Singer Rita Jahanforuz has accomplished something rare for an Israeli artist: Her new album has made it big in the land of her birth, Iran. A long-time darling of the Israeli pop world, Rita (as she's known to her fans) stunned people when she announced plans for an album of old Persian songs, re-imagined and re-produced. The album went gold in Israel within a month of its release. And it has made Rita a star in Iran as well.
At lunchtime at a popular Persian restaurant in south Tel Aviv, even on the busy mid-day shift, the mood in the room changes noticeably when one of Rita's songs comes on the radio. Restaurant owner Moluk Hanasab says she's excited to hear the romantic wedding song "Shah Doomad." It's her favorite song on Rita's new album. Once popular at weddings, no one has performed it in over 60 years.
Hanasab says the last time she heard it, she was a small child at a wedding in her hometown in the Iranian city of Isfahan. She hums the melody to herself and smiles, saying now she will play it at the weddings of her grandchildren in Tel Aviv.
The 50-year-old Israeli singer was thinking of people like Hanasab when she recorded My Joys. "I went to my bags of the singles that my mother brought from Iran and I started to listen to them," Rita says. "All the songs that were really part of my life, my childhood, the music of our family — these were the songs that I eventually chose to sing on this record."
Rita's family was among tens of thousands of Jews who fled Iran during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She says she wasn't surprised that the Iranian Jewish diaspora embraced the album. She was surprised, however, when her CDs started popping up in Tehran, Beirut and Istanbul, and on pirate radio stations across the region.
"A lot of them, they write that they love the music and, 'Thank you for showing the world another — the real culture of Iran and not only what they talk about now in the world the bombs and all the dark things,'" Rita says, showing off some of her fan mail from Tehran.
In another letter, an Iranian fan from the southwestern city of Shiraz writes to say he would risk punishment by the Iranian regime to see one of her upcoming shows in the U.S. Rita says other Iranian-Muslim fans said they would even risk a trip to Israel to hear her sing — if either the Israeli or Iranian government allowed that kind of travel.
"What happened with this album was beyond anything I could really think or dream," Rita says.
Her album has become a hit across the region but she says in Iran it can only be sold under the table with a blank album cover under the name Khanoume Rita, or "Miss Rita."
But in Israel, not everyone has been supportive of an album in the language of the so-called enemy.
"I had friends and colleagues when I started that project and I told them that I am doing a record in Persian. They said 'Oh my god, you are going to sing a whole record in the language of Ahmadinejad?' They were frightened," Rita says. "I said, 'You know Ahmadinejad is a small point in such an amazing history of Iran, and someone has to come and show that.'"
For fans like Hanasab, remembering the old Iran is half the beauty of Rita's album. Hanasab's restaurant is filled with photos of the last Shah, and the pre-Islamic Revolution flag. "Iran was once a center of culture in the world," Hanasab says. "Rita's album reminds all Iranians of the good old days."