“When God Sleeps”: An Iranian musician critiques his society
Shahin Najafi | film website

Till Schaudner’s new documentary When God Sleeps is a robust, thoughtful account of punk rocker Shahin Najafi’s struggle to have his music and ideas heard despite death threats from the Iranian government.

Shahin grew up in a small northern Iranian town near the Caspian Sea. Slated for life as a Muslim cleric, he discovered rock guitar, changing his life’s trajectory. The honesty he pursued through religion, Shahin found in music. He sang not just about love, but about social change which was anathema to religion. His music became a well known protest against religion and the state’s oppression of women, workers and migrants.

As the Iranian government cracked down on opposition, Shahin became a prime target. The clerics issued a fatwa threatening his life. Similar edicts had led to the banishment of best-selling author Salman Rushdie and the death of beloved singer Fereydoun Farrokhazad, stabbed twenty times, cut into pieces and stuffed into a sack discovered days later.

Shahin fled to Turkey, then Germany. At first he was sentenced to 100 lashes, then 3 years in jail. A $100,000 bounty was placed on his head. Finally, his life was threatened. Posters appeared urging Moslems to “kill him like a dog.” The leading Muslim cleric proclaimed, “Shahin can no longer feel secure anywhere on earth. He’s not dying. He is already dead.”

The singer found refuge with Gunter Wallraff, who had sheltered Salman Rushdie. Iranian media discovered his address, forcing him to flee again. A make-up artist helped him change his appearance. He assumed a new identity and had to arm himself at all times.

Rather than stifle his voice, the persecution made him more eager to carry his message to a wider audience. Shahin resumed singing in concert, though he had to use secret entrances, special security guards and even armored vehicle transport. He felt particularly vulnerable after the murder of 12 people at the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists. Band members and crew quit in fear for their lives.

But Shahin found replacements. His popularity grew. He continued his social critique, focusing on issues of male domination and the need to separate religion from the state. His song “Mommad Nobari” was a thinly veiled attack on Muslim suppression of women’s rights.

The clerics’ reply was that “our great prophet will break your neck!” Iranians were punished for listening to Shahin’s music. One young girl was sentenced to 14 years in prison for having his songs on her phone.

Another fan of Shahin’s music turned out to be Leili, the granddaughter of the first post-revolutionary Prime Minister of Iran. Though her family was conservative and her father a member of the National Islamic Party, Leili and Shahin bonded. After meeting in Los Angeles, they have forged a committed relationship, looking to the future—another affirmation of the power of culture to effect social change.

When God Sleeps premieres on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, April 2, with on-line screening beginning on April 3. Please consult local guides for exact times and channels. The trailer can be viewed here.



Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.