It was announced this week that the BBC will be allowed to resume broadcasting from Iran after an 18 month ban. However, in Iran itself, people have stopped revolting and are now glued to a new, illegal satellite television channel
Trash TV: the Colombian soap opera Body of Desire is a hit among middle-class Iranians
Isabela rested her head on Salvador’s naked chest, looking up into his eyes. He reached across to the bedside table for a sip from a glass of wine. Isabela sighed. “There is so much I still need to tell you.”
“Fraud!” The Iranian woman sitting next to me in front of the big flat-screen television shook her head. Her husband explained that Isabela is not to be trusted; she is a poisoner and an adulteress. We were in the couple’s sitting room in central Tehran—a long way from Colombia, where Body of Desire is made. Every weekday night, anecdotal evidence suggests, a huge number of middle-class Iranians lose themselves in this preposterous programme, in which a murdered businessman’s spirit has entered the body of Salvador, a farmer. The fact that it is broadcast on an independent satellite channel means that these Iranians are breaking the law. More importantly, they are opening a new front in Iran’s cultural war with the world.
Body of Desire and a host of other soap operas are broadcast from Dubai by Farsi 1, a satellite channel co-owned by Rupert Murdoch and Saad Mohseni, an Afghan entrepreneur. The channel, which features shows from South Korea and the US, targets Iranians who have tired of the fare served up by the state broadcasting company. Even people close to the Iranian government concede that homegrown shows can be dull. Raunchy subjects are off limits, a hug between a mother and her son is deemed improper to show, and prayers and Koranic exegesis occupy primetime spots.
Programmes shown on Farsi 1 explore, if that is the right word, themes such as infidelity and lust, while making a show of respecting Iranian values. Salvador’s majestic torso is all the nudity you see on Body of Desire, kissing is out, and serials with racy plotlines do not get an airing on mourning holidays in the Shia calendar.
Iran prides itself on its cultural exceptionalism, which is based on the Persian language and Shia Islam. Farsi 1 is a rare phenomenon: a cultural import that is hugely popular and sharply at variance with local traditions. Unlike other satellite channels, shows on Farsi 1 are competently dubbed into Persian, which has helped its popularity. One Tehran resident told me, “I haven’t seen an Iranian TV series for months. Whenever I watch TV, it’s Farsi 1.”
The channel has caused a rumpus since its launch in August 2009. Hardliners suspect Murdoch (a “secret Jew,” in the words of one magazine) of using tales of material aspiration and shots of well-built women in halter tops to undermine the country’s Islamic identity. Nor is the popularity of Farsi 1 confined to the westernised areas of Tehran. In July, the governor of Iran’s central province said the channel’s viewing figures among families make it a “big threat.”
Behind these reactions lies an old and complacent assumption: that Iran’s culture, which is huge and venerable, offers everything a person might need in the way of moral and artistic sustenance. Body of Desire is an unbelievably moronic production, and it is unsettling to think of the inhabitants of Arak, the central province’s conservative capital, being glued to such rot. But that is to buy into the same assumption. Why should Iran, simply because it has made a political virtue out of isolation, and because it is full of old and beautiful things, enjoy immunity from currents that affect the rest of the world?
The Islamic Republic has long set itself against culture outside its borders, but it has done so with one hand tied behind its back. It has privileged the Islamic elements of its national identity over the secular, alienating Iranians who prefer, say, music and poetry (tolerated, just) to pilgrimages and religious ceremonies (encouraged relentlessly). Even under the Islamic Republic, the country’s borders have proved porous; advances in technology make it ever harder to stop undesirable imports. In the words of Bahram Dabiri, a prominent Iranian painter, many Iranians believe that “the world is somewhere outside Iran.” Farsi 1 belies that idea. Iran and the world are becoming one.
You do not have to be a supporter of the Islamic Republic to find that prospect disturbing. In Tehran’s bazaar, Muhammad, a carpet seller I know, told me his mother blamed Farsi 1 for encouraging married women to take lovers—something that used to be unheard of in Iran, but is no longer.
The bazaar used to sell mainly Iranian products and now sells a huge number of Chinese ones. Yet it is still a bastion of religiosity and social conservatism, where a man’s worth is measured as much by his piety and charitable largesse as it is by his wealth. Muhammad is devout and he once invited me to join him in his neighbourhood to commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Hossein, the prince of Shia martyrs. He has not bought a satellite dish. “I don’t like the idea,” he says. Behind his comment lies a deep distrust of the outside world and its potential to do harm.
The Iranian authorities share his sentiments. Two days after Isabela rested her head on Salvador’s naked chest, Farsi 1 disappeared from Iranian screens. Five days elapsed before the channel reappeared, beamed from a different satellite. It seems remarkable that the authorities waited so long before using radio waves to jam it, but the suspicion was that they were happy for the middle classes to be distracted from politics, even by Body of Desire.
Jamming is the standard response to overtly political satellite stations, such as the BBC’s Persian channel and the Voice of America. The government rounded on BBC Persian last year, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory against the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The channel’s evening bulletins were essential viewing for the reformers. The BBC was accused of seeking the government’s overthrow and the authorities jammed its signal and made it all but impossible for Tehran residents to watch it. Farsi 1 may face further disruption.
The Farsi 1 phenomenon is a symptom of the disappointment felt by the westernised middle classes who are Mousavi’s main supporters. Ever since the last big anti-government demonstrations in January, which prompted a series of huge government-sponsored rallies, the movement has lost energy. Its supporters are divided and its minimum objective—Ahmadinejad’s removal from office—is glaringly unattained. Part of this is down to the government’s strong-arm tactics, but mundane pressures are also a factor. Recently, a Tehran taxi driver told me that taking part in the unrest had caused him to fall behind with payments on his flat. He is now working overtime to compensate.
The upshot is that those middle-class Iranians who, after several years’ absence, suddenly and dramatically reengaged with politics—going out to do battle with the Basij militia, trawling the anti-government websites, weeping at the death of each protestor—have switched off once again. Amir Mohebbian, a conservative analyst who is launching a new political movement, gleefully told me: “Last year it was all Mousavi. This year it’s all Salvador.”
Mohebbian is a principalist, someone who defines himself by his loyalty to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is pleased that the unrest has subsided, but acknowledges that its effects have “entered the body of society.” While the streets may be calm, “silence should not be mistaken for satisfaction.”
For Mohebbian, the dissatisfaction that needs to be addressed is less political than social and cultural. Instead of bending the country’s young population to a severe interpretation of Islamic laws, particularly those about dress and social customs, he believes that the Islamic Republic should “look the other way” when people commit minor transgressions. Mohebbian blames state television for not doing more to attract viewers; Iranian society is in transition and change needs to be “managed.”
Ahmadinejad and his supporters come across as more flexible on social and cultural issues than many orthodox conservatives. The government has invited Iranian pop singers based in Los Angeles to make albums back home, a once-unthinkable endorsement. And Ahmadinejad raised a storm among high-ranking clerics by criticising the over-zealous application of laws against women guilty of “bad hijab”—failing to observe Islamic strictures on modesty in dress and appearance. The public prosecutor, no friend of the president, retorted that “bad hijab” is punishable by two months’ imprisonment and 20 lashes.
In fact, a lot of looking the other way already happens, and women who flaunt their hair and make-up usually get away with a warning from the morals police who roam the capital and other big towns. The clerics’ gripe with the president runs deeper. A pious layman, Ahmadinejad feels no need for turbaned intermediaries between himself and God, raising fears that he and his supporters aim to remove the clergy from public life. That would be immensely controversial. Clerics were active in politics long before the Islamic revolution, both as reformers and reactionaries. The president’s opponents warn darkly of a “Shia Protestantism”; the implication being that Shiism without the clergy would be an alien innovation.
Raising spectres of foreignness is fraught with difficulty. The charge of being westernised to the point of losing one’s Iranianness has been around since the 19th century, and is often bandied in politics. In July, for instance, Iran’s housing minister, a man who vows to turn every Iranian into a homeowner, denounced the culture of renting homes as “western.” It is easy to scoff at such superficialities, but there is a growing appreciation that the Islamic Republic has been unable to block the effects of western culture. Iranian taste helped shape the world from Calcutta to Constantinople. Now it seems fragile.
In a recent newspaper interview, Kayhan Kalhor, one of Iran’s most brilliant classical musicians, warned against young musicians’ ignorance of tradition, and, in particular, the perils of harmony, a foreign innovation that has crept into Iranian music. Kalhor is no stick in the mud; he spent several years living abroad and has invented a musical instrument, a pot-bellied marvel that pleads like an Iranian violin and can be slapped and plucked like a double bass. But he clearly feels strongly about the power of an acquisitive, swallowing culture from outside. Every musical form, he says, must reflect the society that produces it, and yet “our culture today is import-based. Our society has been static… and has got by on imitation. We looked at the west, and we praised it to the skies… we need things that belong to us.”
From the same starting point, President Ahmadinejad has reached a conclusion that is all his own. Supported by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he embodies the same antipathy to the west that animated the revolution of 1979, but which was moderated during the tenure of his predecessor, the reformist Muhammad Khatami. Iran is building the necessary patriotic hardware; a space programme, missiles galore and a deeply contentious nuclear programme.
Ahmadinejad is popular among Islamists everywhere while, from the pulpit, Ali Khamenei congratulates his compatriots on setting an example in piety and commitment to the anti-western cause. The Islamic Republic may not export television programmes but it is admired beyond its borders, and that, for any revolutionary state, is compensation indeed.