RITA JAHANFORUZ: (Singing in foreign language)


This is singer Rita Jahanforuz, and she's accomplished something remarkable for an Israeli artist. Her new album has made it big in the land of her birth: Iran. A longtime darling of the Israeli pop world, Jahanforuz stunned many of her fans when she announced plans for an album of old Persian songs, re-imagined and reproduced. The album went gold in Israel within a month of its release and made her a star in Iran. Sheera Frenkel has our story from Tel Aviv.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at a popular Persian restaurant in south Tel Aviv. But even on the busy midday shift, the mood in the room changes noticeably when one of Rita Jahanforuz's songs comes on the radio.


MOLUK HANASAB: "Shah Doomad."


Restaurant owner Moluk Hanasab says she's excited to hear the romantic wedding song "Shah Doomad." It's her favorite song on Rita's new album. Once popular at weddings, no one has performed it in over 60 years. Hanasab says the last time she heard it, she was a small child at a wedding in her hometown, the Iranian city of Isfahan. She hums the melody to herself and smiles, saying now she will play it at the wedding of her grandchildren in Tel Aviv.

HANASAB: (Foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: Fifty-year-old Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz, known simply as Rita to her fans, was thinking of people like Hanasab when she recorded her latest album.


JAHANFORUZ: (Singing in foreign language)

I went to my bag of the singles that my mother brought from Iran, and I started to listen to them. And all the songs that were really part of my life - my childhood, the music of our family - these are the songs that eventually I chose them to sing them in this record.


JAHANFORUZ: (Singing in foreign language)

FRENKEL: Rita's family was among tens of thousands of Jews who fled Iran during and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She says she wasn't surprised that the Iranian Jewish diaspora embraced the album. She was surprised, however, when her CDs started popping up in Tehran, Beirut and Istanbul and on pirate radio stations across the region. She shows off some of her fan mail from Tehran.

JAHANFORUZ: A lot of them, they write that they love the music and thank you for showing the world the real culture of Iran and not only what they talk about now, you know, in the world, the bombs and all the dark things.

FRENKEL: In another letter, an Iranian fan from the southwestern city of Shiraz writes to say he would risk punishment by the Iranian regime to see one of her upcoming shows in the United States. Rita says other Iranian Muslim fans said they would even risk a trip to Israel to hear her sing, if either the Iranian or Israeli government allowed that kind of travel.

JAHANFORUZ: What happened with this album is really beyond anything that I could really think or dream.

FRENKEL: Rita's album has become a hit across the region, but she says in Iran, it can only be sold under the table with a blank album cover under the name Khanoume Rita or Miss Rita. And in Israel, not everyone was supportive of an album in the language of the so-called enemy.

JAHANFORUZ: I had friends and colleagues when I started that project, and I told them that I'm going to do a record in Persian. They said, oh, my God. You're going to sing a whole record in the language of Ahmadinejad?


JAHANFORUZ: They were frightened. And I said, you know, Ahmadinejad is so small point in such an amazing history of Iran, and someone has to come and show that.

FRENKEL: For fans like Hanasab, remembering the old Iran is half the beauty of Rita's album. Hanasab's restaurant is filled with photos of the last Shah and the pre-Islamic Revolution flag.

HANASAB: (Foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: She says Iran was once a center of culture in the world. Rita's album, says Hanasab, reminds all Iranians of what she calls the good old days. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.


JAHANFORUZ: (Singing in foreign language)

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