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Media | Iran's War Against Western Culture: Never Ending, Always Losing

by CORRESPONDENT AT LARGE

11 Dec 2011 18:46Comments
satellitetviran.jpgThree decades seen through the changing wares of a black-market home-entertainment provider.

[ comment ] Asghar Agha is a happy man. The Iranian government is losing the information and cultural war against its own people, while he just keeps on thriving.

Over the past three decades, the regime has tried to crush the Iranian people's taste for the Western and non-Islamic Iranian music, TV shows, and films available through the thousands of satellite dishes that line the rooftops of residential buildings around the country. It is failing because of the entertainment black market.

The regime has been engaged in this cultural conflict, which it itself has termed a "war," since early in the revolutionary era. Under former President Mohammad Khatami, the conflict abated to a degree. During his two terms, some pop music was allowed, musical instruments appeared again on TV, more books were published -- steps toward a ceasefire.

In recent years, however, forces loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have reversed those modest steps. Concerts have again become rare, good music is hard to find, and books are subjected to very strict censorship. And ultraconservatives push for still more restrictions.

However, because of a thriving entertainment black market, there is only so far they can go. Behind closed doors, people watch satellite TV, have parties, listen to pop tunes, and actively use social media more than ever before. As a result, Asghar Agha and those like him who help ordinary citizens satisfy their hunger for the sort of entertainment of which the state disapproves are extremely pleased with current market conditions.

During the Shah's era, despite tight controls on most politically related speech, the entertainment industry flourished in Iran. Packed cinemas featured the latest Hollywood productions and film-farsis. Stage shows and pop music concerts drew large audiences, and there was an active nightlife scene.

Prior to the Revolution, the Lalehzar district was the heart of Tehran. Home to at least 15 cinemas and many theaters, clubs, and bars, it was Iran's entertainment and nightlife nexus. Many who are old enough to remember those days recall their adventures on Lalehzar Street with nostalgia and, now, melancholy.

The street was planned by the Qajar king Nasereldin Shah after his visit to Farang, as Europe was once known to Persians. His vision was that it would become the Iranian Champs-Élysées. Among its most famous sites was the Grand Hotel, venue for the concerts of popular artists such as Aref and Eshghi. When the Islamic Revolution began in 1979, the Lalehzar District quickly withered away.

Along with the sudden disappearance of Iranian nightlife, theaters were closed, concerts were banned, and entertainers fled the country, many for Los Angeles.

The cinemas were confiscated by the state. Those that remained open showed only films either made according to the new regime's strict censorship codes or of foreign origin and heavily redacted. State-run TV and radio followed suit; even cartoons were frowned upon.

I was born in the early 1980s, part of the so-called Third Generation, amid a war that had devastated the country and a severe clampdown on social freedoms. In those days, the typical Iranian worked long, arduous hours for dismal pay and relied heavily on government subsidies and coupons.

In the early postrevolutionary era, given the lack of commercial entertainment coupled with the hard conditions of everyday life, people sought alternative ways of having fun. I remember there were a lot of family gatherings. People even took advantage of the Iraqi bombing raids; hiding in bomb shelters was a social event -- as this animated YouTube film illustrates nicely:

After the war, video cassette recorders and tapes became our arms against government oppression. VCRs were banned but many families had them and there was a flourishing black market for cassettes served by a plethora of underground rental and distribution services. A copy of a film, a cartoon, or an episode from a TV series was smuggled in and many thousands of illegal duplicates were made and distributed.

Our supplier was Asghar Agha. Every month, he would come by with a list of the latest cassettes available and our parents would make a selection. Early on, there were the Tom and Jerry cartoons and few episodes of the Flintstones, as well as the occasional Disney picture. Later came Transformers and superhero cartoons.

In school, we were all involved in the high-risk activity of VHS trading; we hid the tapes under an item of clothing and discretely placed it in the swapping partner's bag. Despite all my experience at these furtive transactions, I was caught once and suspended.

Comic books were also highly sought after. We were always hoping to come across a top-notch item, like a vintage Tintin comic published before the Revolution, or Sinbad or Superman. Any kid who'd recently made such a find was the most popular in school.

iran_satellite_SSF.jpgBy the mid-1990s, a new, more powerful weapon became available for the homes of open-minded Iranians: analog satellite. The first time I experienced it was at my aunt's house. They had just installed the dish, and now we could watch a few channels broadcast out of India. My parents bought us a set one year later, and I spent my afternoons watching Cartoon Network or Hollywood classics on TNT (to which I owe my knowledge of the English language).

The government claimed that satellite TV amounted to an assault against the Revolution and that it was nothing more than the West's latest gambit to infiltrate Iranian homes after literature, music, and the VCR. For its part in this "war," the authorities started raiding houses to confiscate the satellite dishes and receivers, levying heavy fines on those who disobeyed.

But despite the crackdown, satellite dishes flourished. With the advent of digital satellite and the increasing availability of entertainment channels, the popularity of satellite TV has soared. The government now officially accepts that 60 percent of Iranians watch satellite TV, but the true percentage is much higher.

And with the satellite boom came independent Farsi channels. The first, broadcast out of Los Angeles, mostly revolved around low-quality entertainment programs; a few, more political, were run by long-forgotten opposition figures.

In recent years, however, there has been significant growth in higher-quality programming aimed at Iran. In the forefront was MBC Persia, operated by the Arab-held MBC Group. BBC Persian TV, an outgrowth of the BBC Persian radio service, soon followed. Then came Farsi1 and Manoto TV, which are dedicated to entertainment.

The authorities soon discovered that the raids and fines did nothing to quell the popularity of satellite TV, so they employed a new tactic, disrupting the satellite signals with interference-generating devices. This seems to be more successful at preventing people from enjoying their favorite programs, yet more and more Iranians want their dish. So the occasional raids still continue.

Asghar Agha, who used to bring us our VHS tapes, has evolved with the times and technology. Now he's our satellite guy. Every once a while, he comes over and adjusts our dish, adds a few channels, and gives us advice on how to deal with the government-created noise. He also provides the latest pirated DVDs and video games.

Before the advent of the Internet, every old market had a dodgy corner or two with a shop selling books or electronics. If the shopkeeper trusted you, he would also sell you underground music or banned literature. I frequented these joints a lot, looking for hidden treasures, be it Boof-e Kur by Sadegh Hedayat or the latest Metallica album.

Emerging in Iran within the context of the broader cultural war, Internet usage did not at first compete with comic books and videotapes as a back-alley entertainment medium. For a long time, the regime kept Internet speeds so slow that it was good only for transmitting information, not compelling entertainment.

As the Internet became more popular and speeds increased (though they are still very slow compared to other countries), it became increasingly important to the lives of ordinary Iranians, not only as a source of entertainment but as a means of resistance against government censorship and domination of the news flow.

With the regime's extensive filtering of the Internet, virtual private networks (VPNs) and anti-filtering software have become the latest black market commodities. So if you need a decent VPN in order to catch the latest episode of Parazit, the Iranian Daily Show, on Facebook, Asghar Agha will be more than delighted to set you up.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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