The woman sitting across from me looks different from the Liraz Charhi I know from television, movies and gossip columns. She has the same gorgeous honey-colored eyes and the same long, thick eyelashes. But my gaze is transfixed by her gold nose ring, an indication of a major career shift. Charhi may be known in Israel for her acting and modeling, but she would prefer to be known primarily as a singer.
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She has already recorded two albums, “Liraz Charhi” and “Rak Lekha Mutar” (“Only You’re Allowed”), which didn’t make much of a mark on the local music industry. But for the past year, she’s been pursuing a new and intriguing direction. She’s shedding her old image and seeking to become a star in the land of her ancestors, Iran – even though she’s never been there and may never be able to go there. She even has a new stage name for her new image: Liraz.
“I was in the mainstream, I was managed by the mainstream and I worked with some very interesting people from the heart of the mainstream – until I finally understood that I am not mainstream. Not in my personality or in my creative process,” she tells Haaretz. “I decided to write songs that would bring the point at which my parents disconnected from Iran, the 1970s, to the here and now, and integrate it with modern electronic music. Music in Iran in the ’70s was characterized by resistance to traditional music and a desire to find a universal sound. A fusion of ethnic Iranian instruments – ney flute, Persian santoor – with Western melodies. A lot of rock on the one hand, along with Russian-influenced melodies from musicians who had studied in Europe.”
Upset about something
Charhi, 37, grew up in Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya, and now lives in Tel Aviv with her husband, actor Tom Avni, and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter. From the start of our meeting, I can tell she is upset about something. She asks if I’ve heard the latest reports about women being banned from singing publicly at memorial ceremonies in Israel.
“I grew up with heavy baggage. Iranian on my mother and father’s side. Like it or not, the fight for women’s freedom of expression is in my DNA,” she says. “Everything I do in life is connected to the ban on women’s singing. It started back in Iran with my grandmothers, two talented women who were forced to freeze themselves – not to dance at a party or sing at a wedding. One of them was married at 13, the other at 15. My mother’s mother, Sharona Yahan-Farouz [the mother of the singer Rita, who is Charhi’s aunt], is an amazing singer. But instead of singing, she became a hairdresser and took care of the children. She’s such a beautiful woman. Wherever she goes, the world comes to a halt. A week ago, I had her join me for two songs at a show and the musicians could hardly play. With every line she sang the audience broke into applause. Forty years ago, in order to hear music she had to peek over the cellars at the end of the street, because only men were allowed to go in and play music.”
Charhi says the issue of women singing has haunted her her whole life. “In high school, the first paper I wrote in the theater track was about how a woman in a Persian home has to keep her mouth shut. It pained me even then, at 16. When I served in the army musical troupe, there were times when we would arrive at a base and I’d be told, ‘There’s a religious captain in the audience so don’t sway your hips too much.’ And things have only gotten worse since then.
“Iran is here. It’s very scary. Women banned from singing at public memorial ceremonies? A girl who wants to sing before an audience is the purest and most honest thing there is. I don’t get it. In the last year, I’ve lost a few musicians who became religious and wouldn’t perform with me anymore.
“My favorite Iranian singer is Googoosh,” she continues. “What happened to her I wouldn’t wish on myself or my daughter. From 1979-2000, she was forbidden to sing. Persian culture was so broad and so rich – literature, poetry, music – how did they suppress that? I’m scared to death that we’re headed the same way.”
Charhi’s career turnabout was well planned and assisted by a seasoned team of advisers and PR people. “I told myself that if I don’t do it now, I won’t ever have the guts to do it,” she says. “And since my life is about to change, I have to do it very carefully and precisely. I know exactly what I’m going to wear for my next six shows; which microphone I’ll sing into; who the sound man and musicians will be. I went into this with a lot of patience. I was sure it would take me at least a year to get into some world music festival, but I’ve already got shows lined up until April 2017.”
To develop her new look, she says she studied photographs and the album covers of her favorite singers, and developed a look she calls a fusion between ’70s Iranian and street fashion with an ethnic element. “I’m not dressing up in a costume. I have to feel comfortable on stage.”
You were born in Israel. Why the attachment to Farsi?
“My parents always spoke Farsi with me. Stupidly, I always answered them in Hebrew. It wasn’t until I was working as an actress in Los Angeles that I discovered I could speak Farsi with relatives there. It takes me a little time to get going, but then I speak fluently. At my last show in Ashdod, I got into a great conversation with the audience in Farsi. My husband and parents were shocked!”
In the video of her Farsi version of the Ellie Goulding song “Love Me Like You Do,” Charhi wears a sheer burka that covers but doesn’t hide her face. I ask what she was trying to say with that, and how she relates to traditional Muslim dress. “My parents both made aliyah from Iran in the ’60s. Things were relatively good in Iran then, but they sensed a revolution was coming. My mother’s family was forced to move from one neighborhood to another and to hide their Jewishness. My parents met and married in Israel, but they could just as easily have met there. I often think what would have happened if I were born in Iran into the [Islamic] Revolution, into a battle for survival as a woman. I’d be walking around right now all covered up in a chador, the Iranian burka. It’s mind-boggling.”
For the video, she went to designer Keren Wolf, asking her to create a fantasy version of a burka. “We worked on it from scratch. We sewed and created it,” Charhi says, “and then we flew to Istanbul to film the video in a palace there. It was just director Eitan Sarid and me, and we filmed until the police came and told us to leave. I pretended I was a religious woman in a burka and told the policeman I was from Iran and was invited to an event there.
“The same day, we also filmed at a mosque and in the Grand Bazaar. And in the video, at the moment when I lifted the burka, people shouted at me and kicked me out of there. At the end of this intense and emotionally charged day of filming, I took off the burka and burst into tears. I felt I had done something for a lot of women, not just for me.
“When Iranians are exposed to my videos through YouTube and Facebook, and discover that I’m an Israeli woman who sings in Farsi and am allowed to do this because it’s in Israel – this is my way of fighting against the silencing of women there. I get lots of letters and messages from Iranian women who tell me, ‘Go for it! Keep on soaring higher. You’re so lucky you can do this.’ No matter what, everything I do somehow comes back to women being prohibited from singing.”