An elegantly dressed 70-year-old begins to dance and sing in the local market, infecting others with it. Is this the birth of a “national hero” who inadvertently sparked another wave of calls for change in Iranian society? This is how the New York Times describes the story of Sadegh Bana Motejadeda. His dance movement has gained great popularity among Iranians, many of them imitate him, and this form of expression is sometimes described as a protest against the government and is called a “happiness campaign”.
The New York Times writes that “a new form of anti-government protest is shaking Iran: a dance frenzy that has gone viral, set to an upbeat folk song that has crowds clapping and chanting a rhythmic chorus of ‘oh, oh, oh, oh’.”
According to videos published on social media and interviews conducted by BBC Persian, in cities across the country, men and women of all ages are shaking their hips, waving their arms in the air and singing catchy lines.
“A collective act of civil disobedience”
As the New York daily continues, “people dance in the streets, in stores, in sports stadiums, in classrooms, shopping malls, restaurants, gyms, parties and wherever they gather.” “In Tehran, traffic was stopped in a main highway tunnel to organize an impromptu dance party to the song. Young women with uncovered and flowing hair dance in parks, and young men perform a choreographed hip-hop dance,” the newspaper adds.
“It’s obvious that joining this dance trend has a strong message,” says Mohammed Aghapour, a 32-year-old DJ who goes by the name DJ Sonami. “It’s a way of protesting and demanding our freedom and happiness,” he adds.
“NYT” points out that “in most countries, dancing and singing in public places are not considered taboo.” However – as he writes further – in Iran dancing in public places, especially by women and between men and women, is prohibited. “Although this rule is regularly violated, its enforcement has been arbitrary. Music, dancing and singing are deeply rooted in Iranian culture, and attempts by Islamic clerics to ban them over the 43 years of rule (since Khomeini’s revolution – ed.) have essentially ended failure,” we read. “Rarely, however, does a single song and dance turn into a collective act of civil disobedience,” says the NYT.
It all started with a 70-year-old man dancing in a fish market
And the whole story began in late November with an elderly man at a fish market in the city of Rasht in northern Iran.
The man dressed in a white suit, 70-year-old Sadegh Bana Motejaded, owner of the small stall, was swinging and jumping vigorously. He sang a folk song to the onlookers gathered around him and encouraged them to join in the singing. A small group of men clapped, shouting a rhythmic refrain: “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.”
Sadegh Bana Motejaded is known throughout the city by the nickname “Booghy”, derived from the Persian word for megaphone. According to videos on his website and local media reports, for years he performed at football stadiums, where he spoke into a megaphone, walked around the stands and excited the fans by loudly blowing his horn.
Sadegh Bana Motejaded admitted in an interview with a local television reporter that he dances to make people happy. “I just want people to be happy and change their mood,” he said.
A video of him dancing and singing at the said market has already gone viral after the said DJ Sonami re-posted a remix of the song with techno beats along with a video of the original dance.
Repression by the authorities
But then – as “NYT” writes – there were repressions. Local police in Rasht announced on December 7 that they had arrested a group of 12 men who appeared in the video, then closed their Instagram accounts and removed the video from several websites.
On the Instagram of Sadegh Motejadeda, who had over 120,000 followers at the time, the emblem of the judiciary appeared in place of his profile photo. All of his posts disappeared, and instead a single Justice post appeared that read: “This site has been closed for the production of criminal content.”
The New York Times anonymously quotes a person close to Sadegh Motejaed as saying that the local intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guard summoned the men and then interrogated them for many hours. The informant said they were blindfolded, beaten, threatened with legal action and forced to sign a pledge never to sing or dance in public places again.
The person added that Sadegh Motejaded was detained for several hours and charged with incitement against the government. As part of the crackdown, police attacked street musicians performing in the city of Rasht, arrested some and confiscated their instruments. News of the arrests spread like wildfire across Iran, causing widespread outrage.
“Happiness campaign” on Iranian streets
“NYT” points out in this context that “the nationwide uprising led by women that broke out in Iran in 2022 was essentially suppressed by violence,” but this protest has a different, creative character.
“The regime has no common sense,” said Mahan, a 50-year-old doctor from Rasht. “He has become like an authoritarian father who is unable to protect and guide his family, so he resorts to violence as the only way to feel important and powerful,” he adds, quoted by “NYT.”
People mobilized by filming themselves dancing to the song and imitating Sadegh Bana Motejaed’s dance moves. They posted the videos on social media and distributed them widely on apps like WhatsApp, calling it a “happiness campaign.”
Local newspapers carried front-page articles questioning the legitimacy of the crackdown, saying it had backfired by causing government regulations to be disregarded.
However, as the New York daily continues, the Iranian government “withdrew.” He claims that on December 11, police in Gilan province issued a statement denying that Sadegh Bana Motejaded was ever arrested. His Instagram profile with all his previous dancing and singing posts was also resurrected. Local news channels scrambled to interview him, and in one recording, which some say was likely coerced by authorities, Motejaded claims he was not arrested.
Many Iranians hailed him as a national hero who inadvertently sparked renewed calls for change in the country.
Main photo source: Instagram/DJ Sonami