In Memoriam: Featured musicians from the Iranian documentary No One Knows about Persian Cats

Tuesday’s newspapers (Nov. 12 2013), ran a report about the murder-suicide of some of the musicians we saw in a film I screened in my class at the University of Wyoming, Spring Term 2012. The New York Times headline—front page—was “Bloody End for Iranian Rockers Seeking Freedom in U.S.”

One of the students in my “Middle East and Israel in Film” class drew my attention to the 2009 Iranian documentary No One Knows about Persian Cats, by Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. The film chronicles the attempts of two rock-music songwriters, released from jail in Tehran, to leave the country for Europe where they could perform freely, and to set up a final concert before leaving. In the film, they visit with a number of bands, who rehearse in out of the way places—basements, empty construction sites and the like. This type of music and especially these concerts are banned in Iran.

We screened the movie in class. The story was compelling enough. But my students and I felt that the strength of the movie was that it included substantive performances by several bands, not just short clips or snippets of rehearsals or concerts, thus providing a platform for the music of these groups to be heard. Nobody Knows about Persian Cats won a prize in Cannes.

The murder took place in Brooklyn, NY. Two of the murder victims were in the band Yellow Dogs, featured in Persian Cats, and the perpetrator had been a member of the Free Keys, another band that had been part of the documentary and often performed with Yellow Dogs, but had been expelled from the band after they joined the Yellow Dogs in America.

Here is a video from the Yellow Dogs, who sang in English:

After the film was screened in Cannes, some of the featured musicians redoubled their efforts to leave Iran. Their music was prohibited, and men and women sat together and danced together at their concerts (carefully hidden from public view)—strictly prohibited in Iran. Precautions taken to dramatically reduce the possibility of being raided by police are described in the film, (and in the video and in their writings)—and they were not always successful.

They were able to come to the United States in 2010, moved to Brooklyn, applied for and received asylum, and had garnered some important performances.

The gunman killed Arash Farazmand, 28, the Yellow Dogs’ drummer, and his brother, Yellow Dogs’ guitarist Soroush Farazmand, 27. Ali Eskandarian, 35, another musician was killed (I do not think he seen in Persian Cats ashe was described as Iranian-American and I would expect it would have been mentioned had he been part of one of the groups featured in the film). The gunman’s name was Ali Akbar Muhammad Rafie.

At the time we screened the film, I did not make any major attempt to follow up on the activities of the featured bands.

The recent news report shows, though, that understanding the cultural scene—including the counter cultural scene of Iranian rockers—provides an important window into a slice of Iranian society. After viewing the film, it was easy to imagine that the bands faced persecution, jail and perhaps even execution if they remained in Iran. It would have been hard to imagine that one of the bands seen in the film was able to begin a career in the US, only to have half the band killed by a musician who had been part of another band in the film. May their memories serve as a blessing.

Seth Ward

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