The diva is cloaked in a white flannel bathrobe, bare feet up on a chair, her face looking its age in the harsh fluorescent light. She pouts between sips of hot tea as a makeup artist chases her lips with a brush dipped in waxy violet gloss. The dressing room scene is not a pretty picture. But it doesn't matter because this is Googoosh, the most famous Iranian singer of the 20th century, a living icon who touches the heartstrings of her fans as if she were Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf rolled into one. In a few moments, a blue Maserati will race her to a concert hall where she'll sing for a hometown crowd for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Gushes Googoosh: "This is like a rebirth!"
Because of political difficulties in Googoosh's country, her homecoming concert is taking place not in Iran but across the Persian Gulf in Dubai, one of the Arab Emirates. More than 10,000 Iranians have arrived on the 105-minute flight from Tehran for the concert, which was timed for Norouz, the Persian New Year. When she finally appears in the hall, they surge forward chanting "Goo-goosh, Goo-goosh!" and waving placards emblazoned, "We Love You!" In a golden robe, her eyes watery with emotion, she kneels and says, "Happy Norouz to all my dear Iranians!"
As women pass tissues to one another to wipe away their tears, Googoosh starts into an old favorite, Four Seasons, which suddenly has the crowd on its feet clapping in rhythm. "This was the background music to our life," says Farzaneh, 33, a physician. Adds Shireen, 35, who brought along her 8-year-old daughter: "We never thought we'd see this day."
The recent Dubai concert was the finale of a 19-city tour, made possible when Googoosh was granted a passport amid the cultural thaw under moderate President Mohammed Khatami. Her shows attracted U.S. politicians, Iranian soccer players and admirers like Celine Dion, who reportedly caught her gig in Toronto. But conservative clerics in Iran denounced Googoosh's tour, making her entourage nervous about a return home. Googoosh will spend the next few months shooting a movie in Cuba, where she will have time to measure the risk involved in going back to Iran.
Born in 1950 as Faegheh Atashin, Googoosh began performing at age three with her father's folklore dance ensemble and was a national singing star at 15. During the Shah's era she reigned over the Tehran nightclub scene. After his overthrow, she returned from a trip abroad and offered to sing My Beloved Sir and a revolutionary anthem for the Ayatulluh Khomeini. But the new regime banned female vocalists as temptresses, and Khomeini's cultural police put her under virtual house arrest. Some Iranian entertainers fled to Los Angeles-or, as Iranians call it, Tehrangeles-to make a living within the new Iranian diaspora. But for the next two decades Googoosh shunned opportunities to slip out of Iran, living alone, buying her own groceries and only occasionally gathering around a piano with friends. She always won the hearts of Iranians with classic ballads of lost love and hardship. But some of her new songs deal with death, suffering, repression and exile, the more recent Iranian experience of Islamic revolution and the long war with Iraq. "If I stayed, it was for the children of the war, for the mothers imprisoned by their tears," she sings on her new CD Zoroaster.
Such sentiments are reaching eager ears in Iran, where a new generation has grown up listening to their parents' Googoosh albums or pirated audiocassettes of old tunes. "She's suffered our pain with us all these years," says Amir, 25, an engineer from Tehran who waited for two hours out side Dubai's World Trade Center to catch a glimpse of her. "In this choking regime of the mullahs, she knows of what she sings."
For Googoosh, the difficulties of the last two decades are eased by the bonds she shares with her followers. Typical among them is Omid Daneshvar, 39, a computer engineer standing in the fourth row with other listeners chanting "Googoosh, we love you!" She bellows back, "I'd die for you!" and moves into a ballad, singing "I shall lend my voice to history/ Oh, give me the chance, so I can sing your tears!" All the while, Daneshvar is holding up a cell phone, connecting the sounds to his family seated in a living room back in Tehran. If Googoosh's songs have freed her nation's memory, they seem to have reunited a people as well.