[Written by Siam Hatzaw]
[Image Credits: Forouzan Safari]
I can’t quite put into words what Atigheh makes me feel. The opening vocals is like a call to home, pulling at something in the core of me. It asks me to be still, to listen. It asks me if it’s possible to be homesick for a place you never knew. Atigheh is the third EP by Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, entirely self produced and independently released. Performing as her solo project Despicable Zee, Zahra is an Oxford-based musician and composer specialising in leftfield, electronic lo-fi-pop. She’s been creating music for over 15 years, and also drums for acts such as Lafawndah and Young Knives on their UK and European tours. Her latest project is a music video for Clay Grouk, the fourth track of the EP, which I had the pleasure of previewing – and it hasn’t left my mind since.
Atigheh is a story of the in-between. The lyrics guide you through Zahra’s experience as a second generation immigrant; her father is from Iran and her mother is from Ireland. The songs explore the search we go through as immigrants to meld two identities into one body. But identity is never binary. In each person, it exists as an amalgamation of environments, influences, and experiences… yet there’s an unspoken feeling shared by all of us who walk this tightrope. We perform a balancing act between different cultures, never fully able to embody either, which invokes a constant longing to belong. It is this chord that Atigheh manages to strike, with lines that force you to stare your liminality in the face, such as: “Foreign mind and soul in a white-washed zone, no matter where we land we always feel alone”.
The title track Atigheh derives its name from a ballad by Persian singer Hayedeh, whose voice is sampled throughout the EP. The song was released shortly before she entered a self-imposed exile in 1978 (the year before Zahra’s own father emigrated to the UK), leaving Iran so she could continue to sing. Zahra sings “to attempt to understand why her father left and what he left behind”. Having lived in Oxford her whole life, she has never been to Iran herself. For many of us who grew up in a place where you can never fully belong, home is a loaded word. The idea of “return” is tied up in an inherent shame of being so far, so other to yourself. Yet when she first heard Hayedeh’s singing, it resonated with a deep-rooted affinity for a shared home she could envision but couldn’t touch. Although she couldn’t translate the words, Hayedeh was calling to her and her directly. Zahra’s father translated the lyrics for her, at which point she realised the parts which struck her the most were when she sings about her exile and describes a longing for Iran – when they say that music is transcendent, I like to think this is exactly what they mean. Something in Hayedeh’s voice drew out a homesickness in Zahra that she hadn’t even recognised. It’s a certain magic that music carries, transcending the boundaries of language.
Zahra explains all of this to us on a sunlit Monday evening session of the Young Women’s Music Project. YWMP is an educational charity based in Oxfordshire that aims to provide a safe and supportive space for women to make music, collaborate, and discuss the issues facing them, whether it be mental health, sexuality, race, class, relationships, or other axes which affect their lives. As the director of the project, Zahra has seen first-hand how YWMP is a lifeline to many of us growing up in a place of “un-belonging”. The project means more to us – and to her – than I can truly express, because this isn’t just a group of womxn making music. This is sisterhood, in its purest form.
As a member of YWMP, I went to watch Zahra perform Atigheh as a solo set over summer. This was the first time I’d ever heard it, and one line lingered in my memory that I can’t shake off. Clay Grouk contains no other lyrics than the words “you force a silence in me”, over and over, which pulls at a space in my heart I never knew I had. The song samples her son Sé’s voice, and the sounds you hear are from recordings Zahra has taken from everyday motherhood: Sé at his playgroup, with a toy tractor, or from a trip to Modern Art Oxford where he played with a projector. Even the title Clay Grouk comes from Sé’s attempt to pronounce “play group”. The music video is a beautifully simple concept – we watch as Sé plays with parts of a drum kit, and dances around a pink-washed room, hiding under blankets and spinning round in circles. In all its simplicity, the video captures everything that Zahra is addressing through Atigheh. The drum kit represents her in the video, whilst the blankets he plays with are covered in Paisley – a traditional Persian pattern that was stolen and brought to England. To make the video, Zahra asked Sé to play “some form of musical statues”, achieving the candid shots of childhood lovingly captured as pockets of joy. I found it unexpectedly moving, watching in stillness from start to finish. Zahra describes the song as a reflection on “the chaos of being a parent – I’m not really with it most of the time. But there are moments. There are times when I’m travelling with Sé, and he falls asleep, and I’m holding his hand – and the noise stops. It’s the cliché thing that people say when they have kids, that it’s really hard work but it’s all worth it.”
The line keeps coming back to me. “You force a silence in me”. It’s exactly what happened when I first sat down to listen to Atigheh. It forced me to be still, to take it in, to let the notes ring around my room and settle in my stomach. The same thing happened when I first watched the video for Clay Grouk. I meant to take notes, to prepare for writing this up, but within the first few seconds, I stopped. I watched it through, and then again, touched by the underlying messages of motherhood that Zahra threads through the track, and wordlessly expresses through the clips of Sé. She describes the EP’s overall “sparse sound” as an “acknowledgement of the holes that displacement leaves”. And I get it. There are so many unnamed feelings that Atigheh digs up from the roots. Thoughts on belonging, on home, on heritage, and motherhood, or on the shared, silent loneliness of immigration. On what it means to be liminal. If any of these ring true to you, you need to watch Zahra perform Atigheh. It will force a silence in you, too.