Walking around the streets of Tehran, Isfahan or for that matter any major city of Iran quickly leads you the intriguing experiment that this nation is. The memory of Tabriz, for example, conjures up in my mind a series of snapshots each of which could be translated into a huge note of interrogation, none offering any simple answer.
A shop window. Expensive leather goods are on display: shoes and purses mostly. Two young girls are window-shopping, in jeans and jackets, backpacks, head covered with rosary of course. In a flash you realize that’s the Mullah regime at work. Regime gone, gone would be the head scarves. But the lady standing next to them? You can see a trace of her black trousers and her white shoes. The rest totally beneath a huge flowing black hijab including a full burqa. I watch her for long. She is window-shopping too, alone, no less intently than the young girls. A huge question mark, the answer, or indeed probable answers, which I shall never even guess unless I have spent a whole lifetime in the country.
The row mannequins, headless, dressed in a variety of ‘Western clothes’ including a skirt decidedly above the knees and framed against it a stern looking lady in a hijab that firmly covers the head upto the forehead.
And when I turn my head, a strange sculpture beside the street, the kind of which I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world: a boot-polish. And there are more, across Tabriz: a hairdresser, an ice-cream vendor with his push cart. I have seen bold sculptures by famous artists celebrating the subaltern, the factory workers raising a flag, for example, but those are obvious statements, with a clear sense of purpose. These statues, beautifully crafted and decently maintained, of people from mundane professions, on the other hand, mingle quietly with the flow of life. There’s nothing high-strung about them — almost a quiet recognition of equality of dignity without any hullabaloo.
However, neither Kandovan, nor the vast bazaar, nor the nostalgic taste of Aab Gosht, what really made my Tabriz trip were my evening addas with Mehdi and Shima over endless cups of tea. And during these long sessions I come to know that this young couple is not well in the Islamic regime. They are childless. But why? Unlike Sayad, my Tehran friend, Mehdi’s reply is disturbingly sharp: “We don’t want our child to be born under this oppressive regime.” Shima nods in quiet but firm agreement.
Mehdi switches the television off. And that quickly leads me to a question, which in turn leads to the most telling words that I confronted in my whole Iran tour. The channel that was playing before Mehdi switched off the TV was Man-O-To. What is Man-O-To? A quick search on the net will throw up this is an ‘entertainment channel’. All its programs, as I saw myself, are Persian versions of the Hollywood television ‘entertainment’. It is aired from the UK, and owned by an Iranian couple, Kayvan and Marjan Abbassi. Who are these Abbassis? On Marjan little information is available in the public domain, beyond the fact that she is the wife of Kayvan and probably the owner of the Marjan Television Network. A little more is known about Kayvan. CNN iReport, a compilation of information collected through citizen journalism, tells us that born in 1971 Kayvan spent his childhood in Australia, from where he shifted to the US, when his dad Fariborz joined the Persian Service of the Voice of America. Later Kayvan went to Israel for higher education. Around 2003 Kyvan teamed up with American media honcho Michael H Klein to enter into the TV media world. Man-O-To was launched in 2010. Who funds it? The company itself divulges little information on this.
Yaganeh Torbati reporting for Reuters informs us that the Abbasis “…stay out of the media spotlight. They and other Marjan TV officials declined to comment for this story despite repeated requests for interviews.”(1) According to BBC, the channel reaches a whopping 30 percent of Iranian homes. What Man-O-To offers is a direct assault on the cultural codes that the Islamic regime intends to enforce. To my eyes the programmes appear to be poor vulgar copies of Holywood TV ‘entertainment’. There are dozens of channels like this one, including Rupert Murdoch’s Farsi1, which beams dubbed Fox Channel programmes, and of course the more serious VOA Farsi and BBC Farsi. Indeed, every evening in Iranian homes is a turf of an ugly war among commercial TV channels based in the West, a relentless propaganda bombardment.
I point this out to Mehdi, and ask him a simple question, ‘If the Iranian government is so oppressive, can’t the Mullah regime really stop this cultural assault by cracking down on these channels, as for example does China? How is it that these channels are so openly watched in virtually every home?’ Mehdi remains silent for a long time, before uttering those telling words: “Yes they can. But we can as well.” That for me sums up the spirit of the people of Iran, face to face with their own stifling regime and with the ruthless Western blockade as well.