TEHRAN (Reuters Life!) - As Sadeq Jafari switched on his electric piano, his students shunted their wheelchairs enthusiastically around him to rehearse new songs.
Music therapy, a common practice in large parts of the world, is extremely rare in Iran, where conservative clerics outlawed pop music after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Jafari, 33, is one of a handful of therapists in the Islamic state who use music to help severely disabled people find their voices, risking the ire of his conservative family and censure from religious authorities.
Kahrizak Charity Foundation, in a leafy campus on the outskirts of the capital Tehran, is home to hundreds of physically handicapped people, young and old, who lack financial support.
Each Monday, dozens wait impatiently for Jafari to walk through the door.
“I haven’t learned music in an academy, but through practice and experience,” Jafari told Reuters in an interview. “My initial goal was to make them get out of bed.”
Jafari grew up in a religious family which found all forms of music unacceptable. His relatives initially cut ties with him, but their stance softened when they saw the impact of his work on the lives of his patients.
Reza Bakhtiari was paralyzed at six and lost his sight at the age of 30. He used to do nothing but lie in bed, listening to the radio -- a static life that left him bored, listless and suffering from bed sores.
“It has been three years since I began to attend these classes ... It is like a life skills training,” said Bakhtiari, now 45. “Now that I’ve got the courage, I have published two poetry books.”
Shahram Khodaie was paralyzed in a crash. During the session, he managed to move his neck and used a short iron bar in his mouth to play several songs on the piano.
It can take up to three months to teach a new song. Jafari also has to overcome cultural barriers, including the shyness of his female students. Many Iranians disapprove of women raising their voices, a problem when it comes to rehearsals.
Iran’s musical restrictions have eased over the past decade and pop music has become increasingly common in some parts of society. But the idea of female artists singing or dancing in front of male audiences is still completely taboo.
“We have been told that music is haram (not religiously acceptable) ... I used to be so depressed, but now I have high morale,” said 35-year old Masoumeh Salim Sediqi.
Staff at the center say music does much more than cheer people up. “Music shortens the recovery period since it has a calming effect ... It gives them energy and even alleviates the physical pain,” psychologist Marzieh Alaleh told Reuters.
Jafari uses a lot of traditional Persian folk songs with familiar themes. He describes the changes in his patients as “tangible.”
“Inactivity and bed sores were pushing them toward death ... here death is so close,” he said. “Imagine you are going to die next week ... You have no choice but to make the most of it.”
Writing by Ramin Mostafavi, editing by Paul Casciato