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Outpouring Of Grief For Iranian Pop Star Catches Regime Off Guard


An outpouring of public grief has caught Iranian authorities off-guard. Thousands of young people took to the streets yesterday, after they learned of the death of a 30-year-old pop star, Morteza Pashaee.


MORTEZA PASHAEE: (Singing in foreign language).

BLOCK: As news of Pashaee's death spread through social media, spontaneous crowds gathered in a Tehran with camera phones and iPads clutching his portrait and singing along to his lyrics of love and loss.


UNIDENTIFIED FANS: (Singing in foreign language).

BLOCK: The New York Times Tehran bureau chief, Thomas Erdbrink, joins me from the Iranian capital. And Thomas, describe the scene as all of these young people poured into the streets to mourn this pop star. What was that like?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, right after Mr. Pashaee's death, youth started gathering at the hospital where he died. And they started out with dozens, then it turned into hundreds. Then there were thousands. And what was most important was that the gathering at the hospital was posted very widely on Instagram, the social media preferred by Iranians, which is also not filtered here by the Iranian authorities. And then, it started spreading around the country very quickly. And the police, who are very nervous here about gatherings that are not orchestrated by the state, intervened in several cities.

BLOCK: We should mention that Morteza Pashaee died at age 30 of stomach cancer - died very young. Help us understand why he is so popular. What is it in his music that has attracted the attention of so many fans and young people?

ERDBRINK: Well, Iran is demographically a very young country, with 70 percent of 75 million Iranians actually being under 35 years. Mr. Pashaee's a voice of a generation. But I must note, he wasn't that popular that people, including me or including the authorities, would have expected people to pour out on the streets. There was, of course, something else happening. In Iran, we saw huge protests in 2009, which were suppressed very harshly by security forces. It is very hard for people to sort of join in unity in events other than events organized by the state. And I guess that the death of Mr. Pashaee was also an excuse for many of these young Iranians to - just to go out on the streets, ignore the rules and be together while crying and singing songs.

BLOCK: Thomas, as you reported this story, the crowds were so huge that the burial of Morteza Pashaee had to be postponed. They couldn't actually carry out the burial.

ERDBRINK: What happened was crowds were already so big, it was hard to get to the cemetery, which is one of the biggest cemeteries in the world - very vast, sprawling site. But even over there, there were so many people that the coffin literally wasn't able to reach the grave. So he was buried secretly, at night, on Sunday night.

BLOCK: And is it over, or do you expect that the public outpouring will continue?

ERDBRINK: What is not over is the fact that Iran's vast middle classes and all these young people have different ideas of the future of their country. And a lot of those people want to see change. So they would seek any opportunity in order to take to the streets. They might not be demonstrating the way we are used to in the United States. But they are showing their discontent, and maybe more importantly, they are showing their numbers and flexing their muscles.

BLOCK: Thomas Erdbrink is Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times. Thomas, thank you so much.

ERDBRINK: Thank you.


PASHAEE: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.