Sina: “Nobody wants to leave their country for £40 per week”

Episode 12

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Underground Iranian hiphop from our special guest, Sina, who shares this unheard music from his home country and talks of his life as a young refugee. Features tracks from Hichkas & Bahram

Do you remember the Persian Spring?

It was part of the wave of democratic protests that splashed across the Arab world at the start of the decade, back when it seemed like positive change was possible, if not inevitable. This was back when anti-government uprisings in the Middle East were about young people blatting around on mopeds and co-ordinating on social media, rather than bitter civil wars and insurgencies. At the time, I wanted to interview someone who could tell me about what is was like to be young in Iran, and I came across Sina. He was in his mid-twenties then, having left Iran when he was a teenager.

“I was living in Hastings for five years and then moved to Brighton. It’s much better here. I really like Brighton. It’s a really lively town. It’s very busy. When I was living in Hastings, it was a very quiet town. When I moved to Brighton I noticed the difference. It’s much busier and, for young people, I think it’s a lot better. And it’s got a lot of people living here from different countries which is very good as well.”

Sina had been studying graphic design back in Iran before he was forced to flee. Coming to the UK as a young asylum seeker put an end to his studies, but he had not given up hope. “So I am trying again. When everything is OK with my documents and everything, I am trying to go back to college and finish that. Maybe I work as a graphic designer when I finished my studies. Or I don’t know yet. I see what is happening.”

I had asked Sina to bring some music with him to the interview so that we could have something to play on the radio programme. One of my original ideas about Refugee Radio had been to create a sort of Desert Island Discs show, but for real, with people who were actually stranded on an island rather than just pretending. OK, so it would be the UK rather than a desert island, and they would be refugees rather than celebrities, but I thought we could still use the format of sharing the music they wanted to have with them and using each track as a jumping-off point to tell anecdotes about their lives. It never really worked out like that in practice, though. I don’t know if it was due to not being culturally familiar with the format, but the people I interviewed often struggled to locate ideal songs and, when they did have a particular track that meant something to them, they were either unable or unwilling to connect it to their personal narrative. Maybe they were resisting the glibness of the format, or maybe I was just explaining it badly, I don’t know. But this was different. Sina turned up with a shedload of underground Iranian hiphop that I had no idea even existed, and each track opened up an aspect of his life.

Foremost among the tracks was Bunch of Soldiers, by Hichkas. “My favourite singer is Hichkas. He talks about the situation inside Iran for young people now and what are they thinking about. Just to tell you a little bit about Hichkas: he is one of the first rappers who actually came from Iran. He started it inside Iran, because before nobody has ever done it. He is one of my favourite as well. I really, really like his music.

“He can’t play live in Iran and he should be very, very careful so the Iranian police they don’t arrest him or something. So he should record all of his songs underground, you know, in secret studios. And he does all of this with his own money. And he is not making any money from his music. But he has got a lot of viewers on YouTube and he is really well known now, inside of Iran and outside of Iran. Iranian people, you know, they know him. People they listen or download his songs from the Internet. And that’s how they get his new songs, because he can’t record his CD and send it to them. So it has to be online. He’s not going to be on Iranian TV!

“I was living in UK when I discovered him. It was five or six years ago when I first heard there was a rapper in Iran. I found that interesting, so I go to the internet to find out more about him. Actually it’s getting bigger and bigger everyday: rap music and pop music and rock music. It is still banned but you know they can do it if they do it on their own or something. It’s not so bad that people will follow them. It’s just they’re not allowed to play their music on TV or have a live concert.

“Hichkas sings about how young people are trying to live a good life, but Iranian police try to stop them and they just try to sing songs about them and give a message to all the people about it.

There’s not a lot of freedom inside Iran. You can’t take your girlfriend’s hand in the street. You have to be very careful and lie and pretend she is your wife. If you go to a restaurant, you can’t have a meal in a restaurant. If you want to spend time with your girlfriend, you must visit them in their house. It’s a problem young people have. Because people they think Iranian people only think about politics or religion, but young people are just trying to have fun. It’s really difficult for them. They are just trying to do something that doesn’t hurt anybody, or doesn’t bother anybody. But it’s really difficult. Having a girlfriend is one example. Most of the young people, that’s what they doing, but it’s really difficult for Iranians of our generation to do this. So this is the kind of problem they have.

There is also pressure from the families. Especially long time. Now it is much better and they seem to understand what is going on. It’s not as strict inside the families as before, but is still with the families and the police, they don’t want this so they trying to stop this.

“We have a lot of young people you know, and there are too many and the government can’t stop everybody and it has to deal with it somehow. They sing against the police and the special police, who deal with the young people. Like, there’s other police trying to stop all young people trying to gather together in a place and they try to separate them because they are scared that there are too many young people and they think it is dangerous for them to get together. They might try to start a revolution, so that’s why they try to think against them. It’s what they can do.”

Sina and I talked a bit about the Persian Spring and the media coverage of what, at the time, felt like it could be a revolution in the making. We also got talking about media coverage of immigration, and Sina wanted to go on record stating that it did not paint a realistic portrait of his lifestyle. “I don’t think any refugee in this country have the life people think they have, like free house or free cars. It’s not true at all. Nobody wants to leave their country and their family to claim benefits here for £40 per week. To leave their country, their family, their parents- for £40 per week? I don’t’ think anyone wants to do this.

“Another thing: when an asylum seeker gets benefits, it’s for one year then it is refused, then they have to go on the street and have to support themselves. And those who get granted status, OK they have benefits for one year, then the government tries to get it back. I think government is more clever that just trying to help people come here to get benefits. I think they know what they are doing. I think asylum seekers really help this country a lot. There is a lot of jobs that asylum seekers do which other people, they wouldn’t do it. Yes, that’s what I think. I never experienced they give me a house or a car, or something like this!

“To be honest with you, there are some people maybe they came just for the benefits, but it’s not everyone. And they confuse this with every asylum seeker. They think ‘They didn’t have any problem and they just come here’. It’s not true. A lot of people have a very good life in their country and they have a problem so they have to leave their country. It’s not like everyone is lying. It’s difficult for some, for anyone, to come to a new country, to learn new things. It’s not as easy as people think, that they just come here to get benefits. It’s not true at all.

“I’ve been here for 10 years. It’s very difficult. I have no decision on my case.  I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t study. I still don’t have any rights. So it is really bad.  When you can’t do anything, in your life. You can’t take another step. You just have to stand there and you can’t do what you would like.

“Some people think: ‘If you are like this, why you don’t go back to your country, if it’s like this, if you’re not happy here, why you don’t just go back?’ The thing is, it was very difficult first to come here and a lot of people, when they are going back, in the airport, they are arrested. And the document of that is on the Internet. So it is really dangerous for a lot of people to go back to their country and when they are here, they don’t have any rights, so it is a very difficult situation. It is not as easy as people think.”

Charities such as Iran Human Rights state that Iranians who claim asylum abroad are being charged with ‘dissemination of false propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran’. The Swiss Refugee Council has said previously that the treatment of failed asylum seekers returning to Iran is ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unpredictable’. Reuters has reported on the case of a returning journalist who has been repeatedly arrested, denied permission to work and banned from ever leaving Iran again. A UNHCR report detailed instances of the imprisonment and torture of family members of those who had sought asylum overseas. Over the years, I had heard many Iranians insist that there was a blacklist of names of people who had claimed asylum, and that they would be arrested the second they returned to Iran. Some refugees I have spoken to have even shown me photographs of executions of their friends. “That’s true that people was being arrested at the airport when they went back. The thing is these people, with all these dangers they have inside Iran, they chose to make music. Cos, you know, they really love it. And we have a lot of Iranian singer they are actually living outside in the United States or here in England, but you know the difference is: in Iran they don’t have any rights. They are not free to do this. But they do this. So I think it is really respectable. I think they are the people who really loves the music.

“But outside Iran, you know the people who do this I think they mostly they do just for the money, you know what I mean? Or to be famous or something. So that’s why I really like the bands or groups or singers who are actually singing inside Iran.”

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Episode 12