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The Enigmatic Death of an Iranian Émigré

The story of Seyed Khalil Alinejad.

12:00 AM, Jan 21, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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On a dark winter’s day in Sweden some eight years ago, one of the most remarkable and beloved figures in modern Iranian culture died on a sidewalk.  His name was Seyed Khalil Alinejad. While is largely unknown among non-Iranians, since little is written about him in English, his story continues to provoke controversy and elicit mourning from Iranians living under the tyranny of the Tehran clerical regime.  His tale offers a glimpse of the tormented history of the Iranian people, and it may even be seen as similar, in a sense, to current opposition movement in Iran.

The Enigmatic Death of an Iranian Émigré

Seyed Khalil Alinejad was a musician who performed on the long-necked, oriental stringed instrument called the tanbur in Iran. (In Turkey it is called the saz, and those in  Balkans call it something else.) His ethnicity was Kurdish.  He was born in 1957 in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, the son of a distinguished tanbur performer, Seyed Shah Moradi, and was encouraged to study the tanbur by his mother.   Given his eventual standing as an Iranian national star, Seyed Khalil, as he is typically known, could be likened to the Iranian Bob Dylan/John Lennon.  But unlike them, he underwent an extended course of study comparable to that of classical musicians in the West.   

The family of Seyed Khalil were Sufis, initiated into Islamic spirituality, but of a particular kind.  They belonged to a mainly-Kurdish Shia movement known as “Ahl e-Haqq” or “the people of truth,” that has millions of members in Iran and Iraq, but who generally keep their affiliations secret.  For the Ahl e-Haqq, music transcends performance and is the foundation of religious devotion.  Music as a form of prayer is a phenomena also seen among the large Alevi Shia minority in Turkey, who suffer discrimination from both secular nationalists and the “soft fundamentalist” Justice and Development (AKP) government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  

Seyed Khalil studied with a series of distinguished musicians and members of the “people of truth,” but his most important teacher was a Sufi master and musical virtuoso, Abedin Khademi.  The young acolyte formed his first tanbur group in Sahne, a town in Kermanshah province.  He then graduated from the Tehran Arts University, in the years of the Khomeini revolution, at the end of the 1970s.  He went on to learn the Iranian style of traditional singing and performance on two other instruments, the tar, a variety of lute, and the daf, a drum with a metal frame.

In the 1980s, Seyed Khalil produced two albums of Sufi music, Love in Speech and Music, followed by Qalandari Whispers.  He moved to Tehran and appeared in numerous music festivals, gaining a widening public. Seyed Khalil and his main group, the Baba Taher Ensemble, appear in YouTube videos, with instruments alone and including lyrics. His long, hippie-style hair and beard are notable, as he leads the group in playing and singing.  He composed many pieces and wrote a book, The Tanbur Past and Present.  But he is said to have felt lonely in the “new Iran,” and emigrated to Sweden, where he taught the musical styles at which he excelled.

He died in Gothenborg, Sweden’s second-largest city, on November 18, 2001, in a mysterious building fire that was never adequately investigated and remains unexplained.  Some Iranians say he was killed by rivals inside the Ahl e-Haqq, but many more believe he was murdered by agents of the Tehran regime.  Web comments include the claim that he was still alive when taken out of the burnt building and died afterward.  Regardless, he is remembered by many with great affection.

I knew nothing of Seyed Khalil, his music, his Sufism, his forlorn death and the failure to fully account for it until I met a long-exiled Iranian dissident in Western Europe almost two years ago.  I had spent a good deal of time with Turkish and Kurdish Alevis in Germany who also exulted in their music of protest and praise of God’s creation, but the emotion of Seyed Khalil and those who loved – and still love – him was different.  My Iranian interlocutor, who must remain unnamed for his own safety, said to me, “sooner or later, the people of Iran will return to their authentic roots, and the clerical murderers will face justice.”   These words seemed, at the time, impossibly defiant.  Today, it appears the moment is close when the secret of Seyed Khalil’s death, and those of others killed at home and on foreign soil by Iranian agents, will be fully revealed.  It is, sadly, a Sufi riddle more immediately relevant than many others. 

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.

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