Iran Scores a Big Hit With an Iconic Song
By SABRINA MERVIN
Based on an idea by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, the song “Salâm farmândeh” (Salute commander) launched last Spring has been a smash hit in Iran. Immediately exported to Shi’ite populations across the world, it has given rise to any number of local versions. Their tonality reflects either support or reticence about Iran and its power.
The emotion which the song elicits and a well-orchestrated promotional campaign on the social networks have fostered the success of this new propaganda tool, a music video. With lyrics combining religion and politics, “Salute Commander” (Salâm farmândeh) is aimed at an audience of children, perceived as the future army of their “Messiah,” awaited by Shi’ites everywhere, the Mahdi … and of his earthly representative, Ali Khamenei. In Iran and wherever there are Shi’ite communities, Salute Commander has spread like wildfire during the past few months, has gone viral on the Web. However, in various versions, the Iranian model has been adapted, revisited and sometimes even challenged. Iran’s hegemony has its limits and its detractors.
Somewhere between a gesture song for children and a national anthem, in its original version, which has become a kind of matrix, “Salute Commander” takes the form of a performance by a singer and a group of children who arrive one by one to form a chorus: under the camera, it becomes a pop promo. The tune is easy to retain, the orchestration is simple, as are the lyrics and the rhymes, while the gestures are easy to imitate. These begin with a military salute, which is repeated each time the lyrics return, “Salâm farmândeh”. And here lies the ambiguity of the song: farmândeh means commander in Persian but is not the customary way in which the faithful address the Imam of Time, the Mahdi, either in Iran or anywhere else. Here, the speaker is a child who is addressing both Ali Khamenei (the “Leader of the Revolution” and chief of the armies) and the Mahdi, assuring them of his love and devotion but also of his allegiance and obedience to the point of the supreme sacrifice. He declares himself ready to receive the Imam of Time and volunteers to serve in the army of 313 soldiers which the latter shall lead against tyrants to restore justice on Earth.
In spite of my small size I promise to become one of your army’s commanders
My soul, my life is meaningless without you…
I salute you from the ranks of the 313 soldiers
I swear to become your Qasem when you are in need of me …
to become your servant like Bajat … and the unknown martyrs.
These names refer to famous personalities: Qasem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, killed in Baghdad by a US strike in 2020; Sheikh Bahjat, an Iranian religious dignitary and mystic, deceased in 2009; the martyrs of Iran’s wars.
Even the Iranian press points out that the song “brilliantly blurs the distinction between the hidden Imam and his earthly deputy, he Ayatollah Khamenei.” The text is at one and the same time a theological commitment whereby the believer renews his pact with the Imam and a political oath whereby he swears to serve the regime or even lay down his life for it. The emotion is strong, several children are crying, and the camera shows us close-ups of the most expressive faces.
A SONG AIMED AT CHILDREN
On several occasions since 2014, Ali Khamenei urged his entourage to get on with it, and pleaded with artists to imagine a song which children could sing on their way to school. Aware of the power of popular culture, omnipresent in Shi’ism, he declared he wanted to reach out to the generation of the 1390s according to the Persian calendar, which began in 2011, in other words, to children around ten.
The response to his wish came from an obscure singer in the province of Gilan, Abuz Ruhi, vocalist with a group called Mah. They gave “Salâm Farmândeh” for the first time in their hometown of Langrud on the Mahdi’s birthday, last May. After which Abuzar Ruhi began a tour of Iran, performing in the most symbolic places in the history of Shi’ism: Jamkarân, Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis), Qom, Ispahan, Shiraz, etc. On 26 May, in Azadi Stadium in Tehran, a crowd of 100,000 children and their families, waving Iranian flags or wearing Salâm Farmândeh t-shirts gathered to sing the song, reading the lyrics on a huge prompter.
The promotional campaign was launched: Abuzar Ruhi sang for children in a cancer ward, there were more and more gatherings giving rise to as many video clips which circulated on the Net. As the official media soon acknowledged, “Salâm Farmândeh” was fast becoming a genuine social phenomenon in Iran.
However, contrary reactions soon began to appear. Even while the song and its proponents were drawing crowds in Tehran, anger was brewing after the collapse of a mansion block in Abadan which killed dozens of people and the brutal crackdown on the street protests that followed. People who resented the rising cost of living and daily hardships remained indifferent to that “hymn to heaven” as it was dubbed by the commander of the Pasdarans. While some commentators praised the modesty of the girls singing the song duly veiled in their chadors, there were other Iranian men and women, inside the country and abroad, who reacted on the social networks to this puritanism by posting parodies of the performance, countless dances, eloquent mimics or provocative unveiling.
Nor did critics and humorists fail to latch on to this facet of the “Salâm farmândeh” phenomenon. Outside of Iran, other critics focused on the ideology advocated by the song, perceived as an Iranian “Trojan horse,” manipulating and indoctrinating children, the “Hollywood side” of the publicity and the way in which it tended to deprive foreign Shi’ite communities of their identity.
MANY VERSIONS IN OTHER LANGUAGES
“Salâm farmândeh” was also officially exported by its promoters and spread quickly through the world’s Shi’ite communities as the latest fad. Soon the videos shot at Iranian gatherings were subtitled in Arabic, English or Urdu to reach a wider audience. Then Abuzar Ruhi went on tours of Pakistan, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries, performances all modelled after those in Iran, organised via its local relays – cultural centres, Islamic centres, schools, etc.
The lyrics themselves were translated into various languages (Arabic, Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri, Urdu, Pashtun, Balti, Hausa, Swahili, Russian, English, etc.) and the mise en scene was ambitious according to the size and means of the different communities but also their proximity or not with the ideology of the Islamic Republic. The result is an abundance of different versions some of which cleave to the original model and its staging codes (body language; portraits of Khamenei, Soleimani, Khomeini; chadors for the girls, and in some instances paramilitary uniforms for the boys), whilst other versions introduce shades of difference, depart considerably from the original or subvert it altogether, signifying complete estrangement from the Revolution and its Leader. This abundant production reflects the geography of the different attitudes towards Iran and the ideology which it preaches and provides a look at the broad range of the perceptions of Shi’ism around the world and especially of the ways in which the Mahdi is worshipped.
PERFORMANCES FROM NIGERIA TO AZERBAIJAN
As early as last June, the communities closest to Iran took up “Salâm farmândeh” in Kargil, Kashmir, Turkey and in Nigeria, where children in a school were assembled to sing the song in Hausa, and in the presence of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic movement in that country. Several performances were recorded in Baku, one in which the singers wore masks: it is not an easy matter these days to advocate militant political Shi’ism in Azerbaijan. In Debent, capital of the Republic of Daghestan, Salute my imam was sung in Russian.
In Syria, the children, and young people of two villages, Nubl and Zajra, sang the Arabic version of the original model brandishing portraits of Iranian leaders and Hasan Nasralla, general secretary of Hezbollah. Then the children and youths of Zayn al-’Abidin, a neighbourhood in Damascus, followed suit for a video clip which ends with a shot of a young man giving a military salute in front of the Sayyida Zaynab shrine.
In Lebanon, where communication campaigns are commonplace, Hezbollah has produced a video which it claims to be the official Lebanese version and the Mahdi Scouts organised gatherings of its followers in Beqaa (Hermel) a southern suburb of Beirut or in South-Lebanon. The lyrics of the Hezbollah version are modelled after the Iranian one and have added the movement’s own heroes (Hasan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, Ragheb Harb, etc.) “It’s not a song, it’s a missile strike!” … shouted a sheikh close to the party, and he added in a well-rehearsed formula, this operation foiled the conspiracies of worldwide arrogance.
Other Shi’ite communities did not adhere strictly to the Iranian model, either for fear of reprisals, or to keep a low profile in the eyes of the local authorities or else, indeed, to distance themselves from Iran, politically as well as culturally. It could also be a way for Shi’ism to put down roots in their country. In London, the lyrics of the English version were stripped of political significance.
In Dar es Salaam, the lyrics were translated into Swahili and transformed: the singers waved Tanzanian flags and addressed the Mahdi: “We are united, thou canst bring peace.” No political allusions in their performance which draws the usual compliments on the Internet. Nor does the French version contain any politics: while the Iranian model provides the format, the lyrics have been rearranged. And it was shot below the Eiffel Tower, thus, like other versions clearly, if stereotypically, flaunting a geographical location. It is signed “the Shi’ite youth of France,” a group which conceals its actual name.
In Arabic, rivalling the Hezbollah version, which claims to have been viewed two million times, another version lays claim to twelve million viewers: it is a very professional-looking video produced by the Shi’ites of Bahrain and carries a message of peace and gentleness (a woman releasing a dove by the sea, children dressed all in white against serene landscapes). It contains no political allusions but uses codes referring to Shi’ite rituals: the children tie green ribbons around each other’s wrists, wave big white flags, “Oh Mahdi,” do not salute in a military manner but raise their arms before them. The tone of the lyrics is similar, focusing on the pact of fidelity with the Imam and the expectation of his return. This version had considerable success on the Web and became a competing model with its lyrics translated or adapted in other languages.
THE CASE OF IRAQ
Among the Shi’ites of the world, the responses to Iranian dominance, whether one of acceptance, of accommodation or of rejection are subtler than it might seem. Iran, our “Big Brother,” is primarily seen as the spearhead of Shi’ism with which each community has ties that are close, based on linguistic, historic, cultural or political affiliations and which generate a particular form of diplomacy. As for the Iranian regime itself, after the efforts export its revolution, it has opted for a foreign policy of soft power which does not exclude more energetic forms of intrusion abroad.
Neighbouring Iraq, regarded as a “Shi’ite power” after 2003 has experienced this directly since Iran has been projecting its deep state across the border and maintains militias there devoted to its cause. It has been obvious, since the massive street protests of 2019 when slogans were heard condemning the Iranian takeover, up to and including the most recent tensions, that the political and economic pressures exerted by Iran do not go unopposed. If we add to this the discreet but firm reservations expressed by the marja’iyya (Iraqi religious authority) in the face of Iranian demands in preparing for Ali Sistani’s succession, it is easy to understand why it is worth dwelling on the reception in Iraq of this Salâm Farmândeh operation.
An Iraqi version
The first gatherings were organised in June at Basra by the supporters of the Hachd al-sha’bi militias (popular mobilisation) organised following Ali-Sistani’s fatwa calling for the defence of the country against daech. The ambivalence of Hachd, some factions of which are in league with Iran, or even actuated by the Islamic Republic, while at the same time claiming allegiance to Sistani, is visible in the many videos it has produced. The participants wear military garb, brandish portraits of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (killed along with the latter, whose Iraqi alter ego he was), thereby displaying their allegiance to Iran while at the same time carrying portraits of Sistani.
The allusion to Sayid Ali in Salute my Imam of Time does not refer to Khamenei as in the Iranian model but to Sistani, evoking his fatwa that led to the creation of Hachd. However, while the flags waved by the participants are either that of Iraq or of the Hachd militia, this version refers, for a good many Iraqis, to the Iranian presence in their country. As for Ali Sistani, his lack of sympathy for the pro-Iranian militias is well known. Another performance in the same vein was staged in Al-Sahla Mosque in Kula, where tradition has it that the Mahdi will reside there when he returns. Not to mention Abuzar Ruhi’s tour, from Kirkuk to Karbala by way of Baghdad and Samara, where he was filmed singing “Salâm Farmândeh” whilst visiting the sanctuary, face pressed to the shrine in the Imam’s tomb.
In Karbala he gave a performance, with the original Persian lyrics, in the huge space between the Husayn and ’Abbas sanctuaries, a beacon of Shi’ite piety and a place where pilgrims socialise. “Iran, Lebanon and Iraq can never be separated,” he declared before he sang. His audience had mostly brought Iraqi flags and portraits of Sistani…
THE FOREGROUNDING OF RELIGION
Karbala TV shot a video with Mohamed Ghuloom, the same singer as in the Bahraini version, surrounded by children. It took place in Karbala, near a mausoleum dedicated to the Mahdi and other sanctuaries in that city. No flags and no portraits, just green ribbons and candles, a few boys wearing traditional dress, the green shawl of the sayyids wrapped around a fez as worn by the holy site servers. Piety and religious legitimacy are the keynotes of this clip.
The Ashura celebrations in August might have stolen the limelight but this was not what happened. “Salâm Farmândeh” remained the object of these re-appropriations. The melody and the basic scenario enacted by children were used for other performances and other video clips in which were now focused on Husayn, such as “Husayn mâwlanâ” (Husayn our master), produced in Bahrain and taken up in Lebanon by the scouts of the Amal movement… And the saga of this hit song is far from ended…
Directress of research at the CNRS, member of the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (Iremam).