Learning to Play by Ear in Iran

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Years ago, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi warplanes dropped mustard gas and nerve agents on my battalion. I was completely burned, with blisters all over my body. I couldn’t see anything for months (and since then I’ve had over 50 operations on my eyes). My lungs were severely damaged; they functioned at only 45 percent. I also had a lot of emotional problems. I was angry all the time. I just wanted to be alone. It was hard because, even after I was married, I didn’t know how to control this deep helplessness, fear and anger. I was taking a lot of medicine too — for all my injuries and for my anger.

I began to see a psychiatrist, but it wasn’t helping much. So a doctor friend of mine in Tehran told me to try music as therapy. The idea made me nervous, because music wasn’t fully O.K. at the time in Iran, especially for those of us who had fought in the war. We were supposed to be soldiers and defenders of the revolution, and music was seen as not being proper or serious enough. But I always loved music. We even hired a band for our wedding illegally. I was open to the doctor’s suggestion, but I wasn’t sure how others would feel about it.

There was a great teacher, Maestro Malek, who not only taught music classes but also had his own workshop where he made the santur, a traditional hammered dulcimer, and it was located near my father’s grocery store. The maestro also had a dairy farm next to his music store, which was where we bought the milk to sell at the grocery. One day when I was at his dairy to pick up the milk, the maestro asked me: “Do you know why I have the best milk in town? Because the cows hear music every day. It makes the cows eat more and then produce more milk. It also makes them live longer!” Maybe the doctor was right about the power of music, I thought, so I signed up to take classes.

The maestro’s students were mostly young people — I was the oldest in the class. And since my lungs were badly damaged, I coughed a lot. I worried that my constant coughing was bothering the other students. So I only went to one class. But that was enough to make me fall in love. I wanted to learn this instrument.

We didn’t have the money back then to buy a santur of my own. But I had a gold wedding ring, and since my wife was pregnant with our son and her wedding ring had become too small for her, she was willing to sell both. We sold the rings for 15,000 tomans, which was a lot back then. With that, I bought a santur.

I arranged it so that I was at Maestro Malek’s dairy farm when the classes started. I would go earlier to pick up the milk for my father’s store and would delay in getting back. I’d stand outside the window of the class and just listen. The teacher had no idea I was out there.

I’d come back home and try to recreate what I heard through that window. My poor wife! I had no idea what I was doing, and I was just making noise. I know I gave her a lot of headaches in those first few months. But I would come home every day and try to mimic what I heard in their class. Because I was only hearing the lessons from the window, and because my eyesight was so bad after the bombing, I couldn’t see how the students had positioned the instrument in front of them. But that’s how I learned, just by listening and trying to recreate the sounds. It took me about six months to learn the notes.

One day, Maestro Malek heard that I had learned how to play the santur,and he insisted on hearing me play. I was really far too embarrassed to play in front of him. But he insisted. He came to our house, and I played for him. When I finished, I was nervous for him to speak.

“This is the first time in my life that I have seen someone learn the santur in this way,” he said, “and to play the instrument the wrong way around!”

Until that moment, I didn’t know I was playing it wrong! After that, I learned the right way as well. I fell in love with it so much that I even began to compose songs and later perform concerts.

Learning to play music really did affect my mood. I no longer had to take anything to control my anger. But after 2013, when the sanctions against Iran worsened, I stopped having access to the medicine I needed, and my health deteriorated. I had three cornea-transplant operations in just one year — because they didn’t have the medication to keep my body from rejecting the transplants. I’m doing better now, but because of all of this, I haven’t played publicly in a few years.

I still play at home most days. It helps keep my mood up, and it brings joy to my family. When they see me play, I can sense that they stop worrying about me, and that gives me relief.


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