Amongst the outer reaches of the Shiite province of Bakhtiari, Iran, there lived a boy who was to shatter every mold that was unfortunate enough to encounter him on its path. His name was Ashkan. A slender frame, always bedecked with the most tasteful of clothes, gave no indication of the strength, both mental and physical, that resided within the boy. His radiant face, with an aquiline nose and an impeccably trimmed beard, always held an expression of vague irritation. The sort of expression one wears when one is upset but cannot quite remember why.
Ashkan’s childhood and adolescence was a miasma of experiences out of which only two kinds of people emerge: The broken or the extraordinary. Ashkan was the latter.
Battling society, parental pressure and his own conscience, Ashkan decided to pursue a life of extreme, on-the-edge, creativity. Armed with his guitarrón, his fingers bled for music, weaving melodies that were not necessarily understood, but certainly appreciated by onlookers wherever he performed. Eventually, his talent gaining wider recognition every day, his street performances began to pull in more money than he had ever dared hope for, allowing him to devote more time to his craft undisturbed, and also to widen his geographical horizons. Previously, Ashkan had never been beyond the outer limits of his own province. The entire world outside of Bakhtiari was known to him only through the highly unrealiable medium of village gossip, and the mythological and fable-istic renditions of the world’s current events that filtered through to him via illiterate tongues. He was aware that his perspective on the world could only be described, at best, as skewed, and so he yearned to right that wrong the only way he could. By travelling.
Khosrow was born into a wealthy and influential family in the most affluent part of Khuzestan. Never knowing what it meant to need something, Khosrow spent his entire life relentlessly hunting down and acquiring whatever pleased his fancy most. His wing of the house boasted the most eclectic memorabilia from unimaginably diverse fields of activities. His tales of how he acquired those items were almost as awe-inspiring as the items themselves. Now a grown man of 32, his interests had evolved from objectophilia into an interest in the uncommon man.
He had taken to travelling to the remotest corners of Iran, letting his gut guide him more than anything else, and searching for any form of extraordinariness. Once he found something that caught his exotic fancy, he would do whatever it took to add that person to his entourage. He would become their guide, their sponsor, their caretaker… Their God. He usually got his way pretty quickly. There are very few obstacles that money cannot overcome. And so it was that, walking along the streets of a godforsaken town in Eastern Iran, he encountered a melody that, even to his trained ears, sounded other-worldly.
Ashkan’s tale (contd):
The world was multifarious and infinite! How Ashkan wept when first he realized all that had been denied to him because of the small-minded fear-mongering by the elders of his village. But it was not too late. Ashkan, a veritable sponge, who once would walk almost doubled over in fear of human contact, now thrust his chest out forward, and walked with his eyes scouring the populace for a bright face or a welcoming smile. He found everywhere in people a willingness to share their experiences. And from their experiences, little droplets of wisdom would fall to the parched tongue that was his mind. He discovered an underground network of musicians that functioned as a loosely connected web, never intrusive, but always within reach. Tapping into this underbelly of craft, Ashkan honed, modified and polished his already formidable virtuosity with the guitarrón. Even amongst musicians, he was one of the few who was widely considered capable of going international; something very few dared to dream about. Along with his growing fame, Ashkan had to deal with his share of detractors too. They ranged from the self-anointed music critics to the conservative radicals that periodically vented their wrath on the perpetrators of whatever they decided was the corruption of Iranian morality at that given time. However, an artistic constitution is no stranger to struggle, and Ashkan took it all as a matter of course. To the critics, he presented his guitarrón, allowing his fingers to reduce their critiques to dust. To the radicals, he preferred not to give reply. Theirs was a world that he never hoped nor ever wished to inhabit. And he had, with some success, managed to avoid any open confrontations by sticking to side alleys and underground performances. It was, however, a battle that he knew would come someday. And that day, he needed to be ready.
On some days, when his performances hit new levels of brilliance, he would be approached by agents or other musicians for a collaboration. Sometimes these worked, more often than not, they didn’t. But after much sifting and excruciation, Ashkan found himself surrounded by a solid group of musicians, all of whom understood what he aimed for, and provided the perfect platform for him to get there. For the first time, he felt prepared.
Khosrow’s tale (contd):
It’s all coming together wonderfully well.
Khosrow inspected himself in the mirror with the same satisfied expression with which he looked upon all his possessions. His face bore all the marks of majesty. Perfectly oval, with thick eyebrows, and a beard of absolute magnificence. He wore traditional Iranian clothes, but with a panache that left few in any doubt as to his position in this world. He needed to look his best today.
Having heard Ashkan perform on the streets to a crowd that was far too small and far too illiterate to appreciate what was being served up to them, Khosrow resolved to create the perfect environment for his newest ward. Unbeknownst to Ashkan, Khosrow arranged for musicians all over Iran to “happen across” Ashkan performing in the streets, allowing Ashkan himself to choose from amongst them who he needed to form his own band and complement his music. Khosrow did not like to reveal himself too early. He worked from the shadows, revealing only partially to his wards the paths to success, and allowing them to believe the paths were of their own making. And then, when the time was right, he stepped forth from the shadows, all light and glory, and reveled in the gratitude of the artist.
Ashkan would be no different. His newly formed band, thanks to some shrewd marketing by Khosrow, had acquired something of a cult following amongst the locals, and word was spreading fast. Today, with a well-placed word or two from Khosrow, they had been invited to perform to a crowd of 2000 people; a crowd several times larger than any of them had ever encountered in their lives.
They even got special mention in the local newspapers. They were well and truly on their way to the big time.
Khosrow got to the venue early, carefully keeping out of the public eye. He watched Ashkan and his band set up the equipment and finetune the sound settings with an ease that was astounding in a group so inexperienced. He saw the expectations of the crowd render the very air electric. People lounged about, almost uneasily, not quite sure what they were about to experience, but salivating at its prospect nonetheless. Khosrow did not like to admit it, but he was nervous.
And then the performance began, and Khosrow wondered why he was ever worried at all. His grin widened steadily throughout the performance, reaching its zenith as the band ended their set to an ovation the likes of which are reserved for the ruler of the nation. This was the moment!
With a nod to the stage security, he walked around the barriers and strode up the steps to meet the band. Walking straight to Ashkan, he spread his arms, inviting him into an embrace. He felt a surge of emotion within himself, as he felt he was on the cusp of a life changing experience. And, in Ashkan’s eyes, he felt, he could see a hint of the same.
Ashkan’s tale (finale):
Ashkan’s felt giddy with delight. The past month had been a blur to him. Between the forming of the band, the seamless transition from a group of solo musicians into a well-drilled unit, and the bewildering invitation to a performance that he was sure he would not forget for the rest of his life, Ashkan felt like he was on a joyride with Willy Wonka, tasting the greatest pleasures in life, all of which had been concentrated into an extremely brief span of time. His life as a street musician, dependent on the generosity of the locals seemed a lifetime away. Today, two thousand people swung to the tune of his fingers.
But with the giddiness, there came also fear. Ashkan was not naïve. He knew it was not normal for everything to fall into place so easily. And since he had no reason to suspect a silent benefactor, he merely assumed that he was on an extraordinary run of luck, and that it was bound to end soon. It was the crash that he most dreaded, but it was also something he awaited with something akin to impatience. He wished it would come so that he may be done with it and see where he stood in its aftermath.
Today, however, giddiness prevailed. They had played a perfect set and the crowd had not stopped cheering throughout. All the world seemed at his feet. And just then, as his exhilaration hit its crescendo, he spotted a flurry of movement off stage, to the right. He saw a man, obviously one who held a position of power, walk through the security with not so much as a hand laid on him. He saw all his fellow band members separate to make way for the man to get to him. The man had a smile on his face, a wild smile, one belying undercurrents of tyranny and possibly insanity. His eyes shone with a fervor that only served to intensify the fear growing with Ashkan. All his insecurities and fears about performing in Tehran came flooding back. His fellow band members had assured him he had nothing to fear from the radicals, that they were not significant enough to warrant such attention. But now, seeing their demeanour, Ashkan understood that they were in on it from the beginning. This, then, was the reason everything had gone through without a hitch. It was a set up!
His dreams crushed, he stared into the eyes of the bearded fanatic. His Shiite upbringing in the slums of Bakhtiari had ingrained in him one undying principle. Fight!
And so, as Khosrow spread his arms, welcoming Ashkan to the embrace of brothers, Ashkan’s body tensed up. Using all his strength, Ashkan struck, hitting Khosrow under his right eye with astonishing force, knocking him to the floor, motionless. The crowd, all at once, became silent, and the looks of horror on his bandmates’ faces told Ashkan that his fairytale was over.
The Shiite had hit the fan.