Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- “15 years ago, whoever purchased a cassette player would wrap it up and hide it in the car so that no one would discover it. The same thing applied to satellite dishes, but now it is normal to own one,” explained Armeni, a young middle class Iranian, as he commented on the changes that had been introduced gradually over the past ten years in Iranian society.
In Iran, items that are banned are readily available locally. These include satellite dishes, certain types of music, films, books and websites, in addition to certain types of clothing. For everything that is officially banned, there is an illegal alternative, for example, there are thousands of websites that have been blocked by the Iranian authorities; however, many young Iranians are technologically-savvy and can bypass the country’s censors. There are also many films that are subjected to censorship or are banned in some cases, but at the same time these films are available in Iran and uncut versions can be found. Also certain genres of music like Hip-Hop are prohibited but they are popular amongst the Iranian youth and can be heard from cars as youngsters drive around the city at night. There are two worlds in Iran that contradict each other yet exist side by side.
Armeni owns a car and every summer, he travels to a European country to spend the holidays. Approximately 90% of Iranians have satellite receivers in their homes but this does not mean that official restrictions on buying satellite receivers have changed in Iran over the past few years.
Arsh Ferhadi, a business journalist told Asharq Al Awsat, “Journalists, doctors, publishers, officials and university professors can easily obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to install satellite receivers. As for other Iranians, they must give a plausible reason to want to buy a satellite dish. After this, the ministry considers the request and makes a decision. The majority of people prefer to avoid this procedure and purchase satellite dishes and install them without getting permission”. The overwhelming majority of Iranians, regardless of their economic or educational level or piousness, owns satellite dishes as it is the only alternative to official media in Iran. The official Iranian radio and television are subject to direct supervision from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Besides the eight official stations in Iran that include a Quran channel, a news channel and a sports channel, there are foreign channels that are legally permitted such as Aljazeera, BBC channels and the EuroNews channel in French. Nevertheless, there are no private television channels in Iran. Due to Iranian television’s affiliation to the Supreme Guide, programs, films and series are subject to strict criteria, the majority of which are religious or social. Many young people regard these channels as traditional and conservative besides that they do not reflect the changes that take place in Iran. For example, neckties have been considered “taboo” since the Iranian revolution in 1979, based on the fact that they are western symbols and a reference to the “westernized” class of technocrats. Therefore, neckties are not worn today in Iran and do not appear in television programs or films except in reference to evil characters that in most cases are from the era of the Shah. But as part of everyday life, some Iranians who belong to the middle class wear neckties at weddings or in private parties generally.
The former president of Iran, Mohamed Khatami, sought to expand the scope of social freedoms and allowed music concerts to be broadcast and the playing of traditional musical instruments such as the Sitar and Tambour to be aired during his term. This was considered a calm cultural revolution, taking into account that it was the first time that live concerts were broadcast and that musical instruments were shown on television since the Iranian Revolution. However, the steps taken during Khatami’s presidency began to recede; the current Iranian Minister of Guidance and Culture, Mohammed Hossien Saffar Harandi, has a negative opinion of music. When he assumed his post, he stated that one of the first issues that he would combat would be the types of music that are against the values of the Republic of Iran, including rock and rap. He called upon Iranian musicians to produce purposeful and meaningful music, thus some of them produced a “nuclear symphony” that supports Iran’s right to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. Even though there is an opera house in Iran, its activities are limited to hosting foreign groups that play classical music or Spanish musicians owing to the great popularity of Spanish music in Iran. However, such events take place only every now and again.
Many young people, such as Armeni, have solved the problem of music. Armeni now spends a lot of his free time watching and listening to music and music videos on his personal computer in his room. Such is the black market for music, which makes significant profits and the popularity of which increased during the presidency of Khatami, who was unable to grant music a fully legal status but at the same time allowed it to spread freely.
Armeni told Asharq Al Awsat, “Music that is sold openly in stores does not represent the music business in Iran. The real music business is underground, the products of which are discretely manufactured. The transactions of this kind of music outnumber the number of transactions of legal music.” Owing to the fact that television does not broadcast concerts, songs or music video clips, underground music (or Zir Zamin in Persian) has become the way of entertainment that is not subject to supervision. Armeni added, “Those who produce and write this music are very talented artists. They want to say things and express their thoughts and ideas on issues through banned music. What do they do? They sit together and produce music and then they copy the tape and either do not put names on them or they use an alias. The tapes are then sent to be sold illegally. We promote the music amongst ourselves by telling other people about the song and where it is available. There are Iranians living in Los Angeles who try to produce music and sell it here but it is not as good or as moving as music that is made in Iran.”
In Iran today, there are many young bands, some of which use classical poetry mixed with rock music. Modern Iranian music is now a mixture of a western style and a local flavor through the use of Iranian instruments such as the Tanbur and Sitar. Some popular acts for this style of music include Reza Yazdani, Ali Lohrasbi and Zir Khat Fajr, a rap group whose latest album is called ‘Poverty Line’. Themes of songs include love, poverty, frustration and loneliness.
O-Hum is another popular Iranian band, specializing in rock music, who were allowed to stage a concert (non-segregated) for the Christian minority in Iran during Christmas celebrations. The band calls its style “Persian Rock” because it mixes classical Iranian music (using the Tambour and Sitar) with rock music. O-Hum was formed in 1999 by Shahram Sharbaf, Babak Riahipour and Shahrokh Izadkhah. Their plan was to record a few demos at Shahram’s house but the first song that was recorded was circulated until it reached a music company in Tehran that then signed the band to a record contract. After the album was recorded, it was sent to the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to be cleared for release. However, the ministry refused this and said that the album is nothing but “tacky western music” that conflicts with Islamic principles and values. This led to the record company cancelling the contract and dropping the band. O-Hum decided to launch its own website and uploaded all its songs on to the internet to be downloaded by the public free. A few months after the launch of the website, the band became one of the most popular underground groups in Iran. The group encouraged other musicians to produce music and sell it over the Internet that is not subjected to government supervision. The internet made O-Hum and other groups famous in Iran and among Iranians abroad as well as among foreigners interested in Iranian music. a track by the band titled “Hafez in Love” was downloaded 15,000 times in its first week of release.
In addition, “underground” music video are also being produced and are enjoying increasing popularity. Only a moderate budget is needed to produce an underground music video as many of them are filmed in the homes of the music artists where the singer will dance to his/her music. In concerts that are permitted by the authorities, singers and spectators are not allowed to dance to music. The internet has led to a revolution in the Iranian music industry and despite the numerous websites that have been blocked by Iranian authorities, especially pornographic sites or websites of opponents to the regime who reside outside of the country; Iran has approximately 10 million internet users. This number could rise to 25 million by 2009 from 1 million users in 1993. Many internet users have knowledge on how to decipher these prohibited websites, but what is notable is that they are not primarily interested in politics as much as they are interested in music, films and books. As much as official music is subject to restrictions by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the same applies to films.
From the beginning stage, the concept of a film must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. In this regard Iranian filmmaker Saifullah Dad, who was the adviser in charge of cinema during Khatami’s term, told Asharq Al Awsat, “I heard that over the past few years, since the new government came into power, the issue of the film industry is a little more challenging. During Khatami’s presidency, we would give permission to directors without even reading the plot of the film. This has changed now as restrictive procedures have been reintroduced within the ministry. If you want to make a film you have to go to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance with a brief plot of about ten pages. If it is approved, then you hand them the final script in full. If they agree to it, then you can get permission to start filming. These initial steps do not necessarily mean that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance will delete or disapprove of parts of the film, but it implies that the ministry is inevitably informed about the films that are currently produced”. Today and for reasons related to production and censorship, the works of many Iranian directors, such as Abbas Kariostami, have decreased significantly. However, some people do not consider this a big problem and they believe that censorship exists in varying degrees in all societies and that there are benefits to it. They argue that Iranian directors who are financed from abroad can exaggerate and present incorrect information about the conditions in Iran and rather reflect the perspectives that Western states that fund them want to focus on.
An Iranian university professor, who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity told Asharq Al Awsat, “Do not think that directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf enjoy any kind of popularity in Iran as some may imagine. They have not lived in Iran for a while now. They direct films that defame the country at a very critical time. Who funds their films? The French and other Western parties fund them. I do not think that this is the enlightening or educational role of cinema. There are other Iranian directors living in Iran and directing films under the current circumstances and they are much better.”
As for foreign films showing in Iran, whether in cinemas or on television, these are usually social or “action” films that are imported from China, Japan and Malaysia and all of them are dubbed into Farsi. All of these films should first be presented to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to ensure their compatibility with the Islamic standards of Iran (only foreign women are allowed to appear without head scarves). Iranian television sometimes airs American films but they are not publicized as American films, according to an Iranian activist who told Asharq Al Awsat, “Sometimes the story is changed, for example, if the story is about a co-habiting couple, in the Persian translation, the couple would be married.”
A number of Iranian cinemas, including Bahman and Farhang are located near Tehran University, however the films that are screened there are not diverse enough according to many young people. Action films and films based on comics are the most popular films in Iran. The markets for videos and DVDs that are smuggled into Iran are the alternative [to cinema] and offer all newly released films from all over the world, especially America. However these films are not subject to censorship, like the other films that are examined by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This is a great advantage that is appreciated only after comparing a censored version of a film. These shops that sell DVD’s do not fail in obtaining copies of any films from ‘Schindler’s List’ that follows the tragedies of the Jews during the Holocaust to ‘The Nativity Story’. Prices of films range from one to two dollars. Mohammed Biran, a young Iranian working in one of the DVD shops in northern Tehran, said that the majority of banned films come from Malaysia and are smuggled into Pakistan and cross the border into Iran via Zahedan.
In addition to music and movies, books enjoy widespread popularity in Iran. There are over 40,000 titles printed in Iran each year, most of which are literature and poetry. The majority of these books are translations of major western writers and poets. As one walks around Inqilab Square, the square of libraries in Tehran, one will find the library shelves stacked with the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Trotsky, Che Guevara, William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Dstowski, Mario Vargas, Argun, Goethe, Sigmund Freud and Henrik Ibsen. Ilham, a young Iranian woman who lived in Canada for a while before returning to Tehran said, “Iran is an open and diverse society but this is not portrayed in the media. Iranian society is like a watermelon, it looks dry on the surface but on the inside there is richness and diversity.”
In Iran, amidst the thousands of images of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one would find the face of Nasser al Din Shah Qajar, one of the most important rulers of the Qajari era (nomadic tribes of Iranian Turkmen that unified and ruled Iran between 1779 and 1925 when the then Prime Minister Reza Khan Pahlavi ousted the last ruler of the Qajari Dynasty, Ahmed Mirza, and named himself the Shah of Iran). Images of Nasser al Din Shah (16th July 1831 – 1st of May 1896) occupy almost all traditional tea and coffee cups and on other traditional items.
Nasser al-Din Shah was the first Iranian to be photographed and was so impressed with photography that he imported many cameras and took thousands of pictures of himself. His name and the names of his wives are still present in everyday life in Iran. In Shemiran, which means the ‘cold region’ in north Tehran, where most foreign embassies are located, there is also the house of Khomeini, the Saadabad and Niarfan palaces that belonged to the Shah and areas such as Zafraniyah, Alihah, Vermaneh, Aqdaissyah, Ikhtiaria, Ajwadaniyah, Sahbaqraniyah, which are all named after the wives of Nasser al-Din Shah. The names of these places did not change after the Iranian Revolution. Nasser Shah was known for his domineering manner but also for his openness to modern thought and the West. He was the first Iranian Shah to visit Europe in 1871 and was the first Iranian Shah to write his memoirs. He had introduced many European inventions, including the modern postal system, railways and the modern banking system. In his era, the first Iranian newspaper was issued in Iran. There are many Iranian series and films that were produced after the revolution, depicting the life of Nasser al Din Shah and his Prime Minister, Amir Kabir. After the revolution, the Amir Kabir University of Technology was named in honor of the prime minister. Iranians say that the revolution wanted victory for the Iranian-Turkmen family [Qajar], which played a significant role in taking Iran into the modern era and that was later overthrown by the Pahlavi family.