November 17, 2010


Letter from Iran: 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 (Christopher de Bellaigue, 20th October 2010, Prospect)

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 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.

Globalization brings the bad with the good.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2010 5:59 AM
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