State TV bars adored Iranian-born British singer from all its channels, but he says he will ‘not apologise for performing in Palestine
Sami Yusuf at his Wembley Arena performance in 2007.
Sami Yusuf at his Wembley Arena performance in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
Monday 27 July 2015 19.14 BST Last modified on Monday 27 July 2015 19.15 BST
born British Muslim singer Sami Yusuf, whose records sell millions in the Middle East, has been banned by state television in Iran because of his recent performance in the Israeli city of Nazareth.
Iranian news websites reported earlier this week that state TV had banned Yusuf’s music from all its channels after he performed in Nazareth, even though the city has a predominantly Palestinian population and most of his audience was Palestinian. The performance took place during the fasting month of Ramadan.
“Sami Yusuf’s recent trip to the occupied territories (Christian and Jewish holy sites including the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ) is the reason why his works are banned from the state television,” reported Entekhab, an Iranian news website.
Iran does not recognise Israel and world artists who perform there become persona non grata in the Islamic Republic. Foreigners who travel to both Iran and Israel usually use two separate passports or ask Israeli border guards not to stamp their travel document. Iranians are banned from travelling to Israel and the Iranian passport is not valid for travel there. Those defying the ban risk being sentenced to five years in jail.
Yusuf, 35, who Time magazine has called Islam’s biggest rock star, is one of Britain’s most famous Muslims worldwide. He reacted to the controversy on Monday by issuing a statement on his official website with the headline: “Banned by my very own.”
“I was very surprised to hear that the official state TV and radio for the Islamic Republic of Iran has banned my music and likeness due to my recent performance in Nazareth,” he wrote.
“I was not aware that bringing smiles to the faces of my beloved Palestinian brothers and sisters could cause such offence to the government of Iran. I am sorry that my precious listeners in Iran will be denied my music for sometime, but I will not apologise for performing in Palestine.”
He went on to say: “Music is permeable and was never meant to be confined to borders nor used for political ends, rather, it was meant to echo freely throughout space and time. May we one day see a Free Palestine.”
Yusuf is adored in Iran, as in many parts of the Middle East. He recently contributed to the score of a multimillion-dollar Iranian biopic about the youth of the prophet Muhammad, called Muhammad, Messenger of God. The film, Iran’s most expensive and lavish production to date, was made by Majid Majidi, a leading pro-establishment Iranian director.
Nazareth (or an-Nasira as Arabs call it) is a special place for many Christians, as the place where Jesus is believed to have been brought up. Huge crowds attended Yusuf’s gig there earlier this month. “Nazarenes … a part of me and an extension of my own soul. It’s a great honour to finally set foot on this blessed land,” Sami Yusuf was quoted as saying on his official website.
“Despite the difficulty for residents of neighbouring cities like Bethlehem to obtain clearance to enter Nazareth, and despite the long hours of fasting in the month of Ramadan, many are still making the effort to cross those meticulous borders in order to attend the concert,” Yusuf’s site said before the performance.
Other people have also stirred controversy in Iran for travelling to Israel. In July 2013, one of Iran’s most famous film-makers, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, defended his trip to Israel in the face of fierce criticism at home. The location of his 2012 poetic film, The Gardener, was Haifa, the largest city in northern Israel. Makhmalbaf now lives in exile in London.
“I went there to take a message of peace,” he told the Guardian at the time. “I try to unite people through arts. I am citizen of cinema, and cinema has no border, and in fact before my journey to Israel my film travelled to that country many years before.”