Marzieh was born Ashraf os-Sadat Mortezai in Tehran in 1924. Her father, a moderate Muslim cleric, and her mother, who was descended from a family of artists and musicians, encouraged her to pursue a life in music. She studied for years with some of the greatest masters of Persian song before beginning her career in 1942 under the stage name Marzieh, a popular Iranian name meaning laudable or agreeable.
Her rich, throaty mezzo-soprano, was often likened to Édith Piaf’s, she was famed for her vast repertory, said to span a thousand songs. She was known in particular for her expressive interpretations of songs of love — ill-fated love, unrequited love, everlasting love — many of which were settings of the work of the renowned Persian lyric poets of the Middle Ages and afterward.
In 1979, after the shah was overthrown, Iran became a theocracy led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The fundamentalist clerics who ran the country deemed the arts, including music, inimical to the new order. As an artist who was also a woman, Marzieh, doubly marginalized, was barred from performing. She retreated to her farm in the countryside and did not sing in public for a decade and a half.
During this period, the restrictions on female singers were relaxed to a degree, and Marzieh was told that she could appear before audiences of women only. She considered this stricture unacceptable, she later said, and continued her silence, practicing in private where no one could hear her.
“I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers,” she told The Washington Times in 1995, “but not the mullahs.”
In 1994, while visiting Paris, Marzieh defected. She joined the National Council of Resistance of Iran and for several years afterward lived in Iraq, where an affiliated organization, the armed opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq, had a training camp. There, she sometimes sang atop a tank, dressed in military garb.
Her association with Mujahedeen Khalq drew criticism in the West and from some Iranian exiles. The group, which advocates the overthrow of the Iranian government, supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8.
Marzieh, who was 70 when she defected, also resumed performing in public, starting with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1995. She later sang in Los Angeles and in several European cities. She gave her last major performance in Paris in 2006, at 82.
She died of cancer in Paris on 13 October 2010
Interviewers often asked Marzieh, who had been largely apolitical as a young woman, what had moved her to join the resistance. Speaking to the newspaper The Scotsman in 1999, she replied by quoting Rumi, the revered 13th-century Persian poet:
I am looking for that which cannot be found
For I am fed up with beasts and ogres
And I yearn for a human being.