the many changes, one thing has remained constant. Afshar still sees the same zest and passion for life among the people she remembers from her youth.
Between performances, her trips to Iran are typically filled with dinner parties and other social gatherings. Friends and relatives are always eager to hear about her latest news.
“They’re happy to see me,” says Afshar. “They’re so proud. After my concerts we’ll stay up talking late into the night.”
During her latest trip, Afshar visited some friends she knew from high school. The gathering was something that might surprise some Westerners.
“I went to a Christmas party in Tehran,” says Afshar. “They had Christmas music and a Christmas tree. They had goose to eat. It was a lot of fun.”
Her friends send their children to one of the French schools in Iran. While the country is an Islamic republic, two percent of the population belongs to recognized religious minorities.
Afshar acknowledges that the U.S. and Iranian governments have seen more cordial times, but she does not see the aversion among the Iranian people that is sometimes reported.
“The people really like the United States,” says Afshar. “They are very open and just want to be free.”
She also mentioned that no one has ever begrudged her for living in the U.S.
“People are living their normal lives,” says Afshar. “They never say anything negative to me about living here. In fact, some say, ‘Lucky you.’ They have other things to worry about. They’re mostly thinking about gas prices and how it is rationed.”
If Afshar had it her way, people wouldn’t ask her about the politics between the U.S. and Iran.
“I’m a musician,” says Afshar. “The best thing I can do is give a good message to the rest of the world through my abilities. I’ve managed to find a way to travel between both countries and contribute to both without being involved in politics because of my music.”
Music helped Afshar find a home in the United States. Music also brought her back to Iran, and her music connects people from both cultures.
The traveling can be tiring though.
“All this traveling really makes you miss home,” says Afshar. “Really though, it’s like going from one home to another. When I travel from Memphis to Iran, both are my home, and it will always be like that.”
Visit www.lilyafshar.com for more information on Lily Afshar, including photos, concert schedules and samples of her music.