Habibi’s Rahill Jamalifard shares an intimate view of Iran


Words by Rahill Jamalifard

Edited by Jameela Elfaki + Noor Alabdulbaqi

I play in two musical projects, both honouring my Iranian heritage. My band Habibi has been my main project for the past seven years. Our last release, Cardamom Garden, was a direct ode to my roots. I sing most of the songs (on the EP) in Farsi. The influence has always been there, whether directly or indirectly. We choose minor chords, lyrically I reference nomads, my grandfather’s tribe, and i’ve been doing most of the art for album covers and merch, all stemming from the influence of my heritage.

I’m really thankful that as a result of my work, I have been able to get some traction on larger platforms. For me, this attention and visibility comes with a great responsibility. The responsibility of bringing awareness to the Muslim world and my Iranian heritage. There are many people in America who still think being ‘Iranian’ is synonymous with ‘terrorist’ and I really would like to educate or at least try to humanise POC from the mid-east and to show that we are NOT what Fox News describes, or what trump wants us all to fear.

The last time I travelled to Iran was in the winter of 2016, I’ve been going back every other summer for most of my life, until I started college. Now I go a bit more infrequently, but I still try to make a trip back every three years, if possible. I mainly visit Shiraz, my father’s city and Isfahan, where my mother is from. Both cities are embellished with historically significant architecture, mosques, bazaars, churches, bridges and other architectural wonders from the old world.

Unlike the majority of first generation American Iranians I meet here, I feel like my relationship to Iran is unique. My parents, who also left during the revolution (part of the very large diaspora that happened post revolution of 1979), never severed ties with the country and are practicing Muslims. I’ve found that a lot of my American Iranian friends weren't really allowed to witness their culture. Out of fear of prejudice and racism, their parents wanted to keep that away from them. As a result, I feel like many first generation American Iranians have a very different view of their motherland. My sister and I are so lucky our parents made a conscious effort to take us back and allow us to learn about where we were from, and understand who we were. This obviously had a great impact on me at a young age. As a young brown kid growing up in a very white suburb, it helped me understand identity and recognise the beauty in my differences. I think its effect was paramount and very much influenced the person I have become today.

This brings us to the photos I captured on my last trip to Iran. These are very special to me. I wanted to capture the everyday person and every walk of life from the elderly, the pious, the military, the school girl, the kids and the romance of young couples. This isn't something we see when we turn on our television. I really wanted to take personal everyday photos, and not just of my own family, but of strangers too. I specifically chose to shoot in colour because it speaks so much. For example, one of my favourite shots from this series is of a girl at Persepolis, the ancient ruins, who had this really bright coloured jacket. I thought it was such a beautiful contrast to see the ancient ruins of Persepolis with a flash of a bright pink jacketed little girl.


1. Older man with scarf around his head. (Shiraz)

I met him in front of Hafiz tomb (directly behind him in photo) He had the kindest eyes, I approached him and asked if I could take his photo, he laughed and asked why, I told him because he had peaceful eyes and looked really nice. He explained he was a Sufi and was making a pilgrimage to see the shrine of Hafiz and Saadi with his son. They were both so warm and gentle.


2. Boys with birds. (Shiraz)

The story behind a lot of these children who sell flowers, gum or in this case, sell you your fortune after their canary picks a card from a box of Hafiz poems, is that most of them are orphans. They work together, usually outside heavily visited areas and take posts where they hustle. These kids were hilarious AND FLIRTS, ha, I loved them. They had so much curiosity about America and why I was visiting. Even with hardship, they carried light and energy. It’s so inspiring. I even went back to say hi and give them some gifts before I left.


3. Little Schoolgirls in purple (Esfahan)

I saw these two cuties in a park near my Aunt’s house, I liked how much freedom I felt from their running around playing after school, unbothered and full of giggles. 


4. Old Man with sitting with tea cup (Shiraz)

I saw this man as we were looking for parking in a very poor part of the city. I hoped once we got out of the car, on foot I could see him up close. When I saw him again he was sitting in the exact same way with his tea cup steaming in front of him. I asked my cousin if it was ok to ask before I took his portrait, my cousin said go ahead. When I asked he responded, “go ahead my dear, may god bless you.” He was so regal yet broken, his presence was powerful.


5. A Young unwed couple behind coffee bar (outside shiraz)

These two were so cool, they opened the cafe together (unwed and very open and free about it). They had a huge poster of Mick Jagger on their wall (captured in photo), which was something I hadn't seen. After speaking with them for a while, they invited me to smoke a joint with them. I told them I was a total dork and didn't smoke weed. We laughed and exchanged stories. It was cool and uplifting to see their freedom of love and openness of expression.


6. Lady walking with cane between mountains (Outside Shiraz)

I loved her she was so smiley and had an all purple outfit down to her boots and underneath the coat. I told her I loved her boots and she screamed, ‘’Thanks, my grandfather brought them back for me from Sweden!’’


7. My Sister with a denim hoodie pulled over her hijab.

Nazila, who I now mainly travel back to Iran with, was being rebellious this whole trip seeing if she could get away just by wearing her hood, or putting a hood over a hijab. She never got in trouble, but definitely got some double takes.


8. Girl with the striped yellow shirt

My cousin Asal, was just applying to college on this trip, I took this photo of her in one of the rooms at my grandmother’s house that was flanked with all sorts of old fabric.


9. My sister again, at our aunt’s house on Shabeh Yalda (the winter solstice) a holiday celebrated with a lot of traditions. I thought she looked like one of the old Iranian portraits of the Iranian Queen Soraya.


10. Soldier sitting on yellow chair in Bazaar (Esfahan) I watched him eating a cup of traditional ice cream and finally gained the confidence to approach him. He drew me in because he seemed too young to be as reflective and melancholy as he seemed. I asked him if i could take his photo, he asked why, I said it was a nice composition, he smiled and allowed me too. I asked him where home was and he said, “Too far away”. 


11. Young girl in pink jacket at ruins of Persepolis.

I saw the contrast of age, centuries and essence. Her youth and freshness was so counter to the dusty ruins of a ceremonial capital dating back to 515 BCE.


12. Young man with horse outside Persepolis.

Honestly he just looked like an old miniature painting, down to the horse and the ancient ruins behind him, but the contrast of his fake Tommy Hilfiger made it present day.


13. I love Iranian showers, tiled rooms with beauty products from the old and new world, and a shower head hanging from the ceiling. This is our grandmothers shower. There are photos of me taking baths in a plastic tub as an infant from this same room.

To see more from Rahill - you can follow her here