Messages of Peace: Interviewing Artists from the Middle East by Miranda Macaulay Miller (A’20)

by tuftsigl
Aug 06

Every day at the Middle East Institute, I discover the work of both emerging and established artists from the Middle East and North Africa. Most of the artists I have come across have been through research for future exhibitions at the Middle East Institute Art Gallery or from conversations I have with my coworkers about art in the region. However, some of the most interesting projects I have learned about have been from artists who reach out to the Middle East Institute seeking support.

One of those artists is Mehdi Rajabian. Mehdi, an Iranian musician, emailed MEI earlier this summer with information about a current project. The project is an album called “Middle Eastern,” a collaboration of artists from 12 countries in the Middle East. While this is an ambitious project, the circumstances under which Mehdi produced this album make it even more remarkable.

In 2013, Mehdi was arrested by Revolutionary Guards in Iran for founding the music company Barg Music. Mehdi worked specifically with underground and restricted artists in Iran, and particularly with women vocalists. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iranian women have been legally forbidden from performing solo. After his arrest, he spent three months in solitary confinement where he went on a hunger strike for 40 days and lost more than 30 pounds. After his hearing, he was sentenced to six years of prison in the general ward of Evin Prison, but was released after two years, in 2017, on a suspended sentence.

Now 29, Mehdi is banned from ever making music in Iran. Despite this, he has spent the past few years producing an album. While the Middle East Institute was not able to provide any financial support for Mehdi’s album, we decided to host a Q&A with him about the album to post on MEI’s website. I was given the opportunity to conduct the interview and write the article for publication.

During the interview, which was held over WhatsApp because most other forms of communication are censored in Iran, we discussed the intent of the album, the process of producing the album, and Mehdi’s thoughts about the future of the Middle East. Mehdi decided to produce this album because of his belief in the power of music to act as a common language that brings together those who have experienced similar hardships. He reached out to artists in the Middle East that he thought would make a good fit for this album and collaborated with them online to produce the 11 songs that eventually made it onto the album. He hopes to use this album to communicate a message of peace, freedom, and human rights for people in the region.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to interview this inspiring artist. My conversation with Mehdi provided a striking insight into another way in which people from the Middle East and North Africa are using different forms of expression to resist oppression and fight for freedom and peace in their countries.