“And that is the difference between a legend and a star” — he ended his lengthy soliloquy with emphasis. Then the smallish middle-aged man whose real name I would never know picked up his briefcase, excused himself with a curt bow, and headed out. “I must get back to the office,” he explained apologetically — like his name, the details of which I was not privy to. It seemed he could have gone on for hours that afternoon. And that he wanted to. His life, though its most broad outlines remained invisible to me, was distinctly shaped by the force of a woman he had never met — the aforementioned legend, born in 1950 as Faegheh Atashin and known to the world simply as Googoosh. Googoosh had captivated the attention of millions in her native Iran since her recording debut at the age of fifteen. And she had occupied a singular place in the life of this man, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered civil servant, since her voice had first floated into his parents’ living room via a scratchy gramophone more than three decades ago.
I came upon Pullniro through a young Iranian filmmaker in New York who had made a documentary film about Googoosh back in 2000. When I asked him if he would be willing to write some words about her, he declined, and referred me to a more “suitable” choice — a sort of authority who had recently created a website for Googoosh (www.googoosh.tv) and presented it to her on the occasion of her fifty-fifth birthday. His name, Pullniro, was pure invention, a gesture toward anonymity.
A resident of Tehran, Pullniro has cultivated a persona in service to his devotion for Googoosh, creating websites, writing articles and hunting down rare recordings in her honor. What perhaps distinguishes Pullniro from millions of other fans — of Googoosh, or Abdel Halim Hafez or Elvis Presley — is the subtle restraint that marks his every devotional act, his disinterest in the spectacle we have come to identify with fan culture. His is a seemingly dispassionate, wholly private obsession. Though he has the markings of a fanatic — lyrics memorized, devotional websites erected, an intimate knowledge of the demographics of every other fan of note around the world (from Mexico City to Baghdad to Tajikistan) — his love for her is one that doesn’t lend itself to the traditional archetype of the restraining order-inspiring, shrine-making adherent.
Born into a middle class family in pre-revolutionary Tehran of the 1970s, Pullniro’s vision of the world around him was colored by what he flatly refers to as an idyllic childhood. “Our childhood was in color and today’s life is in black and white. We had everything kids ever wanted,” he explains. One of seven children, he says he seldom saw his parents. “We went to school in the morning, and they went out at night. Tehran had so many night clubs back then.” He adds with a lapse into vernacular English and a cheesy wink, “They were night owls.”
As a child, Pullniro collected cinema, music and lifestyle magazines, mostly so he could rip off their front covers and tape them on his bedroom walls. Zan e Rooz, Setareh Cinema, Sefid o Siah, Javanan, Banowan — at least one popular magazine each week would sport the fresh face of Googoosh. The “story” within was rarely of import. One particular issue of Banowan that he showed me announced on its cover, “Googoosh near death after accident on French Riviera.” Almost without fail, these stories yielded tremendous anti-climaxes: “It turns out she is fine, says her husband.” Her divorce and remarriage made the front page of even the respectable Etelaat and Keyhan newspapers at a time when only the Shah’s comings and goings were deemed worthy of such distinguished venues. Her recording outings at the cafes and nightclubs of fashionable Lalezar Street were the see-and-be-seen happenings of an Iran that many simply refer to as “cosmopolitan.” “People lived for fun back then,” Pullniro tells me, exposing his ardent belief that the revolution marked the end of a golden era.
And so as they tend to, things changed after the revolution of 1979. Cabarets and discos named Tam Tam, Miami and Moulin Rouge that once hosted platform-shoed party-goers well into the morning hours were uniformly shut down. Society and cinema magazines either disappeared or were forced to adapt to the cultural mores of the nascent Islamic Republic; in most cases they were rendered irrelevant. And like the magazines that championed her, the sweet-faced diva who had graced thousands of covers and seduced the nation with her epic, at times nationalist, ballads about love and hardship, slid into obscurity, her career placed on the backburner indefinitely. She retreated to her northern Tehran home for the next twenty-one years while her recordings continued to sell on Tehran’s booming black market. According to Pullniro, Googoosh made three public appearances over the course of those two decades, one of which was at the funeral of Pooran, a great songstress in her own right from the previous generation. While rumors almost inevitably surrounded her comings and goings (Googoosh sings to Ayatollah Khomeini, Googoosh as cokehead, Googoosh as raging anti-Semite), she rarely gave her fans much material to chew on; in Garbo-esque fashion, she had withdrawn from public life entirely.
Pullniro’s vision of the country during those initial post-revolutionary years is a bleak one. While the idyll of his childhood died in 1979, Googoosh’s fate, oddly, has become the prism through which he has understood the history of his country since then. Her seclusion mirrored his own, a period in which he retreated from the world. He kept to his studies, completing two degrees in chemistry and joining the civil service. Like many others, he worked for a regime that he decided, from day one, he did not believe in.
When Googoosh broke her silence, leaving Iran and launching a public return to the stage in 2002, Pullniro was living and working for an Iranian governmental agency in Dubai — the city in which she would hold two of her biggest comeback concerts. He had (valid) concerns about what his attendance could do for his reputation within his conservative polyestered ranks; though passionate in his love for Googoosh, he remained restrained, respectable, ever-practical. He recounts the tale of how he slid into the VIP section by chance and simply wept in silence. Long after Googoosh left the stage, he remained behind — both in devotional silence to the miracle just per-formed before him and to an extent out of concern for being spotted by a passing acquaintance. Later, I read on one of numerous internet postings about Googoosh’s performance that night that she “took possession of the stage like a captain of his ship.” “I felt dizzy for weeks,” Pullniro tells me about the experience.
His is what one may term a puritanical obsession. He categorically rejects the possibility that he is Googoosh’s biggest fan, though in the same breath he explains that he can never possibly consider marriage because he would inevitably compare any woman in his life to Her. He does not dress up as Googoosh in her flowing white dresses and faux-diamond tiaras, he tells me — smirking at my fetishistic inquiry. He is not a freak in the way that we have come to expect freaks to be, nor does he fit the tidy outlines of the canonical stalker. He’s never met her, though he has spoken to her assistants on the phone. He has her personal email, phone number and address in Los Angeles (where she has since relocated) but does not dare use them — at the risk of bothering her or invading her privacy. He calls her stalkers around the world — and there are hundreds — “selfish.” On her birthday this year, he joined forces with a handful of other Googoosh admirers, holding a birthday party for her in a north Tehran restaurant. They prepared a birthday cake, left an empty place seating for her, and danced the night away. The images of the cake are on his internet site.
Also in honor of her birthday, Pullniro presented the diva (his affectionate nickname of choice) with a comprehensive fan website. News on the site ranges from play-by-play accounts of her recent concerts after her twenty-year hiatus, to increasingly personal news. Think, a report of Googoosh in Las Vegas, draped in an Iranian flag, with thousands of adoring fans screaming “I love you”; she, cooing in heartfelt manner, responds, “Thank God.” Weeping abounds. Or, how about news that Googoosh, on December 22, 2004, suffered a mild nosebleed and was taken to the hospital (“she is fully recovered and back on her feet”). The site gets 2,000 new hits per week and boasts of 3,000 regular visitors. Four years ago Pullniro created a newsgroup (googooshlove.com) devoted to her; it has 1,700 active members who regularly exchange messages and postings.
In June, Pullniro received an email from one of Googoosh’s assistants, offering him an appointment over the internet with the singer herself for a chat. On the day of the meeting (9 am Los Angeles time, 8:30 pm Tehran, he tells me), they typed back and forth for fifteen minutes; she thanked him for his unwavering support, while he restrained himself from asking any personal questions. He spent more time listening, engaging her in that oddly ecstatic, virtual moment. When I asked him if he would have preferred a face-to-face meeting, or even a telephone chat, he seemed puzzled by my inquiry. “That was enough,” he tells me, still basking in the glorious aftermath of the exchange.
And he fights to preserve her integrity. “There are people who want to bring her down,” he tells me one day. “They’re jealous.” He names the Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo among others. “But she never says a bad word about them.” In his mind, Googoosh can do no harm. Pullniro is particularly excitable, even defensive, when the subject turns to the men in Googoosh’s life. In fact, it is only in discussion about her relationships that I have ever heard him raise his voice. From a ruthless father who kept her out of school and had her performing in Tehran’s Crystal Café from the age of three, to a first marriage to a domineering promoter, Mahmoud Ghorbani, or her broken marriage to an actor named Behrooz Vosoughi (in one of his insider moments, he confides that the late Shah’s sister Ashraf Pahlavi, sick with jealousy, broke up that marriage), Googoosh, he tells me, has never had it easy. Hers is a story of personal struggle, perseverance in the face of overwhelming hardship.
Pullniro’s personal archive of Googoosh memorabilia, rare recordings and autographs is without compare. Oddly enough, he has converted most of the material to electronic format or simply used it on his internet site and given away the originals. “I have no reason to keep these things.” It is not uncommon for him to meet other followers of the cult of Googoosh covertly in parks or squares around this city, carefully opening a fastidiously organized synthetic leather briefcase to hand off a record cover or rare photo (his commitment to anonymity remains remarkable, if not bizarre). His evaluation of how deserving the gift recipients are is rigorous, and he is utterly confident that spreading mementos in this way is the best way to preserve her memory, to spread the love. “What if I die, what will happen to all of these treasures? I want people to enjoy them,” he tells me one day. When I carefully inquire about his insistence on discretion, he says, “I don’t want people to know I exist.”
As I sit in one of those Tehran squares one muggy morning waiting for him, taking in the weight of his selflessness in, I wonder if there is in fact a bit of self-awareness running through Pullniro’s relationship to Googoosh. His is, after all, nearly a tale out of Hollywood. It’s David Lynch, art house Hollywood. His pseudonym, Pullniro, is a combination of the names of two actors whom he admires (and, he tells me, has met), Robert De Niro and Bill Pullman, and he is mildly religious about cinema in general: “I watch at least five American films per week.” Occasionally, as he describes his devotion to Googoosh, he lapses into a near-robotic repetition, as if repeating the lines of an as-yet unscreened film that he has rehearsed a hundred times before a mirror at home. The furtive meetings with other fans (he only takes appointments by email, and does not reveal his phone number), his “insider” information (how about that she once performed for Saddam Hussein, or that her stepmother poisoned the guests at her first wedding), his knowledge as to the abuse she suffered at the hands of the men in her life — all of it somehow lends itself to legend, and a cinematic, outsider legend at that.
As he arrives, he excitedly tells me of his dream that one day Googoosh will have the chance to perform a duet with either Celine Dion or Barbara Streisand. “You know Celine is a big fan,” he notes, pulling out clippings of her mid-sway at the last Toronto concert. I sit there looking at him, knowing that a duet of such scale would just make his life. He gives me a knowing smile in return and in that brief moment we both know that his love for her is the strongest.